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  • 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.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS – movie review

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Jacques Audiard
Screenwriter:  Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain based on the novel by Patrick Dewitt
Cast:  John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauser, Carol Kane
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/17, 2018
Opens: September 21, 2018

There are no Indians in “The Sisters Brothers,” though it’s only 1851 in the Oregon territory, just seven years before that beautiful entity became a state.  You don’t need the Native Americans, because the native white people are happy enough killing one another. In fact the happiness comes not only from the exhilaration that some feel when they take down a fellow but from the money that’s available should you practice the profession of hit man.  If you’re looking for a Western with characters resembling Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix and Gabby Hayes, this movie is not for you.  I’m not entirely sure it’s for me either.  While watching, I kept thinking of the mindless old horse operas with the cavalry that comes along just in time, blowing the bugles and saving the exploitative white guys from the people who were here first.  Though the territory comes across as the West, this is more a character study of two brothers, an older one, Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) who is on the cusp of maturity and does not like taking too many chances, and a young ‘un, Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) who is regularly drunk and reckless.  The pair are hired by Commodore (Rutger Hauser), offering a bounty for delivering Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist, aiming to torture him until he gives up a formula for a chemical that lights up the water, making it easier to find gold.  We’re looking at the mid-19th century gold rush.  Despite the shootings that crop up loud and clear in the beginning, middle and end of the film, director Jacques Audiard’s aim in using Patrick Dewitt’s novel is to evoke dark comedy, though truth to tell, it’s too light to be a serious look at the murderous lives of hitmen and too heavy to be even a comedy, even a dark one.

Jacques Audiard is a French director whose “A Prophet,” dealing with a young Arab man sent to a French prison was arguably the best foreign feature of 2009.  But this time Audiard takes his chances with an English language movie, though the characters in 1851 are speaking modern English and one guy, Detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), speaks with a ridiculously highfalutin accent.  For his part, Morris is sent to capture the chemist but instead bonds with him particularly because the man promises to deliver the gold and to split the proceeds with him.

We see that the brothers are living like hoboes and that perhaps that’s the style of the Wild West.  In fact when they reach San Francisco and go to a hotel, they’re amazed at flush toilets and sinks that supply water.  Both treat toothbrushes like new found toys, as Eli Sisters, who takes on the role of chief comic character, has fun brushing what are undoubtedly no longer pearly whites while reading instructions on the technique.  One of the cute bits finds Eli in a bordello giving the hooker a shawl, which touches the woman’s heart to such an extent (men have not heretofore been kind to her) that she leaves Eli and goes downstairs.  In one instance a bug crawls into Eli’s mouth while he is sleeping afflicting him with an illness.  But that headache and nausea are nothing compared to what happens to the two when they wade into a water that has been treated with the chemist’s liquid.

The movie plods from one scene to another as though proud that this is not a stereotypical western with Indians, cavalry and settlers.   Since apparently nothing in the U.S. can show the West the way it should be shown in 1851, Romania and Spain serve for the locations.

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

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

LOVE, GILDA – movie review

LOVE, GILDA

CNN Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa D’Apolito
Cast: Chevy Chase, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Melissa McCarthy, Lorne Michaels, Paul Shaffer, Cecily Strong, Laraine Newman, Rose Abdoo Alan Zweibel
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, Sept. 10, 2018
Opens: September 21, 2018
Love, Gilda Movie Poster
Life is easy. Comedy is hard. That’s an old saying that brings to mind many exceptions wherein comedy is easy but life is hard.  Think of Robin Williams, the funniest guy around.  Just looking at him can make an audience smile.  “Good Morning Vietnam.”  “Mrs. Doubtful.”  And no slouch at serious stuff either. Yet he hanged himself.  Now think of Anthony Bourdain.  Not a comic, though many of his episodes are humorous.  Had lunch with President Obama.  Had a job to die for, traveling the world, eating up a storm. Top rated shown on CNN.  He hanged himself as well.  What does this show?  Simply that you never go what’s going on in private lives.  Actors and comedians who are exuberant on stage are melancholic or downright depressed off, which may be why so many have been addicted to hard drugs.

Now think of Gilda Radner.  She was a charter member of Saturday Night Live.  She was as popular with the stars as she was with her audiences, dating many, until she went head over heels for Gene Wilder, the true love of her life.  Yet she had eating problems, her weight disappearing below the 100 pounds mark.  She was finally rescued by Wilder, who got her interested in again, which by extension could mean that people who starve themselves are missing something important in their lives, or rather, someone important.

Lisa D’Apolito, who appeared once as an actress in “Goodfellas” heads off into directing territory in her freshman work, “Love, Gilda” is not shy of depicting the sadness in the comic’s life, ending with Gilda Radner’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of forty-three.  Most of the doc, which features Radner in a number of funny characterizations, is a joy to watch.  We can see how Radner, one of the great funny people of a past generation brought up on the beginnings of SNL (Saturday Night Live), notes that the best way to cover up sadness is with comedy, just as a good laugh by any of us can dispel a host of demons.  She loved her audiences, whether putting on a one-woman show on Broadway (we see a full house, orchestra, balcony, second tier and above) giving her a standing ovation, one which must have gone far in giving Radner confidence given her fear that an audience on the Great White Way might be bored without a full cast.

The talking heads are folks familiar to most of us, at least to those above the age of twelve, their
commentary woven well into the story so we do not have to face the prospect of watching guys sitting in their chairs and pontificating.  The movie is loaded with clips of the title character in a variety of shows as the marionette wife of the fictitious Howdy Doody; as the bimbo-ish Roseanne
Roseannadanna; as the woman who gets fired from her job in a burger joint because customers did not  like a sample  of her abundant  hair with their fries.

Director D’Apolito finds that Rander’s lifelong melancholy may have been caused in her youth at the death of her father who died  while she was still young, the man who encouraged her pantomime without which she may have become an office worker or a nurse, catering to a relatively small group of people rather than to the tens of millions who watched her on TV and in the theaters.  Archival films show her to be a girl who refused to take life seriously, to laugh because it lightened her spirit and because she would do anything to make others laugh as well.

The film opened the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, perhaps because it was the ideal pick in which forty-six percent of the films are directed by women.

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

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

REVERSING ROE – movie review

REVERSING ROE

Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directors:  Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screenwriters: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/12/18
Opens: September 13, 2018
Reversing Roe (2018)
It used to be that politically conscious Americans agreed that the Democratic and Republican parties were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, characters made famous by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”  The folks in the House and Senate and in state legislatures would do their jobs in such a bipartisan way that pundits could not be blamed if they were bored, as if we all prefer conflict, some signs of life in our legislatures.  This attitude has been reversed.  Democrats unanimously voted for the Affordable Care Act while Republicans unanimously voted against. And while the Supreme Court once decided cases like neutral jurists, now we all know how the nine people with lifetime appointments will vote: it’s all about politics.  If you were appointed by a Republican you voted conservative.  Democrats, progressive.

In this regard Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “Reversing Roe,” while not even mentioning the name Brett Kavanaugh as presumably his nomination came after the film was completed, has come to theaters now at an opportune time.  How so? While once, the Great Political Slogan was “It’s the economy stupid,” that wages, the stock market and the general health of the dollar was the big issue, now money is second place to social issues, namely gun rights, immigration controversies, and most of all, abortion.  In fact Stern and Sundberg capture the point in the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in which Trump allegedly sews up victory when he concludes that we cannot allow “partial birth” abortions while Clinton came out in protection of women’s reproductive rights.

Never mind that partial birth is not a medical term while referring to fetuses that are “ripped from a woman’ womb,” as only 1.3% of abortions take place then.  Trump does not likely believe in the so-called pro-life movement as he had come out for choice in 1990 and he is arguably one the least religious chiefs of state in our history.  But he knew that would have to win big among evangelicals, so he flipped.

You can try to guess the writer-directors’ own opinions on abortion, but you would have a difficult time doing so, as this documentary is completely fair to both sides.  Each side gets equal time, each side gets famous advocates’ opinions.  However there is absolutely nothing new in what they say.  Anyone who watches the news must be aware of every argument, so this picture, which is cerebral (even while showing violent demonstrations), rehashes controversies that should find a place in a museum of ideas if one is ever constructed.

Republicans, who today are as conservative as they ever were, are generally pro-life. Democrats, who today have moved to center-left, are pro-choice. One side says that government has no business messing with women’s bodies; the other side insists that a fetus is a separate body, a new form of life that should not be “killed.” The most important question that splits our country on this issue is this: when does a life fall under the protection of the U.S. Constitution?  Pro-choice folks say when it is born, i.e. outside of the mothers’ wombs.  Pro-life people say that what is growing inside women’s wombs should be protected, though some say the protection falls at the moment of conception, others stating that it should be protected at some time whether during the first trimester or the second of the third.  Roe v. Wade in 1973 held that abortions must be allowed during the first and second trimesters.

Yet since Roe, some states have tried to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling that undue burdens must not be placed on pregnant women to mean that you can force a woman to watch a sonogram, to get spousal approval, to go only to institutions that have doctors affiliated with hospitals.

In other words, what’s new?  Still this film is an excellent primer for those so interested in sports that they have no time to learn about the welfare of the United States, i.e. people who used to turn to the last pages of the New York Post or Daily News when people still read newspapers.

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

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

LIZZIE – movie review

LIZZIE

Roadside Attractions/ Saban Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Craig William Macneill
Screenwriter:  Bryce Kass
Cast:  Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Jeff Perry
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/11/18
Opens: September 14, 2018

“Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died…”

Considering the low status of women in America during the late 19th century, it’s surprising that the jury took only 90 minutes to find Lizzie Borden not guilty of murdering her father and stepmother.  Didn’t they see that she had a strong motive to do the deed?  And didn’t they have respect for her father, perhaps the richest man in Fall River (his fortune would be worth $8 million today)?  Nor was there any sign, at least in this film, that the man was disliked by the community.

In this version of the Lizzie Borden story, one which has been told and retold in books, TV episodes and movies, the occurrences in Fall River, Massachusetts that made the title character one of the classic cases of multiple murder, Lizzie is played by Chloë Sevigny as a stiff, somewhat repressed woman, an old maid though in her early thirties, as folks called spinsters in 1892.

“Some folks say she didn’t do it/And others say of course she did
But they all agree, Miss Lizzie B/ Was a problem kinda kid”

Nowadays we don’t consider lesbians to be a problem, at least not in blue states, but then, as her father, Andrew Borden (Jamie Sheridan), states, when he witnessed her daughter making whoopee with Bridget the maid (Kristen Stewart), her retorts “You’re an abomination,” to which the daughter comes back in a second with “So are you.”

“Lizzie kinda rearranged him/With a hatchet so they say/ Then she got her mother/In that same old fashioned way.”

Let’s see, now.  What might motivate Lizzie to murder her father AND her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw)?  Could it be that she wanted her hands on that fortune which, after killing Abby (first—before dad, that’s important), she and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), would get it all?  If she killed dad first and stepmom second, the money would got to stepmom’s children from another marriage.  That would make the lyrics of the nursery rhyme inaccurate, since of course she killed stepmom an hour or so before rearranging her dad.

“No, you can’t chop your Papa up in Massachusetts/ You know how neighbors love to criticize.”

There’s plenty of reason besides money that would motivate the murder, as her dad was so concerned about what the neighbors thought that she refused to allow Lizzie to go on her own to a concert, then relented, demanding that she be home by midnight..

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/And then blame all the damage on the mice.”

There were no mice in the Borden household but there were caged pigeons, Lizzie’s pets.  She kept them in cages until her father decided he’d had enough, that the pigeons would draw the curious hoi polloi to the house, and used the axe to prepare them for dinner.  Lizzie cries.

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/ That sort of thing just isn’t very nice.”

The lyrics to the nursery rhyme as you guessed are a terrific example of understatement.  I use the poem teaching English classes to demonstrate the power of both understatement and overstatement as literary devices.

As director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass note, this Andrew Borden is something like the way J. Paul Getty is described in “All the Money in the World.”  The latter, a billionaire, would wash his own clothes in a hotel.  Borden did without electricity and without indoor plumbing, stating the advantages of frugality.  If such skinflint tactics helped him gain a fortune, so be it.  But what did he do to enjoy the money, except to terrorize his daughter and repeatedly rape the maid?  His wife knows what was going on, but she serve as enabler, hoping to get the money eventually—which gives both her and the maid a motive.

The film brings out the tenderness and sexual feeling that Lizzie has for the maid, and she helped the unlettered lass along by teaching her to read.  Two lonely women find each other.  It helps that Bridget could serve as an alibi for Lizzie.  See nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.

The film does not seek to educate the viewers about the WHAT but more about the WHY, serving admirably to point out four people who might be motivated to murder (the fourth being the old man’s brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare), who called Lizzie some awful names and could have served to back up Andrew Borden’s desire to send both Lizzie and her sister Emma to a lunatic asylum.  Such are the conditions of women long before #MeToo that men in black uniforms would, upon petition of the pater familias, cart women off for life.

A well acted story, nice and slow moving with only a modicum of horror.  This is not “Hostel 2.”

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/ She gave her mother 40 whacks/ And when she saw what she had done/ She gave her father 41.”

Nope.  Count ‘em.  18 for mom, 19 for dad.

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

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

BEL CANTO – movie reveiw

BEL CANTO

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

Bel Canto Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE HANDS TOUCH – movie review

WHERE HANDS TOUCH

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Sweet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/18
Opens: September 9, 2018 at Toronto Film Festival

Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

Once you get past the absurdity of Germans’ speaking only English in a film that has a little French spoken in the final scene, you realize that this Holocaust story is one that to my knowledge had never before been explored. “Where Hands Touch” examines the life of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who comes of age by having her first sexual experience with an “Aryan” member of the Hitler Youth. To the young woman’s discredit, she does not have a problem with her liaison with Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who does not try to get off the hook by pretending that every kid had to accommodate himself to the Nazi program and join the organization. He is so loyal to the Nazi regime that time and again states that he might even try to be assigned to the Russian front, and who is protected by his father (Christopher Eccleston) who assigns him to work in a concentration camp.

For her part, Leyna is protected from persecution, at least for a time, by her mother (Abbie Cornish), an “Aryan” German who had had a relationship with an African, thereby producing a mixed-race child.

Amma Asante, a London-based actor, screenwriter, and director who was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Film, is known by her fans largely for her 2004 film “A Way of Life.” That story is about a 17-year-old girl who is paranoid that a Turkish neighbor is plotting to take away her 6-months’ old baby. Asante, therefore, is in her métier by this lataest story requires no paranoia to realize that Leyna is really in serious trouble. Her mother is sensible, as mothers often are when dealing with their daughters’ passions, doing her best to have her daughter fade into invisibility. That she is having an affair with a die-hard Nazi troubles her, while her daughter, passion trumping rationality, plunges headline into danger.

So much is known about the Nazi persecution of Jews that we overlook the fact that Afro-German professionals found it almost impossible to work in Germany under Hitler. They were forbidden to have sexual relations and marriage to Aryans, they were called “Rhineland bastards,” and were subjected to undergo forced sterilization. Yet they were better off than Jews and Romani, segregated with a plan to make them disappear by having the 25,000 women of color disappear after the present generation.

“Where Hands Touch” does give us insight into the Holocaust as it applies to women who are not Jews but whose papers were somehow not in order. In the situation here, Leyland’s mother is taken away for producing a mixed race child while her daughter is confined to a concentration camp located not far from a neighboring facility where Jews are murdered and sent up in smoke.

The film bills itself not particularly as a coming-of-age story, though Leyland’s virginity is lost and the girl is made pregnant by her Nazi lover. Instead, I believe the writer-director wants us to look at the work as principally a romance, albeit a love affair dominated by the political and social order of 1944-1945. The film has received some backlash, including a screed by Tara Nafisa, a Nigerian critic who is incensed that we are “expected to develop a special bond with a mixed-race girl who sees past the blood in his hands, the emblems on his uniforms, and the philosophy of the association he represent.” However let’s face facts. Leyland, who is the principal character, is not meant to be a shining example of a caring, compassionate woman, but is rather limited by her tender age, driven by passions that her mother fears. In the same sense, her young man, despite his love of Germany, partially to overlook his ideology, which would make similar people avoid and even denigrate women of mixed race. He is willing to risk his standing with the society of his day and become alienated from his father. There are no saints in this story with the possible exception of the girl’s mother, but rather a basket of flawed personalities, some, like the boy’s father, who would fit easily into a basket of deplorables. The same could, of course, be said of the extras, the Nazi officers who bark orders, demand right and left that citizens produce papers, shooting some in the back as easily as they could put a hook on a fish.

Ultimately the picture is flawed by a script that is both saccharine and simplistic, the British actors delivering their lines in a stilted manner. The dialogue between Leyland’s mom and the girl, and between the Aryan and her father could remind us of the long-winded advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius gives to Laertes, but there is nothing in the conversations that transcends the banal.
So give Ms. Asante the credit for exposing us to a segment of the Holocaust not before treated in a film that, despite being based on a true story, does not come across as credible. Remi Adefarasin films in Belgium, moments of melodrama aided by Ann Chmelewsky’s music.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SCIENCE FAIR – movie review

SCIENCE FAIR

National Geographic Documentary Series
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster
Screenwriter:  Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett, Cristina Costantini
Cast:  Kashfia, Myllena, Gabriel, Robbie, Ryan, Harsha, Abraham, Anjali, Ivo, Dr. Serena McCalla
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/30/18
Opens: September 14, 2018
Science Fair (2018)
There’s the old expression, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.”  As for practicing in all areas, the same could be said for basketball or learning Sanskrit or weaving underwater baskets.  But the sad truth is that there is a limit to what most of us can do even with eight hours’ practice daily for years.  You must also have talent, because if practice were the only thing required, everyone on every high-school basketball team would become Michael Jordan and everyone in a high school chess club would be Bobby Fischer.

That’s where “Science Fair” comes in.  Cristina Costantini, who co-directs and serves as a co-writer has previously done a doc about death by fentanyl while co-writer and co-director Darren Foster has co-directed “Inside Secret America,” about underground networks.  “Science Fair” soars above Costantini and Foster’s previous works, winning the Sundance Audience Choice award and capturing the passions of high-school students worldwide who have not only (presumably) practiced their projects but were obviously born with superior mental capacities.

Now we have an administration in Washington that is anti-science, that denies climate change, believes that evolution is just one opinion among many.  This makes it an even greater pleasure to see movies like “Science Fair.”  This is not say that literature and history, music and art should be merely electives in high school and college, but if we are going to make progress in fighting disease and improving people’s living standards, science and technology are where it’s at.  Costantini and Foster look into how young men and women below the age of eighteen have been chosen to take part in the science fairs held  in Los Angeles, about 1700 boys and girls in all, looking to “give back” to society for what has been given to them.  Students interested in competing first go to local science fairs, then regionals, then to the big one where just one person will win $75,000 while the others will have their chances of getting into a good college boosted by their participation in the science competition.

The directors must have taken hundreds of hours of film before whittling the story down to ninety minutes since they focus throughout on the people who have “made it,” who have won or placed or show or perhaps climbed the ladder from the local contests to be invited to the L.A. affair.  In one sense, “Science Fair” is a thriller: we in the audience get a fair idea of what these folks’ projects are like and take guesses as to who will win at least a fourth-place award in several categories of science.  The winner’s name will not be divulged here lest the review be considered a spoiler.

From what we see only one teacher is involved in the travels to L.A.. Dr. Serena McCalla Ph.D. works fifteen-hour days with researchers from Jericho High School in New York’s Long Island, apparently one of the best schools in the state; and interestingly most of her prize students speak English as a second language. They are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who have come to the U.S. for opportunities and stand out as models of the importance of immigration to our country’s progress.    Here are some of the bright people:

Anjali goes to a school that’s at least as prestigious as Jericho High.  In Louisville, Kentucky, Anjali scored a perfect 36 on the American College Test which determines one’s readiness for college. And she did this at the age of 13.  She is giving back to society with an arsenic testing device that could save lives by warning people against drinking water with dangerous levels of the poison.  Ivo, who went to L.A. from a small town in Germany, works on improving aeronautics.  Another impressive duo of small-towners, Myllena and Gabriel, go to LA. From Ceará, a poor state in Brazil, finding a way to stop the spread of Zika, which had infested their area.  Kashfia, a Muslim girl who wears a hijab and who had never attended a party in high school, visits the coast from Brookings, South Dakota.  Having found no mentor in the science department, she teams up with the football coach, of all people, and where her accomplishments in science were ignored by her school’s faculty and administration.  (We’re free to guess why.)

These people speak freely of their dreams and of their projects, some talk filled with jargon as befits those who research obscure factors.  Peter Alton behind the lenses takes in the big fair in L.A. but has also traveled to faraway places with strange-sounding names, contrasting the poverty of Northeast Brazil with the glitz of Los Angeles; visiting high schools in areas that some snobs call flyover country to accentuate the talent in small towns, focusing on high schools with presumably less-than-adequate facilities.  If there’s one scene that’s more impressive than any others, it’s the look at hundreds of kids partying-down, acting like completely normal teens, bouncing about the dance floor as though they were a non-selective cross-section of the world.  Some of us will come away with the sad fact that we are just ordinary people, not the best and the brightest, hopefully coming to terms about this existential fact.  C’est la vie.

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

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