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J.C. Chandor's
"A Most Violent Year"
Opens December 31, 2014

Screenwriter: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola


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

New York City remains the world’s most exciting metropolis, but not so far back, it was also a dangerous one. Murders and rapes approached an all-time high in the early 1980s, and if you were in a dog-eat-dog business, you faced not only the wrath of your competitors but you enemies’ determination to finish off your company with methods that would not be unfamiliar in the movie “The Godfather.”

With a style best known to imitate that of the late, great Sidney Lumet, whose “Prince of the City” stars Treat Williams as a detective uncovering police corruption in 1981, writer-director J.C. Chandor—known for “Margin Call” (following investment bank activities during a 24-hour period) is in his métier. Chandor, mounting a criticism of laissez-faire capitalism during the financial crisis in 2011, focuses again on New York City. This time Chandor presents a tantalizing, slow-moving, respectful-of-audience nourish thriller filmed by Arri Alexa mostly in Manhattan’s outer boroughs. Locations include Maspeth and Long Island City in Queens, and the most dramatic scene on the 59th Street Bridge leading from Manhattan to Queens.

Not only has Chandor given life to his taut script, whose thrills are punctuated by Alex Ebert’s music. He is graced by two terrific performances from the always reliable and nowadays, seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chestain and from a breakthrough performance from Oscar Isaac. Isaac, who played a scamming American tour guide in Athens in “Two Faces of January” and in “Inside Llewyn David” as a young singer navigating the folk scene in the Greenwich Village of 1961, rivets the attention. Here he is the charismatic capitalist, the modern Horatio Alger, who risks all to develop his empire. He is in the business of selling oil for heating in New York, is faced by violent competitors who poach customers from one another, and even worse, who send thugs out to hijack trucks, to beat up the drivers, and to sell thousands of gallons of oil to wholesale customers.

Wearing the wide-lapel collar on his camel’s hair coat—designed by John P. Goldsmith whose production design puts us squarely into the eighties, Oscar Isaac performs in the role of Abel Morales, an ethical fellow married to Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain), who is the now-entirely-honest daughter of the man he worked for as a mere truck driver. Determined to own rather than lease a former garment building on the water—which would give him a location that could squeeze out the competition--Abel, together with his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), negotiates with Josef (Jerry Adler), the Haredi owner whose terms are oppressive. Abel must pay a deposit, which he would lose if he does not come up with the balance of $1.5 million within 30 days, but his attempts to rustle up the bucks in an honest way are frustrated by the hoodlums who attack his driver, even seeking to enter his mansion-like home.

Though an immigrant, Abel has shed traces of his foreign origins, even instructing his sales force on the fine points of closing, which include accepting the hospitality of the customers (choose tea instead of coffee because tea is classier), taking the most expensive cookie offered (that shows you’re good enough), and looking the customers in the eye for a bit longer than is comfortable.

As the story progresses and violent incidents mount up, Abel pushes his luck during the turf war, sympathizing with those on his staff who are beaten, their trucks robbed to sell the oil. We in the audience are immersed in a world that few if any would know about, a world that has its own codes and jargon with robberies of which those of us in our theater seats would probably know nothing.

With terrific side roles from Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer, Alessandro Nivola as a competitor whose residence holds an indoor tennis court, and David Oyelowo as Lawrence, an intrusive prosecutor, “A Most Violent Year” scores thanks in large part to performances from Chastain and Isaac. It is also both a critique of capitalism and a homage to our economic system, one which rewards the winners and society as a whole but which threatens to destroy those who cannot really make it. Now more than ever we feel the truth of Fred Ebb’s kudos to New York, “If I can make it there/ I can make it anywhere.”

Rated R. 125 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Tim Burton's
"Big Eyes"
Opens December 25, 2014

Screenwriter: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

Starring: Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Christoph Waltz, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp

The Weinstein Company

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

I remember standing in line at a bank in Madrid during the 1970s, during the bad old days of Franco’s government. A woman in front of me was cashing her own travelers’ checks. The bank teller asked her for a document from her husband allowing her to take money out of the bank. She insisted that the checks were her own in her name, but the teller was only convinced to hand over the cash when she informed him that she was an American tourist and therefore not bound by the domestic laws of Spain.

Thankfully America never suffered from a Fascist government, but in some ways women’s lives during the 1950s could be compared to those of their gender across the ocean. For example when Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) in Tim Burton’s movie “Big Eyes,” applies for a job in a furniture store, the employment counselor asks whether her husband knows that she intends to spend her weekdays away from home. Only when Margaret states that she is no longer married to her (first) husband does she get a job, painting cute figures on the backs of the chairs and bedposts.

That should have been the worst offense against women like Margaret Keane, but as scripters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“People vs. Larry Flynt”) point out in making “Big Eyes” a story in female fragility and vulnerability during the most repressive decade of the 20th Century, Margaret is to become exploited for at least a decade. And, alas, she is complicit in her own defeat. Her second husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charming and most effective salesman, becomes guilty of an outrageous fraud that will lead to a judgment of $4 million against him by his then ex-wife. So “Big Eyes” is a story of fraud, outlandish chutzpah, the subjugation of women, and the nature of art.

And “Big Eyes” has anything but a Masterpiece Theater format to get across its points, as director Tim Burton (“Sweeney Todd,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands”) mines the story for comedy as well as pathos while at the same time giving his audience a painless, graphic essay on painting. This biopic is about the creator of the world-famous portraits of weepy, lost children whose big eyes—the mirrors of their souls—sometimes shed tears but are always heart-rending. The paintings are signed “Keane,” which was Margaret’s mistake, because when an opportunity arises, her husband names himself the creator of all the works, even putting his name on a coffee-table book filled with the repetitive paintings.

Director Burton takes us from the first meeting of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret in an outdoor art exhibit in San Francisco where Walter, exhibiting a number of Paris street scenes, begins flirting with Margaret, who does quick portraits of visitors for a buck or two. Walter brags that he studied in Paris, wines and dines her, sweeps her off her feet, a parable, as it were, for those romances that begin with fireworks and end with mayhem. When Walter, who is hardly a nonentity but a successful people person, talks the owner of a local night club, Enrico Banducci (Jon Pilito) to exhibit Margaret’s paintings of forlorn children in his night club, he begins to take credit for his wife’s work, while Margaret, believing that “lady paintings” will not sell—which may be true—allows her man to do this for ten years.

By 1964, however, a much needed retribution takes place as Margaret becomes her own person, begins painting like Modigliani, and ultimately makes the claim to San Francisco Examiner reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) that she is the artist. All this is not to say that Margaret is a saint. Her life’s work is described by New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) as kitsch, allowing “Big Eyes” to wrest with that ol’ conflict between what is popular but tacky and what is true art and elitist.

“Big Eyes” is graced by a potentially award-winning performance from Amy Adams, arguably the cutest actress in Hollywood today, in the role of a woman who now, at the age of 87, is alive and well and is shown in a brief cameo as well as in an epilogue. Christoph Waltz is delightful for most of his time on the screen, but in a directorial misjudgment goes too far over the top, particularly in a comic courtroom scene but also in a dangerous fight with his wife involving his throwing of matches at her and threatening to have her “whacked.” Effective side roles include those of Terence Stamp as the art critic, Danny Huston as the reporter, Jon Polito as the night club owner, Jason Schwartzman as the owner of an art gallery, James Saito as the judge in Honolulu’s federal court, Madeleine Arthur as Margaret’s teen daughter, and Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s best friend DeAnn. Rick Heinrichs’ production design casts the 1950s look of San Francisco, all set to celluloid by Bruno Delbonnel.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Laura Poitras
Opens Friday, October24, 2014

Screenwriter: Laura Poitras

Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen Macaskill, Jacob Applebaum, Jeremy Scahill

Cinetic Media

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

Am I risking life and limb by reviewing Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” the third in a trilogy of documentaries that cover what the director believes to be inequities in the U.S. government? According to this doc, which focuses largely but not exclusively on whistleblower Edward Snowden, our government has assumed the power to spy on us without the need for warrants. The U.S. may look at our emails, listen to our phone-calls, look into our Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, iPhone texts, sexts, you name it. If the government believes that any of us are terrorists, prosecutions may take place or at any rate harassments such as detention for hours at airports. So…since “Citizenfour” has a director who is in essence herself a whistleblower, might the U.S. have not only her on its list of suspects but also anyone who has contact with her, even those who write reviews—particularly if those reviews are laudatory?

But OK I’ll take the chance. Like the vast majority of us, I have nothing to hide. As one Hochhäuser, another person upset by government policy, states in a New Yorker magazine article about Laura Poitras in the Oct. 20, 2014 issue, “Because most of the people think, ‘Yes, but it won’t happen to me, and, anyway, I have nothing to hide.’ It’s always the same argument.” However he does not follow up to show that such a viewpoint is not a moral one. We should be concerned, he implies, even if we don’t think we will ever have anything to hide, because our country was founded on civil liberties, and one of those implied liberties is the right of privacy.

Laura Poitras’s previous docs are “Oath” (two men have an encounter that will lead them to Afghanistan), and “My Country, My Country” (a Sunni Arab doctor runs for office in the 2005 election). This time she films meetings particularly with Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel where he stayed for a few months before heading to Russia, at which point he was recently granted a year’s asylum. While interviewed by Ewen MacAskill, a U.K. intelligence journalist, and principally by Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist who now resides in Rio, Snowden casually walks to the window several times to observe the Hong Kong skyline, washes up and takes a shave, and answers questions while pecking away at a laptop computer while sitting in yoga-like positions on the hotel bed. Snowden, who had worked as a systems engineer, was able to haul away significant documentation about the government surveillance techniques. Snowden believes that it is the job of journalists, and not his, to determine what may be revealed in the press without compromising national security.

While a clip shows President Obama revealing his belief that Snowden is no patriot, Poitras herself avoids making him into a hero in favor of simply documenting the man’s character without hiding Snowden’s paranoia (the whistleblower sometimes hides under a blanket).

Though Snowden had every reason to avoid becoming a whistleblower—a girlfriend, Lindsay Mills who he left in Hawaii but who visits him in Moscow and a good job at age twenty-nine—he expresses a powerful belief in what he is doing, which is to help put the brakes on (he thinks) America’s slide into authoritarianism. Neither Hong Kong nor Russia has had any interest in returning him forcefully to face U.S. prosecution, so while he holes up in a Moscow flat (seen through a window cooking soup with his girlfriend), Greenwald becomes his spokesperson, leading press conferences abroad. Before leaving Snowden, however, Greenwald shows Snowden revelations even more serious than those previously uncovered, then tears the paper into little bits, the camera revealing only “POTUS” (President of the United States).

While some critics have called the documentary “riveting,” “like a John Le Carré spy story,” “Citizenfour,” which received exposure at festivals such as one in New York, is dry, involving conversations with the director always in the background. There’s little doubt that we learn much from the coverage, but one would hope that some of Michael Moore’s touch would lighten the humorless documentation.

Unrated 114 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Bennett Miller’s
Opens Friday, November 14, 2014

Screenplay: Dan Futterman & E. Max Frye.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival

There’s a lot to admire about Bennett Miller’s third feature, “Foxcatcher,” including the film’s unique style, meticulous attention to detail and the superb ensemble acting (well, almost) as well as a sharp and deliberately puzzling script. It’s a directorial triumph of ambiguity, subtlety and restraint. Of course, admiration does not necessarily denote adulation.

This is Miller’s third quasi-cine-bio of an oddball American figure (“Capote” and “Moneyball”) and here he dares to take on the cuckoo, parochial world of the ridiculously wealthy.

The film takes place in the late 80s and opens with Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) intensely wrestling a dummy. As is his style, Miller tells us so much about this figure just by having the camera follow him. A few scenes later the quiet and lumbering Mark wrestles his more outgoing and friendly brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion. (The only brothers in history to do so, btw.) As we watch the two face-off, the duality of their relationship is revealed. Theirs is a forceful rivalry that battles a deep love and fierce loyalty. Nothing is black and white.

When Mark receives a phone call from Pennsylvania magnate John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), he has no clue who he is, but agrees to visit him. The millionaire wants him to uproot himself and train on the du Pont estate for the 1988 games in Seoul. Mark asks Dave to join him, thinking du Pont would not want just him. Dave declines and Mark embarks on one of the most bizarre relationship-journeys ever captured on film.

Apparently, du Pont, like many of his ilk, thought that his fortune could buy him everything he coveted from being taken seriously as a wrestler, despite his athletic mediocrity, to being hailed as a mentor, despite the fact that his idiosyncrasies alienated most people. And friendship--or, more specifically people. du Pont’s treatment of Mark reeks of ownership—as if he’s purchased a puppy (a hulking one)--possibly a fucktoy but the movie never dares to actually go there. Kudos to Miller and screenwriters Futterman and Frye, though, for not giving Mark a girlfriend or female love interest.

The way Mark initially takes to du Pont can be seen as a son worshipping a father figure but also as a lover—especially apparent in a freakishly homoerotic scene where Mark shaves du Pont. And after winning the gold, Mark grabs onto du Pont in a desperate hug that is way more than friendly, it’s life defining.

But, alas, all purchased-good things must come to an end and when du Pont feels insulted, he begins treating Mark like a lesser being even calling him, “an ungrateful ape,” embarrassing him in front of his fellow trainees. Shortly thereafter, du Pont contacts Dave, who agrees to move to the estate with his family and the relationship between titan and pet is permanently broken.

du Pont always lauded his superior intellect over Mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—at one point forcing him to give an introductory speech where he clearly did not understand the words written for him to speak. Was du Pont that cruel or just blindly entitled? This is one of the many intriguing ambiguities in the movie.

The dynamics of the trio and how they relate to one another is the most fascinating aspect of the film. du Pont is jealous of the brothers’ bond, but
Mark is so hurt when du Pont invites his brother to live there, he takes it personally and acts like a sulky child. And du Pont remains unaware of how laughable he is as both mentor and friend.

It’s difficult to empathize with du Pont but I did muster sympathy in a painful practice scene where he tries to show off for his surprise guest mother, who sees wrestling as a “lower sport,” only to have her don a look of disgust and walk out.

“Foxcatcher” asks a lot of questions and provides very few answers. This is deliberate since it forces the viewer to wonder about so many different things.
And Miller has crafted an elaborate, highly stylized indictment of the wealthy class highlighting their foibles and eccentricities—the stuff that used to be celebrated is now seen as disgusting and intolerable.

In addition, since the film is based on fact, and the denoument is shocking to say the least, we are given a glimpse inside the mind of a rich, petulant man-child who will have his way or else.

And thanks to a few great actors who know how to convey nuance and portray complexity of emotion, we are (mostly) treated to master classes in subtle but powerful acting.

Vanessa Redgrave, in three brief, dialogue-sparse scenes, is mesmerizing as DuPont’s unwaveringly disapproving mother.

Steve Carell’s performance is a conundrum. On the one hand he transforms himself, physically, vocally into this strange awkward figure—and he certainly delivers an eerie, cringe-inducing portrait of a man lost in his own isolated world. On the other hand, I was always aware that he was playing a part. He seemed to be trying too hard in a film where less is obviously more. Still, the Academy eats these “transformations” up, so it will probably please the old white AMPAS gang.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, seems to be having a lot of fun without trying. He gives Dave a self-awareness and joy that makes his love for his brother palpable and his love for the sport undeniable. And watching him, in a particularly brilliant scene, have to answer a documentary filmmakers question about the importance of John du Pont in his life, is just hilarious and genius.

Rest assured, though this film belongs to Channing Tatum. Who knew Magic Mike was capable of such range? Well, anyone who saw him in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” actually. But this is different. This is an immersion into the world of an Olympic athlete and the heart of a precious boy who never grew up. Mark’s consuming desire to please and be loved is only matched by his need to win on his own terms and Tatum plays it magnificently. It’s a heartbreaking wallop of a performance.

Miller is a fascinating filmmaker. His work is always demanding and enigmatic, “Moneyball” being his most fully realized achievement to date. “Foxcatcher” is disturbing for certain, and compelling, but Miller’s approach didn’t involve me as much as leave me on the outside looking in. And perhaps that was the point. But in this case for me, more would have been better than less.

Bennett Miller's
Opens Friday, November 14, 2014

Screenwriter: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Sony Pictures Classics

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

If you had a few million dollars, make that a billion, what would you do? Would you collect a garage-full of antique cars? Buy some property in the South of France? Set up a philanthropic foundation? These are options that many of the super-rich commit to, but John Eleuthere du Pont had other ideas. A bird-watching enthusiast, he had a coffee-table picture book published on his hobby. Though his mother kept a stable of show horses on the DuPont estate near Valley Forge Pennsylvania, John did not care a whit about what he called stupid animals, but as we read between the images of “Foxcatcher,” directed by Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) and written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, this real-life character’s view of horses was channeled through his love-hate relationship with mom. As played by Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Jean Lister Austin du Pont, the elderly lady did not approve of her son, particularly of the middle-aged man’s hobby. As played in a stunning characterization way against his usual identity by Steve Carell, John Du Pont imagined himself a wrestling coach. The theme of “Foxcatcher,” named after the estate passed down through generations and one involved the “sport” of setting dogs on foxes, is John’s fierce love of country, an ideology that motivates him to train Olympic-quality wrestlers for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

With his [prosthetic] nose in the air, as though afflicted by the smell of the sweat of his wrestling students, John set his sights on recruiting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a taciturn, muscular wrestler who appears at first without friends or family, giving a speech before a class of first graders on the value of persistence and then returning home to a miserable ramen meal. As he flashes the gold medal he won in the 1984 Olympics, he collects his small speaker’s fee from the school secretary, who notes that Mark’s older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) had been the preferred candidate for the talk. A phone call from one of John Du Pont’s assistants summons Mark to the Du Pont mansion via first-class plane travel followed by a helicopter trip directly to the huge estate near Valley Forge (filmed largely in Pennsylvania locations) where Mark is told of plans to shape him and a few other champions for competition in Seoul.

When Mark’s older brother, Dave, who unlike Mark has a wife and two kids, reluctantly takes up John’s offer to be the real coach rather than the one which John pretends to be (and which John’s followers pretend to listen to), a number of conflicts come into play. John’s relationship with his disapproving mother is illustrated as Jean du Pont, wheelchair bound, screws up her face as she watches the men practice for the Olympics. Some sibling rivalry takes root, as Mark envies his older brother’s strong family bonds, his greater articulateness, and the attention paid to him by the athletes. Most of all, John, himself a closeted paranoid schizophrenic who at various points orders a tank, a machine gun and who practices on the shooting range with a pistol, believes that Dave is out to get him, particularly when Dave, surprisingly inarticulate when helping a documentary ordered by John, can barely get words of praise out of his mouth. Dave does not like John, and John believes that Dave is plotting murder.

Top notch performances come from the central triangle with an unrecognizable and humorless Steve Carrell gradually showing signs of psychological breakdown. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, obviously showing signs that they had rehearsed their wrestling for earlier months, respectively knock out some of their best work. Greig Fraser’s lenses settle into the Du Pont estate while at the same time visualizing scenes from flyover country including hotel rooms and a school auditorium. Director Bennett Miller shows his fondness for long takes, watching over conversations in real time with all the pauses that real people make while relating.

“Foxcatcher” is a psychological drama, but too casually paced to be considered a thriller. There is much to admire in the performances and in the director’s respect for the audience to read between the images without pounding us over the head with, for example, with explanations of John Du Pont’s paranoia.

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


David Ayer's
Opens Friday, October 17, 2014

Screenwriter: David Ayer

Starring:: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg

Columbia Pictures

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

Ask the typical, average high school kid which two major powers were enemies in World War II and you’re likely to get the reply, “The U.S. and Russia.” (The slightly more sophisticated may say “The U.S. and the Soviet Union.”) The years 1939-1945 are ancient history to many and most Americans today were not born when the big war was fought. This is why we must pay homage to all filmmakers who indulge in showing us just how cruel “ancient” warfare is. Seventy-seven million people were killed as a result of WWII, twenty million in the Soviet Union alone. Once high-schoolers find out that Germany was our rival (“Hey, I thought they were an ally of ours”?) they’re ready to see “Fury,” David Ayer’s graphically violent picture which alternates scenes of mayhem with more quiet moments of what might generously be called introspection. That the principal characters in ”Fury” are too exhausted to do too much introspection is a given, a fact that will delight the younger crowds at the multiplex.

Brad Pitt stars as Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, in charge of a small regiment of tanks. Collier rides in the tank called Fury, an actual WWII vehicle borrowed from a museum for the film and one which, in this movie, does quite a job of mopping up German soldiers and SS patrols alike. The action takes place within Germany as Collier’s team is assigned the role of taking town after town, destroying all fighting forces in their path, presumably to allow allied troops to march into Berlin without taking flak from neighboring areas and hopefully beating the Soviet soldiers to the capital. Ayer, who had previously been at the helm of LAPD TV stories and “Training Day” covers the war in April 1945, just four or five months before the official German surrender.

Thankfully the movie is not in 3-D, which is not needed as the action appears authentic enough. Some of the film takes place within the tank “Fury,” and is reminiscent of similar scenes in Samuel Maoz’s movie “Lebanon” and also “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated take directed by Ari Folman. While Brad Pitt is the star, Shia LaBoeuf, listed second, has only a small part. The character to watch most closely is Logan Lerman in the role of Norman Ellison, a young draftee who thought he would snooze out the war as a clerk-typist but is sent to the front despite virtually no training. We see the war through his eyes. What training he does get is though Collier’s tough love, though the bullying he receives from the others in “Fury”—Michael Peña as Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia and Jon Bernthal as Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis. If you want to know why Soviet citizens trembled when they were told to report to the Russian front, this is the movie that will convince you, given the huge percentage of fatalities incurred by allied troops actually in Germany.

The Bible is quoted time and again though these guy don’t look particularly religious (but there are no atheists in foxholes). The most memorable “quiet” scene takes place inside the modest home of two German women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and her younger and more beautiful cousin Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). Incredible though it may seem, when young Norman plays the piano, Emma joins him in song, soon leading the virgin into her bedroom either because of an electrifying attraction or fear of being raped. (When Brad Pitt takes off his shirt, revealing a well-toned body, rape must have been on her mind.)

On the negative side, characters other than Logan Lerman’s are not well defined; they’re stereotypes, and their dialogue, some with heavy southern accents, is occasionally difficult to understand. But the picture is of merit in using all of cinema’s advanced technologies to scare the hell out of its audience, and could convert even some rah-rah conservative moviegoers into being antiwar.

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

Alexandre Aja's
Opens Friday, October 31, 2014

Screenplay: Keith Bunin, based on Joe Hill’s novel

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar


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

“Horns,” or, “The Devil in Daniel Radcliffe” is targeted toward the same audience that made blockbusters of the “Twilight” series. At least that’s what two critics have said. I’m not in that group and would have to disagree, in that older adults should be just as involved in the goings-on in what starts as a romance until murder enters the scene, and finally full-scale horror breaks out—at which point that director Alexandre Aja lets loose. Keith Bunin adapted the novel by Joe Hill, the book having been praised at its publication three years ago by the New York Times which called it “wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty…a Valentine from Hell.”

French-born director Alexandre Aja is in his métier, having directed “The Hills Have Eyes,” wherein a group of suburban people are stalked by psychotic folks who live in the desert, far from civilization.

“Horns” is anchored by a scary performance from Daniel Radcliffe, now as far from Harry Potter as you can imagine. Here he he is Ig Perrish, who is wrongfully accused of murdering his (frankly mousy) girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). He was last seen with her at a luncheonette where she had some bad news for him. But to show how much he loved her, ever since childhood, director Aja flashes back in too lengthy a manner to their childhood, and later into young adulthood, both woman and man having “been with” nobody else throughout the time.

Having been followed wherever he goes by the press, Ig loses faith in God and begins to grow horns. The strangest thing happens when he confronts people with this new, diabolical image. They announce their darkest thoughts. When a little girl screams in a doctor’s office, both the mother and the receptionist have things to say that no mother and no receptionist should say. The doctor himself (Alex Zahara) offers pain pills to Ig for recreational use and proceeds to enjoy recreation with his nurse. Glenna (Kelli Garner), tells Ig that she loved him from childhood, and the waitress in the local coffee shop (Heather Graham) expresses fantasies of her anticipated behavior at Ig’s trial, where she plans to become a media darling. Even Ig’s own mom wishes her son would go away and leave her alone, Ig’s father recapitulating the woman’s hostility. Only one person, Lee (Max Minghella), a public defender who once saved Ig from drowning, is on Ig’s side.

As the horns continue growing, surreal events occur to the great credit of the special effects department, which stands ready and willing to transform the wronged young man should he restore faith in God. But Ig is having too much fun controlling the actions of those with whom he communicates to give up the Devil’s decoration.

Strong performances particularly from Daniel Radcliffe and spectacular lensing in Vancouver outskirts standing in for Washington State are big pluses.

Rated R. 123 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Paul Thomas Anderson’s
“Inherent Vice”
Opens Friday, January 9, 2015

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival

On the list of films where getting stoned might actually enhance the experience, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” shoots to the very top! It is also #1 on my list of films I want to see again since it’s difficult to soak in and follow the delightfully anarchic muddled cine-jumble (or is it jumbled cine-muddle?) in one sitting—especially at 10AM!!!

To say I am a huge PTA fan is an understatement. “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” are two of the most significant films of the 90s and new millennium, respectively. And “The Master” is close behind. This is quite a departure, from the previous two especially. And it had me elated, baffled, intrigued and mildly annoyed.

I find it hilarious and fitting that my pen ran out of ink halfway through the film so when I got home my final notes were merely impressions on a page that I could barely make out. It’s not the kind of film where notes are as important as just soaking in all the chaos, absurdity and moments of brilliance. And wondering what inexplicable yet clever scene is coming next.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, this is definitely Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” The humor is oddball, madcap noir. Think Humphrey Bogart stars in Robert Altman via a script by Robert Towne. Anderson’s satire is sometimes hilarious, sometimes indulgent.

And understanding the plot requires—I don’t know what it requires but I was often lost. I’m guessing that the anarchic feeling to the narrative is deliberate. Since Pynchon messes with traditional narrative in his writing, Anderson has done the same with his cinematic storytelling. The result reels.

It’s the end of the 60s and Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is a stoner PI living in Los Angeles. Tricky Dick is in the White House, the war in Vietnam is escalating and Manson and his gang have ruined any feeling of security anyone will ever have again—especially in Southern California. Counterculture gave way to a creepy murderous fringe, which gave the committed and true fringe a bad name. But I digress…much like the film…

Doc’s ex-gal (Katherine Waterston) involves him in a cuckoo conspiracy where her current love (Eric Roberts) is being plotted against by his current wife and her current boyfriend. From there things just go truly off the rails and major players like Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line” reunion), Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro (funny as hell) get to have lots of fun with wacky material. Martin Short shows up as coke-addled Dr. Feelgood and even quirky Jeannie Berlin (someone I’ve always thought deserved to work a lot more) has a turn to shine. Jena Malone even has a “shit and vomit” monologue.

Leading the acting awesomeness is Phoenix who is on quite a roll after extraordinary work in “The Master,” “her” and “The Immigrant.” Here he’s loony tunes in a role that calls for crazy crackers. Unafraid and unhinged, he goes for it and shows us that maybe being constantly high is the only way to get through all the bullshit life throws at you.

Of the supporting cast, Josh Brolin stands out most as a very angry detective named Bigfoot. Stealing every second he’s onscreen, Brolin proves what an underrated actor he is—comedy, drama…he’s fantastic.

There are loads of clever gumshoe dialogue, many lines with double meanings and a voice over narration that eventually gets tiresome. The mosaic-like, impossible-to-follow plot expands like the oddest of Altman (“O.C. and Stiggs” and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” as well as the more obvious “The Long Goodbye” came to mind).

Robert Elswit’s photography is hazy gorgeous and the score, by Jonny Greenwood, is fab.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.



Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's
"The Interview"
Opens December 25, 2014

Screenwriter: Dan Sterling, based on a story by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Dan Sterling

Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang.

Columbia Pictures

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

Most of the civilized world loved America in 1945. The U.S. was a prime force in liberating Europe from the Hun. Our soldiers gave out chewing gum to the kids on the Continent, soft toilet paper to the adults, and dished out money to bail the good guys out via the Marshall Plan. Given the rules of engagement in our current century, it’s unlikely that we can ever be the heroes abroad that we were then, evoking an unconditional surrender of our enemies in a war that lasted just six years (four years for our own guys), and not the murky condition of our battles in the Middle East since Shock and Awe, as the Taliban in Afghanistan retake some of the territory ceded to the moderates in a fragile victory.

No, if the world is going to continue to love America, it is not for our firepower but for our zany sense of humor and the way that Hollywood’s big bucks are able to eke out the laughs through clever satirical scripts and, on the other side, sexually driven, juvenile humor

“The Interview,” with its ample improvisation from A-list actors like James Franco and Seth Rogen, attacks one of the world’s most frightening totalitarian regimes, but not with the kinds of invective used by North Korean posters that make the people believe that their country’s foreign policy consists of stepping on the butts of members of the armed forces with bayonets at the ready if they dare to get up from the ground. “The Interview” is a prime example of the latter type of comedy: it is certainly not a clever satire like my favorite, “Thank You for Smoking,” a subtle but hilarious look at the triumvirate of death-dealers—tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. It is blatantly juvenile, though likely as not to be dismissed by some folks in the teen and 20-something communities because it deals with the foreign politics that some of our iPhone addicted youths may know nothing about. In fact it is more likely to turn on middlebrows, people like me whose college major was Political Science, who follow the New York Times and the books of Henry Kissinger, but who are not afraid to say that they enjoyed the star power of Franco and Rogen doing what they do best.

If the movie can be criticized at all, it should not be because of its puerility, but rather because the jokes—improvised that many are—are hit and miss, and because of the off-timing of some of its more pedestrian scenes.

James Franco performs in the role of Dave Skylark, a hail-fellow newscaster-interviewer and his producer, Aaron Rapaport, played by Seth Rogen. They have been colleagues in the news fraternity for years and enjoy a relationship that while not a gay one represents a bond of strong friendship. Their popularity on the Dave Skylark show is their appeal to “People” magazine sorts, those who can’t wait to text their friends on their Samsung phones when they hear Marshall Bruce Mathews, III, aka Eminem, casually come out as Gay during his chat with Skylark. The show is popular as well with the elusive dictator Kim Jong-Un, who has followed his father and grandfather at the helm of government in the hermit state of North Korea. So much does Kim, played by Randall Park in a grandly effective performance, like the Dave Skylark show that he invites the interviewer and his producer to his country to give him a one-hour live interview before an estimated fifteen million of the country’s population of twenty-four million. It is to be broadcast around the world as well.

While the two Americans have heard that poverty and even starvation exist particularly in the rural parts of the country where presumably there are horrendous concentration camps as well, their views are turned around by the friendliness not only of Kim—who bonds with Skylark--and of the Communications Minister, Sook, played by Diana Bang. While Sook and Rapaport are to engage in a sexual union—one of the high improbabilities made almost believable by their performances, Skylark and Kim become buddy-buddy, sharing intimate secrets, with Kim’s expectation of a puff interview. Little do Kim and his bodyguards—all speaking perfect English—know, that Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) has convinced the two travelers to “take him out,” meaning to assassinate Kim with a poisoned band-aid, in the hope that the death of a ruler thought to be a god would incite a democratic revolution. Nor does Dave Skylark realize that Kim is a false buddy who, according to Dave’s producer, has been “honeydicking” him.

Some bloggers have said that it’s our patriotic duty to see the movie, with its depiction of good (us guys) and evil (their guys), but one suspects (or hopes) that most of these writers are being ironic. No, it’s not patriotic to see the movie, but discounting its misses, this is juvenile fun that should be seen at least because of the controversy it aroused when Sony, its distributor, announced that the film would not be released to theaters because allegedly North Korea threatened to bomb theaters showing it. When Sony backed off from its declaration, in part because even President Obama criticized the company for caving in to terrorists, some theaters nationwide showed the movie on its regularly scheduled opening day, Christmas.

If you don’t get to see “The Interview” on the big screen, you can set your browser to, pay $5.99 with your credit card, and enjoy (or don’t) the film as many times as you’d like for forty-eight hours.

Rated R. 112 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


David Dobkin's
"The Judge"
Opens Friday, October 10, 2014

Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, from David Dobkin and Nick Schenk’s story

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, David Krumholtz

Warner Bros

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

Containing all the tension and some of the twists that make John Grisham novels best sellers, David Dobkin’s “The Judge” adds a Hallmark style reconciliation between a small-town crotchety judge and his estranged slick lawyer son. Director Dobkin, whose 2005 movie “Wedding Crashers” deals with two fun guys who sneak into weddings, takes on a story that’s quite a bit more serious now, and Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay is designed to produce three or four Kleenex tissues from the more sentimental members of the audience while riveting attention on a courtroom drama where a charge of first degree murder is going down.

From time to time, the father-son confrontations between Henry Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) are as spirited as any action in the courtroom where Henry, or Hank, practices as a crackerjack attorney known for getting white collar criminals off the hook and Judge Joe Palmer cracks the whip over sleazebags whose offenses range from denying child support to drowning a young woman.

We get a sense of each of the two principals when Judge Palmer, trying a fellow in the small fictional town of Carlinville, Indiana (actually filmed in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania), orderd an alimony skipper to turn the keys of his new truck over to his ex-wife. At about the same time his son, Henry, is about to win another white collar case, making charges against an embezzler disappear to the chagrin once again of the big-city prosecutor (David Krumholtz).

When Henry’s mother dies, he travels from Chicago to Carlinville for the first time in twenty years, reacquainting himself with his big brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), his moderately retarded sibling Dale (Jeremy Strong), and the woman he took to the high school prom, Samantha (Vera Farmiga)—who now runs a successful diner overlooking a small waterfall. While rekindling the old romance (he’s about to be divorced from his wife back in the big city), Henry must face the raging hostility of his dad while fighting for his father’s honor and freedom in court against a prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who is determined to evoke the maximum penalty. Joe Parker has more than a touch of Alzheimer’s and insists that he cannot remember striking and killing a man on a bicycle, a fellow he had a motive to kill but swears that he has no memory of the accident.

Trying to elicit ooh’s and ah’s by playing up the role of Henry’s seven-year-old daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) while at the same time hoping to get the audience to root for a reconciliation between father and son, director Dobkin uses two first-rate actors in a John Grisham-type, small-town trial with its moments of unpredictable testimony. Nor are we allowed to spare the Kleenex when Judge Palmer reveals his diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer, a plight made graphic by an unplanned bowel movement in his bathroom, wiped up and washed down by his son. What better way to reconcile can you imagine?

Some comic moments include a depiction of the inept, small-town lawyer (Dax Shepard) hired by Judge Palmer who throws up before each trip to the courthouse, and who is a model to prove that if you hire an expensive attorney rather than a local yokel whom you think wll be liked by the jury, you are more likely to get a verdict more to the defendant’s liking.

“The Judge” may be overlong with a familiar story but serves well as both a tear-jerking family drama and small-town courtroom melodrama.

Rated R. 141 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's
"Still Alice"
Opens Friday January 16, 2015

Screenwriter: Richard Glatzer, Wash Wesmoreland, from Lisa Genova’s book

Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish

Sony Pictures Classics

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

As they say, old age is better than the alternative. Still, young people have an inordinate fear of going gray but really, it’s not as bad as they think. Sure, you won’t be able to play even junior-high level football at age 60 and after 40, forget full-court basketball. And the longer you live, the more chance some disease or other will catch up to you. The most dreaded might be Alzheimer’s, which, though not painful like cancer or slowly causing paralysis like Lou Gehrig’s, is always fatal—if you’re lucky you’ll survive seven years—and causes the individual to lose all sense of identity.

Alzheimer’s is especially tragic when it affects a vital, intelligent person at a young age. Just after celebrating her fiftieth birthday with her husband Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin), her two daughters Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Anna (Kate Bosworth), and her son Tom (Hunter Parrish), Alice Howland Ph.D. (Julianne Moore) and Columbia professor of linguistics discovers that she can’t summon up certain words. Her student evaluations are negative, complaining that her lecture are confusing. Her chairman dismisses her from the university when he discovers that she has been diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s by her neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken). She has a particularly fast-developing form of the disease that will take her from her world-famous stature in her field of linguistics to a person who cannot tie her own shoes and loses her ability to form sentences.

While some might dismiss the story as a disease-of-the-week feature, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland keep the tone dignified, avoiding melodrama save for a single instance in which Alice, unable to locate her cell phone, screams at her husband in desperation.

Julianne Moore, who has previous performed a role of an unexceptional homemaker who develops multiple chemical sensitivity on Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” lends dignity to the role of an intelligent person who is losing it, her terror ever more poignant because the disease drops her from the heights of scholarly fame to such depths that she appears to disappear into herself. The idea for this tale must have hit home for co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The film was adapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s book of the same name, while directors Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland changed the location from Harvard to Columbia. The film is reminiscent of “A Beatiful Mind” and “Ordinary People” and also of the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”

Rated R. 101 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


James Marsh's
"The Theory of Everything"
Opens Friday, November 7, 2014

Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten, book by Jane Hawking

Starring: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis

Focus Features

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

Believe it or not, even world class scientists have private lives—people they love, people they care for and who take care of them, children who like them regardless of their parents’ fame. Was there even a Mrs. Galileo or a Mrs. Copernicus? Should be we interested in knowing what Mrs. Einstein was like? Mrs. Fermi? Maybe. That depends on whether the personal lives in question possess particular drama, which is surely true of the private life of Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most notable theoretical physicist in the world today, author of "A Brief History of Time," which sold ten million copies. What is unusual about the man, making his love life the focus of James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything,” is that Hawking became the love interest of a Ms. Jane Wilde when they were in attendance at the university in Cambridge, England despite Stephen’s dorky appearance and awkwardness, but that’s not all. As their relationship developed, Hawking received a diagnosis of MND, a neurological disorder similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was given two years to live, and even then, Jane insisted on marrying him and making those two years the best of her man’s life.

Little did she know at that time that the two years would stretch on, allowing Hawking to live not only to age 23 but to 72. He is still alive though almost totally paralyzed and able to communicate only through an ingenious machine. Jane and Stephen were to be together through twenty-five years of marriage and to produce three children (some of his parts were not paralyzed). “The Theory of Everything,” then, is the story of their lives together, going on through the end of their marriage and his nuptials later to a nurse who is hired to teach him better ways to communicate and Jane’s own marriage to the choirmaster of her church.

The film gains its drama from the ways that Jane helps her disabled husband, her life with him forming her memoir, "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen." Deepening the drama is the fact that Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) is spiritually the opposite of Stephen (Eddie Redmayne). She is a regular church-goer and a strong believer in God while he rejects what he calls the “supernatural,” though interestingly enough he is more agnostic than atheist as he does not wholly reject the idea of a creator. Instead, Stephen speaks of the universe as it is expanding and contracting and delivers some ideas of the black hole which Anthony McCarten’s able script makes reasonably accessible for a lay audience in the theater. What’s more Stephen’s interest lies wholly within his world of mathematics and theoretical physics while Jane is involved with medieval Spanish and French and links to Stephen’s interest in time by stating that she has often wanted to travel back a few centuries.

The film appears to highlight Eddie Redmayne’s chances for a best-actor Oscar or, at any rate, to hope he can have some luck with the many organizations that dish out awards for movies that open in 2014. Redmayne conveys the steady deterioration of the disease at first by walking with a limp, then falling flat on his stomach inside the Cambridge grounds. His toes point inward, his speech becomes unintelligible, his head droops and he has a disturbing smile on his wide lips. At first he gets by on a pair of canes, then winds up in a wheelchair and is unable to eat without help from Jane or from the nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), a woman who is strangely attracted to Hawking and tells his wife that she should worship the ground he walks on. While Jane becomes increasingly wary about the growing attraction of his husband for Elaine, she is herself becoming involved with Jonathan Helyer (Charlie Cox), who conducts the church choir, and will eventually marry him as Stephen will marry Elaine. David Thewlis delivers a stunning rendition of Stephen’s doctoral advisor, Dennis Sciama, a man who does not cut off his relationship at graduation time but sees Stephen speak before riveted audiences about his theories of the universe.

The biopic is rendered in a conventional manner, but the drama is heightened by Johann Johansson’s score and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s color. As costumer, Steven Noble is said to supervise Redmayne’s look with 77 changes of clothing.

Rated PG-13. 123 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Daniel Ribeiro’s
The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho)
Opens Friday, November 7, 2014

Written by Daniel Ribeiro

Starring: Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi, Tess Amorim, Lucia Romano, Eucir de Souza, Selma Egrei.

In Portuguese with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at Newfest 2014-- July 24-29

Teen Boy A realizes he has feelings for Teen Boy B in Daniel Ribeiro’s “coming out” feature (as well as his debut), The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho).

Teen Boy A happens to be blind.

And The Way He Looks happens to be my favorite Newfest offering this year and it ranks as one of the best LGBT films of 2014.

What makes The Way He Looks so special is the simple yet organic way the story unfolds and the fact that the characters are allowed room to breathe and grow without the usual extreme plot contrivances that have become ‘coming out’ film staples.

Oh, and the remarkable performances, especially extraordinary newcomer Ghilherme Lobo as Leonardo.

Sure the film is a high-optimism fairy tale of sorts, but thanks to the changing times, it’s closer to being more of a possibility. Plus the movie is great entertainment, socially conscious and smartly written—and when does that tri-convergence ever occur?

High school cutie Leonardo has always been blind. He lollygags about with his bestie, Giovana (Tess Amorim), who has an obvious crush on the boy. Into their lives comes a curly-topped hottie Gabriel (Fabio Audi) who takes an instant liking to both of them.

Both Leonardo and Giovana have yet to be kissed and, at 16, that’s very hard to believe—but we accept this since the world being presented here is more fable than factual. Leonardo does get bullied at school for being blind, but even the bullying is moderate at best since the bullys are coming from a place of fear of what they don’t understand.

Giovanna becomes increasingly agitated by the fact that Leonardo and Gabriel are spending time together working on a school project. Meanwhile, Leonardo rebels against what he sees as a smothering home life and seeks out a possible escape.

Gabriel and Leonardo grow closer as Giovana pulls away and, at a party, Gabriel kisses Leonardo. Later, a class flirt (Isabela Guasco) muddies the waters by making a move on Gabriel. Leonardo sees this as proof that Gabriel is straight. Both teens seem afraid to truly confront the other about their feelings.

Writer/director Daniel Ribeiro does a masterful job building a bond between the boys and having them slowly but assuredly realize their attraction to one another. The script is crisp, sharp and finds the right blend of modern meets old-fashioned.

Amorim is heartbreaking as Giovana. She shows us the depth to her feelings for Leonardo so we never want to simply write her off.

Audi has great charm and charisma but is also capable of making Gabriel’s angst and longing palpable.

And Lobo is simply a revelation. The actor isn’t blind yet he uses his body, head movements and facial expressions to achieve a range of emotions most teens aren’t even capable of showing. And in a scene where he cozies up to Gabriel’s hoodie, Lobo allows us to experience Leonardo’s desire, confusion, joy and acceptance of who he’s discovered he is and who he knows he loves.

Ribeiro uses music to great effect in the film, specifically the peppiness of Belle and Sebastian.

There is a wonderful moment where Leonardo’s father (played with such grace by Eucir de Souza) helps his boy shave. The love he feels for his son beams bright on his face—as does Leonardo’s for his dad. There’s no shame in that. And clearly, in this fantastic film, there’s no shame in two teen boys falling in love either.



Gregg Araki's
"White Bird in a Blizard"
Opens Friday, October 24, 2014

Screenplay by: Gregg Araki, from Laura Kasischke’s novel

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourney Sidibe, Thomas Jane

Magnolia Pictures

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

It’s natural for us to look back on our teen years and to declare that they were the best period of our lives. Then again, we know from the field of psychology that we tend to block out, or repress the bad memories. Consider that many in the field of education, psychological and medicine opine that the teens are likely to be the most anxiety-ridden time we endure. There’s good reason for this. For one, we are living under our parents’ roof, if we are among the fifty percent of those who are with both parents at least until the age of twenty-one, and “Kid, when you’re under my roof you will do as I say.” For another the body is undergoing changes that make a teen awkward, unsure, lacking confidence, confused. This latter feeling underlies what might be called a morbidly dark comedy, the sort of movie that is part of writer-director Gregg Araki métier. Araki, whose “Doom Generation” in 1995 is about a pair of teen lovers who form a ménage-à-trois when they pick up a young drifter, and whose “Splendor” is about a woman who cannot decide between two men, so she lives with both. Araki’s subjects are young people: “White Bird in a Blizzard,” no exception, is adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel, whose key sentence is “I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon—pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance—and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone.” Perhaps the name of the movie could have been “Gone Girl” if that title were not already chosen.

“White Bird in a Blizzard” features spot-on performances that exude the dilemmas of Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), a teen on the cusp of adulthood, a good-looking young woman who nonetheless has concerns about her body image--never mind that one of her two best friends, played by Gabourney Sidibe (“Precious”) is morbidly obese. It doesn’t help her emotional stability that her father, Brock Connor (Christopher Meloni) is a passive doormat and her aggressive mother, Eve (Eva Green), is borderline psychotic. A Freudian would analyze the story as Oedipal, wherein the 17-year-old Kat, needs to erase the mother and bond with her dad, but in the absence of a hero, is destined to form a sexual bond with a macho man twenty-three years older than she.

The story is set in the 1980’s, the soundtrack filled with songs of the era. This is a time well beyond the age of liberation and contemporary feminism, one which began in the late sixties and finds women expressing their sexual needs with the same abandon and braggadocio as men. In fact, if the last movie you saw was in 1959 and you listened to the palaver of the Kat and her two outcast pals (played by Mark Indelicato and Sidibe) you’d think that the genders have gone crazy, the “f” word peppering their speech as is their desire to have their brains f-d out.”

Araki is fund of surreal images. After the mother disappears—without turning up even two years later despite an investigation by detective Scieziesci (Thomas Jane—of the hairy chest and muscular arms)—Kat envisions her mom covered in snow, the entire atmosphere covered in white, snowflakes beating down as far as the eye can see. These dreams cause her to see a psychoanalyst (played by Angela Basset), who in Kat’s opinion talks like an actor performing in the role of an analyst.

In what is essentially a coming of age story disguised as a thriller, the police suspect that dad had something to do with his wife’s disappearance, and what about Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) the awkward boyfriend of Kat’s, who is the object of mom’s lust, a mother who is obviously envious of her 17-year-old daughter and pictures herself when she was that age?

The mother’s disappearance is explained in the final minutes of this satisfying picture, loose ends tied together and all made credible enough under Araki’s indie-ish direction. Shailene Woodley shines as a young woman who, in her first year of college at Berkeley, seems vested with all the sophistication of a person five or ten years older.

Rated R. 90 minutes © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online


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