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Friday, July 31, 2009

Hell Is a City (at New York’s Film Forum)


By Harry Forbes

This is but one title from what looks to be a fascinating lineup of film noir from the U.K., dubbed “Brit Noir.”

The series runs at the Film Forum August 7 – September 3, and features 42 movies in all, starting with Carol Reed’s classic, “The Third Man,” and capped by a two-week run of another Reed evergreen, “Odd Man Out.”

“Hell is a City” from 1959 shows on August 12, and stars Stanley Baker as Manchester detective Harry Martineau doggedly on the trail of hard-as-nails jewel thief Don Starling (played well but rather incongruously by American John Crawford) and his gang. It’s a solid and, for its time, gritty film shot in widescreen black and white with a jazzy score by Stanley Black.

When the secretary of a bookie Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence) is robbed and afterwards accidentally killed by Starling, the stakes are raised to find the dangerous criminal who, we learn, had gone to school with Martineau. It climaxes with a terrific rooftop chase and fight.

Along the way, Martineau – in a loveless marriage with a frosty neglected wife (Maxine Audley) – encounters aging barmaid Lucky (Vanda Godsell), a former flame of Starling whom Martineau suspects Starling may have contacted. She herself has a yen for Martineau (“All’s fair when there’s no children,” she coos seductively).

There’s also the sluttish Chloe, Hawkins’ wife, played by a young Billie Whitelaw, whom Martineau describes to his assistant, by way of warning, as a “man-eater.” She, too, was once involved with ladies man Starling. There’s a pretty deaf girl named Silver (Sarah Branch), who shares a tense scene with Starling when she catches him rummaging through the house she shares with her old grandfather.

The film is tautly directed (and co-written) by Val Guest from a novel by Maurice Proctor, and atmospherically shot in black and white by Arthur Grant.

The violence is surprisingly strong for its period, and there’s even and implied rape when Starling confronts Chloe alone in her home, rips off her blouse, and drags her off camera.

Baker is particularly fine, resembling a more square-jawed Sean Connery, but there’s good supporting work all around, though the performances of Audley and Godsell are very much of their time.

Other films in this promising series include rarities “They Drive by Night,” “Obsession,” “The Green Cockatoo,” “The Good Die Young,” and “The October Man.” The series includes a tribute to James Mason, several of whose early films fit the noir genre.

(Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Funny People (Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

You’d be forgiven for thinking the latest comedy from Judd Apatow, especially bearing a title like “Funny People,” might be purely a barrel of laughs. But despite the presence of funnyman Adam Sandler (Apatow’s roommate from early days) and the usual Apatow repertory company (Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, etc.), this is, in fact, the writer-director’s most serious film to date for he’s taken on no less a subject than mortality.

Sandler is George Simmons, a comic movie star playing silly roles not unlike some of those essayed by Sandler himself, living in affluent loneliness in a sprawling Malibu mansion. After he learns he has a rare and fatal form of leukemia, he decides to return to his roots as a stand-up comic. When he observes up-and-coming Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) gamely trying out his material at Los Angeles’s Improv Comedy Club, George offers him a gig as a joke writer and personal assistant.

This is quite a boon to Ira who rooms with his buddies Mark (Jason Schwartzman, who also wrote the score) and Leo (Hill), both further along in their careers than he. Mark gets a hefty paycheck (which he lords over his pals) from his role on a middling TV series, and sardonic Leo initially demonstrates more flair for stand-up than Ira who toils by day in a mall deli.

George confides the details of his physical state to Ira who eventually persuades him to share the too-much-to-bear-alone news with others. This comes to include former fiancée Laura (Leslie Mann), now unhappily married to philandering Aussie Clarke (Eric Bana playing his role for laughs) with two young daughters. (Mann is Mrs. Judd Apatow and the girls are played by their daughters, very cute Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow.)

The Laura sequences, which take up the latter part of the film, take the film, rather jarringly, on a completely different trajectory than the earlier parts, but ultimately give the loose narrative structure more cohesion.

Sandler offers his finest dramatic performance yet, though he pulls no punches with the less likable aspects of his self-centered, self-pitying character, yet shows real anguish as he grapples with his death sentence and endures the nasty side-effects of chemo. Rogan makes a terrific foil, morphing from awestruck idolatry to a caring, if hesitant, friend.

Apatow’s trademark crude language and fairly blatant sexual content are very much on display, but so is his heartfelt sentiment and underlying solidly moral outlook. Genuine love and marital fidelity generally trump casual sex and adulterous inclinations.

When, for instance, Ira learns that Mark has slept with Daisy (newcomer Aubrey Plaza), the dour, bespectacled comedienne with whom he hopes to score, he’s disconsolate, even though he and Daisy have yet to actually go on a date. Laura thinks she’s miserable in her marriage, but perhaps rekindling the long dreamt-of romance with George is not what she imagines.

So despite the numerous penis jokes and distinctly blue humor throughout (especially in the stand-up sequences), it’s the human relationships you remember: the well-played camaraderie of the roommates, George’s anguish and solitude, the rekindling of his romance with Laura, and so on.

The film is a tad long at 140 minutes, and takes its sweet time. But these characters feel like real people, and the bittersweet mix of funny and sad ultimately works. Despite some missteps, “Funny People” stays with you, and registers as intelligent filmmaking despite the often childish behavior of its protagonists.

(Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Ugly Truth (Columbia)


By Harry Forbes

It’s no small credit to the charms of Katherine Heigl that – saddled with a script as frequently vulgar as the one provided here by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith – she can utter a crude term for the male member multiple times in succession and sound as innocent as Doris Day at her onscreen purest.

In fact, in its playfulness and breezy tone – if not exactly wit and good taste – director Robert Luketic’s romantic comedy has much the spirit of such Day-Rock Hudson pairings as “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back.”

But Heigl and co-star Gerard Butler’s charisma and natural rapport go a long way towards making this featherweight, not consistently funny but genuinely romantic, film watchable. With a more tasteful script, they might even be within hailing distance of Day and Hudson, and maybe even Hepburn and Tracy. Yes, they’re that good.

In these less elevated circumstances than those Hollywood Golden Age stars ever had to endure, however, Heigl is Abby Richter, the producer of a Sacramento morning TV show, and Butler is Mike Chadway, the boorish host of a dubious cable access program, “The Ugly Truth.”

What’ is “the ugly truth”? Men care for nothing but sex. Women who think it’s all above love are hopeless romantics.

To boost their sagging ratings, Abby’s boss hires Mike to do his chauvinistic shtick on the “A.M. Sacramento,” much to Abby’s chagrin, and of course, ratings soar.

When Abby falls for Colin (Eric Winter), the hunky single doctor next door, Mike – in Cyrano de Bergerac fashion -- offers Abby step-by-step advice on how to win him. The coaching works, but in the process, Mike and Abby find they like each other’s company more than they’re willing to admit. Of course, despite Mike’s crudeness, we learn early on that he’s really a decent, family guy with a sister and young nephew living next door.

Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins provide some bright moments as they husband and wife anchor team who take Mike’s blunt advice about their love life to heart, right on air.

Heigl looks smashing throughout and keeps her dignity even when – in what is arguably the film’s comic high point – Abby leaves her house without having time to remove the, um, vibrating panties Mike had sent her earlier, and a youngster gets hold of the remote control while she’s trying to give a presentation to the station’s corporate sponsors at a posh restaurant.

The versatile Butler – who again shows an easy flair for light comedy – matches Heigl on the likability scale.

We’ll say this: for a movie about a piggish anti-hero who changes his ways when he finds true love, “The Ugly Truth” beats the Matthew McConaughey starrer, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” released earlier this year, by a mile.

(Rated R for sexual content and language.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Answer Man (Magnolia)


By Harry Forbes

From the unlikely confluence of a trendsetting inspirational author, a single mom chiropractor, a recovering alcoholic bookstore owner, and a star-struck mailman, comes this perfectly delightful romantic comedy.

Jeff Daniels, who’s become a master of quirky, oddball parts, is Arlen Faber, author two decades earlier of “Me and God,” a best-seller that has spawned a cottage industry of endless tie-ins. But Arlen is no PBS spotlight-hounding celebrity. Rather, he’s a reclusive curmudgeon who steers clear of a voracious public eager to know more about the man who allegedly has a pipeline to the Almighty.

Apart from his misanthropy, Arlen feels like a fraud. How “real” was the conversation with God which spawned the book? He stops into a church hoping to receive a divine message, but leaves empty-handed.

When his chronic back ailment renders him a helpless invalid on his Philadelphia townhouse floor, he must literally crawl through the busy streets until he reaches the “Straighten Up” Healing Center. Under the healing hands of warm-hearted owner Elizabeth, played most sympathetically by Lauren Graham, Arlen regains his upright posture and his humanity as it is love at first sight.

Elizabeth’s awestruck assistant Anne (Olivia Thirlby) recognizes Arlen’s name instantly, unlike Elizabeth who has never heard of him. Later when she reads his book, though, she finds she connects with him on a profound level.

They tentatively begin dating, and Arlen eventually takes a paternal interest in Elizabeth’s cute seven-year-old boy whose father abandoned them years before.

Meanwhile, Kris, fresh from rehab, and unhappily coping with alcoholic father with whom he longs to reform, is struggling to make ends meet at the bookstore he runs with his assistant Dahlia (Kat Dennings). When Arlen tries to sell Kris the multitudinous volumes of New Age tripe that comes over his transom, Kris refuses, only finally agreeing to take the books if Arlen will counsel him. In the process, we learn that Arlen had father issues as well. Kris is played with hangdog appeal by Lou Taylor Pucci.

There’s also the wide-eyed mailman, played by Tony Hale, who’s asked for the route just so he can catch a glimpse of the famous man, though Arlen tries to accept all his mail incognito

Eventually, these plot lines intersect, in a predictable way that only hardened cynics will fail to find genuinely heartwarming.

Daniels and Graham – recently concurrently on Broadway in “God of Carnage” and “Guys and Dolls” respectively -- make a most appealing team, with Daniels demonstrating great flair for physical comedy. They, like all the characters, undergo redemptive transformations by the film’s end, each overcoming their particular fears. It’s a pleasure to watch Daniels’ crustiness depart and Graham shake off her phobic over-protectiveness of her boy.

Rodgers & Hart’s classic song, “Isn’t It Romantic?” is judiciously used here as a sweet motif.

First time director John Hindman, a former standup comic, also wrote the clever script, which, like his well-paced direction, evinces a playful whimsy. Just once or twice, the script sounds a false note -- generally when the characters are at loggerheads – but, on the whole, this is a beguiling little gem of a film.

(Rated R for language)

Shrink (Roadside Attractions)


By Harry Forbes

This is a dark and, for the most part, dreary ensemble drama in the “Crash” vein, with several disparate characters whose lives ultimately intertwine. Nearly all of them are unlikable, though by the redemptive ending, they are considerably less so, and we can, at least, view them compassionately.

Director Jonas Pate’s adaptation of Henry Reardon’s story (script by Thomas Moffett) centers on the titular psychiatrist well played by a grizzled, haggard-looking Kevin Spacey. Dr. Henry Carter is in serious need of counseling himself, as he’s become a morose, pot-smoking addict, after the suicide death of his wife. All of this is highly ironic in light of his latest book, a bestseller on “Happiness.”

Henry’s father Robert (Robert Loggia) is also a therapist and, after a family intervention fails, the elder Carter endeavors to counsel his son.

The professional advice comes to naught, but the father insists Henry take on pro bono client Jemma, a bright black teenager who’s having trouble in school after the suicide death of her mother. Jemma’s only solace comes from the old movies at a local revival house. Jemma is winningly played by 14-year-old Keke Palmer, who at age 11, starred in the delightful “Akeelah and the Bee.”

Henry’s other clients include high strung talent agent Patrick (Dallas Roberts), actress Kate (Saffron Burrows) and screenplay writing hopeful Jeremy (Mark Webber) who is loosely related to Henry by marriage. There’s also an unbilled Robin Williams as Jack Holden, another of Henry’s patients, an alcoholic sex addict and over-the-hill actor.

Other characters include Henry’s drug dealer buddy Jesus (Jesse Plemons), a dissolute Irish film star Shamus (Jack Huston), and Patrick’s executive secretary Daisy (Pell James), a pregnant surrogate mother with producing aspirations who falls for Jeremy when he shows up at her office to interest Patrick in his script. Gore Vidal has a cameo as a talk show host interviewing Henry who promptly has an on-camera meltdown.

Moffet’s talky and expletive-laden dialogue sounds mostly stagy and false, and the narrative is sometimes confusing. The cast goes through their paces adequately. Filmed in an off-putting washed-out palate, the film, despite its feel-good wrap-up, is mostly an unrelieved downer.

(Rated R for drug content throughout and pervasive language including some sexual references)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Tin Pan Alley Rag (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

First things first. Playwright Mark Saltzman’s imagined early 20th century meeting between composers Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin on the fabled New York publishing street is far superior to most theatrically imagined meetings between great people. Berlin was then a songwriter with a golden touch and a prominent music publisher himself, and Joplin, the so-called “ragtime king” was desperate to get his opera “Treemonisha” published

There is an inevitable air of didacticism, however, as the biographical details of each man’s life are dutifully trotted out. But Stafford Arima’s brisk direction – and Beowulf Boritt’s fluid set design – go a long way to balance the occasionally talky – if necessary -- exposition. So, too, Michael Boatman as Joplin and especially Michael Therriault as the scrappy Berlin are engaging performers who make their impersonations utterly convincing, even if some may quibble with Saltzman’s dramatic license of having Joplin urge Berlin to put art ahead of commerce, and raise the level of his songs, as if the savvy Berlin needed the prodding.

The first act is comprised mostly of Berlin’s reminiscences of life as a singing waiter on the lower East Side, the meteoric success of his catchy ethnic and novelty songs and his partnership with Teddy Snyder (played with colorful con-man panache by Michael McCormick), contrasted with the classically trained Joplin’s backstory as a ragtime pianist with increasingly ambitious aspirations, composing first a ballet suite, and then his aforementioned masterwork.

Especially compelling is Saltzman’s juxtaposing of the parallel tragedies in the men’s lives. Both lost their beloved brides early – Berlin’s Dorothy Goetz (Jenny Fellner) died of typhoid after their honeymoon in Cuba, and Scott’s Freddie Alexander (Idara Victor) -10 weeks after their wedding of pneumonia while Joplin was on the road.

Joplin would die of syphilis at age 49, but when “Treemonisha” was finally staged in the 70s, it would win the Pulitzer. Particularly touching (apocryphal or not) – and beautifully played by Therriault -- is a graceful montage of a gradually aging Berlin to the strains of his latter-day classics – finally seeing the opera performed.

Though not a musical per se, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” offers bountiful excerpts from both men’s oeuvre, including a couple of well sung extended sequences from “Treemonisha,” and the particularly infectious counter-pointed duet for the pair of “Play A Simple Melody.” Both Therriault and Boatman credibly take to their uprights throughout the evening, though the actual playing is done by musical director Michael Patrick Walker and Brian Cimmet offstage.

A versatile supporting cast of 10 plays multiple roles keeping the stage well populated with colorful characters.

Sugar-coated history or not, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” wins you over with humor and heart.

Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St.
212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros. Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

“You know there are times I’ve forgotten how much you’ve grown,” Hogwarts professor Dumbledore remarks to Harry Potter near the end of the sixth – and possibly best – film in the durable franchise, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” This one, like the last (also a cut above), “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was cannily directed by David Yates.

And indeed Harry – in the person of Daniel Radcliffe – has matured nicely. After a well-chosen series of non-Potter roles and a triumph in “Equus” both in the West End and on Broadway, Radcliffe now plays with even greater conviction.

Of course, Potter scribe J.K. Rowling had a little something to do with this, as in her books, Harry and pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are realistically growing through their teen years, raging hormones and all. This installment shows Ron as the object of slack-jawed adoration of the Hogwarts girls after winning a high-flying game of high-flying Quidditch.

Harry becomes enamored of Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), though she already has a boyfriend, and Hermione is not so subtly concealing her heartache at Ron’s infatuation with the aggressive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave).

All this puppy love is dramatic relief from the deadly serious business of vanquishing Voldemort once and for all.

Dumbledore convinces former Potions Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts less for his skill at potions, but because of his connection with Voldemort – once a student there under his tutelage by the name of Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes Tiffin/Frank Dillane) with an unhealthy interest in the Dark Arts.

Slughorn has thus far never revealed the details of a key conversation he had with lad which would shed light on the source of Voldemort’s powers. Dumbledore entrusts Harry to find out, and Harry is hardly reluctant to comply as Voldemort killed his parents.

Broadbent is a real plus here, and gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the snobbish and vain professor, but touching in his vulnerability at key moments. And Gambon downplays his sometimes hammy scene-stealing with a performance of real subtlety. British acting champs Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Helen McCrory, Timothy Spall and David Bradley are on hand again to lend classy support.

Yates directs with an appropriate mix of gravitas and whimsy, and scriptwriter Steve Kloves’ script pares Rowling’s narrative to its essentials. The effects are terrific starting with the three dark clouds – Death Eaters – swooping through the twisting streets of London and wreaking havoc with the Millennium Bridge there.

Menace is supplied by Severus Snape (in the ominous presence of Alan Rickman) and student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) both of whom figure heavily in the tragic climax. Under the sinister veneer, Malfoy does evince some vulnerability.

The film runs 153 minutes, but no scene outstays its welcome.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper (Fox Atomic)


By Harry Forbes

Despite some borderline touching moments, the teen comedy “I Love You, Beth Cooper” is mostly vulgar, crude, and as if that weren’t enough, not in the least bit funny. The film was adapted by Larry Doyle from his novel, and the title refers to Buffalo Grove High valedictorian Denis Cooverman’s (Paul Rust) commencement speech in which – to the consternation of his parents and the faculty -- he stammers out his love for the titular blonde cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) on whom he’s long had a silent crush.
Egged on to this public declaration by best buddy Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), Denis uses the opportunity to psychoanalyze several of his classmates including Rich, a flamboyant film buff whom Denis “outs” as gay. (Rich spends the rest of the film vociferously denying the label.)
For her part, Beth is rather charmed by Denis’ declaration, and she and her two girlfriends – Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm) -- agree to go to Denis’s graduation “party" (guest list, apart from Rich, zilch). When her macho military boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts), bursts into the house with his two goon buddies, and pummels his girl’s would-be suitor, Beth comes to the rescue, and the remainder of the film finds them fleeing the bullies, and bonding in the process.
In the midst of all this thuddingly unfunny mayhem, Denis learns that Beth is not quite the pure goddess he imagined, and Beth reveals the low self-esteem beneath the brash exterior, and warms to Denis’s genuine love.
For a PG-13 flick, the language, sex, and violence (albeit of the slapstick kind) are fairly strong.
Panettiere is good as the flashy but inwardly vulnerable object of Denis’s affection ultimately humbly aware of her shortcomings, and Rust –- a dorky Romeo with an Adrian Brody proboscis -- manages to be endearing.
Would that the pair were in another coming-of-age film, but as it is, Doyle's script lets them down repeatedly. Awkward silences, obvious punch lines and tasteless gags fall flat time and again.
The film is said to mark director Chris (“Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”) Columbus’ return to comedy. We’re afraid this isn’t it.