BEL CANTO – movie reveiw


Screen Gems
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriter: Paul Weitz, Anthony Weintraub, Ann Patchett, based on a novel by Ann Patchett
Cast: Julianne Moore, Christopher Lambert, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/27/18
Opens: September 14, 2018

Bel Canto Movie Poster

If there’s one word to describe the plot, that word is “goofy.” Being goofy makes this a fun adventure to watch from your theater seat but it next to impossible to suspend disbelief enough to give the film a thumbs-up. “Bel Canto,” or “Beautiful Song,” was filmed in Mexico City to stand in for an unnamed South American state—possibly Peru because there’s a Japanese president or maybe Colombia because of its history of rebellions, “Bel Canto” has at least one thing going for it: that’s the exquisite soprano voice of Renée Fleming as lip-synched by Julianne Moore, whose role is that of opera star Roxanne Coss.

Paul Weitz, who directed films as varied as the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle,” about finding love and music in NY and “Little Fockers,” a comedy about a patriarch who needs to find a successor, is at the helm of this bizarre series of events. On exhibit is Stockholm Syndrome, in which a singer, like Patty Hearst in her own 1974 kidnap, identifies with a group of South American rebels holding her and a band of wealthy people hostage. By the same token, the rebels identify so much with the multi-millionaires they are holding captive, that they are risk becoming seduced by the bourgeoisie, i.e. taking a new interest in the culture and materialism of the middle and upper classes.

The rebels, led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) demand the release of all political prisoners and, in that regard, wind up holding the party-goers, dressed in formal attire for a party, for a month. Meanwhile, Messner (Sebastian Koch), a Swiss citizen working with the Red Cross, serves as negotiator, zipping back and forth from the elegant home of the vice president Ruben Ochoa. Here is a sample of the goofiness: Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) is in the South American country to negotiate a deal to put up some buildings, accompanied by his translator, Gen (Ryo Kase). In the course of the month as rebels and millionaires share a common humanity, Gen falls in love with a female rebel while teaching her to read both Spanish and English. They get it on. For her part Roxanne Coss, twice divorced and admittedly lonely despite her vast audience of opera buffs, digs Katsumi. They get it on. The entire contingent of green-uniformed Fidelista-type Marxists play soccer with the folks whom they have threated to kill. I think the invited party guests, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert), let the other guys win. Simon plays a mean piano to accompany Roxanne, and Roxanne teaches one of the rebels how to sing opera.

If you look up Ann Patchett’s novel on Amazon, you read critics’ comments about Bel Canto such as this one by Lloyd Moss of WQXR, “…should be on the list of every literate music lover. The story is riveting, the participants breathe and feel and are alive, and throughout this elegantly-told novel, music pours forth so splendidly that the reader hears it and is overwhelmed by its beauty.” You’ve got to wonder just how much of the best-seller comes across in the movie. The book does not appear to be at all (pardon the iteration) goofy.

102 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – C+
Overall – C+

THE LOST CITY OF Z – movie review


    Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  James Gray
    Written by: James Gray based on “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Green
    Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Johann Myers
    Screened at: Review 1 or 2, NYC, 3/22/17
    Opens: April 14, 2017

    THE There’s a difference between a tourist and a traveler.  A tourist wants to have a good time, usually by going to safe places like Canada and staying in good hotels.  A traveler is someone like chef Anthony Bourdain from CNN going to remote places, taking eighteen-hour bus rides with goats, pigs and ducks, heading off the beaten track with a backpack loaded with mosquito repellent and hydroxychloroquine.  Often travelers have obsessions, something compelling their wanderlust as in the case of the noted explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett.  Fawcett, who is played by Charlie Hunnam, is a British major stationed in Cork, Ireland, when we meet him in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” his exploratory career covered by David Green in his book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of deadly Obsession in the Amazon.”  While his travels are a major element of the film, giving us a view of life in Amazonia among people who do not dress the way we do here in New York, Gray like Green, is intent on digging into the character of the man to find the source of his obsession.

    The best we can figure is that Fawcett, living in British society where status and reputation count for more than they do in the U.S. today—especially during the first quarter of the 20th Century—is compelled to absolve himself from the guilt of being the son of a man who is a gambler and a drunk.  Reputation is everything.  Though married and ultimately the father of three, he seems willing to risk alienating his growing family by not one or two, but three sojourns into the heart of darkness.

    The assignment is made by the Royal Geographic Society in London where he is assigned to travel across the Atlantic to help Bolivia and Brazil settle a boundary dispute between the two South American countries.  Fawcett prefers action, such as the kind he takes at the beginning of the cinematic journey when he competes with several horsemen in chasing a deer and has the (dubious) honor of being the one responsible for the kill.

    Picking Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson—unrecognizable with a beard, glasses, and safai hat) and with a few assistants and one slave (Johann Myers), he learns of a lost city, one that no white man has ever seen.  The deerslayer is intrigued, and on the first of his trips he fields a barrage of arrows from Indians who may well know the fate of their ancestors when Spanish and Portuguese explorers invaded their turf.

    He survives, and goes back.

    He goes back again, but first leads a group of fellow Brits in the miserable trench warfare that resulted from the assassination of the Austrian Archduke.  He goes back notwithstanding—or perhaps because he was hooted down when speaking before the Royal Geographical Society, whose seated members call the South American natives “savages” who could not possibly have carved out a civilization centuries ago superior to that in England, which, after all, invented fish and chips.    He goes back even after his wife (Sienna Miller) delivers a feminist view that women should be able to explore jungles just like men.  And he goes back after his son Jack (Tom Holland) begs to travel with him, and that’s the Jack who years before (Tom Mulheron) gave Percy hell for abandoning his responsibilities to family.

    Percy Fawcett comes across as a man who you would more likely respect and admire than like and feel warm toward, and so is this movie.  Aside from that terrific opener involving horses jumping and tumbling in their (ridiculous) contest to kill a deer, there is a Masterpiece Theater aura and a National Geographic journey-of-they-year quality to the doings, even granting the exoticism of white men being hosted by natives, who may have been friendly toward Percy and Jack more because they are at continual warfare with another group of natives in the jungle.

    In the epilogue we find out that a later expedition does find evidence of a civilization that existed between 200 A.D. and 1600 A.D. that knew how to make the soil fertile for crops, to build roads and bridges, and to have an infrastructure that President Trump might envy.  The big mystery is the whereabouts of the two Fawcetts who disappeared, never to be found, though a clue is given as to what may have become of them.

    Rated PG-13.  140 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

AMERICAN MADE – movie review


    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Doug Liman
    Written by: Gary Spinelli
    Cast:  Tom Cruise, Domhnail Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke
    Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 9/25/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017
    click for larger (if applicable)
    In one scene Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is relaxing with a copy of Al Capone’s biography, which he presumably is using as a model for his own actions.  It’s the late seventies, so Seal could not be privy to the seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” but that series of dramas deals with the failed experiment of prohibition in America, and while its star, Steve Buscemi, is no Tom Cruise, many of the TV episodes can run circles around “American Made,” quality-wise.  Of course in those seasons, the characters, including Al Capone, have much more time to define themselves, but in Doug Liman’s new picture, they are given two hours to bring a story to life.  Expect lots to be crammed into “American Made,” so much coming at you from the screen that you have little time to catch your breath or analyze the ways that the “based on a true story” is loaded with hype.

    Barry Seal has a regular job, a beautiful wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), a well-appointed house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  But he’s become bored with his job on a TWA domestic route  where for kicks he fakes air turbulence to scare his passengers.  He’s willing to take a chance, giving up his salary and benefits for an opportunity to feel more alive. He gets that chance when Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him to do something for his country, namely to fly missions for the CIA when traveling over countries south of the border.  He is so good at the job that he is promoted: now he is assigned to meet with General Noriega in Panama serving as courier, but on the way the Medellín Cartel in Colombia offers him a job with more money than he could have imagined, flying drugs from Colombia to various drops, making deliveries by dumping huge bags of cocaine to middlemen along the way.  Best of all he transports a staggering array of guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, who are fighting the rebel Sandinistas for control of the Nicaraguan government.

    Much of the action takes place in the air, as he barely misses losing his life on a runway that’s too short even for his plane, which pushes aside trees and barely misses the mountains that are so prominent all over western South America.  He loves the money as well, though his way of laundering appears too simple in that he deposits all his gain in a small bank in Mena, Arkansas, where he and his family are forced to relocate.

    Feeling alive, getting a rush, and swimming in money: what more can a guy want?  Too bad the U.S. is supporting the wrong side in Nicaragua, despite what you hear from clips of Ronald Reagan and Nancy.  But why worry about politics when you’re just a delivery-boy?

    The film is reasonably entertaining, not as much as director Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” and “Jumper,” but there is ample comedy provided by Seal’s discussions with the fun people he deals with in South America (in one scene they say “Shoot the gringo,” but that’s all in jest).  The hand-held cameras keep the pace dizzying and the editing is top-notch.  Call this another star vehicle for Tom Cruise who looks years younger than his 55 years.

    Rated R.  114 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?