• 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.

PAPILLON – movie revie


Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Michael Noer
Screenwriter:  Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière
Cast:  Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageninger, Roland Møller, Tommy Flanagan
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/8/18
Opens: August 24, 2018
Papillon (2017)
According to the Britannica, Devil’s Island has a growing tourist population, a great winter resort.  How times have changed.  In previous centuries, even in much of the last one, the place was used by France which sought to get rid of some of the more dangerous criminals, but even Devil’s Island, if we believe the new film by Michael Noer, was a respite from the harsh punishments meted by the French government in French Guiana in the Northeast tip of South America. (Note that the UK used to send criminals to Australia, Australia sent some malefactors to Tasmania.)

Mention “Papillon,” and movie buffs will instantly recall Steve McQueens’ best role in the 1973 adaptation written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.  Prison dramas were big decades ago as they are now—my favorite being “Cell 2455 Death Row,” the 1955 drama which enacts the imprisonment of Caryl Chessman found guilty of the Little Lindbergh law against kidnapping.   If you see the most recent one, “A Prayer Before Dawn,” you’ll know not to smuggle drugs when you’re in Thailand, but nothing shown on screen outside of the two “Papillon” movies exhibits a country so brutal that it would send people not guilty of murder to French Guiana.

Filmed in Malta, Montenegro, and Serbia, “Papillon” does not have enough going for it to justify its 133 minutes’ length, just seemingly endless travails by the inmates of French Guiana, most of whom are not guilty of murder.  Call it, if you will, a road-and-buddy movie, but the road is not from Paris to Marseilles but rather from the French capital across the ocean to a land that for some reason the French still hold as a colony.

The road is taken by safecracker Henry “Papillon” Charrière after he is framed for a gangland murder in revenge for having kept some of the big rocks for himself to give to Nenette (Eve Hewson), his lady fair.  Escape is on his mind throughout his imprisonment which, sadly enough, will include seven years’ in the hole, or solitary confinement with total silence.  It’s not that Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageninger) didn’t want the inmates.  He does tell them to go ahead and escape, and they will be shot in the jungle; and if they opt for the sea, the sharks are as hungry as they are.  Henry teams up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who is imprisoned for counterfeiting bonds, a fragile-looking bespectacled fellow who somehow has money on his person all the way across the ocean, money which could be used to hire a boat to escape.

In the most dramatic scene, that is, a scene that takes us away from the static photography of prisoners lining up, sleeping with little room between bodies, and one guillotine for a guy who murders a guard, Papi, Maturette (Joel Bassman)  and Celier (Roland Møller make an escape attempt notwithstanding Papi’s experience in solitary and the seeming hopelessness of getting away.

So far as the road-and-buddy movie idea, Danish director Noer, whose more imaginative “Son of God” about a dwarf looked upon as Jesus Christ by followers in the Philippines, wants us to consider this a love story.  And indeed, Papillon could have had a better time for himself if he did not attack a guard who was beating his forger pal with whom he has an almost sacred bond.

I would have expected Charlie Hunnam to look thinner about 7 years’ solitary confinement, and how did he keep his teeth when he was fed little more than soup every day in the dark silence of the most extreme punishment imaginable.  Were I there, I might try to kill a guard in order to be guillotined: life imprisonment with years of solitary is worse than the death penalty, which is why so many killers in America commit suicide as they are about to be collared by the police.

Hagen Bogdanski is responsible for the crisp photography, but if you had seen the original “Papillon,” not as brutal as this version but with more dynamic storytelling, you might wonder: why this?

Rated R.  133 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE WIFE – movie revie


Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Bjorne Runge
Screenwriter:  Jane Anderson adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel
Cast:  Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Alix Wilton Regan
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 6/27/18
Opens: August 17, 2018
The Wife
In one scene, Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd), a writing professor at Smith College during the late ‘50’s is advising Joan (Annie Starke), a student, about a story she submitted to him.  Surprisingly, he then asks young Joan for her opinion of a story that he wrote.  After some hesitation and allowing time for some white lies, she admits that she thinks his characters are lifeless, inauthentic.  She, a mere student, suggests that she can edit the tale to animate its dramatis personae.  He agrees.  Therein lies the story line of Björne Runge’s film.  Runge, the Swedish director, is in his métier. Consider that his previous movie, “Happy End,” deals with people whose anxieties lead them to obsess that some miracle will occur that would end their need to prevaricate.

The plot itself is nothing extraordinary, though it takes place among the intelligentsia, in fact a satire on literary pretensions.  What’s amazing instead are the two principal performances from Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as an elderly couple, Joan and Joe Castleman.  Glenn Close plays a fully fleshed-out woman who displays just about every emotion known to human beings, one feeling’s superseding the next, some emotions obvious from the situations, others of the kind that are so unexpected that you’d think that the plot has the twists of a thriller.  She is a furious woman, full of repressed rage, and yet during the moments that find her calm and orderly, such as when she is laying out the pills for her husband’s blood pressure, you can feel the seething going on beneath.  If somehow Joe cannot sense this, he may be too narcissistic, too much in denial about the contributions made by his wife toward his successful literary career.  As for her own options, she has given up trying to write as she believes—and as Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern) agrees—that if you’re a woman in a literary world shaped by male editors and publishers, your books will line shelves unread.

When Joe gets a call from Stockholm telling him that he is the winner of the year’s Nobel prize in literature, he is so excited—as is his wife—that the two jump up and down on their bed like a couple of pre-teens at a pajama party.  If Joan has done more than simply an edit job on Joe’s novels, only their son David (Max Irons) would know, since his parents would barricade themselves in a room for eight hours at a time, ignoring David’s needs to the extent that the young man has been hostile, irritated, argumentative, a brat, and would several times lash out at his father to the older man’s puzzlement.

We become privy to what happens when a Nobel prize is won.  First Joe, Joan and David board a plane to Stockholm, as Joe badgers David about the son’s smoking and is treated with equal hostility by David, who abhors his father’s “stuffing your face with animal fat.”  During the journey, Joe is badgered by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has deliberately booked himself onto the flight to pursue his motivation to write Joe’s biography.  If Joe is unimpressed, it could be because he has something big to hide.  Does he ever!

Though during his speech upon receiving the Nobel he praises his wife to the sky, she is so infuriated that she stomps out of the hall.  Now, would you do such a thing if a celebrity smothered you with kudos?  It turns out that she has been damned with faint praise (in the immortal words of Alexander Pope) because given a different political situation in America, she could have been a Nobel recipient herself instead of the little wife who is taken on a shopping tour by her Swedish handlers.

Joe’s writing and Joan’s “editing” (actually re-writing) have given them material comforts, a solid middle-class life, their daughter about to have a baby and their son as angry as his mother though with no intention to hide his frustrations.  Joan has been her husband’s support throughout their marriage, living with the knowledge of his affairs (in fact he had left his own wife and baby way back to marry Joan).  In the film’s most dramatic confrontation, Joan lets loose, unfolding decades of repressed rage caused not only by her husband’s lack of insight and narcissism but by the male domination of the literary industry. She blames both for her own lack of achievement.  (There is a similar argument coming from some film critics who are concerned that, in their view, 65% of us are white males in a field that should become as diverse racially, ethnically, and gender-wise as the movie-going public.)

Joan Castleman has been an enabler, a woman who deserved more, has spent her life supporting her man’s career, while her husband does not have enough class to advise his own son gently about the young man’s own writing.  That she is not yelling at the top of her lungs and threatening to leave the family throughout the movie indicates the restraint that her character has shown when she might have been concentrating on her own career and breaking through the male-dominated industry.  Her kaleidoscope of emotions is testament to the skills of a magnificent actress whose résumé includes movies and TV appearances since 1975, one best known perhaps for her role as Alex Forrest in Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction.”  Alex Forrest, however, is a one-dimensional, obsessed person who wants only to consummate her passion for a married man.  But as Joan Castleman the seventy-one year old actress may have given the performance of her life.

Rated R.  100 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE CHILDREN ACT – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Richard Eyre
Screenwriter:  Ian McEwan from his book
Cast:  Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci, Ben Chaplin, Eilseen Walsh, Anthony Calf, Jason Watkins, Dominic Carter
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/11/18
Opens: August 18, 2018 on DIRECTV.  September 14, 2018 theatrical on A24

Richard Eyre’s film, “The Children Act,” can be used as a primer against the stupidity of fundamentalist religions of all stripes.  But Ian McEwan, who adapted his novel for the screen, has other important issues in his mind.  McEwan (whose novel is available on Amazon for eleven bucks) digs into the character of the woman who is at the center of the story in the book and even more so in the movie.  Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), a judge on a high court in London which deals exclusively with family cases, involves herself in one particular case which, though revolving around a hospital’s needed permission to save a 17-year-old’s life, affects her so emotionally that she takes dramatic steps before rendering a decision. She is led to question her own life’s choices and forced to deal with regrets about her own choices.  “The Children Act,” then, may be have a strong judicial component that puts it in the class of movies like Xavier Legrand’s “Custody” (a broken marriage leads to a custody battle with an 11-year-old in its center).  Primary focus, though, is on the private life of an eminent jurist who is also an accomplished pianist called upon to give concerts to other important people in the judicial field.

In a subplot that adds to Maye’s emotions and will lead her to a crisis and the early stages of a breakdown, she must deal with the protestations of her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), a professor of philosophy, who is fed up with what he considers his wife’s unavailability for weekend socializing.  There’s more.  He challenges her to name the date that they last had intimacies, noting that they do not even kiss anymore.  While these justifiable complaints do not change the course of their declining marriage, they increase the helplessness she feels when she delves into the case of Adam (Fionn Whitehead) a 17-year-old boy just months away from becoming an adult with the right to make independent decisions.

On her courtroom docket, parents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith claim the right to make their religion felt in the treatment of their son Adam, ill with leukemia, who needs a blood transfusion to have any hope of living without serious physical handicaps or even of pulling through at all.  Deciding to see the boy herself, she visits the hospital room and listens as young Adam repeats his parents’ objections, stating that he is willing to die rather than violate a principle of Jehovah’s Witness, though that faith did not decide against blood transfusions until 1945.  The basis in the Bible is from  Genesis 9:4 “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood; and Leviticus 17:10 “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood I will set my face against that person…”  Maye believes that the lad has been brainwashed, is unable to convince him to agree to the transfusion, and goes back to court to deliver her judgment.

The heart of the film is Maye’ emotional connection to this intelligent, pious young man, who becomes the son that she never had.  When Adam, now recovered, visits the judge without an invitation, that is, stalking her, her life from that point is at a crossroad.

We may be tempted to say that Richard Eyre, who is Thompson’s godfather, deserves full credit for evoking a stunning performance from Emma Thompson.  After all, his filmmaking includes “Notes on a Scandal” (a disliked veteran high school teacher appears to befriend a younger one who is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, but the good wishes are just a pose) and “Iris” (a lifelong romance of novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband as she fights Alzheimer’s).  Thompson, who appears in virtually every scene making this perhaps the crowning achievement of her career, makes things easy for the director.  Her status climbed after her separation from Kenneth Branagh.  The Oscar-winning actress has played roles of mostly reticent people in prestige films like “The Remains of the Day” and “Sense and Sensibility.”  According to some, like journalist Sarah Sands, Thompson has “grown with age and experience.”  The 59-year-old performer’s name is often used together with others cast in “heritage” productions, like Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, nor can anyone deny that she is among the best actresses of her generation.  “The Children Act” is a perfect vehicle to see her in this classic role at her best.

Rated R.  105 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

A WHALE OF A TALE – movie review


Fine Line Media
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Megumi Sasaki
Screenwriter:  Megumi Sasaki
Cast:  Jay Alabaster, residents of the Japanese town of Taiji
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 8/7/18
Opens: August 17, 2018



It’s easy for moralists to sit back, sipping their bourbon, smoking their Cuban cigars, and waxing poetic about the need for a universal code of morality.  Never mind that some cultures are so poor that many must kill creatures to make a living, and we’re talking about people who live in countries where earning a dollar a day for mining is acceptable.  Many of us in the U.S. (members of PETA like me) might understand, if not condone, the poaching of elephants in Kenya for their valuable tusks, the clubbing of dogs in China where dog meat is no different from cow meat, and the massive slaughter of animals in our own factory farms.  After all, if most Americans eat beef, pork, lamb and the like, who are we elitists to complain about the killing of any animal?  What about the clubbing of seals in Canada, a rich country, the seals used not for survival but for the making of fur garments.  And we can go on and on about the fur trade in general, a lucrative one, and never mind the torture that animals must go through to provide chinchilla and mink.

There is one form of killing that—at least according to Megumi Sasaki’s documentary “A Whale of a Tale”—is almost universally condemned, and that’s the fishing of dolphins, centered on the village of Taiji which was the subject of the Oscar Best Documentary of 2010, “The Cove.”  It’s not that dolphins feel more pain than halibut, salmon, tuna and swordfish, but that they are creatures of intelligence matching that of human beings.  They are fished out of international waters by the whalers of this Japanese town of 3,000, whaling has been their tradition long before Moby Dick carved out revenge, and they’ll be damned if they let foreigners come in with cameras to tell them what to eat or catch.

As with “The Cove,” with its sobering look at the butchering of scores of dolphins trapped in a cove, the industry has been the focus of mass protests, not only in “the West” as the whalers call the accursed protesters, but also in the Philippines, a march with signs among the images captured in “A Whale of a Tale.”

On the one side are activists who are in Japan and appear 100% from the West, though many of them have been denied re-entry into the country because of their use of Facebook and Twitter to tell the world about what they consider a great evil. On the other are the whalers who depend on dolphins which they catch and kill and sell for food, or if they can manage it, sell the fish to Seaworld-type centers—which in my mind are as immoral as the late, ungreat, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus.  In the middle is Jay Alabaster, an American journalist from Arizona who teaches English in Japan, who is fluent in Japanese, and who serves as a neutral party trying to bring the opposing groups together.  His view is that the small-town Japanese cannot begin to match the power of the foreign protesters because locals are not computer-savvy on Facebook and Twitter and therefore cede the propaganda ground to the protesters.

When the cameras are not on the waters around the village, they are at a press conference bringing the two sides together, including the mayor who would prefer to change the economy to tourism rather than whaling.  It’s probably not because the mayor has had a moral epiphany but rather that the Japanese do not eat much whale meat—the equivalent in a year as a slice of ham—and prices have tumbled.  As Seaworld-type entertainments are biting the dust, there may not be much market for dolphins there either.  And many believe the dolphins have toxic loads of mercury making them inedible.

By the way, from what I get, what the Japanese call whales are what we call dolphins.  The camera-work is stunning, contrasting the bonhomie of a small village with the madhouse atmosphere in overcrowded Tokyo.  The arguments are balanced, the director seeming to be impartial.  In any case the industry is on its last fins, which means that not only the whalers will be deprived of a living, but Hollywood would be deprived of a moral tale to trot out at awards time.

Animal rights activists will rejoice while traditional Japanese fisherman will be outraged by this effective story of the struggle to ban the exploitation in a small Japanese town of whales. A sequel to the Oscar-winning doc “The Cove.”

Unrated.  95 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MEMOIR OF WAR – movie reveiw


Music Box Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Emmanuel Finkiel
Screenwriter: Emmanuel Finkiel, based on a book by Marguerite Duras
Cast: Mélanie Thierry, Benoît Magimel, Samuel Biolay, Shulamit Adar, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/20/18
Opens: August 17, 2018


Nobody likes to wait. We wait on supermarket lines. Even worse: Motor Vehicles Department lines. We put license plates on our cars, drive out, and honk with road rage. Didi and Gogo wait for Godot. Americans wait 18 months for Trump to tell the truth. Yet all this waiting is nothing compared to the suffering and numbness of Marguerite Duras épouse Antelme (Mélanie Thierry). During World War II in France, Marguerite’s husband Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), presumably arrested by the German Gestapo in occupied Paris for activities during the Resistance, may or may not be alive. Marguerite is conflicted by uncertainty, the kind of feeling that can drive many of us into fits of anxiety and depression. She will do almost anything to keep him alive, including cozying up to the vile Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), a collaborator with the Nazis, who claims to know the whereabouts of Robert and also the authority to give the word to the Germans to keep Robert safe and free from torture. There is a problem here: does Rabier really have authority to do what he claims? No matter. Marguerite will take any chance to make sure that her husband is safe and will return to her in one piece after the liberation.

Emmanuel Finkiel, whose 2015 movie “A Decent Man,” focuses on a mugging and a man who is wrongfully charged—compared with “Memoir of War” is just a triviality. In his current film, a slow-burning, elegant yet mournful study of a woman who, when not writing yet another novel and serving in the French Resistance, thinks of nothing but her husband, even has one hallucination of his safe return in good health.

When she is not hobnobbing with Pierre Rabier, she is in regular communication with Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), whose group of Resistance fighters have differing opinions of Marguerite’s contacts with the collaborator. Some think she is endangering the group and that Rabier is using her. Others have the reverse notion, that she can use him for information. While Finkiel does not go into detail, Marguerite is having an affair with Dionys Mascolo, which might make movie audiences wonder whether she really wants to see her husband Robert again, and whether, if told that he is half-dead with little chance to survive, she will have at least mixed feelings.

The film is autobiographical. The author wrote the book in 1944 expressing her feelings about life in Paris in 1944-45 under the occupation, though it was not published until 1985. (The 192-page English version is available at Amazon.) A great deal of movie dialogue comes across as entries in the memoir. But if you read the book, be prepared to think less of the author, who complains of her husband’s foul-spelling poop, death-in-life appearance, and her wish that he would just go away so that she could be with her lover. She waited and waited and waited.

Mélanie Thierry is going to be up for a César award for Best Actress and deserves to be considered. She is in virtually every frame, her prominent features open to the film audience even through the haze of smoke in her ever-present cigarette. She meets with the collaborator in the restaurant. Both smoke. She speaks with her favorite in the Resistance. He smokes. Some readers of the novel will doubtless feel that her husband is the real hero, the man who saw real action in the Resistance while she sat writing novels. And smoking. But in the film, not much is made of either her affair or her wish that her husband would disappear, thereby making her the hero. She’s terrific, and what’s more, her performance is enhanced by the director’s choice to use virtually no music in the soundtrack—just the occasional dissonance of a string instrument. After all this is a meditative piece, not a thriller that would thrive on music and histrionics, and in fact there is but a single case of melodrama finding Marguerite raising her voice, as this is a meditation. It is one that should make you revel at her performance, as she is able to communicate her suffering and numbness which, we should note, is nothing like the suffering that her husband is going through and which we do not see in the film version. Liberation is never free from irony.

Alexis Kavyrchine filmed the movie principally in Paris with one scene in Wollonia, Belgium, showing the return of prisoners. The restaurant scenes are from the Brasserie La Renaissance at 112 rue Championnet and Restaurant Le Bonaparte, 42 rue Bonaparte.. Other locations are the Place de la Concorde, the Hôspital Saint-Louis at 1 avenue Claude Vellefaux, and Marguerite’s meetings with Rabier takes place at the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Period details including use of autos from the ‘40s are striking. In French with English subtitles.

Unrated. 127 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BLACKkKLANSMAN – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Spike Lee
Screenwriter:  Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
based on Ron Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime”
Cast:  Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin, Adam Driver, Ryan Eggold, Laura Harrier, John David Washington, Paul Walter Hauser, Robert John Burke, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte
Screened at: Bryant Park Hotel, NYC, 8/6/18
Opens: August 10, 2018

Violence is as American as apple pie, as Spike Lee is not shy about dramatizing.  Why should he be?  The director of “BLACKkKLANSMAN” my have jump-started his career with his successful opener, “She’s Gotta Have It,” then proceeded to hone in on what is truly important if we are to hope for a country more rational in its politics.  “Malcolm X,” “Doing the Right Thing,” “Driving Miss Daisy” can be appreciated for entertainment value as well as their political importance, and now with “BLACKkKLANSMAN” he carves a drama that could serve as a background for today’s news headlines in an entertaining, persuasive, provocative and downright exciting film.  That he makes a few inevitable cracks about our president is practically a given.  Yet that he is restrained when reminding us of the stupidity of Trump’s comments about neo-Nazis and their Antifa counter-protesters “there are good people on both sides.”  That restraint serves him well, allowing us to watch his story unfold without the taint of yellow journalism.  Some of the scenes are so pumped up you might find it difficult to believe that the movie is based on the true story of a black police officer in Colorado Springs, the first African-American hired by the local force and used to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan.

The violent opening is a scene from the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” a battlefield of the Civil War with hundreds dead trumping the romance between a manipulative woman and a roguish man.  Toward the conclusion he affords us a look at D.W. Griffith’s 1915, a pro-Klan, 3-hour project with unflattering looks at black men (played by whites in blackface) acting sexually aggressive toward white women. Ultimately he pays attention to the Charlottesville, Virginia white nationalist rally in a formerly quiet college town.  Given an obligatory explosion near the finale and a little gunplay now and then, “BLACKkKLANSMAN” eschews outright killing in favor of presenting a damning look at the racism of the Klan during the 1970s, portraying  David Duke as a leader who favors substituting a businesslike organization for the more radical and thuggish cross-burners—all the more influential if the Klan hope to influence American government. Or should we say “influence the government further?”

John David Washington turns in an extraordinary performance as Detective Ron Stallworth, a neat, handsome African-American who becomes the first of his race to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department.  Initially assigned to the stock room which bored him no end (and where he has to put up with the one outwardly racist cop), he is transferred at his request to narcotics, then suddenly re-assigned once again—to infiltrate the Klan.  What? A black man being accepted by the Klan?  Not exactly.  His phone voice—the king’s English in which he claims to be as fluent as he is in jive—is his, but Ron Stallworth’s identity will be taken by Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who must convince the KKK that he is Aryan white.  Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) is wary, insisting that he take a lie detector test and show him his “dick,” but he is accepted by the others.  When the real Ron Stallworth is not on the phone, he is romancing Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), an Angela Davis lookalike who is president of the black students’ union, which had been the audience of a fiery speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins).  Ultimately we have to suspend disbelief when Stallworth is ordered to guard the life of David Duke (Topher Grace) when the Klan leader visits Colorado Springs.

If you insist that a movie stay consistent in tone, you may find difficulty marrying the sometime uproarious comedy with the darkness that surrounds it, but this is a work of fiction, however based on a true account, and director Lee knows exactly how to entertain at the same time as warning us—as he does in a final scene that America is in dire straits.  Have you kept up with current politics via CNN, the Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, the New York Times, and all the other progressive media that cut through the sickness at the heart of our current political situation?  Without explicitly saying so, Lee encourages us to go to the polls this November to try to take back our country—certainly not in the way that our “leadership” today would like, but as rational people who fear the push into authoritarianism by a president who disses the Prime Minister of Canada while at the same time glorifying Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim.

The supporting actors are terrific, making good use of a witty, yet grandiloquent script, the movie shot by Chayse Irvin in Ossining, NY among other locations and given a huge emotional boost by Terence Blanchard’s 1970s rhythm-and-blues soundtrack.

Rated R.  135 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MADELINE’S MADELINE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josephine Decker
Screenwriter:  Josephine Decker
Cast:  Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 7/10/18
Opens: August 10 in NY; August 17 in L.A.
Josephine Decker’s latest film is emotionally explosive to such an extent that “Madeline’s Madeline” could be called a stab at expressionism.  Expressionism, which is better known in painting and theater than in the cinema, is the practice of revealing an emotional inner life rather than an objective impression of the world, and has been used most effectively on stage in such works as Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine.”  As the taut bundle of inner turmoil, Decker’s “Madeline” is played by a newcomer, Helena Howard), who lets loose with all her inner demons, a role reversal in which she plays her mother, Regina (Miranda July) during a rehearsal by a New York theater group under the direction of Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Decker is in her mystical métier, having made the film “Butter on the Latch,” wherein fantasy plays with reality at a California camp as a camper sings about dragons who entwine themselves in women’s hair and carry them off through the forest, burning the trees as they go.

At base, the film is about the theater director’s use of a mentally ill title figure—seen in the opening when a blurred figure of a nurse talks to the 16-year-old.  Since her prescription for possible schizophrenia has run out, there’s no stopping Madeline from expressing her demons during a rehearsal where she is utilized by director Evangeline as her principal performer.  Madeline uses her own paranoia with touches of anorexia to give her all to the part during the improvisations attempted by the theater group.  Like other members of the troupe, she acts out the part of a turtle.  She also dons pig’s masks as though rehearsing for Greek tragedy.  In the most excoriating scene she gives her mother hell, the middle-aged now single woman having to walk out despite the congratulations that the young actress receives from the director and the troupe.  Her acting is so dramatic—both within the stage rehearsal and in the film itself—that the director invites her home, where she declares to the director’s husband that she is determined on her 17th birthday to lose her virginity.  She makes it fairly clear that the husband George (Curtiss Cook) is her choice to be the lucky guy.

Race plays a role as well.  Madeline’s mother is white; her daughter is black.  At one point the teenager, hearing the mother tell her that the young woman is “different,” wonders whether she is honing in on the girl’s race.  This becomes part of the tension released by the girl in her role reversal, contributing mightily to Madeline’s explosion of theatrical emotion.  Joys of motherhood indeed.  As for the two older women, Evangeline and Regina, particularly involving is the former’s attempts to pull her star student away from her mother’s influence and into her own inner circle.

One would not be surprised if members of the audience, particularly critics, would find Helena Howard’s performance among the great débuts of recent years—which could catapult her into notice by awards organizations voting breakthrough performance at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, “Madeline’s Madeline” is so experimental, so non-linear, with photography often deliberately blurred, that a positive reception by a majority of ordinary film-goers is hardly guaranteed.

Unrated.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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