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Richard Loncraine
"5 Flights Up"
Opens Friday, May 8, 2015

Screenwriter: Charlie Peters, based on novel “Heroic Measures” by Jill Climent

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van der Boom, Korey Jackson, Carrie Preston

Focus World

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


Director Richard Loncraine, whose résumé includes the likes of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” evokes considerable tension from his cast in “5 Flights Up,” but here’s the surprise. The tension does not come from watching the timer on a bomb clicking toward zero while the good guys work frantically to debate which wires to cut with 2 seconds to go. Nor does the stress emanate from the hurried tracking of a stalker who has promised to kill the former girlfriend who has dismissed him for another a lover. The tension is borne from our wondering whether an elderly couple, Alex (Morgan Freeman) and his wife of forty years, Ruth (Diane Keaton), will find a good price for the home they bought decades ago and which has appreciated in price from $5,000 (as described in Jill Climent’s novel “Heroic Measures”) to almost one million dollars today. The hood is Williamsburg, which has emerged from the lower depths to become one of the hippest neighborhood in all of New York City, and a successful sale of this fifth-floor walkup will enable the child-free duo to change their digs to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It looks as though all signals are “go,” but the inevitable twist near the conclusion upends the story’s arc convincingly.

Not that their lives are a breeze. Ruth and Alex’s 12-year-old Border terrier (a Dachshund in the novel), which they name Dorothy because “we’re not in Kansas anymore” (never mind that Dorothy is not and had never been a Cairn, though as a pup she was a Norfolk terrier), develops a spinal problem possibly from walking four flights daily and needs a $1,000 MRI and a $10,000 operation, but that’s no problem for a duo expecting almost a seven-figure sale on their wildly appreciated flat. And did we mention that the couple are interracial to the regret of Ruth’s family who, in the 1970s, suggest, “What about your children?”

“5 Flights Up,” which could be performed on an off-Broadway stage, is both a heartfelt drama about the lives of two mature people—a rare enough subject for the movies these days—and a comedy formed by shuttling in a virtual army of neurotic New Yorkers who are looking at apartments either with the idea of buying or, well, just looking. As the real estate agent who wants nothing to do with the mere lookers, Niece (Cynthia Nixon) runs around frantically in search of her commission, even setting up a deal with the agent representing the potential sellers in Manhattan (Carrie Preston—who in the TV series “The Good Wife” steals every scene she’s in).

It’s great to find a drama whose smiles and even laughs do not insult our intelligence (“Mike & Molly” and “2 Broke Girls” anybody?) but emerge quite naturally from the story. And how can you go wrong with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton in the starring roles? If, like me, you live in Brooklyn and are of a certain age, and have considered changing your venue as this painter and that retired teacher have done, and moreover you have or had a small dog, you will enjoy the added bonus of relating strongly to the theme. “5 Flights Up” deserves a wider audience than “Furious 7.” But I somehow think that wish is overly optimistic.

Unrated. 92 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online





Lou Howe’s
Gabriel
Opens Friday, June 19, 2015

Screenplay by Lou Howe.

Starring: Rory Culkin, David Call, Deirdre O’Connell, Emily Meade, Louisa Krause, Lynn Cohen.

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

Lou Howe has created a very unique filmic experience with his first outing as writer and director. Gabriel, the movie and the character, challenges the viewer in ways that may confound and surprise them. The film will certainly make you nervous and uneasy. But it’s worth a Xanax or three.

Howe begins the film with Gabriel (Rory Culkin), having just debussed, manically needing to see his girlfriend, Alice (Emily Meade), and pounding on her dorm door, injuring himself in the process. We soon discover that Alice no longer lives in the freshman dorm since Gabriel has been away for a few years. In addition, Gabriel has family waiting at home for him. Immediately we realize that our protagonist is unusual to say the least. And, perhaps, a bit…off.

Turns out Gabe (he does not like to be called Gabriel) is being released from an institution where he’s been battling with mental illness. The release is in no way definite and hinges on his getting along with his perpetually concerned mother (a very effective Deirdre O’Connell) and his straight-laced older brother (David Call, excellent). Both are worried about Gabe. Neither trusts him--and with good reason. Each chance he gets he runs away. Gabe has held onto the notion, for the last few years, that his relationship with Alice holds the answers to all his problems and he must find her.

At times, the film has a suspense thriller feel about it as we learn bits more about Gabe and the reasons he can’t be around his mother and brother. And we flee with him as he searches for Alice. And once he finds her, the scene is electrifying.

Howe creates a skewed sense of claustrophobia since the camera follows Gabe everywhere, giving us his perspective and forcing us to be empathetic towards him and his plight, no matter how misguided it may feel. He is also smart enough to keep any real diagnosis a mystery, making Gabe’s story all the more personal. (My guess, though, would be paranoid schizophrenia).

Anchoring the film is the remarkable Rory Culkin who dares to infuse Gabe with a host of idiosyncrasies, fears, doubts, demons and delusions. It’s a powerful, self-aware portrayal and Culkin is only concerned with doing right by the character.

Gabriel is an intense, psychological portrait of a young man who is trying desperately to keep connected to reality. The writing is searingly authentic, the direction sharp and the performances genuine.

 




Boaz Yakin's
"Max"
Opens Friday, June 26, 2015


Screenwriter: Boaz Yakin, Sheldon Lettich

Starring: Josh Wiggins, Robbie Amell, Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church

Warner Bros

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


In much the way movies that would be rated “R” forty years ago are now given MPAA judgments of “PG-13,” what was considered “PG-13” then is now simply “PG.” This phenomenon is brought out by Boaz Yakin’s “Max,” about a boy and a dog, but not the Disney-esque sentimental pap in which nothing really sad occurs. Instead it’s full of explosions, gunplay, violent death, and assorted scares. Kids today, perhaps the prime audience for “Max,” could be troubled by some aspects of the movie, but ultimately they will acquire a real-life, vicarious experience involving the death of a 14-year-old boy’s brother (shown graphically in a scene from Afghanistan) and the violence involving gun smugglers, one of whom violates the Marine code of behavior by being involved in the theft and sale of AK-47’s and a bazooka.

The movie stars Josh Wiggins in the role of Justin Wincott, an actor who last appeared in “Hellion” about a heavy metal obsessed 13-year-old delinquent) and “Lost in the Sun,” about a newly-orphaned teen who bonds with a small-time crook.

In “Max” Wiggins’s character opens as a kid who could possibly turn bad. He is already distanced from his mom, Pamela Wincott (Lauren Graham) and dad Ray Wincott (Robbie Arnell), but in the tradition of Warner Bros. pictures targeted to youth becomes a good kid thanks to his friendship with a Belgian Malinois. The 14-year-olds redemption is old hat, but the story has some earned, tearful moments, and the transformation occurs through organically developed plotting.

Boaz Yakin, who directs and co-wrote the movie, is known for his most recent “Safe,” about a girl with a numerical code buried in her head who is pursued by a Russian mob and corrupt New York City cops. Yakin is no stranger to tales of crime, exploiting his talent in developing a story about a 14-year-old with intimate knowledge of a small gang of gun smugglers, pursued not only by men who would like to see him dead but by a person he considered a pal who thinks twice and three times before shooting the otherwise bland lad.

The film opens in Afghanistan as Raymond and Pamela’s 20-something boy Kyle Wincott (Robbie Arnell), a dog handler whose Belgian Malinois Max (played by one Carlos), is trained to search for guns which the local people are selling to the Taliban. In a firefight he is killed, the death reported in the usual Marine style by a pair of officers’ trip to the young man’s parents, who decide to adopt the dog that was loved so much by their deceased son. At first the angry Justin wants nothing to do with the animal but with the encouragement of the tough-talking teen Carmen (Mia Xitlali), a cousin of Justin’s best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuek). Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank), a Marine who fought in the same outfit as Kyle, befriends the boy, gets a job from Justin’s dad, but is not quite what he claims to be.

Carlos in the role of Max is not only a war hero but a catalyst for the redemption of the alienated young Justin. But Carlos is a big dog and therefore cannot evoke the same tender emotions from an audience as small terriers like Dale Rosenbloom’s Shiloh, an abused beagle rescued by the 1996 movie’s heroes, or like Greyfriar’s Bobby, the wee terrier who, after his owner’s death guarded the man’s grave for years until his own demise. Rather, “Max” comes across as adult fare suitable for kids who will not become too upset by a rogue Marine or too irritated by a bratty best friend of Justin who gets hit every so often by his cousin, Carmen. Josh Wiggins holds the movie together as a whitebread fellow who comes of age, as they say, after the death of his older brother.

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




Jonathan Demme's
"Ricki and the Flash"
Opens Friday, August 7, 2015

Sony Pictures Entertainment/TriStar Pictures

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

Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Starring: Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep, Sebastian Stan, Rick Springfield, Kevin Kline

With “Ricki and the Flash” director Jonathan Demme and scripter Diablo Cody ask: can a woman who abandons her husband, daughter and two sons during what should have been the best years of their lives regain their love and trust by providing them with one of the most original wedding presents that a mom could give? While this makes the movie sound like a soap or a chick-flick, the film is so well staged and the lead performances so electrifying that “Ricki” should be considered must-see entertainment.

Not that Meryl Streep is capable of less than a riveting show, and here she has the more than capable assistance of her real-live daughter, Mamie Gummer, in an off-the-wall meltdown, and Rick Springfield as lead guitarist in a rock band known as the Flash and which is peopled by folks well past their third decade of life. In fact Streep herself, at the age of sixty-six, does a smashing job portraying a rock singer of about fifty-five, exhibiting the talent with her vocal cords that she demonstrated as the witch in Rob Marshall’s “Into the Woods.”

The film is in the good hands of director Jonathan Demme, familiar to most moviegoers for the gory “Silence of the Lambs” among a host of other winners, and Diablo Cody, creator the TV series “The United States of Tara.”

Meryl Streep stars as Linda aka Ricki, who long ago abandoned her family which includes Pete Brummel, her ex-husband (Kevin Kline); son Joshua (Sebastian Stan), who surprisingly invites his mom to his wedding; Joshua’s brother Adam; and most significantly her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer). Julie’s situation echoes that of her mom in that her own husband had abandoned her, leading her to attempt suicide. When Ricki flies from L.A. to her former family home in Indianapolis with scarcely a dollar to her name (her band plays great rock in the local tavern albeit with compensation leaving Ricki to eke out a living as a cashier in “Total Foods”), Julie goes ballistic, her tantrum against the mom who wasn’t there matching the decibels of the many loud and rhythmic beats of the Flash.

Though ex-husband Pete takes in everything with calm, Ricki must face the pronounced hostility not only of Julie but the silent contempt of her two now-grown sons.

Declan Quinn is behind the lenses, filming mostly in Rye, New York, doing an especially good job of capturing the climactic wedding scene which finds Ricki making it all up to everybody with her surprise gift. The music is great, the performances lively, and all appear to be having a great time, Julie included, even when she shouts her contempt at her mother at the top of her lungs.

Rated PG-13. 101 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 





Brad Peyton’s
“San Andreas”
Opens May 29, 2015

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino, Colton Haynes, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It’s easy to pick on Warner Brothers’ new action-disaster appropriation concoction, “San Andreas.” Sure, it’s predictable and follows a certain paint-by-numbers narrative (and what a shame it doesn’t deviate) but it still provides some fantastic thrills and a rollercoaster ride of destruction and devastation that will keep most audiences glued to the screen and, yes, on the edges of their ADHD seats.

The film borrows quite liberally from a slew of 1970s disaster films like “The Towering Inferno” (the final pull-away shot is almost the same, only magnified), “Earthquake” and, even, “The Poseidon Adventure.”

The one thing it fails at that those films had success with (albeit sometimes haphazard) is provide the audience with a gaggle of different characters they get to know and root for as the mayhem takes hold and the disaster hits. In “San Andreas,” screenwriter Carlton Cuse gives us only a handful of people to care about and no real nuance to their conflicts. In addition, the central family has already lost a young girl so we know that no one will die, which lessens the dramatic tension significantly. (And if you see that as a spoiler, then you’re either ten years old or have the IQ of a ten-year-old).

The visuals, however, are spectacular. The CGI is getting more and more realistic and less and less cheesy with each new blockbuster of this caliber.

For basic plot we’ve got the notorious San Andreas Fault initiating an earthquake of such magnitude that it causes a series of other quakes to rock the west coast, especially San Francisco. Johnson (in the Charlton Heston role) plays a search and rescue helicopter pilot estranged from his smart and beautiful wife (Carla Gugino), who’s about to move in with her new, but possibly-shady boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Johnson and Cugino have a resourceful young daughter (Alexandra Daddario) who is given way too much screen time, I’m guessing, to keep the young boys happy in between scenes of calamity.

Suffice to say things go from bad to really-truly bad in a matter of hours as the tectonic plates decide to shift and place our family in peril. But there is still love and hope for our couple (and if you didn’t see that coming in the first ten minutes, you’re an idiot).

The opening scene, showing an almost-fatality, is a genius comment on the potentially deadly consequences of not paying attention when you’re driving—of course the moron lives. And therein lies one of the basic problems with the film. In order to secure a certain rating, there is little death seen so the stakes are never high enough.

Still, for fans of catastrophe and nail-biting action, there’s a lot to enjoy here like the Hoover dam destruction sequence, the catastrophic quakes destroying the City by the Bay as well as the Tsunami scenes.

And counting the number of deliveries of the line, "Oh My God," proves a delight and quite reminiscent of Leslie Nielson's serious utterance of those same words as the "enormous wall of water" is about to hit the S.S. Poseidon.

1970s film fans can also spot homages to “Superman,” and even “The China Syndrome.”

As far as the performances go, Cugino is the only actor who scratches beyond the cliché surface and engages the audience.

One day, a studio is going to make a gut-wrenchingly real homage to disaster films with a terrific script filled with characters we relate (and don’t need to relate) to, featuring a cast of current and once-current movie stars. And then put them in true peril and unleash the Tsunami or earthquake or fire or flood or meteor or…all of the above, and it’s going to be amazing. For now, fasten your 3-D glasses and hold on: “San Andreas” is about to shake you up!




Brad Peyton’s
“San Andreas”
Opens May 29, 2015

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino, Colton Haynes, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti


Reviewed by Havey Karten

New York may be ground zero, ever-mindful of another attack by our enemies, but at least you can negotiate with the Ayatollahs, can’t you? But you cannot mess with Mother Nature. You might predict what she will do next—tsunami, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, sleet-storm—but you can’t do much to prevent her from having her way. So while an 800-mile stretch of California land is located on the San Andreas Fault, an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter Scale may be possible, but you can’t even retaliate after the devastation. So while sunny California is tempting, I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.

If you want to know just how much devastation an earthquake can drum up, you have Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” a blockbuster with a script (?) by Carlton Cuse from a story by André Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore. Peyton, known mostly for shorts and TV dramas, here knocks out a disaster drama in which a fire fighter named Ray (Dwayne Johnson) gets somewhat more than fifteen minutes of fame by preventing at least one fatality, namely that of his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). When “San Andreas” is not dealing with one shock after another, something like part of our planet’s having a multiple orgasm, he’s wondering if he can win back his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who has just served him with divorce papers and is moving into the quarters of her rich b.f. Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). We learn that they split not because of any conflict in personality but solely because their younger daughter had died in a boating accident. But it looks like thanks to the series of earthquakes in which husband and estranged wife get together in a chopper to find their older daughter, they are likely to rebuild, just as Ray predicts San Francisco will rebuild. (In a concluding scene, an American flag flies down out of nowhere to a crescendo of music in the soundtrack.)

Blake is trapped in an underground garage together with a young and comely British engineer, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) who showed up for a job interview with his precocious kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), who was cast to allow 11-year-olds in the movie audience to relate to someone. So, what’s wrong with this movie? For one thing, the story is predictable. Did you really doubt that the daughter would be found and that a romance would develop between her and her new friend? Or that Ray and Emma would go their separate ways when the disaster is over? Or that Prof. Lawrence Hayes’s (Paul Giamatti) predictions of a number of after-shocks would not take place? Or that Archie Panjabi does not wish she could leave her newscasting role and return to the far better drama on “The Good Wife?”

Even worse is the cornball dialogue. Emma’s favorite expression is “Oh my God!” Is that the most original thing a person can say under the circumstances? Remember that this is a fictitious story, one in which you’re hoping the dialogue would not be of the everyday Facebook/Twitter type.

Worst of all, though, the CG goes overboard in showing the apocalyptic devastation: building collapse and crash into each other, a tsunami washes away the streets (this, by the way, cannot be brought about by an earthquake), and fires break out all over town; yet hardly anyone is killed or injured. But if you’re the sort of person who looks forward to summer blockbusters rather than someone who might enjoy an upcoming revival of “Madame Bovary” or its satirical cousin “Gemma Bovery,” you pays your money and you watch all hell break loose from the perfect safety of your theater seat.

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






Patrick Brice’s
“The Overnight”
Opens Friday, June 19, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015

The word “weird” seems to define how many people categorize “The Overnight,” the new indie brilliantly written and directed by Patrick Brice. I heard three people describe it that way (2 journalists) and have read quite a few reviews that contained that word. Googling the definition it reads, “suggesting something supernatural; uncanny.” So basically people are using “weird,” as a substitute for “odd,” or “out of the ordinary” or just “strange.”

So, why such a strong, unsettling word? Because people here in the U.S. are afraid of anything that doesn’t conform to normalized views of the way sexuality is depicted onscreen—even people who consider themselves evolved and hip!

“The Overnight” is almost revolutionary in it’s depiction of the fluidity of sexual attraction. It’s the “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” (stream it!) of the new generation—much more accepting and truly cool with, well, whatever, when it comes to sex.

It’s also a hilarious comedy and features some stellar performances!

Please be warned, “The Overnight” is not for the sexually squeamish (although they should be forced to watch a la “A Clockwork Orange” --stream that one, too!). At my Tribeca press and industry screening, a young woman walked out in a huff (a serious huff, making a grand, “I’m offended” gesture before actually storming out), and that was before the real shocker moment in the film—which I will do my best not to give away!

The movie opens with a happily married couple, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) smack in the middle of having sex. There’s dirty talk with her instructing him (“Circles, sweetie”) and validating him as he does his best to try and please her. They, then, literally part and climax alone, right before their little boy bursts into the room.

“It smells weird,” the boy announces, using the word better than most critics, since the smell is supernatural and uncanny to him. From there the entire film can be defined as “smelling weird,” if we are to use the word to mean, “bizarre,” “different” and, dare I say, refreshing and outrageously entertaining. But there I go gushing again.

Alex and Emily have recently moved to Seattle and while on a playdate with his kid in the park, Alex meets the VERY weird Kurt (Jason Schwartzman). He’s weird in that supernatural and otherworldly way (among other ways). “I’m sorta the mayor of this area,” Kurt boasts, taking an instant liking to Alex and inviting him and his wife over for pizza night.

When Alex and Emily meet Kurt and his wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche) at their fancy home, things take a turn for the uber-weird as a swinger vibe is almost instantly established. After they put their kids to bed upstairs, we learn quite a bit more about our foursome via a series of revealing, drink and drug-induced, scenes that are intelligently written, deftly directed and fearlessly acted.

“This is California, maybe this is what parties are like.”

I won’t give any more away because the delights come from the surprises—the very weird (not really, if you’ve lived a little) surprises that prove cathartic and redefining for the characters.

All the performances are fantastic. Scott has never been this good and handles potentially ridiculous moments like a pro, playing it real. Schwartzman is alarmingly funny (as he was in “Listen Up Philip”), proving he’s more than just the Wes Anderson’s go-to-guy for, well, weird. Schilling shows us a very complicated person trying to figure out what she wants. And Godreche is deliciously exotic and smarter than she initially lets on.

“The Overnight” is about desire, both sexual and spiritual and it isn’t afraid to go balls-out (or another part of the male anatomy) to probe certain taboo themes, making some fascinating points in the process. It’s rare to see an American film explore sex so brazenly. That will make the film too weird for some and a cinematic tonic for others.

 






Laura Nix and the Yes Men's
"The Yes Men Are Revolting"
Opens Friday, June 12, 2015

Starring: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonano, Benadette Chandia Kodili, Gitz Crazyboy, Tito Ybarra, Mike Mathieu, Leonid Vlassov

The Orchard

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

Just as you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you can brint down your enemies with humor rather than with insults. One recent example is Iran’s cartoon contest, awarding prizes for the best cartoons that make fun of ISIS. (Don’t bother drawing cartoons of the Prophet, though, as the Tehran regime has only a selective sense of humor. But the point remains: the enemy will become more aroused if you laugh at its icons.)

The Yes Men, returning after its 2004 film “The Yes Men” which made fun of the World Trade Organization by impersonating its leaders, and their 2010 movie “The Yes Men Fix the World” in which they set up fake websites pretending to represent big business, now take on the right-wingers who deny the human factor in the current climate. Corporations with interests in oil and coal refuse to believe that people—namely the corporate entities that drill for these minerals—are a principal factor in global warning, a phenomenon that could raise temperatures dramatically and lead to an ever worsening spiral of hurricanes and tsunamis. As the two principals, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, explain, when the sun shines on the polar ice caps, the sun reflect off them, which sends cooling temperatures around the world. But when the polar icecaps are melting down, the sun can no longer accomplish this feat, leading the planet to roast.

But who’s interested? The tricks of Mother Nature seem too abstract and too remote by the world’s population, thereby allowing the politicians to ignore the threat and to concentrate on the felt needs of the people rather than their real needs. The Yes Men are not able to change the world, nor may they accomplish even a little beyond entertaining us in our theater seats, but they try. And they fail more than they succeed.

Of the two, Andy is first among equals, making Mike a necessary soul brother and loyal follower. Andy, who resembles David Letterman more than a young Buddy Hackett is, like his partner, a middle-aged man who is trying to keep his rebellious spirit alive by performing feats that are entertainments for the people in the vicinity but do not go over well with the authorities like the local police and Coast Guard. In taking on big oil like Shell, fat-cat lobbyists like the Chamber of Commerce, the financial powers of Wall Street and the look-the-other-way U.S. government, they open with a demonstration in the water, wearing business suits, accenting the work of some accomplices in blimp suits designed allegedly to protect the users against global disaster.

As funny as this demo is, though, nothing can outmatch Andy’s posing as a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world’s deep-pocket lobby in favor of corporate interests, announcing a carbon tax on polluters and promising to use natural device like solar panels to eliminate the need for oil by 2030. For a short time, news channels believed the hoax, announcing that beyond all prediction, Big Business now joins environmentalists in diminishing the need for drilling. They travel to Uganda to meet Chandia Kodili, accompanying her to a U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen, returning home to capture videos of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The most unbelievable activity of the two partners together with two members of the Indian community in Arizona is to infiltrate a Homeland Security conference, getting staid establishment people to stand up, head to the walls, and dance as they at a wedding doing the Bunny Hop.

One wonders how these two, who are employed by universities, get the time and money to travel around the world. Finances are not discussed in this often hilarious documentary. So far as we can see now, neither the hundreds’ strong Occupy Wall Street movement nor the activities of these two fun guys have resulted in a moratorium on oil drilling, but success or failure aside, these guys have fun and so do we watching them from our comfortable theater seats.

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


 


Tom Shoval’s

"Youth"
In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Opens Friday, August 21, 2015
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014 | Lincoln Center | Museum of Modern Art

The ‘youth’ in Tom Shoval’s fascinating debut feature happen to be two Israeli brothers who will do anything to help their family out in a financial crisis.

The film begins with an awkward Shaul (Eitan Cunio) following a cute girl, Dafna (Gita Amely) as she walks home from high school. At first, we think he may have a crush on her but the look on his face is more agitating. Is he sexually obsessed with her? Not quite. Well, maybe, but there’s no time for that.

Shaul goes home and bear hugs his older brother, Yaki (David Cunio) who is back, briefly, from his stint in the army—rifle glaringly in tow. Their overbearing mom (Shirlii Deshe) and depressed father (Moshe Ivgy) are proudly preparing a going away family meal for the 18-year old, Yaki. But they’ve fallen on hard times and appear to be in dire financial straits.

A bit later, the brothers follow Dafna together and abduct her, shoving her onto a bus and taking her to an empty bomb shelter under the building they live in. The surreal scene on the bus shows just how indifferent people can be to what is going on around them—a harsh yet telling comment on the times we live in.

Shaul and Yaki plan to demand a ransom of exactly $152,000 from Dafna’s father in exchange for his daughter. The problem is it’s the Sabbath and Dafna’s father is not answering the phone. What to do?

As funny and ludicrous as some of this sounds, it actually plays out pretty powerfully, moving back and forth between the warmish home where Yaki’s is lionized (for enlisting in the army) to the brutality of Dafna’s treatment as she struggles to yell and attempts to escape.

Writer/director Shoval does not make the brothers apathetic (which has been done to death), they’re simply driven and believe what they’re doing is the best thing for their family. After all they’re brought up to believe that might wills out. In a society where young boys carry guns the way we used to carry lunchboxes—why would they believe anything else? Their bedroom walls are draped with U.S. action movie posters and when they threaten Dafna, the dialogue sounds like words memorized from a gangster movie.

Youth is most definitely a disturbing comment on the American film influences abroad—specifically violent action films—the kind that International teens have come to worship. Rambo and Scarface are heroes. And apparently Shaul and Yaki’s parents did nothing to discourage them from reveling in these types of films—so much so that they seem to want to recreate that kind of thuggish world.

The film cuts even deeper and subtly condemns parents who teach their children that “without money you’re nothing,” something their dad truly believes. Youth also comments on how unfair the economy is on middle class families (something we can definitely relate to). Shoval is interested in paradox and nuance.

As our protagonists, The Cunio brothers look so much alike so sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, part of what captivates. And they’re not classically handsome by any stretch. But they are mesmerizing and give hauntingly believable, chilling performances.

Youth also boast a sinister and troubling yet appropriate ending.




Brad Bird's
"Tomorrowland"
Opens Friday, May 22, 2015


Screenwriter: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeff Jensen

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Thomas Robinson

Walt Disney Pictures

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

How can kids be optimistic about the future when so many movies that they see and books that they read are full of gloom and doom? Think of the classic novels: In “1984” big brother takes over as he does in “Fahrenheit 451.” At least there are ways to escape from the clutches of an overeager Homeland Security, the most spiritual departure being the colony of young bibliophiles in “Fahrenheit 451” who memorize books. But the future looks terrible in “Logan’s Run,” where people over 30 evaporate. Colliding worlds, huge monsters, British children raised to have their limbs harvested, an invasion by pod people, and a fascist future where feeling is illegal—all these dire works of cinema and literature make the next decade or millennia look almost as bad as the twentieth century.

Leave to Disney, however, to counteract visions of dystopia. In “Tomorrowland” we get the not-entirely-original message that the young are the future of the world, but not all young—only those who are prodigies, who are extra smart, who are able to do verbal battle with equally smart adults and come out victorious. And these use not only their brains, but destroy robots by swinging bats and turning off their transmitters. With all this spirituality, nothing is left to the imagination. Perhaps “Tomorrowland” would do better on the printed page, where the readers design their own productions—and in fact one of the signs that pass by quickly in this movie, “Imagination if more important than knowledge,” is belied by the way director Brad Bird shows us every detail he wants us to see, actually bombarding the screen with robotic nuts and lightning bolts, and jet packs that whiz inventive youth into the sky or leave them floundering to bounce on the ground like a pebble skimming that surface of a lake.

The idea that in a world facing war on every continent, climate changes that race nuclear weapons for which will destroy us first, it’s not too late. But adults will not be there for us. It’s all up to the youth.

And the youth in scripters Damon Lindelof and director Brad Bird are Casey (Brittany Robertson), a bright woman in her early twenties who lives with her engineer dad; Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a freckle-faced robot who appears in the 1964 World’s Fair and in the present year without aging; and young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), who bonds with Athena and at the age of ten or so has invented a jet pack which would be great if it worked. By contract, the principal adult, Frank (George Clooney) is a burnt-out scientist who has isolated himself in a farmhouse (the picture was shot mostly in British Columbia); and a judge, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), appropriately named as he nixes young Frank Walker’s jet pack in a World’s Fair competition as did Frank’s own father.

When Casey, who lives in Cape Canaveral, receives a mysterious pin with the letter “T,” she touches it and is transported instantly to a large wheat field, a move that strikes her as awesome. In one great shot, she is riding a monorail, touches the “T” and continues her ride with nothing under her through the wheat field. When Athena, the aforementioned robot, talks Casey into visiting Frank, the movie turns thematically into a debate between a cynic who sees only impending doom and an optimist who envisions a bright future.

There is no question that considerable money was spent in the awe-inspiring production design, featuring good and bad robots (the latter equipped with large weapon that can zap anything its beams touch). And in her breakout performance, Britt Robertson—whom sci-fi fans watched on TV in a Stephen King adaptation of “Under the Dome” until she gets killed off—convincingly runs through the gamut of emotions from disgust to confusion to delirious optimism. But special effects aside—they’re incredible but actually take away from the spirituality of the movie—the story is clumsily told, the message obvious and clichéd, all full of sound and fury signifying little.

Rated PG. 130 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



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Jonathan M. Goldstein, Tracy J. Brown and John Francis Daley's
"Vacation"

Opens Friday, July 29, 2015



Screenwriter:  Jonathan M. Goldstein, Tracy J. Brown, John Francis Daley

Starring:   Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Leslie Mann, Keegan Michael Key

Warner Bros./New Line Cinema

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



When John Steinbeck wrote "Travels with Charley in Search of America," he was not with his family but only with his dog Charley.  The two traveled across our fair land in their trailer, named Rocinante.  Steinbeck hoped that, using his dog to encourage strangers to chat, he would find the soul of America and by the time his trip ended, he was mighty pleased.  He may not have liked “progress” such as strip malls that have been ruining our roads for a half century or more, or the witches Sabbath he witnessed in New Orleans.  But if he saw Jonathan Goldstein, Tracy J. Brown and John Francis Daley’s “Vacation,” he might be tempted to give up on our country, but only to a point.  Traveling with Russell Griswold (Ed Helms), Russell’s wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), their sons James and Kevin (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins), Steinbeck would have witnessed scenes that would have a movie audience roaring with laughter but would cause great dismay in the mind of one of America’s favorite novelists.

This is because though "Vacation" has a sentimental (but not too sticky) conclusion, one that says that there is no substitute for family, the movie is filled with broad laughs from beginning to end with scarcely a dud in the package.  “Vacation,” a sequel, if you will, to a series that includes “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (voted the 46th greatest comedy film of all time by Total Film magazine in 2000), features Ed Helms in the leading role of a pilot on a low-rent airline shuttling people from South Bend, Indiana to Chicago in eighteen minutes.  The laughs are crackling from the opening, which finds Russell Griswold chatting with his co-pilot, the latter a doddering old fella who keeps repeating the same words and who, when Russ is taking a bathroom break, takes the plane up to 60,000 feet when it should be readying a landing.

John Steinbeck would not have been likely to witness a small child, Kevin Griswold using the “F” word repeatedly in front of his parents and older brother James, nor would he likely find a woman like Debbie, who looks innocent enough, but who is her own person and who takes a break from the long travels to visit her alma mater, replaying some sorority party stunts that prompted to her recall of sleeping with thirty guys during her days as a student.

Steinbeck would be amazed as well to see people puking, pooping and peeing; in fact in his day Hollywood barely allowed a man and a woman to lie in bed unless each had at least one leg on the floor.  And the great author would turn away rather than watch the family of four jump into a natural steaming body of water, having ignored a sign that warns people to avoid jumping in because of raw sewage.  (The clueless family massaged the feces into their faces thinking that it was a health-giving mud preparation.)

Rather than describe any more of the seemingly countless sketches, each funnier than the previous one, give yourself a vacation from your daily worries by taking in this delightful comedy, which also features Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and a number of cameos by actors like Michael Peña.

Rated R.  99 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

 


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