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Denis Villeneuve
"Arrival"
Opens November 11, 2016



Written by: Eric Heisserer based on Ted Chiang’s short fiction “Story of Your Life”

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Paramount Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool

The key point of this movie is a question that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) asks of her husband, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) near its conclusion.  “If you knew the future, is there anything you would do to change?”  (For example, if your boyfriend proposed to you and you knew that you would be divorced in ten years and that nothing could change this fate, what would you answer?)  But here’s a warning.  What comes at the end of “Arrival” is actually the question she asked after some fourteen years.  And the lecture with which Dr. Banks opens the movie while students are distracted by the arrival of alien spaceships occurs over fourteen years ago.  In directing the movie, Denis Villeneuve, who will be at the helm of “Blade Runner 2049” next year, plays with the circularity of time. So when Dr. Banks phones the president of China to ask him to call off a planned war, how did she know his cell number?  The answer: she is to meet him at an elegant reception weeks, months or years later at which time he would give Banks his number.  She knew this because she can see the future, as can other characters in the long tradition of sci-fi.  But Villeneuve puts his distinct stamp on his adaption of Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” which won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella and also the 1999 Sturgeon Award. (Sci fi fans will be acquainted with these prestigious groups.)

“Arrival” is no “Godzilla,” no “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” no “War of the Worlds.” There is just a single episode of explosive action, which would be good news for some cineastes but not so great for those who love lots and lots of physical violence on the screen.  The short book by Chiang is intellectual, exploring themes like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the language that the people of a country speak has an influence on their culture) and Fermat’s principle of least time, which we’ll leave to the theoretical physicists.  The themes are determinism and language, meaning that overall, Villeneuve, Chiang, and scripter Eric Heisserer deal with the role of fate vs. free will.  This will sounds scary, maybe, but it’s all cleared up in the film.

As Louise Banks, Amy Adams anchors the plot as a professor of linguistics.  Near the opening she is lecturing a class on why Portuguese is not a Romance language when she learns of the arrival of alien spaceships that have landed in several global locations.  She is called out to Montana by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) because the U.S., as well as the rest of the nations that received the landings, need to communicate.  Should the world be on a war footing?  Are the aliens friendly?  Much depends on Dr. Banks’s chat with two of these folks from a ship that is 1,500 feet high, needed to house the passengers who are some twenty feet tall themselves.  With their octopus-like tentacles the heptapods speak, but what comes across is a loud whine.  So Banks depends on their writing, which looks like circular inkblots.  She somehow figures out that their written language does not have a logical syntax, but when she makes out the word “weapon,” the army is on alert.  What does “weapon” mean?  Banks has the assistance of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), which signals to the audience that we may be in for a romantic interlude.

Amy Adams, a busy actress who will play a key role in revenge drama “Nocturnal Animals” to be released November 18, conducts herself with appropriate restraint, regularly cooling the heels of countries around the world who are ready to blast the oval spaceships but who allow her considerable time to parse the visual, hieroglyphics-like language of the visitors.  She benefits from Louis Morin’s visuals effects to create a Spielbergen sense of wonder.  But patience is required.  Banks meets too many times with the visitors, each time learning just small degrees of knowledge, but eventually proves to use her knowledge in acquiring a wisdom that she shares with the world.

Filming took place in Quebec, which is the director's home province. Ted Chiang’s collection that includes “Story of Your Life” is available at Amazon for under $10.

Unrated.  116 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 


Sharon Maguire's
"Bridget Jone's Baby"
Opens September 16, 2016

Written by: Emma Thompson, Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, based on characters created by Helen Fielding

Starring: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Shirley Henderson, Jim Broadbent

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool


If you’re not the target aud for “Bridget Jones’s Baby” you may be sorely disappointed by a film that caters to people who might be curious about the paternity of the title character.  However there is a possibility that you could go for some of the dialogue in which, despite the movie’s not being a Judd Apatow medium features a large number of the f-bomb, including its use once by a kid of about ten or eleven.  Generally, the film looks like a throwback to what used to be called “risqué,” and that was back in the 1950’s.

“Bridget Jones’s Baby” is a sequel to “Bridget Jones’s Diary” released in 2001 based on Helen Fielding’ novel about a post-feminist, thirty-something British woman who likes her alcohol, her tobacco, and seems not to mind an inability to deal with her weight.  When Bridget, played by Renée Zellweger then and now, has a job in publishing, and when she visits her parents on Christmas, they try to set her up with Mark (Colin Firth).  She falls for her boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant), who is not a one-woman man. Nevertheless she and Mark, both wanting her, fight for her hand.  In that picture’s sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” Bridget settles in with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) until Daniel (Hugh Grant) returns again, both fighting for her.

At the opening of “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is a single woman, hitting the bottle and dancing in her red flannel pajamas to “Jump Around.”  She and Jack (Patrick Dempsey) meet cute when she falls into mud and is lifted out by Jack.  One thing leads to another and Bridget is made pregnant, presumably by a handsome, rich American.  When a newly-divorcing Daniel comes back into her life, intimately, the big question is: who is the father?  Bridget’s doctor (Emma Thompson) lets all know that a male is growing within her but the question of paternity is resolved only later.  Can you stand the tension?

Stale one-liners abound, particularly when Bridget is on the job as a TV producer, giving all the dialogue to the interviewer, which results in embarrassing conversations. All of this makes us wonder why she is not fired on the spot.  A side show involving Bridget’s mother’s political campaign (Gemma Jones) is perfunctory.

Not my cuppa. Filmed in Dublin, London and Oxfordshire.

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






Paul Verhoeven
"Elle"
Opens November 10, 2016


Written by: David Birke from Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…”

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool


There’s a reason that stories with revenge themes are so popular no matter how many times they’re repeated on the page and on the screen.  We all harbor memories of people we would like to hurt because they hurt us--today, last year, a few decades ago.  When we see a hero getting violent revenge on the bad guys, we cheer, perhaps more readily than we would for any other action.  In Tom Ford’s new movie “Nocturnal Animals,” a detective and the husband of a wife and child who were kidnapped, raped and killed get back at the thugs who perpetrated the senseless act.  But “Nocturnal Animals” is strictly the American style of revenge drama, the kind we’d expect from Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino.  There is a fairly straight line from crime to retribution.  But Paul Vehoeven’s “Elle” finds a different style in reenacting the tale of a woman who seeks justice when she is beaten and raped by a man in a balaclava.  There are clear indications that she is far from one hundred percent committed to dealing with the attacker violently because some part of her is not completely repelled by the action.

“Elle,” which is French for “Her,” justifies its title because Verhoeven’s movie is all about Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert). Not only does she appear in almost every scene: her entire world revolves around her, as she is the owner of an operation that creates video games with themes of medieval violence. She is tough on the some two dozen young people who work for her, leading many to hate her. Therein lies the potential motive for the attacks against her.  She is an amoral woman whose father killed twenty-seven people some thirty years back and is serving a life term.  After many years his daughter is to visit him in prison when he is seventy-five years ago to “spit in his eye.”  Her mother treats herself to Botox and hires a stud when desired. Michèle sleeps with another woman and with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of a woman she works with, and masturbates a man while both are standing, leaving a wastebasket on the floor as though this were simply a banal, everyday habit.

At least one of the workers in her video business produces an obscene animation of Michèle in the clutches of an octopus-like monster whose tentacles invade every orifice.  Though she offers one worker a considerable sum to locate the perp, she seems emotionally neutral about the whole affair. An intellectual and emotional wreck who nonetheless runs a successful outfit, she is sort of person who would not react to stimuli the way you might expect, that is, if you’re an American and thinking that this French movie would proceed along a Hollywood projector.

Somehow director Paul Verhoeven has been in suspended animation for ten years, which is a shame.  His film “Black Book” is arguably his best, about a Jewish singer who invades the office of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Holland.  Still, his best-known picture, “Showbiz,”—about a showgirl who seeks to rise to the top in Las Vegas--is considered by some one of the worst pictures ever, while others consider this an ingenious use of camp.  With the current film, the 78-year-old Dutch director lucks out by engaging Huppert considered by some to be the world’s best actress. 

“Elle,” then, is too sophisticated for typical American revenge lovers, though for that matter most Americans would probably shun anything foreign with English subtitles.  Though presumably about retribution, “Elle” is more a piercing look at an upper-middle-class Parisian society, particularly with its sexual proclivities, which would satisfy any audience willing to put in the 130 minutes of mostly talk with abrupt moments of physical violence.

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


 

Mel Gibson's
"Hacksaw Ridge"
Opens Friday, November 4, 2016

Written by: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

Summit Entertainment (A Lionsgate company)

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten,  New York Cool


Of all the hideous quotes from Donald Trump during the overlong campaign for the presidency, his statement about Senator McCain is arguably the vilest.  “He’s not a war hero,” said Trump in July of 2015. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump, who avoided the military draft because of a “heel spur” and did nothing in his life that could compare to McCain’s heroism, shows no understanding of the horrors of war.  McCain spent five years in a cage in Vietnam, refusing to be freed until all his buddies were likewise liberated.  If you want proof that war is hell, think of McCain’s brutal imprisonment.

Now, “Hacksaw Ridge” is not about the Vietnam War, and no senator or prisoner of war is cited.  But the Japanese island of Okinawa in May 1945 as directed in that film by Mel Gibson should be required viewing by people like Trump, though one suspects not even the missiles fired from U.S. naval vessels, not the incessant barking of the machine guns, the more targeted shots of the rifles, the lobbing of grenades, and most horrifically the use of flamethrowers (thankfully all by our own soldiers) would phase the billionaire businessman.  But be assured: if you’re this side of normal, you will be impressed.  War is not a computer game, a video match, a fun experience in any way.  It’s the worst horror imaginable. With the help of modern movie technology, Gibson captures what goes into the taking of a single ridge in Okinawa, a gateway to the mainland of Japan, “Hacksaw Ridge” takes its place among the greatest of the genre.  Not even the opening scene of D-Day in the marvelous “Saving of Private Ryan” can hold a candle to the three or four full-scale engagements of American soldiers vs. Japanese counterparts.

Nor does the movie lack a smart narrative with incisive dialogue, courtesy of screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight.  Thematically, “Hacksaw Ridge” tackles the concept of conscientious objection, a plea by a small segment of the American population that holds that religious or moral principles preclude killing others.  In other words, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means exactly that, despite the army’s position that there is difference between murder and self defense.  The central character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a Seventh Day Adventist who honors the Sabbath on Saturday.  He is vegetarian like most of his religious cohorts, and he does not use the excuse of c.o. to escape the fighting.  In fact, as he watches his buddies sign up, volunteering to fight after the dishonor of Pearl Harbor, he insists on volunteering himself.  Trouble comes for this pacifist when he is bullied not only by drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and by the unit’s Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), but even more by the men in his unit who in one situation pummel him almost to death.

Glover wants him out, sent home on a psychiatric deferment, and pressures the sergeant to turn the screws.  What mystifies everyone is how Desmond Doss refuses to plead guilty in a court martial but insists on going into the heat of battle as a medic while at the same time refusing even to touch a rifle.  His moral code derives not only from his religion but the treatment he receives from his father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) who in one scene seems ready to shoot his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffith) until disarmed by the young man.  Nor can Desmond live down one incident in which, during a fight with his brother, he smashes the boy’s head with a brick.

This is Mel Gibson’s first entry in the director’s chair since “Apocalypto” a decade ago, a blood and guts treatment of Mayan adventure.  In a like vein, the ridge of the movie’s title can be compared, though a stretch, with a Mayan pyramid as the mud and foxholes are in the service of taking a one-hundred foot cliff.  The mayhem is startling: literally hundreds of soldiers on both sides have limbs torn apart by grenades, or bodies burned alive and to a crisp by flamethrowers.  Some are bayoneted during hand-to-hand combat, and one scene shows a Japanese unit raising a white flag and coming out with hands up only to fling grenades at the too-trusting Americans. 

This is based on a true story of the first conscientious objector ever to win the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, pinned on the soldier by President Harry Truman.  The decoration was based on Doss’s saving of seventy-five American lives by dragging the wounded to safety, saving their lives with tourniquets and relieving their pain with morphine.  In the film’s warmest moment, the captain who wanted Doss to be thrown out admits ultimately that he had the man’s character all wrong. 

Teresa Palmer serves in the movie’s only major female role as Dorothy Schutte, a nurse who is Doss’s love interest and later his wife. 

Andrew Garfield was meant for the role.  Best known particularly by youthful cineastes for his title roles in Peter Parker’s two Spider Man movies, he appeared as well in less commercial but extraordinary fare in “99 Homes” (about efforts of banks to foreclose on residential property and “The Social Network” (about the founding of Facebook).

The action was filmed in New South Wales, Australia. 

Rated R.  138 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Ron Howard's
"Inferno"
Opens Friday, October 28, 2016

Written by: David Koepp from Dan Brown’s novel

Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster Sidse Babett Knudsen, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool



“The Divine Comedy,” aka “Inferno,” is arguably the greatest work of Italian poetry and considered a masterpiece of world literature.  If anything is left of the author, buried in 1321, he’d be turning in his grave to see the gibberish that is made in his name.  “Inferno” is a convoluted mess of a movie, an expensive one with some terrific shots of Venice, Florence and Istanbul, all in the name of locating a glass container filled with a virus that, once opened, could wipe out half of humanity “within 47 days.”  In Dan Brown’s novel, the virus would sterilize a large segment of the population, a more humane choice than that served by this movie, all in the service of whittling down the world’s explosive population and thereby provide enough resources for the lucky, or unlucky ones who survive.


The concept of a too crowded populace was a nightmare to Thomas Malthus, who famously said that at the rate we were going, there would not be enough food on the planet  We see this concept exaggerated considering the average girth of, say, Americans.  But such does not convince a mad scientist, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who comes across as almost normal on videos but whose message is anything but.  Zobrist believes that when the Black Plague of 1348 wiped out 1/3 to 1/2 of the population of Europe,that somehow paved the way to the Renaissance.  Think of how mass murder could make the world a paradise for the survivors, or so he thinks.

The third movie in the franchise, after adaptations of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” features Tom Hanks (Professor Robert Langdon), a noted art historian and solver of puzzles.  If you saw one of the posters advertising the film, you’ll note that he is running together with a beautiful woman, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), the two setting out to find the location of the deadly virus before it’s too late. And run they must, chased by an assortment of folks including one female member of the Florence carabinieri, An Indian known as Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) and a large black man, Christopher Bouchard (Omar Sy) who appears to be a supercop intent on cornering Langdon and Brooks.

Langdon has no idea why he is in a Florence hospital with a cut on his head which caused temporary amnesia, but he must be pleased to be cared for by the pretty, much younger Siena Brooks.  When a carabinieri starts shooting up the hospital, Langdon is helped to escape by the doctor, but not before Langdon imagines twisted bodies straight from Dante’s central casting, including people with their heads on backwards (in the 700-year-old poem, Dante meant that punishment for soothsayers, because he did not want characters looking to the future).

Sienna and Langdon have a grand time with Italian trains that would be the envy of our sad Metroliner , and also by planes and cars.  Zobrist, who is featured in the film’s principal twist, left behind clues that would direct seekers to find the virus, and Langdon is the man who should decipher the clues and end the threat to the world.

“Inferno” is a delight of cinematography, an exposure to the rich cultures of the Florence, Venice and Istanbul, but photography does not make up for the clear focus that the movie is sorely missing.

Rated PG-13.  121 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Elite Zexer's
"Sand Storm (Sufat Chol)"
Opens September 28, 2016

Written by: Elite Zexer


Starring: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal, Hitham Omari, Khadija Al Akel


Kino Lorber

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool


If you hate traffic jams, you might envy the Bedouin people who live in Israel’s Negev desert.  But after you see Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm,” you will realize that aside from never worrying about a parking space, your life will be otherwise not so good.  In fact if you’re of the female persuasion, you’ll wonder why all the well-off women in the West continue pushing for their rights while the women in this Bedouin tribe have to put up with a helluva lot more from their men. 

Zexer’s movie is slow-moving with long takes particularly when focusing on the way one daughter looks at her father for understanding but gets nothing from him at all save for some driving lessons.  Communicating in Arabic (with English subtitles), the folks in one community try to get along as best they can, always wondering whether they must settle with the rules of their society in order to get peace in return.

Bedouins had been accustomed to roaming around not because they’re fidgety, but rather to find grazing land for their stocks of sheep and goats, but as this film confirms, most Bedouins now settle in houses and work in agriculture, building trades and as drivers.  This is the condition that finds Layla (Lamis Ammar), a seventeen-year-old living under the stern rule of her father, Suliman (Haitham Omari), who is married to Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) while planning to take on a second wife. 

Sometimes Jalila will give hell to her husband, particularly telling him to stop using the expression “have to” rather than “want to,” which is about the extent of her desire to break free of the rules.  Otherwise Jalila seconds the wishes of her husband, warning her teen daughter to stop seeing her boyfriend from a different tribe. (This calls for some research into the tribal nature of the Bedouins, who are split largely on color lines but in this case, the boyfriend has about the same complexion as Layla.) When Jalila finally realizes that her daughter is right to want to marry the person of her choice and rebels against her husband, there are consequences.

Israeli writer-director Zexer likes close-ups, medium shots and long takes to allow the audience to concentrate on the expressions of his principals thereby succeeding to get us to sympathize with Layla’s plight.  And when he shows the family’s little girls watching the proceedings, we realize that alas, they will be forced to accept the same fate as Layla. 

The only politics in the movie are matters within the family.  We have no idea whether Bedouins would like their own country, though some have been known to join the Israeli army.  The content of “Sand Storm” follows that of other films about cultural differences between fathers and their wives and children, though conflicts in Western families are in no way as sad as those shown in this traditional family.  Aside from a melodramatic moment or two, “Sand Storm” is hardly a stormy film but serves nicely to show us what it’s like to live in this small society.  What’s more, if you’re interested, you can join an Israeli tour that allows you to visit with a Bedouin family, enjoy its reputation for hospitality to guests, and try their special foods while sitting on cushions.

Unrated.  87 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 





Clint Eastwood's
"Sully"
Opens Friday, September 9, 2016
 
Written by: Todd Komarnicki, book “Sully: My Search for What Really Matters,” by Chesley Sullenberger

Starring: Tom Hanks, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart

Warner Bros/ Village Roadshow

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool


Only a nut would want to swim in sub-zero waters in January, folks like the small but hardy Polar Bear Club made up of men who each year take a swim in the Atlantic off Brooklyn’s Coney Island.  Nor would the 155 passengers and crew of U.S. Airways flight 1549 who though they were going on a routine, undramatic trip from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina on January 15, 2009.  Drama is the last thing anyone on board wanted, not the kind that would put all their lives in danger and whose very existemce depended on the actions of the plane’s captain on a most unusual Mayday.

By now everyone not only in the U.S. but around the world knows of the heroism of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who had without incident transported a million passengers from one place to another during his forty-year career as a pilot.  We all know that when a flock of starlings must have mistaken a jet aircraft for a school of fish and sacrificed their lives by invading its engines, they could have brought down human beings as though on a suicide mission.  But not so many know that while Sully was immediately lauded as a hero for a most fortunate decision, some people, perhaps with sinister motives, took the opposite line.  Because the aircraft captain ignored protocol, i.e. instructions from the flight controller to return to base, either to LaGuardia Airport only seven miles away or, if not practical to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, he had his feet put to the fire.

The airline seemed ready to strip Sully of his pension after his long years of service and the insurance company was out to prove that this violation of protocol meant that no money was due to the airline.  Ultimately Sully’s fate lay with the National Transportation Safety Board, which held hearings, presenting evidence that despite Sully’s view--the loss of thrust from two defective engines would not allow him to reach an airport—was incorrect since the aircraft had enough capacity to enable the seven-mile jaunt to LaGuardia.

“Sully” is not a documentary, though when it departs from the melodrama of the actual flight including Sully’s nightmare of an aircraft crashing into a New York skyscraper, we are left with testimony at a hearing, a kind of modern Caine Mutiny Court Martial, which appears headed to strip the man of his glory.  The film is anchored by a performance from Tom Hanks as Sully, white-haired, with a thick mustache, with Aaron Eckhart in the chief supporting role as First Officer Jeff Skiles.  Once you get past a reenactment of the landing in the Hudson including a couple of computer simulations inputting the flight’s trajectory, you’re left with a) some awfully banal cellphone chatter between Sully and his wife Lorraine Sullenberger (Laura Linney), the “I love you” kind that’s de rigueur when people are either about to die or have something earthshaking to say, and b) some awfully silly acting from some of the extras, such as the three passengers who were let on the plane after the doors were closed and later wished they weren’t. 

However, c) there is a great look inside the air controllers’ office when Patrick Harten (Patch Darragh) goes through what is probably the most exciting day of his life, quickly relating instructions to the pilot and the first officer but is then told that there is simply not enough thrust left to obey the routine protocol.  Best of all d) the photography is impressive.  You should see this on an IMAX screen if possible.  Sully’s opening nightmare of a crash into skyscrapers, which might have cinephiles recalling a student’s opening dream in the movie “Final Destination,” is one that could be considered distasteful given what a band of psychotics pulled against the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. 

The film is rated PG-13, which should indicate to families that unless your youngsters are easily frightened by simulations of air crashes and explosions, you might want to give them a taste of what it means to be a hero.  And being a hero is not always just the actions of one brave person.  In this case, what Sully tells the Safety commission is not just false modesty.  Tom Stern’s impressive photography captures the whole rescue scene.  Three hundred police and a group of ferries were at the ditched plane within minutes rescuing all 155 people and, of course, both Sully and Skiles were the last out—personally prodding the folks in the cabin to evacuate.

This may be far from director Clint Eastwood’s best—revisionist “Unforgiven” which took four Oscars would be that one.  Nor would many agree with Mr. Eastwood’s “get over it” comment to justify some of Donald Trump’s remarks.  But his capable direction of “Sully” will help restore or confirm the American public’s faith in the professionalism of authorities, in this case those scores of heroes in New York who responded quickly and decisively to save people from the freezing waters of the Hudson.

Rated PG-13.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Gavin O’Connor's
"The Accountant"
Opens October 14, 2016

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Warner Bros

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool


Two valuable professions are often the butt of jokes: dentists and accountants.  Dentists, perhaps, because they are often considered without a great sense of humor.  But that changed when the dentist played by Steve Martin in Roger Corman’s “The Little Shop of Horrors” hit the screen. Accountants because they are considered straight-laced, serious, wrapped up in numbers and probably introverted.  But that will change when people see “The Accountant.” Its director, Gavin O’Connor, has already afforded us movies like “Pride and Glory” about a police corruption scandal, making “The Accountant” right up the director’s alley.


As for how this picture will change your mind about accountants—though maybe not about the folks at H&R Block—Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a CPA who probably has a Blackburn belt in Indonesian martial arts and uses this physical training, which is as adept as his talent for numbers.  With Bill Dubuque’s screenplay, director O’Connor flips backwards and forward from Wolff’s childhood to his present offices.  That’s not the problem.  It works.  The difficulties arise when too many plot points are thrown in. 

As a child, Wolff has Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes him perform unnecessary moves with his hands and sets him off screaming when a piece of his jigsaw puzzle is missing.  His father refuses to send him free to a summer program that would work on him, instead committing him as well as his more normal brother Brax (Jon Bernthal) to martial arts lessons. The training would presumably help Christian as he grows up and is picked on by bullies.  But even his father never foresaw the kinds of bullies he would meet, nor did dad realize that his Asperger’s son would become a sharpshooter using a rifle with telescopic sight and some smaller firepower. 

After cooking the books for some dangerous, mafia characters, he along with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), is hired by Lamar Blackburn at a seemingly legitimate corporation that does good for people with missing limbs by providing them with robotic parts.  When Cummings discovers a discrepancy in the books amounting to over $60 million and forwards an inquiry to Wolff, Wolff fills up a roomful of glass boards with numbers, being the math savant that he is.  This puts him into conflict with Blackburn, who instructs an army of goons to waste the two of them lest their discovery be forwarded to Ray King (J.K. Simmons), a Treasury Department official, who has enlisted the expertise of Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to nail Wolff.

There is a romantic interest in the story, one involving Wolff and Cummings, but since Wolff has difficulty in social situations, nothing much comes of it.  The plot alternates intellectual discussion with physical violence—the latter becoming like a free-for-all video-game shooting gallery, thereby undermining the integrity of the story and forcing it to the level of Marvel Comics.  The interplay of the heady with the violent makes the picture seem like two movies in one, but even without the dichotomy, the film is an overlong, furiously labyrinthine drama.

Rated R.  128 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 


 



Tate Taylor's
"The Girl On The Train"
Opens October 7, 2016

Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson adapting Paula Hawkins’s novel

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool



The title of this movie taken from a runaway best-seller sounds innocuous enough, but “The Girl on the Train” is far from benign.  Consider it more in the line of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” because the title character sees things from the vantage point of her train window.  Or choose the title “Stepford Redux,” because the principal “girl” observes a number of trophy wives.  Still, the train itself is a principal character, chugging along full speed from New York’s Grand Central Station to points north in Westchester County where it was filmed on location in Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington and White Plains.  Some of the scenery is so beautiful, the Hudson River so blue overlooked by leaves turning color, that this could be a product placement ad for New York State’s Tourist Commission.  And we’re not even that far from Manhattan as are Niagara Falls and the Finger Lakes.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is the girl in a movie adapted from Paul Hawkins’ London-centered novel, which has sold eleven million copies and has been picked up even in China.  Tate Taylor, who directs, stays pretty close to the book which has been adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson, punctuating Hawkins’ sometimes stream-of-consciousness techniques, her traveling forward and backward almost innumerable times, and spying on the action from various points of view.  The campy ending would be appreciated by fans of Quentin Tarantino.  A hearty cheer arose from an early audience during the final moments.

Though this may not be Emily Blunt’s best role—perhaps that’s “The Devil Wears Prada” which shows her as an assistant to a high-power editor of a top fashion magazine—director Taylor accommodates the thirty-three-year old actress by situating her in virtually every frame.  Blunt is especially terrifying when she comes at us close-up, her character’s anxieties showing so clearly that they could form a map on her face.  She is anxious for a reason.  When she fails to produce a baby, her husband, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) throws her out and picks up his life by marrying  Anna Watson (Rebecca Ferguson), a Westchester trophy wife whose beauty and whose providing him a baby does not quite satisfy him.  Despite Anna’s corn-fed beauty, Tom Watson goes behind her back to conduct affairs with the likes of Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), who could serve almost as a double to his wife, and whom he employs as a babysitter in a home that may be spacious but is too close to the Metro North tracks to be a top dollar property.

In fact the train is Tom’s undoing, as Rachel, who has no job and is crashing at a friend’s place, rides the train back and forth daily, five days a week, drinking vodka from a designer water bottle and observing her ex-husband’s cheating on Anna.  Rachel is generally close to tears, an alcoholic who is sometimes violent.  In one scene she throws a platter of eggs at the wall during a party hosted by her husband’s boss.

Though there are two major male characters—besides Tom, Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) is understandably upset when Megan is found dead in the woods—“The Girl on the Train” puts women front and center, with input from Detective Sgt. Riley (Allison Janney) who is investigating the crime and who suspects that Rachel killed Megan.    Pulp it may be, at least during the latter half, but that’s not a bad thing.  That’s what sells.  And pulp in this case will appeal particularly to women, some of whom may recognize themselves as victims of husbands who are cheating on them in this post-feminist age when women are urged to freely enjoy sex as much as the men.

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


 


"Valley of the Dolls"
Criterion Collection Blu-ray review

Reviwed by Frank J. Avella 

I grew up watching "Valley of the Dolls" and even at ridiculously young age, I knew there was something different about me because I was aware that what I was watching wasn’t necessarily a “quality film,” but I loved it! I wanted to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls. Of course I had no real idea what “dolls” were. 

Looking back and watching this pristine transfer that Criterion has put forth, it’s hard to not think about where “Valley of the Dolls” aligns in cinema history, specifically ‘60s cinema history, and how the endeavor is a perfect example of a film caught right smack in the middle of the radically changing filmmaking that was overtaking the world. “Dolls” seems to want desperately to be hip and cool and profane and topical but it’s filmmakers were old school and incapable of adapting to and growing with the times. The movie reeks of old Hollywood while trying to thumb its nose at old Hollywood. “Dolls” is much like the Pushmi-Pullyu character in another relic from 1967, “Doctor Doolittle.” It’s stuck running in place. 

This is no fault of the celebrated author, Jacqueline Susann, but completely the fault of screenwriters Dorothy Kingsley & Helen Deutsch and, especially, director Mark Robson. Not so surprisingly this would mark Oscar-nominated “Lili” screenwriter, Deutsch’s last screenplay credit. Oscar-nominee Kingsley would go onto a few more gigs. Robson would notably make “Earthquake” a decade later, a mess but a hit. (Sound familiar?) 

All that noted, “Valley of the Dolls” remains fascinating to watch, not just for it’s camp moments but some truly good and poignant scenes that are astounding examples of what the film could have been, if it had been allowed to be something more than a hammy melodrama. 

And while the films portrait of show business may feel broad and over-the-top, one needs to remember that movie stars behaved in quite a showy fashion during the Hollywood heyday and well into the 1970s. Google Bette Davis/Joan Crawford or Olivia deHavilland/Joan Fontaine for a taste. Read about the tantrums thrown by Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, Vivien Leigh or, later, Faye Dunaway and Diana Ross to see what fame and fortune does to even the most respected artists. Sure the antics of these stars have been overblown through the years, but they’re buried in truth. 

My point is that perhaps “Dolls” needs to be viewed through a glitzified lens to truly appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still unintentionally hilarious at times, especially when it comes to the character of Neely O’Hara, but perhaps we laugh because the alternative is to run screaming. Imagine encountering such a needy, egotistic, self-destructive creature? Let’s also remember how many of these titans met their end. 

The “dolls” in the title tell the story of how drugs kept these megastars going, while destroying them in the process.         

The film follows the careers, loves and travails of three very different young women and one veteran. 

Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), a rather dull New England gal who trains to the big bad apple to seek her identity. She remains fairly milquetoast throughout, although she starts to show vamp appeal during her all-too-brief Gillian Girl phase. Parkins brings little to Anne beyond an annoying spunk that Lou Grant would hate. I’ve never taken to Parkins, although my mother adored her. To me she was bland and I really never felt invested in her relationship with Lyon Burke (the fairly forgettable Paul Burke). 

Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), on the other hand, is a much more compelling creature. Gorgeous face and body, she’s been told all her life, by everyone (especially her greedy mother whom we never see), that she has no talent and can only coast on her looks. Jennifer falls in love with lounge singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) but his fate is sealed by some strange illness, which completely incapacitates him. She is then hit with the news that she has breast cancer and, in order to survive, needs a mastectomy. Talk about piling on the tragedy. But Tate proves she was one of the most gifted screen newcomers of the 1960s delivering a restrained, deeply moving performance (the most grounded and realistic in the film). Over and over again, Jennifer is the character that is most relatable and the one you want to see more of. One can only imagine what Tate’s career trajectory might have been had she not been so horrifically murdered. 

The third gal is the ravenously ambitious Neely O”Hara (Patty Duke). She’s got so much promise that veteran Broadway diva Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) has her big number cut from her show, assuring that she goes out with the song. "The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's me, baby, remember?" Helen bellows. No one, however, is stopping Neely from her dreams and soon enough she is just as popular as Helen Lawson, and just as much of a paranoid bitch. Duke dives into Neely completely and where her director should have reeled her in and guided her she is, instead, goaded into stepping completely off the cliff—without a net. In some of the supplements, Duke takes deserved pot shots at Robson for being a horror to work with and alienating her throughout—for the good of the film, of course. Perhaps he was simply a misogynist. 

Susan Hayward, as the great stage actress, Helen Lawson, gives it her valiant best. What is most appealing and telling about her performance is how she displays the “do as I say not as I do” contradictions of the diva. She badmouths Neely for her pill popping as she swills more booze down herself, never realizing the irony. Hah! 

Finally, Lee Grant, appears in a small but significant role as Tony’s sister.

As you may have guessed, the men in “Dolls” don’t matter that much beyond supporting the women. In that respect, “Valley of the Dolls” was indeed groundbreaking. When have you ever seen FOUR lead women in one film (“Steel Magnolias” being the exception)? 

Criterion is to be commended for recognizing the importance of this film and giving it a new digital transfer from a 2K resolution of a new 35mm print. The visuals are just breathtaking. No one has ever seen “Dolls” quite this way. I remember the crappy old TV print growing up and while the DVD cleaned things up a bit, the film is finally clean with color schemes looking great and brightness and dark levels feeling right. 

The sound is also fantastic with the songs, in particular, sounding crisp and clear. 

The Special Features boast a treasure trove for fans (and newcomers) with many carry-overs from the DVD release including, “Hollywood Backstories” a 25 min glossy TV doc that dishes on how Judy Garland was initially cast as Helen Lawson but was fired by Robson. The piece also teases some of the Garland vocal on “I Plant My Own Tree,” but never allows us to listen to the entire track. 

Also carried over are vintage featurettes including “Valley of the Dolls, A World Premiere Voyage,” a 48-minute curio celebrating the premiere of the film and featuring Tony Scotti singing the “Theme from the Valley of the Dolls,” while riding a gondola in Venice. “Jacqueline Susann and the Valley of the Dolls,” is a 50-minute TV special about how the book was adapted into the movie.

Trailers and TV spots are included as well as 3 original radio spots (really fun) and remarkable screen tests of Duke, Tate, Parkins and Scotti—some never before seen.

 An audio commentary by Parkins and journo Ted Casablanca from 2006 is also included.

A long and interminable doc from the DVD, where babbling queens like Michael Musto dismiss the film as camp, is mercifully not carried over. 

New to this release are two new features: “Once was Never Enough” and “Travilla: Perfectly Poised,” both guided by writer Amy Fine Collins. 

Most notable is “Sparkle Patty Sparkle,” showing bits from the 2009 celebration screening of “Dolls” at the Castro in San Francisco” where Duke is interviewed by Bruce Vilanch. The piece is too short (17 minutes) and Vilanch talks too much but when Duke does get to speak she tells the audience she that she finally learned to embrace the film and gives credit to gay men. 

She also shares her recollections about Judy Garland and how it was director Robson who terrorized her into locking herself in her trailer after having her arrive early and then letting her wait for hours and hours. Duke refers to Robson as, “The meanest son of a bitch I met in my life.” Duke vindicates Garland, once and for all. 

This amazing Criterion disc also comes with a 30-page illustrated booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny. 

I have to note that I was shocked by the rampant homophobia in the film on this viewing more than ever. Sure lines like, “You know how bitchy fags can be!” have become classics but in context with so many others, the anti-gay sentiment is scary, especially considering the fact that gays have almost single-handedly kept the film alive all these years. 

This time around I was also struck by so many questions. So many ‘what ifs?’

What if the screenwriters knew how to write with subtly and nuance? 

What if Susann had written the screenplay? 

What if the director had a been George Cukor or William Wyler or even Billy Wilder instead of a never-was, poor-man’s Victor Fleming like Mark Robson? (Patty Duke may have had a nurturer instead of a torturer.) 

What if a real actress like Mia Farrow had played Anne? (A name that was originally talked about). 

What if Bette Davis had played Helen Lawson? (Susann’s first choice). 

The ‘what if’s’ are overwhelming on this project. But, alas, we are left with what was to be. And the film version of “Valley of the Dolls” still beguiles and enthralls audiences some 50 years later. 

Bravo to Criterion for realizing there is more here than just camp. Now, it’s time to give the same treatment to another intriguing and misunderstood film: “Myra Breckenridge."

"Valley of the Dolls"
Criterion Edition | Blu-ray | $27.99

 

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