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Asghar Farhadi's
"About Elly (Darbareye Elly)"
Opens April 9, 2015

Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi, story by Azad Jafarian

Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Merila Zare’I, Mani Haghighi, Peyman Moaadi, Ra’na Azadivar, Ahmad Mehranfar, Saber Abbar

Cinema Guild

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

There may be cultural differences between Americans and people in the non-Western world, but one truth is universal: thou shalt not lie. Lying may get you somewhere in the short run, but ultimately as Walter Scott said, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Not to be outdone, Alfred Tennyson adds, “A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” Half-truths are on display in Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly,” a naturalistic drama that turns into an intricate psychological thriller at half time and has the quality we have come to expect from a filmmaker whose “A Separation” bores into the dilemma of a married couple who must decide whether to leave Iran or to stay and take care of a parent with Alzheimer’s.

With a cast headed by Golshifteh Farahani, best known in these parts for a role in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster “A Body of Lies” about a CIA operative in Jordan hunting down a terrorist, Farahani inhabits the role of Sepideh, a young woman who with a group of rowdy friends drives from Tehran for a weekend at the Caspian Sea. She soon becomes immersed in a melodrama that turns the group from carefree exuberance to morbid self-analysis. The youths are from a wealthy segment of the Iranian capital, the women wearing the roo sari, a headdress covering all but the front hair though none seems particularly religious. (Perhaps they wear the roo sari even indoors only to get the film past the censors.) “About Elly” gains momentum by being built on a pyramid of lies, as the friends lie to one another and in turn to a man who is contacted in Tehran eager to know the fate of his fiancé. Director Farhadi may be winking to the theater audience, who will be sophisticated enough to see the political satire involved: Iran is an entire country built on lies, the most obvious one being that their centrifuges are producing items strictly for peaceful means.

The first lie occurs when we discover that Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) knew all along that the villa they rented for the weekend would be available for only one night, as the owners would be returning thereafter. She is sure that something can be done, and this time she lucks out as a nearby villa, however dirty and unfit for habitation, becomes the weekend retreat. But given how the 20-something folks whoop it up, that’s the least of their problems.

Elly, for a while the shy person in the group as she is a stranger to all except Sepideh—who invited her to join the group as she is the teacher of a child—runs happily with the three little ones on the beach, flying their kite. When one of the small children gets lost in the water, Elly jumps in and disappears in the strong current. When the group realize that she has been missing for hours, they assume that she is dead, which is when recriminations start. Ultimate blame is put on Sepideh, who, they find out, lied about Elly’s status back home with a fiancé and is hoping to “fix her up” with Ahmad (Shabab Hosseini), a recently divorced friend who has been working in Germany and is back in Tehran for a short while.

When Sepideh announces that Elly had been unhappily engaged for most of two years, we wonder whether this is yet another lie. As the camera moves from face to face, we see various expressions of fright, distrust, and a determination to blame everyone but themselves for the mishap. One couple even resort to physical violence. We watch as moment to moment the relationships crumble, and wonder just how the group will explain Elly’s presence to her fiancé, Alireza (Saber Abbar), who drives up to the villa eager to hear the absolutely truth.

Is this the “bitter ending [that is] better than an endless bitterness,” which is how Elly is consoled to support her break with the fiancé? Director Farhadi is intent on showing the remorse of these previously carefree vacationers, doing a most convincing job of justifying their mistrust and demonstrating the need to tell the truth at all costs.

Unrated. 119 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Ross Katz's
"Adult Beginners"
Opens Friday, April 24, 2015

Screenwriter: Jeff Coxa and Liz Flahive

Starring: Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, Caleb Paddock, Matthew Paddock


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

Given the convenience of air travel and the mobility of us Americans, we’d be surprised to find members of the same family living within five miles of one another. When a guy shows up unexpectedly at his sister’s home, we shouldn’t be surprised to note that they don’t immediately recognize each other, as they may have been separated for five years, ten years or more. Then again, sometimes a husband and wife living together may scarcely recognize each other, as they may be living separate lives with different occupations, or they are likely not the same people that they were when they first married. Such are the cases with “Adult Beginners,” helmed by Ross Katz, whose “Taking Chance” deals with a lieutenant colonel who takes on a greater appreciation of the sacrifices of our soldiers in the Iraq war and written by a husband-wife team whose comedy “Blades of Glory” focuses on two male figure skating rivals.

Yet “Adult Beginners” is nothing like these earlier works. Instead, done in the Duplass Brothers’ style, the dramedy is predictable enough yet graced by such warm, believable performances from all four (actually five) principal actors that make the whole project more than watchable.

Nick Kroll steals many a scene as Jake, an entrepreneur whose special glasses are designed to compete with the latest Google goggles. He amasses millions in investments only to find the business crashing and burning before it even gets started, thereby losing all his money and friends alike. But when friends disappear, who’s left? Family, of course, so Jake leaves his Manhattan digs for the New Rochelle, New York home of his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) who is married to a contractor, Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and are regularly distracted by their three-year-old boy, Teddy (played by twin actors Caleb Paddock and Matthew Paddock). Though Justine is at first not too enthusiastic, Danny has no problem welcoming his brother-in-law to a three months’ stay if Jake would take care of little Teddy while the parents are busy with their jobs. Jake, who is single, successfully hits on another caretaker, Blanca (Paula Garces) but is too inexperienced to avoid mishaps with the little one. But Jake’s keeping the home fires burning allows Danny to make time with another woman, a situation that could easily lead to a massive disruption of his married life.

In the end, as in so many movies about family dysfunction, loose ends are tied, family units are reconciled, wayward husbands are redeemed, but some pleasant surprises are in store for the audience. The best of these gains comes from TV comic Nick Kroll in his breakout role in a feature film. He resembles a borscht-belt comedian who can snare good-hearted laughs from the crowd just by his looks. He has a face that can change instantly from one of goofy pleasure to one resembling confusion and dismay, in other words the classic feature of the clown. He is able supported by Bobby Cannavale, a hail-fellow type, the sort you want to have a beer with, and Rose Byrne, whose features can turn as well from that of a contented woman pregnant with her first daughter to that of one who questions whether her marriage can last. The bonding of the hapless Jake with the larger and more confident builder is not as central as that between Jake and his sister, but the entire ensemble work together to put across a picture of family life not unfamiliar to many in the movie audience.

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

Mark Linfield and co-director Alastair Fothergill's
"Monkey Kingdom"
Opens Friday, April 17, 2015

Screenwriter: Mark Linfield

Photographer: Martyn Colbeck, Gavin Thurston

Cast: Narrated by Tina Fey

Walt Disney Pictures

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

I’d like a dollar for every time a biology teacher someone in the U.S. told a high school class that “if you want to understand human behavior, just watch the animals in the jungle. Animals (other than we) behave in the same way that people do.” If you want to document this, you don’t have to spend $8,000 for a safari (excluding air fare to East Africa, or in this case Sri Lanka). Just take in “Monkey Kingdom,” which this early in the season could already be the front-runner for cinematography awards including Oscar. The photography is sumptuous, putting us closer to the monkey plus a few other species in support roles than we’d be if we spent the aforementioned $8,000. And what’s more you don’t have to worry about rain, intense heat, and attacks by crocs, cobras and leopards. Nor do you have to worry about being caught in a revolution in a U.S. theater. Not yet.

“Monkey Kingdom” is the eighth in the Disneynature series and should be considered right up there as the best of the group. Mark Linfield directs not simply a documentary that catches this and that picture of a cute simian. He rather puts us into a story, a tale (so to speak) of the title figures acting like human beings. They love to eat and will break open bags of potato chips when they visit the town. They plan coup d’états, challenging the leaders of the kingdom. They fight against invaders, retreating from the best rock in the forest when overwhelmed, then returning when they think they can recover the land. They even have a press rep, namely Tin Fey as narrator. They nurse their young, though they are not stuck with their babies for eighteen, twenty, thirty years. They are social creatures, traveling always in packs, and are not opposed to excommunicating one of their ilk for bad behavior or for flirting with the monarch’s mate. And they apparently had the good fortune not to evolve into human beings some tens of thousands of years ago or further back.

Like us, the monkeys have names, not necessarily the ones they’d have chosen for themselves: Raja for the king. Kumar for the flirtatious male. Maya, who has a baby out of nowhere since this is a G-rated picture. And sociologists in the audience will pay the strictest attention to the class structure. Upper class simians like Raja are, understandably enough, on the highest branches. The middle class macaques, who may aspire to the upper reaches but will never get there (no parallel with U.S. society intended), chill around the middle. And the lower orders spend a good part of the time on the ground. In the same way that we homo sapiens have pets, these monkeys adopt other critters, the most hilarious example occurring when a group circle about a stray dog and one monkey actually rides him.

The best segment of the movie, perhaps because it’s the one we can identify most closely with, finds the entire troupe invading the nearby town, having run out of jungle food. They peer cautiously around, and when they think no humans are watching, they snatch chips and fruit from the concessionaires. We here in the big city may think that’s cute, but the local merchants, being accustomed to the little thieves, yell and chase them away as though they were mangy hounds.

Time lapse photography, particularly of clouds moving swiftly, adds to the professionalism of the crew, and Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is apt. Andy Netley as editor probably went through a few hundred hours of film—taken over a period of years—to evoke the best examples of simian behavior. And Tina Fey as narrator is as funny as always despite being a disembodied voice.

A must-see, not only for the kiddies but for family members of all ages.

Rated G. 82 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Russell Crowe's
"The Water Diviner"
Opens Friday, April 24, 2015

Screenwriter: Andrew Knight, Andrew Anastasios

Cast: Russell Crowe, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr
Warner Bros.

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

For his directing debut, Russell Crowe chose a tale first attempted by Peter Weir in that helmsman’s 1981 film “Gallipoli”—about two sprinters who go from Australia to Turkey to fight in the disastrous battle of Gallipoli. But Crowe adds a patina of romance and sentimentality while showing the movie audience that war is hell. “The Water Diviner” is an old-fashioned Hollywood treatment in which the principal character’s excuse for going to Turkey four years after the battle of Gallipoli is to recover the bodies of his three sons, none of whom returned home to Australia and who are therefore presumed dead.

There is an element of mysticism in this tale penned by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios. Crowe performs in the role of Joshua Connor, a water diviner, i.e. a person with the psychic ability to find water amid an expanse of parched land using only a divining rod, which requires that its handler have the talent for knowing exactly what partial acre of dirt conceals pools of water. With that talent, Connor presumes that he can go to Istanbul (Constantinople at the time) and somehow locate the three bodies of his boys despite their being allegedly tossed into mass graves and doused with limestone. He may also have the grandiose thought that he can help the healing between Australia and New Zealand and their former enemy in Ottoman Turkey. (Australia took part in the war to help protect British interests in the Middle East, which were threatened by Ottoman Turkey.) He finds himself both treasured by some of the locals for his courage and persistence as “the only father who returned to find his sons” and treated as an enemy, unwanted in the local hotel by the innkeeper, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and especially by the British who are hanging around to decide which part of the now-dissolved Ottoman Empire should go to Britain and which to France and Italy, which also want pieces of “the sick man of Europe.”

Crowe opens the movie dramatically with scenes from the battle, demonstrating the trench warfare that was the fashion of the times, a fight lost by the Anzac powers of Australia and New Zealand, the battle lost but the war eventually won. Sailing to Istanbul after the suicide of his depressed wife, Connor is directed by a mischievous boy (Orhan) Dylan Georgiades) to the hotel of his mother, Ayshe, whose husband was killed in the war and who is being petitioned by her brother-in-law to marry him lest his family be humiliated. The affection between Aysha and the under-playing Australian simmers but before any obligatory consummation, Connor is off to Gallipoli where he runs into Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) who may have been responsible for the execution of at least one of Connor’s sons. From there, he finds himself caught in a battle between the Greeks and the Turks, who appear not quite sure that the war is over.

Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is stunning, putting this film already in competition with Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” which like “The Water Diviner” is a period piece that informs us of the culture of the times. In the Turkey of 1919, for example, women appear to wear modest head-covering only when they walk outdoors: this was the period before Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey, became the head of government under a nationalist upsurge, declaring the veil, the fez, and the non-Latin alphabet to be illegal. (Boy, do we need him today!)

This is a big-budget movie that proves Crowe as adept in directing as he is in performing. He has been fortunate to assemble an ensemble of talented mates for his cast, making “The Water Diviner” a picture that could be hailed by lovers of war movies and sentimentalists alike. It will also punctuate the holiday of April 24th, the anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli, which is its opening day in the States.

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



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