VICE – movie reveiw


Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Adam McKay
Screenwriter:  Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Screened at: DGA, NYC, 11/23/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
Vice - Poster Gallery
Adam McKay is nothing if not a patriotic critic of United States policy.  With his adaptation of “The Big Short,” he took on the folks who gave us the worst recession since the Great Depression.  With “Revolt of the Yes Men” he and his fellow directors struck at corporate crimes for Big Business’ efforts to fight climate change.  “Anchorman 2” showed the man’s ability to make a light movie just for fun, though he is probably critical of any newscaster who came after Walter Cronkite.  Now he does it again with a satire that has elements of Michael Moore’s hard-hitting humor but tempered in his depiction of former Vice President Dick Cheney to such an extent that you might think at times that he is simply neutral about the man’s “accomplishments.”  “Vice” is a most delightful description of Cheney and his times beginning in 1963 and ending with the closing of the Bush administration where he watches the Obama inauguration from a wheelchair, pretending for the photographers that he is not completely disgusted with the afternoon’s activities.

As played by Christian Bale, who gained forty pounds for the role (not a wise choice considering that this could put him in league with the Veep who had five heart attacks), Cheney influences President George W. Bush to such an extent that journalists and pundits believe that he is not just the man behind the throne but the guy who is actually serving as President of the United States.  Cheney is a master manipulator, using his street smarts to get Bush to give him more power than any preceding Vice President ever enjoyed.  In fact he had been so aggressive in his determination to influence American foreign policy that he may have made the big decision to move troops from Afghanistan into Iraq, the kind of mistake to which the U.S. had become accustomed–not such our policy toward Vietnam but dating back to colonial days when patriotic countrymen strung up those dreadful witches.

Though his approval rating when he left office was 13%, you’ve got to wonder where the people who became the rank and file of the Tea Party were. Surely more of us, particularly in the red states of course, are willing to defend anything the Republican Party does, even tolerate a serial liar and womanizer simply because the person occupying the Oval Office is doing what they want him to do.  Cheney himself notes that like Nixon, he believes that anything the President does is ipso factor legal.

McKay, who wrote the script as well as directs, reaches back to 1963 when the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-living politician attended Yale and later the University of Wyoming getting a graduate degree in Political Science.  McKay brings us to the Nixon and Ford administrations where he pushes his way into getting appointed as White House Chief of Staff, then in 1978 becomes the sole Wyoming representative in the House where he is reelected five times, then Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush presidency.  He has time even to become the CEO of Halliburton which, by coincidence no doubt, won many government no-bids contracts to supply war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s little wonder that when he resigned from Halliburton—whose stock rose 500% at one point—he was given a separation sum of $22 million.

Much is made of the domestic life of the man.  He is given hell by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) during the early years of their marriage for being a drunk and getting into bar fights, but soon enough he shapes up to watch his star rise and see the pride that Lynne takes in him.  His wife, surprisingly, does not want him to accept an appointment from Bush to be his running mate since the job is considered ceremonial—or in more colorful terms as John Nance Garner once put it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Little did Garner realize that a manipulator of the sort that Cheney was could actually set policy, which would be officially announced as the thoughts of the President.  The only character who shines as much as both Bale and Adams is Steve Carell, a busy man indeed, who can emcee an evening of Saturday Night Live and now just as effectively portray Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Michael Moore comparison: the most comical scene occurs when Bush (Sam Rockwell, who is truly funny to nobody’s surprise) tries to coax Cheney into becoming his running mate.  Cheney resists, telling POTUS that instead he could recommend a slate of people he considers worthy.  Little does Bush realize that Cheney is playing him, acting coy in order to make demands that Bush give him more policy-making power than any Vice President had before him.  Cheney is  mum on the issue of gay marriage, which a conservative Republican would surely oppose.  Could it be because one of his two daughters, Mary, is an open lesbian now living in Virginia with her wife Heather Poe?  And could that explain why Cheney broke rank with most of his fellow conservatives by supporting gay marriage?  If only the man were that decent and not the one who supported waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation!  Never mind that Mary’s sister, during her own campaign for Wyoming’s rep in the House, insists that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Ah, politics.

Even serious matters like Cheney’s heart attacks are choreographed with wit.  When the Vice President falls to the floor and an ambulance is called, that’s the usual way.  In two other cases he stands with colleagues and announces casually and almost ironically that they should call the hospital.  When Cheney gets the heart of a man who dies in an auto accident, instead of praising the hero’s family he says that he is proud to have “my new heart.”  If Cheney is truly the man with the most influence on foreign policy during the Bush administration, he deserves censure for the loss of life of our fighting team and for 600,000 mostly civilian deaths in Iraq.

This is not the first satiric movie about Cheney but arguably the most incisive and best acted.  Oliver Stone directed a biographical drama using Richard Dreyfus to impersonate Cheney; in “Who is America” Sacha Baron Cohen pranked Cheney into signing a makeshift water board kit.  Ultimately you might agree that Cheney is so out of touch with common decency that you don’t need to pen a satiric book or a broadside on the screen.  He is his own caricature.

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

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


  • To search for a review, click the three bold horizontal lines near the upper left corner.  In the search box, enter the movie’s title, or director, or screenwriter, or principal actor, or opening date, or even a key word.  Reviews by Harvey Karten are from select movies from February 2017 to the present.

LIKE LIKE IT RARE – movie review


Brainstorm Media
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Fabrice Eboué
Screenwriter: Fabrice Eboué, Vincent Solignac
Cast: Fabrice Eboué, Marina Foïs, Jean-François Ceyrey, Lisa Do Cuoto Texeira
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/30/22
Opens: October 14, 2022

A cannibal is a human being who eats human flesh, the word entering the world in 1550. No human society today takes part in what may well be a delicacy, but vegans are likely to extend the word “cannibal” to the eating of any animal. “Some Like It Rare” is a French entry that is one of the few non-documentary films that deal with the antipathy of some vegans toward the vast majority of people who eat red meat, its comic features interacting with slasher elements. Fabrice Eboué, who directs, co-stars and has co-writtten the offering, has previously directed “Simply Black,” billed as a politically incorrect look at the role of Black people in French society.

Vincent Pascal (Fabrice Eboué) takes on the role of a demon butcher of meat street and should remind film buffs of his closest relation, Sweeney Todd, which is Tim Burton’s look at a London fellow wrongfully imprisoned who seeks revenge for the rape and death of his wife. Todd teams up with a tenant just as Vincent teams up with his wife Sophie (Marina Foïs).

Vincent is a butcher who, together with his wife Sophie, fears that his business is soon to go belly-up, no thanks in part to competition from Marc Brachard (Jean-François Cayrey) and his wife Chloé (Lisa Do Couto Texeira), who manage four boucheries. As though Vincent’s troubles are not enough, he is facing attacks by vegan activists who smash up the store and drench its walls with fake blood. Sophie becomes the story’s Lady Macbeth, threatening to leave her unexciting husband for someone who does not always play it safe. Their marriage is saved by a stroke of luck. Their car runs over one of the vegans at night, and with no witnesses to the accident, they plan the perfect crime. They will butcher the body and, like the aforementioned Mr. Todd will serve the human meat to customers. Almost needless to say, the customers begin to line up around the block for slices of what the butchers call Iranian pork.

Realizing their sudden good fortune, the couple go out to avenge themselves on the vegans by hunting them down, finding that these herbivorous creatures taste great—just like the hens that organic farmers suggest are fed nothing but vegetables. Pushed relentlessly by his wife, Vincent reluctantly continues the serial killings, noting that his business is saved and his wife now pays attention to him. The couple aspire to the money being made by their friends Marc and Chloé, who brag unashamedly about their life of luxury. The satirical thrusts are best when we hear from the Marc, who considers himself a bourgeois gentilhomme.

In much that way that Sweeney Todd not only gets revenge from slaughtering his enemies but learns that he enjoys the killing, so does Sophie, who sees herself acting out what she sees on crime TV programs—and then some. Ultimately, albeit with Vincent’ reluctance, they proceed after their prey with out-and-out serial killing.

If you’re going to compare this film with “Sweeney Todd” or even with Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeune’s 1991 “Delicatessan,” you may be disappointed. The comedy is muted rather than belly-laugh assured, and the butchery of human beings is brought to a peak only near the conclusion as knives and cleavers take flight. This is an amiable entertainment that could be enjoyed even by folks who are repelled by the thought of attending a horror picture.

87 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B-
Overall – B

BLONDE – movie review


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Andrew Dominik
Screenwriter: Andrew Dominik adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s novel
Cast: Ana de Armas, Lily Fisher, Julianne Nicholson, Colleen Foy, Tygh Runyan, Michael Drayer, Sara Paxton
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/29/22
Opens: September 16, 2022

You cannot dismiss history. If both your parents are depressed or schizophrenic, you’ve got a tough struggle ahead of you to stay normal. Such was the case with Norma Jeane aka Marilyn Monroe, whose mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) once tried to drown her daughter in the bathtub and wound up in a hospital for those with serious mental problems. We don’t know about her father (Tygh Runyan), who may or may not have been emotionally unstable, but we do know that his absence throughout Norma’s life, when coupled with her abusive mother’s negative upbringing, could have predicted her fate. Norma was a young woman who spent her brief life hallucinating about him and begging her mother to take her to see him. Kiwi-born writer-director Andrew Dominik, whose “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is, like his “Blonde,” a fictionalized account, adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ novel. This time his approach is fragmented, picking and choosing the events that he finds best (while eliminating Ms. Monroe’s famous song to JFK “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”)

Played by the adorable Lily Fisher as Norma in her childhood, seemingly spending every other day begging her mom to take her to her dad, “Blonde” pictures Norman Jeane as a mighty unhappy, rich celebrity who is demeaned, insulted, vocally and physically abused by men who are pictured throughout as a bunch of howling freaks. She is also shown on her belly allowing a prospective director to take her from behind, screwing up her face to show her displeasure while accommodating the fashion: if you want to be cast, you’ve got to suck up to the director.

As the title character Ana de Armas gives the picture a solid performance but looks too ethnic to capture the lily-white looks of her namesake. She is courageous enough to do her work throughout an abysmally long 166 minutes, which even at that looks at only a highly selective stack of events in the life of a woman who died of a barbiturate overdose at 36. Conspiracy theorists will dismiss the official cause of death saying that she may have been injected between the toes a day before she was to press conference possibly about the president. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) comes off (literally) as an evil horndog, lying in bed while enjoying a job Monica-Lewinsky style.

You may think it’s absurd to see that Norma had an affair with two movie stars Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), though Joyce Carol Oates’ novel throws that event into her highly fictionalized account. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) marries and beats her, opposing her nude and near-nude photos while Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), one of the great American playwrights, is believable as an intellectual who could not resist Norma’s less-than-analytical mind.

“Blonde” is a downer, which is not a criticism, but it trashes every principal character in the overlong work. This is a slog to get through. The movie is rated NC-17 for nudity and faux intercourse.

166 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BANDIT – movie review


Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Allan Ungar
Screenwriter: Kraig Wenman based on Robert Knuckle’s novel “The Flying Bandit: Bringing Down Canada’s Most Daring Armed Robber”
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Elisha Cuthbert, Mel Gibson, Olivia d’Abo, Nestor Carbonell, Haley Webb, Rachael Markarian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/27/22
Opens: September 23, 2022

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” Money is not all that banks have. They fertilize the ground from which entertainment grows. If you’re a movie fan, you’re of course familiar with films known as capers or heists, using armed robbery as vehicles of fun such as “Oceans 12”; and if questioned about the best heist movies you’ve seen, you’ll drop names like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Heat,” “The Italian Job,” and my personal favorite, “Bonnie and Clyde.” “Allan Ungar’s “Bandit” may not become seared in your memory as one of the classics, but it’s a damn good film particularly since it dramatizes the career of an actual fellow who set Canada’s record by taking cash from fifty-nine banks in that country. In fact he covered seven of the nine provinces of our neighbors to the north, missing out on Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. That leaves territory ripe for bank hits should someone else aim for the Guinness Book of World Records.

The movie is based on Robert Knuckle’s novel that brought in the new year 1996, “The Flying Bandit,” on sale at Amazon for just $191.93, which means you may have to rob a bank to afford it. Director Ungar, whose blockbuster policier “Gridlock” finds a police training academy attacked by a team of mercenaries, makes sure to keep Gilbert Galvan Jr aka Robert Whiteman (Josh Duhamel) on the screen constantly, a handsome, smooth-talking man down on his luck whose life is about to improve when he escapes from a Michigan facility by climbing the security fence, running for his life, and heading not to Mexico as you might expect but to Canada. There he begins a three-year spree that will net him $2.3 million, which seems not a helluva lot when you consider that was his take from 59 banks and a jewelry emporium.

Known as The Flying Bandit for trips involving some two-propeller planes from rural airports, he is a master of disguises which he adapts after visiting a small store selling props for actors. He meets loan shark Tommy (Mel Gibson) in a strip club, reeling him in as a partner, but more important hooks up with Andrea (Elisha Cuthbert), who becomes the love of his life. Determined to impress her, he begins his new career, and though in real life she did not know that her man was anything but a salesman on the road, she too becomes a partner in crime on whom he lavishes a diamond ring and a fur coat.

Here’s a guy who never trained for his lucrative career, yet he becomes good at it partly because of his friendly patter with tellers at least one of whom even smiles after stuffing the loot in a bank bag. (He is so naïve that he robbed his first bank without a backpack or suitcase, and, having to board a domestic flight, stuffs the money into his underwear and coats.)

Mel Gibson’s role is not a big one, but when he appears as Tommy Kay he is as smooth and laid-back a talker as his partner. It becomes the project of a detective Snydes (Nestor Carbonell) to bring him down and at the same time to get the goods on the loan shark that gave Galvan a financial start. In real life, however, Galvan was trapped when walking out of a supermarket with 24 bottles of liquor, motivated perhaps by the fact that he appears to have been broke by end of his capers. None of the money was recovered.

The 6’4” Josh Duhamel was a wise choice for the title role, known to a large audience by two releases of “Transformers.”

126 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Onlin

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

YOUNG PLATO – movie review


Soilsiú Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Directors: Neasa Ni Chianáin, Declan McGrath
Screenwriters: Neasa Ni Chianain, Etienne Essery, Declan McGrath
Cast: Kevin McArevey, Jan-Marie Reel
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/22
Opens: September 23, 2022

Does anybody major in anything these days outside of computer science and business management, focused on companies they hope will recruit them for big bucks? Oh, you say you heard that a few are taking Poli Sci, History, Cinema Studies? How about philosophy? There was a report a few months ago holding that some corporations are actually going all out to hire philosophy majors. Why? They know how to think. That’s what philosophy teaches you. And while Spinoza and Kierkegaard are too difficult even for graduate students, they have no problem with Plato and Seneca in one primary school in Catholic-majority Northern Belfast. Yes, students there up to the age of ten lap it up because they have a super teacher as principal.

Let’s be realistic. These kids are not going to be turned on by Plato’s theory of the tri-partite soul or pay rapt attention to Sartre’s “No Exit.” But they can think for themselves on their own level. What principal Kevin McArevey of the Holy Cross Boys School wants them to learn, especially in an area that has seen enough violence involving British troops and Irish armies, is anger management. When you think with the help of philosophy, you realize that violence does not solve anything but leads only to more violence, and this principal, with the aid of a few teachers, makes his presence felt. Though some children still fight in the schoolyard now and then, they are brought to task, made to apologize to their combatant friends, and express remorse—real remorse as they cry with shame and hug their sparring partners.

Just like young people here especially from the ghettoes where drive-by shootings and random violence affect their lives, so do kids in Belfast, one of whom noting that his grandmother still keeps a bullet in her back as though a souvenir from the Troubles of the 1980s. Directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath bring archival black-and-white shots to show the class to remind them of how brutal lives were then before they were born.

McArevey, a big fan of Elvis judging by the chachkas in his office, goes over just as well with the parents, who sit rapt in attention as he explains to them how to use the examples of philosophy to deal with their own children. He is also physically fit, leaping up three stairs at a time, doing chins in the gym along with a few colleagues, kicking and punching a bag and pedaling furiously on the stationary bike.

Children often lose their enthusiasm for school as they get older. They raise their hands furiously in primary school, holding on to some enthusiasm, by Middle grades, but are typically silent when asked questions by teachers as though to show their classmates that they are too cool to bother answering. Yet these poor kids from Northern Belfast may reject the philosophy of the typical high school student in America, retaining their enthusiasm thanks to their experience with this incredible Renaissance man.

102 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

CARMEN – movie review


GDE Good Deed Entertainment
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Valerie Buhagiar
Screenwriter: Valerie Buhagiar
Cast: Natascha McElhone, Michela Farrugia, Steven Love, Richard Clarkin, Henry Zammit Cordina, Peter Galea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: September 23, 2022

Natascha McElhone in Carmen (2022)

Americans are generally more religious than Europeans, but there are exceptions. Of the five countries where the Catholic church is so strong that abortions are prohibited without exceptions, two are in Europe: Vatican City and Malta. So it’s easy to accept a tradition in Malta that might bewilder even us on our side of the pond. The sister of a priest is expected to cater to her brother so completely that she must live a life of servitude so bleak that she has little chance for normal relationships.

That brings us to Carmen (Natascha McElhone) whose older brother Father Francis (Henry Zammit Cordina) is so rigid that even parishioners in his small village church make jokes about him. In one service a mother and her daughter sit near the rear of the sparsely attended Sunday gathering expressing their pity for Carmen who they consider a lost soul—alone except for her brother. Yet they cannot blame her completely, because they are sorry that she has to serve such a prig as Father Francis, who in his sermon bellows that “if your child is sinful, throw him out!”

Carmen is about to be thrown out herself since a new priest is coming to town, the priest’s sister Rita (Michaela Farrugia) leading the way. We can foreshadow that Rita will live the same life without charm, but when the brother is late in arriving and Carmen takes a seat inside the priest’s confessional box, villagers think that she is the priest and tell her their troubles. When she gives one woman’s advice on dealing with her drunk husband that is far from what any man of the cloth would give, she is on her way to becoming the most popular “priest” in town.

The Malta-born writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, whose 2013 film “Expecting” finds a woman’s giving her one-night-stand-newborn to her infertile best friend, this time delivers what could be called a Maltese feminist story taking place in the eighties about a fifty-year-old woman who has an epiphany after her brother’s death. Becoming homeless, she witnesses romance around her involving one Tonio (André Agius) and becomes determined to make up for lost time. Meeting Paulo (Steven Love), a much younger man who owns a pawnshop and takes her for a few spins around town including the country’s capital, Valletta, she is exhilarated by his attention and not long after that goes for a boat ride with Tom (Richard Clarkin), a date that does not turn out as well. Whether she will continue to find romantic relationships is anybody’s guess, but in a feel-good conclusion, she enjoys the most thrilling day of her life.

Natasha McElhone is in virtually every frame, speaking just a few words of Maltese and getting by in English with a southern European accent. This makes us wonder how so many people in the small country—one which, by the way, is one of the most expensive for tourists—choose to speak English as their first language. You’ll have to suspend disbelief just as you did when you saw movies in which both Nazis and their foes in the Resistance spoke in our official American language.

The film as a whole has dimensions of a fable with a few dream sequences and includes a colorful pigeon which, like the Maltese Falcon, is a symbol of loyalty to the lonely woman, leading her into adventures. The story is as simple as the villagers in the Maltese archipelago, one which can be enjoyed (as movie advertisements so often say) by the whole family. McElhone is burdened with speaking English throughout with a strange accent, delivering the goods nicely. As she and her young male friend zip around, we get to see parts of Malta without paying the stiff tariffs of that country’s hotels and restaurants.

88 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

FOUR WINTERS – movie review


New Moon Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Mintz
Screenwriter: Julia Mintz
Cast: Michael Stoll, Isadore Farbstein, Chayele Palevsky, Sara Ginaite, Faye Shulman, Shalom Yoran, Moshe Baran, Frank Blaichman, Luba Abramowitz, Gertrude Boyarski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/9/22
Opens: September 16, 2022 at New York’s Film Forum

Imagine this. You are a Jewish woman living in Poland. For your prom, your date is a Polish Christian. World War 2 breaks out. You are captured by the enemy, by the Nazis. Then, mirabile dictu, your prom date shows up! Is he going to be a hero and rescue you from these bad men? Think again. He tells you, this prom date of yours, “You are a Jew. You must die.” Sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel? Could be, but this actually happened. And if you recall one of the great classic horror films, “Carrie,” you become like a prequel of Carrie and you get revenge on this miserable, sick-in-the-head Pole. When that man is captured, you are given the opportunity to take revenge, but you’re a woman, so you’re going to let him go. Nope. You kill him. Why? Because you are no longer a woman you are a soldier. Therein lie the most dramatic pieces of dialogue in the documentary “Four Winters,” which is one more movie overthrowing the passive-aggressive comment from people who wonder: Why didn’t the Jews fight back?

To be sure, many Jews were in no condition when the Final Solution is declared by Germany. They were shot on sight, they were put on trains with the big lie that they were going to be treated well, that Germany needed them for work. By the time they arrived at a concentration camp, maybe Auschwitz-Birkenau, maybe Treblinka, and if they were “lucky,” to Theresienstadt. Women who were either too young or too old were stripped naked and sent to the “showers.” However, some Jews were fortunate in jumping from the death trains and racing to the large Eastern European forests. “Four Winters” is the story of a handful of survivors, still alive today, enlightening us about the incredible but true four years that they spent in the forest, meeting up with Polish and later Russian resistors, some forming their own company of Jewish partisans.

With guns and bullets that they smuggled out of a makeshift factory where they were working for the Nazis and later with weapons that they captured from those left behind, they survived and killed as many Germans as they could. In one instance, they acted not like folks to be pitied but with toxic masculinity because this was the time that such behavior was called for. They stole pigs from farmers. They threatened a rich farmer: “turn over your stock of weapons or we will burn this village down.” They got what they came for.

With black-and-white photographs that one woman took while hiding in the woods using a blanket as a darkroom, we get an inkling of what it’s like to be them. Director Julia Mintz, whose short film “Wait for Me” is a psychological character study of a woman who needed to kill only her past rather than German soldiers, brings in some archival films of the period before and during World War 2, but gives these survivors, all of whom speaking fluent albeit accented English, most of the time. This is wise because some of their testimony is riveting. We do not know, however, where they are living today; most likely America or Israel, but imagine them taking part not simply escaping from the ovens, the gas chambers, the mass shootings, but having the chutzpah to sabotage the Nazi war effort—to derail and dynamite trains (which somehow our President FDR forgot to do, allowing the Nazis the freedom to load millions of Jews onto the cattle cars and into the camps).

Twenty-five thousand Jews took part as partisans, most of whom, of course, cannot be seen in this film including two of my brave ancestors, Isidore and Hersch Karten who escaped from the village of Swirz, sneaking into ghettoes urging Jews behind barbed wire to escape with them and join the partisans. See the Wikipedia article Isidore Karten.

Credit Faye Schulman in her leopard coat acting as photographer, the one mentioned above who used a blanket for her darkroom, allowing her to share her experience with us today. “Four Winters” will doubtless have a largely Jewish audience at New York’s Film Forum, though the film should be shared nationally to educate the one in ten Americans who never heard the word “Holocaust”; the sixty-three percent of those surveyed who did not know that six million Jews were murdered in said Holocaust; the fifty percent of the “enlightened” who believe that the death toll was fewer than two million. And of over forty thousand concentration camps and ghettos that were established during World War 2, half of respondents in a poll could not name a single one. Can you get a high-school diploma without taking a single course in world history?

Even if you know nothing about the Nazi resolve to kill all Jews, if you see this film you will see the fierce spirit, the determination, the will to survive of these partisans; these attributes will give you an idea of the resolution of an oppressed people to create the state of Israel three years after the war and make it thrive.

All testimony is in English.

96 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

BREAKING – movie review


Bleecker Street
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
Screenwriter: Abi Damaris Corbin, Kwame Kwei-Armah
Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/20/22
Opens: August 26, 2022

Forget “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Mesrine,” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah introduce us to a bank robber like no other; a guy who walks into the Wells Fargo Bank without a mask, without showing a gun, and hands the teller a withdrawal slip with his real name to take $25 out of his account. He then announces his plan. He’s polite, though he sometimes loses control, and tells the two bank employees what has led him to risk his life or liberty. Wait, there’s more. He orders the employees to call the police and the news media and refuses to accept a dime from the bank he is allegedly robbing. This is one unique dude.

The most amazing thing is that “Breaking is based on a real event that took place in an Atlanta suburb; the filmmakers even shows a picture of the guy who died in 2017. Corbin in her freshman feature ,clearly needs you to sympathize with the criminal who wants only the $892.34 that the Veterans Administration owes him from a disability he incurred during the Iraq War and who, despite professing that he has a bomb in his backpack, has no intention of putting anyone’s life in danger—except, of course, his own.

Although the various police agencies are gathering outside the bank, including a sniper looking for the first moment that intruder shows his face, “Breaking” is not for an audience that wants a “Bonnie and Clyde,” and in fact proceeds at a snail’s pace. Its appeal comes from the performance of John Boyega as Brian Brown-Easley. He whines, he cries, he appears clear as a sunlit Georgian day, all emotions that you’ll probably expect from a guy who received an honorable discharge as a Marine, serving his country only to be ignored by the VA for reasons about which we never find out.

Brown-Easley has an ex-wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington) and a young daughter Kiah (London Covington) who, based on phone conversations with her dad clearly loves him and has every right to expect him to keep his promise to get her a puppy. Never mind that he lacks even enough money to claim a dog from the pound, living in a third-rate motel and about to be on the street. That is no way to treat a man who risked his life serving his country. It’s probably safe to say that the two bank employees (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) become so forgiving of the man who holds them hostage that they display instant cases of Stockholm Syndrome.

He gets his wish to tell the sad story of VA treatment while discussing his case with a hostage negotiator (the late Michel Kenneth Williams), which allows us in the theater audience to wonder what part of Brown is a mental case and what part is heroic. When he is on the phone with his daughter, the director Corbin milks human emotion, the little girl responding “daddy” right on cue. Yes, there is a manipulative gene in Corbin’s body, but the film, like the true story, should have awoken the VA to injustice. To this day, Brian Brown-Easley did not get the money he believes he deserves.

102 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

FREE PUPPIES! – movie review


First Run Features
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes & IMDB by Harvey Karten
Director: Christina Thomas, Samantha Wishman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/22/22
Opens: August 12, 2022

A neighbor who is among the most ethical people I know (a vegetarian, of course) always has four dogs in a two-bedroom apartment.  And these dogs, forgive me to say, are the ugliest mutts I have ever seen.  They compensate for their looks by biting residents waiting for the elevator.  They were all rescued from the streets because nobody I know would have bought them much less take even a half hour to dump them into the pound shortly thereafter.  Her motive?  She says, “I don’t do cute.  I don’t do adorable.  I rescue dogs that nobody else would consider saving.”  I picture her one day a long time from now being comforted by Jesus, Matthew, Luke and John, because up there she will be without a single pet, as St. Peter would not admit these homely hounds past the pearly gates.

Where do all these street dogs come from?  Well, when a bitch is in heat, she does not have to be last year’s best in show at Westminster.  She will attract male attention by her aroma; never mind if she is missing teeth, and has heartworm, and fleas.  And there are no incels among the males who have cojones.  If they cannot have their way, they will commit rape and will not take care of the offspring.  It’s up to us people to take it from there.

That is where the women of “Free Puppies” come in.  Directed by Cristina Thomas and Samantha Wishman in their debut feature length film, the documentary traces the hobbies of several southern women who are doing good by our four-legged pals and through this movie get their fifteen minutes + of fame.  They are saving dog lives that might be in the hundreds, picking them up from kill shelters in the South, even freeing them from chains, and transporting them mostly to the North, the Harriet Tubmans of the canine fraternity. 

As you might expect, the vast majority are not pure-bred—not that there’s anything wrong with mongrels when you consider that “pedigree” is little more than a human construct.  Some are them are cute, depending on what floats your boat, since after all some of us think bull terriers are the cat’s meow (to mix synecdoche and metaphor), while others want beauty contest favorites like Afghans.

How do dogs wind up on the street?  As you might expect, some are tossed into the road by people who will not even take the trouble to deliver them to the pound.  Maybe they’ve been behavior problems as puppies, and their owners might or might not realize that there is no such thing as an ill-behaved dog: only ill-behaved people (who don’t know how to train their pups).   These street dogs are generally not “fixed,” so when the heat’s on, a single canine might produce ten spawn.  If they are not rescued from the shelters, they are either euthanized there, at one time via a gas chamber in Georgia and Tennessee but nowadays with lethal injections.  Even the no-kill shelters must farm out the unwanted dogs to a kill facility.

A few men in the film are what we, at least in the north, like to call “characters,” including a fellow who claims to have served in Vietnam.  The rescue women, especially one who runs a store selling flooring, will take their dogs to a veterinarian who at low cost with neuter and spay them, even imprinting microchips for identity, then return them to the “characters.” 

What do we come away with?  Unless you are the kind of dog person who likes all breeds, mongrels included, you’re not so likely to say “aw,” at least not after the first one or two “aw’s” because the film is repetitious and does not feature a small number of starring dogs from whom we can learn their backstories.  The evening before I saw this film, I was watching my favorite comic, Stephen Colbert, on the June 22nd Late Show.  A small number of dogs being offered to the TV audience are shown in a better light than the ones in Georgia and Tennessee because they are seen against a backdrop of New York’s Paramount studios and introduced, one by one, by the comedian and by the actress Emma Thompson. With production values like these, it’s no wonder that Colbert has a 100% record in getting all featured dogs adopted.

All in all “Free Puppies!” is a pleasant enough diversion giving a few heroic women the opportunity to take credit for saving lives.

68 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B

Acting – B

Technical – B

Overall – B

IMAGE OF VICTORY – movie review

IMAGE OF VICTORY (Tmunat Hanitzahon)

Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Avi Nesher
Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Liraz Brosh, Ehud Bleiberg
Cast: Joy Rieger, Amir Khoury, Ala Dakka, Eliana Tidhar, Tom Avni
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/14/22
Opens: July 15, 2022 streaming on Netflix

Israel is a small country surrounded by Muslim nations—whose population outnumbers Israeli Jews 100 to 1. Historically, Muslim nations are not great supporters of Israel, having fought five wars against the Jewish nation. Yet Israel has survived and prospered. When Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in the six-day war in 1967, you could not blame people for believing that Israelis could not be defeated, yet as we see in “Image of Victory,” though Egypt lost the 1948 war of independence, it succeeded in temporarily conquering some land, notably a kibbutz (collective farm) in the South near the border of Egyptian-controlled Gaza.

You would not expect a film that glorifies a victory by Egypt to be shown to Israeli audiences, much less to be financed and directed by Israelis, but “Tmunat Hanitzahon as the movie is called in Hebrew was shown at the Haifa International Festival and garnered three Ophirs, which are Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Avi Nesher, who directs and co-write the film, is no stranger to courageous films such as his “The Other Story,” about the meeting of two women, one disgusted with the hedonistic secular life seeking the discipline of Judaism, the other wanting to break through the oppressiveness of religion. Here he takes us first to kibbutz Nitzanim showing us life in a primitive farm that sells it produce to Tel Aviv, then to an Egyptian settlement so close that with a good pair of binoculars you might almost capture scenes highlighting the ambitions of Hassanein Heikal (Amir Khoury) , a 24-year-old filmmaker in love with cinema who is eager to knock out a propaganda film for Egypt’s leader, King Farouk. The film opens as the now middle-aged man is angered that Sadat signed a peace with Israel at Camp David, complaining, what’s the sense of fighting wars when the politicians sell us out?

In the kibbutz we witness the songs and fights among an ensemble of Jews from South America and Europe, some who are Holocaust survivors, speaking a flurry of language but communicating through Hebrew which they were compelled to learn if they wanted to have a sustainable community. The non-conforming Mira Ben-Ari’s (Joy Rieger), marriage is on the rocks through no fault of her husband (Elisha Banai)with whom she had fallen out of love. She will show her bravery by refusing to evacuate when a conflict with the enemy is imminent. Her son sleeps in a separate room since at that time, kibbutzniks believed in a communal life in which every mother has an almost equal standing with every child: it takes a village.

It should be known that while Jewish settlers in Israel at about the time of independence were known to take over Arab lands by force, this kibbutz, founded in 1943 with fewer than 150 members, was purchased with money raised by the Jewish National Fund. (I recall that when I was ten years old I helped to raise money, asking donors to put their quarters inside a collection box and handing each contributor a symbolic carnation.)

When Nesher focuses on the Egyptian side, we see that Hassanein’s films are periodically sent to Cairo where an audience vets the content for later release to all of Egypt. Some are annoyed with what appears to be a neutrality by the director who is not unsympathetic to the Israeli cause and, in fact, when the kibbutz ultimately has to surrender because it had not received the weapons and reinforcement it needed, Hassanein appears to fall in instant love with Mira’s image.

Much of the film looks like a reenactment of small-town life in an American Western; the Jews are in their basic living quarters situated on 400 acres; the Egyptians, just kilometers away, have forays against the Jews but everything is pared down, just a few players on each side. By contrast, cinematographer Amit Yasur splashes a scene in Cairo on New Year’s Eve, 1947 turning into the year that Israel declares independence. There is lively music and dancing which would not be out of place in an American banquet hall, a guy with a fez standing out to project that this is nothing less than the capital of a Middle Eastern country.

“Image of Victory” will be looked at by the scores of awards groups perhaps not so much as a best international film but as a winning ensemble feature. The characters on the Jewish side display a spirit of joy destroyed obviously, by their ultimate defeat by Egyptians, who are helped by scores of soldiers with tanks and bazookas, who succeed in killing 37 residents and taking others prisoner.

128 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MURINA – movie review


Kino Lorber
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, based on her short film “Into the Blue”
Screenwriters: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovi, Frank Graziano
Cast: Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic, Leon Lucev, Cliff Curtis, Jonas Smulders
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/6/22
Opens: July 8, 2022 at New York’s Metrograph Theater. September 13, 2022 streaming.

Even rebellious teens here in America might enjoy this striking debut feature by the Croatian director and co-writer of “Murina.” But the adolescent Americans must be sensitive enough to appreciate the beauty of a remote, rocky Adriatic Sea coastline which provides a frugal life for seventeen-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipovic), her mother Nela (Danica Curcic) and father Ante (Leon Lucev). As a retired high school teacher, I’m thinking of kids having to go to summer school in the sweltering July in New York and comparing themselves to Julija, who really should have not a care in the world, spending her days in a bathing suit diving for eel with her dad. When Javier (Cliff Curtis), a handsome, rich developer who had once employed Ante and enjoyed an affair with Nela arrives with plans to buy the property to build a resort, the family dreams of using the money to buy an apartment in Zagreb, which to me seems like a step down for them given the natural beauty, the sport of diving, and the Spartan but livable accommodations.

“Murina” has moments of violence, particularly one which will threaten the family’s dream of escape and cause Javier to consider abandoning his own plans. Julija delivers verbal barbs to her mother for staying with her boorish husband, a man who resents not only his hostile daughter but also the rich and handsome visitor. Julija has fantasies of freedom including traveling the world with Javier, even enrolling in Harvard. Yet her life, like that of her mom, is crushed by a patriarchal society, her dad in his worst burst of fury imprisoning his daughter, putting her essentially in solitary confinement without food and without light.

The title “Murina” stands in metaphorically for the moray fish that Julija and Ante hunt with spears, a member of the eel family with sharp teeth and a bite that its hunters would not like any more than would Ante during the many times his rebellious daughter drags him down verbally in front of a coterie of Javier’s employees. So too does the sea stand in for both freedom and isolation, the sparkling waters both imprisoning the girl and serving her fantasies of escape.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures the mood of an area of Croatia which may look to us as a paradise—provided that you do not have to live in squalid quarters–the only chance of escape being to sell the land and move to the city. Gracija Filipovic and Leon Lucev appear to do their own stunts, the teen sometimes staying underwater without oxygen for several minutes, the two carrying spears to catch the local delicacy. Cliff Curtis may be playing a rich European but he is in real life a Maori born in New Zealand. (As one reviewer points out, he gives away his ethnicity with a tattoo.)

“Murina” provides stunning ensemble acting with Kusijanovic’s providing direction that brings the conflicted feelings of a nuclear family boldly to the surface.

In Croatian and English with English subtitles.

92 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE FORGIVEN – movie review


Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: John Michael McDonagh from Lawrence Osborne’s novel “The Forgiven”
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh, Lawrence Osborne
Cast: Abbey Lee, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Celeb Landry Jones, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/22
Opens: July 1, 2022

If this is what the super-rich do with their money, I’m content being plain ol’ middle class. Who needs to snort coke, to commit adultery, engage in dirty dancing, drink the night away, have servants that would be the envy of the nobility in “Downton Abbey,” and soak up the atmosphere of the desolate though spectacular desert scenery in the Moroccan Atlas? The people who inhabit John Michael McDonagh’s film, written by the director inspired by Lawrence Osborne’s novel of the same name, think they have life figured out. We’re all going to die, so why not party?

This brooding, compelling picture which opens on the kind of party we middling characters have never had and moves with just a few flashbacks to a dramatic denouement, has a cast headed by Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. The back-and-forth commentary in their car will seem to us movie viewers as clever repartee but sets forth a twelve-year-old marriage that has been headed for the skids for a long time. One might wonder whether David Henniger (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henniger (Jessica Chastain) would have cemented their nuptials if they—a doctor and a failed writer of children’s books—stayed home, gave up the booze and coke, and lived like well-heeled folks with birthday parties to celebrate their children rather than themselves.

Filmed by Larry Smith on location in Morocco, “The Forgiven” sweeps us away with wide lensing-looks at miles and miles of desert, sometimes providing the kinds of views that would have tour busses stopping to announce “everybody out, take pictures, fifteen minutes.” David and Jo had another destination in mind: a lavish party at a renovated, gated ksar, food and drink served under the direction of English-speaking Hamid (Mourad Zaoui). David, though, has an unsettling story to tell. Fortified by drink and driving too fast, the desert sand blasting the windshield, he has had a terrible accident. His car hit Driss, a Moroccan boy who is ostensibly selling fossils but actually planning with his friend to steal the car. Though the couple might have run from the accident, they inexplicably (given their low moral bar) carry the boy’s body back to the ksar and brought in the local police.

When Driss’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) and an English-speaking guide Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui) show up at the villa after a long drive, they demand that David accompany them back to their isolated Berber home to atone for Driss’s death, we may wonder why David is willing to do so when his party pals, including Tom (Christopher Abbott) and Dickie (Matt Smith) advise him simply to pay 1000 Euros. We in our theater seats wonder: will David be killed, or will the Berber father honor Arab hospitality and require the Englishman simply to attend the burial?

Director McDonagh, whose 2014 film “Calvary” focuses on a priest falling to dark forces, switches from the deadly serious scenes in the Berber home to the over-the-top party in the ksar. In the latter scenes David wife’s Jo carries on an adulterous affair with Tom (Christopher Abbott), signaling to us that she need not fear the end of a marriage which has bored her and which is filled with David Mamet-style barbs.

Getting past the events of a vacation with its mixture of bonhomie among the rich and deadly scenarios in the Berber home, McDonagh makes us aware that the colonialism that has poisoned relations between the haves and have nots is still alive. Call it neo-colonialism if you will. Though Westerners like these people have provided jobs for the local people, the Moroccans, who had been under the thumbs of the French until 1956, cannot be expected to sing Kumbaya with the party people who consist of Americans, French and English. By contrast, Anouar, who speaks perfect English and acts as interpreter and guide, is torn between loyalty to his people and a desire to live in Sweden. That dream becomes part of the dark humor that embraces the proceedings, leaving us to recall how Syrian refugees find new homes in Western Europe (especially Germany) and wondering whether the political left in our own country may be exaggerating the hostility that formerly colonialized people have for us. Almost needless to say, Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain make a perfect picture of marital discord.

117 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE COURTROOM – movie review


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Screenwriter: Arian Moayed
Cast: Kristin Villanueva, Linda Powell, Michael Chernus, Mike Braun, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kathleen Chalfant, BD Wong
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/22
Opens: June 16, 2022 at New York’s Metrograph Theatre

'The Courtroom' Trailer Teases a Deportation Film Made Entirely of Court Transcripts

After teaching high school for five years, I met a new, twenty-two-year-old faculty member who almost lost his career before it started. In the lunchroom he related how he mistakenly checked a box on his license application that states, “I am a member of a fascist political party.” The examiner, happily, told him to recheck that answer, which he did, and thus, thanks to a sympathetic employee, he began his life as a teacher.

A similar situation took place in an Illinois courtroom in 2008. A woman from the Philippines who married an American and lived in Bloomington, Illinois, was filling out a license form in the Illinois motor vehicle department, and with only a knowledge of English that she gained in her home country where English is a second language, mistakenly checked a box declaring that she is an American citizen. She relies on the examiner who does not ask her whether this is true. She receives a voting card and, together with her husband, votes for her district congressman. When she applies for a green card, the examiner calls her attention to this lie and apparently forwards papers to the Department of Homeland Security, which acts in court to throw her back to the Philippines, leaving her husband, her child, and a stepdaughter to fare for themselves.

The film “The Courtroom” deals with the case in a theatrical manner, almost all the action taking place inside courtrooms except for a final rah-rah talk by a person giving the oath to a group of new citizens. The film uses the verbatim transcript from the actual trial.

The first thing that comes to mind is, hey! We’re faced now by an epidemic of jerks with assault rifles who use them to kill multiple persons all over the country. We’ve got fifteen million undocumented immigrants pursuing their lives in this country, in effect hiding out from Homeland Security. The U.S. is going to make a big production to deport a lovely woman, no convictions, a family values individual if there ever was one according to her husband, who rose up from a failed marriage to bring her into the country because, he states, she meets the ethical values that he was seeking?

The film follows a production in my neighborhood theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Heights. The players are all actors including Marsha Stephanie Blake as Judge Zerbe, Michael Braun as the agent for Homeland Security, Linda Powell as defense lawyer Richard Hanus, Kristin Villanueva as defendant Elizabeth Keathley, Michael Chernus as the defendant’s husband John, and Kathleen Chalfant as Judge Easterbrook.

One of the interesting quirks is that the judge asks the defendant whether she needs an interpreter, which leads to a back-and- forth conversation indicating that she speaks not Tagalog, the official language of her home country, but Visayan, a dialect, which, good luck finding an interpreter. She deals with English just fine. The key defense point is that the state official rushed her through the motor vehicle application, leading her to improperly state that she is an American citizen, but the charge comes because she received a voting card and actually casts a vote. Federal law states that anyone doing so shall be deported. Sounds clear enough, albeit heartless. The defense points out that she is a victim of “entrapment by estoppel,” meaning that she was urged by the official to submit the application. Think of this: you are approached by a treasury agent who wants to trap a criminal. You are told to sell $10,000 in counterfeit bills to a suspect. The suspect would be nailed as soon as he makes the purchase. Are you, the person told to help the department, guilty of a crime? Of course not. But does this concept apply in a civil case as well? That’s what the immigration case turns on.

Among my surprises is the courtroom which I would have expected to be mayhem, like New York’s housing court, our city’s Small Claims Court, and even criminal cases that are each allegedly dispensed in a matter of minutes. The modern courtroom is empty except for the people connected with the case, and plenty of time is allowed for all sides to be heard.

“The Courtroom” may not be “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” but it commands audience attention in the suspense created. Most of us would probably side with the defendant, a good person who should remain with her family and be excused for doing what anyone, especially without fluent English, might make. Then again, why didn’t her husband tell her that she is not permitted to vote?

This is director Lee Sunday Evans’ debut film, playing out with appropriate tension even though we’re not dealing with the Johnny Depp Amber Heard proceedings or a mafia showdown, but just a nice woman trapped by the letter of the law. There is happily no music in the soundtrack to distract from the verbal sparring.

87 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

MORPHINE – movie review

MORPHINE (Morphia)

Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Screenwriter: Sergey Bodrov, from short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrey Panin, Svetlana Pismichenko, Katarina Radivojevic, Yuri Gertsman, Aleksandr Mosin
Screened at:
The folks in the rural Russia of 1917 may not have predicted that the West would have an opioid crisis decades later, but they sure had one in miniature during that fateful year that upended their society. The film is “Morphine,” directed by Aleksey Balabanov, who died five years after its making at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind an impressive resume. Balabanov, whose “The Stoker” deals with an ethnic Yakut shell-shocked after serving in the Afghan-Soviet war, takes on this film written by Sergei Bodrov based on short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov. (Several books by Bulgakov are available in English from Amazon, including the 50th anniversary edition of “The Master and Margarita” but if you act fast you can pick up the novelist’s “Notes of a Young Doctor,” the last available copy selling for $94.01, and that’s for the used edition.)

Aleksandr Simohnov is behind the lens in the film’s settings, a rural area with primitive accommodations that promises to show a character’s fetching a ladder and climbing up to sing “If I Was a Rich Man,” but this remains a promise unfulfilled. Instead of a Hasidic community, though, we get a look at people who in 1917 still believed in Jesus, but they’d better alter their religious ideology overnight if they want to in with the workers’ paradise. The action takes place during the Russian Revolution, specifically between February 1917 when nice moderate socialists like Alexander Kerensky were defeated just months later as the Bolsheviks swept them away and took Russia out of the First World War.

If you’re an action fan, you’ll see plenty of that, though there are only a few scenes of Bolshevik soldiers demanding to see papers and, in one case, bashing an aristo taking his last ride on his horse and carriage. The action in this film is largely interior, though you’ll often see a group of nurses dressed like nuns racing hither and thither to save potential patients breathing their last in the snow. The film may look as though it were taking place around Yakuts, the world’s coldest place which once scored a Fahrenheit temperature of 84 below zero, but incredibly it’s only 126 miles as the crow flies from Moscow.

In the central role, Leonid Bichevin inhabits the role of Doktor Polyakov, a 23-year-old who must have been moved kicking and screaming from Moscow to the rural town around Uglich, which is today a tourist location in the Yaroslavl administrative district. Polyakov is virtually, even actually in two cases, bowed down to by residents who have been without a physician since the departure of one Leopold, a stroke of luck since on a busy day, the new sawbones has twenty-two patients. But here is a case of “Doctor, heal thyself.” Treating a dying patient by pumping on his chest and breathing into his mouth, he contracts diphtheria. Suffering pain form the malady, he has access to morphine, which serves like a beginner’s guide to heroin in those days. Since there may have been a shortage of Tylenol and Advil, he injects himself with morphine. When that wears off, another dose, until predictably enough he is addicted.

And boy, can Polyakov show you what it’s like to go through withdrawal, which he had to suffer several times when a nurse guards the limited supply and urges him to get treatment. He may have been angry with the woman, but he receives a door prize: an affair with nurse Anna Nikolayevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and, in a couple of cases has his way with an aristocratic woman who does an FDR impersonation with a long cigarette holder while the doc fiddles around with her body.

And what’s a movie about a doctor without showing some gore? In one scene he amputates a woman’s leg after it was shredded in a flax grinder. Balabanov gets us a closeup of the poor lady’s limb. In another case—you vote on which is gorier—he performs a tracheotomy on a teen girl who could scarcely breathe, first looking up the procedure in a book, then moving on to slice open the patient’s neck. The internist-cum-obstetrician-cum-otolaryngologist-cum general surgeon delivers a baby after cleaning up a botched technique by a midwife who powdered the new mother’s vagina with sugar to tempt the unborn baby to come out.

To assure his credentials as a supply of artful indies, the director presents the action with desaturated color, helping to project the miserable atmosphere of the countryside, while trying to match the carnage on the operating tables with scenes of the doctor vomiting—in one situation throwing up on a toilet filthier than the worst facilities in Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie “Trainspotting.”

I suppose that the closest scenes of idiosyncratic rural life in American movies is “Twin Peaks,” but the shacks there are Trump towers compared to the snow-bound dwellings here. The film is well worth your attention, the chapters marked off in an idiosyncratic way as well as though this were a Lillian Gish entertainment. The people are all flawed—even the nurse having an affair with the doctor injects herself with morphine, envious, perhaps, and wanting to shake like her doctor boyfriend as would a person without clothes walking in the Uglich snow. The melodramatic finale, which takes place in a movie house offering a film that has the doctor and the entire audience laughing hysterically, is quite a surprise.

You can stream this movie by subscribing to MUBI, where you can get a taste of the indie films free for seven days.

In Russia with English subtitles.

111 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

REFLECTION – movie review


Film Movement
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Cast: Roman Lutskiy, Nika Myslytska, Nadia Levechenko, Andriy Rymaruk, Ihor Shulha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/22

“Reflection” is a follow-up to the director’s “Atlantis, which won top prize in Venice’s Horizons program. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s latest is a film that comes across almost as two studies centered on key months in the life of a surgeon. Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), who has not yet volunteered to fight the Russians who had invaded Ukraine in 2014, has a talk with Andrii (Andriy Rymaruk), the latter giving up-to-the-moment revelations of mayhem when he was at the front. Serhiy has a twelve-year-old daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska—the director’s own child) and an ex-wife Olha (Nadia Levchenkio), Olha now taking the role of Andriy’s current girlfriend.

An opening scene finds Polina playing paintball, a present for her birthday—a game whose popularity at the time could be a reflection of the war going on miles away. Suddenly the screen blacks out and we see Serhiy taking care of battle-scarred Ukranians, concentrating on chest compressions to a soldier who is covered with blood and who cannot be saved.

Later, Serhiy and Andrii drive toward the front and are captured by the mercenaries who shoot up the car leaving Andrii seriously wounded and both taken captive. Serhiy is tortured under the command of a Russian officer who, if the adversaries were using common sense would employ Serhiy in saving their own men. The surgeon must watch his good friend hung up by his arms, punched, and having a power drill invade his thigh. This is enough to cause PTSD in both the victim and witness. The Russians use a mobile crematory not unlike what they are using today in their cowardly invasion of a country that had already been forced to secede Crimea years back (an area with a majority of Russian ethnics), now intent on annexing the Donbas region in the East and taking over the whole country.

Serhiy, freed via a prisoner exchange, reestablishes a relationship with his ex-wife, particularly bonding with his daughter, who had been injured by falling off a horse but suffers greater inner pain wondering about the fate of Andrii, with whom she has been close and who wants him to be her godfather. Serhiy holds back on the bad news until the time comes to identify a body.

If this were a simple story about inhabitants of a war zone, it might lack originality. Instead Vasyanovych, who wrote, directs, filmed and edited the whole shebang, feels free to manipulate the proceedings artistically. He has no use for close-ups, filming most of the scene in middle-long. He will try audience patience by static shots where they seem to have no relevant impact. Close-ups are avoided in the torture scenes, making the movie difficult enough to watch, where some distance between subject and camera is justified. However, why have static, contemplative scenes such as one where the daughter does exercises on the sofa; or where Serhiy simply sits at his desk? A simple enough plot appears to serve largely as an excuse for cinematic flourishes.

However the director, thanks to a fine performance from his daughter, does provide a look at how an girl approaching her teens is growing up too fast. The war has caused a personal hardship for her—she has lost her best adult friend—and has witnessed a tragedy that should never have occurred save for the greed of a country’s president eager to restore the empire that had been lost to the Russian Federation three decades ago.

In Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles.

128 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AHED’S KNEE – movie review

AHED’S KNEE (Ha’berech)

Kino Lorber
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Nadav Lapid
Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid
Cast: Avshalom Pollak, Nur Fibak, Oded Azulay, Michal Benkovitz Sasu, Roni Boksbaum
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/21/22
Opens: May 3, 2022 on Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Kino Now. May 31, 2022 on VOD

Some fans of Broadway theater (not many) complain that the stage tries too hard to mimic the style of movies. Likewise, some moviegoers (also not many) complain that films try too hard to imitate the style of TV. (What’s left for TV fans to debate: whether that medium imitates radio?) Nadav Lapid would be in the company of those who want movies to do what is not usually done on the small screen. Remember his “Synonyms,” which centers on an Israeli man, dictionary in hand, who experiments with giving up his nationality?

With “Ahed’s Knee,” he goes further than with “Synonyms” in the spirit of suggesting Israeli nationality is not as great as some claim it to be. The film was presented at the Palme d’Or at Cannes where it won the Jury prize. One must wonder what kind of reception it would enjoy if shown in Jerusalem to a Jewish-Israeli audience.

Y (Avshalom Pollak), a middle-aged filmmaker who heads off to a small, remote village in the desert, is presenting “Ahed’s Knee” to a likewise small audience in the town’s library. His is a courageous decision given the small-town Israelis are likely to be more conservative, more nationalistic, than a typical, cosmopolitan resident of Tel Aviv. The reception he is to receive is based not on what residents have seen on the screen but rather what they hear during the Q&A afterwards. His diatribe, his broadside against his country mimics what he in confidence tells his host, Yahalom David (Nur Fibak), a monologue that is near-biblical in its resonance, spewing his disgust with what he calls the racist, nationalistic spirit in his government and in a broad majority of its people. One must wonder whether this venom rages partly because he, who appears close enough emotionally to his mother judging by his emails to her, is distraught about her diagnosis of lung cancer.

A filmmaker who in his words wants “to puke Israel out with a scream” is one-upping the countries worst enemies—in Syria, Lebanon, and with ISIS, Al-Queda, Hezbollah, Hamas, among others. The film starts with an exposition about Ahed, a protestor, threatened on Twitter with being shot in the kneecap. Such is the anger of the right-wing Israelis who probably vote Likud, a party that the filmmaker obviously detests. In fact when a farmer points out the effects of climate change on his pepper crop—now wilted and rotten—Y notes that he could be stating a metaphor about Israeli itself.

With cinematographer Shai Goldman’s hand-held cameras spinning dizzyingly, “Ahed’s Knee” catches how Y imagines his younger days in the Israeli army when the contingent of soldiers are told to take cyanide because they are surrounded by the Syrian army. A wild dance scene to heavy metal joined by female Israeli soldiers that could have lost each person five pounds in ten minutes precedes what may have been a false alarm. Though the dance may appear to be out of the blue, having little to do with the plot, Lapid may have used the break to show his love for what cinema can show.

In the end, Lapid, using Avshalom Pollak’s character Y as a stand-in for himself, may know that many in his audience will want to stone him for his anti-government ideas. He is content to be himself, to call attention to his grievances not necessary to change minds—this is not likely. It is enough that he employs his cinematic imagination to cut to his leftist beliefs in what he considers the rot that has spread within the ruling party; a disease that hardly existed in the days of the country’s founding when Jews “made the desert bloom,” when the thought of Arab resistance was not yet considered at least among Israeli’s friends in America.

While not as opaque as “Synonyms” appears to many moviegoers, “Ahed’s Knee” is a refreshing and deeply felt look at one Israeli’s rage, when Y’s threat to email a conversation he had with his host serves like an Uzi, keeping a hostile crowd at bay.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

109 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

SEXUAL DRIVE – movie review


Film Movement
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Kôta Yoshida
Screenwriter: Kôta Yoshida
Cast: Manami Hashimoto, Ryô Ikeda, Mukau Nakamura, Honami Satô, Tateto Serizawa, Shogen, Rina Takeda
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/25/22
Opens: April 22, 2022


No film will ever match the conflating of food and sex as well as does the 1963 movie “Tom Jones, and surely “Sexual Drive,” which exhibits not a single body even half nude, is no competition. Tragedies are elevated, whereas comedies have no problem dealing with the body, especially the mouth and the lower regions. “Sexual Drive,” however, flirts with both the high and the low; metaphorically Kôta Yoshida, who wrote and directs the film partly devoted to the workings of the mind, particularly to the narratives of a fellow in the third part of this three-part series, but in every case drives home the point that people in bespoke suits and fashionable dresses are doing little more than covering up their innermost desires for food and sex.

Think of Odysseus who in the classic myth addresses the king of the Phaecians after being shipwrecked on an island, asking for time to finish his dinner before he tells his story: “Eat, drink!” It blots our all the memory of pain, commanding “Fill me up!”“Sexual Drive” deals with people in pain who long to be filled up and whose anxieties revolve around their sexual longings which they try to satisfy with food.

For example, in the first episode called Natto, Kiru (Tateto Serizawa), a shabbily dressed man, enters the home of a fellow whose wife is a nurse, called away on a Sunday for a hospital emergency. Kiru is everyman, confronting people with what is lacking in their lives. In the case of Natto, the reluctant host allows Kiru to present him with his principal concern, but he somehow cannot throw the man out. Kiru chats about the affair he is having with the man’s wife, presenting some truths that any of us men who have had surgery would like to forget—the most painful being the insertion of a catheter into the urethra to drain urine. Kiru calls himself a masochist. The pain turns him on. And somehow observing Kiru’s pain, the nurse is similarly excited. By the time the nurse comes home, starving, her husband has to watch her devouring a bowl of Natto with sexual pleasure, making the man all the more depressed with his own sexless life.

In Mapo Tofu, the second episode, Kiru appears again, this time throwing himself against a car and writhing in pain. The driver, who has panic attacks, is delighted that he is not going to sue her (does anyone sue anybody in Japan?) and gives him a ride to his home. During the ride she has the panic attacks to which she has become accustomed, while her would-be therapist, Kiru, hints that sexual dissatisfaction is the cause of the shaking.

In a more surreal vein, the third chapter, Ramen with Extra Backfat, a woman drinks alone in a bar, then proceeds to one of those noodle shop popular with people who want to save money and avoid self-consciousness of eating alone. A narrator speaks into the earpiece of a well-dressed man, probably an executive, directed toward Momoka who is the only woman in the ramen shop and who is herself trying to drown her lack of sexual satisfaction in food and drink.

This is a niche movie that could divide some folks who love indies and low-budget oddities. One group might turn on from the provocative nature of the movie, since after all it has originality, but others, like me, will be frustrated. Repeat that: frustrated. Those of us in that latter category may wonder whether getting laid before they watch it might change their opinion to a more positive one.

In Japanese with English subtitles.

70 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE QUEST FOR SLEEP – movie review


Abramorama and Osmosis Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Mills
Screenwriter: Josh Adler
Cast: Olivia Spencer (narrator); Andre Iguodala, Emma Coburn, Rick Lynch, Dayna A. Johnson, Meeta Singh, Michael Grandner
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/12/22
Opens: March 16, 2022

We may not be a nation of shepherds, but a lot of sheep are being counted in our country, and the wooly animals are not doing much good. Many of us are getting by on four hours sleep, although getting by is an exaggeration. Some of the folks discussing their sleep problems in director Rachel Mills’s “The Quest for Sleep” are fully aware of the dangers they are creating for themselves and others, particularly by falling asleep at the wheel. And college students, under great pressure to succeed in our competitive society, may pull all-night study sessions, not taking the advice of one professional in this documentary; that sleep consolidates memory and that presumably if you get your eight hours before the test and have prepared days in advance, you’re more likely to score high.

One of the director’s previous contributions, “The Magnitudinous Illuminous,” is about a 66-year-old bartender-philosopher in Brooklyn who would give his customers lessons on how to live a creative life, but she may have fallen asleep after filming for twelve minutes. This time Mills is up to seventy-three minutes, knocking out a doc that some viewers will itself consider a remedy for insomnia—especially if they do not manage to complete the watch. Others (like me) may note that there’s nothing in this soporific documentary that you don’t already know if you were as interested in the science of sleep to choose to attend this movie, though there are cool picture of the brain where things are going on—in most people.

The principal gem of wisdom that overlooks the project is this: that human beings like other animals need three things in life: oxygen, food, and the “s” word. Sleep. As the talking heads note, that you simply cannot do a competent job if you consistently enjoy fewer than six hours, which may explain the problems facing this country under the leadership of a man whose mornings were taken up with watching “Fox and his Friends.” (This point is not made in the doc, for some reason. Must have slipped the mind of the creative people like writer Josh Adler.)

So we hear from a military man, a night club singer who tries to stay aware enough to keep his day job; a beautician who notes that it doesn’t matter how well she does women’s hair, that it’s her relationship with customers; and a fellow who moved to Costa Rica, married a local, and works on wind tunnels when he’s not feeding the adopted dogs.

The usual solutions are listed. Meditation (but not yoga?); turning the lights down when you’re ready for bedtime and putting them back up when you arise; drugs, include caffeine drinks, which may cause dependency and solve the insomnia problem only sometimes.

There’s not a helluva lot of enlightenment here and what’s more, the intrusive, tinkling music that seeks to drown out the performers’ words of wisdom can drive some viewers crazy. Is this movie a concert or a treatise on the zzzzs? The movie premiered as a live Facebook performance on March 16th.

73 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PLAYGROUND (Le monde) – movie review


Film Movement
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Laura Wandel
Screenwriter: Laura Wandel
Cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Lena Girard Voss, Simon Caudry, Thao Maerten, James Sequy, Naël Ammama, Émile Salamone, Karim Leklou
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/5/22
Opens: May 10, 2022

Wasn’t former first lady Melania’s “Be Best” campaign a plea to stop bullying? Judging by the film “Playground,” she was no more successful in her job than her husband in his. Guns may be an American thing, but fists and pushing and screaming probably occur everywhere. Note that the original title of this Belgian drama is “Un monde.”

Nor does bullying occur only in tough neighborhoods. Parents and teachers, no matter how understanding and loving, cannot prevent it. Take a look at the adorable children expertly directed by the Belgian director Laura Wandel in her freshman offering. Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a girl of about seven who is likely in second grade of a public school, is at first afraid to go when the school year opens. A new arrival whose family had just moved, she clings at first to her father (Karim Leklou) and then to her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). Upset by the chaos of the halls, she does eventually make some friends. We in the audience cannot help smile when we see a broad grin on her face for the first time, but not before a teacher insists that she sit not with her brother but with kids from her own class.

Tension erupts on the playground when Abel, who hangs out with a group of bullies, is himself tormented, but he insists that Nora not snitch. That’s not the schoolyard code of behavior. Teachers allegedly supervising arrive either too late or not at all, though in one case Abel and his tormentor are dressed down in the principal’s office where one lad is forced to apologize, and thereby a final peace treaty is signed. Not. What really happens is almost predictable. Abel himself picks on a weaker child, putting a plastic bag over his head, and Nora might as well have the letter “S” tattooed on her neck. Nobody likes a snitch.

As Nora, Maya Vanderbeque could not be better. The seven-year-old thesp can be seen also in “Was zählt” (What Counts) and as herself in the TV drama L’invité.” She exudes a roller coaster of emotions from crying to lighting up the room with her smile; from disgust and despair to anger at her brother, in one scene wishing he were dead. To her dad, who seems unemployed but takes time to visit the playground and to dress down a bully, she can be clinging and she can be dismissive. “Playground” avoids even a hint of “documentarianism,” coming across instead as a fleshed-out look at the variety of tensions facing kids when they should not have to suffer the torment of their peers and of those who are slightly older.

The Brussels-born director certainly has a way with this assortment of sprouts.

In French with English subtitles.

72 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

RIDE TILL I DIE – movie review


Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Tony Rammos
Cast: Ricky Ringer, Ricky Ringer Jr., Ernie Courson, Marilee Ringer, Renee Ringer, Cynthia Kimbrell, Kenneth Kimbrell
Screened at: Critics’ link 4/5/22
Opens: April 8, 2022

Training his lenses on the Florida rodeos and cutting away to get insights about a man committed to riding bulls for a living, first-time director Tony Rammos seeks to answer two questions: What sort of person is willing to suffer broken ribs, perforated lungs, facial scars, and assorted injuries to other body parts and come back another day for more? What is it about riding bulls in rodeos that make this the most dangerous eight seconds in all sports?

Rammos could not have found a better man to answer these questions than Ricky Ringer. His first riding at age fifteen won him $97, which at the time, he says, was a nice chunk of money. Later he would compete in three areas of Florida—Tampa, West Palm Beach and Estero—for a purse that could net him $60,000. Ricky admits that it’s a good living, though one that you could pursue until you’re in your thirties (he lasted to age forty-one!), and more important, it’s a sport that he loves, one that makes him want to ride until he dies. Spoiler: he does not die in the ring but has to be dragged into retirement on the cusp of middle age. In a happy ending, he makes a living now as a heavy equipment operator.

We see Ricky in a picture with a white cutaway jacket, maybe the only time he got out of his colorful sport shirts and boots. We hear him encouraging his son Ricky Jr. to follow in his footsteps, and we learn from junior that he loves the sport as well. Not so much Ricky Ringer’s mother, who like any other parent who is not a child abuser discouraged him from riding, nor is his charming wife gung-ho about the injuries that befall her man while at the same time eagerly following him in the stands.

During much of the film time, Ricky talks to the cameras, in close ups and at medium range, scarcely able to get out a sentence without the obligatory “you know.” If scenes of the man riding a variety of bulls do not convince you of his love affair with the ring, his own words do the trick.

Natch there are many scenes of the action inside the ring, where each contestant must keep one hand free while trying to stay on a bucking bull for at least eight seconds. Ricky manages off and on, winning money by being among the top competitors, but we also see him thrown within as short a time as two or three seconds. Close-ups? Of course.

There is a major problem with the movie, one of omission. What’s on the screen is fine, but we who do not live in Texas or Florida or any other state that sponsors our country’s most dangerous sport would have no idea of the rules. Can you be excited watching a chess match if you don’t know chess from checkers? Is it true that riding a bull for more than eight seconds is irrelevant since only that initial time is considered? How is the sport judged? Are the bulls given points as well? Lest you think it’s nuts for the bull to be competing for sports points, remember that if at some time the animal is tired, does not feel like bucking, should the rider be awarded the same number of points as others who have more difficult animals? The Wikipedia article “Bull Riding” notes that the bull and rider share points equally, one hundred points being perfect while even in the seventies is considered good. Also, like the riddle of how to get the toothpaste back into the tube, how in heaven do these bulls get coaxed back home for the night? There is not a single clip showing how the assistants coax the brave animals back to await another exciting day of making men look like major rodeo competitor Matt Bright—if not like a patient in traction.

98 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

BALLAD OF A WHITE COW (Movie review)


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Directors: Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Screenwriters: Mehrdad Kouroshniya, Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Cast: Maryam Moghadam, Alireza Sani Far, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Avin Poor Raoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour
Screened at: Critics’link, NYC, 2/8/22
Opens: February 10, 2022

Ballad of a White Cow

Only fourteen countries still have the death penalty, most of them in Asia and Africa, and to the shame of our Western democracy some of our own states still live in the Middle Ages in that regard. A principal argument against its use is that it has not proved to inhibit would-be killers, which means, let’s admit it: we execute people for revenge. While I cannot think of many cases in the U.S. in which an innocent man has been punished with death, there is nonetheless the cardinal argument: that judges and juries can make mistakes and, once a man is given the needle or the rope, he is never coming back.

Iran, interestingly enough, may allow the family of a condemned man to forgive him, thus releasing him from the extreme penalty. In the case of Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s “Ballad of a White Cow,” remarkably, when the Iranian government discovers that it had executed an innocent man, it takes steps to admit its mistake and to give his widow a cash settlement.

In directing what is more or less a chamber piece with two principals, Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha situate director Moghadam in the principal role as Mina, shown early on making a final visit to her husband in prison, implicitly believing like most others that he is guilty of the crime. She is herself treated like a guilty widow who is fired from her job in a factory making beverages, thrown out of her apartment because a man unrelated to her had an innocent conversation with her behind closed doors, and is chased by her brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimiam) who is hitting on her. How does the society expect her to care for her deaf and mute daughter Bita (Avin Poor Raoufi), who is told that her dad is “far away” and that when they both get old they will see him again?

As the story progresses with thankfully no music in the soundtrack to tell us how to react emotionally, Maryam is grateful to Reza (Alireza Sanifar), who gives her money, though she does not realize at first that the donations are to assuage his guilt feelings for being one of the judges that sentenced him to death. (He did not participate in the court proceedings but made up his mind solely from the written testimony.) He is guilty as well of a lesser lapse in judgment when, because he caused the woman’s eviction from her apartment by visiting her behind closed doors.

We in the United States, who consider Iran to be along with China, Russia and North Korea our principal adversary, are eager to point out Iran’s limitations on a woman’s freedom: forcing women to wear head scarves while men have no required “fashions,” disallowing even the most innocent visit to a woman’s residence by someone unrelated, and leaning on religion to such an extent than when a mistake results in an innocent man’s hanging it’s “God’s will.” The cow of the title refers to a passage in the Quran when Moses orders a cow to be sacrificed for a man’s death—the animal shown near the opening as a computerized white cow being prepared for slaughter. A metaphor is offered upon metaphor when Mina serves a glass of warm milk to Reza, who, slowly realizing that Mina has learned the truth may now serve as an offering to Allah for an innocent man’s death.

Chamber pieces like this one are necessarily disciplined and restrained, giving us in the audience a chance to observe Mina’s humanism. “Ballad of a White Cow” punctuates co-director Maryam Moghadam’s dignified performance as an aggrieved woman, perhaps wearing black for a year after her husband’s death. Her silence while serving the judge who essentially killed her husband hits home with the audience better than melodramatic flourishes with music or a stab at outright revenge could not.

In Farsi (Persian) with English subtitles.

105 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BREAKING BREAD – movie review


Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Beth Elise Hawk
Screenwriter: Beth Elise Hawk
Cast: Dr. Nof Atanmna-Ismaeel, Shlomi Meir, Ali Khattib, Osama Dalal, Han Ferron, Salah Cordi, Tomer Abergel, Shoshi Karaman, Fadi Karaman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/13/22
Opens: February 4, 2022

If you’ve ever seen a bottle of Heinz ketchup, you know that the company is proud to deal with 57 varieties of food. The U.S., by contrast, has perhaps 200 varieties of people, while Israel, a much smaller country, has a mixture of Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, and Jews from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the United States, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. That’s to name a few. “Breaking Bread” is Beth Elise Hawk’s documentary about how food can bring together the distinct folks who live in Israel proper. Hawk, in her freshman production, allows her focus to be on microbiologist Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, named by Israel a master chef, who serves as narrator, showing groups of people of different backgrounds preparing, commenting upon, and eating food. She believes that people can discover how similar they are to one another through the one thing that everybody does: eat. Though only one half of Jews in Israel are Ashkenazim and Mizrahi, with backgrounds from European countries, Dr. Nof deals almost exclusively with foods of people from the Levant: principally falafel, lamb, tomato-and-cucumber salad, pita bread, hummus and tehina.

The principal characters, a balance of Jews and Arab Muslims including one fellow half Christian and half Jewish, discuss whether the Levantine foods served in Israel—from Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon, can be called Israeli, or whether it’s safer to consider them Arabic. While even Ashkenazi Jews go for falafel and the like, my vote is to call them Arabic. Sadly, there is no Israeli food and many Israeli Jews barely heard of bagels and Matzoh ball soup, nor do they consume them.

The movie takes its prologue from a quote of Anthony Bourdain, “Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”

Some Arabs living in Israel proper, i.e. not including Gaza or the West Bank, would call Nof an Arab in name only, as she was brought up in an Arab village but attended a Jewish elementary school. Most unusual. She is fluent in English, while the Muslims she introduces to us are versed in Hebrew. This is unusual; most Arabs living within Israel’s boundaries refuse to consider themselves Israeli but instead identify as Palestinian.

Stepping outside Haifa, a diverse city which is the country’s third largest, a gent of Syrian background in Akko brings forth his contribution to the A-Sham Food Festival in Haifa. Another shows and discusses what Ashkenazi Jews would consider kreplach, in this case chopped lamb folded into dough like a Chinese wonton. Arab and Jewish chefs talk freely with one another, likely to give some the impression that Arabs living in Israel proper eschew the identity of Palestinian and are fine conversing most of the time in Hebrew. Could it be that many Arabs are hoping to continue living under a Jewish government, given that Israeli Jews have built such an armed force that terrorists like ISIS and Al Aqueda would not dare to launch a frontal attack? Who knows how safe from the tortuous ideology of terrorists these Israeli Arabs would be under an Arabic government?

Americans in big cities would likely be familiar with most or all of the colorful dishes on display, a mouth-watering assortment that would find them heading the next day to the local ethnic restaurants and food emporiums. You come away from this picture realizing that perhaps ten percent of the Arabs living in Israel would be politically hostile to the government, when in fact most of the Muslim population therein, though eligible like anyone else to claim Israeli citizenship and receive passports, decline to do so. In Ofer ben Yehuda’s colorful photography (it’s not easy to photograph food to bring out its savory goodness), we witness the feelings of chefs who appear to be apolitical, even bending over backwards in loyalty to a Jewish government.

In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.

86 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE AUTOMAT – movie review


A Slice of Pie Productions
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lisa Hurwitz
Screenwriter: Michael Levine
Cast: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/21/22
Opens: February 18, 2022 at New York’s Film Forum

The Great Mel Brooks

If you want to know the date that America began her descent, look not to her defeat in Afghanistan or, farther back, the election of Donald Trump. Defeat in the Vietnam War? Not then. America became a banana republic when Horn and Hardart’s signature cafeteria closed forever in 1991. After that the dominos fell. Almost all of New York’s cafeterias went belly-up, including New York’s Dubrow’s and Belmore.

Horn and Hardart’s Automat, which began in 1902 in Philadelphia and closed near New York’s Grand Central Station in 1991, was unique. The only one of its kind. A cafeteria that the poorest person can afford and yet was patronized by executives during coffee breaks, even for breakfast. The chain was booming until our federal highway program encouraged people to leave the cities, so they no longer had dinner in the big cities but went home for heartier, albeit more expensive fare.

This brief documentary includes looks at several films from the silent days such as “The Early Bird” (1925) and a few from the 1950s that featured the brain-child of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart. The two founders believed in democracy (unlike many of today’s Republicans); that people from all walks of life, all ethnic groups and races, and all bank accounts could gather at the tables, head to the automatic food dispensers, insert nickels (one cashier in one H&H restaurant was able to grab exactly 20 nickels every time she received a one dollar bill), and get your lemon meringue pie, peach pie, mac and cheese and best of all the baked beans.

The hot foods remained piping hot even though the Automat used a single commissary to churn out its dishes, then, like magic, when the dish of baked beans would disappear from the window, a new plate would pop up in its place. The cafeteria workers behind the walls would never be seen and receive proper credit for filling the boxes.

Mel Brooks handled the narration, using the doc’s time to reminisce about the good old days before Mickey D’s and Burger King replaced some of the automats, breaking up that old gang of mine.

In her interview the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the diversity of people who patronized the H&H’s, where even the derelicts could sit all day without being chased out. For his part the late Colin Powell talks of the times he was growing up in the Bronx, feasting on the Automat during family outings.

Aside from the intrusive music and the repetitive nature of the documentary, “The Automat,” a look down memory lane, joins the films about restaurants as the low-budget choice that may not have won even a single Michelin star, but supplied nourishment to young and old, rich and poor, whites and folks of color.

79 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – C+ (intrusive music)
Overall – B

THE CARD COUNTER – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/4/21
Opens: September 10, 2021. September 30, 2021 streaming.

How can I bankrupt this casino?

If you’ve ever had to pay a price for something you did while the person above you who coaxed you to do it gets away, you will empathize and sympathize with the plight of William Tillich (Oscar Isaac). Tillich’s plight is told in “The Card Counter,” directed by Paul Schrader, known for such films as “American Gigolo” (1980) about a Los Angeles escort catering to rich, older women, who is arrested for a murder he did not commit.

Tillich, who goes by the name William Tell, served in the infamous division in Abu Graib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers went beyond what is normally acceptable using the technique of enhanced interrogation.” To gain information from alleged terrorists which would presumably save American lives, the torturers would kick prisoners, waterboard them, sic German Shepherds on them (the Arabic culture does not look kindly on dogs), strip them for presentation to women soldiers. He was trained by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). When the press got hold of the procedures, showing ghastly pictures to the American public, the army cracked down (as though the perps were not directed to do this), and the public was shocked by the degradation and corruption. Tillich was arrested and sent to Leavenworth Prison for eight and one-half years, while his superiors, who ordered the violence, went scotfree.

During his time in a prison, which seems from this film to be not so bad—a clean private cell for each convict—he learns to like reading for the first time and trains himself to count cards. The latter skill would allow him to profit, to make a good living, in fact, by traveling the casino circuit playing blackjack against the house and poker against the competitors. He meets people who will change his life: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who wants to introduce him to a stable of poker tournament people who will bank his bets for a fifty percent cut; and Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), a younger man who would hang out with the card counter and whose mounting debt and estrangement from his mother would lead the title character to redeem himself by helping the innocent kid.

Oscar Isaac plays Tillich with a quiet voice, a good looking fellow who raises his fists and his voice in Abu Ghraib and once again in a domestic scene, but throughout “The Card Counter” shows him to be a man who detests violence. (This will not last.) We hear several narrations of his thoughts, which tell us much about his mind set since, after all, movies are not as good as book in that respect. A noirish movie, with most scenes in dark nights and basic motels, “The Card Counter” will suit an audience that prefers high melodrama to be a small segment of a story and which concentrates more on the inner workings of its characters than on plot.

There really are people in the real world who would sacrifice almost everything to relieve their guilt, so Tillich stands in for the sort of person who is willing to give up the pleasures of life because of a high degree of morality. A serious, well-acted story, Dostoevkien if you will.

110 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

CYRANO – movie review


United Artists
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Erica Schmidt based on the musical by Erica Schmidt and the play by Edmond Rostand
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Bashir Salahuddin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/5/21
Opens: December 17, 2021

What the world needs now, albeit not as much as that fourth shot of Pfizer, is a crowd-pleasing musical, preferably with songs that do not imitate the wonderful but by now overdone music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. “Cyrano” fills the bill, a reimaging with music of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play which takes place in France and is filmed in Sicily by Seamus McGarvey. Its director, Joe Wright, can stage classics, known by many for his “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and “Anna Karenina (2012). The big schnozz of the title character is out, with Peter Dinklage’s four-and-a-half feet of height substituting for a man who believes he has no chance with the city’s greatest beauty. Erica Schmidt, who has been married to Dinklage for the past sixteen years, wrote the music and screenplay in a musical first presented at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.

If you’re about my age and a fan of great musicals, you might have seen Jose Ferrer’s Oscar-winning performance in 1950. Younger people may have caught Gerard Depardieu in 1990, and who would want to skip a look at Steve Martin who comes along in 1987?

Complete with swordfights—the kind that Shakespeare’s groundlings applauded in the Bard’s day even if they could not understand the words—the current version adds songs, nothing memorable the day after, and a story about a handsome but tongue-tied man, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in love with Roxanne (Haley Bennett), but unable to win her because of her need for passionate lover letters. Enter Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), who cannot even think of expressing his love for the beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice lest he be humiliated by a certain rejection. Instead, he forges love letters, gets them signed by Christian, evoking returns from the romantic Roxanne who had fallen in love at first sight with Christian during a theater event that serves as the highlight of the musical. One date with Christian, however, could have ended the anticipated affair given the man’s lack of facility with the French language.

Rostand knew how to dispense ultimately with Christian by sending him off to the front in one of France’s chronic wars, but we use him and his fellow soldiers to deliver songs based on letters sent home before the big battle. All the wit, passion, and the love for language comes through with honors in a musical that should make more of an impact on the modern audience than might the original words-only play. Dinklage is more than credible as a master swordsman and poet, a Renaissance man whose character lived during that artistic period in Europe. We can predict the finale long before we see it. After all what audience would be happy to see the great Cyrano with a broken heart that could last for a lifetime?

124 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE POWER OF THE DOG – movie review


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Jane Campion
Screenwriter: Jane Campion, based on Thomas Savage’s novel
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/3/21
Opens: December 1, 2021

The Power of the Dog

Have you ever ridden a horse? If you’re like me, a city dweller, you may have had few opportunities to do so. As a New Yorker I remember that decades ago I took some lessons on Ocean Parkway, right in the middle of Brooklyn where there was a horse path. But it was not the same as riding in wide open spaces. “The Power of the Dog,” set in Montana in 1925, features the same wide open spaces that may be there today as well. The principal characters are ranchers, which means they work hard, but measures well when compared to easy but dull office work. Instead of sitting in a chair all day setting yourself up for an early heart attack, you spend most of your time outside, maybe running cattle. Annie Proulx, in an afterword to Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, notes “it’s a man’s world of cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, guns, fences and property…men were valued for their abilities with horses. Most ranch diets were home-raised, rustled or hunted meat, potatoes, beans, and coffee swallowed black.” Now there’s a welcome break from our daily anxieties about cholesterol, fat, carbs and sugar!

As we see from Ari Wegner’s awesome cinematography—which in one stretch shows what looks like hundreds of cattle being driven to the railroad perhaps for a trip to Chicago—that this was a land without paved roads, television or radio. No hot showers, telephones or planes. This was the world of novelist Thomas Savage for twenty-one years, so he wrote what he knew. It may be odd that Jane Campion directed such a story of such a world given her “In the Cut” about the culture of Americans in Europe, so apparently unlike Savage, she is directing a world that she had not known.

The culture of ranch life abounds, focusing on two well-to-do ranch owners Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) who are called “sir” by the dozen men who work for them and who share fried chicken meals in a local restaurant. They are like so many brothers you may know with completely different personalities. Phil is the Marlboro man; coarse, shunning baths but swimming in the local river; never without boots and spurs which click along as he walks around the living quarters. George looks is more the guy who goes to town to settle business matters with a suit, shirt and bow tie. George takes so much crap from his brother that we wonder how to has time to shovel the manure away from his clothing, but he accepts his fate with a reasonably good spirit.

The only person Phil admits to liking is the late Broncho Henry who taught him ranching. One day while the men are dining in the local saloon run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who is helped by her lanky, effeminate son Peter (Smit-McPhee), two events occur. One is the merciless ribbing that Peter takes from Phil to the delight of the men. The other is the brief courtship between George and Rose. Soon enough the dandy rancher and modest proprietor marry—without inviting Phil. This, together with something in Phil’s character about which we learn later, leads to a more damaging ribbing. Phil, believing that Rose married for George’s money, rides her (so to speak) to such an extent that she becomes an alcoholic who one day she passes out in the field.

A perverse tension mounts even more when Phil suddenly becomes the gentle older man to young Peter and wonder: what’s going on? Is Phil looking to get something from the effeminate fellow? Is there genuine, growing affection, or is Phil playing a game but without the outward hostility? The end comes suddenly. Implications are given, the film audience hopefully catching on quickly, a conclusion that leads to Peter’s reading of Psalm 22 in the Bible which goes,

“Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;  save me from the horns of the wild oxen.”

The person is crying out to God for help against his enemies’ taunts (and presumably attacks by a vicious ancestor of the pit bull) and ultimately praises the Lord for rescuing him. Do we understand from the psalm that Peter has been oppressed for long periods and seeks deliverance? Or is there something about Phil that has secretly driven him half-crazy, oppressed by his own inner needs?

This film plays with inner demons, something that literature is usually better at portraying. Though Peter is the obvious choice of the oppressed man in the psalm, Phil emerges as the more damaged individual. Rose, too, has been hurt by the loss of her husband and is now tormented as she looks at a life that gives her more access to wealth but less inner peace. Jane Campion has done a solid job of converted the nuances of the novel to the screen in a well-crafted film enjoying solid ensemble performances particularly form Cumberbatch in the lead role, easily changing the king’s English to the rhythms of the American West.

127 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B-
Overall – A-

C’MON C’MON – movie review


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Mike Mills
Screenwriter: Mike Mills
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/01/21
Opens: November 19, 2021

Can you do this?

When kids are in elementary school, there is the obligatory day that their fathers or mothers are invited into the classroom to tell the class what they do. The object, of course, is to get children into the habit of thinking of the future. Which parent would I be like? Would I love her job as much as she does? Then inevitably, someone will come around to each child to ask about the little one’s ambitions for the future. And just as inevitably, the answer is: an astronaut (probably number 1); a police officer; a fire fighter. Maybe nowadays they would say computer coder, but nobody aspires to be the guy stuck all day in a New York kiosk of metro station selling newspapers, Mars bars and juice.

In “C’mon C’mon,” Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a broadcast journalist, is involved with interviewing kids to find out not so much what they want to be, but what they think the city, the world, the universe would be like years from now. The unscripted answers they give show their intelligence, their thoughtfulness; it’s a pleasure to hear from these charming young people. Johnny himself is unmarried, his center being the radio program. What we know about him is that he has been estranged from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) for a year because of some disagreement about treating their dying mother. Wouldn’t you now an occasion arises that requires Viv to get help, since she is having trouble her bi-polar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) and has to leave town to care for him for a longer time than she had anticipated. What to do with her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman)? Why not ask Johnny to babysit for several weeks despite the radio announcer’s lack of experience with young people save for the brief interviews we have with a diversity of kids?

The babysit leads to a relationship between Johnny and the nephew he did not really know. Now Jesse at nine is precocious but also lonely; he is not the “normal” child and knows it. He has no friends because there really is nobody in the New York neighborhood quite like him; there are likely thousands of boys and girls who have trouble making pals because of their distinctiveness. But Jesse is going to bond with this uncle in a relationship that he will remember forever.

We watch on the screen as the kindship grows. It moves ahead in fits and starts. Johnny is amused that the boy sometimes plays that he is an orphan and that Johnny is here to care for him. Other times he becomes arrogant; a pain in the ass as he wisely puts it. When Johnny, who has to go to New York for his broadcast interviews, asks whether Jesse would like to accompany him, he replies “I’d love it.” There are incidents that will leave the movie audience tense, since like the two in the story, they may have lost track of their charges, trembling that their little child would be run over by a bus or kidnapped.

Joaquin Phoenix is no Joker here. He is competent with his radio job, eliciting full-sentence responses from young people who worry that their cities will be dirty in decades to come. But he is a fish-out-of-water at anything that requires attention to a young person for longer period than a fifteen-minute interview. For his part, Woody Norman just may have knocked out one of the boldest interpretations of childhood that we will ever see on the big screen. He was eleven years old at the time of the filming, having served as a model since the age of four. In the film he listens to a part of Mozart’s Requiem: we can believe that like the musical genius who preceded him, he is similarly talented but in the thespian profession.

The film shows Phoenix often challenged by his young charge but never going ballistic, unless you count the time that he lost the kid for several minutes in New York. As Jesse, Woody Norman is regularly testing his caregiver, wondering whether he can trust the man to be supportive even during those brief times that he is acting as a pain. “C’mon C’mon” is the kind of picture that should have its audience telling their friend to c’mon c’mon to the movie.

108 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

SOPHIE JONES – movie review


Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Jessie Barr
Screenwriter: Jessie Barr, Jessica Barr
Cast: Jessica Barr, Katie Prentiss, Chase Offerle, Claire Manning, Sam Kamerman, Tristan Decker
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/29/21
Opens: March 2, 2021 Streaming

First Trailer for Coming-of-Age-with-Grief Indie Gem ...
How should I treat him?

Don’t look for Ferris Bueller when you’re watching this one. Nobody leads a massive parade singing “Twist and Shout.” Nobody does anything as daring as playing hooky from school, unless you consider sex full clothed to be risqué. Instead the movie is fsas authentic as the name Jones, a name that Sophie (Jessica Barr) inhabits, from a family with a loving sister Lucy (Charlie Jackson) and father (Dave Roberts)in Portland, Oregon. Wearing a farmer’s apron almost throughout, Sophie, like most of her female classmates, wears little makeup. Their talk, not surprisingly, is about boys, all the fellows in the movie as handsome and clean cut as you would expect in a well-to-do suburb, its high school showing an elaborate football field and stands that would not be out of place in a small college.

We don’t see classes in session; all the learning occurs among the students themselves. The title character is played by the co-writer director’s cousin. This is Jessie Barr’s freshman film.

Much of the action takes place at a time that Sophie’s mother has died from an overdose of fentanyl. We watch to see the effect that the loss has on Sophie, who tries to bury her grief in hookups with boys like handsome Kevin (Skyler Verity), who sometimes has to be seduced and who cares about Sophie more than she does about herself. At the same time she is chased by Tony (Chase Offerle) but is warned and scared away by stories told her by her best friend Claire (Claire Manning). Nonetheless she endures one hookup with Tony, who refuses to honor her demand that he stop midway and suffers a bite on his hand.

Though in real life Jessica Barr looks more like 24 than 18, her story will go over well with others about her age, particularly those who have suffered the loss of a parent or sibling much too early. Mature adults will be entertained while at the same gaining insight into the feelings and actions of adolescents, which makes “Sophie Jones” a movie to recommend to a broad age spectrum.

Though “Sophie Jones” opened March 2 of this year, Oscilloscope has tapped the film for end-year awards consideration.

85 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

BELFAST – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/27/21
Opens: November 12, 2021

Belfast Poster Kenneth Branagh Movie Art Film Print Size 11x17" 24x36" 27x40" #1 - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

The big question raised by “Belfast” is: when times are rough, when your life is in danger because of where you live, why don’t you get the hell out? For the Jews living in Germany during the 1930s, exiting the country was not easy. Some were afraid to give up their wealth. Some others considered themselves “too old to move,” whatever that means. Those who were prepared to give up their old lives could not easily enter another country. Go from Germany to Eastern Europe? Poland was no Shangri-la for Jews. And most of Western Europe was already occupied by the Nazis. The U.S. under FDR was not eager to issue visas, and Jews in ships like the St. Louis were turned right back to Germany.

When Catholics and Protestants were at one another’s throats during the 1960s, the Catholics claiming that they were oppressed by the British government which favored Protestants for jobs, Catholics could have gone to Ireland right next door. Protestants could set up residence anywhere in England, which was their country, so there would be no need for visas. But the Branagh family—this is, after all, a memoir by writer-director Kenneth Branagh of the time he was nine years old in 1969—there was a split. Buddy (Jude Hill as the young Kenneth Branagh) would not think of moving. Normally a stable, intelligent lad, he is willing to put up with the occasional bombings by the Irish Republic Army, which sought independence for Northern Ireland and perhaps annexation to the Irish Free State. His friends are in Belfast and so was classmate and love interest, Catherine (Olive Tennant), who goes to his school and sits near him in class. He is also undeterred by a Protestant gang that tries to get Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dorman) to join them in causing havoc to Catholic residences. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) says she knows nothing outside of Belfast, that if the family moved to Sydney, Australia, they would be laughed at because of their accent (strange since so many ethnic Irish live downunder). Ditto England. Only his father, who works construction in England and comes home easily is ready to ship the family out.

This is Kenneth Branagh’s seeing everything through his eyes at the age of nine. Buddy is well liked by the folks in the neighborhood who say hi to him regularly. He returns the greeting remembering to say each neighbor’s name as in “Hi Mr. West.” Kids don’t do that anymore, do they? Buddy loves his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judy Dench), the latter given over to fire and brimstone religion, the former dying from a lung problem created when he mined coal. Buddy’s grandpa gives the boy advice especially about how to win friends and influence people, especially girls. Can you blame Buddy for throwing a tantrum when da insists on moving out?

The story is told through mostly black-and-white imagery, better to capture the feeling of the period, with color taking over during the high points in Buddy’s life. And no point could be higher for a kid who later would spend his life writing, directing, and acting in movies than each time he visited the cinema. His attention is rapt. He is able to repeat the key song in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and he warns granny not to talk in the theater. The songs by Van Morrison, when songs were really songs, adds greatly to the 1960s feeling.

When Buddy says goodbye to people he knew for his entire life, he forges a memory in all of us in the audience who at one time had to leave everything behind and enter a life where everything is new. Jude Hill, who was ten years old at the time of the filming, delivers a remarkable debut, able to convey emotions from sadness to ecstasy without a stumble. At the time of this writing, Gold Derby, a website that predicts awards, is betting on “Belfast” to be the winner of Best Picture among scores of awards groups as well as the major ones, the Academy and the Golden Globes.

97 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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


THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Verdens verste menneske)

Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Joachim Trier
Screenwriter: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum, Hans Olav Brenner, Helene Bjøreby, Vidar Sandem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/25/21
Opens: February 4, 2022

Happy at last!

Most people in the U.S. who marry in their teens get divorced. But women who think will delay matrimony, playing the field until they’re in their 30’s, which becomes the age that college educated folks get married here in large numbers. The more education you get, though, the more confused you can be. Using their brains and their cultured backgrounds, men and women might be awfully confused during their 20’s, going hither and thither, not knowing which of their partners is the right one, and what’s worse, not confident that the field they choose is really for them.

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is an example of the latter, with her professional life even more confusing than typical. So what? She resists society’s mandates, though in the Scandinavian countries there is not the same pressures as here in the States. Julie is Norwegian, lives in Oslo, whose disorientation is described by director Joachim Trier. She is like the title character in Trier’s “Thelma,” about another confused woman whose religious upbringing causes conflict with a potential mate. Expect a film with more nuances than most, one whose tones alternate between depressing and droll. The humor is on the dry side; the sadness heartbreaking.

Consider that Renate Reinsve won “Best Actress” at Cannes, so you know you are in for a treat. This Julie, would you believe, quits medical school, thinks of being a photographer, and instead winds up as a salesperson in a bookstore. Knowing that Oslo is the most expensive city in Europe with residents paying huge taxes, you may wonder how she can afford an apartment. During Julie’s years when most women have made up their minds on their future partners, Julie moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is forty-four years old to Julie’s twenty-nine. Having given up medicine for her bookstore job, she is on a lower status level than he, as he is a successful writer of underground graphic novels even picked up by a film company. She hooks up with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) who is on her level as he dispenses coffee in a Starbucks-style place, yet we wonder why Julie, who is the worst person in the world because she breaks Aksel’s heart, makes the nutty decision to make Eivind her main man.

In the movie’s most cinematic scene, Aksel is making coffee in his flat. Julie runs out before the drink is ready. Action other than Julie’s race through Oslo streets is frozen as she runs into the arms of Eivind. Another whimsical scene shows Julie taking part in magic mushrooms, hallucinating but without gaining special insights into her life. Nothing remains the same: Aksel suffers a decline in popularity when he insults a feminist interviewer who accuses him of writing misogynistic comic strips, to which Aksel tries to defend himself by noting that the interviewer is younger, at a different generational stage when women no longer take crap.

Life moves on. Julie has learned little from four years’ experience shown in her story; still indecisive, brooding when she sees a former lover now settled with a wife and kid. This is not a glitzy Hollywood tale which would have the hero redeeming herself, happy at last, and there’s thankfully almost no music in the soundtrack that would distract from the dialogue. Here is romance as it really is: full of contradictions, decisions which are often wrong but can sometimes be rectified.

121 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

KING RICHARD – movie review


Warner Bros.
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriter: Zach Baylin
Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Tony Goldwyn
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/23/21
Opens: November 19, 2021

Sharon - King Richard (2021) movie poster
Are we running out of tennis balls?

What do you think of helicopter parents, the folks who push and push their children, compelling them to participate in games and sports when they show talent? They may insist that you take piano lessons and practice for an hour a day—which is surely nowhere near enough if you want your kids to be the next Van Cliburn or Artur Rubenstein. The vast majority will not amount to anything on the celebrity circuit but, a parent can rationalize that at least John and Jane will have skills that make their lives more interesting. If they cannot appear with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show because their talent on the 88 keys is far distant from that of Jon Batiste, maybe they can be lives of the party, encouraging all to sing while making their peers envious.

With “King Richard” Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose “Joe Bell” takes on bullying and whose “Monsters and Men” focuses on the police for the killing of a Black man, this time looks primarily at the life of a big bully, Richard Williams (Will Smith), who sees that two of his five daughters, Venus Williams (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), may be destined for fame well beyond what the typical Saturday-at-the-courts tennis players can achieve. Throughout his bullying, the five daughters respect and love him, saying “Yes daddy” to all his entreties, but often the girls’ mother, Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) will try to time her husband’s demands.

So why do parents push their kids rather than allowing them to do the things children want to do during their teens? In Richard’s case, it partly his disappointments in life. His job as a nighttime security guard somehow supports seven people in his family (How? Who knows?). He had been buffeted not only by white gangsters who would beat him up and by his own people—gangsters who act like some folks’ stereotypical view of people who live in the mostly Black city Compton, California. He is beaten even by a young Black man who hits on Richard’s 16-year-old daughter, while the man’s friend urges the low-life to waste him.

As expected, Venus, who gets the lion’s share of coaching first from Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) then from Rick Maaci (Jon Bernthal), bonds with both white men, but this time their father pulls back. He states that he wants them to go through childhood as kids are wont to do and not to climb the ladder into the pros. It’s something to see—two white guys jumping up and down, disgusted with the interference from the Venus’s father, although during one critical night Venus astounds everyone by refusing to sing a contact with Nike for a million dollars. (That was later upped when Venus went pro, ultimately to twelve million.)

Considerable time is happily taken by the shots on the court, making viewers wonder by what magic do Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Pamela Martin’s editing, and especially a team of over two dozen special effects people make us believe that Venus can kill the ball as though she were the real Venus Williams?

Warner Bros. is shaping this movie up for Best Picture awards, though they have a better chance with Will Smith for acting. This is a feel-good movie without excessive sentimentality giving a nuanced picture of the man who helped make two daughters into world-class players. When you finish viewing, you will likely say that a bold dramatization like this one beats anything that documentary filmmakers can do.

146 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BENEDETTA – movie review


IFC Midnight
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven, based on the non-fiction book by Judith C. Brown
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/20/21
Opens: December 3, 2021

Benedetta Poster Wall Art Decor Home - Poster 24x36

Joan of Arc meets Covid in Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” based on true events that occurred in Pescia, Tuscany, Italy during the 17th Century. If you’re familiar with Verhoeven you already know that this creative director was responsible for what some consider a movie tied with Ed Wood’s 1957 “Planet 9 from Outer Space”– namely Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” I for one got a kick out of the latter which I interpret as Verhoeven’s bid for satirical honors, but that’s another story. His best film is “Black Book,” about a singer who engaged with the Gestapo for the Dutch Resistance in Nazi occupied Holland.

I cannot get over the feeling that “Benedetta” is something like “Showgirls,” at times laughable, and yet also like “Black Book,” full of thrilling drama. It’s a mixed bag, well worth you time if you go for period pieces, and like to see both religious heroism and the damnation of hell. You can access the story of Benedetta through an extensive article in Wikipedia. Verhoeven changes mostly the part where the title character actually died in prison for something more dramatic (and somewhat laughable as well).

Shot in Tuscany’s Montepulciano, this tale is about life in a nunnery that’s anything but dull in that within the walls, the abbess once spied on Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and her roommate Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) engaged in lesbian sex. Not only is their relationship considered sacrilege—even if it had not included a non-vibrating dildo, a wooden penis carved from one end of the figure of Virgin Mary. Benedetta worshipped Virgin Mary from her childhood (Elena Plonika) and during one prayer witnessed a large statue of the Virgin fall to the floor on top of the poor girl. Much later she is introduced to carnal love by Bartolomea, who strangely does not require Benedetta to satisfy her because she is totally involved with pleasing her partner. The abbess had regularly taught the women that their biggest enemy is their bodies, which is one reason she dresses her flock with itchy cloth. Apparently the abbess (Charlotte Rampling) never took a course in Education because her teachings went into one orifice and out the other.

The picture features full female nudity, the two young women showing off their bikini wax, making us wonder where they got the blades to shave themselves so neatly. By the conclusion, trials are conducted by the papal nuncio Alfonso Giglioli (Lambert Wilson), who is not sure whom to believe—the abbess who swears that she saw the two having sex, or the lovers who insist that they did not. Crowd scenes abound, the plague has hit Europe, but the 17th Century’s Covid-type disease spared the entire town of Pescia. Credit Benedetta, a complex character who is both an aspiring nymphomaniac and a visionary who in one case receives stigmata—the wounds of Christ—on her hands, head and torso.

Nothing by Verhoeven should be missed. The man knows how to run crowd scenes, trials, and best of all, lesbian sex. But of course you did not attend this movie for the last item but for a better understanding of Church politics in the 1600s. You get that and more particularly since the director evokes solid performances from Charlotte Rampling and Virginie Efira.

131 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SMALL TIME – movie review


Film Arcade
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Niav Conty
Screenwriter: Niav Conty
Cast: Audrey Grace Marshall, Kevin Loreque, Holter Graham, Dominique Johnson, Maria Hasen, Elissa Middleton, Sina Rassi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/15/21
Opens: November 11, 2021 streaming on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play


During his primary battle with Hillary Clinton, Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful declares: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Not the wisest of his aphorisms, one that ranks with Hillary’s comment about Trump supporters’ being “a basket of deplorables.” If they needed an excuse to vote Republican, white folks in the Pennsylvania rust belt and in the small towns of the Midwest had two.

Maybe “Small Time” writer-director Niav Conty was disturbed by Obama’s quote, maybe not. In any case her depiction of people living in what we New York elitists call flyover country aligns with what we city slickers think of “hayseeds.” Conty, whose other full-length narrative film “Un peu plus d’éternité” deals with a woman who “knows she exists but does not know why,” sees life in (judging by a truck registration plate) upstate New York through the eyes of a young girl.

Filming behind the lens as well as in the director’s chair in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Conty finds Emma (Audrey Graced Marshall) looking back over three and one-half years of her impressionable life. While many a spoiled kid in Manhattan or Berkeley or Shaker Heights would be whining and crying at similar experiences, Emma is upbeat almost throughout. Nary a frown or a scowl, no harsh words, no searingly critical eye.

Though she is supervised by Sadie (Maria Hasen), her grandmother—who doubles as caretaker of her battle-scarred, emotionally disturbed son Lonnie (Kevin Loreque)—she appears confident enough to experience life in a village that appears to have a population of 57. Over the years Emma has seen enough to make her wonder, like Anne in “Un peu plus d’eternité, why she exists and how long she can continue in that state. After all, the opening shows her close up to the embalmed body of one caretaker, staring at him enough to know that perhaps one day she, too, will be decked out for exhibit.

We’re told that the red states are not immune from drug addiction. Emma sees that first-hand in her mom, who she tries to wake up from a drug overdose, a woman who clings not necessary to guns and religion but certainly to the appeal of heroin. Consider it a bad thing when a girl still in elementary school has to be a parent to adults.

A moment of enlightenment comes when Emma places a fallen tooth under the pillow only to find not one dime to replace it the next day. Her grandmother assures her that while there are no fairies, there are demons, that we are in a war, and that we must win it. Emma is the kind of child that many of us wish we had. Though sometimes in public you see a youngster acting with maturity beyond her age, eyes flashing inner light and kindness, you can probably bet that behind the scenes, behind the locked door of her parents’ home, she throws the tantrums that all parents dread, guilty that they are not bringing up their kid the right way. Nobody in “Small Time” thinks like that. The older people take things as they come, they appear to have no plans to watch “Face the Nation” or plan safaris even within our own country. And so does Emma, who though shown over a period of over three years seems just as mature when the film began as she does now.

Marshall is a wonderful performer, seen recently in nine episodes of “The Flight Attendant” (about a reckless flight attendant who wonders whether she killed the dead man in her hotel room), embraces her coming-of-age role in a work that shows once again the virtues of small-budget movies that can command more attention from the film community than anything featuring The Rock.

104 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PASSING – movie review


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Rebecca Hall
Screenwriter: Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/12/21
Opens: October 27, 2021. Streaming November 10, 2021

Passing (Movie Tie-In) - by Nella Larsen (Paperback)
Passing as white

Chaz Ebert, the CEO of Ebert Digital, passes along some information on the process of passing white. “Someone was considered Black if she had only one drop of Black blood. An octoroon was someone who had an ancestry that was one-eighth Black. To escape the peculiar institution of slavery or a lifetime of discrimination, some African Americans chose to pass as white. They could then become doctors and lawyers, businessmen and engineers, land owners and teachers. One woman would visit a beauty salon at night to have her blond hair straightened with chemical relaxers.”

To dramatize the custom and for full period detail, Rebecca Hall takes off her actor’s cap to deliver a powerful debut direction, filming in 4:3 boxy aspect ratio and black-and-white to mirror New York in the 1920’s. Her focus is on two Black women who, despite their friendship back in high school and a growing affection in the story’s present time will, their distinct personalities will turn them into hostility bordering on murder. Adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel that takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, Hall evokes terrific performances from Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare as mismatched friends.

For those who may not have lived through a period in New York when racism was even more overt than now, some Black women who were light-skinned tried to pass themselves off as white, not because they believed white was superior but because they believed they could get ahead in a white person’s world more easily than if they denied authenticity. “Passing” is not the first movie to deal with the subject; in fact, John Ford and Elia Kazan’s 1949 film “Pinky” finds a Black woman passing as white, married to a white doctor who does not guess her race.

We get the impression from the first scenes watching Irene a.k.a. Renie, walking in downtown Manhattan, wearing a large hat and avoiding eye contact, that she is the one who is passing. She does in fact, hide her features in a mostly white neighborhood, on this day taking a taxi to the Drayton Hotel to cool off in its tea room on a sweltering day. By coincidence she runs into Clare, an old friend, whose own husband has no idea that she is Black. In fact her man John (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-to-do banker who expresses his hatred of “Negroes” while later speaking to Clare and Irene in his home. Wouldn’t you know that Clare trumps her husband in intolerance, refusing to hire a colored maid.

Months later, Irene, living with her doctor husband Brian (André Holland), reads a letter from Clare who hopes to get together again. When Clare shows up in Harlem and climbs up the walkup, we see that Brian resents a woman who refuses to accept her race, but nonetheless warms up to her sexually making Irene becomes anxious enough to drop and break a treasured teapot. Clare is self-aware, stating that she would do anything to get what she wants, a feeling which, as in a Greek tragedy, will lead to her downfall. Irene’s irritation continues even with her husband, who wants their two young sons to be aware of murderous racism in the country while Irene thinks that the boys should be allowed their innocence.

“Passing” will be especially enlightening to the majority of the country who have no idea that at one time, some African-Americans denied their blackness to get ahead. The film is emotionally vibrant, intellectually honest, and blessed by sterling performances of the two principals and a debut by director Rebecca Hall, who may worry that any second feature she will hopefully present to us will be unable to equal or excel this awesome work.

One more compliment: there is virtually no music on the soundtrack, allowing us in the audience to hear every word without the musical distractions that ruin so many American movies.

98 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-



Passion River
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: John Beckham
Screenwriter: Bethany McKenzie, Amanda J. Adkins, James Reynolds, Deborah Reynolds
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/11/21
Opens: November 9, 2021

Don’t touch that cake!

Doctors in their graduation ceremonies take the oath first promulgated in ancient Greece by Hippocrates, but medical schools seem to forget one of the great quotes of the father of medicine: “Let food be thy medicine.” How did a doctor in the Periclean age 2500 years ago know more than doctors today? That’s not all. The Greeks coined the term “diabetes,” which means “funnel,” because Greeks drank and lot and therefore urinated a lot. People who urinate a great deal today are likely to be advised to take a test for diabetes.

This brings us to John Beckham’s sophomore (and sometimes sophomoric) documentary “The Diabetes Solution.” Beckham, whose previous doc deals with a county in Maryland that has produced a disproportionate number of NBA basketball players, realizes that the exercise you can get from playing basketball has something in common with a good diet. Exercise and diet are both advisable for health. People with Type 1 diabetes do not make enough insulin, while people with the more common Type 2 diabetes make insulin but, to put it in simple terms, the insulin cannot catch up to the intake of carbohydrates. Several kids and parents and doctors are interviewed with the help of diagrams (but no cute animations) and note that the American Diabetes Association has become corrupted by money contributed to them by Big Pharma and Big Agriculture. The profits of the latter two organizations are threatened by all the stuff thrown at us from scientists, especially from honest dieticians, who follow Hippocrates’ advice about letting food be our medicine. It should be noted that while a large percentage of disease is brought on by improper diets, med schools have been known to spend only one week or one day on nutrition during the four years that keep their charges busy.

Mothers whose kids have been affected by Type 1 diabetes have long been that they can keep the illness under control by matching insulin injections (ugh) with carbohydrates eaten. They balance each other, is the idea. But because the balance is difficult to maintain, kids have had blood sugar first spike (with the intake of starchy foods like cupcakes), then descend to hypoglycemic levels (from the intake of insulin.) Up and down like a roller coaster. So: how to get the line straight instead of up and down forever? Limit carbohydrates. The kids in the movie have followed the advice of the good doctors (there are some) and have avoided spending time in hospitals. No Fruit Loops, Pepsi, Coke and Kellogg’s cereals for them. By being good kids they avoid neuropathy and diarrhea. Also comas and death. Simple as that.

There are problems in this film caused by a lack of nuance. While the film talks about carbs, carbs, carbs, it neglects to mention that saturated fat may also be disastrous, too much of which can lead to heart attacks. In fact, New York City mayor elect Eric Adams came out with a book in October “Healthy at Last,” citing his trip to Dr. Esselstyn’s course in veganism, the belief that giving up animal fat is not only ethical for both the animals and the globe, but also leads to better health. Adams cut his hemoglobin A1c from 17 to below 6 purely on diet, having given up eating what former police like him consume during their midnight shifts where a typical individual would tackle pizza and big Macs and more in a single shift.

The other big problem is that the audience can go away thinking that all carbs are bad. How come tomatoes and broccoli and brussels sprouts and carrots, all carbohydrates, are good for you and can be eaten by people with Type 1 diabetes? Those are complex carbohydrates. Only simple carbs are to be avoided: that message did not come across.

Another big thumbs-downer? Music, music, music. Tinkling piano and pounding drums almost throughout. Is this a concert or a nutrition-based documentary? Some of the producers appear to have made the decision that there is not enough drama in the movie, not enough information to get our blood flowing, so they try to distract us with music. This film is not a thriller, and even action movies are infused with too much orchestration. When you go to the theater for a serious play, not a musical, is music piped in at all? Of course not, nor should it be, but casting broadsides against the intrusiveness of music in soundtracks is a lost cause. Maybe I am one of the few who are disgusted with such distraction.

55 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+ (false or misleading information)
Acting – B
Technical – C (music)
Overall – B-

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE – movie review


Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriter: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Abe Sylvia
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marm Wystach, Sam Jaeger, Gabriel Olds, Jay Huguley
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/7/21
Opens: September 17, 2021. Streaming November 2, 2021

Halloween gift | The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) movie gloss poster 17 x 24 inches
God loves you!

Call it a soap opera as some critics point out, but it’s a richly rewarding film, filled with a terrific pair of lead actors, produced on a large scale with rousing songs and a religious motif that will be embraced by some in the audience while others, particularly the more secular, could be turned off. Corruption in religion is well known, the past decade harping on the sexual proclivities of some in the Catholic Church. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is based on actual events involving hidden homosexual activities of a televangelist and the transfer of money donated for the expansion of an evangelical religion to private purposes.

The title character, played by Jessica Chastain (sure to get be nominated by the Academy and also a large number of film groups), and Tammy Faye’s husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Baker in a stunning job as supporting actor), go step by step through the biopic conventions. Essentially the young, innocent Tammy, first ecstatic, then brought down not only by her own avarice and the deterioration of her marriage, appears to punctuate the idea that to be happy, you must be like a child—that’s childlike, not childish. The movie is bookmarked by events in the life of little Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) whose idea of excitement lies not in videogames, TV or movies but in the machinations of an evangelical preacher, and who during a service speaks in tongues.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is directed by Michael Showalter, whose “The Lovebirds” last year deals with a couple embroiled in a murder mystery. Tammy comes from a home dominated by her mother, Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones), a stern woman of simple tastes who will become disgusted by the growing materialism of her daughter—until even she cherishes a fur coat that Tammy buys for her through funds that may have been diverted from contributions.

We might see where things are going when Jim Bakker goes against the Christlike teachings of penury to preach a gospel of prosperity and Tammy defies the church by wearing makeup. (If you listen to the views of audience members who have seen the film, you’re likely to hear about Tammy’s makeup which, we are told, required Chastain to sit through seven hours of preparation on a good day and will likely snatch an Oscar for the nine persons involved in the makeup department.) Then together, Tammy and Jim defy school rules by getting married and getting expelled.

Gaining a large audience through puppet shows in which the hand-held figures join the duo in insisting that God loves you, they meet the big shots in the field, namely Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and the stick-up-his-butt Jerry Falwell—who is sure that America is going to hell because of homosexuality. Tammy continues her rebellious stance by shocking a table of bigwigs in the church by insisting that homosexuals should be treated like human beings. The marriage shows a strain when Jim, competing and surpassing Pat Robertson’s numbers in his own show, leaves Tammy home alone with her baby.

Sex rears its head when Jim is sure that his wife is having an affair with Gary Paxton (Jim Wystrach), a record producer, while Jim retaliates by hiring a female prostitute just once to get back at her. Tammy becomes addicted to drugs and consumerism, enjoying the luxurious home given to them by the church, ultimately to be ground down by debt and Jim’s conviction of mishandling church funds.

This powerful tale which may make you at first disgusted with Tammy’s materialism and extreme use of makeup could encourage you take in other projects about evangelists, the classic being “Elmer Gantry” (1960) starring Burt Lancaster as a man who likes his booze, tobacco and women-chasing but who convinces the church that he could be a charismatic preacher, successful despite sexual indiscretions and hypocrisy.

126 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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