VICE – movie reveiw

VICE

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com 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-

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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 EDGE OF DEMOCRACY – movie review

THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Petra Costa
Screenwriter: Petra Costa
Cast: Dilma Rousseff, Michel Terner, Eduardo Cunha, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 6/6/19
Opens: June 19, 2019

Image result for the edge of democracy movie poster

Medical science has become so complex that Herodotus would scarcely recognize the field if he were alive today. And air travel has become considerably safer since Icarus, a fellow Greek, flew too close to the sun. One field, though, has not changed: politics. Metaphorically speaking, Athenians will always go to war to defend themselves against Spartans, Normandy will be invaded over and over, and senators will still plot against Caesar. If you are an American, as you watch “The Edge of Democracy,” therefore, you can scarcely avoid thinking of politics in our country today. Here, a president is supported largely by rural people and Evangelical Christians, opposed generally by residents of larger cities. In 1860 the country lined up between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. Candidates will almost always try to blur distinctions, promising to unite the people, whatever that means. How can you unite men and women who have distinctly opposite views unless you compromise so much that neither side is pleased? Which gets us into politics in Brazil and Petra Costa’s documentary, which deals principally with elections from 2002 on, complete with terrific archival and current photography showing mobs of demonstrating people, and holders of political office who speak as though cheering for their team in international soccer.

Director Petra Costa, who like her mother is an intensely political person, was able to get permission to focus her lenses on the deal-makers, the senators, members of the lower house, and presidential candidates during our own century. Costa, who sees Brazilian politics through the lens of her family, narrates her doc in a mournful, elegiac voice, which could give you the impression that she is trying to put her audience to sleep or, perhaps more accurately, that she sees little hope of restoring democracy to her people. Like in the United States where more attention is being paid to the character of Trump and his appointees than on his policies, Costa is consumed not so much with the economic choices of the candidates but on their character, or at least what people with different viewpoints believe about their character.

Like our own Michael Moore, she has no intention of giving an impartial account of the sometimes riotous goings on in the upper reaches of government, but is decidedly on the left. She has only praise for the two principal characters of her story, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ party and his vice president, Dilma Rousseff—who became the first woman elected President of Brazil on October 31, 2010. Both enforced policies that pulled the poor out of poverty. In fact contrary to the targeted audience in American politics, the middle class, these two leaders stimulated the economy through investments in infrastructure, winning popularity of the lower classes through consequent higher employment and stronger social welfare programs. But that’s only a footnote. The drama here comes from efforts by their opponents to remove them from office through impeachment and even to throw them in jail for alleged money laundering and bribe-taking from Brazil’s big oil company.

Costa captures the electricity in the air when huge crowds of people on both sides of the spectrum demonstrate in the street waving hand-made signs attesting to their beliefs and sounding like college fraternity students during a panty raid on the girls’ dorms. At the same time we get to see Brasilia, the country’s capital, graced with contemporary architecture—a worthy addition to the movie since few of us would consider that city worth a side trip.

Lula is probably the Brazilian resident with the most support, the highest approval rating of this century, ironic enough considering that he went to jail for what looks like a trumped-up charge of accepting a free luxury apartment from a construction company. You’d probably want to go to Wikipedia for a detailed look at the policies of the two chief executives, because what comes across in the film is not detailed enough to justify impeachment of Rousseff (which succeeded) and the jailing of the popular Lula.

Ultimately, Costa mourns the loss of democracy, as the country went from the two decades’ military dictatorship ending in 1985 to a breath of fresh, democratic air; something like the brief years of the Weimar Republic in Germany 1920-1933, which turned into perhaps the worst dictatorship in history. Brazilians would probably look at the documentary to brush up on their own country’s controversies, but Americans and people throughout Europe and the Americas would see it as touchstone to help explain the sweeping rise of excessive nationalism.

120 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BACK TO THE FATHERLAND – movie review

BACK TO THE FATHERLAND
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kat Rohrer, Gil Levanon
Cast: Gil Levanon, Katharina Maschek, Dan Peled, Gidi Peled, Lea Ron Peled, Uri Ben Rehav, Kat Rohrer, Guy Shahar, Yochanan Tenzer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/19
Opens: June 14, 2019

Image result for back to the fatherland movie poster

Hitler promised that Europe would be free of Jews, and in 1945 the only Jews remaining in Germany were those who somehow avoided being gassed, shot, worked to death, or were fortunate enough to remain in hiding or passing for Christian. You would think that after the most infamous genocide in history, the last people to actually pick up and return to Germany or to Austria—which largely welcomed Nazi rule and murdered tens of thousands—would be Jews. Even more ironic, Israel was created to provide a safe homeland for the Jewish people, and even some people born in the “land” would move to central Europe. How is this possible? Not only are they leaving relative safety and comfort in Israel and in the diaspora: they are bonding with a country that not only has a grim 20th century history, but one today which displays a rising renewal of antisemitism. Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s documentary, “Back to the Fatherland,” narrows the statistics down to a handful of characters, focusing on three families with individuals who made a “reverse Aliyah, leaving Israel for Germany and Austria.

What affords the movie a special niche in dramas bearing the Holocaust theme is not only the seeming absurdity of this plunge back into the darkness of history, but also because grandparents of the individuals were aghast at the decision of the young people, one saying “no way.” The young people determined to live in Germany and Austria are burdened with guilt for going against the wishes of their grandparents. (This reminds me of my childhood when all my friends were Jewish, most of whom attending synagogue on the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper though they were secular. “I did this for my grandmother,” one admitted, “I want to continue to have good relations with all my family.”)

You might say that “Back to the Fatherland” is told from a female point of view, directed by two women involved in the subject; Gil Levanon is a blond-haired Israeli whose grandfather survived the Holocaust, and Kat Rohrer, who met Levanon while students at NYU, with a grandfather who was a Nazi officer and whose uniform has been kept in an attic for some seventy years.

In the documentary’s opening lines, the theme is set: Gil Levanon (keep in mind that she is the blond director, important because the story can get mighty confusing since three families’ lives are juxtaposed) tells Yochanan, her grandfather, that she intends to leave Israel for Germany. What could have sent the elderly man into cardiac arrest results only in shock, disbelief, and dismay. About the Germans, he states, “They were bad, they stayed bad, and they will always be bad.”

The three cinematographers cut to Dan, born in Israel but living in Berlin, where he intends to stay rather than return to Israel. He is obviously to the left politically, having abandoned “the land” because of the government’s treatment of Palestinians, which he—like President Jimmy Carter—considers an apartheid state. To add to his idealistic politics, he has taken a German wife, pregnant, and set to give birth by the conclusion of the picture. Like Levanon, he also has a grandparent, Austria-born grandma Lea, an Israeli citizen. And like Yochanan, she is disappointed by her grandson’s warm feelings toward Vienna.

To add to the movie’s confusion, Guy Shahar cuts into the pot pourri, a man with his own philosophy toward Israel and Austria. He lives with an Austrian girlfriend and is not too thrilled with his environment. Stating that if things got too hot in Central Europe, he will move back to Israel. Guy has a grandparent, Uri Ben Rehav, who does not oppose Guy’s decision to remain in Austria. Still, he has never forgotten that during the thirties in Germany he was arrested by the Gestapo for wearing his country’s colors. (Bizarre: first the Nazis say that Jews are not loyal to Germany; then they protest when a Jew proudly wears the colors of the flag. In another movie some time back, a Nazi spots a Jewish person with a book and wonders: “How dare a Jew read Goethe?”)

This is a film that would be ever so much better if the directors isolated each of the three stories, bringing everyone together at the end. What is otherwise an enlightening and entertaining picture explaining some reason that Jews and Israelis live in the countries that wanted them annihilated, the back-and-forth editing leads to perplexity.

77 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PAVAROTTI – movie review

PAVAROTTI
CBS Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Cassidy Hartmann, Mark Monroe
Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Griminelli, Nicolette Mantovani, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Angela Gheorghiu, Carol Vaness, Vittorio Grigolo
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 6/4/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

Pavarotti Movie Poster

I had what passes for a discussion with a fellow who is fifty years younger than I am. Though a fan of movies like “Avenger” and “Terminator,” he wondered why people went to Broadway musicals. “It’s not real, I mean, people in ‘Oklahoma’ in its days as a territory did not start singing every twenty minutes. And where does the music come from? Are there orchestras wandering around the place waiting to be cued by a singing couple?” “Would you say the same about opera?” I queried. He thought for a minute and said that he heard the word “opera” spoken but had little idea of its meaning. “I countered: “In the 19th century in Italy, even coal miners went to opera. In fact the singers were the rock stars of the day, though it helped that in those days Puccini and Verdi were better known than Springsteen.”

If this sounds like fantasy, as though high-school kids can’t be that ignorant, ask twenty pupils from a typical public school to identify Luciano Pavarotti. Don’t be surprised if you get zero responses, though in the technologically primitive days of the 20th century you couldn’t miss his name, whether or not you heard him in concert or bought one of the one hundred million albums that he sold. Now Ron Howard brings forth a documentary with a boatload of archival film, the most precious being those involving snippets from favorite arias, combined with prescient interviews and sightings with folks like his manager, his producer, his two wives, and critics. “Pavarotti” fills us with momentous music including some of the singer’s high C’s (a pun for high seas), which orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta tells us could make our ears vibrate.

Luciano Pavarotti comes across through Paul Crowder’s virtuoso editing highlighting his zips and zaps of photos of the great man with and without a beard, with an expansive belly and not, singing to the point of tears as the clown in “I Pagliacci” and showing his teeth (quite often) when meeting such attention-getting people as Princess Diana—who in one scene is shown with hair completely disheveled when a large outdoor crowd at a concert closed their umbrellas during a pouring rain so better to see.

All you want to know about the facts of one of the most celebrated figures of the last century can be found in Wikipedia, which I recommend you peruse to prepare you for the rush of interviews, as the movie charges ahead at a rapid pace from concert hall to concert hall, opening up not in a large metropolis with an opera house in Modena, New York, or London but in the Brazilian Amazon where the singer is enjoying the boat ride which takes him and his entourage to a concert hall “in the middle of nowhere.”

All who know Pavarotti are aware that he was a tenor, along with potential revivals like Placido Domingo and José Carreras—both of whom have something to say and both of whom join Pavarotti in concert embracing their title as The Three Tenors. Because the film is largely hagiographic, it trips likely over his flaws, principally, of course, his relationships with women (whom he adored), but why not? After all he did raise big bucks for charities, graphically shown by his cause for the children of war-torn Bosnia—which gives director Ron Howard a single scene of bombs falling on Sarajevo. Pavarotti loves everybody and they love him back: his daughters Lorenza, Giuliania and Cristina and also his wife Adua Veroni, among millions of others. Director Howard exudes his affection for the man and is well qualified to direct this film, given his feelings for “The Beatles” (2016), the astronauts in “Apollo 13” (1995), and interviewer David Frost, enjoying a takedown of President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

Whether or not you care for the typical format of documentaries, namely interviews–of which you get plenty here– you can’t fail to embrace the incredible music that captures the Great Man at the top of his game.

114 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO – movie review

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Joe Talbot
Screenwriter: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, story by Jonathan Majors, Joe Talbot
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen, Jamal Truvole
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/3/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco Movie Poster

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” one of the many movies taking place in San Francisco, Gavin Elster complains to retired police detective Scottie Ferguson, that the city is not what it used to be. This becomes the theme of Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an ode to one of America’s most touristic metropolises, one of our few cities that do not require residents to get about by car. Nostalgia-minded people might well lament that its history of being sanctuaries for African-Americans who left the oppressive South and immigrants who fled from political and economic countries has become an ultra-expensive playground for the rich and upcoming tech executives settling into its gentrified homes. In his debut feature, fifth-generation San Franciscan Joe Talbot makes use of his long-term friendship with Jimmie Fails to create a heart-rending film of marginalized people, cast aside by the “progressive” changes in residential quarters, but who have never forgotten their cherished childhoods in the Bay area. The pic is all the more remarkable not only as Talbot’s first shot at a feature but in the range of emotions explored by its chief characters, played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will likely be one of this year’s few movies that are gloriously theatrical, reminding serious theatergoers of themes toyed with by the late August Wilson—whose Pittsburgh cycle of ten plays each hone in on a different decade, comic and tragic, of 20th century African-Americans. Talbot’s tale deals with the all-encompassing themes of community, friendship, and the magic of home, treating home as the refuge from an often dangerous and anarchic world, a childhood domicile which many of us today try to reclaim.

Patience is required, as that virtue often is, when a story does not immediately congeal but takes its time, skipping from place to place and character to character, making more sense only as it goes along until we in the audience realize, “Aha!” Its anchor is the friendship of Montgomery, or Mont (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright and illustrator, and Jimmie Fails (Jimmy Fails), who sells fish by day even despite warnings from a well-dressed orator who opens the movie with a denunciation of the toxic waters that have changed the environment for the hapless creatures that will wind up in Monty’s retail department. Jimmie’s memories of better times decades back take on tangible form as he rides about the area on a colorful skateboard which will eventually—both metaphorically and physically—be smashed in anger. Jimmie had once lived with his father (Rob Morgan) in a Victorian house which his dad had lost because of a drug problem. He becomes obsessed with the place notwithstanding its occupancy by an elderly couple, shown dramatically when he undergoes repairs, painting the outside as though he were still living there (not unlike Charlie Peck in Deon Taylor’s “The Intruder”). Rob Richert’s script, co-written with the director and with a story created in part by actor Jonathan Majors, tells briefly over its occupancy by Japanese who were expelled during World War 2 and sent infamously to camps.

When an elderly couple move out, Jimmie moves in as a squatter and is joined by his friend Mont, who has been taking care of his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Among the humorous experiences is their sighting of a tour group on Segways whose tour guide (Jello Biafra) tells his patrons that the house was built in 1856, that idea disputed (as it is several times during the story) by Jimmie, who insists that his grandfather built it in 1946. Being theatrical, the film brings in a Greek chorus, if you will, of local, thuggish people who razz Jimmie and Mont mercilessly but are not people who will expect to carry out violence.

Jimmie’s “Abbott” plays vividly against his foil Mont’s “Costello,” so to speak, and together with hearty doses of humor at unexpected turns keep the movie moving through its solid two hours with nary a moment of listlessness. It helps greatly that the solid ensemble acting is punctuated by Emile Mosseri’s score, photographed by Adam Newport-Berra in a San Francisco neighborhood that would be familiar only to its residents. Like Jimmie, many of us crave a feeling of continuity with our childhoods. Given his rich friendship with Mont and his strong determination to recover a sense of belonging, Jimmie Fails gives us in the audience a resonant feeling of sympathy with his character and by extension with the ensemble of African-Americans who have become marginalized by a technocratic order.

120 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MA – movie review

MA

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: May 31, 2019

Related image

 

When people are asked how they enjoyed their years in high school, their answers might make you think of movie critics. With us reviewers, there is often little agreement, some saying that such-and-such movie is “a triumph, an instant classic,” while others call the same film a “Turkey,” a “Lemon,” or a “Dog.” What accounts for similar differences of opinion about high school? Probably those who say the years were “the worst of their lives” while others say “I’d give anything to go back and relive those years,” has to do not so much with their grades or their teachers, but how they were accepted by their peers. Those who were bullied “hated high school” while those treated as though they were captains of the football team “loved it.” Along comes a killer thriller called “Ma,” which Melania Trump ought to see when she’s not watching her husband in the ring with sumo wrestlers. The first lady took upon herself the task of stopping all bullying among the young. Her motto: “Be kind to each other” which has as much effect as Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” Director Tate Taylor, whose “The Help” won a Best Actress academy award for Olivia Spencer, wants to show that even if bullying ends on the day of high school graduation, its effects are far reaching, at least for some victims who are hell-bent on revenge.

In the first horror movie led by an African American female, Olivia Spencer anchors the proceedings as Sue Ann, the title “Ma.” Through flashbacks edited smoothly by Lucy Donovan and Jin Lee, we get enough of Sue Ann’s backstory to make us believe in the vengeance she seeks. She is out for blood just like Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” in Brian De Palma’s shocker; however Sue Ann was humiliated not just at her senior prom like Carrie but throughout her years in high school. Now, some time later as an adult, she will get back for that, not only against sixteen-year-olds who had nothing do to with Sue Ann’s high school days but also some who directly made her life miserable.

Filming by Christina Voros in the director’s Mississippi birthplace (though in the city of Natchez), Taylor, using a script by Scott Landes in Landes’ first feature film screenplay, “Ma” finds Sue Ann pleaded with by a rowdy group of underage folks who ask her to buy liquor for them, needed for a party. At first she demurs, probably playing hard-to-get, then gives in, not only getting the sauce but inviting the lot of ‘em to her house. She hosts them in her basement, warning them never to go upstairs (where they would find African objets d’art thereby emphasizing a racial component in the movie), which makes us in the audience certain that they would use her private bathroom and, in a switch from the situation in “The Help” would be punished far more than Tate Taylor’s Minny Jackson in that film.

Soon the house is wall-to-wall kids, having a ball until two of their parents, the mother (Juliette Lewis) of adolescent Maggie (Dana Silvers) and Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans), the father of Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), catch on to the danger faced by their children. But before that happens, director Taylor treats us to rousing parties, where an innocent Maggie is pressured to vape, smoke a joint, drink, and even kiss. It turns out mama Erica was once young (Skyler Joy) as was Ben Hawkins (Andrew Matthew Welch), the two guilty as hell in bullying and humiliating young Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson).

Though there are racial implications in the picture, don’t expect “Ma” to be another “Get Out.” Given a powerhouse performance by Octavia Spencer, whose facial expressions give away every emotion, and fine ensemble acting particularly by Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers, “Ma” delivers its chills in a runaway climactic scene as the body count mounts. Allison Janney does a cameo as the veterinarian, Dr. Brown, who makes the mistake of hassling Sue Ann, her assistant, and none other than Taylor Tate shows up as Officer Grainger.

High school bullies should be required to see this movie. If they can think past the coming Saturday night’s party, say, ten or twenty years later, they may be warned sufficiently to “be kind to each other.”

99 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

FIG TREE – movie review

FIG TREE
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Screenwriter: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Cast: Betalehem Asmamawe, Rodas Gizaw, Weyenshiet Belachew, Yohannes Musa, Mitiku Haylu, Mareta Getachew, Tilahune Asagere
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/27/19
Opens: June 5, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

No sooner has the film advanced past the opening credits when someone in a hell-hole of a town outside Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa says, “Everyone wants to be Jewish.” That’s something you don’t hear every day, but it was probably quoted in one way or another in the Soviet Union when in 1989 a record number of that country’s Jews left for Israel and the United States. Some Russian Christians, not particularly pleased with the travel limitations of their Communist government, discovered that by declaring themselves to be Jews they can not only be let out but can be taken in and treated well by the Jewish state. A situation in presented itself in Ethiopia during its long civil war between a Communist government that took power after a coup ousting Haile Selassie and various guerrilla groups. Both sides in in 1989 were kidnapping men between the ages of 15 and 30, conscripting them into their armed divisions. In that background Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a feisty 16-year-old staying with her weaver grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew), both lives for the moment, giving herself over to horseplay with her long-term boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse), and looking forward to spending her life with both her grandmother and Eli in Israel once the fluctuating flight schedules allow them to finalize their plans.

Two big questions arise. There are risks that Eli faces when military units without advance warning could snatch the young man up and make life unbearable, which is at least the perception of a young woman like Mina. The other is that like her grandmother and like her mother who is already in Israel, Mina is Jewish. However Eli, adopted into Mina’s family, is Christian. Mina fears that once the equivalent of a Mexican coyote who has pocketed money that Eli would be left behind, as Mina is instructed to take flight with her grandmother first.

Time passes, military units occasionally causing anxieties such as by forcing a school’s principal to hand over the list or male students, but a climactic point arrives when Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier (Tilahune Asagere) hanging from a fig tree in a patch of land that Eli uses to hide from the military. They save the man, who takes his time becoming conscious, and we see him as a metaphor for the whole mess that faces the country. The area is wracked by fear to such an extent that we may be surprised at the good will of the two young people when shortly thereafter the soldier crawls away, collapses, and is ignored by passersby.

The bulk of the film is slow-moving and is based partly on the experiences of the writer-director, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian who left Ethiopia when she was eleven. The languid pace makes the climactic moments, when all tensions burst in an array of frantic activity, all the more riveting. Still, considering the unhurried rhythms that last for the major parts, more exposition in the opening minutes could have better clarified the theme.

In the seventies and eighties Israel gave itself lots of credit, deservedly so, for taking in so many Ethiopians, a surprising decision since—as we learn from Eliran Malka’s film “The Unorthodox”which opens one day before this one at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center—the ethnically European Ashkenazis were not exactly welcoming of their fellow Israelis of Middle Eastern origin. “Fig Tree” does give us the tensions surrounding both the civil war and the desires of Ethiopian Jews to get out of their country leaving everything behind, but should be seen as well for the terrific performance of Betalehem Asmamawe, a non-professional performer in her first role.

Daniel Miller filmed on location in Ethiopia. “Fig Tree” is an entry of the Israel Film Center Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival.

93 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

FOR THE BIRDS – movie review

FOR THE BIRDS
Dogwoof
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Richard Miron
Cast: Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, William Brenner
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/23/19
Opens: May 31, 2019 at IFC Center in NY

Kathy Murphy

Although both the title and the early scenes make you think that this will be little more than another propagandistic tale of animal welfare, Richard Miron, who shot the documentary over a five-year period in Ulster County, New York, nails what it’s like to be a nonconformist in a village community, and the effects on a marriage of a 58-year-old woman’s hobby which could not have been pursued in any but a rural space.

Starring in the film, Kathy Murphy, obviously an animal lover, seems destined almost masochistically to bring about an end to a long marriage and the possibility of winding up behind bars should a prosecutor increase his reputation by fighting a woman who is obviously poor (note her missing teeth) and who has only the best intentions toward her pets. And what a world of quacks and cock a doodle dos! Kathy and Gary find a small duck in their yard, one which happily will never wind up on a hook in a New York Chinatown restaurant. A decade later, lo and behold, she has a menagerie of ducks, roosters, chickens, geese and turkeys that should make her a candidate for woman of the year in the town of Wawaring, New York. Her devotion to these pets is so unbounded that she is will not only destroy her marriage to Gary, who is hardly as enthusiastic as his wife, but is so consuming that she would die rather than lose them. Or so she said, because when the authorities got after her, calling her a hoarder who boards the birds in filthy conditions—feces everything, chickens in her bed, dirty water–she manages to stay alive but suffers not only a matrimonial crisis but the chance to be sentenced to a fine of $1000 and/or imprisonment for up to a year.

When officers from the Woodstock animal sanctuary, a beautiful place surrounded by a mountain range with grass and water everywhere, speak with her, they are sympathetic, at least more so than the judicial branch. When the long arm of the law closes in, she is defended pro bono by William Brenner, a country lawyer with as large practice and three assistants who also plays a mean banjo and sings “You Are My Sunshine” with the appropriate rural twang.

Things were better in previous days, at least from archival pictures we see of her wedding to Gary, a war veteran, which probably would have been stable for decades to come if the birds had not entered the story. When we see Kathy now, she is a veritable motor-mouth, defending her boarding of animals with such passion that we wonder whether she is bi-polar though with 100% of the time experiencing the manic stage. When the darkness lifts, we are happy to see that Kathy has let bygones be bygones and can look forward to caring for at least a legal percentage of her the animals that appear to share and return the woman’s devotion to them.

92 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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