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Abhishek Kapoor
Opens Friday, February 12, 2016

Written by: Abhishek Kapoor based loosely on “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

Starring: Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Aditi Rao Hydari, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Rahul Bhat, Akshay Oberoi, Delbar Arya

UTV Motion Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool, d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

It can’t be much of a coincidence that “Fitoor” opens during the weekend of Valentine’s Day. This is an epic love story featuring not only the tensions involved in a romantic triangle but also the importance of the prospective bride’s mother who, toward the conclusion of the story acts like the eternally-feared mother-in-law to the hassled man. Since the plot is loosely based on Charles Dickens’s twelfth novel, “Great Expectations,” the story is more complex than one you would expect to find on TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame, but the lush photography is stunning and could put “Fitoor” on the short list for cinematography awards for movies opening in 2016. The pic is sure to be a box office hit when it opens February 12 all over India, though its future in the U.S. could depend on attracting the millennials, folks in their twenties and early thirties, who surely have an appetite for romances but might hesitate to see a film in Hindi albeit with good English subtitles.

Writer-director Abhishek Kapoor, whose 2008 film “Rock On!!” features four friends who relive their glory as a rock band, gets quite a bit deeper this time, inspired by Dickens but in no way slavishly copying the master’s twelfth novel. “Fitoor,” which is Hindi for “Twisted” focuses on themes of social class and love unrequited, though with flashbacks the plot can sometimes confuse, but there’s no denying Anay Goswami’s lensing in Srinagar, Delhi, London, Mumbai and Warsaw. This is an expensive production suitable for its epic scope, its commentary on dreams dashed contrasted with a feel-good ending.

Opening with a close resemblance to Dickens, a young lad known then as Mufti (Akshay Oberoi) is confronted at a gravesite by an escaped convict who threatens to tear him apart unless he bring back food, water, and coat and a place to spend the night. Given a job by Begum Hazrat (Tabu), a heartbroken albeit rich woman who had been jilted by her lover, Noor falls in love at first sight with young Firdaus (Tunisha Sharma) who approaches in slow motion on a white horse as though ready to take off to the heavens like Pegasus. Years pass. Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur), trained as a blacksmith, delves into art, his designs eventually fetching big money, while his heart remains with Firdaus (Katrina Kaif), now a poised, sophisticated woman who flirts interminably with Firdaus as she did during her youth but despite her encouragement of the young man, he is destined to have a broken heart. Firdaus arranges to marry Bilal (Rahul Bhat), a member of the Pakistani cabinet, whom she does not love but, like her mother, is determined to be materially taken care of notwithstanding one of this story’s principal themes that happiness comes through love, not money.

Director Kapoor seems determined to have his audience drooling at the interminable flirtations, wishing Firdaus to cut the coquettishness and walk into the sunset with Noor, and not the Pakistani bigshot who has no problem suggesting that she is to be his property after marriage. “Fitoor” has a plot not always easy to follow, providing mother Begum with the juiciest opportunity to perform like the sad but rich mom who wants the best for her Firdaus but at the same time secretly wishes that Noor suffer the heartbreak that has damaged her own life.

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

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's
"Hail, Caesar!"
Opens Friday, February 5, 2016

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand

Universal Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for CompuServe ShowBiz d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Irving Berlin’s song “There’s no business like show business” may have been written for the stage, but it sure as hell0 applies as well to movies. Consider this: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who works as a movie studio “fixer” in the 1950s, receives a lucrative offer from an aviation company, one that would give him a ten-year contract with a job that’s less stressful than that of a fixer. Should he take it? You would, wouldn’t you? But showbiz is in Eddie’s DNA, and although he goes to confession every few hours, feeling guilty even just for lying to his wife about his smoking, he gives serious thought to chucking what will probably be the best money deal he will ever receive.

A fixer in the movie business is an executive who keeps his actors in line, making sure that the gossip columnists and, for that matter, the law, do not infringe on the studio’s reputation. If this sounds like an easy job, just watch what Eddie Mannix goes through in a single day. He’s under a great deal of pressure, given what’s been going on within just twenty-four hours, but you in the movie audience will not be. Instead you’ll probably enjoy the laughs, the sorrows, the hijinks as only the Coen Brothers could evoke, as Joel and Ethan Coen, well known for such diverse and sophisticated films as “Inside Llewyn Davis” (a week in the life of a Greenwich Village folk singer in 1961), “No Country for Old Men” (violence ensues when a hunter discovers money from a drug deal gone wrong), and “The Hudsucker Proxy” (a naïve business school grad gets the job of company president in a scam stock deal), develop a series of scenes run by a large studio.

(To clarify what a fixer does, look to developments in the career of Rock Hudson, best known perhaps as Elizabeth Taylor’s handsome lover in the movie “Giant.” While his career developed, Hudson’s agent Henry Willson, acting as a fixer, kept the actor's personal life out of the headlines. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an exposé about Hudson's secret homosexual life. Willson stalled this by disclosing information about two of his other clients.)

Eddie Mannix is helping several productions especially one entitled “Hail, Caesar!” starring famous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). When Whitlock is kidnapped by a group named “The Future,” Mannix has the job of collecting $100,000 ransom to rescue him from a band of Communists and to keep the news from gossip columnists, principally Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). That’s not all by a long shot: when on another project, an innocent starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and unmarried (this is the 1950’s, remember), Mannix has to keep the press off the scent.

Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen Brothers find this central role of fixer the unifying element to release a number of scenes of various films on which the studio is working, giving us in the audience an inkling of what a major film group does. The most exciting scene introduces Channing Tatum as an thoroughly accomplished singer and dancer with a band of fellow sailors striking a show-stopping musical interlude that could have come out of “South Pacific.” Tatum in the role of Burt Gurney and his Navy pals dance both solo and with one another, regretting that they will spend too much time at sea without seeing “dames.”

In another scene that evokes the spirit of last year’s fantastic political film “Trumbo,” the Coens satirize the frenzy caused by fear of Communism in the 1950s. Would-be revolutionaries including plotters played by Fred Melamed, David Krumholtz, Patrick Fischler and Fisher Stevens groan about their exploitation, noting that script writing, in their opinion, is the principal engine of successful movies but the writers barely get noticed or paid. Led by Burt Gurney’s Channing Tatum, they seize the $100,000 ransom and row out to sea to meet a huge Soviet submarine, employing Gurney to deliver the loot to the Comintern. Tatum is so charismatic that even his pet terrier refuses to go back with the writers but instead jumps about the sub to be in Tatum’s arms.

This is an expensive movie, one which includes an Esther Williams-style scene such as you’d find in the 1945 film “The Ziegfeld Follies,” and most significant, a kaleidoscope of vistas featuring Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a fellow who is excellent in Westerns but is so unable to act credibly in a comedy of manners that even his accomplished director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) cannot get him correctly to say “Would that ‘twere true.”

“Hail, Caesar!” bookended by a pair of scenes in the days of ancient Rome ending during the crucifixion of Christ (in a spoof of large, Biblically-inspired pics), makes sport of George Clooney’s performance as a Roman soldier whose kidnapping by the Communists puts stress on the fixer. While some other scenes fall flat, on the whole, the picture is a grand satire making good use of some top actors with enough variety to please both those who want simple entertainment on a grand scale and others who favor real wit in dialogue.

Rated PG-13. 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Xavier Giannoli's
Opens March 11, 2016

Written by:  Xavier Giannoli, Marcia Romano

Starring: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophie Leboutte, Theo Cholbi

Cohen Media Group

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool, data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

I’ll bet you like to sing in the shower?  Why?  Because you sound terrific.  You have fallen in love with your own voice.  That’s because singers don’t really hear their own voices as others hear them.  Nowadays it’s easy to record yourself, and a quick chorus in front of a Sony ICDPX333 voice recorder would quickly set you straight.  Don’t give up your day job.  But in 1921, while recorders did exist, they were not used too frequently, nor would the family and servants of a woman as rich as The Donald want to spill the news, to tell the truth.  The woman of the house, a baroness named Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), lives for opera and her husband, Georges Dumont (André Marcon), thinks that if she knew the truth, that would kill her.  Marguerite married Georges not for himself but for his title, that of baron.  Georges married Marguerite for her money. The servants all know that they have good jobs, particularly Marguerite’s butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) and they also know that their lady’s voice makes them wear earplugs—literally, as the butler passes them out whenever the title character sings.  Nobody lets on.

Xavier Giannoli, who directs and co-wrote “Marguerite,” is well qualified having directed “The Singer,” known by the French title as "Quand j’étais chanteur," which deals with one Alain Moreau, the idol of a female audience, who is aware that with his advancing years the audience and his voice are diminishing.  Marguerite will eventually face a similar dilemma.  The story is loosely inspired by the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone.  Stephen Frears’ biopic about Jenkins is in the works now, starring Meryl Streep, but one wonders whether Hollywood will kill the quality of this magnificent French offering.  The music, which includes works by Handel and Mozart, is probably the best you’ll hear this year, well treated by the high fidelity systems of the multiplex.  One of the singers, played by Christa Theret who appears in a duet for charity at the Dumont mansion, is terrific, but her spell disappears as soon as Marguerite sings her favorite aria, Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” from “The Magic Flute,” failing to hit the high notes and for that matter the other notes as well.  The audience hold back their laughter since, after all, the concert is for a good cause. 

Much is made about Marguerite’s major motivation, which is to gain the pride and affection of her husband, but Georges, while supporting the farce along with his wife’s sycophant friends, is so unable to lie to her that he deliberately stalls his own car on the way back to the house to avoid the humiliation of hearing his wife’s singing.  Keeping the joke running, a fun-loving journalist, Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), writes a rave review in his newspaper, harboring a plan to become part of Marguerite’s inner circle, while the butler regularly cuts out and destroys all the honest reviews.

What makes this movie soar is its ability to make us in the audience not simply laugh at Marguerite but to feel pathos for her as well.  Even Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), a has-been operatic star who sings a chorus from “Pagliacci” in the film and serves as Marguerite’s teacher, feels bad about the woman but is blackmailed into the role of training the voice of a woman who is simply hopeless.

The movie, which won eleven César Award Nominations was filmed in the Czech Republic, costumes coming from the Barrandov Studio in Prague's ‘burbs (see my article about the Barrandov in the Film Journal at  “Marguerite” serves us well when we consider the epilogue, which brings everything to a climactic finale, when we in the audience must guess and discuss with one another whether the revealed truth allows her to get on with her life more realistically or destroys her. Bravo! 

Unrated.  127 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Chris Bell's
"Prescription Thugs"
Opens Friday, January 22, 2016

Written by: Josh Alexander

Starring: Chris Bell, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, Mark Bell, Rosemary Bell, Mike Bell, Chris Leben, Ryan Sakoda, Matt “Horshu” Wiese, Richard Taite, Ted Lieu, Gwen Olsen, David Healy

Samuel Goldwyn Films

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

Chris Bell, whose previous documentary “Bigger Stronger Faster” dealt with steroid abuse, takes on Big Phama, a conglomerate of companies that make prescription drugs and whose executives could well be in that frequently maligned richest one percent of the U.S. Mr. Bell is no Michael Moore, though in his possible addiction to food (he is overweight as is his dad), resembles my favorite documentarian only in his, shall we say, informal appearance. Baseball hat backwards and comfortable throughout the presentation in a pair of shorts, he takes his camera to his own family, one which has its share of tragedy. Unlike Michael Moore, “Prescription Thugs” makes little use of graphics and simply lacks the loopy humor of movies like Moore’s “Sicko” and Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film “Super Size Me.”

The Bell family had been thriving on sports, though wholesome would not ordinarily be ascribed to such fakery as we find in professional wrestling. Despite some of the ersatz blows that exhibitionists in the wrestling ring use, the hard-hitting sport did result in pain to the Bell trio leading them to turn to prescription drugs. Why so? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that only the U.S and New Zealand allow commercials for prescription drugs—though many of the TV spots would make you think twice before taking a pill that could lead to impotence, obesity, pruritis and death. As Bell begins his muckraking with the fact that America has only five percent of the world’s population yet consume seventy-five percent of Rx’s, he segues into commentary by the likes of fellow wrestler Ryan Sakoda and especially to the confession by Matt “Horshu” Wiese that he had incredibly been using ninety pills daily.

While labels tell us not to share our prescriptions, in one of who-knows-how-many cases, a Minnesota woman found herself stealing some of her daughter’s Adderall capsules, a drug that has become one of the most popular fixes for ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whose side effects appear on the Internet including bladder pain, painful urination, and some eight other baddies that make you wonder whether doctors, many of whom make too liberal use of their pads, tell their patients about the negatives.

Speaking of baddies, Bell shares no political camaraderie with former President Ronald Reagan, whose deregulation of just about everything in the corporate world made his wife’s famous quote “Just say no” almost impossible to win adherents. The American people, and not just those who resist buying the Brooklyn Bridge, have been TV-brainwashed to think that pills or every sort could cure pain and make their love lives ecstatic and give them all sorts of pleasant feelings, and why not? Haven’t the commercials told us that there is no such thing as sadness in America? Yet we come away from the TV with the feeling that we’re sometimes sad, and that when we feel sad we should pop pills and smile like all other Americans.

Bell is no pal of doctors and the FDA. The Federal Drug Administration, which I had previously considered a huge stumbling block for approval of new drugs, clears any product that has achieved two successful tests. Never mind that oxycodone is meant for overwhelming pain: people had been crushing the tablet and snorting the drug for a quick high to such an extent that when the government banned oxy pills that could be crushed, income from the drug plummeted eighty percent.

It’s sometimes difficult to avoid being distracted from Bell’s speech as it is littered with “you know” as though he’s trying to compete with some of Caroline Kennedy’s speeches. Is there a drug that could restrain this awful speech throat-clearer?

While Chris Bell’s heart is in the right place, the doc could have been better, I think, if it did not spend so much time on his own family but instead dealt with a less anecdotal coverage of the problem of legalized addiction, had a lot more graphics, and injected humor in the right places.

Unrated. 86 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jia Zhangke's
"Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren)"
Opens Friday, February 12, 2016

Written by: Jia Zhangke

Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang, Han Sanming

Kino Lorber

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Let your imagination soar, however disastrous this may lead. Consider that Donald Trump is elected President on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” What would our country look like after eight years? Here is a strong possibility. Instead of one percent of Americans controlling thirty-three percent of its wealth, you now have one twentieth of one percent of Americans controlling fifty percent of the wealth. But America is great again, in Trump’s view. There are high-speed trains, new ways of extracting oil from the land, internet connections go up to 10,000 megs per second. But there’s a price. The ultra-capitalists, greedy for ever more money, fire the railroad workers and automate the high-speed trains, petrol prices soar as oligopolistic non-competition sets the price, computers and tech help workers are situated exclusively in Bangladesh as India has become too expensive for our rich to afford. Is this a net gain for America? Some would think so. Others not.

Now consider what actually has been happening in China, formerly a genuinely Communist state with reasonable equality of income and secure jobs, health care taken care of by the government, older people retired in some comfort spending days in public baths chatting merrily. Within an astonishingly short period time, China has topped Japan as a manufacturing center, a small segment of the Chinese public becomes rich, workers are fired, there is no government subsidized health care, and Shanghai has become what some describe as the most money-grabbing, wealth-seeking city on the planet.

What happens to the people? The rich become deracinated, their children going to international schools and studying English to such an extent that they forget their own language and are unable to communicate with their parents. They move out to the most developed centers of the world such as Australia, Canada and the U.S., Westernizing their first names, and China become an alienated society under the heel of rampant Capitalism.

This is the sort of world that writer-director Jia Zhangke describes, but “Mountains May Depart” is no bare political tract. It is rather a subtle picture that concentrates on human relationships baring the full range of emotions including at least the temporary thrill of making it rich (nope, money winds up not buying happiness after all), accompanied by a dramatic increase in parent-child schisms. We watch the principal character, Tao (Zhao Tao), change from a pretty, happy-go-lucky woman who demonstrates her exuberance as the film opens with some discotheque-style dancing to the sounds of the British synch-pop duo known as the Pet Shop Boys, with a bookended conclusion focusing on Tao, a sadder and wiser person who cherishes those memories.

“Mountains May Depart,” which gets its title from the director’s view that “Mountains may depart, relationships may endure,” follows Jia Zhangke’s 2013 work “A Touch of Sin,” in which four stories involving random violence serve as a warning against a tsunami of Capitalism. The story is told in three parts embracing the years 1999, 2014 and 2025, with aspect ratio changing from the Academy ratio of 1:33 to widescreen but shrinking depth of field cinematically to convey the feeling that the society is becoming shallow. The first part, which I consider the best, features the eternal triangle, with Tao pursued by two men, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). Though Zhang should feel confident of winning Tao since he is gaining wealth through ownership of a gas station and later buys out a coal mine, he feels threatened by Liangzi, a coal miner, who is not only poor but lacks an articulateness to win the lucky woman. She marries Zhang despite her repulsion at his bragging about his wealth (Trump again!), has a son whom the father names Dollar (Don Zijian who appears at age nineteen), divorces, and allows the dad to take custody given her belief that the boy can have a better life with him.

This is not to be. In the final scene, which takes place in Australia, the teenager, having been schooled as a preppie, wholly forgets his native language in favor of English, and will inevitably break with his father while at the same time unable to communicate with his now despairing and lonely mother.

“Mountains May Depart” lacks the outright physical violence of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” but does a better job of conveying the dangers of rampant Capitalism, which seeks to destroy the traditional culture of the country and lead to misery among an alienated people. Yes, the love of money is the root of all evil in the writer-director’s view, and “Mountains May Depart” proves an accessible and emotionally draining commentary on current Chinese politics.

Unrated. 131 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's
"Whitkey Tango Foxtrot"
Opens March 4, 2016

Written by: Robert Carlock from Kim Barker’s book, “The Taliban Shuffle”

Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Christopher Abbot, Martin Freeman, Nicholas Braun, Sterling K. Brown, Josh Charles, Alfred Molina

Paramount Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool, d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

We’ve all had the experience of being fish out of water, being uncomfortable in a place that’s alien to our culture or upbringing.  Think of a four-times-a-week patron of burgers and fries at Mickey D’s suddenly asked by his employer to entertain a client at a French restaurant in New York where the waiters look down their noses since the poor employee knows no French and wonders what to do when the sommelier pours him a thimble of wine and waits for a response.  Or how about a guy who writes for the sports section of the New York Times and is asked to be imitate the most intelligent of writers and to review films instead of football.  It gets worse.  Think of a woman who works in a claustrophobic cubicle for the Chicago Tribune trying to work up enthusiasm for the dangers of high fructose corn syrup who is suddenly offered the chance to go to Afghanistan near the middle of war and to be on special guard only partly for the whims of the Taliban but mostly for the macho journalists and Marines who outnumber her about fifty to one.  But having been told that the glass ceiling on women may be coming down, she does not want to cower and go back to her office space, so off she goes to downtown Kabul, leaving her boyfriend (Josh Charles), thinking that she will be on assignment for just three months and back to the drudgery of Chicago.

This actually took place.  One Kim Barker, who wrote a 400-page book in 2011 called “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” stayed for years longer than she expected to.  The movie version, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, heretofore known for writing the script for “I Love You Philip Morris” (a cop turns con man) and “Bad Santa” (con man and partner pose as Santa to rob a department store), make a few changes to avoid the appearance of a simple biopic.  Kim Barker becomes Kim Baker (Tina Fey) and the Chicago Tribune becomes a New York TV network.

From the time she takes off for Kabul until she leaves at the end of some three years, she faces battles scenes (which she expects) and romance (she’s told that she may be a 4 back home but in a man’s world she’s a 10, and when she returns to New York she is once a 4).  A rough flight, plane bouncing around like Xavier Grobet’s shaky hand-held camera, leads her to a party that makes Animal House look like the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards.  Her fellow journalists, certainly not weary as they might have been with a nine to five job in the States, party like there’s no tomorrow, and you can’t blame them.  She is warned by Col. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) to forget about sex, though the one other woman in the press corps, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), asks whether Kim’s security people, especially hunky Kiwi Nic (Stephen Peacocke), are available for a cuddle or two.

Wondering whether there is a shower in the dingy digs and realizing that even peeing will not be as easy as it is in New York despite the big city’s lack of public johns, Kim, who at first thinks she doesn’t have what it takes to last for the three-months’ assignment, winds up spending three years—and all because on a Skype call to her NY boyfriends she discovers that he has another friend with benefits back home.

Col. Hollanke’s order notwithstanding, she winds up bedding Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman) despite having warned him that his quaint accent will not get him far, but what’s a Hollywood movie without heat?  Wondering how she ever got into the Afghan scene, she learns a lot from her translator (Christopher Abbot), whose job lands him $125 a day; she is almost killed when she approaches an all-male meeting though outfitted with a colorful burka; she has more than a single interview with the country’s hirsute attorney-general (Alfred Molina), who conveniently shows her the bed behind the curtain in his office and for a price will let her know where her Scottish pal is being holed up by kidnappers.

Tina Fey is a remarkable comedian known particularly for her authentic impression of Sarah Palin and for her sketches on Saturday Night Live.  Here she seems a fish out of water for considerably more time than the first week or so, not especially suited for the more serious role she plays.  However we hear that the Kim Barker, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, considers Ms. Fey a spot-on alter ego.  If you’re hoping for something surreal like the never-predictable “Dr. Strangelove,” you won’t find it here.  The movie should have been darker, more satiric, less superficial and not jumping from one scene to the next without a chance for exploration.  The laughs are few, the situations never beginning to match up to those found in “Mash,” where the staff of a Korean War hospital use humor and hijinks to survive the insanity of war.  At best, the New Mexico Department of Tourism could use some of the exquisite shots of its stark desert and rocky cliffs to attract visitors.  The title is euphemistic for WTF.

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
















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