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Maria Sole Tognazzi's
A Five Star Life (Viaggio sola)
Opens Friday, July 18, 2014

Screenplay: Ivan Cotroneo, Francesca Marciano

Starring: Marguerita Buy, Stefano Accorsi, Gianmarco Tognazzi, Alessia Barela, Lesley Manville, Henry Arnold

Music Box Films

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

A typical five-star hotel in the more expensive areas of Europe, Morocco and China would cost, $700 a night and up. And that doesn’t include the enormous tip that would be expected for your butler, assigned to you only, waiting in the hall at your beck and call with room service treats that, of course, would be charged to your bill. Imagine having a job that would take you from one such hotel to another, from one romantic country to the others, with all airfare and taxis paid for and with the power to determine the fate of each establishment to some extent. Would you like that? Probably, and Irene (Margherita Buy), the principal character in Maria Sole Tognazzi’s dramatic comedy A Five Star Life (I Travel Alone in its Italian title), is not exactly miserable. But believe it or not, she feels that she is missing something, and that something is family, a person or group of persons that she could love and who love her back and who provide an anchor of stability for this otherwise independent person . Poor Irene. But she can also laugh at herself for her longing, which is why Tognazzi’s wholly delightful tale is light enough to be called comedy with sufficient weight to be named a drama as well.

Top off the terrific, subtle screenplay of Ivan Cotroneo and Francesca Marciano with one of the best lead performances you’ll see this year, and you have a five-star movie! It’s not for nothing that Margherita Buy won the Italian equivalent of the Oscar. She is Italy’s answer to France’s Catherine Deneuve and, in her forties, more desirable, perhaps, than ever before.

Director Tognazzi, whose Past Perfect, or Passato Prossimo, dealt with five friends with relationship problems who meet outside of Rome on a snowy night, continues to deal with unusual relationship problems by focusing on Irene (Margherita Buy), whose to-die-for job leaves her lonely for someone she can call her own. She is no celibate, having enjoyed years with her lover Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), who in turn is awaiting the birth of a baby from his current girlfriend Fabiana (Alessia Barela). Her principal people-time at home is with her sister, Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) and her two lively nieces whom she occasionally takes out for the day. But if Irene were familiar with her sister’s marriage—a husband (Gianmarco Tognazzi) who has pretty-much given up sex—she might not be considering matrimony as the solution to her intimacy needs.

Occasionally she’ll meet a guy in one of the posh hotels—whether in Paris, Gstaad, Marrakesh, Tuscany, Berlin, Apulia or Shanghai—but one-night stands are not her thing. Her life is due for a change when in a Turkish bath she runs into a feminist anthropologist, Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville), who is scheduled to give a televised speech about her views on pornography, but by the conclusion of the sprightly movie, we are not sure whether she will chuck her job and look for something less impersonal.

Aside from the stunning Ms. Buy’s convincing role, director Tognazzi and her entire crew of actors and back-up people treat themselves to some traveling around Europe and Morocco, filming enough of each location to get a feel of its principal attractions. We see the mountains surrounding Gstaad, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the brilliance of a lit-up Shanghai night, the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Within hotels we witness the intrusiveness of the butlers, the desire of staffs to please the well-heeled guests, the blow that befalls one resort when Irene follows one naïve couple around noting that the employees all ignore her, a twosome that do not belong in such luxury and who probably won the trip in a contest. The film’s narrator goes through the checklists—Do the employees make eye contact? Do you feel comfortable? Are there stains on the sheets or dust on the mirror-tops?

All in all, A Five Star Life blends comedy and drama in an exquisitely-acted roundelay of continental tourism.

Unrated. 85 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Matthew Weiner's
Are You Here
Opens Friday, August 22, 2014

Screenplay: Matthew Weiner

Starring: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Laura Ramsey

Millennium Entertainment

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

Are You Here is a buddy movie not unlike those of the 1980s. This one tells the story of a friendship between Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a TV weatherman and serial dater, and Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a person judged emotionally unstable who is being helped through his long-term friendship with Dallas.

There are several flaws that can be pointed out:

The most serious one is thematic. Ben does not conform to the general culture of the U.S. and is therefore considered bipolar because he is a vegetarian, he has a thick beard, and is obsessed about the ways that we are destroying the environment. While most people of that bent might sit around a living room coffee table to discuss their attitudes, Ben makes his ethical views the center of his existence, regularly spouting his viewpoints. Unless writer-director Matthew Weiner is satirizing mainstream views and glorifying Ben, which I doubt, he makes us think that if such a guy takes his meds, shaves his beard, begins eating chicken and moves on to beef, and tears down a store he inherited to put up a modern place of business instead of one emulated nineteenth century groceries, he is cured. Normal. Conformist.

Another is that we should expect a lot more of the director, whose helming of nine episodes and scripting of eighty-seven of TV’s Mad Men—evoking the character of the mysterious and talented executive Don Draper. With Are You Here, the story is torpid, generating characters who go through their lines sleepily—telephoning them in, as the expression goes.

This is not to say that the movie lacks wit. There are some sharp one-liners, though few if any that remain in mind hours after the film, but generally the comedy is limp, the drama lacking poignancy.

The story turns on an inheritance left by Ben’s father in his Amish-country Pennsylvania home. The widow Angela (Laura Ramsey) is a hippie some decades younger than her departed husband, wearing a simple gown and without shoes. Ben leaves nothing to her but the “stars in the sky.” Instead, while the man’s daughter, Terry (Amy Poehler) gets a mere $250,000, Ben gets the farmhouse, the hundred-plus acres, and assets that total over two million dollars. Though Steve is not mentioned in the will, Ben feels an obligation to him for helping to make Ben “normal.”

Are You Here, which had been called You Are Here—neither pertinent to the specifics of the plot—deals with soap-opera issues including the question we in the audience must have on whether the hippie-ish Angela will respond more affectionately to Steve, though she believes Steve is a superficial guy who depends on his charm as a substitute for genuinely interacting. “You think I’m charming?” retorts Steve, in one of the movie’s solid one-liners.

Nor does Ben look better having taken a razor blade to his dense facial hair. He seems to be giving up his identity in his new role as an ordinary fellow, and here again we wonder whether director Weiner wants us in the audience to catch his drift, which may or may not be that Ben is doing himself a favor. For his part, Steve does not convince us of his own change, from a superficial skirt-chase to a man who is realizing that existence should be something more.

Chris Manley films the story in North Carolina to take the place of Lancaster, Pennsylvania and environs.

Rated R. 113 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


John Michael McDonagh's
Opens Friday, August 1, 2014

Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaac De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

Ever since that disastrous choice in the Garden of Eden, the world has been going to hell. It’s no wonder that our young people have stopped reading books and newspapers and train their smart phones not to CNN or NYTimes or Huffington Post but instead communicate frantically with their friends. Not for them a great concern with the explosive Middle East, the fights in the U.S. Congress, the potential revival of the bad old Soviet Union. With Calvary, Michael McDonagh deals with allegorical impact on the sad state of affairs but instead of painting on the world’s canvas he restricts himself to a tiny community on the west coast of Ireland (filmed largely in County Sligo in the town of Easkey and on Streedagh beach). You’d think that the diverse sort on whom he trains his lenses would be found in New York or Chicago, but no, even in a community that you could virtually count on your fingers and toes, you have a group of sad characters who for one reason or another feel lost, even suicidal.

Nor does Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) ultimately believe he can help them, and if the town priest, even after consulting with the bishop (David McSavage) has no counsel to give, what good is he to others and, of course, to himself? In a towering performance cast in a slow-moving picture of a lost world, Brendan Gleeson holds court as a priest who is a reformed alcoholic who may find himself off the wagon and a townspeople who to a great extent have lost faith in the Church and in the beneficence or even existence of God.

Calvary is the second of a trilogy that began with The Guard, Ireland’s most successful indie ever, a comic take about a policeman in County Galway (also played by Gleeson) who has seen enough of the world to know that there is not much too it, and who teams up with a humorless FBI agent in pursuit of a drug ring. Calvary opens with a bang as an unknown parishioner in the confessional with Father James announces his plan to kill the priest in seven days not because he was the priest who sexually abused him many years earlier (“I first tasted semen at the age of seven”) but because he is innocent—and the murder of an innocent priest will afford greater publicity than revenge against the guilty.

During his round, Father James, who at one point borrows a gun for self-defense, which he considers justifiable killing, gets a sense of the dark mood of his parishioners. James Brennan, a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) is suspected of beating his slutty wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), but her injuries may have been caused by Simon (Isaach de Bankole), her lover from the Ivory Coast. He catches a policeman (Gary Lyndon) having sex with a male hooker (Owen Sharpe)—who talks like an Italian gangster. He listens to a Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) spout atheistic views while puffing on a cigarette, a youth who has not “the gift of gab” and is unable to “make it” with any woman (he wants to join the army to kill people in revenge), and especially a rich fellow, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), whose wife and kids have left him and who is so detached from his money that he urinates on an expensive painting.

When you watch each of these characters being interviewed, you might think of the movie riffs on speed-dating in which each guy gets a limited time to define himself and moves on to the next—except that Father James hears deadly serious and mordant cries of despair.

In his stellar performance, Gleeson expresses a range of emotion: he’s tough, he’s resigned, he drinks and curses, he lashes out physically even shooting up a bar. By the time he visits a prisoner (Domhnall Gleeson—his son in real life) who has been convicted of rape, murder and cannibalism, he’s ready to throw in the towel.

Larry Smith films in widescreen along the wind-swept west coast of Ireland, and despite using digital technology rather than real film, Calvary looks sumptuous. Whatever you think of the ideas graphically illustrated, you will be unable to take your eyes off Gleeson—who will hopefully be remembered during end-year awards season; an actor incapable of playing a false note.

Unrated. 100 minutes. (c) 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

James Franco's
Child of God

Opens Friday, August 1, 2014

Screenplay: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, based on the novel Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Starring: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, Nina Ljeti, Brian Lally, James Franco

Wellgo Releasing

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

Living close to nature is not what it’s cracked up to be. Yeah, it’s fine for a week, if you’re into camping, but when you have to live like a feral animal in the hills of East Tennessee, virtually homeless with nary a shack within a mile, you could get mighty lonely—and dirty. But that’s not the least of it. Dirty he is, but Lester Ballard (played in a tour-de-force, theatrical performance by Scott Haze), tolerated his own presumably smelly body and then some. As Tennessee’s most notorious necrophiliac, he had sexual relations with at least two dead bodies, one, a woman who was already gone in a seeming suicide pact with a man, and another that he shot and dragged back like a cave man to wooden abode. Eating the dead? Talk about a Paleolithic diet!

The ubiquitous James France sits in the director’s chair knocking out a faithful version of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel, considered by some perhaps the most fair-minded tale of necrophilia, one that could conceivably have readers and, in turn, members of the movie audience siding with the guy by recognizing the humanity underlying the perversion. When he picks up a dead woman from the bowels of a car, discarding the man with whom she committed suicide, he experiences a satisfying (to him) sexual union which McCarthy describes graphically in the book: “Scuttling down the mountain with the thing on his back he looked like a man beset by some ghast succubus, the dead girl riding him with legs bowed akimbo like a monstrous frog.” The moviegoer misses the cadences of the novel but enjoys a performance from Scott Haze that should have the awards people at year end penciling in his name. Haze purportedly lost 45 pounds living in a cave in preparation for the role, eating nothing but fish and apples.

Apparently retarded with what looks like a double set of teeth, causing him to spit out words that are barely comprehensible, Ballard avoids looking at people straight in the eye. Instead he bends his head, gazes up with his eyes as though following an ophthalmologist’s direction to “look up,” his brief sentences to the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) simply defending himself with words like “I don’t know nothing about a body.”

Director Franco follows the novelist’s division of the story into three parts, adding some voice-overs to give us in the audience a feel for McCarthy’s chilling prose. He focuses on Ballard, living in Sevier County, Tennessee during the 1960’s, a man who carries a rifle as though it were his third arm. He is not just retarded but disturbed, becoming increasingly so as society casts him off. We’re not about to believe that “all he needs is love.” He is too far gone to warm up to anyone, preferring to shout, to rave, to respond to voices like a schizophrenic. Among his revolting actions are masturbating outside a car while watching a couple making love inside and putting a bullet into a cow strictly for fun. Franco finds humor in the man at various points, particularly when he invades a chicken coop and has tough time capturing one of the flustered birds. He defecates in the woods (in a scene that Judd Apatow might want to copy in a future movie), wiping his butt with a stick. Snot drips from his nose, causing some of the audience to turn away. He is pursued by the sheriff who’d like to put a bullet in him but is apparently restrained by his oath of office. He decorates his cave with decomposing bodies, one of whom he lovingly dresses in a new outfit finishing the job with lipstick, and sets up three stuffed animals which he wins in a carnival shoot.

If you are repelled, the movie has worked. The Tennessee-set story is not like Walt Disney’s 1946 movie Song of the South, nor will you hear anyone burst into the song “Zippa Dee Doo Dah.” You will not leave the theater indifferent, and as stated above you may even find some sympathy for the man as he sets about the rugged southern terrain. Nor do we ever find out the reason for his pathology. Haze so dominates the proceedings that you might almost forget the role of the Sheriff Fate, his deputy, or the townsperson who gets shot near the conclusion. Whether this is thematically your kind of pic, you’d be churlish to dismiss Haze’s look, his bellowing, and the way he must be suffering.

Rated R. 104 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Lenny Abramson's
Opens Friday, August 22, 2014

Screenplay: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan, based on Jon Ronson’s original newspaper article

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil

Magnolia Pictures

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

Here in New York, the city with the world’s most diverse population, you’re lucky if one day passes without your spotting at least one crazy out of our seven million people. But I’ve never seen a guy wearing a large plaster mask covering his entire face, hair painted on top, fitted so he is unable to take solid nourishment. Man, that’s nuts, but the folks in an Irish band take such a character in stride. In fact, Frank is inspired by the true story of one such person, Chris Sievey, who took on the name of Frank Sidebottom, but is inspired as well by other musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the film, was part of the band, the action shot in County Wicklow in Dublin and in New Mexico taking the place of Austin, Texas, the home of the SXSW festival. This by way of preventing you in the audience from saying that the plot is too far-out to be real, though anything can happen in musical comedy.

To label Frank musical comedy, though, may be a stretch, since you don’t see people chatting, then bursting in songs that advance the plot. Instead, these misfits get together, converse often aimlessly though sometimes working to improve their style. We get the impression soon enough that these people would never be accepted no matter how many “hits” they receive in the social media, nor do they particularly care that the music is performed principally for their own entertainment.

Did we say that the band members are all emotionally disturbed? Frank (Michael Fassbender) for example, never takes off the big plaster mask even though it prevent him from eating solid food. He sleeps in it, sings and plays music in it, and is generally tolerated, even respected by his colleagues. The leader of the group, Don (Scott McNairy) is even more disturbed, though he hides his face in a broad hat, a beard and dark shades. He has already attempted suicide by a plunge into the ocean and will try to complete the act through other means before the story is over. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a first-class cynic whose emotional disturbance is more difficult to detect, perhaps because while her action is bizarre from the point of view of someone in Ireland, it would be considered normal enough in New York. As the group’s narrator, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) comes across as a shy person living with his parents, a young man with mediocre talents like the rest of the band but who believes he can be celebrated as both a writer and a keyboarder. He gets the job with the group after an interview: “You play C, F and G?” That’s it. His affirmative answer puts him in their van where they take him far from his roots to a remote location in Ireland to practice doing what Frank calls journeying “to the far corners of artistic creation.”

The film is surprisingly accessible even if you think by reading this synopsis that it would be far out. Jon, who is a stand-in for co-writer Jon Ronson who witnessed the band’s “music” and who performed on keyboard himself, evokes distinct personalities from the members of the group, including one French duo with virtually no speaking roles, Nana (Carla Azar) and bass player Baraque (François Civil). The movie does not outlive its welcome, encouraging members of the audience to laugh at the players rather than with them, though we’ve got to sympathize with Jon’s desire near the conclusion to “sell out” by performing music that would more likely be appreciated by the audience at SXSW, where the group is to perform its debut concert.

In the end, we get an explanation from Frank’s parents about the title character’s bizarre behavior, the father in Kansas taking some blame in setting his boy up for a life of disappointment and disaster. This is an unusual performance from Michael Fassbender, heretofore known principally as a man addicted to sex in Steve McQueen’s Shame. As Jon, Domhnall Gleeson evokes the conflicted moods of the group’s newest member, one who has hopes, however farfetched, of giving the band mainstream kudos.

Unrated. 98 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Shan Khan's
Opens Friday, August 1, 2014

Screenplay: Shan Khan

Starring: Aiysha Hart, Paddy Considine, Faraz Ayub, Shubham Saraf, Harvey Virdi, Nikesh Patel


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

When Terry Leonard made the 1987 action thriller Death before Dishonor, he was setting the stage for one gunnery Sgt. Burns to rescue Marines taken hostage in the Middle East. These Marines believe that nothing is worse than dishonor, meaning that they, themselves would rather die than suffer a fate worse than death. It’s bizarre to think, however, that there are thousands of families that would rather kill what they consider their wayward daughters than allow themselves to be criticized by neighbors or feel humiliated in their own religious beliefs, and in fact though 5,000 Islamic killings of this nature are recorded annually, it’s believed that the figure is closer to 20,000 per year.

Honour takes us into an Islamic family but is concerned more with making a thriller than examining this faith-based phenomenon. This is in itself not a bad idea, but writer-director Shan Khan avoids a one-thing-leads-to-another chronology in favor of a circularity that does nothing to further the plot and serves only to confuse the audience. The story is book-ended by a physical fight on a train between two white-power types and a Pakistani-British family, but since we don’t know that the couple will show up again at the conclusion, we wonder what this introduction has to do with the story. The actual killing is repeated, a redundancy that is simply not necessary as we are already privy to the disaster that occurs within one family that holds the bizarre notion that a daughter who dishonors her parents and brothers (in this case through pre-marital sex with a young man from the Punjab region who may even be Muslim like them) deserves to be killed by her own mother and brothers.

Shan Khan, whose brief résumé includes acting and writing some TV and directing one awards-nominated short gives us his first feature film, one which centers on Mona (Aiysha Hart), a Pakistani-British subject who works as a real estate agent and who has a Punjabi boyfriend, Tanvir (Nikesh Patel), who has made her pregnant—though he tells her that they are unable to marry because he had been promised at the age the age of three. When her mother (Harvey Virdi) tells her that without honor, a life is not worth living, the stage is set for mom and the young woman’s policeman brother Kasim (Faraz Ayub), to strangle her and bury her in the countryside, though Kasim’s younger brother Adel (Shubham Saraf) is not too pleased with the plan but follows along.

When Mona escapes, the family hires a bounty hunter (Paddy Considine) to track her down, which is easy enough since she lacks the foresight or the money to get well out of town. Almost predictably, when the bounty hunter finds her, the two bond, perhaps not so strange when you consider that the man picked up a dose of regret and wants this to be his last job.

As though the confused and unnecessarily non-linear plot were not enough to bring discredit on what could have been both an entertaining and enlightening film, the accents, hardly the king’s English whether spoken by the Pakistanis or the white Brits, are difficult to understand.

Honour was shot on the Isle of Man and Glasgow and punctuated by a percussive score. While well acted by the ensemble, special credit must be given to the mother, played by Harvey (!) Virdi as a sinister, evil person—and what could be more evil than a mother who both plots and takes part in the execution of her own daughter?

Unrated. 104 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Lasse Hallströms'
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Opens Friday, August 8, 2014

Screenplay: Steven Knight based on the novel The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Starring: Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon

Dreamworks Pictures/ Participant Media

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

If good food could end the French and Indian War and lead to rapprochement—at least in the version given us by Lasse Hallström’s new movie—then surely the Palestinians and Israelis can get together. After all, French cooking and Indian cuisine are as different as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, while both Palestinians and Israelis like falafel, hummus, babaganoush and halvah. The Hundred-Foot Journey, then is about how different cultures make a war of sorts across a DMZ of one hundred feet in a small town in the South of France, a film that will find its principal audience among fans of Hallmark greeting cards. but will have appeal across a wide spectrum of folks whose taste in movies is as different as two principal performers - Om Puri and Helen Mirren.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is right up the alley for its director, known largely for his 2000 film Chocolat, which deals with how a woman and her daughter open up a chocolate shop and break through the rigid morality of the community. This time, a large Indian family under the paterfamilias of their papa (Om Puri), suffer the torching of their Mumbai restaurant during political mayhem, move to England and then wind up in the South of France. They buy, renovate, and open the Maison Mumbai, a daring challenge considering that small-town French people would not likely buy into an exotic cuisine, would not necessarily appreciate the presence of Papa’s family in their monochromatic town, and would surely not abandon a one-star Michelin establishment, Le Saule Pleureur, one hundred feet from the Maison. That restaurant, run by the haughty and demanding Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), is a favorite of the town mayor and others with extra Euros in their pockets. When Papa, who champions the cooking ability of his son Hassan Kadam(Manish Dayal), insists on playing Indian music at full volume, he brings on even more disgust from Madame Mallory, who rigid pose covers up her vulnerability: she has been widowed recently.

If you guess that Papa and Mallory will reconcile after a period of cutthroat competition and that Papa’s handsome son will enjoy a cross-cultural flirtation with Mallory’s sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), you win a gold star You’re a fortune teller who received ample training from viewing movies of the Disney-Touchstone-Dreamworks variety.

Filmed in the village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val with opening shots in India, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a treat for the eyes. Not only is the village neatly ensconced in the French mountainside; the grand buffet of food from both cultures is mouth-watering, its tastes allegedly evoking childhood memories such as those enjoyed by Marcel Proust when he would eat Madeleines. Much is made of Madame Mallory’s desire for a second Michelin star, a grant she hopes to achieve by exploiting the inventive cooking of young Hassan—who adds cardamom, turmeric, and other Indian spices to classic French dishes. When Mallory objects that he is fighting recipes that are two hundred years old, he states, logically enough, that “that’s long enough.”

One could argue that this film is a fairy tale, that there is no way the snobbish Madame would consider inviting the immigrant family into her life, nor would the smug villagers take a chance on a cuisine known for fiery dishes, particularly when the French cuisine shares with the Chinese and Italian a consensus that it is among the world’s finest and most elegant. Accept that for what it is and you’ll enjoy the tentative romance between Hassan and Marguerite and the inroads that even Papa makes on the Madame, considering that the two older folks are not only from different national cultures but possess wholly distinct personalities. Here is a movie with a PG rating that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children, but leave at the box office your expectation of complexities beyond those of cultural differences.

Rated PG. l22 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Mike Cahill's
I Origins
Opens Friday, July 18, 2014

Screenplay: Mike Cahill

Starring: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Cara Seymour, Venida Evans, William Mapother, Kashish

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

Everybody’s fingerprints are unique. No two people have the same ones. We know this because in the movies, detectives can flash thousands of fingerprints across the screen and, despite the vast numbers are able to pinpoint which ones match the model. In other words, nobody has yet found two living people with the same prints. What would you think, though, if you discovered that a guy has the same fingerprints as someone who recently died and whose prints had been on file? I, for one, would suspect there’s some kind of soul brother impact there, or even more far out, that this living person is the reincarnation of the departed one. That’s a major motif in Mike Cahill’s I Origins, which might more accurately be called Eye Origins, because a biologist, determined to disprove the theory of Intelligent Design, that the eye had been perfectly formed since the beginning and not evolved via a succession of 12 steps, is working to discover those very 12 steps. But while that is his goal at first, he comes to realize something more dramatic, and that insight, a coup de théâtre if you will, has the most resonance for the movie audience.

In his sophomore film, writer-director Mike Cahill proves his mettle at unfolding sci-fi themes as he did with Another Earth, which posits that there is a second Earth within our own solar system. Again featuring Brit Marling, Cahill puts Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) front-and-center with Marling as Karen, his lab assistant. As the film opens, Ian and Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) meet cute at a Halloween party, Sofi dragging her new find to the bathroom for sex. (Later Ian would ask Sofi why she “slept” with him that night, giving that tired euphemism as new meaning: sex on a toilet seat.) When Ian later meets Sofi on a New York train, he recognizes her by her green eyes, which stood out from the full facial mask that she wore at the party.

Two women are now in Ian’s life: the intellectual Karen who discovers a way to plant eyes on unseeing lab worms, and the emotional, but rather empty-headed Sofi. Emotions win out: Ian and Sofi engage in regular lovemaking, but when Sofi has an accident, Ian is devastated. Later marrying his lab partner, and with a best-selling book The Complete Eye on the shelves, Ian continues to have eyes for the departed Sofi. When the couple’s first son leads Ian to India to search out more mysteries of the iris, the Big Themes are pronounced, but director Cahill soft-pedals the jargon and trusts the audience to retain an interest in Ian’s scientific work, particularly since Ian may be about to shed his atheistic belief in cold, hard facts to embrace a more spiritual outlook.

Kashish, a girl in India who seems about eight years old, turns in a soulful performance as the girl who matches the color and shape of Sofi’s eyes, while Archie Panjabi (Kalinda on TV’s The Good Wife) introduces Ian to the girl, shedding the American accent and cynicism we’re familiar with from that program and projecting her ethnically Indian character. There are plot holes such as you’d find in most imaginative tales; for example, in the Indian hotel, why would Ian walk up the stairs and take the elevator down?

I Origins requires patience, that singular virtue that is praised by all spiritual masters, as the complex plot points will unravel successfully by the picture’s final, abrupt conclusion. Michael Pitt does a credible job portraying a scientist who ultimately shows his spiritual side, a likable actor who sails through this almost two-hour sci-fi journey as a convincing lead. Look for more intellectually and emotionally challenging works by this writer-director in the years to come.

Rated R. 116 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Philippe Garrel's
Jealousy (La Jalousie)
Opens Friday, August 15, 2014

Screenplay: Philippe Garrel, Caroline Deruas, Arlette Langmann, Marc Cholodenko

Starring: Louis Garrel, Anna Mouglalis, Rebecca Convenant, Olga Milshtein, Esther Garrel, Manon Kneuse, Julien Lucas

Distrib Films

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

In the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins notes, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.” We do, in fact, have the impression that what’s taken with some seriousness here in the States is treated more casually across the Atlantic. Bar pickups, for example. We may think that it's no big deal to the French to hit the bars for a one-night stand when you have a wife at home. And perhaks, your spouse might not even be jealous if she hears about these encounters, but Philippe Garrel has other ideas. In his latest film Jealousy, he tells the story of three separate incidents of La Jalousie, one involving a child, but the more important one focusing on the intense emotions felt, in turn, by the wife of the principal character after he blithely takes off with all his belongings, and later, by the principal performer himself. So the French don’t lightly take the brush-off when the dumping involves a long-term commitment, and Mr. Garrel presents a slight but involving black-and-white drama as his contribution to this epiphany.

Garrel, who has dealt in his impressive curriculum vitae with Parisians in love, and with folks who are trying to make it in the creative but difficult professions, presents us with Louis (Louis Garrel, the son of the director), who has a mop of hair to excite many a man’s jealousy, and who lives with a perfectly fine, down-to-earth wife Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant). But that’s not good enough for him. Louis has a long-term liaison with Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), a person who in my opinion should never have been considered competition for his wife. She is neurotic, fearful, an actress who has not had a job in six years and who has gotten fed up with the garret she’s living in with Louis, an actor with only slightly better prospects on the stage. Frustrated, she goes with the bar scene but is ultimately looking for more than one-night stands.

When Louis’s adorable daughter Charlotte (Olga Milshtein) responds to her mother’s question about “How was your day with your father,” Clothilde acts casually, covering up her seething jealousy of her husband, who she assumes has got it made. We in the audience cannot be blamed for hoping that Louis will be hoist on his petard and be given occasion to be even twice as jealous as Clothilde.

Jealousy is talky, as French romantic dramas are wont to be, and as laid back as you can image, probably filled with improvisations despite its being scripted by four writers, including the director. Several scenes stand out including one in which Claudia, desperate for work, washes the feet of the director who might offer work for her, an elderly man who talks regularly about being ready to “check out” and who reads Seneca for that Roman’s philosophic outlook on life. In another quick scene, we get a sudden closeup of Louis’s daughter, one which seems to come out of nowhere, but is Philippe Garrel’s tribute to the silent films he loves.

The production notes tell us that this movie is somewhat autobiographical. The director’s own father ran out on the family causing Garrel to be jealous perhaps for his entire lifetime. With Jealousy, he uses his real-life son to represent his own father, a nice touch for a pleasant drama that at 77 minutes does not outlast its welcome as a tranche de vie (slice of life).

Unrated. 77 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz's
Land Ho!
Opens July 11, 2014

Screenplay: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz

Starring: Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee, Alice Olivia Clarke, Emmsje Gauti

You probably heard the advice “Travel while you’re young. You have the energy, and once you get kids, you’ll have to put off long trips for many years to come.” There is some truth in this: of course you have more energy when you’re 20 than when you’re 60, and traveling with young kids or teens can be trying. But what do you do after the youngsters leave the nest and you leave your career to retire? You may have hobbies but eventually you’ll have wanderlust and will want to break up the routine with some trips abroad. While Reykjavik may not be on your mind as much as Paris or Rome, there are some hardy souls who may appreciate the brisk weather and stunning nightlife of that city and the raw beauty of its natural surroundings.

In Land Ho!, such hardy souls include Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and a buddy about his age, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), the former a surgeon from Kentucky who retired six months earlier, the latter a retired banker from Seattle who had given up a potentially exciting career playing the French horn in a symphony orchestra. Their friendship shows that opposites attract. Mitch is a brassy extrovert who does not think before he speaks and who sees phallic symbols in some formations of nature. He likes to talk while Colin serves as listener, at least until they get on each other’s nerves, and well they might from spending a week or two together, seeing each other every day. Since Mitch has money and Colin can barely afford a trip abroad, Mitch splurges on a pair of first-class air tickets, on a good hotel, and on one of Rekjavik’s finest restaurants. Remember that everything in Iceland is expensive, which means that dinner for four can easily come to five hundred dollars when you add a few bottles of wine and some of the finest Icelandic fish.

Land Ho! is a road-and-buddy movie that has been compared to 1980s road comedies or to more modern fare such as Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip—about two men travel through the backwoods of England reviewing restaurants. Directors Martha Stephens, whose Pilgrim Song is about a music teacher who hikes down Kentucky’s Sheltowee trail, and Aaron Katz, whose Cold Weather, set in Portland, investigates the disappearance of a girlfriend, are in their métier with Land Ho! though here the emphasis is on the age of the two buddies. It’s easy to see how Colin, the quiet one of Australian background, can both envy and complement Mitch, and how some of Mitch’s extroversion rubs off as Colin joins his elderly friend in a spontaneous dance and in a flirtation with Nadine (Alice Olivia Clarke) a woman traveler-photographer with whom he shares a dip in the country’s famous, steaming Blue Lagoon.

We learn much about the men when they relate to vegetarian Ellen (Karrie Crouse), who is Mitch’s cousin-once-removes whom Ellen prefers to call an uncle, and Janet (Elizabeth McKee), Ellen’s Jewish friend who has joined her on a tour of Greenland while they prepare their Ph.D. dissertations. Iceland may be the last place that folks would be discussing Jewish mysticism, but Mitch, who has a son who is a Jewish convert, and Colin, who is simply fascinated, gets a small earful about its followers’ desire for a more personal experience of God.

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson look more like men in the seventies than in the production notes’ described sixties, but they prove that there is much to the golden years that’s more than just a euphemistic expression. The scenes of Iceland could yield more business for that country’s tourist board, but from the looks of the foreboding landscape, I’d say that if you don’t like the sun you’d find more to your liking in the UK countryside than in the Spartan surroundings filmed by Andrew Reed, who alternates close-ups of the characters with travelogue-style shots of a country with a population under 600,000.

Rated R. 95 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jan Troell's
The Last Sentence (Dom över död man)
Opens June 20, 2014

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

Screenplay: Jan Troell, Klaus Rifbjerb book by Kenne Fant

Starring: Jesper Christensen, Ulla Skoog, Pernilla August, Björn Granath

Box Office Films

In November 2001, President George W. Bush issued this manifesto: There is no room for neutrality in international politics. You are with us or against us. A nation need not contribute troops, but all moral countries must take an active role in some way in the war against terrorism. Such advice would have gone over like a lead balloon during World War II, when countries like Switzerland and Sweden maintained an iron-fisted neutrality even against an evil such as Nazism. (Even though the U.S. was neutral during the early stages of the war 1939-1941, this was in name only as our country supplied the UK with destroyers under the Lend Lease program).

And Bush’s counsel cut no ice with the government of Sweden to this day. That most prosperous Scandinavian state was eager to have its neutrality respected by Germany during the Second World War, even rolled over to some extent by allowing the German army to use Swedish railways to transport the German 163rd Infantry Division along with howitzers, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. Sweden also sold iron ore to Germany, but then again, the country allowed the Allies to use Swedish air bases during the last months of the war.

Still, there were voices against all compromises with the Nazis even at the risk of provoking a German invasion. The leading voice of all was that of Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), who risked the contempt of members of the Swedish government by churning out articles (“Hitler is the devil”) by the scores as editor-in-chief of the Göteborgs Handels-och Sjofartstidning newspaper. Ironically, the publisher of the paper, Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), gave his editor a free hand even though he had been knowingly cuckolded by his rich wife Maja Forssman (Pernilla August)—who carried on a long-term affair with Segerstedt to the dismay of Segerstedt’s much ignored wife Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog). Some people in high position believed that Torgny’s furious writings were influenced by Maja, who was Jewish, and that the publisher put up with the risky business because of his wife’s money—which presumably financed the newspaper’s operations.

In this dramatic tale, filmed in Sweden’s northern coastal town of Lulea and also in Filmpool Nord’s Studio Kronan, with the Lule River’s standing in for Klarälven. The crew relocated to Gothenburg for eight weeks, then to Stockholm for a few days.

Director Jan Troell, whose Everlasting Moments focuses on a working class woman whose winning of a camera changes her life and whose The Emigrants deals with a couple trying to run a farm in Southern Sweden who emigrate to the U.S., this time covers a critical time in Sweden’s contemporary history. Troell appears to believe—judging by the voices he cites against the editor’s actions—that this one man, Torgny Segerstedt, could be solely responsible for provoking the first war on Sweden’s soil since 1815, and indeed, Segerstedt and his Jewish mistress both toyed with guns and capsules which could be used had the Germans invaded. The government is so alarmed by the flow of editorials that the prime minister, Per Albin Hansson (Kenneth Milldoff), though a dinner guest of the publisher, becomes furious when unable to stop the presses, though King Gustaf V (Jan Tiselius), known to be pro-German and no stranger to anti-Semitic feelings, finally gets his goons to raid the publication and censor some articles.

While about half of the picture’s fairly long 126 minutes deals with politics, the other segment treats the relationship within the eternal triangle: editor, wife, mistress, though neither Troell nor co-writer Klaus Rifbjerb, basing the screenplay on a book by Alfred Nobel biographer Kenne Fant, condemns Segerstedt as a “home-wrecker.” Perhaps the makers of the film are so impressed with the principal that they ignore domestic criticism in much the way that the movie Schindler’s List ignored that title character’s womanizing, making him a flawless hero as well.

The film is done with a high degree of respect for its audience with a stellar performance from the 66-year-old Danish actor Jesper Christensen, whose résumé includes twenty-five years’ work in his country’s theater.

Unrated. 126 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Steve James's
Life Itself
Opens Friday July 4, 2014

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Raven Evans, Ava Du Vernay, Ramin Bahrani, Richard Corliss, Nancy De Los Santos, Bruce Elliot, Thea Flaum, Josh Golden, Werner Herzog, Marlene Iglitzen, Donna LaPietra, Rick Kogan, John McHugh, Errol Morris, Howie Movshovitz, Gregory Nava, William Nack, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Roger Simon

Magnolia Pictures

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

Of all recognizable film critics, Roger Ebert was not the deepest thinker, the hippest writer, the best looking, or the one most willing to upset every consensus of opinion. For this last quality, think of contrarian Armond White of City Arts. For hip writing, there’s Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice, then Rex Reed of the New York Observer for looks, and perhaps David Thomson of The New Republic for depth of analysis. How, then, do we account for Ebert’s becoming the most popular of all, not just in Chicago or America, but globally wherever films are shown? Whatever Steve James’s stunning documentary does show about this iconic figure, it does not evoke a eureka moment in which the viewer says, “Aha, that’s why Roger Ebert is a household word!” But Life Itself, which comes from Ebert’s own memoir, is put together brilliantly, the interviews anything but a kaleidoscope of sleep-inducing talking heads. Steve James proves as few other documentarians do that you don’t need Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock to make an entertaining non-fiction film.

True enough, this is not satiric or particularly humorous, but rather gives us a picture as no other medium can of Ebert’s humanity. We already know he had the smarts, as did his teammate on the long-running PBC TV show Siskel & Ebert Sneak Previews. By catching the critic on his annual excursions to a conference on world affairs we can see that he was one of the most articulate of analysts. And from the editorials he fired off since taking on the role of honcho of his college paper he was a liberal: pro civil rights at a time that this concept was put to the test. Nor would he tolerate a vulgar ad scheduled for the page just before the news about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He literally stopped the presses (just like in the movies) and declared that the edition was not going out to the streets.

A good deal of the doc is spent with Ebert in the hospital where he had to undergo several major operations for cancer, first of the spine which put him in a wheelchair, then of the thyroid in which much of his jaw was removed leaving him open-mouthed, unable to eat or drink, and needing daily help to have his throat painfully suctioned out of liquid.

Ebert was no saint. During his early years as a reporter, then a film reviewer with the Chicago Sun-Times, he drank with his buddies in the local bar for hours each day, leading him to battle his alcoholism which, in turn, led him to the Alcoholics Anonymous chapter where he met his wife, Chaz. The more we see Ebert with his wife Chaz in the hospital, the more we see what a devoted couple they were. She would visit, sometimes with folks from her own family daily, making sure the staff did all that was required, though she admits that since Ebert was an only child, he was probably accustomed to the attention.

Interviews are conducted with A.O. Scott, chief critic of the NY Times, plus an assortment of people from various fields including critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, documentarian Werner Herzog, with Marlene Iglitzen, who was married to Gene Siskel, and with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. All-too-brief clips are shown of the films that Ebert liked, particularly Bonnie & Clyde which he called a breakthrough in filmmaking.

I would have liked the doc to be more than a puff piece, to include some of the critics of Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs-up, thumbs-down style, which some sniff has vulgarized critical analysis. Conspicuously absent was John Simon, for example, who referred to the two showmen as “Thumb and Thumber.” But this is a minor cavil considering the emotional footage that Ebert allowed Steve James during the last four months of the critic’s life.

118 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online.

Pascal Chaumeil's
A Long Way Down
Opens Friday, July 11, 2014

Screenplay: Jack Thorne, based on Nick Hornby’s novel

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Rosamund Pike, Sam Neill

Magnolia Pictures

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

Nothing makes much sense. Is A Long Way Down a comedy about depression, suicide, and paralytic disease? Does having suicidal impulses in common make for solid friendships? Is there anything in the script that adds up to more than banal chatter among four people with little in common? Who knows? Pascal Chaumeil’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel—the volume available on Amazon as an audiobook that received a surprisingly good review from Publishers Weekly—simply does not work as a movie. Perhaps this is because the characters are annoying rather than interesting, while a customer hearing only the voices does not see just how insipid the people really are.

The four characters in search of meaning are presented both together and in separate stories. Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) was a TV talk show host who, having gone to prison for sex with an underage girl loses his job, his family, and his pride. Maureen Thompson (Toni Collette) is a middle-aged woman with no social life who cares for a son whose illness has made him a vegetable. Jess Crichton (Imogen Poots) is just a wacko with a rich, politician father acting out teen rebellion to an unhealthy extreme. And J.J. Maguire (Aaron Paul) is a nice-looking, hip rocker whose band did not make it and who lost his girlfriend. People with more serious problems than this quartet have lived happy lives. These people, however, will have to learn to overcome their separate neuroses by hanging out together for six weeks.

The story starts in London on New Year’s Eve. Martin Sharp climbs to Topper Tower with the aim of throwing himself over, a long way down. Sweating and thinking, he is interrupted by a woman, Maureen, who demonstrates her London-style politeness by asking him to do the deed so she can take her turn. When J.J. and Jess show up on the roof—the former with no justifiable reason for suicide except teen rebellion, the latter simply because he lost his band and his girl—they make a pact to abstain for six weeks, Valentine’s Day, and hang out with one another to make sure the agreement is carried out.

The press gets the word, particularly because of Martin’s fame or notoriety, which gives Jess the chance to make up a story about being saved by a naked angel who looks like Matt Damon (ho ho ho). Jess’s politician father (Sam Neill) makes a few scenes adding to the dull dialogue in a movie that evokes the saying that misery loves company but updated that proverb by adding that when miserable people get together, they can cure one another. In other words, four negatives make a positive. A quick vacation in Majorca is all that’s needed to firm up the group’s bond and to give everyone the will to live. Welcome, Hallmark Hall of Fame. Exit, a credible story with either sufficient gags or understandably melodramatic moments.

Unrated. 96 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Ira Sach’s
Love is Strange
Opens Friday, August 22, 2014

Screenplay by Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias.

Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Darren E. Burrows, Charlie Tahan, John Cullum, Harriet Harris, Adriane Lenox, Eric Tabach, Christian Coulson, Sebastian La Cause, Christina Kirk

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

Ira Sachs is a gifted filmmaker whose gem, Keep the Lights On, was one of the best LGBT themed films of 2012. Love is Strange takes him to a new level as he examines the life of a gay couple in the twilight of their years.

The film opens with the marriage of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who we assume have just gotten the legal okay to marry after being together for 39 years.

George is immediately fired from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school; despite the fact that everyone knew he was gay. “The Bishop wasn’t happy,” he is told by his boss, about his daring to publically share vows with the man he loves. Since Ben is a struggling painter, the couple’s finances are now dwindling and they must find a cheaper place to live. In the interim, the men gather their friends and family to seek temporary arrangements, which, unfortunately, force the couple to live separately—until they can find a less expensive apartment.

Ben moves in with his always-busy nephew, Elliot (a solid Darren E. Burrows), his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their typically anti-social teen son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George stays with their loud, partying gay cops friends (delightful Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez).

Each man has his own issues with their respective living situations. And they miss one another terribly—a tribute to the two leads since we feel how deeply they need and love each other.

Ben, who is significantly older than George, is also frailer and needs to be doted on. In wonderful scenes between Kate and Ben, we are privy to her trying desperately to write while he prattles on about something. When Ben, at the suggestion of a frustrated Kate, decides to journey to the roof and paint, he uses Joey’s friend Vlad (cutie Eric Tabach) to pose for him, which doesn’t sit well with Kate.

Sachs and co-screenwriter, Mauricio Zacharias, dare to deal with the enormous challenges that aging brings about and how families must cope with having a loving, if unwanted, relation in their home. In addition, they probe what is seen as appropriate behavior versus what can be misinterpreted.

And the relationships in the film are examined in such a loving and tender manner—with tremendous nuance and complexity. Uncle Ben and family do get more screen time, but there’s a reason for that.

Sachs is a director who loves the medium and the way he shoots and frames provides endless fascination and create a real and true world of happiness and heartache.

The cast is truly superb with particularly outstanding work by newcomer Charlie Tahan, who has a secret but not necessarily the obvious one.

Allow me to discuss Marisa Tomei for a paragraph. The woman has been making bold and admirable choices since she won the Oscar over 20 years ago with little fanfare. And has not had any noticeable plastic surgery or alterations but looks absolutely terrific. She’s savvy enough to know that in order to really show emotion and the ravages of life, one needs a real face with real lines. One needs to be able to smile fully. And actually frown. She’s so good here (and in another TriBeca offering, Loitering with Intent) that one wishes someone would give her a lead role in something worthy of her amazing gifts.

Molina has his best screen role in years and delivers a lovely performance.

For Lithgow, this is his most challenging role and he rises to the occasion. Sure the actor is aces with the comedic one-liners but his Ben is much richer than just that. He’s a very enigmatic fellow who has spent his life being his own person—his own artist—and must now compromise his safe world. And be forcibly estranged from the love of his life. Lithgow should get awards attention later this year.

Sachs isn’t satisfied with making an inspired, vital, exquisite movie, he must find that perfectly profound ending that will leave most audiences breathless.



Luc Besson's
Opens Friday, July 25, 2014

Screenplay: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johannson, Morgan Freeman, Pilou Asbaek, Min-sik Choi, Clare Tran

Universal Pictures

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

At the movie’s conclusion, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) states: “We’ve had life for a billion years. Now we know what to do with it.” What does she think we should do with our lives? Presumably we should be able to stare at a gun and watch the bullets fall out harmlessly to the ground; look at a bunch of gangsters pointing AK-47s at us and have them drop their pieces and fly to the ceiling flaying impotently, conjure up dinosaurs and disappear just as they are about to gobble you up; and drive effortlessly down a one-way highway while watching cars pile up helplessly. In other words, while you may think that Lucy, who is steadily able to raise the capacity of her brain from the usual, human 10% to 100%, will be able to solve a Rubik Cube in 15 seconds, complete a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in indelible ink, or memorize 154 theorems in minutes without ever taking high-school geometry, Lucy’s brain is completely different. Sure, she probably could learn to speak French with a Montréal accent if she should get the strange notion to do so, but writer-director Luc Besson has other plans for this brainiac. She has the powers of a superhero: she can exercise telekinesis by moving objects and people from one place to another by simply willing it, can take a quick look at the unspoiled U.S. when Native Americans ruled the land, and touch the forehead of a famous scientist to discover that his six-year-old daughter had died in an auto accident. What’s more she can look at an X-ray of a person on an operating table, discern that he has advanced, incurable cancer, and shoot the poor fellow because “he could not possibly survive anyway.”

Is Lucy the new embodiment of feminine empowerment? That’s probably among the themes that Luc Besson had in mind, considering that he also created such powerful female heroes as the eponymous Femme Nikita and no less than Joan of Arc in Messenger.

Lucy is a combination of the title character’s superhuman powers and a standard gangster melodrama, the former given life by a gorgeous series of psychedelic images and imaginative, fantasy scenes, while the latter exhibits groups of Taiwanese thugs with AK-47’s, a drug mob that kidnaps people and forces them to work as drug mules by implanting whole plastic bags of blue powder into their stomachs. When such a bag embedded in Lucy breaks, some of the powder spills out transforming her brain capacity gradually, a feat that later evokes the interest of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), seen lecturing a large group of scientists riveted on his commentary. “There are more communications between our cells than there are stars in the sky,” he intones, thereby paving the way for a movie that gives graphic substance to Lucy’s potency.

Filming in Taipei and Paris (and allegedly annoyed by the constant interruptions of paparazzi during the late night shootings on the Chinese island), Besson hones in on Choi Min-sik as Kang, the leader of a large drug mob intent on selling drugs, though for what purpose we don’t know. To increase brain power? The mobster seems unaware of that potential. Kang is sought by Amr Waked as a tough, French policeman who has no fear of the gangsters and tries to act calm when Lucy takes the wheels of a police car. The gang chases Lucy; Lucy has visions that bring out the best imaginations of the Special Effects guys. And so it goes, the picture essentially split between those two polar choices, a sci-fi extravaganza and a standard hoodlum tale.

Scarlett Johansson never looked better or more assured of her role. If she speaks in a monotone and keeps a poker face throughout, this is obviously Besson’s intention. We can be sure that Johannson can tap the entire scale of emotions as she has done with films like Hitchcock where she became Janet Leigh and Her where her personality shines even as a disembodied voice.

Lucy is ordinary as a gangster story, exceptional in its special effects, but ultimately serving no realistic point since a drug that increases our brain power—such a chemical may indeed be in our future—may give us 4.0 averages in college but will not likely be able to talk the bullets out of a gun.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Woody Allen’s
Magic in the Moonlight
Opens Friday, July 25, 2014

Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Big surprise! After last year’s critically acclaimed Oscar winner, Blue Jasmine, many film journalists are dismissing the absolutely enchanting Magic in the Moonlight as one of Woody Allen’s lesser efforts.

This predictable blog-blather is such bullshit, but has become the standard. Woody cannot possibly produce two gems in a row. This one must be the silly trifle since Jasmine was so good. Well, screw them and their negativity.

There seems to be this notion out there that if a film doesn’t “surprise” us in some way, it’s not worthy. Magic in the Moonlight, like many romantic comedies, sets out to entertain first and foremost, but in the Woody way—sparking some interesting ideas about reason vs. faith. Can we believe in what we cannot see or understand? Is religion a hoax? Is life, as Woody recently said at a NYC press conference, “meaningless?”

So we may know the outcome in the first few reels, what does that matter if the film works? This is not an adaptation of a le Carre’ novel or an M. Night Shamalamadingdong film where twists are needed to cloud the lack of depth of the material, this is a Woody rom-com, for Pete’s sake!

“It’s all phony, from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond.”

Magic in the Moonlight is set in the late 1920’s Europe and is one of Allen’s more opulent films, gorgeously showcasing the French Riviera.

Woody had dealt with magic in other films (Scoop) as well as the supernatural (Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice). Here, we are given a comedic meditation on just how far intelligent people will go to believe in something that defies logic. Unchartered territory? Hardly. Yet, in the presentation, the debate is fresh and fascinating—and delves pretty deep.

Colin Firth magnificently channels his inner misanthrope as Stanley Crawford, a world-renowned illusionist who performs, in full racist garb, as Wei Ling Soo. After a performance in Berlin, we watch Stanley in his dressing room removing his makeup and revealing himself to be a nasty meanie of a Brit who mistreats everyone around him and has a general mistrust of humanity.

Stanley is told, by his fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney), of a psychic newbie who is pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible American family living in the South of France. Excited by the prospect of revealing a new fraud, Stanley journeys to the estate to meet this latest charlatan. Alas, Sophie (Emma Stone) appears to be the real thing, knowing things she couldn’t possibly know if she was, indeed, a fake.

“I’m a rational man in a rational world.”

Stanley finds himself transformed by Sophie and uncomfortably bamboozled, having to do a rethink about accepting the otherworldly, maybe even the existence of God. Perhaps things aren’t as rationally explained as he thought.

Magic boasts Pygmalion parallels and a few scenes that pay homage to My Fair Lady. You can almost hear Rex Harrison singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” as Firth lays his soul bare in one of the film’s most revealing scenes. This is easily Firth’s best role since The King’s Speech. He delights in Stanley’s hateful nature and skepticism. But we watch him change before our eyes and begin to question everything he’s held true for so long. It’s one of the year’s best performances to date.

The chemistry between Firth and Stone is pretty palpable and Stone, besides being a great beauty, imbues Sophie with a warmth and desire that makes her completely irresistible to the soul as well as the heart.

The entire supporting cast is excellent; in particular, Eileen Atkins is terrific as Stanley’s clever aunt. Atkins is a most underrated and underused actress so it’s nice to see her sinking her teeth into this rich part.

The production design, costumes and camerawork are to be commended as well.

Allen, at 78, proves capable of smart, snappy dialogue and, when all is said and done, shows a tremendous desire to believe…in something other than the rational. He just wants some proof.

Michael Walker's
The Maid's Room
Opens Friday, August 8, 2014

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

Screenplay: Michael Walker

Starring: Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Paula Garcés, Annabella Sciorra

Recall this recent news item: A family in California hired a maid/nanny to take care of their house. She was fine for a while, but soon she began to act like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the guy whose boss asked why he stopped working and would not leave the firm and getting the reply “I prefer not to.” This nanny, who scammed many people before, refused to leave the house, taking advantage of an odd California law that states that if you offer a bed and board to a person, she has certain proprietary rights and can be evicted only by going through a few months of proceeding. In other words, sometimes it doesn’t pay to hire a maid.

This is true as well in Michael Walker’s The Maid’s Room, a thoroughly tense, Hitchcockian tale of murder and deception set in the Suffolk, New York summer home and extensive property of a Mr. Crawford (Bill Camp), his wife (Annabella Sciorra), and their teen son Brandon (Philip Ettinger).

The Crawfords hire a live-in maid, Drina (Paul Garcés) to look after the teenager. Everyone gets along, the young man harboring sexual thoughts about the young Colombian woman—particularly after the boy has just been refused by someone his own age. When young Philip returns home, the front of his car demolished, a newspaper article stating that the police are looking for a hit-and-run driver, Drina suspects the truth—that Philip did not hit a deer as he told his dad but rather than he is accidentally, albeit in a drunken state, killed a man.

Much of the fascination in the tale comes from the father’s communication with his son. He obviously loves Philip and is willing to advise him whether asked or not. The father is particularly irked that his son has been fearful all his life, and excuses Philip for hitting the man: he understands and will do anything to protect his only child. This leads the rich Mr. Crawford to engage in illegal actions himself, particularly when he suspect that the maid will go to the police notwithstanding her own status as an undocumented alien without a green card.

Writer-director Walker, whose Chasing Sleep featured Jeff Daniels as a college professor trying to understand why his wife disappeared, keeps the story taut. Following the Hitchcock model, meaning that we in the audience know the identities of the perpetrators of capital crimes, The Maid’s Room pits a wealthy, influential family against a poor but intelligent and ambitious woman and her Colombian boyfriend. The mood is somber, the analysis of the psychology of father and son spot-on. Watch especially the scene involving the son’s imagination of the hit-run scene, and the use of symbolism: ants and the father’s wig.

Rated R. 98 minutes. (c) 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

János Szász's
The Notebook (Le grand cahier) (A nagy füzet)
Opens Friday,August 29, 2014

Sony Pictures Classics

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

Screenplay: Agota Kristof, András Szekér, Tom Abrams – adapted from Agota Kristof’s novel (see below)

Starred: András Gyémánt, Gyöngyvér Bognár, László Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár, András Réthelyi, Ulrich Matthes

In his 1954 dystopian novel Lord of the Flies, William Golding creates a world of British boys as sole inhabitants of an island without adult authorities. They try to govern themselves but end up with disaster. Simply put, the youngsters become barbarians. In The Notebook, we discover that adult authorities do nothing to civilize a pair of twin boys. To the contrary, the youngsters, copying what they see around them, imitate the adults. They become barbarians. In short, given the right circumstances, kids without adults can turn savage, and kids with adults can become unemotional, unfeeling, and violent.

The Notebook, which illustrates that last point, is a World War II film unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s an original, and it is blessed with superb, convincing performances, a deft use of graphics (particularly when we see the titled notebook close-up), and is filmed in a village alleged to be just a few meters from a border, one which is surrounded by two rows of barbed wire with mined land between. The twins who dominate the proceedings are playing 13-year-old boys but the actors, probably several years older, have only brief biographies in the IMDB. They should become better known as they rivet attention.

András Gyemant performs in the role of One while László plays the twin known simply as Other. When their mother, Anya (Gyöngyver Bognar), moves them from their city apartment because she fears they are too conspicuous at a time that the Germans are occupying Hungary, they are compelled to live with their grandmother, Nagyanya (Piroska Molnár). Grandma is known as The Witch and is believed to have poisoned her husband, an allegation which later becomes credible. We wonder how the kids will survive: she forces them to work hard on the scruffy farm chopping wood in return for food. The boys, noting the cruelty of the little world around them, determine to survive by toughening up. They whip each other into a frenzy until they claim to feel pain no longer. When they run into a deserter who has not eaten for four days and who dies, they test themselves by refusing to eat for the same period of time despite their grandmother’s gorging in front of them on the farm’s chickens.

They do everything together, and in fact in the movie’s most iconic image they are sleeping in the same bed, head to head as though conjoined twins. They can finish each other’s sentences. They never disagree. In their harsh world, they are befriended by only a few people. One is a Jewish shoemaker, Sutor (János Derzsi), who generously gives them warm boots; another is a Nazi officer (Ulrich Thomsen), who wears a neck brace. They learn how to steal from a village woman appropriately called Harelip (Orsolya Tóth). Between being abandoned by their mother and father, treated harshly by their grandmother, and exposed to their little world’s cruelty by the war, they imitate adults in their own way by killing insects and taping them to the notebook that their father had given them with instructions to write their daily experiences in detail.

What becomes clear soon enough is that The Notebook is an allegory, a fairy tale if you will. But it is more Hansel and Gretel than Daffy Duck. These twins must have quite a tale to tell, and in fact they do, or least novelist Agota Kristof does, in effect, by replicating the notebook as her novel--one whose pages must be filled with violence, sexual exploitation by the church deacon, murder, and seduction (as by a German maid who gets off while in a bathtub with the two boys). What is not clear is what country is on the other side of the border (Romania? Slovakia? Austria?), and why the lads’ father would feel a need to cut loose from Hungary and to cross over despite the danger of mines.

You can order Agota Kristof’s trilogy, which includes The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie from Amazon for $14.50, a good buy for the 480 paperback pages. Whether you read the novels or not, you can’t go wrong by seeing the film.

Rated R. 112 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Charlie McDowell's
The One I Love
Opens Friday, August 22, 2014

Screenplay: Justin Lader

Starring: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson


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

The main reason for the high divorce rate in the U.S. is probably not adultery or violence but simply the disappointment that one or both partners are simply not the same as they were when they met and courted. Either they have grown apart, developing different interests, or they can’t understand why they don’t feel the same passion that electrified them during their honeymoon. Just my opinion, but my viewpoint is given graphic representation by thirty-one year old Charlie McDowell in his full-length directing debut, using actors who are experienced in small, indie dramas and comedies. With Ted Danson in a small role and Mark Duplass largely improvising, think Cheers meets Your Sister’s Sister, as the popular star of the long-running TV episodes crosses paths with one of the great avatars of mumblecore. This is not to ignore the starring role of Elisabeth Moss, heretofore known to audiences in the brilliant cable TV series Mad Men.

What’s more, The One I Love embodies perhaps the greatest twists you’ll see on the big screen this year, twists so powerful that to describe them in a review would be dishing up an unforgivable spoiler.

In what is basically a two-hander, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have been married for some time and argue so much that it becomes obvious that they are on the brink of a split. Their therapist (Ted Danson) gives up on a talking cure, instead sending them to an isolated retreat where, he assures, many other couples have saved their marriages.

From their arrival time, they look like they will succeed, reinvigorating themselves, in effect going back to the exciting times of their courtship, particularly a long-remembered incident that found them both sneaking into a pool and inviting the enmity of a neighbor. In this Eden that consists of a main house and a guest cabin, Sophie and Ethan smoke some grass, have a nice dinner, engage in sparkling talks and in the sex that they had been missing for months. Then something eerie occurs: hours later, when Sophie returns from the guest house to the main building, a sleeping Ethan wakes up with no memory of their great night together. This is not the way to patch up your differences with your wife.

As a spoof of the romantic comedy/drama, The One I Love is spot-on. Using sci-fi elements that could have been found in episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone albeit with a more extended treatment and even a greater grounding in reality, Charlie McDowell’s movie uses Justin Lader’s script—one which allows considerable improv from the talented duo of performers. The audience keeps guessing about the nature of the clever divergences, trying to figure out the nature of some improbable occurrences.

The One I Love could not have been better cast, nor could the audience expect a screenplay that has more resonance to their personal lives—or, least, to the lives of some. Considering especially the low-budget nature of the proceedings, the special effects are terrific, the costumes imaginative, and the musical soundtrack, with the final song “Dedicated to the One I Love,” most relevant.

Rated R. 91 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


James De Monaco's
The Purge Anarchy
Opens Friday, July 18, 2014

Screenplay: James DeMonaco

Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoë Soul, Justina Machado

Universal Pictures

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

While watching The Purge: Anarchy, those of us of a certain age may think back to their childhood, perhaps at a time before Disneyland and Disneyworld, when you were grateful to take a few minutes on Coney Island’s Ghost ride. For twenty cents (this was in 1951 when I was privileged to sit on a rickety car), you travel a winding path through a dark tunnel. Every few seconds, things that go bump in the night would lunge toward you. First a skeleton would virtually wrap his arms around your neck. You pull back. Then a figure that looks like a prequel to the Freddy Kruger series would make a murderous laugh. When you finish your two dimes’ worth, you were hardly shaking with fear. In fact, you were laughing to think that anyone would be terrified. The ghost ride was used more by teen agers looking to make out in the dark for a few minutes when such activity was considered risqué in the fifties.

Such is the nature of James DeMonaco’s feature, following up the financially successful but critically dismissed movie which starred Ethan Hawke. This time around, Mr. Hawke makes no appearance, leading to guesses as to whether he was asked and refused. You watch a bunch of big, masked kids on the screen who look cute rather than frightening—one guy whose face is completely covered with the word “God” written across the forehead (go figure), another with a baseball cap who peers through a machine gun on a stand in the back of a truck, yet another group, rich people like the ones in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2 who are given the right to hunt down ordinary people and kill them for an audience of the one percent. You might smile, or even laugh at the absurdity.

The theme of the purge is that for twelve hours, once a year, the proto-fascist government of the U.S. in the year 2023 lets loose the dogs of war to…hmmm…from what I get either to reduce the population or to cleanse the emotions, thereby allowing the country to be relatively free from crime the rest of the year. During those twelve hours, you can commit any crime you’d like. No medical help, no fire engines. Never mind that psychologists now agree that releasing aggressions does not purge you of your hostility: it merely makes you even more fiercely aggressive afterwards.

The hapless victims on writer-director James DeMonaco’s view include a couple about to separate whose car runs out of gas shortly before the purge hour begins, and a mother and daughter who have been pulled out of their residence for purging. The foursome are repeatedly brought to the brink of extinction but are regularly saved by handsome, muscular Leo Barnes, aka Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who is up to no good himself—or to a worthy cause depending on what you think of revenge. Barnes, armed to the teeth, seeks justice for the murder of his boy twelve months earlier (who says you can get away with murder, even if you commit it during the Purge?). What follows is a series of predictable shootouts, the usual sound and fury meaning nothing, and a script that never rises above the banal.

Two young women leaving the theater remarked that they “can’t wait” until next year’s sequel, and who can doubt that there will be one considering that the first entry cost $3 million and raised $89 million at the box office?

Rated R. 103 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jake Kasden's
Sex Tape
Opens Friday, July 18 2014

Screenplay: Kate Angelo, Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, story by Kate Angelo

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe

Columbia Pictures

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

You’ve heard it in your Sociology course, in newspaper articles, in magazines (though perhaps not in Cosmo) that—put in the simplest terms--people marry because they’re horny, but that you can’t expect the passion to last forever. Passion cools and, if you’re lucky, a more mature “love” takes over. But that doesn’t satisfy Jay (Jason Segel) and Annie (Cameron Diaz). Before they got married and had a couple of kids, they thought of nothing but sex, and had no problem acting on their thoughts. Some unfortunate, but true words of wisdom come from Annie’s dad when Annie announces at dinner that she is pregnant and is getting married: “There goes the sex,” he suggests. And he’s right. Once Clive (Sebastian Hedges Thomas) and Nell Giselle Eisenberg) are born, Annie and Jay are too exhausted and must rely on making dates for some action, until they decide on a solution. They will make a three-hour marathon sex tape while their kids are staying with Annie’s mom, Linda (Nancy Lenehan), they will put the tape on their iPad for their own use, and refer to it when they need something more than Victoria’s Secret to stimulate them. The trouble occurs when Jay forgets to erase the video, which has not yet gone out to the general public, but which exists only on a few iPads that they handed out as gifts. When they get an email expressing a positive review of the tape from an anonymous sender, they are determined to beg, borrow and steal every iPad that they gave out.

It takes quite a bit of time for Jake Kasdan’s comedy to get funny. For the first segment focusing principally on the sexy couple, Jay and Annie discuss their adventures in bed but what comes across as jokey is forced. Not until they get to the lavish home of Hank (Rob Lowe), the CEO of a company that want to highlight Annie as a model mom to advertise a product, does hilarity reign. Pretending that they came upon Hank’s home by accident while collecting for a charity, Annie distracts Hank while Jay, feigning diarrhea and needing the lavatory, is seen by the boss’ German Shepherd and attacked while searching for the iPad given to Hank. The physical comedy includes the dog’s being thrown against the wall when it jumps on a fast-moving treadmill. Jay asks his voice-activated gadget “How do you do CPR on a dog?” and receiving the answer, “There are four Starbucks in your area.” Meanwhile Hank shows himself as anything but a prudish corporate executive, sharing a line of blow with Annie.

Rob Corddry as Robby and Ellie Kemper as Tess, Jay and Annie’s best friends, are also shaken down for the iPads that were given to them, while Robby and Ellie’s mature-for-his-age twelve-year-old Howard (Harrison Holzer) tries to shake Jay down for $25,000, agreeing to use his computer expertise to erase the three-hour tape. A fun scene involving an uncredited Jack Black as head of “youporn” finds Jay and Annie together with their two kids playing the game of “breaking and entering,” smashing through the company garage to get at the machines holding their tape and destroying them.

Sex Tape features lots of nudity, which might make the viewer wonder whether the bodies are really those of Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel or those of others hired to get it on. I would tend to think they belong to the stars.

Rated R. 95 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

William Eubank's
The Signal
Opens June 13, 2014

Screenplay: Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank, David Frigerio

Starring: Sarah Clarke, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne

Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 4/24/14

Focus Features

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

Even if you are a cinephile who goes to movies directed by David Lynch and early Darron Aronofsky, you may find William Eubank’s film The Signal bizarre. Eubank, whose 2011 freshman effort Love deals with an astronaut lost and alone in space (sounds familiar), has thereby certified his sci-fi credentials, but if a book were to come out based on The Signal, you might find the prose either banal or confused. This is because the movie itself has only a bare patina of narrative coherence. Instead, Eubank’s cinematographer, David Lanzenberg, and Colin Davies as visual effects supervisor, concentrate on cinematic eye candy, dazzling the senses with a flurry of blinding fast motion (as when the principal character is fitted with robotic legs that allow him to run faster than a rapidly moving vehicle) and a number of slow-motion studies that essentially show chards of glass, wood, and whatever else can be found in Meghan Rogers’ production design to fly through the roof.

While some viewers will be reminded first of the 1999 horror pic The Blair Witch Project and others of Pi, which came out a year earlier, I like to think of it as reminiscent of what is arguably the best film of 2001, David Lynch’s wildly imaginative and intriguing Mulholland Drive. Still, The Signal has little of Lynch’s internal logic, spinning off as a series of scenes that shine brilliantly but do not charge the emotions.

The best thing about The Signal is the lead role of Australian-born Brenton Thwaites as Nic Eastman, traveling with his dorky pal Jonah Breck (Beau Knapp), who announces his dorkiness by regularly pushing his glasses to the top of his nose, and Olivia Cooke as Haley Peterson, in love with Nic but discouraged by the lad because he has MS and has little to look forward to than ultimately winding up in a wheelchair. The young men are driving Haley to her new digs in California when the two gents make a detour to locate and trap a guy named Nomad who has hacked into a computer at M.I.T.

Of course they find the culprit but their experience is not the fun deal that they expect. Winding up in a blinding-white room reminiscent of a government interrogation place, Haley falls into a coma while Nic is questioned extensively by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who spends most of the movie in a space suit, speaking through a microphone inside his head gear.

Despite the mysteries illustrated by William Eubank who co-wrote the screenplay with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, The Signal looks familiar with its recycled myths, relying on a conflict between the mysterious man in a space suit and a down-to-earth trio of young people. Somehow the word gets out that Nic, who has escaped, is dangerous, leading the doctor and his associates to chase after him—a difficult job indeed since while Nic was asleep, his benefactors supplied him with a pair of legs that allow him to travel a good 40 miles per hour. No more crutches for him, and does he feel gratitude? He does not.

Look for Thwaites in an abundance of future roles, a potential heartthrob that will appear on theater marquises advertising the likes of Phillip Noyce’s The Giver where he appears with Meryl Streep as a guy who lives in a colorless world of conformity until…

Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Bong Joon-ho's
Opens June 27, 2014

Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, story by Bong Joon-ho based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell


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

One of Pete Seeger’s favorite protest songs dealt with the sinking of the Titanic, the key words being “When that ship left England, it was making for the shore/ The rich refused to associate with the poor/ So they left the poor below, they were the first to go/ It was sad when the great ship went down.” The late Mr. Seeger, a Marxist banjo player, chafed at the idea of rigid social classes. Doubtless he would be offended by the decision of the skipper of a train, the Snowpiercer, who, after the world freezes over thanks to climate change, saved about a thousand people. But: he believed that there is an established order to things and that every society must have distinct social classes. Not that skipper Wilford (Ed Harris), an eccentric billionaire whose ideas were scoffed at, needed money from the sale of first-class tickets, nor would money do him any good on this train. The Snowpiercer was destined to carry its large crew around the world again and again just like Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, except that the vehicle is a train and, as we engage with the movie, the tail of the train is filled with the Dickensian down-and-out, full of mud and without showers for eighteen years (whether they needed them or not). The front of the train, which had never been seen by the folks in steerage, was blocked off by a series of gates, the poor guarded by soldiers in typical army uniforms and some, later on, with black hoods over their heads.

Snowpiercer is an obvious choice for director Bong Joon-ho, who shares writing credits with Kelly Masterson, adapting the script from Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochettte’s French graphic novel Transperceneige. Bong, whose Korean answer to the Japanese Godzilla was a monster (The Host or Gwoemul) that emerged from the Han river, devastating Seoul, now uses the train as an iron monster but one determined to keep alive a crew as a microcosm for society, executing some when a proportional balance got tipped. After eighteen years, down-and-out would-be leader Curtis Everette together with his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) and with the advice of Gilliam (John Hurt), is to launch a full-scale rebellion, the ultimate aim being to overthrow the rule of the still unseen billionaire. To get through the gates would require the massacre of all soldiers guarding the fort, the men-in-arms beholden to Wilford’s idea of social-class balance.

That’s the narrative, such as it is, but as in many a sci-fi adventure, plot takes second place to cinematography and visual magic. The effects in Snowpiercer are thrilling, the movie a visual stunner that in no way should be seen on a mere 80-inch TV screen. Even more amazing is the fact that most of it could be filmed on the sound stages of the Barrandov Studios in Prague (see my commentary on the Barrandov here):

Though Chris Evans in the role of the rebel leader is made for pictures like Captain America, he is no great actor, but he has what it took to give visceral resonance to this globe-spanning vehicle. Some of the action scenes are downright impressionistic, as the rebels go after the men with axes and later with hooded men with night goggles who seem to have the upper hand when the train heads through a long, dark tunnel. As the rebs move closer to the seat of power and first-class passengers are seen dancing and having a ball despite being closed in for eighteen years, photographer Kyung-Pyo Hong opens up the lens, monochromatics giving way to vivid color.

Comic scenes abound, particularly those with an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Mason, who is Wilford’s chief propagandist and repeatedly tells us that society must remain stratified by predestination. Alison Pill as Teacher serves as Wilford’s chief educator, rousing the brainwashed kids in her class to cheer her boss. Ed Harris as Wilford is spot-on as the laid-back, steak-and-potatoes eating head of the train, orchestrating everything that goes on in his micro-society, while Octavia Spencer (The Help) prepares to do whatever it takes to get back her kidnapped youngsters. Song Kang-ho takes an active role as Namgoong Minsu, who tolerates the years of train-riding by zonking out on a drug available on the train.

Let’s hope that Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio, sucking up to his followers in the Tea Party, is right when he denies global climate change. But anyone with a brain must dimiss this irrational optimism. Remember the slogan that concluded the movie On the Beach? “There’s still time, brother.”

Rated R. 126 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

David Mackenzie’s
Starred Up
Opened Friday, August 27, 2014

Screenplay by Jonathan Asser.

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn.

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

Talk about star-making performances. Much like Tom Hardy seared the screen and forced everyone to sit up and take notice in 2008’s prison drama, Bronson (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn), Jack O’Connell performs a similar miraculous feat of incredulous embodiment in David Mackenzie’s powerful and riveting feature, Starred Up.

The gripping film opens a la A Clockwork Orange as we watch a young, good looking and quite angry Eric (O’Connell) as he is processed for his prison stay. The boy is “starred up,” meaning he is deemed so uncontrollable that he has been deliberately moved to a high security installation. Eric instantly makes himself a weapon and soon displays frightening signs of rage—including chomping down hard on an inmates’ privates.

The powers-that-be are more than fine with treating Eric like an animal who has no rights or potential for rehabilitation but one lone volunteer therapist (a stirring Rupert Friend) sees something human in Eric and tries his best to help him confront his volatile emotional state as well as cultivate friends. Eric has been abandoned and used all his life. His mother died young and his father has been incarcerated—turns out in this same maximum-security prison. Neville (a potent Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s dad, seems to have some pull in this prison and does what he can to protect his boy.

A bizarre father-son bond is one of the surprising joys of Starred Up. In a very telling scene, Neville uses the word “fraternize” and Eric has no idea what it means, an extreme comment on his lack of education.

Jonathan Asser’s script is lean, smart and uncompromising. Asser was a former counselor so there’s a no bullshit manner in which the narrative unfolds.

Shooting at an actual prison in Belfast, director David Mackenzie does an extraordinary job of providing a claustrophobic world where the viewer, like Eric, has no escape.

But it’s O’Connell’s intense, fearless, fully-immersed-frightening performance that keeps the viewer glued to the screen wondering what he may do next.

One grouse, subtitles would have come in handy, as some of the dialogue is unintelligible.



Ari Folman's
The Congress
Opens Friday, August 29, 2014

Screenplay: Ari Folman

Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston

Drafthouse Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoe

Ari Folman, who directed The Congress, states in the production notes that he hopes his new film will make the audience appreciate good, old-fashioned movie-making, with live actors rather than digitally scanned persons that can be manipulated by animators to play any role desired. Yet given the eye candy, The Congress could have the opposite effect, at least on those people in the theater seats who are open to experimentation in cinema. While the first segment is down-to-earth, dealing with the efforts of a producer and an agent to convince an actress (Robin Wright) to sell her soul and allow herself to be digitalized, most of the remainder, fifty-five minutes’ worth (taking two and one-half years to animate), is psychedelic, resembling an acid trip with stunning imagery. Yet despite all the beauty, the color, the fine acting by Robin Wright, you could not be blamed if you fidget in your seat as the movie is overlong, the dialogue often pretentious, the narrative on the loose side.

Ari Folman, whose terrific Waltz with Bashar featured an Oscar nominated animation dealing with the filmmaker’s interviews with fellow soldiers in the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese War, sets his sight on what is not so far out, given the outsourcing that threatens American jobs as corporations use workers in the (cheap labor) developing world for their staffs. Robin Wright, who uses her real name throughout, is now forty-four years old and threatened with obsolescence. Al (Harvey Keitel), her agent, tries to convince her to sign a contract with Jeff (Danny Huston), a producer who wants to have her digitally scanned and thereby used for any and all roles for the next twenty years, during which time she will not be allowed to perform live even in a school play. She needs the money to take care of her young son, Aaron Wright (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a rare disease that threatens his hearing and his eyesight, or at least that’s the diagnosis Dr. Barker (Paul Giammati), an ear, nose and throat physician.

There are different segments of the dream-like trip taken by Ms. Wright, the final one breaking all the rules by allowing people in the society to be anyone they want to be. Though Danny Huston’s character may be meant to satirize the blood-sucking studio reps who exploit the performers, it’s difficult to find fault with his win-win proposition. Since Hollywood does not treat actresses all that well once they’ve hit the age of forty-five, he gives Robin Wright the chance to remain young in the minds of those who see these animated creations, and she is well compensated for signing the only contract she may be offered. Not so convincing or appealing is the role of her son, Aaron, who flies a kite around the airport near their home hoping to lure a plane to crash into it, as he believes that would cure him of his rare disease.

The film is loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s book The Futurological Congress, a sci fi volume loaded with black humor about a hero, Ijon Tichy, who visits the Eighth World Futurological Congress at a Hilton Hotel in Costa Rica. But reading a book and seeing a movie are two different things. If you can’t find a dealer or if you think LSD is not for you, yet you’re curious about taking a “trip,” you’ll likely be of the market that the producers of The Congress are targeting.

Unrated. 122 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


David Wain's
They Came Together
Opens June 27, 2014

Screenplay: Michael Showalter, David Wain

Starring: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield


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

Romantic comedies are so predictable, following the usual arc Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Wins Girl, that they almost parody themselves. But if you are so in love with rom-coms that you overlook their derivative nature, David Wain comes along to satirize the genre, using repetitions, double-entendere’s (like the very title They Came Together), impossible sexual stuntmanship, and deliberately insipid conversations. It doesn’t hurt that he has Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as his principals, going on first dates, building their relationship, tentatively breaking up, getting together again. Never mind that Rudd in real life is 45 years old and Poehler is 42: they give middle-aged people the hope of starting again, acting almost like kids. If you’ve seen David Wain’s 2001 feature Wet Hot American Summer, set on the last day of camp in 1981, you know the director’s style. And you’re not surprised that he continues to employ Rudd and Poehler’s comic charms.

The movie is framed by dinner in a New York restaurant. Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) entertain friends Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), describing how they met, how they fell apart, and how they got together…no holds barred, not even the story of a guy who had a fit of diarrhea at a Halloween Party and tried to blame the distress on someone else. As they recount their tale, they trot out the usual Hollywood clichés: meeting cute, being “set up” by friends, being introduced to strange parents (in this case to a pair of white supremacists), cold feet at wedding ceremonies, rushes to the wedding hall in a desperate attempt to arrive before the vows are completed.

Amy Poehler performs in the role of the owner of a small candy shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the cutesy name Upper Sweet Side. By contrast, though Paul Rudd’s Joel may be in the candy business himself, but as a man whom Molly calls a corporate robot, an exec with Candy Systems & Research, which threatens to wipe out the small store. Though they fail to hit off at a party, they are more successful at the Strand Book Store, where they realize that they have in common that both like “fiction books.”

In addition to the aforementioned diarrhea gag, Wain goes Apatow in introducing a snobbish French waiter who literally has a stick up his butt. The film is graced by a number of talented comics to support the parody, particularly the group of corporate execs, but for the most part it comes across as a series of Saturday Night Live type sketches. The film has the look of something shot on the fly, but when it works, its sketches are quite amusing indeed.

Rated R. 83 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

David Wnendt's
Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete)
Opens Friday, September 4, 2014

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

Screenplay: David Wnendt, Claus Falkenberg, based on Charlotte Roche’s book

Starring: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Marlen Kruse, Edgar Seige

Strand Releasing

If you think that Wetlands is a documentary about the environment—and you can’t be blamed for thinking that given the number of books with that title on the Amazon site about the birds and the bees—you’d be technically correct. It is about the birds and the bees but not the kind that go buzzing and chirping in the jungles or city parks. Ir’s about the environment, but of the human body. It’s all about sex, particularly an 18-year-old girl’s fascination with her own body, particularly with the fluids that emanate from human beings (and animals)—namely blood, semen, and vomit with a correlative look at how to treat hemorrhoids when you do not want them to disappear. Now do you wish Wetlands were about national forests? No? OK, then let’s look further into David Wnendt’s narrative, co-written by Claus Falkenberg and based on Charlotte Roche’s book which sold over a million copies.

The literal coming-of-age (and of manual manipulation) star is an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, Helen (Carla Juri) who, in flashbacks to a more tender and naïve age is seen scrubbing the toilet and tiles to distraction on orders of her mother, an obvious clean-freak. But that upbringing gets foiled when, like so many teenagers, Helen turns her mother’s ideology upside down, going out of her way to challenge her body to deal with filth. She deliberately wiggles her butt on the dirtiest toilet seat she can find, announcing to the movie audience that she did not come down with a disease. But she is afflicted with a nasty case of hemorrhoids, which lands her in the hospital after a shaving mishap. There she becomes infatuated with Robin (Christoph Letkowski) a male nurse, which informs her decision to stay in the hospital beyond the normal time. What’s more she uses the hospital stay to arrange a union between her divorced mom (Meret Becker) and dad (Axel Milberg), manipulating them to arrive for a visit at the same time.

Helen had previously bonded with Corinna (Marlen Kruse), a young woman of the same age, and together they experiment with their bodies, inserting their fingers into every orifice as though in their first year of med school. It should be noted that Jakub Bejnarowicz, who photographs the scenes with an abundance of John-Water-type pastels, treats us to close-ups of these natural body openings as though to say to members of the theater audience, “So, you say you’re not a prude? Did you look away and blush or did you smile and admire the scenery?”

Wetlands is not rated, though if it were, it could be a candidate for an NC-17, the audience-killing rating, which would have been a shame as it would turn away a large number of the young adults who might have read Charlotte Roche’s novel. Still, even when basking in near porn, including a graphic scene of the principal performer in the local bordello with a sympathetic hooker of her choice, Feuchtgeibiete as it is called in its original German meaning Wetlands, transcends porn with a three-dimensional portrait of Carla Juri, its star, who resembles a young Melanie Griffith. She makes music with newcomer Christoph Letkowski as the male nurse, who can’t be blamed for reciprocating the affection given him by Juri, who at the age of twenty-seven can easily pass for eighteen. She has a wonderful smile.

Unrated. 109 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



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