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Parvez Sharma's
"A Sinner in Mecca"
Opens Friday, September 4, 2015

Written by: Parvez Sharma, Alison Amron

Starring: Parvez Sharma

Haram Films

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes

Using the syllabus for World History, I, a former teacher of history, mechanically evoked the point that every Muslim must recognize the monotheistic nature of Islam and, if financially able, must undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.  But I would have little doubt that this lesson would be forgotten after the monthly test and would hardly constitute the subject of student discussions on their way home or to the court to do hoops.  If only the vigorous teens could have the opportunity to see Parvez Sharma’s “A Sinner in Mecca” which would do what films are so capable of doing: of bringing the concepts of history to vivid life!

The film is remarkably photographed with two, small hidden cameras which despite their size captured the waves of humanity in Mecca.  Sharma, who co-wrote and directs the documentary—which follows his “A Jihad for Love” in 2007 about gay and transgender Muslims around the world—is openly gay in New York and is shown getting married to one Dan, a bond that is difficult to understand since Dan is an atheist musician whose only pilgrimage in this film is a trip to India with his spouse.

Sharma shifts from New York to his birthplace of India, then to Mecca, Saudi Arabia where non-Muslims have been forbidden to enter for fourteen centuries.  This makes the doc all the more valuable as even the most eager cinephiles may have never see the one million pilgrims who make the journey each year.  In fact, as we learn from Sharma, who narrates the tale, this may be the first film that introduces the world to the holiest site in Islam, the black rock or the Kaaba, which is the equivalent for the Jews to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Sharma is interested not simply in directing a travelogue, though he has done a bang-up job in that area.  As a gay Muslim, he wonders how he, pious that he is, can fit into the one-quarter of the world that follows his religion.  We never really see how his trip to Mecca helps him to realize this and may be left with the impression that Sharma is as critical of himself as was his mother, who died of cancer, but left him with her desire to see him with “a nice girl.”

Like most of us in the Western world, Sharma is critical of the hijacking of his religion by extremists and has negative things to say about America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, which follows the strictest brand of Islam and secretly finances ISIS.  “”A
Sinner in Mecca” to say the least is a notable feat of cinematography that no only shows most of us here in the U.S. with a graphic description of one of the world’s most visited city yet one in which photography is prohibited, but also provides a gay man’s inner monologue as he searches (mostly without success) for peace within.

Unrated.  79 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Angelina Jolie's
"By The Sea"
Opens Friday, November 13, 2015

Written by:  Angelina Jolie

Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup

Universal Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Next time you become envious of your married friends who are traveling on vacation, remember that there’s no need to be.  Aside from the hassles of travel—crowds at customs, absence of leg room on the flights, language and culture barriers--you should realize that any problems a married couple have will be increased when they are together 24/7 on their trip.  You don’t believe me?  Look at the handsome couple on the screen, Brad Pitt and his real-life wife Angelina Jolie Pitt.  Brad performs in the role of Roland, a writer, a failed writer in his own estimation, while Angelina plays Vanessa, a failed dancer so to speak, one who was happy while on the stage but is now too old to be called on for her terpsichorean skills.  They go to a village in France, perhaps on the Riviera (actually filmed on the Maltese island of Gozo).  And despite zipping about in their cool convertible which travels along the touristic, winding roads, they are not happy.  They are both angry about something—we learn near the conclusion about what and wonder why that should cause such animosity between them—but Vanessa is clearly the more enraged of the duo.  No sooner do they arrive at their quaint hotel, a short walk from the bar and restaurant tended by Michel (Niels Arestrup) under the supervision of owner Patrice (Richard Bohringer), than they begin to act out.  Roland dines alone though he has a sympathetic ear in Michel, who misses his wife who had died a year earlier.  (The film takes place during the 1970s when people still had to talk to each other rather than to their iphones.)  Vanessa spends most of the day on the terrace, her oversize hat shielding her from the sun.  There is virtually nothing to do in this village, which puts a premium on the quality of the tourists’ relationship with each other. 

When Roland attempts intimacy, he is pushed aside as his angry wife considers him a drunk and worse than a failed writer.  From time to time Roland lets loose an outburst, “Stop it!  Stop it!” as he can barely understand his wife’s frigidity, but they get their thrills from watching their young neighbors in the other room, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), who are on their honeymoon and who have no problem “working on producing a child” day and night.

“By the Sea” is a Brangelina vanity project which director Jolie Pitt may be reaching out visually to pull an Antonioni and literarily to emulate Edward Albee, but the entire picture, save for a few melodramatic flourishes, is virtually inert.  Anyone in the audience thinking of traveling in the near future to a cozy little village somewhere in Europe may be inspired to change plans and go to Cancún or Vegas or Punta Cana, where the non-stop action can divert their minds from their traveling companions for a while.  Those who are not thinking of traveling may consider going to a screening of “Bridge of Spies” or even any in the “Terminator” series as an antidote to “By the Sea.”  The audience for “By the Sea” will be either middle-aged and older people who think they will be watching a dialogue-rich art piece or younger moviegoers whose reading habits revolve around magazines like “People” especially if Brangelina are the subjects.  Most will be disappointed.

Rated R.  132 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Steven Spielberg's
"Bridge of Spies"
Opens Friday, October 16, 2015

Written by:  Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, John Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda

Touchstone Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

You don’t have to be a fan of John Le Carré’s spy novels to realize that cloak-and-dagger shows are not the property of just one side.  At this very moment, there are doubtless Iranian spies in the U.S. and American spies in Iran, and in fact the Iranians are currently interested in exchanging Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian for some folks being held in the U.S. for violating sanctions.  Certainly, during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it’s almost common sense to realize that both countries had agents picking up information from their enemies.  Yet, Americans depicted in Steven Spielberg’s phenomenal “Bridge of Spies,” when told that a Colonel Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) was arrested on strong evidence that he had acted as a Soviet agent in America, hate Abel but also detest the American lawyer defending the guy just as much.  Some of our own people, then, had been so blinded by nationalism that they must have thought that our side would never do something dastardly like spying even on our Soviet enemy.  Even more, the Americans who throw dirty looks at Brooklyn insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) for serving pro bono to defend him, must not have realized that what makes our country different from the Soviet Union is possession of a constitution that our government takes seriously.  The phrase “due process of law,” perhaps the four most important words in that document, means that everyone no matter how scuzzy is entitled to a fair trial with an attorney committed to his client.  (Note also that when Israel tried Adolf Eichmann, one of the most infamous perpetrators of Germany’s “final solution,” Eichmann had a German attorney with a free hand to keep his client from the hangman’s noose.)

“Bridge of Spies,” graced by America’s greatest film director and with the Coen brothers as writers (along with Matt Charman), could hardly be anything but among the best American movies of 2015.  This virtually flawless piece, filled with terrific performances, a strong and serious script with surprising comic touches, a production design that transforms parts of New York City and Berlin into the early 1960s (“Spartacus” was the film du jour on the theater marquee), and superb editing that neatly separates the domestic arrest-and-trial scenes with those involving international negotiations in Germany, manages to be both full of suspense and a feel-good story with lightly sentimental touches.  These qualities make the two hours and twenty-one minutes slide by and make you wish for more.

The story deals with agents from the two great powers whose aims are to secure information about the enemy.  Col. Rudolf Abel worked in Brooklyn Heights and made drops of gleaned information to his colleagues in Prospect Park.  Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) , who retired from the U.S. Air Force as a captain, joined the CIA’s U2 program, assigned to gather information by flying a plane that could fly 70,000 feet high and snap pictures with giant cameras.  At about the time that Abel was picked up in Brooklyn in a working space in which he painted portraits, Powers was shot down over Russia where he ignored or was unable to carry out orders to destroy the plane or to commit suicide when captured.  Both men would be destined for use as pawns, to be traded for each other.  James B. Donovan—who in 1964 co-wrote a book Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, which has recently come out as a paperback—is recruited by the CIA to defend Abel to show the world that the U.S. abides by due process.  After securing the trust of the Soviet spy, he does his best to defend the man, but a hanging judge, comically portrayed by Dakin Matthews, sounds more like a prosecutor wanting to find the man guilty in as short a time as possible.

In an action that begins unrelated, the East Germans arrest and imprison Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a young American Ph.D. student, picked up on the wrong side of the just-built Berlin wall.  Against orders, James B. Donovan becomes determined to negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor, two-for-one, threatening the East German officials that if the student is not released, neither will Abel, and that Abel would probably “talk” if convinced that he would be spending his life in the U.S.

Mark Rylance, a fifty-five year old actor considered one of the greatest of his British generation, is transformed into a dorky, balding spy, virtually without emotion, not concerned that he might be sentenced to death.  His favorite expression more or less imitates that of Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?”  He gets to trust Donovan, who had been chosen to perform a role similar to that of Jimmy Carter’s in more modern times, because Donovan did not represent the U.S. government but only himself as a private citizen.  You wonder why Abel is even willing to return to his Motherland given his warm relationship with the insurance lawyer.  Tom Hanks can do no wrong.  We believe his character as a man who starts out of his depths, from defending an insurance company against one client who wanted five times the damages to which he is entitled, to helping an obvious Soviet spy who is certainly no traitor but who, like Powers, is loyal to his own country.

In an intense but often comic drama, there is one spectacular action shot: that of Powers’ U2 plane as it is shot down over the Soviet Union, catapulting in flames toward the earth with a parachuting Air Force officer following on its tail.  There is nary a wasted moment in the entire drama, the most suspenseful segment filmed over the Glienicki Bridge over the Havel River connecting the Wannsee district of Berlin with the Brandenburg capital Potsman, as prisoners are being exchanged, snipers at the ready on both sides.  Tom Hanks makes us in the audience more concerned about Abel’s fate than that of Powers and Pryor, a testament to his ability as one of America’s great film actors.  And he, together with Mark Rylance, helps to make “Bridge of Spies” the picture to see this year.

Rated PG-13.  141 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Opens Friday, September 18, 2015

Written by: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan

Cast: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill Jack McBrayer, Rainn Wilson


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Kids all over the country do not like the food served in their cafeteria lunches, or at least pretend to hate the stuff in order to fit in.  They call the mysterious, gray meat “murderburgers,” though not usually expecting their listeners to take them literally.  Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, who direct “Cooties” and Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan who wrote the script do indeed opt to call some of this lunchroom food killers. Makes no difference that the entrée they choose is chicken nuggets and not burgers.  A bad piece of chicken becomes a murdernugget. Anyone who eats the stuff becomes afflicted with cooties, a fictitious childhood disease.

Killing with all attendant blood is the order of the day in “Cooties,” which among other things violates the rule that you should not show little children getting killed.  The fourth graders do get killed such as by being clubbed on the head repeatedly with a fire extinguisher and by being run over by a truck and burned alive.  And this is a comedy.  “Cooties” is a zombie horror-melodrama that proceeds at a frantic pace, designed for the large segments of the movie audience that can’t sit still and listen to normal dialogue.  The pace does not really slacken, the stereotypes of teachers and grade-school kids abound.  Aside from the age of the zombies, this movie is as derivative as they come.  If you generally do not care for zombie movies, you will not dig this one.  But if you’re a teacher or even a parent seeking revenge against some little monster, “Cooties” will meet your needs, at least for most of its 96 minutes’ length.

Elijah Wood stars as Clint Hadson, an aspiring young writer whose subject for a first novel is a boat that’s possessed, though Clint cannot get past Chapter one.  In fact he can’t quite construct an opening sentence.  It’s no wonder that he needs to do something to raise money, even if he is living with his mother though into his twenties, but he picks a profession that’s even harder than writing a novel.  He becomes a substitute teacher.  Figuring that the kids in the rural town of some 45,000 souls would be easy to handle, he could not have been more wrong. What’s more, he has to do double-takes to realize that some of his new colleagues are crazier than the youngsters in their charge, including the macho phys ed dude Wade (Rainn Wilson), the gym teacher’s eternally upbeat girlfriend Lucy (Alison Pill), the socially backward Doug (Leigh Whannell, who spends his free time in the lounge reading a book on how to start a conversation, and the less developed characters of Tracy (Jack McBrayer) and Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad). 

The movie starts with violence and ends with destruction.  Milott and Murnion open in a small chicken processing plant where a worker, angry that the bird he chooses to slaughter is fighting him, wrings the creature’s neck.  The chickens are then processed into nuggets, covered with goo, and unknown to the workers in the plant are infected with a virus.  When the kids eat the lunch, they quickly turn into zombies, starting when one of the teased girls leaps on her tormentor and takes a deep bite from his cheek.  Soon enough the youngsters form a bloody alliance against the common enemy, the teaching staff, which then spends most of the film running from the undead or fighting them with fire extinguishers, gasoline, whips and chains.  Usually zombies do not run: they walk with purpose toward the humans but kids being kids, they are quite capable of running, tearing apart any human that could not get out of their way.

There are some romantic moments as between Clint and Lucy to the chagrin of Lucy’s regular b.f. but without a social message (“Cooties” could have been an allegory of over-medicated children and parents strung out of prescription drugs) there is little other than mayhem and stereotypical dialogue in this derivative pic.

Rated R.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Guillermo Del Toro's
"Crimson Peak"

Opens Friday, October 16, 2016

Written by:  Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jim Beaver, Leslie Hope

Universal Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Guillermo Del Toro's “Pan’s Labyrinth” is superior fare largely because it has a political theme (the daughter of a brutal army officer escapes from Falangist Spain in 1944 into a fantasy world), but while Del Toro compares his new picture, “Crimson Peak” to “Jane Eyre,” “Rebecca,” and “Great Expectations,” this is true only to one extent.  “Jane Eyre” (one movie version stars Mia Wasikowska) is about a woman who serves as a governess in an imposing house; “Rebecca” takes place in a mansion on the Cornish coast, in every corner of which is a phantom of time lost but not forgotten; “Great Expectations” is a classic work of Victorian literature, a coming-of-age story.  “Crimson Peak” is all of this: a coming-of-age of an innocent virgin in the early years of the twentieth century like Jane Eyre and Rebecca who enter into lives previous removed from their experience.  But the classics cited by Del Toro have stirring narratives.  They were not merely costume dramas using Gothic effects to hide the absence of an assured drama and the presence of wholesale repetition.  (Gothic refers to stories enveloped by gloom, mystery and the grotesque.)  No question: “Crimson Peak” abounds in beautiful costumes, with Mia Wasikowska in the role of Edith Cushing wearing a greater variety of clothing that Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaigns.  And the mansion, set in Cumberland, England, looks authentically Gothic, a crumbling structure with leaves falling through the roof, red clay oozing from the floor, and bugs slithering about seeking shelter from the cold, European winter. 

“Crimson Peak” also features a substantial performance from the 26-year-old Canberra, Australian-born Mia Wasikowska, a rising star with a resumé including title roles in “Jane Eyre,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Madame Bovary.”  This is a period drama filmed in Pinewood Toronto Studios and in Hamilton and Kingston, Ontario, where the men work outdoors with machines while dressed in suits when they are not in full formal wear at posh affairs.  And the women wear nightgowns more showy and luxurious than candidates for Academy Awards don during Oscar night.

But the story lacks a compelling narrative, relying on the occasional presence of scary, if kitschy ghosts, and dialogue that’s predictable and redundant. 

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) can see dead people.  She is frightened by her first experience at the age of about eight in Buffalo, New York, when she is visited briefly by the ghost of her mother.  And she writes about what she knows, mysteries featuring ghosts which, she states, act only as metaphors to represent the past.  Her manuscripts are rejected because she is a woman and women can’t write mystery stories, or so she is told, and she gives herself away because her handwriting is “feminine.”  Though her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) expects her to marry a family friend and ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), he is too bland for her taste.  She rather casts her troth at Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is described as a baronet—a title which, it’s convenient to note, is awarded by the British Crown like a knight  but ranks above all knighthoods except for the Order of the Garterand the Order of the Thistle.  When Edith and Sir Thomas demonstrate the “European style” of waltz to an appreciative crowd of aristos, she is smitten, though her dead mother warns her to be careful and her father finds himself disliking the baronet because something “does not seem right.”

So of course she marries Sir Thomas, heads to his manor in Cumberland, England, miles from the nearest neighbor, and is welcomed by Sir Thomas’s sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain).  But something is not right about Lucille either.  In a film that’s more dialogue than melodramatic passages, but whose dialogue is repetitious and melodramatic passages are predictable, “Crimson Peak” slogs along, scaring nobody, but evoking audience screams from an extended bloody conclusion.


David Gordon Green's
"Our Brand is Crisis" 
Opens Friday, October 30, 2015  
Written by:  Peter Straughan

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Bill Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd

Warner Bros

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes

Plato, the ancient Greek thinker, thought that government by philosopher-king would be best.  The philosopher-king would be a person of wisdom, restraint, and balance.  Plato also thought that democracy was the worst form of government, one that would lead to mob rule, or ochlocracy.  Maybe he has something there.  If you look at American campaigns for everything from dog catcher to President, you wonder about a system in which Joe Biden decided not to run because he thought it was “too late to mount a campaign.”  Huh?  With eighteen months to go until election day?  The real reason, some say, is that he did not think he could win, but then he was honest enough to admit that.  Most politicians lie, though.  That left-leaning prime minister in Greece campaigned for re-election on a promise that he would not go along with the European Union’s demand for an austerity budget.  He won on that platform, but not a week went by before he agreed with EU demands, against the will of his electorate.

But the main reason Plato must have been against democracy—and the reason for this overlong introduction to a review of “Our Brand is Crisis”—is the film’s view that like juries, “the people” vote on emotions, largely, not on rationality.  If a presidential candidate sheds a tear during a TV debate, that’s a big plus.  If the candidate is reasonably good looking, charismatic in posture and speech, another chance to win one for the Gipper.  If he tells the people what he thinks they want to hear regardless of whether he believes in their choices and whether he expects to follow through on their will, big big plus: make that a multiplication sign.  By displaying a candidate for the presidency of Bolivia who, before even taking office, spits on the popular will (in this case by having his country join the International Monetary Fund which is dominated by the rich countries), David Gordon Green presents an allegory that applies well enough to elections here in the States. 

This is not only a political movie about campaigning for office: it is a study of character, specifically the character of Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), a person who is burnout from leading previous campaigns and who comes across for a good deal of this film’s 108 minutes as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  David Gordon Green, whose directing résumé includes “Pineapple Express” (a process server and his marijuana dealer are on the run from hit men), borrows heavily from Rachel Boynton’s 85-minute documentary with the same name, based on the actual 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign pitting winner Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada against Evo Morales in which our own James Carville served as the victor’s campaign strategist.

In this fictionalized version the part of Sánchez is taken by Joaquim de Almeida as Castillo, a man who had been president fifteen years back but is now trailing well behind Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella).  Rivera’s American strategist is Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) while Castillo has a team including Jane, Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd).  Both Bodine and Thornton are based on the 2002 strategist James Carville.

Many of the scenes are as repetitious as campaigns usually are with the politicians spouting the same homilies and drying the same tearful eyes—and could have used some adroit editing.  For her part, Sandra Bullock spends a good deal of the film in an uninteresting passive, depressed mode from the time she de-planes and can scarcely breathe in the 12,000-feet altitude of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.  When she gets her groove back midway, her pouts turn to shouts in a film that can hardly be called cleverly written. (Scripter Peter Straughan’s résumé includes better days as with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”). 

The movie was filmed in mostly Puerto Rico and on site in Bolivia with some worthwhile scenes of Bolivia’s striking mountain ranges and the signature hats of the women.

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

Sam Mendes's
Opens Friday, November 6, 2015

Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

If visuals were all we look for—and for some in the audience spectacle is all that counts—“Spectre,” which could be subtitled “Spectacle,” would rate high.  But even 007—no, especially 007—needs sharp dialogue.  Who could criticize the gems of the past like, Customs Investigator: “What is the purpose of your trip?”  Bond: “Pleasure.  Is there any other?”  Or, “Shaken, not stirred.” (By contract the current James Bond utters the same words, but where’s the resonance?  And where are the classy bits like showing 007 making a cappuccino in 45 second flat? 

And where are the gadgets?  Two of ‘em are shown here: a watch with almost supernatural powers, and a car that emits flames if being chased.  This is no longer the old, great 007.

And where is Sean Connery when we need him so much?

All in all, “Spectre” is weak in the dialogue department, so-so in acting, by-the-numbers in plotting, and wonderful in visuals as lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema.  In the director’s chair Sam Mendes became the first to oversee two consecutive Bond films since John Glen directed “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill” in 1987 and 1989. 

The opening minutes are brilliant, giving the audience considerable anticipation for what would follow.  A huge crowd has gathered in Mexico City to celebrate the Dead of the Dead, which takes place each year on November first and second to celebrate departed family members and looks like a combination of New Orleans Mardi Gras and a Halloween party in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Thousands of people line the streets leading to the Zocalo, giving Bond (Daniel Craig) the opportunity to run at top speed, shoving people aside in an attempt to catch one of the bad guys.  007 seems more interested in nailing a criminal than in fulfilling the desires of the beautiful Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci), who plays the widow of an assassin killed by Bond.  The formula kicks in as Bond pursues the criminal, climaxing in a getaway chopper rather than in the bedroom with Lucia. 

All communication between Bond and his boss M (Ralph Fiennes) is dull, even when M forces Bond to stand down for causing an international incident when he was not authorized to act in Mexico.  Although James is suspended he nonetheless is given an intravenous tracking device by Q (Ben Whishaw acting as the agency’s quartermaster) to allow M and M’s team to track the agent’s whereabouts, but it takes more to stop 007, who absconds with the traditional Aston Martin and zips with it into Rome.  (At this point we in the audience wonder where he carries his passports, how he packs his suits when he has only a small valise, how he is able to finance his day-to-day living or even keep clean-shaven.) 

The principal confrontation, of course, is surely not with M but rather with the psychopathic Franz Oberhauser (Christopher Waltz—hands-down the best actor in the movie and sadly underutilized), whose thuggish right-hand man, Mr. Jinx (Dave Bautista) gouges a rival’s eyeballs during an interview, then heads after Bond by car and by a train in Morocco but which looks suspiciously like the Orient Express.  The train serves dinner and drinks to Bond and his new girl, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a psychologist working in a private medical clinic in the Austrian Alps—a woman who is the daughter of an assassin who, like all others of his ilk meets an unfortunate end.

The aim of the organization known as Spectre is to launch a surveillance network which can hone in on any location without the need to set up hidden cameras or to send agents around wearing wires.    Somehow this super-sleuth machine threatens civilization, as information has replaced nuclear fission as the means to control the world.  Perhaps the best use to which it can be put is to allow filmmakers to hone in on others in the profession around the world, leading folks like director Sam Mendes and writers John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade to revive the Bond series with resonant dialogue, surprises here and there instead of formula, and actors with the charisma of a Sean Connery.

Rated PG-13.  148 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Danny Boyle's
"Steve Jobs"
Opens Friday, October 9, 2015

Written by: Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s book

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jeff Daniels

Universal Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

For those of us who think that if a man is a multimillionaire—meaning in possession of one hundred million, like Robin Williams or several billion like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—his problems are over, we learn from literature, theater and the movies that this is simply not true.  In fact when the Greeks wrote and performed tragedies and Shakespeare likewise, the richest, most celebrated and most powerful people appear to have more woes than people who are poverty-stricken, homeless and hungry.  Think of Hamlet, Clytemnestra, Othello, and Medea, all who might today be considered aristocrats, yet all having seemingly insurmountable problems.  Jesse Eisenberg’s multi-billionaire character Mark Zuckerberg is seen immediately in David Fincher’s wonderful “The Social Network” alienating his college girlfriend to such an extent that in five minutes she leaves him forever.  And don’t forget Zuckerberg’s ferocious fights with former partners who insist that he screwed them out of their proper compensation and position.

Such is the case with Steve Jobs, who, played here in Danny Boyle’s new film, deserves a place in a theoretical CEO Hall of Fame for his promotion first of the Macintosh computer in 1984, which morphed into today’s iMac and his role in the dissemination of the iPad and the ubiquitous iPhone.  But he is depicted as far from the mellow aristocrat who made his fortune even after dropping out of the prestigious Reed College and traveling to India in 1974 to study Buddhism.  His portrayal by Boyle, accented by a dynamic script from Aaron Sorkin, displays the man as so petty and argumentative that he refuses to put money into the account his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) despite her having to go on welfare, and denies paternity despite overwhelming DNA odds that young Lisa who was born to Chrisann out of wedlock is his daughter.

The movie is divided into three segments, but since it concludes in 1998 Boyle does not deal with Jobs’ death from cancer and respiratory failure in 2011, nor do we learn anything about his childhood which would have given us some indication of his interest in computers.  The story is filled with arguments and make-ups as between Jobs, who was heading Apple Inc., and the man who ultimately fired him, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); between Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); and high-pressure business debates during almost endless backstage melodramatics between Jobs and his lieutenant, would-be shrink and working wife, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet—with a perfectly nailed Polish accent).

The dialogue-driven picture has a few gems, the best of which is this dialogue between Jobs and subordinates.  Jobs chastises them for taking two weeks longer to finish a project than God did to make the universe.  He is one-upped by an employee who retorts, “Yes, you’ll have to tell us how you did that sometime.”

You come away wondering not only how such important and rich people can have problems that could conceivably lead them to depression and suicide, but whether it’s possible to be a CEO of a major corporation and not consider yourself at least a tin God.  Though Michael Fassbender contributes a potential Oscar-winning performance (one critic opines that the Academy should not even bother voting: just mail him the Oscar), the fragmentation is disturbing and would grate on segments of the audience who like their bio-pics complete without being broken up into simply melodramatic moments.  There are some good, restrained special effects, which may or may include the audience for Jobs’ presentations—which number approximately one thousand people clapping, stamping their feet, and treating the businessman like a rock star.

Rated R.  122 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jonathan Levine's
"The Night Before"
Open Friday, November 20, 2015

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Written by:  Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling,

Some folks may sing “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine,” but in the case of the three friends highlighted in “The Night Before,” a tradition of debauchery that they have celebrated every Christmas Eve for fourteen years is coming to an end because…Come to think of it, why should these pals break up?  After all, one of them, Isaac (Seth Rogen), has been married to Betsy (Jillian Bell) and is about to become a father, which in itself is no excuse for ending his friendships.  Chris (Anthony Mackie) is a famous athlete, but so what?  We’re talking only one night a week.  And as though Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) needs an excuse for quitting his fantastic Christmas Eves, he has his eyes on Diana (Lizzy Caplan), the woman who broke up with him and with whom he had no spoken for three months because he was afraid to meet her parents.  Yes, it’s the holiest night of the year for most Americans, but for the three young men who seem long-in-tooth for us to consider this a coming-of-age story, heading off to the Holy Grail of Christmas parties, the Nutcracka for some late hours of drugs and dance is considered more important than attending Midnight Mass or putting final fixings on Christmas trees.

Ironically, the most overtly Jewish member of the group, Isaac, is the only pal who does go to Midnight Mass, though he wishes he had night, and so do the members of the congregation who fill every pew in the church.  Loaded with weed, cocaine and a variety of other mind-altering substances, he enters the church while wearing a sweater chock full of stars of David, a fish out of water who had never been to a Christian service before in his life.  Zonked out of his mind, he heads for the aisle, throws up on the floor, and exits rapidly from the church saying “We did not kill Jesus.”  Funny?  If you think so, this may be the movie for you.  Vulgar?  Strangely enough, the movie is not so much so, which makes one wonder, Where is Judd Apatow when we need him?

The problem with “The Night Before,” co-written and directed by Jonathan Levine, whose “Warm Bodies” features a zombie who saves a still-living girl from an attack, is that’s its entertainment value is close to zero.  It is a laugh-free, only mildly vulgar, and virtually plot-free film, taking place in Manhattan during a long, long night and involving a surprisingly unfunny Michael Shannon, so great in “99 Homes,” one of the best films of 2015, serving as a drug dealer who is so zonked out himself that we wonder how he can keep his account books accurate.

With a small role by James Franco, “The Night Before” may be about the search for the Holy Grail of parties, but the movie itself, the worst of the year to date, has a good chance to win the Golden Raspberry, the Holy Grain of trash celluloid.

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




Stephen Daldry'

Opens Friday October 9, 2015

Written by: Richard Curtis, based on Andy Mulligan’s book

Starring: Rickson Tévis, Eduardo Luís, Gabriel Weinstein, Martin Sheen, Rooney Mara, Wagner Moura, Selton Mello

Focus World

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Call this a Brazilian “Slumdog Millionaire” with a Marxist undertones, “Trash” is a crowd-pleasing film featuring strong performances from a group of boys under the age of eighteen who do their own stunts.  (Oh, to be young again.)  The slum dwellers do become multi-millionaires if only for a few moments but the way they treat their new-found fortune could raise cheers from the theater audience—at least from those who will vote for Bernie Sanders.  The movie is action-filled with chases you’ll find in any 007 offering, contrasts view in Rio of the beaches with the favelas, and has dialogue in Brazilian-accented Portuguese that at some moments could be set to fado music, although hip-hop is the more likely preference of the youthful principals.

“Trash” is directed by Stephen Daldry, whose more political “The Reader” shows a law student’s post-World War II experience watching a former lover defend herself in a war crimes trial, and “The Hours,” about women who deal with suicides in their lives, “Trash” is based on a book by Andy Mulligan. The story is about three penniless boys with no education and no parents who discover a wallet in the city dump and who despite the chance of getting a handsome reward choose not to turn it in to the police.  Lack of schooling notwithstanding, they realize that the wallet contains more important papers than the enclosed money and their decision to keep the billfold almost cost them their lives.

In an opening scene Jose Angelo (Wagner Moura), a good guy intent on exposing government corruption, is chased by cops who have no problem shooting people in the back.  Just before he is caught, he throws the wallet into a passing garbage truck where Raphael (Rickson Teves), a favela-dweller who ekes out a living with scores of others by dumpster-diving and selling what they can, recovers it.  He and his pals Rat (Gabriel Weinstein) and Gardo (Eduardo Lewis) are pursued by a bad cop (Selton Mello) who works with a corrupt congressman now running for mayor of Rio.

Much of the film involves chases and a few beatings as the boys stay ahead of their pursuers by jumping fences and soaring across buildings, while director Daldry reserves some quiet moments for an American priest (Martin Sheen) and volunteer teacher (Rooney Mara), who like the youngsters are good guys trying to make a dent in the lives of slum dwellers.  (Sheen is fairly adept with his Portuguese lines.) They may have been brought into the film to attract more of an American audience, but their roles could be cut without much loss.

“Trash” combines a serious look at the lives of favela people who spend their days not at computers or i-phones but in spreading out over the city’s trash for a few reals to live on. (When numbers involving Brazilian money are forthcoming, remember that the current exchange rate means that you can get almost four Brazilian reals for an American dollar.)

Cinematographer Adriano Goldman joins the fun by photographing both the mean streets and the gorgeous beaches of Rio in a movie that’s not as complex as “Slumdog Millionaire,” one in which the constant action distracts from the social commentary.  It features a virile soundtrack with hip-hop offerings by MC Cidinho, but where are the Sambas?

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


Frank Hall Green's
Opens Friday, September 25, 2015

Alaska Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool.  Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

Written by: Frank Hall Green

Starring: Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Ann Dowd, Nolan Gerard Funk

Exploiting scenery striking enough to warrant promotion from the, writer-director Frank Hall Green takes us on an unusual road trip, one which includes Mount Denali, America’s tallest peak.  “Wildlike” moves along at its casual pace with minimalist dialogue and little melodrama: in fact an encounter with an uninterested bear and a sighting of a horny uncle by the niece he is supposed to be nurturing provide the only visceral excitement in the drama.

Essentially a two-hander with a solid performance from eighteen-year-old Ella Purnell as Mackenzie, “Wildlike” provides ample material for an audience with an interest in teen runaways, though this time we are as far from Times Square culturally and geographically as is possible. 

When Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is temporarily transferred by her cancer-ridden mother from Seattle to the girl’s uncle in Juneau (Brian Gerghty), she faces the prospect of statutory rape by the forty-something man who had recently broken up with his girlfriend.  Though Mackenzie did not resist, perhaps wondering how she might fare if she ran away, she eventually decides to bolt, all alone in the sticks of Alaska with only the money she steals from her uncle’s cookie jar. 

Sneaking into a motel room, she is confronted by Renee Bartlett (Bruce Greenwood) who plans to hike in Denali National Park.  Though the 50-something widower is not too pleased when the fourteen-year-old girl follows him around like a puppy, he takes the girl under his wing, determined to assist her particularly when he discovers the truth about her uncle.

Bartlett is the kind of fellow you’d want to meet if you’re an underage girl, someone who even resists Mackenzie’s attempted seduction while the two share a tent.  The picture moves ahead as slowly as an icicle dripping from Mount Denali but is a find for an audience that does not require constant dialogue and melodramatic action.  Bruce Greenwood, an underutilized actor, communicates his every emotion with his facial expressions and Purnell, virtually in every frame, is developing stature she began building in the role of young Ruth in the scary film “Never Let Me Go.”

Hillary Spera behind the lens brings out the natural beauty of our largest state with stunning 35mm photography, and a side role by Ann Dowd as an understanding stranger is just right.

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



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