Mandel Maven's Nest New York New York Flicks:
It's A Helluva Town

There's something about going to the movies alone in New York that's this very weirdly romantic thing.

-- Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World in The New York Times, 12/28/2001




Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.


I define "New York Movies" as those actually, substantially shot in NY/NJ + really FEEL like they were. A clue: a real NY-made movie has more parking coordinators in the credits than drivers. So movies that were shot in Toronto or other ersatz New York, or in which a few token establishing shots are thrown in, or in which the NY area locale doesn't add anything, don't qualify!

Some fiction films are very NYC but I've categorized them elsewhere:
Arranged (emendations coming after 6/14/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
CBGB (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Chico & Rita (My additional notes.)
Death In Love
The Great New Wonderful
Heights
Inside Llewyn Davis
Ira & Abby
Love Comes Lately (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
The Perfect Age Of Rock ’N’ Roll
Prime
Rent
Romance & Cigarettes
The Wackness (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)


I also categorized elsewhere documentaries whose subjects are, otherwise, very much New Yorkers:
All This Panic (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival)
Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival)
Ballet 422 (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival)
The Business Of Being Born
Carmen & Geoffrey
Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival)
Flex Is Kings (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival)
haveababy (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival)
How To Grow A Band
Keep On Keeping On (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival)
Last Play at Shea (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival)
LoveTrue (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival)
Mad Hot Ballroom
Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs)
Mistaken for Strangers (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival)
Miss Sharon Jones! Best Woman-Directed Documentary 2016 (previewed at 2015 DOC NYC Festival)
My Father Evgeni (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Once Upon A Lullabye (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional notes.)
Our City Dreams
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
The Punk Singer (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs)
Regarding Susan Sontag (reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional notes on her as a Jewish woman and 9/11 analyst.)
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (12/8/2010)
The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center)
Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.)
Wetlands Preserved: The Story Of An Activist Rock Club
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story (emendations coming after 5/21/2008)
Yoo–Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (emendations coming after 1/10/2010)





Reichstag 9/11 (short) (seen with additional Ken Jacobs’ shorts: Windbreaker (World premiere); Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies (U.S. premiere); Popeye Sees 3-D (NY premiere) in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

I Am Not Your Negro (previewed for 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Thanks to Maysles Cinema for walking tour of “James Baldwin’s Harlem”) (12/13/2016)

Chapter & Verse (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)

Suited (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (My additional commentary on the Jewish female participants in the documentary.) (7/27/2016)

Father’s Day (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)

Almost Paris (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)

Equity - Best Woman-Directed Feature 2016 (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)

Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (Note on 9/11 reference) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/29/2016)

Obit (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/9/2016)

Call Her Applebroog (seen at MoMA’s 2016 Documentary Fortnight) (3/31/2016)

Here Come the Videofreex (Note: When I was studying these new media experiments in “Communications Planning” at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the mid-1970’s – and darn, I just a couple of months ago dumped all that research material about other organizations, such as George Stoney and Red Burns at the Alternate Media Center who were championing DIY video and community access cable television, into my recycling bin!-- I didn’t then come across the Videofreex.) (3/30/2016)

Orchard Street (seen with shorts I’m Telling You; The Lackadaisical Speed of Light; and Hydroelectric Dam: in First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2016)

Nasty Baby (11/12/2015)

In Jackson Heights - previewed at 2015 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center (11/4/2015)
My Manhattan-based colleague Judy Gelman Myers liked the documentary better than I did, shown in her interview with director Frederick Wiseman, that provides useful background.


Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine (Note: Why am I classifying a California story here? Not only does the 5th Avenue Apple Store feature prominently in the montage of scenes of grieving fans of his beloved products, but it exemplified his product and retail goals. To clarify Apple Inc.’s corporate philanthropy under Jobs, which I researched during my many years in the development field for many kinds of non-profit organizations, while Jobs did reduce then eliminate cash grants, the company did increase their donations of computers, often called in-kind contributions, even if some consider that self-serving loyalty generating, especially to schools. Another irony of my local bullies denial and push back against the Facebook discussion of what it was in our community and schools that encouraged and appeased such behavior, (Mike) Godwin’s Law of the Internet even went into effect - that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” Yes, even as alumni a few years younger than me remembered facing worse physical violence than I did, one defender even asserted we shouldn’t complain because what was done to us wasn’t as bad as what Hitler did. Not only did this have an extra kick because of the swath of anti-Semitism around me where I grew up in NJ, but the verbal aggression drove the other victims out of the online group.) (9/4/2015)

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (seen at MoMA’s 2015 Documentary Fortnight premiere with many former Panthers in the audience) (6/19/2015)

Above and Beyond (previewed at 2014 DOC NYC Festival) (5/4/2015)

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon (Note: I was surprised to learn that Harvard Lampoon continued to be a source of talent over the years, including later editors Mike Reiss and Al Jean before they went on to The Simpsons). Not included are my favorite of their many parody publications—of Variety with the post-disaster headline “Michael Jackson and 5 Million Others Die”—or my favorite sketches from the radio show (“The Indianapolis Academy of the French Accent”), and no mention of the influence or competition with the Los Angeles-based Firesign Theater.) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)

Indian Point (Note: Disclosure—as planner, I used to run citizen participation in Environmental Impact Statements and hearings for public projects.) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)

Deli Man (previewed at 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/6/2015)

Ming Of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air/Iris (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (So, nu: my commentary on Iris as a Jewish woman.) (10/12/2014)

Emptying The Skies (reviewed at 2013 “Birds Of A Feather” Flock To DOC NYC) (6/9/2014)

Burt’s Buzz (My additional notes on the Jewish woman.) (6/6/2014)

Breastmilk (reviewed at 2013 Women's Docs at DOC NYC) (6/3/2014)

American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs (reviewed at 2013 Politics at DOC NYC: A Look Back) (6/3/2014)

A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times (My additional Notes.) (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC Festival) (4/11/2014)

The Pleasures Of Being Out Of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff (reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons In Life With Saul Leiter (reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

Finding Vivian Maier (reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (Director Talk’s interview about her photography.) (1/13/2014)

American Promise (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women’s issues.) (10/18/2013)

Herb & Dorothy 50x50 (the sequel to Herb & Dorothy) (10/4/2013)

Mother of George (9/20/2013)

99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (briefly reviewed at 2013 Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/10/2013)

Dirty Wars (and the accompanying book) (7/3/2013)

How To Make Money Selling Drugs (previewed at 2013 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: (I was in the jury pool for death penalty consideration of a drug dealer convicted of killing undercover cops. The federal judge instructed us to refrain from reading/seeing anything to do with the case, so I would have walked out of the movie theater if that case had been included in the film. So it was unnerving to me how similar the Baltimore, Wire-like case was, reinforcing a theme of the documentary.) (7/3/2013)

Hannah Arendt (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/9/2013)

Bending Steel (briefly reviewed in Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/6/2013)

Lenny Cooke (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Notes: The NBA draft was tantalizingly closer possibility to him than the kids in Hoop Dreams, even though he didn’t listen to the advice of the surprising suburban white mom-replacement seen in then and now interviews.) (6/4/2013)

In God We Trust (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)

Big Men (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013) (Informative Director Talk’s interview)

The Company You Keep (4/11/2013)

Please Stand Clear of the Closing Doors played to SRO audiences at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Captivating, director Sam Fleischner heightened the very realistic perspective of an autistic teen wandering the subway and his desperately seeking immigrant mother into more suspense as the system and the city shut down for the flood, so the magic realism solution could be philanthropically forgiven. (6/4/2013)

Towheads (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: From a be-jeaned close-up between her splayed legs, Plumb sets the parameters of modern motherhood in the NYC with the opening countdown to the daily requirement of picking up on time from school the beloved fruits of her loins). (3/25/2013)

The We and The I (Note: The film isn’t 100% on the bus - a traffic tie-up allows for a brief, amusing pizza run and there’s interactions on the sidewalks of New York. Amidst the flirting and teasing (a full-figured Teresa is mocked as “two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag”) is a game of truth or dare. The participating kids were originally drawn to The Point for activities as varied as neighborhood activism, circus arts, photography, and music.) (3/17/2013)

The Art of Spiegelman (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/19/2013)

Koch (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (Previewed at New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum (2/1/2013)

Not Fade Away (previewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: It’s more NJ and period accurate to describe the higher income family spending summers at a “swim club”, one that restricted public accommodations before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the kind that my Jewish family couldn’t join until then. One of the film’s weaknesses in reflecting how Girls Like Me were affected by the folk music rebellion – in those days before the rock grrrls option – was to grow our hair long and try to emulate Joan Baez on acoustic guitar. While I have that exact same memory of seeing “Bali Hai” on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, the dad’s recall of World War II somewhat ironically bring the story full circle back to the experiences of the British Invasion bands, who always cite its impact on their fathers. Though hewing to Chase’s own biography of leaving NJ for California to go onto film school, it’s confusing that the characters’ closing rites of time and passage aren’t at college.) (1/13/2013)

Hyde Park On Hudson (previewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/18/2012)

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/15/2012)

Stop (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (10/14/2012)

Radio Unnameable (9/18/2012)

Arbitrage (Note: With the wheeler-dealer seen bullying his enabling assistant, a complicit auditor, and a bribed regulator, the sympathy for him seems that much more misdirected. Can the audience not see Richard Gere as a villain?) (9/13/2012)

Union Square (7/13/2012)

Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/23/2012)

Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding (6/8/2012)

Portrait of Wally (previewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (5/11/2012)

Sexy Baby (briefly reviewed at 2012 Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (5/9/2012)

The List (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The documentary suspensefully follows if the Iraqis make it to the U.S. and if they can adjust, including one who ends up living, studying, and working in NYC.) (5/9/2012)

Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (briefly reviewed at 2012 Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/9/2012)

Gimme The Loot (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)

An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (Note: Among Foster’s arrogant comments about how he builds with the local culture (obviously contradicted with plans for whole cities in the desert), his notion that sticking some symbolic images of dragons on top of the Beijing airport was blatantly superficial, especially compared to the sensitivity shown in I.M. Pei: Building China Modern on PBS’s American Masters.) (1/25/2012)

While there’s just one Foster building in NYC in the film, which I walk by frequently, here I am at his Reichstag, New German Parliament dome in Berlin:


Welcome To Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

Dressing America: Tales From The Garment Center (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

To Be Heard (previewed at 2010 DOC NYC Festival) (Notes: Spoiler: As to the directors/teachers’ spin on the “success” of The Tripod students – the abused Latina is said “to be starting a family” – that’s one way to describe an unwed, pregnant teenager, even one with a boyfriend and a job as a teacher’s aide in the writing program, while mentoring her siblings to express their feelings through writing; the young man, vaguely said to be working on a rap album, is considerably hardened by his stint in prison, where his writing skills went into angry letters; and it’s not clear how long it took the African-American young woman to get to transfer from community college to Sarah Lawrence, but that is still quite an accomplishment.) (10/28/2011)

Margin Call (previewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: While the younger generation represents the irony that investment banking attracted The Best and the Brightest, the middle-aged guys get the poignant sounding, albeit self-serving, soliloquies. As the star trader, 40-year-old “Will” (Paul Bettany) tries to put his six figure earnings into the context of his family expenses and responsibilities, the reasons that led them all to take these compromised jobs for the remuneration. At the break of the fateful dawn, “Eric” is from the same generation and sensibility when he delivers a regretful peroration looking back to the Depression’s signature song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”, that building towers and railroads are done. His nostalgia for bricks-and-mortar contributions to the economy is also like John Wells’ The Company Men, released last year but also reflected 1980’s retrenchments more than the Great Recession.) (10/28/2011)

American Teacher (10/4/2011)

The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 (previewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (9/16/2011)

Love Etc. (Notes: This looks a lot like a prequel to Thomas Balmès Babies in style and theme. To me, the climax was the sullen teen daughter turning away from her laptop to tell her dad she loves him when his dating doesn't work out. One story left out is just as typically NYC. The film was inspired by the observations of producer/hotel mogul Jonathan Tisch while on line at the Manhattan City Clerk's office for a marriage license. What he didn't have put in the press notes was that it was for a second marriage to a younger, dare I say trophy, socialite wife after divorcing a wife from an eminent family. Unlike the first marriage, the second marriage was not covered in The New York Times, and now #2 seems to determined to get on every Best Dressed and charity guest list, what with their donations to the Met Museum's Costume Institute.) (7/2/2011)

If A Tree Falls: A Story Of Earth Liberation Front (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (Note: I was surprised to see that the "domestic terrorist" profiled grew up here in Queens, at Rockaway Beach. I didn't think he was treated any worse than most criminal defendants are, not saying that's good.) (6/20/2011)

Catching Hell (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

New York Thanks You (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Love Hate Love (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)

Renée (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011) (Note: I was surprised to learn that "Richard Raskin" grew up here in Forest Hills, adding considerable home town poignancy to the issue of "Renée Richards" being able to play the U.S. Open down the block at the West Side Tennis Club.) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.)

Waste Land (Lixo extgraordinário) (previewed at 2010 Premiere Brazil! series at MoMA) (2/6/2011) (Notes: Muniz had leveraged reparations from a bullet wound in his native Rio de Janeiro into a hot shot career in international galleries and museums. He also uses as inspirations traditional portraits of a gypsy woman and Il Guercino's "Atlas".)

The Other Woman (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/4/2011)

Today’s Special (11/19/2010) (Notes: Unfortunately, one of the cute ethnic jokes is that the guy connects with his Indian ethnic heritage in Queens by assimilating with the help of the equivalent of a shiksa girlfriend. Save your ticket stub: here's discounts for Indian restaurant because you will immediately want to go out to eat!)

Foreign Parts (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Film Festival ofFilm Society of Lincoln Center) (11/8/2010)

Inside Job (10/6/2010) (previewed at 2010 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: While Wall Street 2 is a highly fictionalized interpretation, the 1990's Canadian TV drama Traders had the clearest, yet most entertaining demonstration of what derivatives are and their dangers. And in my former career as a development officer, I was only dimly aware how much and from whom the business school professors I was told to raise recruitment and retention money for were earning outside money. I'm glad to see some follow-up clamor to at least Columbia U on this issue. And according to The New York Times and its Economix blog, the American Economics Association is consequently considering adopting its first ethics standards for academics, or at least have disclosure requirements for authors of journal articles.) (updated 1/7/2011)

On The Bowery/The Perfect Team: The Making Of On The Bowery (9/17/2010)

Gasland (9/17/2010)

Prince Of Broadway (9/3/2010)

Smash His Camera (7/30/2010)

The Lottery (6/11/2010)

Whiz Kids (6/4/2010) (Notes: But here's my nitpicking criticisms that were edited out:
Some information seems withheld until near the end, and there could have been more on the families. While Kelydra frequently cites that her father worked at the polluting DuPont plant, only late do we learn he is not the implied blue-collar guy, but a chemist, putting in context her mother's retort about ex-Harvard President Lawrence Summers' infamous put down of women in science (and it's that much more important that Kelydra's mentor urges her to broaden her horizons to consider going to college out-of-state, or at least a private college). It should have been clarified earlier that Harmain is not from one of NYC's renowned public high school science powerhouses who are here The Enemy (such as the schools my kids and their friends who were Intel participants and finalists attended). None of the other intellectually poised and diverse finalists interviewed in D.C. are identified by name or home town/school as they are on screen.


Daddy Longlegs (5/14/2010)

Gerrymandering (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (NYC is one locus.)

The Cartel (4/16/2010) (So it's NJ.)

Bill Cunningham New York (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010) (Context/Part 2 is Lost Bohemia previewed at 2010 DOC NYC Festival)

Prodigal Sons (3/7/2010)

Phyllis and Harold (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/19/2010)

October Country (2/12/2010) (I'm encompassing Upstate New York here.)

Off and Running (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/29/2010) (also briefly reviewed at Part 1 Recommendations of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/26/2009)

The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee (11/27/2009)

City Island (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)

Cropsey (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)

Entre Nos (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (Filmed not far from my house.) (5/4/2009)

P-Star Rising (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)

Chop Shop (2/27/2008) (Filmed not far from my house.)

Orthodox Stance (1/25/2008)

Choking Man (11/9/2007) (emendations coming after 5/9/2008) (Previewed at Tribeca Film Festival) (Filmed not far from my house.)

The Treatment (9/24/2007) (Previewed at Tribeca Film Festival) Listen for Marc Ribot’s terrific guitar work on the score.

Broken English (6/22/2007) (emendations coming after 11/22/2007)

Sing Now or Forever Hold Your Peace (4/27/2007) (released on DVD as The Wedding Weekend)

Gray Matters (2/23/2007) (emendations coming 8/23/2007)

Puccini for Beginners (2/16/2007)

Inside Man is terrific thriller, teasing us constantly as it deliciously delivers brains over brawn. Reveling in its very NYC atmosphere, it has much of the grittiness of Dog Day Afternoon crossed with the clever suspense of The Usual Suspects.
Following Clive Owen's arresting monologue to the audience that alerts us to pay attention to the clues ("I'm only going to say this once" - though that's repeated at the end after we are realizing what he really meant), the opening scenes set up that director Spike Lee is for the first time using the clashing, unmelted pot of NYC's divergent races and immigrants not as a hortatory end in itself but to heighten and color what could have been just another perfect crime heist movie.
Reversing the trek of The Warriors, we are immediately on a relentlessly purposeful tour of the length of Brooklyn from Coney Island through its diverse ethnic neighborhoods representing the corners of the globe to the gargoyles of Wall Street, the center of the world's financial power, all to the rollicking beat of a symbolic "Bollywood Joint" featuring Panjabi MC, a leader in the bhangra blend of dance and Indian diaspora pop music. When we are first introduced to various ethnic types among the cops and the bank customers I was afraid that Lee was doing his broad brush stereotypes again as he did to nasty effect in Summer of Sam, but instead it's all slyly setting up the red herrings, cul-de-sacs and final outcome in Russell Gewirtz's roller coaster ride of a debut feature script. Some of the best dialog is in pointed exchange of raw identities that almost trump the main action, whether an Albanian or Sikh or Armenian or Jewish grandmother or racist officer or sexist punk or rich WASP Park Avenue CEO, plus we see NYC's rainbows of Asians, Latinos, workers and politicians, old and young. Many of the lines are laugh out loud funny and marvelously ironic.
Owen plays on the cold bad Brit stereotype we've seen from Alan Rickman in Die Hard to Paul Bettany in Firewall before doing his version of the right thing while the smart alecky boy amusingly recalls the fresh kid inevitably nicknamed Brooklyn who is in every World War II movie troupe, as he shocks the bank robber with his violent and racist video game (played while they're sitting in the bank vault). Everybody has prejudices or pre-suppositions or a deal to make that are confused by the robbers' physical and strategic masks (coincidentally recalling the symbolic use of the Guy Fawkes' masks in V for Vendetta) and cleverly edited shuffling of positions.
The flash forward interrogations of the hostages by a wily Denzel Washington -- who is just plain enjoying the tripping on his tongue of sharp dialog more than he had in his several other detective roles-- are jarringly integrated in with a grainy look throughout to give us revelatory clues about what is really going on to emphasize that we can't assume anything about anyone we see even when he seems just too suspicious. This is a constantly keep 'em guessing story with visual bread crumbs dribbled out for us to follow.
It's nice to see Jodie Foster play a tough broad who is a talker not an action hero, even if her smarmy fixer doesn't make 100% sense in the plot, though her nefarious negotiating in front of a flag tribute to 9/11 is a chuckle about the American Way.
Christopher Plummer is repeating an elegantly corrupt type we've seen him do many times, most recently in Syriana, and his explication was a bit too conveniently delivered for the story. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Washington's partner and Willem Dafoe as the technocrat are underused throughout in restrained roles. While I appreciate that Washington's sexy girlfriend is given a career as a fellow cop, which is unusual for this genre, I was disappointed that she seems to be half his age. It was nice to see the usually comic Daryl "Chill" Mitchell in a small serious appearance.
The production design details of NYC accuracy are an utter delight, from real TV stations to the authentic feel of NYPD's handling of emergencies to the current Mayor's bull pen office at City Hall plus script references to real people in sports and government. Even the sound design reinforces the realistically gripping experience.
Terence Blanchard's score is much less jazzy than his other works for Lee's films and matches the action and human variety we see on the screen.
The gang's calling themselves variations of "Steve" seems like an amusing crossing of Howard Hawks with Quentin Tarantino.
The closing credits are generous in giving full attention to the very large ensemble by letting us match their personas to the actors.
While the violence is more implied than real, but still scary, the dialog is full of rampant, explicit profanity so I was surprised that folks brought very young children to a matinée. (3/30/2006) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women)


Street Fight is fascinating even for New Yorkers who knew the outcome of the Newark, NJ mayoral race in 2002 between long time incumbent Sharpe James and challenger Corey Booker.
But what we thought we knew came from the local press and TV news and first time documentarian Marshall Curry almost single-camera-edly shows up The New York Times, The Newark Star Ledger and the broadcast outlets of the supposed media capital of the world in exposing what really goes on in a local election. I worked many years ago in the government office of a party boss in Queens (as was once said about Gov. Harriman and Tammany, like the clean collar on a dirty shirt) and I was still enthralled and taken aback by this raw examination of retail--and even more-- racial politics.
Curry's motivation going in was quite simple on the face, that there hadn't been a close examination in a black majority city of a 21st century race between two African-American candidates. He claims he originally wanted to do a balanced portrait of both sides, but James's campaign instinctively and forcefully shuns him -- quite dramatically in the Land of the Free that is forcing democracy on the rest of the world-- so that his coverage is more and more pro-Booker, which drives the James forces to blockade him (much like Michael Moore going against General Motors in Roger and Me).
Becoming persona non grata despite the promises of modern ineffectual flaks, he has to personally admit defeat to cover all the campaign himself by enlisting another cameraman (white or black we aren't shown) to film James's epithet-filled public campaign appearances. He cagily gets the last word in against this censorship to catch on tape James's outrageous demagoguery that plays on prejudices spinning against an educated "carpetbagger" and outright lies about facts that is startling that the conventional media wasn't documenting. Curry effectively raises the charge against the media's apathy for a black vs. black race in a poor city --the other reporters only begin to get a little curious when they see Curry rough housed by James's henchmen.
While the story line becomes the machine vs. the reformer, the details on just how a machine baldly runs roughshod using every card of power and class at its disposable is old-fashioned personal hardball against every visible supporter of Booker that is a powerful story on screen.
This is visually even more pernicious than Claude Rains's tactics against Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and makes those polling strategists on West Wing look like press conference wimps. This is very much the Newark portrayed in The Sopranos, where behind the scenes wheeling dealing contractors of dubious ethics bring out the money and the votes. You start feeling like you are watching an election in a third world country as Booker supporters put their livelihoods on the line in a graphically visual representation of the line from Good Night, and Good Luck "The fear is in this room."
We do only get a brief biographical outline of each candidate, which for all of Booker's earnestness does leave him open to the blunt nativist charges of an inexperienced, suburban Ivy League outsider suddenly discovering the hood by theatrically living in a housing project, shockingly equating him to a Jew, playing on light vs. black-skinned perceptions. We do see his access to suburban campaign contributors. Amongst the insightful interviews with Booker's multi-racial supporters and campaign staff, the most moving were the tearful ones upset at these charges. One woman is in excruciating pain as she protests against the contempt for him as a role model for young black men: "We keep telling them to get educated and then this happens when they do." The audience gasped when at the end of the campaign each side seeks outside supporters and the Rev. Al Sharpton, no stranger to fomenting racial division in the NY area, comes down from his suburban NJ home to support the Mayor.
As a film, this works more than just as a PBS Frontline episode with excellent use of editing and music building suspense through the chronology, though it does seem to be a Booker in 2006 campaign film at the end.
Even though The Grouch has worked under five NYC mayors and could relate to how bureaucracy can be politically manipulated, he felt there was not enough insight on campaign strategy, preferring the approach in The War Room, which I haven't seen completely and wasn't able to find to watch in a timely fashion for review comparison. He wanted to get a better understanding from the inside of the campaign decisions.
We saw this film at a crowded pre-Oscar night run in NYC with a very responsive, racially mixed audience including many Newarkers. The guy next to me felt the film left out a key reason for Booker's loss -- that he had neglected to drum up voter registration, which James's forces had marshaled in advance.
This film certainly made me wish that someone had been similarly documenting the 2000 Presidential election in Florida as one wonders how much of American balloting would stand up to monitoring, though the Justice Dept. was barely of help in Newark on this Election Day. (3/26/2006)


Find Me Guilty is an involving cross between The Sopranos and My Cousin Vinny.
Even as based on a real wise guy in a real trial, its charm builds on our familiarity with the conventions of mob movies from serious dramas to comedies. Not only does the score include tributes to The Godfather theme, but the wonderful ensemble includes many actors we've seen in such representations (including a coldly terrific Alex Rocco as the mob boss, a brief but blazing appearance by Annabella Sciorra, Domenick Lombardozzi graduating to undercover cop from detective on The Wire and an underused Jerry Adler), as well as a plethora of actors who provide marvelous background color even if they have only a single line of dialog. Peter Dinklage is also very convincing as a lawyer just doing his best for his client without histrionics or pretensions of being a consigliere.
The opening news footage of Rudolph Giuliani as U.S. attorney for NY's Southern District declaring war on organized crime might confuse folks who don't realize that New Jersey where the central trial takes place is in a different federal district, but Linus Roache well captures his prosecutorial zeal (while his dialog frequently has to remind us that the likable schmoozers are really awful criminals). Notably, U.S. attorneys are still learning that these lengthy, complicated trials, whether of blue collar or white collar criminals, do not help their cases.
The structure of the script by director Sidney Lumet and debut co-writers T.J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea takes the intriguing angle of examining the central premise of a RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) indictment as being based on relationships. The role of Giacomo 'Fat Jack' DiNorscio is doubtless exaggerated more than a bit for the film for dramatic effect (even if a lot of court room exchanges are taken right from the testimony), both in terms of his prominence in acting as his own attorney at the long trial --the days are ticked off at the bottom of the screen -- of some 20 defendants, but also in his key networking position as the connection between some of the witnesses and defendants.
Vin Diesel as "Fat Jack" (and even though that's his own 30 pounds he sure isn't comfortable in this body) is at his best in his best role since Boiler Room when he is confronting his family and friends, both on the stand and off and creates real chemistry in his exchanges. The climatic confrontation with a captivating Raúl Esparza (amazingly in his film debut) as his conflicted cousin and nemesis is really riveting.
Lumet is of course a past master at court room dramas so his camera and available light-looking choices are a marvel to observe. Unlike most court room confrontations these days that seem more influenced by TV's Law and Orders than the potential of a big movie screen, a lot of the scenes are long and wide shots from the jury's perspective. The script practically announces this format by having Ron Silver as the judge specify that all the jurors and defendants need to be able to see the witness box. To heighten the dramatic tension, medium and closer shots are reserved for the one-on-one questioning as Diesel goes in for the personal revelations that create cracks in the government's case as the witnesses do not relate to him as a lawyer.
While "Fat Jack" here does twice say he's "a gagster, not a gangster" the film's emphasis on the comic absurdities frequently undercuts the drama, including the choice of too light song selections, such as repeating Louis Prima's "When You're Smiling".
The NJ border crossings and Newark court room exteriors are used very effectively, and the local references in the script are unusually accurate.
While this is a nicely quirky bio-pic, it is a footnote in the genre.(3/24/2006)


Unknown White Male is a fascinating story on several levels. Amnesia is such a staple of TV, film and written fiction that the possibility of someone really having the real thing would at the very least be a curious human interest story.
So the opening recreation of those first days in July 2003 when a handsome young man with a British accent gets off the F train in Coney Island not knowing who he is inevitably draws us in. Just as a mystery story on some prime time TV magazine show, it's just plain noteworthy at first how the guy gets from the psychiatric ward at the tip of Brooklyn back to his Manhattan apartment (down the block from the theater where I saw the film).
It is the kindness of friends that saves him that first scary day after what he comes to call "the accident" as it turns out that amnesia isn't just about loss of memories in re-constituting identity. The key turns out to be a person's interactions with other people, which this film explores very well visually and verbally. His story is somewhat macabrely parallel to the documentary No. 17 Is Anonymous which sought to identify the sole unknown terrorist victim in Israel. With both cases, it is not CSI or even factual type information that matters as much as how individuals react to a person that provide the revelatory clues to a life.
Though director Rupert Murray frustratingly leaves out some details that a strictly journalistic piece would have included about those early days of reintegration and a complicated internationally peripatetic life, the guy who turns out to be David Bruce is an old (and of course now forgotten) friend of his and an articulate guy who hasn't lost, according to the extensively interviewed expert witness on memory Dr. Daniel Schacter, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, his "procedural memory" so that he immediately picked up what he doesn't remember he was becoming, a photographer, and videotaped his immediate frightened experiences and confused family (and ex-girlfriend) reunions.
Murray includes brief clips of old home movies with his friends for comparison and gradually we see how without his "episodic memory" Bruce is in fact a different person, in body language, expressions and interests, and male relationships are clearly more affected than female ones (and he unusually seems to have stayed friendly with ex-s and was very close to his sisters and mother, and it's women who take care of him in the immediate aftermath). Some of the reactions recall the common experience of those large family gatherings where elderly relatives prattle on about knowing you when you were a child and you have no idea who they are.
Though the interviewed experts, including a philosopher and neurologist, don't deal with this aspect of identity, what gradually seems to be revealed is how he may now be the person he was in the process of becoming any way. Parallel to Gatsby, and zillions of other immigrants, coming to New York to reinvent himself, Bruce had left his family and friends in Britain, Paris and Spain and the high rolling world of the stock market and partying with lads for drinking and talking sports, broken up with a long-time girlfriend and, with the substantial financial wherewithal to do so, had enrolled in photography school, ironically specializing in portraiture. But the world and his youth has also changed from those go go years, which gets tangled in the explorations of memory vs. the present when you see strong emotions that are no longer returned. So the highly charged reunions and visits to old haunts and stored objects are movingly more than about amnesia, as we see pre and post interviews with the participants.
The least effective parts of the film are the artsy interstices when Murray tries to capture what is going on inside Bruce's head, as that seems to influenced by the fiction films on amnesia he watched for his background research. There's far too many shots of clouds and too much time spent at the ocean. The director is a bit self-indulgent in his coming to be re-introduced scene, but he is helpful as a tour guide to a friends' reunion that the guys could face only months later. (3/17/2006)


Love is an intriguing little thriller that crosses the roundelay storytelling technique of Amores Perros with the noir of the hit man doing one last job genre.
Shot all in New York City (diverse locales in Brooklyn and Queens, even though one scene is oddly identified as being on the Lower East Side), writer/director Vladan Nikolic connects people who have all come to New York to either reinvent or lose themselves. Mostly they are emigrants from strife-torn home countries around the world, but even the sole native is transplanted from Chicago. While they could live peacefully here, they bring violent baggage with them.
Each of the multi-ethnic characters is surrounded by irony, as each time a scene rewinds from another's perspective we find that the characters are not in fact what the other(s) perceive them to be, despite the actions that brought them to intersect.
The actors are quite appealing, as couples come together and fall apart, even as the titular emotion becomes a primary motivator for a range of activities from passion to revenge to self-sacrifice to robbery to murder. The haunted hit man (Sergej Trifunovic) at the center of the story has more depth than usual for such a character, as he becomes a symbol for the detritus of the war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia (and he does seem to find crumbling buildings that seem like war ruins). The women are similarly haunted, particularly world weary Geno Lechner, though one who starts out as a low rent Mata Hari just turns into a shrieking ex. Even the cop is not a stereotype, but as played by Peter Gevisser quite sweet. I did at first get a few characters confused, what with two gray-haired, heavy set guys with guns and two brunettes.
The voice-over narration at first seems out of florid 1940's pulp fiction, but is satisfyingly explained as the story comes full circle.
While the film is all in English, some of the dialogue is in heavy accents that were a bit hard to understand to American ears, or it could have been the sound system at the tiny Two Boots Pioneer Theater where I saw it, along with some folks who were evidently listed in the credits as extras. I had tried to see it at the Tribeca Film Festival but hadn't been able to get in.
I appreciated the concept of the score by Standing in Lines to segue from street sounds like sirens to electronica, but it was extremely annoying to the ears, with the exception of effective covers of ethnic tunes.(3/13/2006)


Down to the Bone follows in the tradition of classic addiction and rehab movies (such as Clean and Sober), but it doesn't stoop to any clichés.
The key to the story's credibility is the director's documentary style, the use of authentic, working class locales in Upstate New York, and terrific acting.
Debut director Debra Granik and co-writer Richard Lieske don't follow the typical trajectory of horrific addiction experiences (Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream, etc.), though there's some frightening close calls, but quietly build an accretion of how a drug habit affects a mother and her family in her daily life as a cashier and living in a house her ne'er do well husband never finishes renovating. With no explication or back story, "Irene"s life plays out for us completely through what we see in grainy digital video and the characters' inarticulate interactions.
Rehab is only the half-way point in a continuing struggle (and we have seen the 12-steps many times but perhaps not this drearily matter-of-factly) and the film is brilliant at demonstrating just how difficult it is to quit when everywhere there are not only triggers for physical need but how those around her benefited in some way from her behavior when she was high and keep encouraging her to indulge. Lapsing is cynically referred to as "the 13th step." None of these insights are hammered home redundantly as we see her frustrations and resiliency.
I've noted Vera Farmiga in various TV series, but here she reveals guts, strength and range below her fragile beauty as she very believably, step by step, gives "Irene" backbone. Her chemistry with a seductively magnetic Hugh Dillon is terrific as their relationship goes from attraction to risk to independence.
Though at one point New York City is a bit tritely used as a tempting source for drugs, the primary settings in snowy Kingston and Ulster County, with its downscale stores, weather-beaten houses, high unemployment and desolate highway scapes set the characters in a very believable, multi-racial setting.
There is a bit of heavy-handed symbolism with a pet snake, but the young children are terrifically natural, especially in their whiney-ness and physical reactions.
The soundtrack unobtrusively includes an interesting selection of indie rock, including by Dillon's band.(12/5/2005)


Stay is an extended, artsy, intellectual The X Files episode on fate with a Shyamalan/Ambrose Bierce type twist. The sound design and visuals and Ryan Gosling's performance ratchet up the tension well above pedestrian.
Gosling literally seems to be acting in a parallel film to his co-stars as he is so much more intense, though that makes sense by the end. He is even more wired than his previous disturbed youth portrayals in United States of Leland, Murder By Numbers or The Slaughter Rule.
The terrific use of the New York City setting is key as the city is perceived as a frenzied M.C. Escher environment where people live in boxes inside of boxes and traverse an endless grid. The city seems imprisoned in a dark sci fi movie, like cities in Code 46 or Escape from New York. The location manager was terrific at finding the best sites in the city for the geometric resonances, amplified with editing and special visual effects. It was fun picking out some of my favorite bits of exterior and interior architecture -- from the crenellated planes of the Metropolitan Opera, to the rectangles of Chatham Towers, to the repeating domed patterns of Gould Library at Bronx Community College to lots and lots of Guastovino tiling in long passageways, creepy arches and spiral staircases, and much more. The repeating images of the Brooklyn Bridge are clearly inspired by Frank Stella's series of paintings (on permanent exhibit at the Newark Museum).
Unfortunately, references to other arts are a bit heavy-handed, from a too obviously pointed scene from Hamlet, a hanging piano and a lecture on Goya, let alone a suicidal artist and the art market, a Freudian anecdote, plus a character named Athena, to reinforce the specter of coming to terms with death and guilt.
While it's best to keep an open mind through until the end of the film, it might play better on DVD/video to rewind, identify symbols, anagrams and numerology, clarify what are manipulative red herrings and what makes sense in a dark Wizard of Oz kind of way.
The editing between the actors intentionally borders on morphing. Ewan McGregor makes up for The Island. It's been awhile since a movie appreciated just how beautiful Naomi Watts is and her ethereal fragility is well-used here. Janeane Garofalo has a very small part, but she is very dramatic. Bob Hoskins doesn't have much to do. Kate Burton's tiny part recalls her mom in Grey's Anatomy.
The music works very well at keeping the mood tense, from electronica to ambient songs.
This is a good film to see with others as each viewer will pick out different clues for interpretation. (10/28/2005)


Little Manhattan is like a junior version of Annie Hall or a Manhattan take on A Little Romance, which introduced Diane Lane in Paris.
It is a funny, delightful fable of boys and girls interacting with the opposite sex and working and divorcing parents that is a refreshing diversion from the jaundice of New York City kids in The Squid and the Whale. It is an original and marvelous conceit to try and get inside the head of a boy during that summer in the city when the scales are lifted on the perception of girls as givers of cooties to givers of complicated joy.
While married couple, and ex-New Yorkers, writer Jennifer Flackett and director Marc Levin formerly worked on Wonder Years, and borrow several of those techniques, the bit too wise and nostalgic voice-over narration seems to be coming contemporaneously from the sympathetic Josh Hutcherson as almost 11 year old "Gabe." The object of his attention, Charlie Ray's very self-possessed "Rosemary," seems straight out of Mad Hot Ballroom, which featured real life kids of the same age discussing similar issues as these kids do about the maturity levels of boys and girls. Such touches as the diverse karate class (the Ashton Kutcher sitcom comparison to the orange belt interloper is very funny) to schoolyard bully keep the film grounded in a kid's experiences, though the visual references to The Graduate and Rebel Without A Cause are a bit precious even for know-it-all kids.
The affectionate sense of a neighborhood being a kid's whole world is captured literally and through animated graphics diagramming the Upper West Side. This is not much changed from the neighborhood of another Natalie Wood film, her little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, just with a bit more racial diversity. It's very natural that these folks bump into people they know while shopping at the Fairway specialty supermarket, and there's nice costume touches of worn, local T-shirts from Fordham Law and the American Museum of Natural History. I'm not sure non-New Yorkers will appreciate how Broadway can divide their perceptions such that kids can describe themselves as being Riverside Park kind of people vs. Central Park, but the production design well establishes the comparisons with a hyper-scheduled family, "they must be really committed to public education," who live in a duplex overlooking the latter park with a full-time nanny and treat their daughter to a classic New York experience of a performance at the Cafe Carlyle. (I remember my sons coming home with accounts of similar descriptions of classmate's apartments in comparison with our crowded digs.)
There's lots of Ally McBeal-type fantasy/over-active imagination elements, from funny uses of the very NYC streetscape like concert posters and theater marquees, so I had to chalk a bit up to similar fantasy that even sophisticated, New Yorker-reading, West End Avenue parents distracted by divorce, at least not as much as the oblivious mother in E.T., would let a fifth grader have the run of nine square blocks on his razor scooter (I didn't let my kids going to school in Manhattan loose until into 7th grade). It is shown realistically, and very amusingly, how lost they get on their first, unauthorized trip to the wilds of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village (even his dad feels that's way too far away to live), which recalls another madcap young 'uns in Manhattan George Roy Hill film The World of Henry Orient. At least the caregivers are appropriately distraught when the kids seek too much freedom.
The musical selections are marvelous throughout, including originals, apt covers and cheerful new songs that capture being young and in love and confused in New York.
Bradley Whitford does parenting more warmly here than he did in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, maybe because he's relating to a boy. Cynthia Nixon is a believable mom with no stereotyped ticks.
We've come a long way in New York City since those same benches on the Broadway malls were shown so frighteningly in The Panic in Needle Park. With the great bulk of Hollywood movies about kids of this age taking place in seemingly anonymous suburbs or bucolic exurbs where everyone lives in McMansions with SUVs, and indie films focusing on dysfunctional or otherwise deprived families, it is a pleasure to see such a sweet film about normal, yeah, middle class, city kids.
But you don't have to have been a city kid to remember that first crush and this charming film will bring all those euphoric feelings and embarrassing memories rushing back to adult viewers. Reminds me that I owe a certain Eddie L. an apology.(10/26/2005)


The Squid and the Whale is such a corrosive look at marriage and child rearing that it could inspire a backlash among parents to ban arts education, if not literacy altogether, from the schools in order to prevent their children from revenging upon them as much as writer/director Noah Baumbach does on his family, notwithstanding the usual closing disclaimer of fiction.
Almost as raw as the old PBS documentary series An American Family, it is such a savage look at divorce that it could also be used to discourage people from getting married in the first place, let alone having kids or considering moving to a kibbutz where the kids would be raised communally. Evidently it was cathartic for Baumbach as he did get married when the film was completed (and his now spouse is thanked in the credits).
Produced by Wes Anderson, it seems like the nonfiction inspiration for The Royal Tenenbaums, with urban, urbane siblings who aspire to be a writer and a tennis pro. The tennis, and ping pong, images repeat continuously throughout as the kids are bounced back and forth between the parents in a very negative portrayal of competitive joint custody, where even a parent moving close by is torture - "The other side of the park - is that even in Brooklyn?", vividly demonstrating how small a kid's world is.
Baumbach has clearly studied Woody Allen movies, also in smoothly incorporating very funny lines, and he uses Brooklyn, specifically the Park Slope neighborhood, like Allen uses Manhattan, street by street, subway stop by subway stop, though this surely will reinforce every prejudice the rest of the country has against raising kids in the city. I doubt out-of-towners will understand the karmic significances of looking for and finding a parking space. The final scenes in Manhattan seem an intentionally cathartic solution as in Saturday Night Fever.
Jeff Daniels plays an even more obnoxious father as writer than Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor (ironically, as Daniels says he's frequently mistaken for Bridges by fans). His is frighteningly judgmental, hypercritical, selfish, competitive and all around emotional abuser, and out and out neglectful, though I'm not sure Oprah would do a show about this kind of abuse. He has absolutely no sense of appropriate boundaries between his pre-adolescent/adolescent sons and himself, and involves them in way too adult views that damage how they can be age appropriate. (Though it is a bit too arch to have his writing career be on the skids while his wife's begins to flourish.) This is one of the few films about kids I've seen lately where the use of profanity is appropriately shocking as in this hyper articulate family it is emblematic of the family's break down in communication as the kids blithely parrot what they hear at home without understanding much of what they are talking about.
The younger generation handles scabrous lines of detailed dialog magnificently. Jesse Eisenberg had to endure similarly nasty lessons about male-female relationships in Roger Dodger and takes it a step further here. Owen Kline, Kevin's talented son, handles with aplomb scenes that reveal quite more about pre-adolescent boys than most females, even their mothers, may comfortably want to explicitly know goes on. The lacerating men and women of Closer at least didn't have kids and in We Don't Live Here Anymore (with another tempted college professor) the kids were fairly obliviously very young. This film very clearly illuminates how brutal deteriorating parental relationships are on older children, particularly in how they relate to the opposite sex. I assume we're supposed to feel positive at the end that the kids' cries for help are finally being heard, but I'm not sure the parents have grown or changed.
The other kids in smaller parts are also very natural. Laura Linney's beauty is downplayed for some reason. She doesn't usually get to be maternal in films and she shows that warmth in lovely ways here. I'm pretty sure William Baldwin's character is intended to be both bland and annoying. Anna Paquin doesn't get much to work with as the usual student temptress in the plot, though she brings a certain ditsy cheerfulness to the role.
The music is wonderful, including a score by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham of Luna. A Loudon Wainwright song, who has written extensively of similar father/son issues, closes over the credits. Pink Floyd figures in the plot and it is a bit hard to believe that the parents of Park Slope in 1985 were not familiar with Roger Waters.
This is not a date movie -- unless you want to break up with the person afterwards or tell your spouse you want a divorce or tell your significant other you definitely never want to have kids. (10/21/2005)


Keane is a searing portrayal of mental illness. Dominated by an intense tour de force performance by Damian Lewis of the titular character on screen in close-ups for the entire film, writer/director Lodge H. Kerrigan throws us into "Keane"s disturbed mind set from the get go, as we have to continually judge for ourselves what is his grip on reality.
His struggles with what may or may not be paranoid schizophrenia or a breakdown triggered by guilt are conveyed Dogme style, with no A Beautiful Mind tricks. Through his mutterings and movements we see the world from his tormented perspective as he painfully re-lives what is either a trauma or a delusion, and ache with him as he self-medicates with booze and drugs. We alarmingly get to understand his mind even as we fear for his safety and others around him, particularly each time he drinks a beer.
Lewis uses his leading man good looks, even disheveled, to show how manipulative and disarming a person with a fractured mind can be. We can viscerally feel his efforts to control his thoughts and behave responsibly when the stakes are very high. He uncannily captures the look of disturbed men seen unfortunately frequently on the streets of New York (I was punched by one once after he stared at me fixedly in a store) and who are brought to public attention openly after a subway platform pushing or inexplicable knife attack.
The ambient sound design brilliantly captures "Keane"s highly stimulated perceptions and keeps us at the edge of our seats in agony as to what sound or sight could set him off. The ambient song selections are beautifully selected to heighten his emotions, including the 4 Tops' "I Can't Help Myself."
The people who briefly interact with "Keane" are excellent character actors who create whole, almost as damaged individuals with just a few lines, particularly Tina Holmes as a coke head and Amy Ryan as a single mom with significant problems. Abigail Breslin is one of the sweetest children on screen in a long time and her projection of trustingness adds to the poignancy of her scenes with Lewis that have the audience holding their collective breaths for their unpredictability.
The film makes excellent use of realistic locations in New York and New Jersey with a gritty, very urban-sensitive cinematography.
The credits include thanks to Fountain House and Project Return which work to help the mentally ill fit into society. I wish more hopeful information on what is being done were added.
Keane is a profound example of the moving simplicity of the storyteller's art revealed by brilliant acting through characters that portray the human spirit. (9/25/2005)


Saving Face is a warm-hearted look at three generations of a Chinese-American family in Queens, NY as their lives are thrust into unplanned directions.
In her writing/directing debut, Alice Wu creates three-dimensional personalities who have little to do with either the usual immigrant or the specifically Asian stereotypes, even as the characters tellingly reflect their age and gender cohort.
The emphasis is on the women in the family as, amusingly, the widowed mother and her doctor daughter turn out to each be rebels from their insular community in their own surprising ways, as they in turn become feast for gossip fodder in their close-knit neighborhood (this may be the first movie filmed in Flushing's sprawling Chinatown).
Through mostly subtitled dialog the film affectionately shows the closeness of families and friends who are intimately on top of each other's business and the impact when some don't follow the straight and narrow. A Chinese-American woman in the audience from the area pointed out to me that the subtitles don't quite get across the film's acuity in reflecting how the different generations use the language, from the more formal grandparents to the more colloquial parents to the Americanized twenty-somethings using "Chinglish" in communicating more complicated feelings and activities, though the actors well use body language when their characters feel linguistically frustrated in either direction.
The model minority pressures on all the generations are shown in unconventional ways, from the grandfather's tales of surviving the Cultural Revolution to a father's pressures on a dancer to be a prima ballerina. There is gently pointed commentary about Asian-American experiences threaded through, in attitudes towards other groups, as all the relationships here are intra-Chinese-American, and when the bored mother asks for Chinese films in a video store and pretty much only finds films that the actress Joan Chen herself starred in next to stereotyped porno films (as simultaneously her daughter and lover are making their own explicit erotic explorations) -- it's almost a running joke when other characters suddenly realize how beautiful she is. The daughter's mentoring attending surgeon is also a Chinese-American and the jokes all share about two-degrees of separation in their ethnic community are droll comparisons to playing "Jewish geography."
The romantic plot twists at the end start to become guessable just before their revelations, but at that point we are really rooting for the women to succeed on their terms. Chen's trajectory as a middle-aged unmarried woman finding herself concludes a bit too sweetly (including a too obvious tribute to The Graduate), but is still unconventional. Michelle Krusiec spiritedly conveys a woman who can be a successful surgical resident but who also faithfully spends her Friday nights as a dutiful daughter, even while struggling with her own identity.
The film makes marvelous use of its Queens locations, from Astoria's rooftop views of Manhattan to local restaurants and realistic apartments and houses (the credits list more parking coordinators than most action films list drivers), as well as to elevated subways and the Main Street subway station.
The soundtrack also communicates the notion of lives parallel to the mainstream with lovely cover songs, including by Leona Naess and Cat Power.
Coincidentally, the film shares several plot points, though with a different tone, with another new film, Red Doors, that was just screened at Tribeca Film Festival and is scheduled for fall release. (6/14/2005)


Second Best shows what the guys from HBO's Entourage may be like 40 years from now, so Mark Wahlberg might want to see it as a cautionary tale.
Like American Splendor, it features a self-deprecating, self-proclaimed loser who turns his life into art, here as rants that he prints up himself and distributes everywhere around his suburban New Jersey home town. But "Elliott" is not a loner or a misanthrope which is what saves him, as played by Joe Pantoliano, from being insufferable or pitiful like Marty. He is very much a part of a network of friends, family and community, and he is even on tolerated terms with those who have moved on with their lives, including his re-married ex-wife and son (who might be the first handsome gay dental hygienist ever portrayed in film).
The actors are very comfortable at showing middle-aged, male camaraderie of long time friends, as an unusually expressive self-reflective bunch who talk about more than sports. Though their weekly dinners could put the men's movement back a bit as "Elliott" becomes increasingly lacerating in criticizing his friends' lives, that disruptive nastiness becomes an equalizing set-up when the only alpha male from their group, in a sympathetic three-dimensional performance by Boyd Gaines such that Jerry Bruckheimer should be very grateful this is his alter-ego, comes back to visit the old neighborhood with his own existential crisis.
Until writer/director Eric Weber stoops to the standard male competitive reflex of jealousy over women ending in fisticuffs, which, frankly, just doesn't make sense for these guys despite the Cyrano analogy, he does present an articulate examination (with a lot of Yiddish phrases) of coming to grips with aging, from their own health problems to the mother's nursing home (though Barbara Barrie seems much more spry than the other residents). That more depressing side of aging baby boomers was left out of Sideways, though this film also has plenty of funny one-liners, sometimes with easy targets like Hollywood and books, to compensate.
While the women's tolerance of their men's quirks is saintly, at least they are not portrayed as total bitches, though this is a somewhat cynical reunion for Pantoliano and Jennnifer Tilly since Bound.
While "Elliott" got laid off from his publishing job for not being in touch with the market, he is in touch with today's world enough to begin to simultaneously post his rantings as columns on a web blog, and the film's inserts of reactions he generates both in the neighborhood and online from around the country are amusing, keep the film contemporary-feeling and move along the leisurely pace.
The Bergen County, NJ locales are used very well in creating the feel of a neighborhood.
Tom O'Brien's score is lovely. I don't know if it was the fault of the projectionist or the director that the tops of heads were cut off in so many blurry scenes. (6/8/2005)


The Interpreter is a politicized cross between Someone to Watch Over Me and The Man Who Knew Too Much with The Day of the Jackal.
While it doesn't use African genocide as crudely as Beyond Borders, it is painful to see a fictionalized story when the United Nations is right now doing so little about the horrors in Darfur, Nigeria, etc. It not only gives us a fictional conflict, but a fictional language, traditions and art (we don't get to hear much African music on the soundtrack, fictionalized or otherwise) -- and how many Americans even realize that an intoned list of victims is of fictional names?
From the opposite perspective, would Casablanca have the same resonance if it was within a fictional conflict? One can at least muse about the layers of meaning that could have been possible if Charlize Theron, a genuine white South African, had been cast instead of Nicole Kidman.
The climax with the megalomaniac mastermind is just plain foolish, particularly when we've seen how a real mass murderer ends up in Downfall (Der Untergang) - devoid of regrets or self-awareness, whereas here complex national politics are reduced to issues of individual actions and consequences.
Divorced from any message or politics, this is a respectable thriller. The chase scene in Brooklyn is very effective; I liked the touch of agents tailing different suspects frantically crossing paths.
Kidman's and Sean Penn's relationship is refreshingly adult-to-adult and restrained, with Penn's character on automatic as he's emotionally immobilized by grief. Catherine Keener's agent gets the best lines, adding some snap to the ponderousness. It's nice to see NY character actors in small roles throughout.
For a big budget film, the cinematography and make-up are distractingly harsh, particularly Penn's pancake schmear in a NYC January vs. Kidman's porcelain doll look; maybe they had lighting restrictions due to their much touted filming actually at the U.N.
I'm a fan of Lyle Lovett but I did not get the significance of his "If I Had A Boat" (from the Pontiac CD) being Penn's relationship song, let alone that he'd find a bar in NYC that had it on the jukebox.
Was it intentional that the last shot of the skyline of New York City only focused on midtown and did not sweep over to the terrorist-caused gap in the lower Manhattan skyline? (5/29/2005 - added to 5/30/2005))


The F Word was one of at least two films inspired by Medium Cool screened at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, though with even a looser story on top of the 2004 Republican convention in New York City than Haskell Wexler did for Chicago in 1968.
The pretext for covering the demonstrators, both real ones and actors in cameos playing New Yorkers (some are familiar like Callie Thorne and Sam Rockwell but otherwise one doesn't know who are planted), is Josh Hamilton as a DJ whose low power community radio station is being shut down due to FCC fines for inappropriate language, sort of an update of the old Mike Agranoff folk opus "The Ballad About the Sandman" about a rebellious DJ's last show, but here he takes it to the streets. (The real New Yorkers are quizzical because the fictional station's call letters start with "K" whereas East Coast radio stations start with "W", so I'm not sure why writer/director Jed Weintrob chose that additional artifice.)
Hamilton is very engaging and makes a genuine effort to involve protesters and curious passers-by in substantive debate and conversation as he hikes from downtown to a dreamy respite with the oblivious sunbathers in Central Park and back down to the convention site in midtown. He really does try to find Republicans or at least be a devil's advocate in discussions to try to be fair. Demonstrators dressed almost ridiculously theatrically prove to be articulately heartfelt.
He is at some of the same rallies as the filmmakers of Conventioneers so I expected the actors from that movie to show up in this one, but Weintrob does let the real thing come through, especially the march of the coffins representing those killed in Iraq, and this film covers a colorful demonstration in front of Fox News headquarters that the other film missed (maybe it happened while the other filmmakers were under arrest).
The closing warnings about the threats to free speech of the Patriot Act, to the accompaniment of Steve Earle's "Fuck the FCC" from his The Revolution Starts...Now CD, are even closer to coming true.
I expect the distribution for this film will be limited to meetings of liberal organizations. (amended 5/30/2005)


Conventioneers was one of at least two films inspired by Medium Cool screened at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival and the only one to recall the central relationship in that film.
The context and setting at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City are as intrinsic to the film's story as Fred Zinnemann's The Search in post-war Germany or Louis Malle's pre-casino Atlantic City. Debut director Mora Stephens makes marvelous use of the flexibility of digital cameras to pick up the details of that hot and somewhat bizarre week in August as aliens landed in the cacophony of committed Kerry Country (and yes, I remember it well). She and co-writer/husband Joel Viertel, with the help of appealing actors, graft a convincing romance on top of these events, at least until the last ten seconds which unfortunately destroy much of the story's credibility.
It is believable that two bright young twenty-somethings renew a college friendship in those intense days in the Big Apple, though now she's a literally engaged but somewhat flighty Democratic protester and he's a married and devoted Republican delegate.
There are countless films of the big city gal converted to home spun values by the love of a country boy, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to The Electric Horseman to Sweet Home Alabama and on, but Matthew Mabe does a convincingly intelligent Jimmy Stewart who seriously questions his assumptions and beliefs, and seeks answers to the identity crisis he undergoes away from home by falling in love with his opposite (the actors in the Q & A after the film said they spent considerable time developing the characters' back stories through improvisation and it shows). He comes across as honest about himself and his feelings while the city sophisticate seems duplicitous and hypocritical, but maybe it is because we learn more about his other relationships than we do about hers. There's a particularly thoughtful scene at a faith-based group-run food pantry where he discusses issues with an activist nun, one of the few political scenes where I wasn't restless to get back to the hot romance already. While his fellow Republicans repetitively talk about just staying on target with their message, the protesters have endless meetings about tactics and theatrics for their demonstrations, though the filming of the final staged rally is effective.
The chance involvement of a member of the cast on the convention floor adds significant suspense and realism to the film (even if his choices don't quite come across as purely as the director claimed in the Q & A for that character's motivations as he seems a bit hen-pecked).
If the closing monologue (which caused the audience to gasp) is meant to make a point about the current administration's compassionate conservatives, as the camera pans to the U.S. Capitol, then it is spitefully out of balance with the rest of the film as much as it is out of character for the speaker or it's a new take on the feminist adage that all politics is personal.
The Barenaked Ladies' song "Conventioneers" from Maroon is used amusingly. (5/28/2005)


Laura Smiles is an alarmingly effective portrait of a woman's mental breakdown.
We are introduced to "Laura" at her happiest time, in a warm, loving relationship with her fiancé (a very appealing Kip Pardue) in the city, literally the love of her life.
In flashbacks, we then see the sweet development of this relationship out of order as these moments become brightly lit and colored memories that desperately intrude on her later in life, as she becomes consumed with guilt and remorse over his fate. These feelings start to overwhelm her current life as a wife and mother. As something inconsequential in what she calls her "suburban drudgery" triggers the past -- in the supermarket, cooking, cleaning, at a school play-- she acts out increasingly aberrantly to counteract the feelings they generate, especially when she can no longer distinguish past from present from dreams, recalling Blanche Du Bois.
While writer/director Jason Ruscio said in Q & A at the Tribeca Film Festival that he was inspired by the break-up of his relationship with the lead actress Petra Wright, the film is the most vivid portrayal I've seen of manic depression. Whereas depression is usually portrayed in films simplistically as catatonia, as in Off the Map, here we see her acting out, in ways that ended up losing the audience's sympathy for her.
She is also set up in contrast to the men around her who are sympathetic or understandable, including Jonathan Silverman as a grief-stricken lover who can keep in touch with reality. Nor do the therapy sessions make her more sympathetic, as she lies to the shrink and then, frighteningly, the therapy doesn't even help her. It becomes as painful for the audience as for her to recall her earlier happy life as she seems to leave the present for it, like a Jack Finney time travel story.
This is a raw, bleak Desperate Housewives without the humor or satire. (5/25/2005)

Four Lane Highway is a bittersweet chick flick from a guy's point of view, reminiscent in tone to Tully, one of my favorite little movies of 2002.

It's a literal road trip but also a memory trip, as the film relives a love affair gone badly and the guy gradually understands his responsibilities for his personal, romantic and artistic failures.
Anchored by the very appealing Frederick Weller as "Sean", more familiar in his New York stage work such as Take Me Out and Shape of Things, he is so sweet and romantic even when he's behaving badly that we wait for more awful revelations than the obvious alcoholism and dominating father issues.
Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of its New York New York Narrative Features, it may be the first film that uses the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn for its artist denizens and galleries, though most of the film is beautifully shot in a picture-perfect New England. The New York component, in the last third or so, is the most original for what debut writer/director Dylan McCormick brings to this look at twenty-somethings learning that mature relationships take work.
The woman, played naturally by Greer Goodman as "Molly", is an independent character, with a salary, artistically satisfying career and a relationship that helps her with both, though there are only hints that her new guy appeals more to her head than her heart as she has to decide if "Sean" is the love of her life despite everything.
Their reunions are both emotionally and intellectually satisfying to the viewer as the two actors have warm chemistry together that fills in their characters' surprising inarticulateness.
A bit confusing to the central theme of growing up are the side stories of their roommates, slogging around in some sort of pitiful counterpoint of one-night stands and booze, perhaps for comic effect about love vs. lust or maybe addiction as to why even good make-up sex isn't enough.
The film has a lovely soundtrack with alt-country literary lions like John Hiatt, Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, but the songs seem selected for atmosphere rather than specific lyrical support.(5/4/2005)


Winter Solstice is a quiet, almost all-male counterpart to Imaginary Heroes, dealing with the same theme of family grief, and was even filmed in the same town of Glen Ridge, NJ.
Debut writer/director Josh Sternfeld perfectly captures the inarticulatelessness of working class guys, particularly in father/son and brother/brother interactions.
Anthony LaPaglia as the landscaper dad and Aaron Stanford as his restless older son add to the minimal script with onscreen charisma. It's sweetly charming how absolutely clueless they are in their lack of communication with the women who are attracted to them, but Allison Janney and Michelle Monaghan are overly understanding minor characters in their intersections with the dad and older son, respectively. I presume this is to emphasize the hole in their lives caused by the absence of the mother.
The problem is that without either more intervention by the women or the alcoholic violence of Sam Shepard's male family explorations, authentic looking and sounding guys hanging out together don't do very much or resolve issues.
Pretty much the only plot point is the older son's gradual decision to leave --though I was surprised he has LPs to pack up--and how the other characters react to that.
It was nice to see Brendan Sexton again, more filled out, but he looked distractingly like the younger son played by Mark Webber so that I was confused at first that he was the best friend not the brother.
John Leventhal's intricate guitar playing on his original score is almost distractingly good. The song selections are beautiful sounding, though not particularly illustrative. (4/15/2005)


Melinda and Melinda continues Woody Allen's defensive ripostes at his audience from Stardust Memories, insisting that it is the storyteller's option whether to see the world as comic or tragic. But as with the earlier film's irony, he is better at funny.
The film opens and keeps returning to dining debaters as in Broadway Danny Rose, as they posit that the same set of circumstances (that we see as mostly the same actors playing the same characters) can be presented comically or tragically. The dichotomy is a bit false as the latter is really melodrama not Aristotelian character flawed tragedy, and even that is only made moving due to a wonderful performance by Radha Mitchell, who is marvelous at portraying nervous fragility and whose Australian accent only seeps through occasionally. I did start to lose track of which version of the truth was being portrayed, saved only by a terrific Will Farrell, in of course the comic half, who is the first actor in an Allen film to successfully be his alter ego on screen.
I noticed that the New York audience got really restless through the endless series of unfortunate events for the sad half. Farrell delivered the few laugh out loud funny lines, though the best lines are used up in the trailer. I wonder if the stiltedness of the dialog is a by-product of Allen's notoriously paranoid directing style that only dribbles out script pages to actors so they can't really fully realize believable characters.
The cinematography, production and location design were almost distractingly beautiful. Were ever so many unemployed artists, writers and actors living in such commodious and expensive-object filled apartments in New York City or eating at such expensive restaurants?
The film is also noteworthy of perhaps being the first Allen film with not only a black co-star but a Barry White song on the soundtrack, both of whom are of course rejected for a white guy and jazz in yet another Allen male fantasy fulfillment movie. (3/29/2005)


Imaginary Heroes treads some of the same territory of WASPs in Grief that Ordinary People and the as-yet-not widely distributed Bereft but full-length debut writer/director Dan Harris takes a decidedly quirky approach with considerable leavening humor.
While he gives almost equal time to the impact of guilt and grief on both generations, the parents and the teen kids, Sigourney Weaver's mom brilliantly dominates the screen, so much that it feels like those single mom leaving kids in her wake movies Tumbleweeds and Anywhere But Here.
Weaver and Emile Hirsch as her son have a wonderful dynamic and chemistry. While Jeff Daniels as the dad and Michelle Williams as the older sister have tiny roles, Hirsch is so good that it would be a shame if he continued stooping to do more silly teen comedies, as he sensitively rises to the Y Tu Mama Tambien-like turns of the story.
The devastating impact of parent-induced sibling rivalry is shown almost as intensely as in Swimming Upstream, ironically also with swimming as a focus, and in The Great Santini, but with the emphasis kept more on the emotional trauma.
The odd mix of humor and pathos occurs both within scenes and between scenes as almost no scene ends as we expect it, as each encounter has surprises, secrets are revealed and character's actions have unanticipated consequences. The comedy is accentuated by the light musical underscoring, though the song selections throughout are also excellent and unusual, particularly in emphasizing that life goes on after a family tragedy.
Some unnecessary clichés creep in, such as the school bully living in a trailer park, even though this was mostly shot in Glen Ridge, NJ. I haven't seen a teen boy since Cruel Intentions have a personal notebook as opposed to pouring his heart on to a computer.
It's also not explained why this upper middle class family is not seeking therapy or some kind of counseling for their problems. The title was briefly explained fleetingly in passing conversation.
The film looked a bit grainy so I wasn't sure if it was shot on digital video. (3/7/2005)


In Good Company is a pitch-perfect romantic comedy, funny and poignant, sweet and pointed, sensitive not sentimental.
Unusual for contemporary takes on this Hollywood genre, there is not a single false move, from the exceptional casting, to the realistic dialogue and plot arc, to the production design.
Anchoring the superb casting is Dennis Quaid who gets to play his age as everyone's movie idea of an ex-Everybody's All-American so of course he would be a successful back-slapping ad salesman at a sports magazine with an office that looks like it's filled with props and stills from Any Given Sunday and The Rookie.
Three cheers for unusual age-appropriate casting that Scarlett Johansson actually plays his daughter -- not his lover or mistress or crush object or secretary or co-worker --and Marg Helgenberger his wife. Even Topher Grace gets to play his actual age, rather than his usual high school or college student, and his relationship with Johansson's is also unusually made realistic in terms of the arc of their experiences and self-realizations.
The multinational machinations of synergistic conglomerations are realistic even as they are amusingly skewered. Particularly realistic is how employees are treated amidst these stock trades, especially older ones, as shown with a wonderfully mature cast of supporting players including David Paymer and Amy Aquino. While they may be a bit overly sympathetic and the new guys overly mechanistic, they are believable, much as Malcolm McDowell's a bit over the top global media CEO is really not too far from Rupert Murdoch.
Weitz effectively uses various New York City settings to set up the background of the changes the characters are going through. The smaller and smaller offices of the downsizing company also provide amusing commentary.
As usual for a Weitz film, the music selections of pre-existing songs are lovely, including Damien Rice, Shins and Iron & Wine, though the key inclusion of Peter Gabriel's classic rock staple "Solsbury Hill" over Grace's epiphany is a bit too heavy a comment on learning from one's elders.
This film has the touch of Ernst Lubitsch that is just too rarely seen these days and can stand with those classics. (1/21/2005)


Birth has Nicole Kidman once again the central and dominating figure in a spooky ensemble movie, as in The Others and Birthday Girl.
While the plot mirrors the style of M. Night Shyamalan, co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer is better at creating an unsettling environment where the irrational can seem rational. He does this with a slow, restless camera that glides through the purgatory of lobbies, elevators, narrow hallways, and doorways to long conference and dining rooms in the dark environs of Edward Gorey-feeling Upper West Side (sort of set between the environs of After Life and Ghostbusters).
Kidman is surrounded by an excellent cast of vaguely menacing actors in Danny Huston, Anne Heche and Lauren Bacall as an imperious dowager reigning over a duplex that seems to grow to hold displaced relatives, let alone a chamber music concert; similar but chillier to the setting of Hannah and Her Sisters, it is a center of intellectualism.
The contrast with the working class Queens neighborhood of the real (as Kidrane of the IDD calls it) the kid lives in gets across very well that he is from a strange world from hers; the economic contrast helps to fuel suspicions in your mind about blackmail or other financial motives.
Cameron Bright's surprising concluding smile makes you realize just how tense his unchildlike portrayal was making the viewer up until then.
The set up for an extensive close-up of Kidman is a dramatic centerpiece, surrounding her with a full concert hall and she spellbindingly fills the screen: I presume that scene is to provide the basis for us to accept her subsequent actions and final disposition, but I wasn't 100% convinced and look forward to seeing on the DVD alternative endings that I've read that the director filmed.
The version of "You Belong To Me" by Prudence and Patience that's played over the closing credits is a bit mood-jarring, especially compared to the percussive orchestral score that underscores the uneasy visuals throughout and helps to propel the suspense from the opening snowy jog through instantly recognizable Central Park to the final explanations. (11/15/2004)


Happy Hour is a well-acted but dated feeling portrait of an alcoholic.
Far less harrowing than addiction films from Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend to Permanent Midnight, writer/director Mike Bencivenga makes a heavy drinker and his enablers out to be genial wasters of talent until the physical ramifications become unavoidable.
Anthony LaPaglia is a charismatic alcoholic, if a mean supervisor at work, and we have to accept that is enough to justify the noble loyalty of a teacher he picks up in a bar and his best friend, a long-time co-worker.
The triangle is also old-fashioned, barely hinting at the kinds of depths as are in A Home at the End of the World. There's a brief mention in passing that his mother is also an alcoholic, but the friends seem to be social drinkers who were just keeping him company drink for drink, and can give it up at will and be inspired by LaPaglia's character to change their lives.
The voice-over narration is a bit Sunset Boulevard-ish, but is fit into the story line of the central character as a writer finishing his book.
Nice NYC touches: to have LaPaglia be a kind of Delbert McClinton in Mary Lou Lord's band and to have his dad, as played by Robert Vaughn, be part of a circle at The Algonquin that includes such noted commentators on heavy drinking as Pete Hamill and Steve Dunleavy. (10/28/2004)


P.S. continues the trend this year of movies and TV shows with aggressive older women attracted to geeky, barely post-adolescent boys. While most of them come across as male fantasies, this one, based on a novel by Helen Schulman, takes the viewpoint of the woman, to make her seem empowered.
At least here we see how she herself is still mired in her own Glory Days (just as the male lead in writer/director Dylan Kidd's previous film Roger Dodger was), through her memories, her relationships with her brother and mother, and with her ex, whose student she was (though their relationship is talkily given additional problems of lack of urge control that seem unnecessarily complicated -- does Gabriel Byrne ever play a non-adulterous husband?).
Laura Linney is so good, however, that she portrays the character as stronger and making more sense than the situations or her continuing competition with her best friend, as played by Marcia Gay Hayden (and I couldn't figure out when the friend was in New York or California); Hayden's character even defensively says at one point "We're being just like the boys." Linney is particularly effective with chilling monologues, as she dissects life's disappointments in comparison to adolescent hopes and dreams, that her character has faced not only in her life but daily as a college admissions director.
I do challenge as a cultural bias and the character's hang-up the assumption that one is perfect at age 20, such that only the good die young. While the plot is set in motion by a magic realism kind of coincidence that seems reminiscent of sci-fi-ish films like Happy Accidents, Sliding Doors or Me, Myself, I or even Vertigo the characters agree by the end that they've had enough of this mystical stuff and that angle just gets dropped as they try to be real.
The film uses the Columbia University setting effectively [the book makes clearer than Kidd's camera does just how being surrounded by fresh young male flesh all the time on campus is getting to the main character] and the soundtrack and scoring are full of New York City musicians, including Yo Le Tengo, Martha Wainwright, Citizen Cope and cellist Jane Scarpontoni. (10/28/2004)
I've now read the book and am impressed by how faithful the adaptation was, except the book's ending is probably a female fantasy whereas the movie's is more practical. While the original characters are Jewish, Laura Linney is so good that it made sense to make them all WASPs. However, the book did make much clearer what the best friend's involvement was, as she's just plain confusing in the movie. (12/23/2004) The song "Dreaming" on the soundtrack by Judith Owen is a bonus track on her CD Lost and Found.


Mind the Gap is an enchanting spiritual quest by eccentric characters who by converging from the sylvan north, south, west and east to the gritty sidewalks of the island of Manhattan, face death, their own or a loved one’s, in different ways and find salvation in accepting that no person is an island.
While each is as damaged from relationships as the motley crew in Italian for Beginners, this is far more than a romantic quest as these oddballs, who we on a rotating basis very gradually learn how they got so damaged, cannot have real relationships, including between parents and children, until they solve their spiritual malaise to make a positive choice. Their physical health and sensual perceptions are also linked to their emotional and spiritual well-being.
While the film is very long as it leisurely follows these characters' twisted trajectories, the mostly strong acting (particularly by Alan King in what I presume was his last film role) and the intriguing situations and lively conversations keep us curious, though the precocious kids interact with the adults like preternatural Gilmore Girls.
Like Magnolia, we gradually find that some of the characters are linked in disturbing ways, others by coincidence (asymptotically cute) of need, time and place, but unpredictably. As brutally frank about the weaknesses, cruelties and foibles of human nature as the former film, writer/director/producer/co-star Eric Schaeffer is less cynical and more hopeful than Paul Thomas Anderson, without resorting to incredible magic realism to restore faith.
While these characters literally face the notorious undertow of the waters of Spuyten Duyvil (spiting the devil) --and their uniform hatred of the NY Yankees-- to enter Manhattan, I didn't catch all the theological interpretations about the sins of the fathers to discern any particular philosophical consistency about forgiveness, including the Krishna Das tracks on the soundtrack. I do question the meaningfulness of a child granting forgiveness to an adult, but I think it's about the adults growing-up.
Co-star singer/songwriter Jill Sobule's "Bitter" (available both on her CD Happy Town and the compilation I Never Learned to Swim: Jill Sobule 1990-2000) serves as the satisfying culmination; five other of her songs, not specifically written for the film, are also featured as commentary, as she plays an isolated busker with a literal broken heart.
Some recurring images I didn't quite get yet, particularly of a dancer in Times Square, perhaps going around and around at the crossroads of the world.
One of the most hopeful and uplifting movies I've seen in a long time, it will bring a smile to "mind the gap" every time I get on and off the subway -- the gap between reach and grasp, between nirvana and humanity. (10/5/2004)


The Forgotten at first feels like a Brooklyn take on Panic Room's urban mother-child bonding with a scary situation. < >But gradually we realize that it's more like a M. Night Shyamalan film, though I actually laughed out loud at the plot turn until I realized it was serious about being crossed with The X Files and went with that flow, and it was a fun ride of that type.
Julianne Moore anchors the film very convincingly, alone and in her chemistry with Dominic West, though I wonder if he has in his contract that all first shots of him have to be with an alcoholic beverage.
The film makes nice use of the variety of spaces in the Brooklyn Heights area, from townhouses to converted factory lofts, though I think some of the matte drawings got the Manhattan Bridge views wrong. I liked the Mets references as NYC movies usually only have Yankees fans to prove their local cred; as I'm not a hockey fan I can't vouch for how credible West is as an ex-NY Ranger.
The music is constant but atmospheric and not intrusive. (9/29/2004)


When Will I Be Loved at first feels like a road movie, but for pedestrians on the sidewalks of New York City, with nice use of neighborhoods not usually seen in movies, like the World Financial Center marina and Morningside Heights (if the camera had just moved a few feet west I could have seen my son's dorm).
What seems at first like chance propinquity turns out to be circular intersections, similar to how Amores Perros used cars. Then the monologues demonstrating once again that NYC is full of hustlers and phony intellectuals, let alone obnoxious and pretentious people in any profession or social class, seemed to be striving for a 13 Conversations About One Thing analysis, with odd cameos thrown in by real people not really playing themselves, including Mike Tyson, Lori Singer, rapper Damon Dash, let alone writer/director James Toback himself playing the name-dropping Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz.
When the coincidences come together, it turns out this is about the kind of manipulative, conniving people that Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond illustrated much more incisively in black and white with less explicit nudity and kinky sex as they were operating under The Code.
The extensive musical selections are probably selected with great care to add commentary on each unlikable character, from the titular cover song to discussions of specific Glenn Gould versions of classical pieces, but I didn't get the irony.(9/28/2004)


Garden State is a wonderful debut for writer/director Zach Braff, visually and verbally.
The camera's eye, in placement and Lawrence Sher's cinematography, beautifully support the sharp and truthful (and funny) dialogue. And, no, as lead actor Braff's not just playing his Scrubs role.
The directing and the acting, particularly backed by the expressive production design palette, well support the cross-country odyssey Braff's "Andrew Largeman" undergoes as he eschews his father's prescription emotion-controllers for first recreational enhancers and finally for the pain and potential happiness of human relationships. Every character has lies that are gradually and with clear eyes revealed, as each has to face up to who they have become, including Peter Sarsgaard's not so sympathetic stoner gravedigger.
Natalie Portman is a delight in what may be her best role so far. She is simply irresistible and the camera falls in love with her liveliness, from her eyebrows to her akimbo limbs, as she breathes life into "Large."
The excellent song selection is as critical to the film as Scorsese's or Tarantino's. While Braff resisted using Johnny Cash's cover of Loudon Wainwright's original of "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" in a simply beautiful scene with a Dixie cup to capture a significant moment in "Large"'s life, he dares comparisons to the coming home of The Graduate by including a Simon & Garfunkel song, "The Only Living Boy in New York." The released soundtrack is annoyingly incomplete, lacking Alexei Murdoch's "Orange Sky" and a closing song, among others. The romantic use of The Shins' songs should certainly help sales of their CDs (the cuts on the soundtrack are both from their older Oh, Inverted World CD).
The New Jersey settings are evocatively selected, with each house succinctly establishing the character's family setting. The male camaraderie of ironically "Glory Days" high school chums is also well-captured.
But this is at least the fourth movie/TV show I've seen this year with a mother somewhat inexplicably bedding a gangly youth their son's age, such that either some male writers have watched Summer of '42 or even Harold and Maude too often, seen too much about Mary Kay Letourneau or there's some other kind of anger out there. (8/8/2004) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women) [Turns out that one of the settings is from my home town of Cedar Grove -- I didn't know the town has, according to the Verona-Cedar Grove Times of 8/12/2004, Rockledge Manor, a 24-room mansion on five acres with a panoramic view of NYC on a private estate road and an 87-foot long pool. It's for sale for $21.5 million. [(added 8/27/2004)]


Maria Full of Grace is a vivid portrait of the pushes and pulls on illegal immigrants to the U.S. Unlike another frank recent film, Lilja 4-ever, about a restless young woman in a poor country yearning for something better who also winds up cruelly exploited, Maria is able to keep her spunk and dignity, as indicated in the title and especially as portrayed brilliantly by Catalina Sandino Moreno.
The portrait of the characters are notably full, there's no wholly noble poor here, but a range of Colombians with distinctive personalities at home and in the U.S. Folks can be cranky, impetuous, naive, with complicated selfish, financial and other motives (much like my grandmother who followed her siblings here to the U.S. on her own as a teenager a hundred years ago after one too many arguments with her strict religious father).
Maria is tempted into criminal activities by a variety of family pressures and personal rebelliousness. The tensions on her are grippingly ratcheted up as reality engulfs her, but her intelligence shines through as she uniquely keeps her wits about her to function as a stranger in a strange land.
I was tempted to see the film in its home turf of Jackson Heights, Queens to see the locals' reaction, but it wasn't clear if the print showing there had English subtitles. (8/5/2004)
There's an interview with Orlando Tobón "the undertaker of mules" for the Columbian community in The New York Times August 5, 2004: Playing Himself, the Drug Mule's Last Friend by Corey Kilgannon: "Joshua Marston, the Brooklyn filmmaker who wrote and directed Maria, met Mr. Tobón while researching the film and rewrote the script to include him."


Manchurian Candidate is a crackling thriller with top notch acting and superb production design, particularly in the use of NYC settings.
A couple of hours after returning from the theater I happened to re-watch the original and I was surprised to confirm my memory that the new version actually improves on many aspects of the old one, as groundbreaking and nail biting as it was, though Demme's is more of a suspense story and less of a political statement. It is less talky and more sophisticated about the brainwashing, which was a new concept at the time of Condon's book and the first movie. The new version is less heavy-handed about politicians (the boozy McCarthyite senator in the original is a clown, albeit a dangerous one) and the enemy (North Korean Communists in the original, a multi-national corporation in the new one, though the corporate stuff doesn't really come across more threatening than those in James Bond movies that want to take over the world). The relationships among the brainwashed characters and their programmed deeds are also made more interestingly complex, as Harvey was just used as a murderer.
The key difference is that the women's roles are more credible. Janet Leigh's role in the original is simply ridiculous -- just a sexy lady who drops everything for Frank Sinatra and believes his fantastic story immediately. Though Denzel's lady isn't 100% credible in her new somewhat duplicitous focus, she's more credible than Janet was. While Angela Lansbury was simply unforgettable as the Mom, Meryl Streep is brilliant as Lady MacBeth. While much has been made of whether she's channeling Hilary Clinton (and she says she was inspired more by Liddy Dole who is a more calculating trophy wife), I think she's really playing what Barbara Bush senior would have been like if she'd been born a generation later, complete with the pearls and pedigree. The Oedipal stuff was over the top though. The girlfriend --Laurence Harvey's in the original, Liev Schreiber's here -- is given a bit more reality, as she's more grounded in the real world, not his fantasy.
Each of my fellow attendees had different plot points each found unconvincing that others felt had been explained adequately. I note a factual error - this wouldn't be the first bought and paid-for VP - Agnew was. That's why he resigned.
Demme takes note of the media's expanded role in a very sophisticated way, with the continual news announcements dropping little background touches of context. He also uses music almost as well as Wag the Dog did though not as cynically, particularly Wycleef Jean’s cover of John Fogarty's “Fortunate Son” whose original version has been used in just about every movie about the Viet Nam War. But there's good music selections throughout, including the Fountains of Wayne's cover of the Kinks’ “Better Days” as a convention song.(8/4/2004)


Spider-Man 2 doesn't even bother with a post colon title, as it continues smoothly from where Spider-Man left off, even though some time has passed.
The time passage has allowed Peter Parker's friends (and CGI) to become spectacularly successful and he to be a poignant failure in his every day life, even as Spider-Man is an exhaustively successful crime-fighter. The movie spends a lot of time, and perhaps too many tight close-ups, on Peter's financial and psychological struggles with his conflicting roles and feelings, and raises this film way beyond the usual comic book fare, beyond what X Men and Hellboy emotionally evoke.
There's also warm humor coming out of Peter's continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to keep his identity secret and through other references, such as to Maguire's post-Seabiscuit injuries, and a cameo by Hal Sparks of Queer as Folk is meant to add another layer of flirtation.
The secondary actors were very effective, particularly a maturing James Franco (who we are obviously shown at the end will figure prominently in Spider-Man 3) and Alfred Molina's victimized villain "Doc Ock." Rosemary Harris adds depth as the aunt, though poor Kirsten Dunst just doesn't have a lot to do, so no wonder she's only signed up through 3. I saw the large-scale production filming around New York City last summer at several locales and enjoyed seeing the products of the authenticity, including showing a nicely multi-ethnic city, so I was completely thrown for a loop when somehow what sure looked like a Metro-North train in danger along the upper Park Avenue route to Grand Central Station somehow morphed into a downtown Chicago elevated subway train to nowhere, with Chicago even thanked in the credits. While my mind did wander a bit during Peter's tortured decision-makings and revelations, I didn't think I'd missed his move to another city! (7/28/2004)


Super Size Me is a very entertaining gonzo journalism documentary.
Inserting himself very personally in the tradition of Michael Moore and Hunter Thompson, Morgan Spurlock still manages to cover plenty of carefully researched, objective, serious material while keeping the extensive statistical information visually interesting with charming graphics, including clever animation. I especially liked his original surveys of nutritionists and comparisons of different age groups' familiarity with various U.S. icons vs. McDonald's advertising.
While his attempts to get an official response from McDonald's recalls Roger and Me for Moore's efforts to get an interview with the head of General Motors, the audience gets really involved in the suspense of the condition of his health over his carefully documented 30 days of eating McDonald's meals, so it was a relief to see him looking thin and healthy on The Daily Show this week.
The DVD should be packaged with a copy of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, which provides a wider perspective on the same issue and only occasionally covers some of the same points.
Spurlock is original in taking on the PC-issues around obesity and drawing many parallels with the tobacco industry and smokers -- do fat people bring this on themselves or are they helpless victims of relentless marketing?
Obesity is brought on by eating addiction --as I have witnessed first-hand in my family -- so personal responsibility should be more a factor in dealing with this addiction than how corporate America feeds off of that addiction. I grew up in an obsessively healthy-eating, ingredient-checking, fat-mocking household, which no doubt contributed to my dad's long term healthy recovery from an early heart attack parallel to a family history of arteriosclerosis. But it was only after my grandmother died in the 1970's that I found out my mom's roots in challenging his proclivities: my namesake great uncle graduated Ohio State at the turn of the last century with a degree as a vet -- but as a Jew the only job he could get was as an inspector in the Chicago stock yards, just about the time The Jungle came out. That experience turned him and his sister into lifelong vegetarians. I never set foot in a fast food restaurant until dating The Grouch in college and he led me astray, to my parents' great disdain. But when The Scion at 8 years old was diagnosed as having high cholesterol and high risk for heart disease, I returned to the family fold. My son did announce he would become a vegetarian, but as he didn't eat any vegetables he thought this meant he would eat pizza 3X a day, so as in all things, moderation in eating is our solution. I do like the baked potatoes at Wendy's. (6/13/2004)


Duane Incarnate is a charming and humorous use of magic realism in New York City to explore relationships, recalling the sweet Happy Accidents.
Because it focuses on four women friends, it is inevitable that the film will be pegged to Sex and the City (the word of mouth on line at the Tribeca Film Festival was it was that "for the beer-drinking set"), but it is much more humanistic and sympathetic about relationships than that series' male-written scripts.
Writer/director Hal Salwen explained his inspiration in the Q & A after the screening that it will always be an utterly baffling mystery as to what it is that attracts people to each other and keeps them together, a chemistry that people outside the relationship can never fully understand. If he could afford the rights and switch the gender, a play on Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" would be a good theme song.
Salwen has a particularly good ear for realistic girl talk. The whole ensemble is excellent at comically playing off each other, though only two of the actresses are immediately recognizable, for their sit com work, Kristen Johnston of Third Rock from the Sun and Cynthia Watros of Titus. While their guys are buffooned, it is done playfully and the exaggerations are fantasized. Salwen said he originally had the genders switched and it probably would not have been as amusing to stereotype the women.
I particularly enjoyed that the finale has a more open-ended explanation than the not dissimilar doings of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The New York City interiors and exteriors are used very well to establish each couple's environment (the woman behind me on line at the Festival owned the downtown loft that is a main locale), if lit a bit darkly, and it was the best use of an old stairwell in a walk-up apartment I've seen other than Pieces of April. They even got the New York Film Office to let them bring a car into Central Park.
Salwen said he walked the film cans over to the Festival in time for qualifying for inclusion and that it didn't have distribution yet. Such a delightful movie certainly deserves and should be able to find an audience, if given the chance. (5/11/2004)


13 Going on 30 is an enjoyable distaff Big that's better than it might have been, but misses opportunities to be really smart.
The successes are largely due to the un-bland casting of the exuberant Jennifer Garner (a young teen is one secret identity she doesn't have on Alias, but I was first captivated by her as the Other Girl on Felicity where she literally stole Scott Foley's heart) and her antithesis in acting styles, the charmingly naturalistic Mark Ruffalo.
Their uptown/downtown contrasts anchor what would just otherwise be a completely silly movie and which I would have put under Chick Flicks if director Gary Winick hadn't filmed it as loyally in NYC as he did his much more NY-sharp and factually accurate Tadpole.
Husband-and-wife writing partners Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith (who met, much more realistically, in college not high school) just manage to avoid some of the logical extensions of the problems of having a 13-year-old naif brain in Garner's future 30-year-old body by cutely avoiding serious sexual situations and having Ruffalo's character make an important point about grown-up responsibilities and commitments that is not the usual theme of these nostalgia-infested body-switching movies.
I respect that the competing fiancée isn't the stereotypical witch, but then why give her a fluffy career as a TV weather woman?
I didn't get MTV until 1989, so I can't testify to what 13-year-olds were watching in 1987, but I'm pretty sure the movie's pop music choices are not altogether accurate nor that the Clash were unknown to suburban girls at that point, though I wasn't a teen in 1987 to know if kids memorized the "Thriller" choreography.
Too bad someone made the decision to exclude most of the humor a la Kate and Leopold from the differences even between '87 and '04 -- how does she call her parents in NJ from NYC without dialing "1" first? How come she's not surprised at her fancy Starbucks drink, let alone cell phones or e-mail? etc. etc.
The concluding triumph of successfully marketing wholesomeness to teen-age girls is as much a fantasy as anything else in the film. (5/2/2004)


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best adaptation of a story that Philip K. Dick never wrote.
There's glimpses of movies actually inspired by Dick, like Paycheck and Total Recall, as well as elements from The Neverending Story with its encroaching "nothing" to Groundhog Day to Pinter's Betrayal or Memento, and the various permutations of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But it's altogether completely original in the inventive writing imagination of Charlie Kaufman and visualization by video-maker Michel Gondry, known more up to now for illustrating Bjork's odd songs.
Yes, it takes awhile to quite figure out what's going on until you can sort out what's contemporaneously happening before your eyes, what's dream, what's memory, what's fantasy, and what's flashback -- within a one-person Rashomon roller coaster ride we literally see the tricks memory plays. It's a wonderful evocation of the fallacies of memory, as it's that elusiveness that allows people to fall in love with people who bring out something hidden in them, and then try to stay in or out of love with them.
Almost every actor plays against their usual type -- here Kate Winslet is the kooky, spontaneous one, even more so than in Sense and Sensibility and Hideous Kinky (tracking her hair colors helps you track the film's trajectory and her British accent only slips through twice), Jim Carrey is the serious, shy introvert (though his comedic talents fit nicely as the character incongruously explores the hidden recesses of his subconscious), and Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood are nerds living vicariously, though Kirsten Dunst is just a slightly older nymphet than she was in Bring It On or Virgin Suicides.
Unlike most of the films this borrows from, Eternal Sunshine has a humanistic heart -- yes, love hurts, but we wouldn't trade a moment of the pain for the joy and comfort it brings. And well-worth seeing again to try and remember it better.
Lovely score by Jon Brion that helps ratchet up the tensions without overwhelming them.
While the LIRR is used nicely as a setting and metaphor, I'm not 100% convinced that the suburban scenes were filmed in what they claim is Rockville Centre, LI, as it looked more like parts of NYC to me [I've read reports that the train stations scenes were actually filmed in Westchester]-- which would be a nice change for Queens or wherever standing in for another locale.
The title comes from Alexander Pope's poem Eloisa to Abelard. (3/22/2004) (supplemented 4/8/2004)


Elf is a laugh-out-loud with a tear-in-your-eye charming, updated tribute to one of my favorite movies Miracle on 34th Street, much better than the tepid actual re-make.
Here, the plot turns in a now-vanished Gimbel's, but the family in much need of "faith means believing in something even when your common sense tells you not to" again lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. While I couldn't tell from the credits just how much was actually filmed in NYC vs. Vancouver, I'll credit whatever it does, as it is such a Valentine to Christmas in New York, to mix holidays.
While Ed Asner makes me believe that he too thinks that Edmund Glenn really was Santa Claus, it is Will Ferrell's consistent wide-eyed innocence that carries the movie.
The product placements do get annoying, but mostly serve the script. Who knows if director Jon Favreau, who also has a cameo role, punched-up debut writer David Berenbaum's script, but it is delightful.
Zooey Deschanel is a sweetheart, while James Caan and Mary Steenburgen just pretty much get to reprise their TV roles, in, respectively, Las Vegas and Joan of Arcadia.
The visual references to other movies are amusing, from the Disney-like animation at the North Pole to treating the Urban Park Rangers like the Dark Riders from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The holiday song selections are mostly classic, though it's nice to hear new Leon Redbone interpretations on two tracks.(1/19/2004)


Something's Gotta Give won me over. Or rather, I was charmed by writer/director Nancy Meyers' laugh out loud, knowing quips and those two old pro's Diane Keaton, in her best role since, and basically playing an older, Annie Hall, and Jack Nicholson playing himself, or at least the audience's perception of his real self.
A certain amount of movie magic suspension of disbelief has to be called for -- that Keaton's "Erica Barry" could have a hit play that would pay for an expensive beachfront house in the Hamptons and that younger women are still finding Nicholson's "Harry Sanborn", who has made no pretense at keeping physically fit, his income and lifestyle enough of an aphrodisiac.
I did enjoy that Keanu Reeves is honestly played for eye candy competition; I got a kick that he had a brain enough to admire "Erica's" work but I believed that he's a doctor as much as I believed that Denise Richards was an astrophysicist as a Bond girl.
It was odd to have Keaton spouting Yiddishisms like schmata, but I guess we're supposed to assume she picked those up in a 20 year marriage to a director named Klein, and her daughter, played by Amanda Peet with no frontal nudity for a change, does end up with a Jewish guy too.
Frances MacDormand is briefly along as a somewhat stereotypical Women Studies professor, though for a change in the movies that character is not gay. (1/11/2004)


In America is a heartwarming American immigrant tale filled with humor. The wonderful performances by Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton as the parents and the marvelously natural Bolger sisters almost keep one's mind off the problems.
The semi-autobiographical story by Jim Sheridan and his daughters evidently takes place in the '80's, as E.T. is in release, but there's continuity errors (a radio station plays "the best hits of the '70's, '80's, and '90's," the skyline is absent the World Trade Center). I thought they'd end up with other Irish immigrants in the Bronx or Woodside, Queens, not Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan. But even there it's surprising to find a Catholic school still staffed by nuns, let alone habit-wearing ones, with no other immigrant students, let alone no other Irish immigrants.
We're forced to sympathize with the basic premise of the story -- that this family doesn't come to America to Make A Better Life for Our Children Through Hard Work and Sacrifice, but lives in such a dangerous situation so the father can pursue a selfish pipe dream to be a penniless stage actor as they flee a family tragedy.
Worse is not one, but two, plot points of what I call Movie Star Disease -- those strange, ominously foreshadowed ailments where otherwise healthy-looking Beautiful People develop life-threatening health crises; one is solved theatrically with deus ex machina. This approach was lamely justified because the story is from the daughters' viewpoint and they are presumed not to understand grown-up issues. At least they got the extremes of the NYC climate right -- "We learned a new word - humidity."
The music by Gavin Friday is surprisingly un-Celtic, including a too-lyrically obvious choice of "Desperadoes" for the older girl to sing at a school talent show.(1/3/2004) [Just found out that this was filmed in Ireland, with only a few days of exterior shots in NYC - boo!4/15/2004]


Pieces of April is a wonderful New York component for a trilogy of mordant but ultimately sweet holiday movies, along with the Parisian La Buche and the multi-ethnic L.A. What's Cooking.
I particularly identified with Katie Holmes's character's incompetence at cooking Thanksgiving dinner when the other women in the theater were laughing uproariously at her efforts and I wasn't even sure what she was doing wrong, other than focusing like I would do more on the decorations than the food preparation.
Screenwriter and debut director Peter Hedges filmed in poorly lit digital video on an evidently minuscule budget but with a terrific cast and mise en scenes.
The characters who embark on parallel picaresque odysseys in a quaintly but believably diverse Lower East Side tenement and suburbs to city road trip are refreshingly individual and un-stereotyped in surprising directions, even if the actors may overdo the theatrical flourishes. Sean Hayes especially over-fusses his neighbor bit. Patricia Clarkson is marvelous as a mother with daughter issues and cancer.
There was nary a dry eye in the house at the end.(11/26/2003)


In the Cut is now at the top of my list of a certain sexual tension genre flick -- women getting involved with a hunky cop investigating an entangling gruesome crime, which includes films such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Eyes of Laura Mars, Big Easy, and the original Nordic Insomnia within a sub-genre of the cop's possible involvement in the crime and another sub-genre specifically with NYC cops.
Director/co-writer Jane Campion takes hold of the gritty genre and, while flaunting references to many other movies as well, turns it into a woman's milieu, while avoiding woman-in-jeopardy/fly-in-the-spider-web clichés. While most critics have typified the central character "Frannie" as "a repressed teacher," I saw her as a sensualist, who is fascinated by the key oral sex performance she witnesses in a bar, revels in collecting sexy metaphors [in the novel she collects vulgar slang terms], even seeing the Poetry on the Subway posters as personal messages from Eros, attracts dangerous lovers and acolytes, such as one or two who are stalking her, revels in how her half-sister [her best friend in the book] dangerously acts out her sexual fantasies, enjoys telling about their philandering father, but always drawing out others and revealing little about herself. She knows very well that the titular image on the blackboard she draws for a class discussion of Virginia Woolf's To the Light House is a passive aggressive phallic symbol.
Rather, her literally fatal flaw is her indecisiveness to act on these feelings, and wrong impulsive decisions when she does act [her fatal flaw in the book seems more to be her attraction to the flame].
Campion uses an accomplished filmmaker's skills, employing visual and verbal connectors and resonators to both inflame and fear, as well as to lead us on with red herrings about the male characters. Even "Frannie's" fingering of the cop's business card with his ethnically redolent name, Giovanni Malloy, has sensual recall (though most reviewers have the character's name wrong as the IMDb listing is incomplete and he's called Jimmy in the book). I presume the over-frequent fuzziness was to indicate "Frannie's" confusion.
I'm not sure if it's just Mark Ruffalo's usual coiled performance as Malloy that makes him more and more sympathetic to the audience [even though he's younger and shorter than as described in the book he's spot on in his sensual attractiveness], so puts the film out of balance compared to Meg Ryan's distancing passivity.
In a film that proudly puts in its credits that it was shot 100% in NYC, our feelings about the cop are also manipulated by frequent focusing on the American flags that are still around the city as tributes to the fallen police heroes of 9/11.
Even as we and "Frannie" are torn between erotic attraction and suspicion (his idea of "taking her some place more quiet" is a garbage-strewn upstate river where he teaches her to shoot a gun [a new scene that's not in the book where instead he takes her right in his precinct office]), he has plenty of blunt terms for her to collect, which Esquire has featured as new frank seduction lines [his monologues are taken from the book]. He admits to a complicated personal life [though in the book he may be prevaricating more], while the only back story we get on Frannie's is her constant flashbacks to her parent's romantic courtship [not in the book]. Our sympathy is also swayed as he brags about his empathy and turns it on her: "I can't focus on this case. I keep thinking and worrying about you. . . You're smarter than I am. I'm running just to keep up with you. . . For me to see you, do I have to fuck you every time?" The last is delivered while "Frannie" is writhing in anticipation. He even services her by phone when she can't sleep.
Confusing, doubtless due to the hypocritical MPAA ratings requirements so we'll have to wait for the DVD [which is being advertised as being the "Director's Cut"] for the deleted shots, are two scenes of dubious physical possibility that, like Showtime's soft core porn, has sexual congress taking place with the guy with his pants fully on, such that I feared more that the zipper would hurt him than that she could end up as a bloodied "disarticulated" victim of a serial killer. There was a comfortable, relaxed scene of mutual nudity amidst the frankest discussion of oral sex on women since Chasing Amy, and Ruffalo does have quite a sexy way of whipping out a condom. Much has been made of Ryan in her first nude role, but more significant is that it's a grown-up, sensual role like Charlotte Rampling usually plays which Ryan sparks to only in the last half or so of the film.
The rest of the audience did not share my positive reactions, as there was a tremendous amount of yawning and restless movement with kicking of my seat. In addition, at the concluding scene, a protest arose throughout the theater: "They changed the ending!" But "they" included novelist Susannah Moore who co-wrote the screenplay so presumably approved the closing shots that I interpreted as a similarly ambiguous dream fantasy like Campion's closing for The Piano, and are akin to the story and film version of Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
One does have to read the book to learn the significance of the title. I look forward to seeing it again in the director's cut on DVD. (11/7/2003; post-book reading added 2/29/2004)
Here's interesting quotes from Jame Campion in the Sydney Morning Herald from the article Masters and Collaborators by Garry Maddox: "Director Jane Campion . . . credits editor Alexandre de Franceschi with influencing the strong sex scenes in In the Cut. 'I would probably have had a lot less of them in there if it wasn't for my extremely sex-loving editor ... who's got that Italian-French-Spanish approach. He's just a very big fan of sex in general and kept saying: 'Out you go, Jane. You're too prudish. Out of the room. I'm going to do these things.' . . . The influence extends to the producer, who is often considered the nuts-and-bolts organiser rather than a creative force. Campion says Laurie Parker also made a substantial contribution to In the Cut. 'It was her decision to shoot 100 per cent in New York City, which I think was a really good choice. She's just really supportive to me, having a personal take on the film, and she got a really great crew together.'" (1/31/2004)


The Station Agent was created by playwright, first time writer/director Thomas McCarthy, around his friend and colleague's Peter Dinklage's short stature, forbearance, and talent, but this charming portrait of blossoming friendship among misfits is all his.
While bursting with symbolism, these odd characters are not only firmly placed in a specific geography, but given full lives and three-dimensional back stories as to how they got in this place and time in their lives, helped by marvelous acting.
I grew up along a bus route that culminated at Newfoundland, NJ but never thought to take the bus to the end of the line, probably because it sounded so far away. I certainly didn't know that a train also went there, but the system from Hoboken through exurban NJ becomes a central visual theme for the film as much as black and white French and British movies used to use the noise, steam, stations and crowds, but here it's only occasional toots and rushes, abandoned train cars, underused rights-of-way and real estate, of points connecting lines, lines connecting centers somewhere else -- like the people in the film. I knew train buffs like the ones here when I worked at NY's MTA -- the kind of folks who plan the timetables as if they are for model trains and blame all schedule problems on "passenger delays."
The passengers on life in this movie are as brought together by chance as any travelers and slowly learn to reach out to and even depend on each other through a series of very funny and poignant coincidences.
The movie is wonderfully effective at finding non-cliché and unpredictable ways for people with nothing in common -- one has become isolated by his physical appearance, one is damaged by grief, one is incapable of being alone, plus believable secondary characters with problems and various levels of optimism -- to find something in common --their humanity. (10/25/2003)


Washington Heights brings fresh elements to the old, but continually autobiographical for young filmmakers, story of the immigrant's son who is striving to get out of the old neighborhood.
The lead could have been played by John Garfield, but as the old neighborhood is now a Dominican Republic stronghold, he's played by Manny Perez, who was also very good in A & E's 100 Center Street. Another alum from the same show, Bobby Cannavale, only gets to do a similar role as he did in Kingpin, but we also get to see other TV series refugees as well in different roles.
What's new here is not only does he want to be an artist, but a comic book artist escaping into an exaggerated fantasy world. The usual conflict with the father is O'Neillian as it is not just rebellion, but complicated with responsibilities and recriminations. The financial struggles of each character ties them all together in a tense web of dependencies, making the climax more shattering to all.
Freshest is the lack of sexism and genuine affection for women; all the women are employed, independent and not dragging the men down with unwanted pregnancies; nice to know characters in such movies have finally discovered birth control (though I missed a couple of plot resolution points involving the women).
The very long list of thank you's in the credits reinforces that the film was a labor of love with minimal budget, but the resulting cheap, available light cinematography is less Dogme-noble and more just plain hard to see.(5/11/2003)


Raising Victor Vargas is an endearing and engaging look at being and trying to bring up teen-agers on the Lower East Side.
While these kids are no different from the thousands of generations of adolescents before them, so there's universalism that all can relate to, the particulars of orphaned Dominican immigrants living crowded in with their grandmother adds extra poignancy. (My mother's reaction to the film was to wax nostalgic about living just like that with her siblings in a similar railroad flat in her early youth.)
This fits among the recent spate of ethnic tension/assimilation movies, as these new generation of films are not just about rebellion, but rather about the importance of family and keeping the love and respect of their elders. This is also the third film I've seen in the past few months that deals with a young Casanova who is afraid of a real romantic relationship and learns to be vulnerable with family and lover (Tully, taking place on a Midwestern farm, and All the Real Girls, in a small Southern town) had the same theme and arc of young adults with limited options and world views so sex particularly looms (hey, aren't there settlement houses anymore so kids have something else to do?), yet each is beautifully unique.
This is a full-length debut for the whole cast and crew and they are wonderful, especially the lead reel/real Rasuk siblings, and Altagracia Guzman as the grandmother just trying to do the right thing.
On their small budget they were not able to afford much of a soundtrack, despite the urban and Latino setting.(4/20/2003)


I caught Vanilla Sky on HBO and couldn't give it my full attention, but I was surprised the elements that I liked vs. the ones I didn't.
I'm a big fan of Cameron Crowe, particularly the romantic and musical elements of movies like Say Anything, Singles, and Almost Famous, but those were surprisingly the weakest part here.
I really liked the sci fi story line and the futuristic NYC mise en scene (though one isn't surprised that Times Square on what's clearly a quiet Sunday morning could be shut down for Tom Cruise).
The music, though off-beat, didn't add much to the commentary.
But I was perfectly willing to have an obnoxious Cruise get the death penalty and didn't for one microt believe he had fallen genuinely in love with Penelope Cruz (on-screen or off) as there was zero chemistry. Or maybe the triangle was distorted by the home run hit by Cameron Diaz who was way more appealing and literally walked away with the movie on really sexy gams up to there.
I am curious to see the foreign-language movie that inspired this.(3/2/2003)


Dare Devil is no Spider-Man but it's still fun.
I like that it's in a somewhat real New York City, and my Queens audience appreciated comments such as comparing the fashions of Hell's Kitchen to Chelsea and that the Kingpin is from the Bronx. Even the subway station shown was correct geographically with the correct train nomenclature. The gaggle of New York-sounding actors also helped, including guys from The Sopranos. We see a real New York Post because Rupert Murdoch owns the paper and the movie studio.
Jennifer Garner of Alias makes stiff, expressionless Ben Affleck look better, though his spiky anime hair helps too. Especially in the rain, that is once again a means for sweet romantic scenes, here shown through sonar.
Colin Farrell is once again following Russell Crowe's footsteps, just as Crowe did in Virtuosity, here literally chewing the scenery in his villainous turn as "Bullseye," (which I assume was rewritten from the comic books to let him be Irish).
The special effects are wham bang fun.
The soundtrack is coldly calculated to appeal to the movie's primary target audience of 14 year old boys, but manages to be entertaining, though not particularly creative in its loud selections.
The sound editing neatly reflects Dare Devil's heightened sense.
That this movie made PG-13 when so many foreign and indie movies don't is ridiculous as this is very violent.
Stay through the credits as there's a humorous follow-up scene stuck in.(2/17/2003)


The Younger recommended 25th Hour, saying, "Its the first movie that really shows what New York was like after 9/11 for New Yorkers."
David Benioff adapted the script from his own novel originally published early in 2001, so he and Spike Lee added the key layer by making the introspective focus of post-9/11 significant, and that makes all the difference in raising this film to a moving level a la Casablanca (about how individual doings aren't worth a hill of beans compared to what else is going on in the world, etc.).
The film opens with extensive shots of the memorial lights where the towers were, and the camera is constantly picking up memorials and tributes behind conversations, including one scene in a firefighters' bar and another in an apartment window overlooking Ground Zero, to flags on SUV antennas to a closing in memoriam and use of Bruce's "The Force" over the credits (Spike thanks him as "Da Boss").
Like Bruce does in The Rising, Terence Blanchard incorporates Arabic singing in an evocative score. The score becomes as much about the new visibly multi-ethnic New York City as Gershwin stood for Woody Allen's Manhattan.
Spike Lee is still a bit heavy-handed in dealing with white ethnic groups -- here stereotypes of Russian gangsters and Irish drunks almost replace his Italian ones from the ham-fisted Summer of Sam. But in the extensive, theatrical, illustrated monologues the characters rage on about the changes in New York City and escaping it, he gives them the post-9/11 gift of final understanding, even as each "stays a New Yorker." Through one character, we also see the white collar parallel to the streets, the aggressive, upwardly striving atmosphere of trading rooms, similarly shown in Boiler Room, tempered by the knowledge that so many of those who died in the towers worked just like that.
The acting by Ed Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox and Philip Seymour Hoffman is very strong, in what is in effect a New York take on Dead Man Walking as all gradually come to terms with a crime and its impact on their lives.
Weakest is the central meeting point as some private school they are all connected to and gravitate around as the locus of their "Glory Days" as Lee seems to be saluting Woody Allen in another way by adding in what now seems to be the obligatory jailbait in short skirts temptation. (1/20/2003)


Gangs of New York combines the Mad Max post-apocalyptic vision with the grounded-in-some-reality of Escape from New York and A Clockwork Orange with a final sequence practically straight out of the original Planet of the Apes, yet it is not sci-fi/fantasy but is based on recognizable history like a David Lean epic.
Yes, Boss Tweed is shown somewhat accurately (though I would have preferred Michael Gambon to the not-entirely well-cast Jim Broadbent)
Yes there were competing fire and police departments, I will learn more about the real Five Points when my history reading group reads Tyler Anbinder's Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum, Dutton, 544 pages, now out in paperback rather than the somewhat-mythological book the movie is based on.
Yes Irish immigration was huge post-famine with nativist reactions.
Yes NYC was anti-Civil War, virtually pro-slavery, and the Draft Riots were horrendous cataclysms. ( For a chat with Anbinder and the screenwriter about the film's historical reality.)
But Marty - we hardly knew ye! Where's the neo-realist of Mean Streets and Goodfellas? Instead, Scorsese has brewed all these historical elements operatically (I guess that's his Italian connection) into a long, very theatrical concoction, with exaggerated costumes and multi-leveled sets, of revenge, ambition, and romance buffeted amidst larger historical forces. Walter Hill's 1979 The Warriors told a similar, picturesque NYC gang tale effectively on a smaller scale, inspired by Homer.
There are some moving scenes and social commentary amidst the ostentation, and of course the cinematography is beautiful. Some of the off-putting is caused by the odd casting with even odder accents, though of course we don't really know what New Yorkers sounded like 1846 - 1863 -- when did Noo Yawkese develop? Daniel Day Lewis is known for his Irish roles, but here plays a Brit-sounding nativist. Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio sound like Nicole and Tom in Far and Away to the point where Leo has to excuse that he lost his accent in the orphanage, though when their roles turn dramatic they settle down.
Howard Shore's vaguely Celtic music is quite effective, helped by Robbie Robertson's many selections of period-sounding tunes, including Maureen O'Connell as a strolling troubadour and several from Alan Lomax's collections. Yeah, this was filmed on a set in Italy, but it's SO much tied to NYC history that I had to put it in this category. (1/1/2003)


Roger Dodger is the debut feature of writer/director Dylan Kidd, who has clearly been much influenced by the plays and movies of Neil LaBute.
He uses the acid wit and conversational gambits of LaBute to challenge those assumptions about male/female relationships as a hunt/hunted game for sex. Similar to LaBute's In the Company of Men, the plot is set in motion by a bet, though here tellingly with an adolescent boy.
Even with a superb performance by Campbell Scott as Roger (playing the opposite of his lovable, huggable city planner in Singles), the women in actual fact have the upper hand in Manhattan (from older lover/boss Isabella Rossellini, to a tandem pair of bar-hopping wise-girls Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley).
It's a bit of a cliché that Roger is an advertising copywriter, like Affleck's not dissimilar character in Bounce. But what makes LaBute so much more intriguing is that his despicable characters don't get their comeuppance -- if an obnoxious roué is shown to really be an arrested development adolescent and an adolescent boy can be a sweetheart isn't that a ho hum dog-bites-man story?(12/23/2002)


Maid in Manhattan is a typical Hollywood romantic comedy fantasy of rich guy and poor girl coming together in Cinderella fashion and enjoyable fluff in the Kate and Leopold mode. It's even co-written by a writer of Working Girl that it resembles weakly and has a similar moderately feminist conclusion.
But it could have been better, after all, it's directed by Wayne Wang, whose early indie Chinese-American romantic comedies were so sweet.
There's wincible plot points for a New Yorker, though the rest of the world won't notice. The rich guy is supposed to be a Republican NY State Assemblyman (not the usual source for playboy paparazzi-magnets, unlike J. Lo herself) running for the family business of the US Senate - why not just make him a mogul? It took me most of the movie to come up with an even close-to-sensible back story that he's probably from Dutchess County or north, like the Hamilton Fishes or the Houghtons of Corning (though their money originally came from the glass works). ]
The opening use of "Me and Julio" while the camera zooms in on J. Lo's native Bronx will doubtless lead the rest of the world to assume that Corona is in the Bronx. That's as close to any Latin sounds in the movie (J. Lo is called "Mediterranean-looking" by her beau, though she does use Spanglish endearments to her son and once mutters under her breath in Spanish.) Oddly, there's no original songs used, and when Norah Jones's voice floods the screen we get more warm love from her "Come Away With Me" than any heat generated on the screen.
All the British actors are completely mis-cast. Ralph Fiennes simply doesn't have the touch for such a light, romantic role, and his American accent doesn't even work as an allegedly upper crust one (I couldn't stay around for the credits to see if he had a dialog coach.) Bob Hoskins has spent an entire career as a Working Class Hero and here we're supposed to believe he's a snobby butler in the John Gielgud in Arthur mode, or even like Hector Elizondo's manager in Pretty Woman, so his sympathy for J. Lo is less of a grudgingly earned turnabout. Natasha Richardson has a thankless role in what is usually the snotty fiancée; worse is that her nasty, snobby, best friend, played by Amy Sedaris, is needlessly several times emphasized to be Jewish. Absolutely no point seeing this in a theater, or on DVD, or even cable.
It will be perfectly enjoyable cut up with commercials for its eventual showing on network television. (12/15/2002)


I went to see Igby Goes Down to show support that Ryan Phillippe took an ensemble part in a small movie in NYC (and he manages to be both obnoxious and seductive). Doesn't hurt the Cause to also prove Susan Sarandon can put bodies in movie seats too, even when she has three movies out at the same time (though family obligations kept me from then sneaking into The Banger Sisters on the same ticket for a double feature.
Igby takes place across the park from Tadpole showing the Upper East Side is even more dysfunctional than the Upper West Side when it sends its progeny to boarding schools and Ivy League colleges.
The characters are individually striking, the acting terrific, though does Amanda Peet have in her contracts that she has to show her boobs in every movie she's in? Neat trick to be able to have a younger Culkin play Kieran (who was also good in Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) as his younger self.
This writing/directing debut by Burr Steers doesn't really hold together as everything just gets too, too extreme for even black comedy, with several deaths.
The hair styling is the best I've ever seen on Phillippe, Sarandon, Claire Danes, etc. -- lead stylist Quentin Harris is a name to watch for.
The individual song selections were cool, such as Travis doing "The Weight," but didn't really add anything in the soundtrack. I will give it another try on cable or video as maybe I just didn't get it.(revised 10/13/2002)


City By the Sea should be in a double feature with Insomnia. Like Al Pacino, here his compadre Robert DeNiro is a masterful old pro as a cop caught in a web of the personal and the criminal.
DeNiro is wonderfully matched in the cast, with Frances McDormand (three cheers for sweet, realistic, age-appropriate romances! though I couldn't figure out what her theater job was) and two of my favorite young TV actors who are clearly juiced to be acting across from DeNiro, James Franco (of Freaks and Geeks) and Eliza Dushku ("Faith" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). A couple of DeNiro's fellow cops are also from TV precincts, George Dzundza of Law and Order and John Doman ("Major Rawls" of The Wire).
Inspired by the true events told in a magazine story by the late Mike McAlary ("Mark of a Murderer" in Esquire, September 97, Vol. 128, Issue 3, p. 88, 11 pages), the intriguing plot and DeNiro's unhistrionic anguish combat some mawkish changes from the true story.
While the original and the film's story take place in Long Beach, Long Island, the film was actually shot in Asbury Park, NJ; too bad they didn't think to put Springsteen's original version of "My City in Ruins" over the closing credits, as that's what it was first applied to, but maybe they figured that as it is there are occasional scenes of a New York City skyline with the Towers (where it looks like DeNiro literally rolled out of bed from his Tribeca loft to film) so it could have been awkward. (9/15/2002)


Tadpole is a delightful tribute to The Graduate (complete with an appropriate cover of Simon & Garfunkel, this time using "Only Living Boy in New York" -- and the senior citizens in the audience with me didn't get the symbolism).
The New York setting and boarding school holiday vacation are also resonant of The Catcher in the Rye.
The usually done by Jake Gyllenhaal role is here sweetly played by newcomer Aaron Stanford, though Bebe Neuwirth absolutely steals the movie out from under him (literally) with more than one wink at Sex and the City.
All these affectionate references combined, this is still a lovely, original comedy with believable characters who get themselves in odd yet understandable situations. Maybe the dialog keeps referring to them being on the Upper East Side to make this seem less of a Woody Allen movie (if he would write for a different age and a cuter character) but the locales in our faces are actually the Upper West Side.
The lengthy thank you's in the credits are testament that this is an indie movie that called in a lot of people's favors. I therefore understand the use of cheaper digital video, but it is really annoying on a movie screen, very blurry. Nice use of two covers by Adam Cohen on the soundtrack. (8/11/2002)


13 Conversations About One Thing convinces me that when I get a chance I have to catalog all the movies that deal with fate/coincidence in a roundelay story-telling technique.
This is the more intellectual version of Tom Tykwer's German movies or as less violent than Amores Perros.
Writers/director the Sprecher sisters take a very different approach to human nature than in their sardonic Clockwatchers, helped by intense performances by Matthew McConaughey and Alan Arkin and especially Clea DuVall who visibly change before our eyes as they are affected by chance slowly and fitfully playing out its hand around them.
The chapter headings are a bit precious. I couldn't actually tell what order the story was being told to us, backwards, sideways, forwards? Or is the point that doesn't matter for happiness? We're cogs in The Great Mandella anyway, each touching the other in unknown ways?(6/16/2002)


I had to literally sneak into the The Panic Room in an awkwardly laid-out older multiplex (hey I had bought a large popcorn) so I missed the opening credits and a few minutes of back story but was still pretty much able to follow all the action. And wallop it comes fast and furious.
David Fincher's directing definitely added to the excitement, and it's nice to see that today's filmmakers have seen Hitchcock movies, and Hitch would have loved Jodie Foster I think.
But excitement is also added because the characters are quite unpredictably individuated, particularly the bad guys.
Howard Shore's music keeps the suspense keyed up without being obtrusive.
When Hollywood does what it does well, we can have a crackling good time!(5/19/2002)


Unfaithful makes me want to say, for the record, that all those many times I was late picking up my son at school it was because I was caught in traffic. But then I'd never buy a new satin slip and tiger stilettos for any man.
While written and directed by men, this does give sweet revenge turn-around for those endless movies of older married men having affairs with much younger women. It's worth the price of admission to have a barely suppressed raging Richard Gere confront the lover with "What are you, 28?"
There are legions of Gere fans out there (I've already had a debate with a colleague on this) who are stupefied that Diane Lane would cheat on him and whether Olivier Martinez is more tempting (hell, yes, he is, even though in my 15 years of running a used book sale I never once encountered a used book dealer that looked like him).
But I think the case is made quite visually that's she's a fragilized, overprotected, bored trophy in a gigantic mansion with little to do other than pick up after and feed her kid and husband. Lane is also absolutely magnificent and enthralling in conveying a woman caught up in a maelstrom of passion and risk-tempting, especially enhanced by editing that focuses first on foreplay and sensual recall, though the illicit relationship gets murky with unnecessary rough stuff.
Those of us who have graduated from the Law and Order School of Criminal Justice (and there's many brief appearances in the film by New York actors who have taken courses there) will find some details in the plot that make the final cliffhanger somewhat unconvincing.
This film may well serve to get quite a few suburbanites to hurriedly move back to the City to save their marriages and/or encourage the wife get a job.
Very nice use of the Ali Farka Toure/Ry Cooder collaboration from "Talking Timbuktu."(5/19/2002)
There's a somewhat dissenting view in Buy Bread. Drop Off Kids. Meet Lover. . . . No Way! by Julie V. Iovine in The New York Times, May 19, 2002


Spider-Man is "our local neighborhood super hero," according to the TV theme song played at the very end of the movie credits, and for our family he is, as there were several scenes shot in Forest Hills.
That nicely grounds the fantasy in reality, as does Tobey Maguire's terrific performance with his insecurities and growing self-awareness of his powers.
The movie is a lot of fun, with some LOL jokes, though I tuned out the repetitive fight scenes. This isn't the first movie to stage derring-do on the 59th Street Bridge putting the Roosevelt Island Tram in danger (I think it was Escape from New York that did that cool), but it's effective. But is the abandoned manse he tracks the villain into part of Goldwater Hospital?
Poor Kirsten Dunst has very little to do, except be a damsel-in-distress, which is too bad. But that rainy kiss is a sure winner for the MTV Movie Awards.
Most of the negative reviews have been of Willem Dafoe's villain, but I thought he was quite effective.
For James Franco this is pretty much a prequel, setting him up to be the villain in Spider-Man 2.
Danny Elfman's music swept the action along. (5/11/2002)


I didn't even know Spidey lives in my neighborhood (try pronouncing the full name like Jon Stewart does: accent on the first syllable as in spi-der-min) until I read about friends of our family in So, Spider-Man! Brilliant Disguise! in The New York Times by Corey Kilgannon on May 8, 2002: (fair use excerpts)
Much of Spider-Man, the blockbuster action movie, was filmed on location in Queens, the comic book domain of the web-slinging superhero. As it happens, the realism of the Spider-Man comic transcends the mere film.
In the comics, Peter Parker, the mild-mannered photojournalist who is Spider-Man's alter ego, grew up at 20 Ingram Street, a modest, two-story boarding house run by his Aunt May in the heart of Forest Hills Gardens. The address actually exists and is home to a family named Parker: Andrew and Suzanne Parker, who moved there in 1974, and their two daughters [Our Scion was in the same elementary school class as Pamela Parker]. . .
Then, last summer, a reporter from The Queens Tribune, a weekly newspaper, . . .told her that Spider-Man's greatest enemy, the Green Goblin, goes by the alias Norman Osborn, which is almost the same surname as Mrs. Parker's neighbor, Terri Osborne. Mrs. Osborne has lived across the street, at 19 Ingram, since 1979.[She's a former colleague and client of mine.]
The address of the borough's most famous arachnid, 20 Ingram Street, was listed in the June 1989 and July 1989, issues of "The Amazing Spider-Man," published by Marvel Enterprises. A supervillain named Venom finds a change-of-address form left in Peter Parker's jacket, which lists the address and even its real-life ZIP and area codes. . . Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man 40 years ago with Steve Ditko. . .said that when Spider-Man was created in 1962, he made Peter Parker a Forest Hills resident, but, "I never pinpointed his address." Mr. Lee was no longer writing the comic book in 1989, "So someone else must have created that address," he said, adding, "Spidey would have gotten a kick out of the coincidence, but Peter Parker, he would have loathed all this publicity revealing where he lives." The issues of June and July 1989 list David Michelinie as the books' writer."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Good commentary in Inside Every Superhero Lurks a Nerd by Neal GablerThe New York Times May 12, 2002


Chelsea Walls is a sensual meditation on the lost and troubled souls who drift in and out and settle down at the historic Chelsea Hotel.
My local neighborhood movie star Ethan Hawke here stays behind the camera as director and gathers his friends Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn, wife Uma Thurman, veterans Kris Kristofferson, Tuesday Weld and Harris Yulin and luminous relative newcomers Rosario Dawson and Mark Webber for moving monologues and dialogues written by playwright Nicole Burdette, as well as mesmerizing poetry renderings of Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas.
Hawke has an unusual eye that loves and respects women that's more romantic and empowering than nude humpings in most films today, even as here all we see are fleeting moments in confusing relationships with their irresponsible men, even though I really had no idea what was going on.
The music, mostly by Jeff Tweedy and Wilco (with a striking cameo by Jimmy Scott, both acting and singing Lennon's "Jealous Guy") was used as lovely commentary and yearning revealed.
Filmed in digital video, the bleeding over the screen and the blurriness could have been due to lousy projection. (5/4/2002)


I felt those moments of discovery watching American Chai like I did when I first saw Greetings by Brian DePalma, Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, and Edward Burns' Brothers McMullen -- here's a major new talent.
Yeah it's yet another son-of-immigrants story, but the dialogue is fresh, funny, tender and frank, the conflicts real and contemporary, the characters a rich and rounded variety of personalities and social types reflecting the titular mixed blend tea.
Anurag Mehta writes and directs an impassioned movie from the heart, and probably his experiences as an Indian-American artist wannabe growing up in NJ and going to Rutgers. Covering the college years before the young professionals in ABCD, Mehta managed with no budget and a mostly young, multi-talented cast that's barely gotten their SAG cards, yet sings and writes music (appealing lead Aalok Mehta) and dances (captivating Sheetal Sheth, who was also in ABCD), including in funny satires of Bollywood conventions.
Like in Burns' own Sidewalks of New York, the scene and symbolism setting World Trade Center-dominated background skyline will always let us know what day it was filmed before. (4/20/2002)


Astoria is a sweet adult-son-of-immigrants story, not too different from all the others before it.
This time it's today's Greeks of Astoria, Queens, as called up by first-time writer/director Nick Efteriades. With resonances from The Jazz Singer to fellow Astorian John Turturro's own ode to his father Mac, there are sparks of originality and unexpected turns, notably helped by charming lead actor Nick Stear, as he makes choices about his family and his life.
Though dripping the authenticity of home town filming locales and casting (only Paige Turco is a familiar face), the pace is a bit slow, also probably hampered by a low budget for much of a soundtrack.
I felt like a traitor seeing the movie in Manhattan, but at least it was in the top of a converted movie palace that recalled Astoria's late Triboro Theater.
As it was, I was the only one of the five other people in the theater not speaking Greek so they must have been from The Old Neighborhood.(4/13/2002)


Kissing Jessica Stein is an unusually sweet date movie.
While the previews that have been playing in New York theaters for months gave away most of the modern screwball twist, and a lot of the good lines, the movie's characters and situations are a bit more complicated than the previews indicated.
My young feminist scholar cousin eviscerated the movie for having too attractive leads (who wrote the original play and the screenplay, and dragooned one of their brothers in to directing his first movie and other relatives for various bit parts) and not giving us enough background on the main characters and their motivations. I enjoyed the full environment each character is given, from the warm, unstereotyped Jewish family of Jessica, particularly Tovah Feldshuh as her strong yet very loving mother (this is the first movie I've seen with a funny, yet realistic opening scene during Yom Kippur service and a genuinely lovely Shabbat dinner with blessings), and her friend Helen's downtown omnisexual scene, complete with an argument about gay PC-ness. I told my cousin to lighten up and just enjoy an indie movie that brightens a genre that Hollywood has leadened, viz. Serendipity (a movie that only pretended to be filmed in NYC).
The preview mostly used Jill Sobule's "I Kissed A Girl," but that's nowhere heard in the movie, though Dave's True Story is, as well as nice tracks from Ute Lemper and Diana Krall, with only some occasional bite in their selection for commentary.
I didn't see a credit at the end thanking the NYC Office of Film whatever, but it sure looked like it was actually filmed here.(4/7/2002)


Margarita Happy Hour works well as both a movie and a sociological slice of life.
It's Sex and the City as set in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I was torn between sympathy for the downtrodden club-hopping single moms and calling Judging Amy's Mom to get their babies away from them.
I see-sawed between tears and gasps -- in a decidedly down-scale take on "Ladies Who Lunch" was this one really gonna let that toddler sip out of her cocktail glass? Would the electronica turntables ever be turned down so the baby could get some sleep? But then a mom was really trying to get her sick baby on Medicaid.
But this isn't quite seven years later for the girls of Larry Clark's Kids (a movie that made me sick for two weeks after viewing) -- this multi-ethnic group seems to be somewhat voluntarily poor, as they and their both sex significant others -- who are shown to be as childish with no impulse control as the babies whose names are just miniatures of their mothers-- are sort of artists and writers. At least one girlfriend does question whether it's appropriate for the central woman to take her toddler with her as she drops off her illustrations at the pornography magazine she free-lances for.
Writer/director Ilya Chaiken is particularly effective with her seamless flashbacks as we gradually see how the lead characters got into their situation, using the metaphor of a circular trap of behavior and feelings.
What is clear, despite the tawdry surroundings, is that these women genuinely love their babies and the children are finally their salvation (the credits include a list of the children of the cast and crew that inspired them). So there's a somewhat hopeful if not completely believable conclusion.
As a very small indie movie probably only music by their friends could be afforded on the soundtrack, which is mostly loud and not melodic, so the sound hurts when the visuals do too. (3/23/2002)


The Royal Tenenbaums is set in a fictional city, but it's as much a New York movie, and Woody Allen homage, as Sidewalks of New York.
The ensemble of quirky crazies, with sidekicks who seem to be amateur actors, is a hoot, marred by repetition when some of the characters don't develop or change, particularly Gwyneth Paltrow's one-note depressive.
What a surprise to read in The New York Times yesterday that auteur Wes Anderson was more influenced by Truffaut than David Lynch or Fellini -- huh?
An extra joke, a la Long Riders, is having the Wilson brothers play best friends, not brothers.
Gene Hackman is simply having a ball, breezing through.
The camera is a part of the ensemble as well, as we're always aware of placement, restricted view, and angles, reinforcing a dysfunctional family locked together.
The pop musical selections are equally quirky. (1/12/2002)


I had to watch Kate and Leopold with two minds, and keep shoving one of them back into its rational hole.
Primarily, Ozzie Hugh Jackman (here as a Brit) is, as the fictional market research focus group in the movie put it, a hunk. At least this is better than his previous Hollywood forays.
Poor Liev Schreiber only gets one good speech, and he does it quite well.
Meg is Meg (though one would have thought her character could have handled sexual harassment better).
Here's the "buts" -- Happy Accidents is a similar and much better movie.
Advertising and market research is a hackneyed target for criticism of the modern world.
Jack Finney's Time and Again (and almost any of his tales) are a similar and much better story -- and far more historically accurate. I had to keep wincing on how the mattes and the editing got both old and new New York all wrong, even mixing up Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights, Downtown and Uptown, as if Madison Avenue was just off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Funny how modern times bothered the Duke -- but not modern women's slight clothing or sexual mores, though the sex is off-screen (I expect Kate would be more bothered by 1876 plumbing and pre-feminism). And that's after the director edited out the implausibilities that the critics plotzed about at the previews or dealing with when La Boheme or Pirates of Penzance were first performed.
Not only are the music selections not special, but it oddly relies on Henry Mancini's "Moon River" theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's to put the two characters in the mood - what does that have to do with a 19th century duke?
If you can keep silly common sense out of your head, the movie is a sweet chick flick.(12/29/2001)


I went to see Sidewalks of New York for the very same reason that the foolish producers skittishly delayed its opening after 9/11 -- the locale is very New York.
I love the apartments (with the one wincible exception of a 19-year-old part time college student living in an elegant Village townhouse), the mise en scene, the look, the conversation about the outer boroughs vs. Manhattan.
Most of the critics dismissed it as Edward Burns too much imitating his inspiration Woody Allen. But this is much more Sex and the City than Woody, especially when he puts men's viewpoints into women's mouths (enough already about penis size!). But the difference is that this has none of Woody's neurotic misogyny, has women who do find their strengths, and is both more romantic and more bittersweet than Woody -- maybe because Burns is endlessly engaged to a super-model.
Like Better Than Sex, the characters talk to the camera, explain themselves too much, but annoyingly it's to a fictional filmmaker interested in love and sex, whose amateur work I suppose is supposed to account for the herky-jerky pseudo-editing.
And yes the brief shots of the World Trade Center behind Burns ache, but just add to the notion that life is short, so tell her/him how you feel and get on with your lives.(12/29/2001)


I've added ABCD to my collection of small movies about young people grappling with their ethnic identity (like the gem Double Happiness).
Here are well-educated, suburban-raised, South Asian Indian Americans (or American Born Confused Desis) trying to figure out their relationships.
In the best movie adult sibling representation since You Can Count On Me as the anchor, ABCD is bittersweet, unstereotyped, and unpredictable as the two sort out their loves and their relationship to their mother and her traditional culture vs. their work and outside social lives, white and Indian. There is certainly no clear Happy Ever After with the choices they make.
As a very low budget indie, the movie has some technical problems with the sound, but the acting is very natural. It would have been interesting to see the movie with an Indian audience at the theater where it was playing in Jackson Heights.(12/8/2001)


Dinner Rush will inevitably be compared to Big Night, and other food preparation/restaurant movies, but I think it holds its own as a delicious slice of one night of New York life. As one character plotzes: "When did eating out become theater?"
The wonderful, winsome multi-ethnic ensemble of mostly New York actors --many born in Brooklyn according to the IMDb--who have done a lot of TV work are clearly enjoying making a movie as a coordinated team. Danny Aiello has his best, and somewhat similar, role since City Hall.
Many of the references will go over the heads of those West of the Hudson or East of the East River, such as to Tribeca (as a newly trendy neighborhood) or Danny Meyer (restaurant entrepreneur). Or even the digs at Queens as the home of mobsters, which were greeted by silence by the Queens audience I saw it with.
The upstairs/downstairs of the kitchen scrambles vs. the dining pleasures and everyone's personal spices are lots of fun. The actors playing obnoxious customers, like Sandra Bernhard, do so with relish but not overplayed.
Keep your palate clear by not looking at the ad campaign or reading the reviews, as I think they give the plot away and I was totally surprised by the ending, er, the dessert.(9/29/2001)


I don't think you'll hear Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" quite the same after seeing the previews or the full film of L.I.E. as it's used as the theme song of a complex portrait of a suburban pedophile and the kid he targets.
Forget the violent maniacs who lead to "Megan's Law" or the Polly Klass murder. Here's the good ole predator next door, ex-Marine, thoughtful son, and insidious friend to cop and kid alike.
The opening of the movie is like Kids, made vivid because the excellent young actors are age-appropriate, a frank portrayal of young teen boys experimenting with sexual discovery and confusion, hormones and way too much parental neglect.
While this is the most sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile since Michael Dorris's Yellow Raft on Blue Water, L.I.E. also carefully shows how the young victims are needy and clear-eyed manipulative at the same time, as they seek out affection, attention and guidance --and only sometimes money--that they badly need wherever they can get it.
The disturbing subject matter earned the film an NC-17, though it's all talk and very fraught visual implications, though like the similarly rated Requiem for a Dream it's more cautionary than inflammatory.
The movie attracted one of the more crowded, mixed matinee audiences I've seen in the art theater in Queens, older and middle-aged, gay and straight.(9/9/2001)


Happy Accidents is a lovely addition to one of my favorite genres -- romantic fate/coincidences/possible alternative universes (such as Sliding Doors, Twice Upon Yesterday, Me, Myself, I) which writer/director Brad Anderson did one of the premiere such ones with similarly sharp dialogue in Next Stop Wonderland. There's also resonance with Tom Tykwer's work, especially The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und Die Kaiserin)
This time it's the guy (Vincent D'Onofrio, as a lovable lug with a very determined core and an intriguing sci fi secret) who's absolutely convinced that the relationship is fated, and the woman (a perhaps too weepy Marisa Tomei) who needs more and more proof.
Has the explanation of the flexibility of the time/space continuum ever been demonstrated before so erotically in the movies that it becomes memorable foreplay?(8/31/2001)


Start-up.com is a really involving documentary, a dot-com story brought to life with real lives and real people.
It was particularly astonishing how interesting it is as I'd just finished watching the 10 episode fictional mini-series on BBC America that covers the same ground, Attachments and the non-fiction version mostly holds up as entertainment as well.
Where it doesn't is intrinsic in the D.A. Pennebaker-produced techniques -- how much of what we see can stand alone as fact and how much is interpretively selected by the filmmakers? And how much of what we see is influenced by whom was the most comfortable with the filmmakers' constant presence, or who was the most verbal when the cameras are around? Clearly, the central figure CEO gave the filmmakers (one of whom was an old college friend) the most access, so we get a lot on him, and even some glimpses at his personal life. Was govworks.com Achilles heel insufficient attention to the actual website functioning or were geeks less interesting to the filmmakers than the deal making CEO's?
The fictional version was very careful to contrast the types. A compromise technique is the one Real World takes where we see (somewhat phony, somewhat staged) action unfold and then have the participants face the camera to explain themselves.
But the context here is missing for the geeks working on the project (which Attachments is sensitive to) as opposed to the chutzpah-dik, camera-charming entrepreneurs.(7/8/2001)


As soon as I heard that Little Odessa's James Gray had a new movie out, The Yards, I ran to see it. If he's on his way to do a Pentateuch on crime in NYC, I'll go to the ones on each borough.
Odessa focused on ethnic crime in Brooklyn (specifically Russians in Brighton Beach, for Tim Roth's best performance 'til that time). The Yards is Queens par excellence. While the lack of NYC accents causes a bit of suspended belief, the strong acting, and devastating screenplay by Gray and Matt Reeves (who I know from interesting writing on TV for Felicity and other dramas but what the heck is the stupid movie The Pallbearer doing on his IMDb resume?) more than compensate.
The depiction of NYC corruption is heads and tails above Sidney Lumet's City Hall, here with demonstrations of how family and ethnicity get very intermingled in NYC politics. Nepotism is the ultimate explanation.
More, the screenplay is cinematically presented -- the points are made visually and through body language and situation, not banged over our heads with explication.
In my past life as a city planner, I worked both for the Queens Borough President (yeah, that one -- whose name is actually mentioned in the movie and no one west of the Hudson let alone younger will have the slightest idea what the reference means) and for the MTA, where we were constantly stunned by what went on in the bowels of the Transit Authority, while the Grouch supervised City contractors for ethics violations, so I was amazed how mostly accurate the movie was--including a cameo by Peter Vallone as a councilman. (Quibble that this would have been more accurate if it had been set in a time period before the Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional and contracting procedures were changed.)
While Cherlize Theron is somewhat miscast and mis-dressed, Joaquin Phoenix blows the screen away. He steals every scene from Mark Wahlberg, who is supposed to be the moral center of the movie, and his last scenes alone are explosive.
The older male actors are as impeccably cast as The Sopranos, though the ethnicity of the characters vs. the actors is a bit confusing. James Caan is more comfortable in this patriarchal role than he was in The Way of the Gun; he clearly felt at home in Astoria. Steve Lawrence (yeah, THAT Steve Lawrence) doesn't have Donald Manes's charisma as Borough President, though he actually does look a bit like him. Faye Dunaway is surprisingly spot -on; I've been to many of those Queens political dinners and saw wives dressed and acting like her. Ellen Burstyn in the third bridge-and-tunnel-mom role I've seen her in this month, got to have her hair combed this time.
There is a surprising lack of pop songs on the soundtrack, as so many would have been appropriate, instead it's mostly Howard Shore's score. I kept thinking of Bruce Springsteen singing "Nothing feels better than blood on blood. . ."
There's wonderful views and uses of the Queens landscape throughout this movie. This fully realizes an outer borough, just as Two Family House does for Staten Island.
There was a guy in the audience who had been an extra or a one-liner or something in the movie, but who didn't provide additional insight as he mostly talked to his friend about his upcoming auditions than the making of this movie. (10/29/2000)


It seemed strange to see the decidedly outer-borough Two Family House at an expensive Manhattan movie theater, until during the opening credits two old ladies sat in front of me, put their coats on the two seats between them, and proceeded to loudly comment on the proceedings to each other throughout the whole movie.
Much like the friends of the protagonists do in this very sweet yet honest depiction of post-WWII life on Staten Island when an off-islander disrupts the quotidian.
While it drags a bit here and there, and the voice-over narration sometimes re-states the already visually obvious, the very New York characters (including one played by "Pussy" of The Sopranos) are real people in real situations and realistic traps. This is less schmaltzy than Barry Levinson's Baltimore nostalgia-fests.
Filmed in Staten Island, Jersey City and Bayonne, the settings are accompanied by lovely period music by the John Pizzarelli Trio (who also does a cameo appearance as Julius LaRosa).
This is one of those small, charming indie movies that seems to be a labor of love, like a jewel of a short story.(10/14/2000)


So I got the Grouch to accompany me to Requiem for a Dream on a rare, beautiful weekend when he didn't have to judge a debate tournament on the basis that: 1) it will probably never come out to Queens coz it would be NC-17 if they had allowed the ratings brand (gee we didn't even get carded), 2) it was based on a book by a writer like Burroughs (Hubert Selby) and 3) it's by the same guy who did Pi.
The casting of Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly as junkie Brooklyn Jews is a bit far-fetched, but they turn out to be excellent, completely involved actors and quite passable with the accent (I would have accepted them even more if the Grouch wasn't listening to WFAN on the way into the city so I'd just had an earful of gen-u-wine Brooklynese about the Subway Series as in "Hey Mad Dawg, dis is Joe from ...").
The editing takes a 3 Kings approach to drugs, going inside the head and body of abusers, but paced and accompanied by an increasingly mad soundtrack played by the Kronos Quartet.
Ironically for the no one under 17 rating I would be like the mother in Almost Famous and push my kids to go see it while screaming "Don't Do Drugs!" at them. The Grouch's reaction was a big "So what? Is this still a problem?" Well, we have a cousin who runs an addiction rehab center so there clearly are still heroin, crack and diet pill addicts out there, just that the scourge isn't so visible anymore. But it did feel like an updated, brutal "Reefer Madness." Reminded me of Cold and Sober and other addiction movies like Drugstore Cowboy without any of the upside or hope, and this is way more visceral and visual.(10/15/2000)


Girlfight is much more of a coming-of-age-story than it is a fight flick. And what a relief to have one in an urban school, with naturalistic, realistic Latinos and believable use of Brooklyn project settings.
It made me realize that virtually all Hollywood high school movies are set in luxurious suburbia or small towns. (Even the somewhat comparable Love and Basketball which focused on teen African-Americans was set in suburbia.) While these kids share some of the same peer problems, those issues shrink compared to the other struggles of these kids, where high school graduation could be the major accomplishment of their lives.
The feminist element here is riveting in its originality, as you hold your breath to see if she can have a relationship--and a victory-- on her terms. A lots of audience sympathy goes to the guy who is challenged to rise to a gender-bending-expectations situation.
The movie does drag a bit here and there, but this is no cheap thrills Rocky fight movie, as the practices and fights have complex outcomes, and all the relationships--especially with fathers and father-figures-- take more center stage than the center ring.
There were lots of interesting music credits listed at the end, but I hadn't really noticed the songs.(10/7/2000)


By following first the Gay Pride Parade and then the Cows around Manhattan I managed to kind of trick the whole family to see the contemporary Hamlet paying $9.50 a head even though it's finally playing budget matinees in Queens. I think this could have the effect that the Zefferelli Romeo & Juliet did; just as that showed that R & J should be played by young people, that Hamlet the guy and his friends make a lot more sense if they look like the college students they are.
The mise en scene in corporate NYC, especially the new commercial Times Square, is terrific, and the conversational tone quite believable, especially by Ethan Hawke (though why is he wearing that dorky hat?).
I wish the media metaphors had been taken even further; I expected Dad to be more of a Ghost in the Machine a la Max Headroom than the corporeal Sam Shepherd and was disappointed that there was a final fencing duel instead of something more contemporary, and why is every character's turreted room filled with books and not CDs or videotapes, i.e. modern media.
But from the opening "press conference" of a coronation to the play-within-a-play being Hamlet's videotape splicing together of images, the contemporary sets fit terrifically, illustrating the edits out of the play.
Even further than in Branagh's Hamlet which had been an improvement over Mel Gibson's traditional treatment of her, Ophelia (surrounded from the beginning by water images, including photo developing chemicals) and Hamlet's relationship is made clearer and more sympathetic. Nice touch that Horatio's friend is a girlfriend this time around, a stability counterpoised to Hamlet's.
I at first was disappointed that the music wasn't more of a commentary, even culturally as I expected more rock like in the recent R & J, but it turned out that was my ignorance; the credits showed that the non-original music played was mostly symphonic and pop tunes of variations on Hamlet including a Nick Cave song with Hamlet in its title, similar to the images of b & w previous versions of Hamlet that were on monitors in Hamlet's typically very messy bedroom.(6/25/2000)


Boiler Room is the first movie since Kids that I watched with increasing fear about the implications for my sons.
Maybe it was that I was watching it literally blocks from where a good portion of the movie takes place in Kew Gardens Hills, with a packed age and gender mixed audience that could relate to the very realistic locale, including the transportation references to the broker's site way out on the LIE, and the very very blunt NY way of talking ethnic blues and disparagement slang.
The movie would be paired well with Fight Club as it shows what happens when testosterone in today's society gets out of control, but scarier because Fight Club I thought was clearly a satire because it was extreme (though my older son says a guy in his dorm has seen it over 7X and really gets off on it so I guess not everyone gets the satire). Here it was so grounded in reality that it was absolutely frightening; I kept saying a prayer over and over "Please God, don't let my sons turn out like this." I came home and pinned my 15 year old and lectured him about money not being everything and that he should never let himself get entrapped in an unethical situation.
There are some plot points that don't quite work, with the guy's father (DA Morgenthau in yesterday's New York Times decried the legal aspects as ridiculous), but I did appreciate the novelty today of a script that has a guy see the moral light not through the cliché of the love of a good woman (the only woman here is as ethically compromised as he is for similar motivations) but rather of love for his father (reminded me of On the Waterfront or East of Eden a smidgen).
Ben Affleck is in the movie for only minutes, but is effective. Giovanni Ribisi is absolutely fantastic, and his relationship with Ron Rifkin as the father quite believable. Vin Diesel was so good (almost makes us believe that he's Italian-American though he's clearly something else) that now I want to see the sci fi movie he's in that also opened this week (which my son refused to go with me as he's embarrassed to see such a movie with his mother).
Some critics have disparaged that this is just a junior Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross -- but the touchstones those movies as karaoke provide are key to this movie. First, this is very much about the '90's and '00's for a younger generation, complete with very hip hop soundtrack (another popular cultural push about get-rich-quick-myths).
Second, I just read a history on the impact of 19th century self-improvement books, and this shows that in fact these movies are functioning like that (shades of Gen X's who learn history from movies like Stone's JFK).
The auteur Younger evidently used to work in the City Comptroller's office so has a handle on financial dealings that made sense to me. What also scared me were the aspects of the closing the deal that are shades similar to what I deal with daily as a fund raiser; I knew there was a reason that I get an anxiety attack and have to leave the room every time our senior campaign consultant comes to a meeting to advise us and I realize it's cause he reminds me of these guys. I was also reminded of a consultation I did back in the '80's for a major university interviewing their board members and major donors. I interviewed a youngish alum who was also the son-in-law of a major donor, a guy who clearly had it made by having married the boss's daughter, was rising in the family's professional business and the university hoped he'd be a future leader-- instead all he talked to me about was how much he envied the not-yet-discredited leveraged-buy-out types like Boesky. The unethical win when the ethical envy them.(2/27/2000)


I went to Bringing Out the Dead partly out of obligation to keep up with an auteur as I haven't seen a Scorsese movie in years, gosh I haven't even seen Age of Innocence or Casino.
Most critics are comparing it, unfavorably, to Taxi Driver but it reminded me more of After Hours for its threatening view of NYC populated by darkness and crazies, which it tried to specify as being in the past, in the early '90's rather than in Disney/Giuliani City of today.
It's a picaresque tour of just the Hell's Kitchen section of NYC that keeps boomeranging back to the same hospital rather than wandering either aimlessly or to a destination like The Warriors does.
It's visually and aurally a kick (kudos to editor Thelma), with a rockin' soundtrack (not particularly adventurous choices, gee how many NYC and road movies feature "Nowhere to Run"?) but it's just a crazy 8 pattern and doesn't go anywhere.
My mind wandered quite a bit in the middle, so I may have missed something critical. It's really "Marty does E.R./Third Watch" much like Tarantino did an episode.
The co-stars are wonderful, like Ving Rhames getting to play quite a different juicy character then he usually does; the casting director should get an award for the minor characters though I'm always sympathetic when so many black and Latino actors have to play low lifes.
I picked up right away that Scorsese was the ambulance dispatcher, with all kinds of director/auteur symbolism, but his whining NYC accent was perfect pitch for the role.
ILM did the special effects quite nicely--they are the second best part of the movie.
Marty literally got seduced by the dark side here, the night, that's all it's about.(11/7/1999)


Being John Malkovich was a creative hoot and we LOLed quite loudly.
It was so inventive that I wasn't sure how to categorize it here until the Grouch constructively suggested sci fi in terms of fantasy and magic realism (until I came up with the NY NY category).
Did Kaufman write the script particularly with that actor in mind or was it a blank until he agreed? The Grouch and I had fun trying to think of what other actor's persona would fit in as well, as Malkovich's protean roles leaning toward the bad guys makes for an effective back-story that say maybe Kevin Spacey wouldn't work as well.
It was like a Monty Python cartoon come to life. Completely unpredictable and creative in every scene and in every angle and detail.
I think director Spike Jonze put in a bunch of references to music videos that also have an absurdist touch - the last scene looks like Nirvana's "In Utero" cover?(11/14/1999)


The Grouch and I saw Summer of Sam yesterday and we both didn't like it.
Every scene is too long. Spike Lee has said he makes long movies because the studios let Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner make them and it would be racism if they didn't let him too. Too bad he doesn't take Sayles or Woody Allen as better models of crisp editing.
The music video scenes are the best, especially the Who songs and he does capture the look of the period. Though one character is an erstwhile punk rocker hanging out at CBGB's that music isn't featured as well as disco and pop.
While this is co-written by Italian-Americans, including Michael Imperioli who also has a bit part, as the lightkeeper in the male strip joint, and who co-stars vividly in The Sopranos which really uses one ethnic group to examine American society, this is a caricature of Italian-Americans as hung up on kinky sex.
These are not full-rounded characters. This seems to be Lee's revenge that Crooklyn and his other movies just about blacks didn't do as well at the box office so this is how he does a movie about whites -- nasty.
Facts in the case are manipulated to fit Lee's vision - two murders took place down the block from us in Forest Hills, we moved in right after wards. He makes it seem like they were in the Bronx mostly, justifying the craziness, and in Brooklyn, his turf, with that silly Bed-Stuy interview reaction scene. This location issue is significant because it was NOT clear the suspect was white. In fact one of the horrific fall-outs from the case was that as the hysteria built witnesses more and more claimed the guy looked black or Hispanic--even though such a person would clearly have been spotted in Forest Hills in 1977 where the early murders were.
Because the black-out riots reflect badly on blacks they're shown then referred to only briefly at the end, though the ramifications of it rattled around for quite awhile after. I'm racking my brains but can't remember the other movie that also had a panic stricken community attack an innocent man - Bad Day at Black Rock maybe?
The Ben Gazzara Capo character is a bit silly, though I'd believe it more if this took place in Ozone Park as that is how Gotti operated in South Queens. At least Mira Sorvino's character is left with some shreds of dignity, as Patti LuPone's nude scene is gratuitous.
The cinematography is wonderful.
Here's an unusual addendum from Harold: If Spike Lee is so intent on showing how the Italians are really primitive tribalists, explain to me why, in the key black-out scene, he shows the African-American neighborhoods being torn apart in mindless anarchy, while he shows the Italian neighborhood organizing to protect itself and maintain order? And these unusual comments from the Grouch: Does Lee have some kind of secret envy of their tribe which, admittedly screwed up as it is, at least functions to protect the interests of its members, as opposed to his tribe, which does not? Is that why he is accused in the news clip of "not liking black people"? (7/29/1999)


A Walk on the Moon has a teen in it, but it's definitely a grown-up movie.
It helps to remember 1969 though one does wince at some of the inaccuracies as too much cultural symbolism is thrown into that summer. Hey, where's the rain at Woodstock? - it was only nice weather on the Friday. Some of the music was inaccurate - what were the odds of turning on the radio in 1969 and hearing "Sally Go Round the Roses" from 1962? Why would someone from NYC claim they couldn't afford college and not consider what's now CUNY?
This is Liev Schreiber's first grown-up movie I think; he was quite good in Shakespeare in the Park last summer. The Variety reviewer bashed the movie because Schreiber is so good (especially as he discovers the power of Dylan and Jimi Hendrix) that one sympathizes with both the adulterer and the cuckold - gee but ain't life complicated, as what comes across is the importance of family.
Too bad the Blouse Man (very appealing Viggo Mortensen) is just basically a hippie and he's not a real person, but everyone else is.
Anna Paquin as a teen discovering that her parents are people too was wonderful. Diane Lane's NY accent does waver quite a bit.
I lost my objectivity whenever Tovah Feldshuh spoke. As the grandmother she sounded so much like my grandma, who of course was alive in 1969, that I practically cried every time she was on the screen, though mine had a thicker Yiddish accent.
All in all, a very touching movie.(4/11/1999)


While it was fun seeing Cradle Will Rock with my mother-in-law who had some memories of the time period, I also did a huge paper on the WPA Arts Projects in graduate school (I recommend Jerry Mangione's book on the Federal Writer's Project as a good intro) and am quite familiar with the personalities and facts involved so was curious to see it as a docudrama. But we plus my parents felt the film was too agit-prop and the 20% of it that's over-the-top (aw come on, Hearst -- Citizen Kane foreshadowing, Rockefeller and a steel magnate at a Versailles costume party at the climax?) weakens the historical telling of a confluence of happenings -- the strangulation of the Federal Theater Project as a precursor victim to McCarthyism through the Dies Committee (including actual testimony wherein Christopher Marlowe was accused of being a Commie, as were the classic Greek dramatists) and Nelson Rockefeller's benighted sponsorship and then destruction of the Diego Rivera murals at Rockefeller Center.
Effectively written and directed by Tim Robbins is how passionately political the artists were, not as "card carrying Communists" per se, but as committed anti-Fascists and unionists in every aspect of their personal lives--as equally committed as they were to the magic of the theater as a communication device.
It does go over the top (including Susan Sarandon as an elegant Jewish courier to Mussolini selling stolen Old Masters), it is effective to show how TPTB were sympathetic to and profited from alliances with the fascists and how much they hated That Cripple in the White House.
Amidst the politics, the art for art's sake oversize egos of John Houseman and Orson Welles are also well portrayed, if a shade as buffoons compared to the grimness of everyone else around them, most of whom needed these WPA jobs to keep from starving (there's a toss away line that barely explains that FDR had to throw the Theater Project to the wolves in order to save his whole alphabet soup of programs for the vast majority).
It's also a bit over the top in painting those who testified at the Committee as probably crazy, but who knows. The Vanessa Redgrave character is silly but I guess it's making a point that Radical Chic is not new.
The climax of the factual occurrence, the one and only original performance of Marc Blitzstein's ThreePenny Opera-inspired political musical Cradle Will Rock is a delightful recreation, and from what I've read, true to the real story. This is definitely a very un-1990's (heck 2000) story. (Additional recommended background reading: Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century by Michael Denning (Verso, 1998, 556 pages) (1/2/2000)


I adored the movie Caught at the $3 theater. I was kinda embarrassed to post about it coz it's very erotic, but now that I know it was directed by a 72-year-old and written by a family man I figure I can say that. Not only are Olmos and Alonso terrific, but the new guy Arie something or other was terrific. It made a couple of Top 10 lists and he made "Best Newcomer" on a couple of lists. I also liked that it was filmed In the Real in NJ. Terrific, unpredictable script. The co-star who plays the son, something Schub, was suitably scary. (1/21/1997)

Saw a depressing movie so we treated ourselves to a double feature and saw One Fine Day. Don't know why the critics have been so nasty. The directing is leaden and predictable but the dialogue is fun and Pfeiffer and Clooney are gorgeous to look at. NYC is a co-star which is good for tourism and our economy. I always support movies and TV shows that demonstrate that you can raise kids in the city. I really liked showing the travails of a working mother; we've seen so many do-it-all Super Women in the unrealistic media that it's nice to see everything go wrong and trying to handle it (and the kids weren't even sick!)(12/25/1996)

The background Sunnyside winter street scene is one of a series of Queens and Brooklyn cityscapes by my favorite Queens-view artist Simon Donikian, who beautifully captures the daily, year-round look of where people really live in the outer boroughs, our shops, train stations and apartment roofs. But I could also have selected the under the bridge views of Antonio Masi.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women in the Movies
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Comments, corrections, additions, questions welcome! Contact Nora Lee Mandel at mandelshultz@yahoo.com



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