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George Nolfi's
The Adjustment Bureau
Opens Friday, March 4, 2011

Written By: George Nolfi from Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Bureau”

Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Henry Clay once said, “I’d rather be right than be president.” There’s a noble thought, a quote that echoes silently throughout The Adjustment Bureau (the relevance of the quote becomes apparent about three-quarters of the way into the story). George Nolfi’s expensive and highly marketed film, which adds a romance that’s absent in sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s Adjustment Bureau, is a brainy, sophisticated and well acted.

For the enjoyment of sci-fi nerds and armchair philosophers alike, The Adjustment Bureau poses The Big Question: Do we have free will to choose the lives we want to lead, or are we puppets in the hands of some celestial beings, condemned by fate to follow a plan devised by them for the universe? For the romantics in the audience, there’s the powerful love story of a man who seems destined to climb the political ladder all the way to White House, but who would give that all up if he could be with the woman he loves.

The film pits David Norris (Matt Damon), a charismatic congressman who forged his way out of Brooklyn’s tough Red Hook section to run for the U.S. Senate, against a group of Mad Men types from an organization called The Adjustment Bureau. Norris feels a void in his life that makes him feel great only when in the presence of a crowd of admiring people, though that would change when he meets the beautiful Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) in the men’s room of the Waldorf Hotel. The Adjustment Bureau, wholly visible men who are neither thoroughly human nor angels, has the task of keeping the Earth going according to their plan, a plan that maps out our lives from womb to tomb. As Thompson (Terence Stamp), one of the group’s leaders, explains, when the Bureau allowed people free will, the people gave them centuries of the Dark Ages; during the Twentieth Century, the people disappoint once by giving the world two big wars, a Holocaust, and the Cuban Missile Crisis which set the world on the brink of destruction. According to the Bureau, it is time to take back this freedom and make sure that everything runs according to the Bureau’s pre-existing plan.

The plot takes off when Norris catches some of the Bureau’s men “resetting” the mind of his campaign manager and boss, Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). Norris is overcome by the leader, Richardson (John Slattery), is handcuffed to a chair, and is told that if he ever disclosed the nature of the Adjustment Bureau to anyone, his identity would be erased as though he were lobotomized.

When he see Elise again (on a bus), he is aware that the godlike figures have told him that he must never see her again, that they will try their damndest to keep the two apart. (The reason becomes clear later in the story.) Nonetheless he was determined to flout the Bureau to find her, though the Adjustment Bureau had burned the slip of paper with her phone number and advised him that in a city of nine million he will never see her again.

The Adjustment Bureau is filmed wholly in New York City, making it no wonder that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now facing budgetary problems and happy to encourage filming in the Big Apple, agreed to appear in a cameo—as did Jon Stewart, Wolf Blitzer, Mary Matalan and James Carville. During the final third, the brainy theories take a back stage to the chase, as both Elise and David run from the Mad Men through doors that take them instantly to the Statue of Liberty, Yankee Stadium, and the New York Public Library. They are encouraged by Harry (Anthony Mackie), a renegade member of the Bureau, who believes that the free will of two people in love should trump any godlike plan to keep them apart.

True fans of Philip K. Dick, whose stories have been made into other movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall, might be disappointed by the romance, which was not in the novelist’s Adjustment Bureau. In the written story, Dick was more concerned with the sociological, political and metaphysical aspects of life, taking aim against authoritarian governments, monopolistic corporations and illustrating altered states. Still, Matt Damon at 40 and Emily Blunt at 27 have terrific chemistry, their passionate kiss at one point in the movie is sexier than a scene of the two in bed during a previous date. Blunt’s character here becomes about as nerve-wracked as she was in the role of Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada, which finds her at the mercy of a demanding magazine editor, while Damon turns out a spot-on performance both as a determined lover and a human being demanding the right of free will against a powerful organization.

The film is a pleasure to watch and will hopefully serve as a marketing tool portraying New York as the world’s most exciting city.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Oliver Maltman, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen in
Mike Leigh's Another Year

Mike Leigh's
Another Year
Opens December 29, 2010

Written By: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, Starring: David Bradley, Martin Savage, Karina Fernandez

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Chances are you’ll be able to identify with at least one of the members of the cast that Mike Leigh trots out before you in Another Year, a film that is heavily dependent on character with scarcely a care about plot. Leigh, known in the seventies for his television plays characterized by gritty kitchen-sink realism, was brought up in a Jewish immigrant family which instilled in him a commitment to social realism and humanism. This is on exhibit largely in his best-known work, Secrets and Lies, the story of a successful black woman who traces her birth mother to a lower-class white woman. Another Year avoids the melodramatic touches of that work nor does it display the flippant ambiance of the recent Happy Go Lucky. Year does allow us to eavesdrop on a group of people that form a circle around a happily married, somewhat daft couple in their autumn years. The action takes place in and around London, the story divided into four episodes, one for each season.

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a geologist and a counselor respectively, married for about thirty years, and regularly visited, or rather intruded upon, in their home by Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri and is bipolar and fond of wine. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is a bachelor with whom Mary behaves flirtatiously, though she seems much older than him. Mary plunges into her morose stage when introduced one day to Joe’s new girlfriend, the extroverted Katie (Karina Fernandez), who readily picks up Mary’s dislike of her and reacts likewise to her in turn.

Other characters who come into the tale include Mike Leigh regular Imelda Staunton in the role of Janet, who opens the story as a gravely depressed woman who is at first interviewed by Tanya (Michele Austin), a doctor at the hospital and referred to Gerri for counseling where she declares that on a happiness scale of one to ten, she is a “one”; Ken (Peter Wight), a larger-than-life eater and drinker friend of Tom who makes a move on Mary but is repulsed even by her; and Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), whose personality is quite the opposite of his brother’s. Nor is Ronnie’s son Carl (Martin Savage) anyone you’d want to get close to - he is a hyper, hostile person who arrives late to his mother’s funeral and is ready to take out anyone who looks at him for more than three seconds.

Though the picture is too long (more than two hours) and the dialogue sounds overly improvised rather than tightly edited at times, Another Year is all about the acting, and the acting is superb, particularly by Lesley Manville in the role of bipolar Mary. Manville wears her emotions on her sleeve, switching from optimism to despair as though on cue. She appears bright and cheerful at one moment, wrinkled and down another. Like you and me and everyone in the theater audience, these are flawed people and like all of us they are a delight to watch and listen to.

Rated PG-13. 129 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Pablo Trapero's
Opens Friday, February 11, 2011

Written By: Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre & Pablo Trapero

Starring: Ricardo Darín, Martina Gusman, Carlos Weber, José Luis Arias, Loren Acuña, Gabriel Almirón, José Manuel Espeche

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Next time you read an item about how starting pay for lawyers is $150,000, don’t believe it. This figure may be true for the white-shoe corporate firms that hire the top students from Harvard and Yale, but plenty of lawyers are hungry, not only right after graduation but even ten or twenty years or more into their careers. Those who represent clients after accidents may be just fine, but others in that category are ambulance chasers, the counselors who pro-actively seek business from victims of accidents on the job or in traffic mishaps. Carancho tells the tale of one poor chap who is literally an ambulance chaser, following the sirens right into the hospitals where he tries to sign victims up before they can see anyone else. The trouble with this guy is that he has had his license to practice suspended for reasons unknown to us in the audience. Because he literally runs after ambulances, some call him a “carancho,” or “vulture.”

Ricardo Darín in the role of Sosa, the carancho, is a charming fellow notwithstanding his professional, or unprofessional, ethics. Because he is trying to accumulate some money to re-engage in the practice with his license returned, he works for a shady outfit under a big boss known as The Dog. The Dog requires him to get powers of attorney from accident victims. When money is awarded, The Dog gets the lion’s share, Sosa gets some, and the clients get even less. The clients think that they are winning the cases, but they are getting shafted, and mirable dictu, the insurance companies are being screwed. Quite a change from the situation in the States! The whole action of Carancho takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, filmed in a seedy area of La Matanza, under the direction of Pablo Trapero whose output includes Lion’s Den—about an incarcerated woman who tries to raise her son from prison, and Born and Bred—about an interior designer in Patagonia whose life falls apart when he suffers a horrific accident.

For those who believe all doctors are swimming in money, Trapero gives us the figure of Luján (Martina Gusman), a thirty-something physician who is addicted to drugs, is always tired from long hours at the hospital, and yet who has failed to gain an appointment. She deals exclusively with accident victims, seems professional enough in ordering those assisting, and is originally put off by the tactics of Sosa but who eventually falls for him—despite the difference in age and the ethics of the vulture.

Carancho comes across at times like a noirish tale, photographed by Julian Apezteguia largely at nighttime, and seems throughout to be like a news documentary about the horrific numbers of traffic accidents in the country. There are so many smashups in the movie that the title could have been the overutilized Crash, and if you count how many times that cliché “are you OK?” is used, it could make the Guinness Book.There’s also as much violence as any movie-lover could wish for, including one that’s humorous (two guys who had been fighting wind up in the same exam rooms and continue their fistacuffs therein). The story is fast-moving throughout, the chemistry between two seemingly mismatched people is credible.

Carancho is Argentina’s Oscar entry for 2010. It did not get nominated: too much competition from Denmark, Greece, Canada, Mexico and Algeria. But Carancho is worth your time. Consider it a movie to placate those of us in the audience who wanted to be doctors and lawyers but couldn’t cut the mustard.

Unrated. 107 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Kiran Rao's
Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)
Open January 21, 2011

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Kiran Rao
Starring: Aamir Khan, Prateik, Monica Dogra, Kiti Malhotra

If you’re looking for a sit-comish, but well-done interpretation of romantic triangles, particularly if you want to be convinced that the fatherly types win out over the bad-boys, go to How Do You Know.If you don’t care for Hollywood treatments, seek out Dhobi Ghat, a film straight from India, done indie style that in no way reflects the influence of Bollywood—even though it takes place in Mumbai (Bombay). Music is sparingly used in the soundtrack, only when it benefits the drama, and the acting appears authentic even to the point that the film comes across almost as a documentary. It’s difficult to believe that this is writer-director Kiran Rao’s freshman effort in a feature film.

Dhobi Ghat reflects the influence of class and caste in India, proving that even in that country’s most populous city, there may be more flexibility in social relationships among the classes, but bottom line, there is little hope that a guy and a gal from different ranks can form a cemented union. The story centers on three characters: rich American-Indian investment banker Shai (Monica Dogra), on sabbatical from her gig in New York’s financial district to pursue her hobby in photography; Arun (Aamir Khan), a reclusive painter who has turned inward after a troubled marital past; and Munna (Prateik), a handsome launderer who delivers wash daily to his clients, determined to use his looks to get a job as a Bollywood actor. A fourth personality, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), appears on a videotape as a former tenant in Arun’s apartment who leaves visual letters to an unnamed person, letters that have a profound effect on the eavesdropping artist.

After Shai spends the night with the reclusive artist, she heads out on the town in the company of Munna, the artist’s launderer, who agrees to show her the real Mumbai in return for her photographing him for a portfolio to accompany his résumé to the film studios. Munna quickly falls in love with Shai, an impossible romance given their difference in class, wealth, sophistication and education, a point made clear by the dhobi’s drug-dealing brother who laughs at Munna for even thinking of a relationship with the American woman. Similarly, Shai, who might make a match with the artist, could be destined for disappointment as well given Arun’s introverted nature, though some hope is held out for the couple at the conclusion of the tale.

We in the audience get to see the two Mumbais, filmed by Tushar Kanti Ray in Super 16 and mini-DV. The traffic jams are particularly impressive, almost an extra set of characters that include motorcycles, small cars, taxis and bicycles. Artists’ galleries contrast with slums, seedy drug pushers sell to patrons driving past with half-opened windows. Special mention must be made of the Gustavo Snataolalla’s score which never intrudes, and of the black-and-white pictures that Shai had allegedly taken for Munna’s portfolio, but which are a product of Jyotika Jain’s lenses.

Unrated. 100 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Alexei Popogrebsky's
How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provel etim letom)
Opens Friday, February 4, 2011

Written By: Alexei Popogrebsky
Starring: Sergei Puskepalis, Grigory Dobrygin

Film Movement
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s difficult to believe that a town in the freezing, windswept, rocky coastline of the Russia’s far northeast province of Chukotka has a population of 53,000. The inhabitants are adventurous Russian people involved in exploiting large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, and tungsten and a local populations that live on a subsistence level, supporting their families by reinndeer herding, hunting, and fishing. From the looks of Alexei Popogrebsky’s two-handed psychological drama, How I Ended This Summer, named from an article published by a classy magazine about a writer’s brief experience there, one would have to be wacky to spend more than a night in such an inhospitable place.

Situated on (fictitiously named) Archym Island, Popgrebsky’s picture focuses on a weather station under the direction of fifty-something Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) and his young co-worker Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin). Sergei is a gruff character, the type who could serve as either a father-figure to a recent college grad or a formidable opponent, depending on the older man’s mood. But Sergei is, above all, a professional, a meteorologist who considers his work important to his country (though the viewer may wonder how the world would be different if there were no such outpost). He is devoted to his wife and small child, who had been living with him but who are now somewhere on the mainland. By contrast Pavel, who resembles a cross between Colin Farrell and James Franco, is more laid-back, his love for his MP3 and violent video games substituting for the older man’s familial ties. Pavel’s work is less than accurate, leading to one of several confrontations between the college grad and the fatherly boss. What’s more when Pavel receives word from the mainland contact that Sergei’s wife and child are near death from an accident, he fails to pass on the message to Sergei, fearing the experienced worker’s temper.

To the credit of the project, photographer Pavel Kostomarov uses his hand-held camera with distinction on the rocky cliffs of the island, capturing the young meterologist’s fearful run-for-his-life when the older man targets him with a rifle. And Grigory Dobrygin does all his own stunt work, jumping across the cliffs and running from oil barrel to oil barrel during a moment of ecstasy. We in the audience can’t help thinking of the shoot-‘em-up video games so embraced by Pavel as a representation of the real danger the player faces from an erratic boss who alternates avuncular concern for the young man with sudden outbursts of fury. Ultimately, writer-director Popogrebsky wants us to realize that the danger that Pavel faces from Sergei is more threatening than the intervention of nature—the polar bear eager for a human meal, the arctic ocean thundering across the shoreline, the threat of starvation should the fish not decide to bite or the walrus neglect to visit.

The long movie has an editing lapse: a scene in which a fearful young man dashing across the rocks ends abruptly when he is joined in a boat by Sergei. Actors Dobrygin and Puskepalis perform as though they had spent years on the desolate island, evoking the love-hate relationship of the two men and giving the arctic story a thoroughly human drama.

Unrated. 130 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Gregg Araki’s
Opens Friday, January 28, 2011
Also available as part of Sundance Selects VOD


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Gregg Araki.

Starring; Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Juno Temple, Chris Zylka, James Duval, Andy Fischer-Price, Brennan Mejia, Jason Olive & Kelly Lynch .

Writer/director Gregg Araki, now 51, refuses to grow up. And, for two thirds of his new film Kaboom, it’s totally rad.

Araki’s masterwork is still his first major release, The Living End, about two HIV-positive dudes who go on a nihilistic road trip where they have lots of sex and their motto is “Fuck the World.” A slew of hyper-sexual, relationship films with occasional gloomydoomy, oddbbally sci-fi twists followed (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere and Splendor). Araki’s 2004 gem, Mysterious Skin, showed a serious and more mature filmmaker finally emerging.

Kaboom brings us back to the Araki of sexfest past. The protagonist, Smith, is an ambisexual college freshman (smoldering Thomas Dekker, looking so hot you wanna throw him down and do him—oh, and he’s a decent actor, too) who, when asked about his sexuality says he’s “undeclared.” Smith has a mad crush on his straight surfer roomie, Thor (hot-as-hell Chris Zylka) who Smith says is “dumb as a box of rocks…exactly my type…”

Smith keeps hoping he’s witnessing signs of Thor’s gayness, like when he finds him wrestling in his underwear with his equally scorching friend Rex (Andy Fischer-Price) or when he walks in on Thor trying to fellate himself.

Smith has a platonic lesbian friend named Stella (Haley Bennett) who is dating a strange girl (stunning Roxane Mesquida) who turns out to have supernatural powers (not odd in an Araki film).

The film opens with a naked Smith walking down a long hallway encountering people in his life and people he hasn’t met yet. A door opens to reveal a red dumpster. This dream will take on new meaning as the plot festers and runs rampant.

As Smith attempts to unravel the David Lynch-wanna-but-can’t-be mystery, he meets and has indiscriminate sex with a Brit gal named London (Juno Temple who is a refreshing tonic and gives the best performance in the film). London turns out to be a key to figuring out why men in animal masks are entering Smith’s psyche and possibly murdering people. Along the way, Smith also has indiscriminate sex with Hunter (Jason Olive, another sculpted body) who he meets on a nude beach.

All these characters and more are part of the film’s climax.

Araki still writes very witty, quotable lines better than most and he does capture the tween speak exceptionally well. And everywhere you look there’s another gorgeous face attached to a perfect body.

He’s also a wonder at probing sexual desires and our society’s need to place labels on people’s sexuality. Araki’s characters defy all that; they enjoy sex regardless of gender. And how refreshing is that. Araki also investigates the ephemeral nature of pleasure, teasing his characters as well as the viewer and lulling them into a state of pre-orgasm before delivering the devastating reality--or in this case surreality--punch.

As mentioned earlier, Kaboom gets off to a compelling and hyper-sexy start, but runs out of steam in the last third, where a silly apocalyptic plot development (another Araki favorite) takes over and the film becomes a ridiculous and preposterous mess.

Had Araki taken more time to develop the bizarre cult/nuclear annihilation subplot, the movie could have truly ended with a bang. But, alas, cheesy images notwithstanding, it ends with a maddening whimper

Dereck Joubert's
The Last Lions
Opens Friday, February 18, 2011

Written By: Dereck Jourbert
Cast: Jeremy Irons, narrator

National Geographic Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Can a lion roar? Scientific evidence answers “yes.” Can a lion feel pain, show love, fear, revenge, plan strategy of attack, or make decisions for the future? Looks that way. In the introduction to his book, The Last Lions, author Dereck Joubert, who directed a documentary with the same title, writes about lions: “We love them, we hate them, we admire them and perhaps we wish we were more like them.”

Lions is the story of Ma di Tau, a lioness, who is forced to choose between staying with her tribe, or taking care of her three young cubs, after the death of her lion-mate in a fierce battle with other members of the group. She chooses the latter and thus takes us on a quest for a new territory on Duba Island in Botswana, Africa. The film was photographed, with a lightweight digital camera, over six years by Dereck Joubert, who filmed the doc while living in a tent and cooking over a campfire with his wife/producer Beverly. The film was then edited for three years by Susan Scott. The docudrama actually takes place over a period of twelve months; during that time Ma di Tau will lose two cubs but gain a new status in the tribe.

Ask any lion what is life like on Duba Island and he/she will roar: “Hunt or be hunted”. Bluntly put, lions need to eat for survival, and food can’t be purchased in the market. It has to be earned by planning and executing a complicated hunting strategy that may fail most of the time and may take a few tries to achieve. The decision of whether to hunt or enjoy the mid-day sun is a “no-brainer” for this lioness. If she does not hunt, she does not produce milk, can’t feed her cubs, thus causing them to die from starvation and become “dinner” for other predators. Director Joubert elaborates further: “Understanding more about the hunt and the kill, as well as our own feelings about life and death is what this [film] is about.”

It is believed that lions loathe water and hunt at night, but the animals in this documentary spend a great deal of time in the water and hunt under the hot afternoon sun! Lions like to hunt medium size animals such as zebras and gazelles, but the group in this film hunts massive buffalos, five times their size and numbers. They also have some tribal and social conflicts that threaten their own existence. While planning the hunt, Ma di Tau is constantly aware of her enemy, Silver Eye, the one-eyed lioness with a long established reputation for ferocity towards any cubs which are not her own. Between the hunting and guarding her young cubs. Ma di Tau has very little time for sleep, and we are told by the narrator (Jeremy Irons), that it is ill-advised for any lion on the island to fall into a deep long sleep at any point of time during the day or night.

Dereck Joubert sits in the director’s seat, but more important he is behind a camera that you’d don’t get in the digital store. With a film that took six or seven years to make, he shows his expertise in the field—not quite a lion whisperer, though one wonders why his subject never attacked him. The Last Lions should be on the short list for cinematography awards come the end of the year.

Rated PG. 88 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Crayton Robey’s
Making the Boys
Opens March 11, 2011

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
A Documentary

Featuring: Mart Crowley, William Friedkin, Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, Carson Kressley, Peter White, Laurence Luckinbill, Dominick Dunne, Cheyenne Jackson, Larry Kramer, Dan Savage, Robert Wagner, Paul Rudnick.

The Boys in the Band was a seminal moment in gay theatre.

Regardless of one’s views on the virtues of the play, the above statement is a given. The play represented the very first time gay men were presented, in any medium, as ordinary—if heavily flawed—human beings just trying to get through the muck known as life.

Watching the film version of Boys again recently I was struck by how my impression of the work, based on watching the film several times over the years as well as seeing the revival in the 90s, was with the general consensus that the characters were all self-hating homos. This last viewing, however, I realized that one character is truly self-hating and all the others are merely trying to figure it all out.

The second shocker to me was just how much I found myself liking Emory—the most effeminate character. I despised Cliff Gorman’s portrayal for years, but this time I actually came away loving the performance and the character. Emory had a lot more depth, poignancy and compassionate than I ever allowed myself to see. You live, you change your mind.

Crayton Robey’s new and absorbing documentary, Making the Boys, is an impressive chronicle of the playwright, Mart Crowley, and his groundbreaking play. The pic pulls no punches when it comes to analyzing whether the stagework happened to be in the right place at the right time (for a brief spell, anyway) or whether it’s actually great. Robey gives us a pretty comprehensive overview of the making of the play, the reactions and the almost-immediate backlash at a time when the gay rights movement was just cutting its teeth. The film explores whether Boys was damaging to the gay movement.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Mart Crowley, the docu is a must-see--from his early beginnings rubbing elbows with the rich and famous before he was either--through his deep friendship with Natalie Wood to the story of how and why he sat down to write The Boys in the Band, to his inability to write anything of substance afterwards.

Robey smartly gives the viewer a contextualization of what it was like to be gay in the 1960s and how things began to change in the 1970s. He also mixes in a contemporary view of gay life by showing us a slew of spoiled queens who have no notion of queer history and no seeming desire to know about it.

The play opened in on April 15, 1968, received glowing notices and was the talk of the theatre community for years. But by the time the faithful William Friedkin adaptation was released in 1970, things had changed and many turned its back on the work.

There’s much wonderful footage in the doc including some home movies taken at (closeted gay) Roddy McDowall’s parties, moments from the original stage version as well as 8mm snippets of Crowley doing the town.

In a telling interview, playwright Edward Albee discusses how he could have invested in the play but chose not to. Later, he notes that he felt the play did more harm than good. He’s obviously not a fan, to this day.

Crowley is featured in a lot of the footage and is pretty honest about assessing his own career. One of the most eerie and heartbreaking realities of the Boys story is that most of the cast lost their lives to AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s. The rest were never quite able to rid themselves of the stigma of being in the original cast of a “gay play.”

The story of Boys is important to gay history, regardless of its literary merits. It was first and because of it look how far gay depictions on stage, screen and television have come. Personally, I feel it’s a good play simply because Crowley leaves a key plot element a mystery. He is smart enough to ask the question but clever enough not to provide answer. I don’t think it’s a great literary work, but it certainly has its moment, even today.

When it came time to sell the screen rights, Crowley had many lucrative studio offers. Producer Ray Stark, in particular, wanted to buy the rights and recast the film with Hollywood stars. To Crowley’s credit, he held out until he was able to make a deal for the entire original cast to do the film (pretty unheard of in those days and even today) with him producing and writing the script. Smart man. Had he sold it to Hollywood it, most likely, would have languished in development limbo until someone rewrote it as a straight play!

Still, the idea of a 1970s all-movie star version of The Boys in the Band gives me a woody. Imagine:

Paul Newman as Michael

Roy Scheider as Donald

Dustin Hoffman as Emory

Steve McQueen as Hank

Warren Beatty as Larry

Robert Redford as Alan

Sidney Poitier as Bernard

Jeff Bridges as Cowboy

And Jack Nicholson as Harold, “the ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”

All heterosexual, of course…as far as we’ve been led to believe, anyway…

Philippe Diaz's
Now & Later
Opens February 18, 2011 at New York's Quad Cinema

Written By: Philippe Diaz
Starring: James Wortham, Luis Fernandez-Gil,Shari Solanis, Marcellina Walker

Cinema Libre Studio
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The opening credits of Now & Later cite Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian-American psychiatrist/author who brought us such marvels of technology as the orgone box. Reich is known for his position that sexual repression leads to violence in a culture. But the film's use of a highfaluting quote from a shrink is merely an excuse for cinematic soft-core porn. Not that the eight sexual escapades are a bore: if such activity were dull, people would not pay stiff (so to speak) money in hotels to watch porn.

Now & Later is part of a series being screened at New York’s Quad Cinema called Unrated: A Week of Sex in Cinema, which should sell just fine. But despite the political commentary by the principal female character about how the U.S. has supported dictators around the world (Mubarek, anyone?) and despite the Reichian allusion, there is little of artistic merit in Mr. Diaz’s production. The dialogue is desultory and banal, the acting of the lead male is second-rate, and the simultaneous orgasms that conclude each sweaty bout of full-nudity sex (no discreet sheets cover either character) is not credible. Nor can we understand why Angela (Chari Solaris), a Latina libertine who believes in “now,” would want much to do with a penniless American, Bill (James Wortham), who is all for planning for “later.”

We learn that Bill has embezzled big bucks from the bank for which he worked and has been sentenced to eight years in jail, but chooses instead to jump bail and head to East Los Angeles with the help of his driver, Luis (Luis Fernandez-Gil). He is en route to Nicaragua—where he expects to spend his life, though he does not speak the language and literally does not have enough money to pay for the two bottles of water that he orders for his disgusted wife Sally (Marcellina Walker). We learn as well that Angela is an undocumented immigrant living in L. A., having survived a bad childhood in Nicaragua where her parents were killed by the Contras. (OK, the scripter is a leftist.) But Bill knows nothing about politics and still thinks that the Land of the Free can do no wrong. How does an international banker avoid reading about how Oliver North conspired to send Iranian money to the Contras—the thugs that President Reagen once described as the Central American equivalent of our Founding Fathers?

But who cares about politics when there’s pleasure to be had in a bedroom—or, not really a bedroom, but a single room that combines a shower, a toilet, a hammock and a bed with a little library sporting at least one book about Ho Chi Minh? If Angela were a founding father, she’s probably want to write into the Declaration of Independence that everyone has the right to sexual happiness. Then again one wonders about two characters who share a bed, who get up in the morning without going to the toilet or brushing their teeth, and immediately go at it, alternating their sizzling physicality with chats about masturbation.

Unrated. 97 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Xavier Beauvois's
Of Gods and Men
Opens February 25, 2011

Written By: Xavier Beauvois (adaptation and dialogue),Etienne Comar

Starring:: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During the bad old days of the Cold War 1945-1989 U.S. policy was one of containment of Communism. The belief was the when Communism hit one country, the dominoes would fall and Communism would spread to its neighbors. Thus, when Vietnam was threatened with unification under a Communist government, the U. S. decided it had to intervene to prevent the disease from spreading to Thailand and eventually to Japan. This theory proved false.

Though Stalinism and its evil twin Nazism are no longer serious threats, we’re not home free. Islamization threatens Muslim governments that are under secular administrations or under moderate theological governments. Islamists, who, we are told sadly misinterpret the Koran, want to overthrow governments not extreme enough, such as those in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The threat of falling Islamists, or rather jihadists dominoes can be exemplified by what was happening in Algeria during the nineties, a North African country which, after gaining independence from France, set a course of moderation. Radicals moved to overthrow the system until reconciliation took place in the latter part of that decade. But until some semblance of peace and stability were restored, angry, bearded men from the Groupe Islamiste Armée (GIA) began by ordering foreigners to leave Algeria in 1993. When an armed group kidnapped seven Christian monks in the village of Tibbhirine, demanding that France free some of its own men incarcerated in France, the French government stuck to its policy of no negotiation with terrorists. The seven monks, an unlikely group to have been targeted given the good works they had been doing for the poor people of the village such as taking care of minor medical problems and issuing clothing, met a fate they seem to accept stoically.

Xaviet Beuavois’s film Of Gods and Men, known in the original as Des homes et des Dieux, is loosely based on actual events in the Cistercian monastery under the Rule of St. Benedict, monks who pray and sing seven days a week, observe silence and study most of the time, and cultivate good relationships with their neighbors through farming. While the execution of the monks is well-known and therefore not a concept that would be considered a “spoiler,” the film makes up for its predictable ending by opening us in the audience to the rhythms of life in this Spartan monastery, where decisions are made by open voting under the elected leadership of a prior.

Of Gods and Men, which won National Board of Review’s award for Best Foreign Film of 2010 and is France’s entry for an Oscar for 2010, is a slowly-paced meditation that puts us into the minds of these monks, who on the one hand are saintly and naive and on the other hand practical. But they are not practical enough. Given the chance to flee Algeria and return to their French homes, they refuse to abandon the village people. Conscience doth make not cowards of them, but the opposite: martyrs for a cause that is obviously more just than the perverse martyrdom sought by Islamist suicide squadrons.

The film stars Lambert Wilson in the role of the monks’ elected leader, Brother Christian, and Michael Lonsdale as the aging Luc, who appears to be the only one actually practicing medicine for the Muslim villagers, dispensing antibiotics, giving tetanus injections to the wounded, and digging up shoes and presumably other material goods for the poverty-stricken folks—who in addition to their daily tribulations are in fear of the radical members of the GIA. The monks cannot believe that they are at risk, given that some of them know the Koran as well as the Gospels. Their leader, Christian, is able to write in Arabic, and the entire group participates in the village celebrations. Despite the paucity of melodramatic action and the preponderance of indoor scenes, the film works beautifully as a cinematic work. Through the miracle of celluloid, we bear witness to their daily rituals, a modicum of tension mounting as the eight monks sit around a wooden table to discuss whether they should take the advice of both the terrorists and the Algerian army and leave the country, or at least accept a military presence outside the monastery. If the audience were teenagers (the film is rated PG-13), we could almost imagine these young people shouting at the screen, “Leave, leave, don’t be idiots!” What motivates the tension is the murder of a group of foreign Croatian workers by the GIA, the one scene that is graphically shown near the beginning.

A New York Times article on January 3, 2011 by Steven Erlanger points out that France has been “moved and angered by two films about Algeria and the French confrontation with its colonial past.” Both have been put into the Oscar competition for 2010. Outside the Law is full of action, dealing with the Algerian fight to overthrow French colonialism, while, of course, Of Gods and Men is about the efforts of radical Islamists to overthrow the moderate government of Algeria. Le Monde considers the monks of Tibhirine to be full of “nobility of spirit, a sense of sacrifice, freedom, sincerity, daily ecology, meditation, reflection on death.” The first film would surely be embraced more by those who insist on a high degree of physical action, vengeance and murder while the second would be appreciated by filmophiles with more advanced cinematic tastes, those who are willing to go with the flow and rhythm of a world closed to most of us. Both films are gems.

Rated PG-13. 120 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics


Don Roos's
The Other Woman
Opens Friday, February 4, 2011

Written By: Don Roos from Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

Starring: Natalie Portman, Lisa Kudrow, Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You’ve probably heard that hotshot lawyers spend eighty hours a week at work—hotshot meaning, in part, that they’d recently graduated from Harvard Law School. Not so, says film director Don Roos, who might blame Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits for his perception. In the film, two lawyers and even one physician appear to have considerable time on their hands to pout, argue and indulge themselves in feelings of guilt. One wonders what their clients must think about being ignored for weeks and months.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a complex family drama boasting yet another stellar performance from the ubiquitous Natalie Portman (in virtually every scene) and a terrific supporting role from Lisa Kudrow, whose character has no use for Portman’s. Don Roos demonstrates that you can knock out an engrossing family drama without the sappiness of a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV presentation, the screeching melodramatic flourishes of All My Children, or the employment of Judd Apatow-style vulgarity. The feelings of guilt appear authentic, the all-around redemption that ushers in the finale is earned.

After introducing Emilia Greenleaf (Natalie Portman), the wife of a New York attorney Jack (Scott Cohen), writer-director Roos flashes back to show Emilia’s two-ply reasons for feelings of guilt. For one thing, she is a home wrecker, stealing Jack away from his wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), never mind that Jack’s marriage is on its last legs. Still, stepmothers are all evil in the eyes of the young ones, so we can’t be too surprised that eight-year-old William (Charlie Tahan) resents Emilia while maintaining his love for his dad. How to win the kid over? Even more complex, how to win Jack over when the gent believes that Emilia has no love for William?

Adding to her feelings of guilt, Emilia is convinced that the death of the three-day-old infant she had with her new husband is her own fault.

The dialogue frequently sparkles. When Emilia, in one of her many excursions with little William, discusses the difficulty of reliving oneself in some situations, Williams, who disagrees, pipes up, “I have a penis. You don’t.” Replies his stepmom, “Thanks for clearing that up. Now I can stop looking.” A melodramatic showdown scene between Emilia and Carolyn, one that threatens to erupt in a full-scale catfight, is a gem and, in fact, the frequent eruptions of hostility between the home wrecker and the wreckee are amusing as they are convincing.

Don Roos, whose résumé includes The Opposite of Sex, wherein a 16-year-old girl visits her gay half-brother and ends up seducing his boyfriend, and Bounce, which finds man’s switching plane tickets with another man who dies in that plane in a crash, the man then falling in love with the deceased one's wife, is in his métier. Roos’s humor is dark, Steve Yedlin’s photography around New York, especially Central Park, is bright, and both Natalie Portman and little Charlie Tahan glow.

Pursuits played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 but opened only this year –something to do with not distracting the Academy from awarding an Oscar to Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan.

Rated R. 102 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Kenneth Bowser's
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
Opens January 5, 2011

Written By: Kenneth Bowser

Starring: Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A documentary like this one gives older folks a chance to relive memories of a time that people took the streets to demonstrate against an unpopular war--when, by contrast, today’s youths appear politically comatose while America fights thousands of miles away. It allows younger people to marvel at a kind of singing that must seem to them so simple, however pure, that they must wonder how it ever became popular.

Listening to a sample of some of the well over one hundred songs composed and sung by Phil Ochs, the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s (“Live From New York”) laudatory but far from puff-piece film, one can’t blame an audience for thinking that musically, the crooning sounds so similar that, take away the words and you have only a single composition. The power of Phil Ochs’s protest songs comes from the words, not the melodies. It’s easy enough to marvel that the man was the most prolific writer of the genre though he lived only to the age of thirty-five: the Mozart of protest songs.

Bowser’s doc is loaded with talking heads, including those of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Sean Penn, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders, all of whom had nothing but good things to say about the man whose ego was large enough to convince him that he would belt out the equivalent of today’s platinum disks. He did, in fact, fill a major concert hall but only because Bob Dylan agreed to join him. He never did gain the fame he sought, in fact Bowser gives the impression that his ego was at least as strong as his idealism. This is not unusual: many who see the award-winning, five and one-half-hour documentary Carlos, about the life of the world’s most notorious terrorist now serving a life term in France, come away with the impression that he too was more concerned with his celebrity status than his ideals.

Essentially Bowser’s film runs along three lines: one features the snippets from Ochs’s best-known songs and commentary from the man himself on his politics; a second are reflections by people who knew him or were well acquainted with his talent; yet a third is archival film, all of which has been seen before by any lover of documentaries or even by folks who watch TV specials about Watergate, Vietnam, and the turbulence climaxed during the Chicago National Convention of 1968. There’s a rehash of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.; four students from Kent State University who died during what the left called “a police riot.” We see photos of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner who were gunned down in cold blood with police complicity while conducting a voter registration drive in Meridian, Mississippi. On to the guns of Vietnam; Johnson’s swearing in and decision not to seek a second term; Nixon’s resignation speech—the usual suspects.

There would have been no way to cram much of Ochs’s output into a 98-minute film; for example I was hoping for the first couple of stanzas of my favorite, “Draft Dodger Rag” which begins “I’m only sixteen, I’ve got a ruptured spleen, and I always carry a purse” but had to settle for the man’s lyric statement to the draft board that as soon as they construct a war that has no gore, he’d be the first to sign up. More lyrics show up for “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” an ironic ditty that trashes liberals who are probably all hypocrites for being, as one subject states, ten degrees left of center but moving ten degrees right of center when a situation applies to them. (Probably what he had in mind is that liberals, who ostensibly believe in fair play, were the first to make sure that their sons avoided the draft—usually by having them staying in school as long as it took.)

Phil Ochs wound up unfortunately in the tradition of America’s greatest raconteur, Spalding Gray, who committed suicide by diving from a Staten Island Ferry and drowning himself—the result of depression. Ochs, who may have inherited his manic-depression, is caught on camera in his last year looking ten years older, begging money from passing cars as he turned schizoid, ultimately hanging himself with a belt after a stay with his sister in her unassuming house in New York’s Far Rockaway section.

Not Rated. 98 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Alister Grierson's
Opens Friday, February 4, 2011

Written By: John Garvin, Andrew Wight

Starring: Rhys Wakefield, Richard Roxborough, Alice Parkinson,

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Sanctum brings to mind Danny Boyle’s recent 127 Hours. The difference is that Aron Ralson, played by James Franco in the earlier film, was trapped by a huge rock in Utah that pinned his arm so decisively that the only way to escape was to slice the ligament from the offending stone. In Sanctum, a group of cave divers, financed by a billionaire, seeks to explore the last remaining place on Earth that has not been discovered: a crevice in the ground full of risks, more than enough to whet the appetites of enthusiasts of extreme sorts. Both films begin in the same style. In 127 Hours, James Franco’s character, an adventurous sort who merrily bicycles through Utah on the way to a canyon near Moab, may be alone until he meets a couple of young women, but he is more than enough company for himself, singing and rocking throughout the journey. Sanctum features a group of divers bubbling over with conviviality, including two women and one local person. A difference is that the denizens of Grierson’s movie sport Australian accents. Neither picture involves anything resembling romance, thereby cutting into a potential audience at the box office and Sanctum involves even less of what passes nowadays for a plot than 127 Hours.

Sanctum is for a specialized audience, one willing to give up most of the charms of melodrama (though one pops up toward the conclusion and comes across unearned) and comedy (there’s not a single laugh in its running time). Fans of National Geographic might well be entranced, but considering that there are no actors particularly known to American moviegoers, its future in the theaters is in doubt.

Sanctum —which means “an inner room”--barely advertises the name of the director but instead makes us well aware that its executive producer is James Cameron, whose Avatar soared in box offices everywhere and whose Titanic ranks among the most financially successful movies of all time. With a script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight that’s nothing to write home about, the action takes place in Papua, New Guinea, once the scene of Japanese invasions during World War II and also known at one time as the last remaining locale with inhabitants who savored a diet of human flesh. Filmed however in Australia’s Queensland’s Gold Coast, the film takes us to a gung ho group of explorers intrigued by the existence of Esa’ala, a huge hole in the ground that leads to a series of caves, ultimately back to the surface populated by a small group of beachcombers who can’t be blamed for knowing nothing of its existence.

The project, financed by billionaire Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), is led by Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), the aim being to locate a passage that would take the explorers both through the route and back to the surface. Frank’s girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), has experience with mountain climbing but is new to the escapade, and seventeen-year-old Josh (Rhys Wakefield), Frank’s son, will prove to be more than capable of surviving a trip that would take the lives of his comrades. Essentially, this virtually plot-free story gains much of interest from challenging the audience to bet—as though it were a horror tale—who will be the first to die, with special commendation to those who can name the fatalities in the order that they occur.

As the group carries out its individual functions, we in the audience watch all go through a labyrinth of death-defying wonders amid jagged rocks and pure blue water. Unfortunately the filmmakers went with 3-D, the pesky goggles doing little more than darken an already dusky setting, quite unnecessary to the need of demonstrating the beauty of the landscape. Performances are adequate, dialogue banal, though the real attraction of the project is nature’s production design.

Rated R. 106 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Dominic Sena's
Season of the Witch
Opens Friday, January 7, 2011

Written By: Bragi F. Schut

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen

Relativity Media
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’ve ever wondered why few high-school kids name algebra, geometry, earth science or chemistry as their favorite subjects, go to see Season of the Witch, a recent screening of which brought out an SRO crowd of invited young people. Season of the Witch takes place in medieval times, deals with the Crusades, and will likely find some nice box office figures on opening weekend. Now, could you imagine an SRO crowd of high-school students turning out for a movie about algebra? An isosceles triangle doing battle with a rectangle? Sodium hydrochloride fighting tooth and nail with nitric acid? Of course not. By now you’ve probably guessed that history is just about every kid’s favorite subject, but not just history: medieval history! Can you picture knights, under the leadership of the Church doing battle against…well, it’s not exactly clear from Season of the Witch just who the heretics or infidels are: the term “Muslim” is never mentioned in the movie though it does appear in Will Durant’s History of Civilization. It suffices to say that anyone, man, woman, child or demon, who crosses the path of these Church-inspired Crusaders, is a goner, though the demon takes some more time to polish off Of course you can picture this, and so can the teens who may line up to see Nic Cage and Ron Perlman and company do what knights always do: either kill everyone in sight or save a woman in distress.

Season of the Witch is a January release, which should tell you something about its quality, though not too many in the youthful audience will measure its resonance as compared with films like The King’s Speech. January is the dumping ground of studio films, a reprieve from all the high-falutin’ stuff trotted out during the awards season that runs from mid-November through the end of each year. To prove a point, director Dominic Sena does not open the movie with an introduction to a king’s problem with stuttering but with the execution of a trio of accused witches, who (spoiler) all get hanged within minutes. It did help that one “witch” confessed her deed, swore that she made a pact with Lucifer—all in the service of being untied and sent on her way. Fat chance: but her immortal soul is saved by the priest thanks to her owning up.

When two knights, Behman (Nic Cage) and his bosom buddy Felson (Ron Perlman), have their fill of fighting the battles that follow, one after another—the two betting who would kill more infidels, the loser buying the drinks—they desert, are busted and thrown into the dungeon. They get a chance at freedom when they agree to escort an accused witch (Claire Foy) to a village six days distant for trial—said witch being one of a number who conspire to kill everyone in Europe by plague. (The plague is based on an historic event that peaked in 1348, carried by rats, probably not witches, one that wiped out one-third of the continent’s population.) They free a potential guide from the stockade, Hagamar (Stephen Graham), and head off on a road-and-buddy trip by horseback with priest Debelzaq (Stephen Graham Moore) in tow, the priest’s pal, Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), and an altar boy, Kay (Robert Sheehan) who wants to prove himself in battle and become a knight. Battling wolves in preparation for the mother of all battles with a large demon, they must first overcome obstacles like a rickety bridge over which they must cross but which threatens to collapse under their weight. (It does: how they intend to get back home is never illustrated.)

When the din of battle dies down somewhat, we can hear what they folks are saying on their trip, something to the effect of “Are we there yet?” What they say—put into their mouths by scripter Bragi F. Schut—makes us long to go to the roar of another battle. They don’t speak the king’s English, they certainly don’t speak the language of Geoffrey Chaucer or even of Geoffrey Rush. They are all acquainted with the language of Milton as spoken in modern times, such as “I saved your ass,” which itself is indeed a sentence that could have come from one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It’s all silly stuff, fun for those with time and their hands, and beats staying home to watch Entertainment Tonight on WCBS. As for post-film discussion, scores of kids in the audience immediately took out their BlackBerrys, each to tell his or her 967 Facebook friends all about why history is their favorite subject.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's True Grit

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's
True Grit
Opens December 22, 2010

Written By: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen from Charles Portis’s novel

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Now that the Republicans are about to take control of many of our state legislatures, the word is that they are going to try to relax the gun laws in states like Tennessee. Folks are going to be able to carry guns wherever they go, concealed or not. If the Republicans get their way, the laws in these red states will be quite different from the laws in New York City. Here in the Apple, it’s almost impossible to get a gun license and even the police have to account for every bullet they fire. Most cops in New York go through their thirty-year careers without firing a single shot!

Times have certainly changed. As recently as 1875, in states like Arkansas and Texas, a marshal did not only need not account for how many bullet he shot, but in most cases he can leave bodies behind with no one knowing the difference.

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit has some shoot-ups—not enough if you ask me—but then again the Coens, who have created satiric fare like Fargo (a pregnant sheriff tenaciously works to solve three bloody murders in her jursdication) and O Brother, Where art Thou (a take-off on Homer’s The Odyssey, featuring three companions from a chain gang who seek to recover stolen loot), go old-fashioned in a Western that’s (alas) nothing like their No Country for Old Men. True Grit is character-driven, dependent largely on the talents of Jeff Bridges as an old codger whose best friend is the bottle, but who has a healthy respect for money, a fellow likely as not to take up a hunt for bounty as to enforce the law.

While True Grit might have been a bold affirmation of feminism when Henry Hathaway’s version hit the screens in 1969, the part taken by Hailee Steinfeld in her debut feature role as fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross is old-hat now. Ross is determined to avenge the murder of her father at the hand of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a man her dad trusted who skipped into Indian territory but whose capture is not considered a priority by the Law. Given three choices of men who would accept a bounty, she chooses the most ruthless hunter, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom she meets while he is taking his time in an outhouse. He takes the offer, goes into Choctaw territory in pursuit, not realizing that the young woman will follow him at every step, even as he meets up with a partner, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon—almost unrecognizable as a guy who could have come out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

True Grit becomes a road-and-buddy movie set in the Old West, a part of the union that had no roads, one in which buddies could only sometimes be relied on. Most of the humor (though more comes across from the novel) is delivered by Jeff Bridges when he’s drinking, attempting to shoot corn bread and becoming bested by his buddy. The jokes that become repetitive after a while. The movie is good-natured and laid-back enough to attract an audience that does not require the kind of bloodshed that fans of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, in which William Holden declares “If they move, kill ‘em”) insist upon.

Rated PG-13. 110 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Jaume Collet-Serra’s
Opens Friday, February 18, 2011

Screenplay by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell based on the novel by Didier van Cauwelaert.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz & Frank Langella.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Unknown is a stunningly shot, somewhat silly yet entirely engrossing thriller starring Liam Neeson, who is fast becoming one of our finest action heroes in his late 50s .

Considering that January and February are usually where all the lousy movies are dumped by Hollywood onto the public, Unknown shines like a gem among the turd droppings. Owing a lot to the Bourne films as well as being slightly reminiscent of Sydney Pollack’s seminal Three Days of the Condor, Unknown is a real edge-of-your-seat ride with a slew of twists and turns, literal and otherwise.

The very amiable Neeson plays botanist Dr. Martin Harris who journeys to Berlin with his wife Liz (a sly January Jones) to give a speech at an important summit. As they arrive at the hotel, Martin realizes he’s left an important piece of luggage at the airport and hails a taxi driven by Gina (a suitably mysterious Diane Kruger). Along the way they are involved in a horrific accident and Martin wakes up in a hospital, four days later, with no ID and a weak memory of what happened.

To give more away would be to spoil the spy drama plot developments that will have you anticipating the films next move. Suffice to say that the final twist is impressive although I did wish more clues would have peppered the early part of the pic.

There are rich performances here, especially Bruno Ganz’s turn as a former Stasi agent who Martin hires to prove his identity. Kruger has fun as, oddly enough, a Bosnian illegal. And Jones’s performance makes much more sense once the final piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Directed with great haste by Jaume Collet-Serra, Unknown may be a bit goofy but it’s also a seriously satisfying movie.

Peter Weir's
The Way Back
Opens January 21, 2011

Written By: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke from Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgard, Dragos Bucur, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong

Newmarket Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

They say that the best way to go is to be healthy through your 90’s and then to drop suddenly, without warning, without pain. No long illnesses, no gasping for air. If you don’t like that, there are alternatives. Think of the many ways devised this year by revenge-seeking Jennifer in Steven R. Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave, or the way Paul Conroy winds up buried alive in an Iraqi coffin in Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried! How’s this for a long road to death? The route in Peter Weir’s The Way Back takes a small group of convicts across mountains and deserts for 4,000 miles, through winter’s freeze and summer’s scorch, torture at the hands of nature: The fierceness of the sun, the threat of frostbite from snow, the pestilence of mosquitoes, the unending thirst, the fear of starvation, the hopelessness of mirages. All the elements of Mother Nature are considered worth fighting to escape from the misery dished out by fellow man: long sentences in Siberian gulags, the slave labor camps to which twelve percent of Russians had been sent by Stalin’s government largely for political crimes. Many innocents were sentenced under a paranoid, totalitarian ruler to produce slave labor and to keep the people terrorized.

The trouble with The Way Back is that the film is an overlong slog though boasting terrific mountain and desert scenery captured by Russell Boyd’s cameras, but the film features characters whose lives are virtually interchangeable despite the multiplicity of nationalities - their stories lack edge and interest. The Way Back, could have used more editing to cut it down by twenty minutes, and should have evoked more drama than simply presenting a linear narrative of: find water, find animals to kill and eat, bury the dead, see mirages, move on. Yet the film might be fodder for some Humanities awards, given the heroics of men struggling against oppression in search of freedom.

The opening scenes are the best, embracing the most drama as Janusz (Jim Sturgess), finding himself interrogated in Russia-occupied Poland in 1939, is confronted with his own wife’s denunciation for treason. She had been tortured, though Janusz, similarly put to the rack, had refused to sign a confession as he is innocent of the charges. Thrown into a Siberian freezer, where a brutal nature is the jail-keeper more than the guards and the dogs and the barbed wire, Janusz gets together with a common thief, Valka (Colin Farrell) who has no problem with Stalin and even sports a tattoo on his chest of the man together with Lenin; Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American, there because Stalin “hates foreigners”; Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean); Voss (gustaf Skarsgard); Khabarov (Mark Strong); and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky). After the breakout, they run into a Polish woman on the run, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), whom they take in despite opposition from Mr. Smith, who believes there’s not enough food to go around, though Valka jokingly(?) suggests that she can become meat for the men when she dies. Janusz remains the principal character responsible for the film’s title, as he is determined to find the way back to his wife, not for revenge but for quite the opposite reason: to restore a sense of family and sanity to his life.

Some of the real stars of the movie are the makeup people, who allow the actors to exhibit sunstroke, foot injuries, scars, and mosquito bites. Beards come and go. Haircuts are given and hair grows back. Nature plays a big role: snow turns to sun; there is even a sirocco. And special effects teams provide for a couple of mirages. The ice stays firm for a crossing on a narrow part of the lake, giving in to freezing water just as the performers are about to touch land on the other side.

Peter Weir has done far more exciting work with Gallipoli, about a disastrous World War I battle; The Truman Show, imagination running wild about a man trapped in a TV show, and Witness, about a Philadelphia cop recovering from injuries in Amish country. The Way Back is filmed largely in Bulgaria, with on-site locations utilized in Morocco and India.

Rated PG-13. 133 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


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