THE NEIGHBOR – movie reveiw

THE NEIGHBOR

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aaron Harvey
Screenwriter: Richard Byard, Aaron Harvey
Cast: William Fichtner, Jessica McNamee, Jean Louisa Kelly, Michael Rosenbaum, Colin Woodell
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/30/18
Opens: January 26, 2018

The Neighbor Trailer

Since Aeschylus popularized the Greek myth of King Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra for parading a concubine in their home, men have been warned. Don’t fool around with other women if you’re married. Nothing good will come of a sexual adventure; not in the long run at least, as we learn once again from Aaron Harvey’s movie “The Neighbor.” Harvey, whose “Catch .44” finds a trio tasked with capturing a drug shipment for their own crime boss, takes on a more domestic theme with this, his sophomore full-length feature.

You soon get the impression that this “Neighbor” joins the ranks of satires of suburbia, whether the recent “Suburbicon” or the classic “Stepford Wives.” We should note that the violence between neighbors of this community would probably not occur in apartment houses, where we keep our doors locked and would never admit people who, with good intentions, mean us harm. The film succeeds well enough as both a satire and a thriller, thanks in large part to its acting ensemble led by the always reliable William Fichtner—veteran of video games, shorts, and especially of the remarkable 2004 picture “Crash,” which interweaves stories of race and attempts at redemption in L.A.

We are asked to believe, however, that Fichtner at the age of 62 could attract the sensual attentions of a new neighbor, played by Jessica McNamee, who in real life is 31 and who, as we hear from the older man that she could easily be his daughter. This is a classic male fantasy. “The Neighbor” takes place in a bright, middle-class area where houses are so close together that you’d better watch how loud you play your music and how you might want to avoid rafter-shaking arguments.

Mike (William Fichtner) watches the arrival of two newcomers to the house next door, Jenna (Jesccia McNamee) and Scott (Michael Rosenbaum), from different generations and with different personalities. Mike, who works from home as a technical writer (a good career for introverts), watches as loudmouth Scott (a Corvette salesman, also a good match), has periodic arguments with his wife of four months. In one case at their pool, Scott, enraged by his wife over who-knows-what, kicks the chair, the whole brouhaha witnessed by Mike. So far Mike is wary but non-interventional. When ultimately Mike believes that Jenna—whom he has regularly offered to help with moving furniture and with gardening—is in danger, he takes action personally rather than call the police. Meanwhile, though Mike has done nothing wrong on a romantic level, he is confronted by his wife Lisa (Jean Louisa Kelly), who in my opinion is cuter than the young Jenna, leading to a mid-life crisis that worries him and his adult son Alex (Colin Woodell).

There’s nothing especially original about Richard Byard and the director’s screenplay, but if you’re a married, middle-aged man with thoughts of tarrying with someone half your age—wait, even if you’re a single man dreaming of the same—let this movie be a warning. In that sense, it’s worth your ten or fifteen bucks, handing you a lesson that you’ll forget at your own risk.

Rated R. 97 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – movie review

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, Fred Rogers
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 5/10/18
Opens: June 8, 2018

In a key point made by Fred Rogers during one of his 895 shows, the country’s greatest friend of children asks the audience, “All of us have special ones who have helped you become who you are.” And he meant business, waiting in silence until some came up with answers. How about you, dear reader? Who helped you become the person you are today? Mom? Dad? Grandpa who explains his COPD to his granddaughter? Batman? There’s an implication here that not only might some of us be unable to name a single person for that award, though one would not be surprised to name Fred Rogers. In addition, are there any heroes out there, not Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman but a real hero: one who can connect with children, keep them awestruck, give them the feeling that life is good and that they are protected. And that would be Mr. Rogers. From 1968 through 2001 Fred Rogers taped his shows, always starting with the same motif, because presumably children, who often ask to see a movie twenty times, would appreciate the stability.

In “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers would come home, open the door, and sing his theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, change into blue tennis sneakers, put on a cardigan sweater, though changing the colors, giving him a Jimmy Carter look. And in fact, like President Carter, Rogers placed a great value on religion–having attended a seminary with the thought of becoming a reverend. But he did not want to preach: he wanted to connect, and there’s a difference. A trolley car would lurch forward, passing a castle, and focus largely on a puppet named King Friday XIII, who built a wall around his kingdom because he did not like change. Could Fred Rogers have forecast the present administration? He would bring the little guests up to the stage for interaction. And he would feed a tank of fish, taking care to lift a dead creature from the bottom of the tank to give it a proper burial.

Ironically he did not like television with its fast editing and especially despised cartoons featuring exploding heads, falling bodies of animals, and lots of noise. His aim was to help protect kids, and when you think about it, isn’t that the most important job a parent has? But you cannot prevent young people from watching the fate of the Challenger and the assassination of Robert Kennedy (one puppet on the stage asks the meaning of the word “assassination” and got an honest answer). He did not shy away from talking about divorce, given the rising propensity of people to bolt whenever the dinner is not out on time, stating that sometimes two people prefer to live apart because they are not happy together.

He worried about shows depicting Superman, fearing that some kids might put on red capes, sport the big “S” on their shirts, and try to fly from buildings, as some actually did. For that, he gently warned his listeners that they should not try duplication as flying is a job for professionals. To counteract racism he would occasionally bath his feet in a basin of water, inviting a man of color to take off his shows and share the bowl—which he always did.

Once Eddie Murphy did a satirical sketch of the show, fortunately shown at night when protected kids would not be awake. Even more dangerous, Fox News lashed out at Rogers’ repeated message that each child is special. “Does he mean that even if someone does nothing in his life, he or she is still special?” is what Fox more or less said, demonstrating the same kind of stupidity that they continue to spew at their audiences daily.

For Fred Rogers, the most important puppet was probably Daniel Tiger, his alter ego, a friendly creature who worried that he was a mistake, because he knows nobody else like him. This plays right into Rogers’ ideology, telling children that the beauty of each individual is that everybody is like nobody else on the planet.

The documentary is huggable. It’s a wonderful show that should leave the audience with good feelings, despite being thought too saccharine by some in the audience. Though Rogers meant to talked to the older folks, he was concerned almost totally with connecting with the small fry, a feat that he likely thought to be absent from all other TV programs. Kudos to PBS for continuing the show through the almost 900 episodes, the similarities among them not something to be criticized because, after all, kids feel protected when they can readily identify the entrances and exits, enjoying Rogers at the piano, even digging the man’s slow and careful delivery and a singing voice that would hardly rival that of Pat Boone.

Talking heads pop up throughout, unanimously embracing everything that Rogers is doing for the children, including Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, and David Newell. Given the way Morgan Neville—who had contributed such fare as “Best of Enemies,” a wholly adult pic pitting liberal Gore Vidal against conservative William Buckley—you may find it compelling that this director would be at home with both the headiest of intellectual debates and the magical, wonderful world of youngsters.

Unrated. 94 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE TOBACCONIST – movie review

THE TOBACCONIST (Der trafikant)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nickolaus Leytner
Screenwriters: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, based on Robert Seethaler’s novel
Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/29/20
Opens: July10, 2020

Tobacconist-US-Poster-sm.jpg

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That is probably the best-known quote attributed to Dr. Sigmund Freud, meaning that you don’t have to look deeply into everything to understand; that a cigar is not always a symbol of what’s hiding inside every man’s pants. Now immerse yourself into the world of fiction. Think of a 17-year-old boy who confides to Freud that he simply does not understand love. “You don’t have to understand water. Just jump in,” replies the good doctor in Nickolaus Leytner’s period piece taking place in Vienna during the year 1938. Nickolaus Leytner, whose résumé is chock full of TV movies like “Die Stille danach” (how does a family live when its son has murdered five people and himself?), now directs “The Tobacconist,” from the Man Booker Prize-finalist novel of the same name by Robert Seethaler.

The movie is co-written by Klaus Richter, who wrote the screenplay about the rise and fall of actor Ferdinand Marian (who played the title character in the anti-Semitic “The Jew Suss”). “The Tobacconist” is both a coming of age story and a description of Vienna just before and during its occupation by Germany in 1938. While most Austrians after the war protested that they were victims of the occupation, the historical record (and this movie) indicates that many the German-speaking country welcomed the Nazi presence wholeheartedly.

In the film Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a 17-year-old boy, is forced by his promiscuous mother Margarete (Regina Fritsch) to leave their village after the middle-aged woman’s lover is electrocuted while swimming during a storm. (The opening scene is a gem.) Arriving there, he is employed by Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), the owner of a small tobacco shop and probably one of Margarete’s former lovers. Otto is an ardent anti-Nazi who has philosophic views about his main product. As he tells the easily impressed young apprentice, “A bad cigar is like horseshit… and a great cigar is the world.” (Given the state of the world today and in 1930s Europe, I would probably choose the bad cigar.) Otto welcomes Communists and Jews to the dismay of his neighbor the butcher, who, if he had the chance, would probably turn in both the vendor and Dr. Freud (Bruno Ganz in his last role) to the occupation.

The heart of the movie is the unlikely friendship of the young man with Dr. Freud. Though the father of psychoanalysis treats patients who can afford him, he freely gives advice to Franz, in love with an assertive Czech music hall dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova). Freud’s family urges him to leave Vienna for London, believing rightly that his life would be in danger if he remained.

The personal story involves a young man who might have remained naïve had he stayed in the village of Attersee and how his boss, who lost a leg in World War I, coached him on tobacco and life. The personal alternates with the political as a drama of a city that appears proudly to hang large Nazi flags on a government building turned into a Gestapo headquarters. Among the treasures of the film is a series of Franz’s dreams, all surreal as dreams tend to be, and exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer, filming in Germany, Austria and Italy. Aside from the filming, the highlight would have to be the strong performances by Johannes Krisch as the older tobacconist, a humanist who once rejected the business of a man who asked to buy a National Socialist newspaper; of the late Bruno Ganz, unrecognizable as the famous shrink who is both a fount of wisdom and fearful of his future under Nazism; and Simon Morzé as the young title figure, who learns to stand up to the Nazis like the neighboring butcher and to let go of a woman who would be anything but loyal to one mana.

In German with English subtitles.

117 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

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

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

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

THE SONG OF NAMES
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/29/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

The Song of Names (2019)

It’s not all that unusual for people to disappear. Men run away from their marriages. Women from small towns bolt, fed up with kinder, küche and kirche. Not long ago Deborah Feldman ran away from her Hasidic Jewish family which she considered to be stifling, disappearing into Greenwich Village, washing her laundry in her memoir “Unorthodox.” “The Song of Names” is likewise about a person who disappears, but this fellow runs not away from the rigidities of religion but more deeply into it. The overriding concept is this: why would a person vanish for thirty-five years, abandoning the foster brother who grew to love him and the foster father who financed and encouraged him and who lost so much money because of the young man’s evaporation?

Through Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a novel by Norman Lebrecht by the same name, director François Girard constructs a movie about music and betrayal, building on his own love of music as shown through his “Thirty Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which are vignettes about the pianist’s life, ‘The Red Violin” about the passion created by the instrument over centuries, and the TV episode “Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.” While “The Song of Names” is clearly about music, Girard is more interested in the emotional bond between two young men who had grown to love each other, and the search by one to find his foster brother who had ruined the life and finances of a British music publisher who had invited him into his home, bought a 284-year-old violin, and died two months after the disastrous disappearance.

This is one of those films that come forth as convoluted given the editor’s frequent changes of eras. The betrayer, Dovid, is played by Luke Doyle aged 9, by Gerran Howell ages 17-21, and thirty-five years later by Clive Owen acting out of his comfort zone as a middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jew. His foster brother Martin is played by Misha Handley aged 9, by Jonah Hauer-King ages 17-23, and thirty-five years later by Tim Roth. The opening scenes are the most realistic and credible before the story heads off into a not-easily-believed fantasy zone.

Dovid’s father sent his violin prodigy to London to live with a family that includes Martin, who is about the same age and is envious of his new foster-brother’s gifts. Though Martin and Martin’s dad are Christian, the British household honors all Jewish traditions for their new guest, even abandoning their love of breakfast bacon. After a bout of sibling rivalry, the two youths become great friends. When Martin’s father invests in a concert expected to start Dovid’s career as a musician, Dovid disappears completely, leaving the audience at the refund booth and the underwriter heavily in debt. When Martin, now in his mid-fifties, finally tracks Dovid down, he finds out for the first time what happened to his friend. He discovers—as do we in the audience—wholly dubious circumstances of the vanishing act.

In the midst of the credulity-straining tale are some moving scenes. During the German bombing of London, as Dovid takes refuse in the neighborhood air-raid shelter (impressively decked out with scores of sandbags), Dovid pulls out his violin, setting up a competition with a slightly older violinist as though executing a theme and a fugue. On an even more emotional level, the middle-aged Dovid discovers what happened to his parents who had stayed in Poland too late to avoid the Holocaust. A rabbi (Kamil Lemieszewski), doubling as a cantor, sings a song of names whereby the melody makes it easier for him to recall the names of victims who died at Treblinka. Nor can the film be faulted for pulling at the tear ducts at a sight in Treblinka death camp, where the principals walk past stones that memorialize the murdered Jews.

Should we forgive Dovid for bankrupting Martin’s family given his rare talent with the strings, or do we find that difficult given also that Martin has spent his a lifetime fretting about Dovid’s disappearance, heading off from London, traipsing around Poland and New York to solve the puzzle? The movie suffers from the frequent editing to cover the three stages of life and could be served better by a chronological approach. Montréal and Budpest stand in for New York and Warsaw.

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

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

THE INTRUDER – movie review

THE INTRUDER
Screen Gems
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Deon Taylor
Screenwriter: David Loughery
Cast: Meagan Good, Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy, Joseph Sikora, Slvina August, Debs Howard
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 4/30/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

The Intruder Movie Poster

It’s difficult to believe that anyone who read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” about the murder of four people of the Herbert Cutler family in Holcomb, Kansas, would think of buying a house in the country. The house shown in Deon Taylor’s “The Intruder,” filmed by Daniel Pearl in British Columbia standing in for California’s Napa Valley, is a spacious estate with a large acreage of grass framed by a forest, just the kind of quarters that demands the presence of either a couple of Doberman Pinchers or an army of guards from the Secret Service. There are more rooms than can be explored in a single trip guided by a real estate agent, and some of those rooms will turn up at a surprising moment in the suspense-filled plot.

Director Taylor, whose “Traffik” considers the plight of a romantic couple who are invaded by a group of bikers, is right in his métier here, though you don’t need more than one psycho to allow its likewise romantic duo to regret their move from a beautiful apartment complex in the city to the dangers of the sticks.

If Scott Howard (Michael Ealy) and his wife Annie (Meagan Good) are a well-suited, upper-middle-class couple with a happy marriage bound to produce a beautiful family in a year or two, then Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid) can be considered a guy married to a house. After his wife died, allegedly from cancer, his daughters living elsewhere, Charlie needs to sell his quarters, but the problem is that while he needs the $3.5 million, or the $3.2 million he settles on, throwing in his furniture because he really wants these two lovebirds to settle there, he has no intention of giving up the place. He’s the neighborly guy that you can’t get rid of, though Annie, who feels sympathy for the man and has a vague attraction to him, is making it difficult for her husband to throw the guy out.

One day Charlie is mowing the lawn, which is no longer his, but try to tell him that. Another day he is helping with the hanging up of ornaments. When Scott is in the hospital, injured by a car on the rural road, Charlie comes over with a pizza for Annie, which just happens to be large enough for the young woman to invite the guy in to share it with her. When Scott and Annie’s friend Mike (Joseph Sikora) stubs out his cigarette on a decaying statue obviously beloved by the former owner, and when the guy urinates on the lawn, you can see the almost perpetual smile on Charlie’s face disappear, replaced by a sickly scowl.

“The Intruder” is a psychological thriller, sometimes passing itself off as a horror movie though it does not have the accoutrements of the genre, one in which the villain takes on the kind of role that so many actors would love, given that many Hollywood performers have regularly said that the villain usually has the juiciest role versus the blandness of the good guys. That’s certainly true here, as Quaid can charm those he is with given his broad, toothy smile and hale-fellow image,while Ealy and Good (the latter with a pixie-ish hair style resembling a young Nia Long) are in the roles of people who have made it at a relatively young age, acting the part of people who can afford to lay out several million on their abode with the promise of another million in fixing-up.

The major part of the movie balances humor with scares, the big attraction being the give-and-take of friendly dialogue among the three, their screenplay afforded by David Loughery whose script for “Penthouse North” considers the fate of a reclusive, blind photojournalist who lives quietly in a New York penthouse, until a smooth but sadistic criminal looking for a hidden fortune enters her life. When the physical stuff begins during the final third of the story, the action is predictable, following the playbook of so many other film that portray violence.

Ealy, Good and Quaid’s dialogue bounces merrily back and forth, with Scott Howard’s becoming increasingly suspicious about the congenial former homeowner and Annie Howard’s leaning on Charlie when her husband is away at work or in the hospital. This is for the most part a solid psychological thriller, the tension ratcheted up by Geoff Zanelli’s music, the country mansion furnished elaborately by production designer Andrew Neskoromny.

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

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

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS – MOVIE REVIEW

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS

Final Cut
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Screenwriter: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Cast: Oleg Afanasyev, Alexandra Ryabichkina, Yarik
Screened at: Neuehouse Madison Screening Room, NYC, 1/9/19
Opens: February 1, 2019 in LA

Poster

Oleg Afanasyev is a cute ten-year-old boy living in what our President would call a s…hole. There is this village in Ukraine of Hnutove, which has a population of 700, it’s just empty space with nothing growing and sporting no particular buildings, and worst of all it’s a short distance from the gunfire and mines and missiles set up by agents of the so-called Donetsky People’s Republic. Or maybe the Ukranian army is responsible. Ukraine has been at war with Russian separatists in their country who are backed by Putin in Russia, a miserable fight with cease fires that are routinely ignored. However, there’s a fairy story happening there. Young Oleg and his beloved grandmother Alexandra Ryabichkina were scooped up by Simon Lereng Wilmont, who directs a documentary called “The Final Barking of Dogs” and taken to New York where I had the pleasure of listening to them discuss their roles in the making of the film. We in the audience may have expected both Ukranians to say that they love New York, that they love America, and they can’t wait to file for asylum because of their anxiety-ridden lives on the battlefield. But no, both said that New York City is “nice” but they want to go home. Grandma is specific: “We are part of the place, part of the land.” There’s no second-guessing people. They love their land and wouldn’t trade it for a secure for life in New York, where they could presumably fit in with either the Ukranian section in Manhattan’s East Village or the Russian sector in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Surprisingly their talk is so apolitical that we do not know even whether they are ethnically Russian or full-scale Ukranian. (For more info on the war, check here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_military_intervention_in_Ukraine_(2014%E2%80%93present).

Simon Lereng Wilmont, in his debut as sole director of a full-length movie, watches over Oleg and his grandmother as would a fly on the wall, apparently succeeding in coaxing them to behave normally and not to look at the camera. Little Oleg has pillow fights with his cousin Yarik, heartbroken when his pal leaves a for safer haven, but overjoyed when his cousin returns. They have an older friend Kostya, who acts like a big brother to them, showing Oleg how to hold a pistol and fire at bottles—though Oleg winds up with a fairly deep cut on his leg from a ricocheted bullet and is calmly and lovingly censured by his grandmother for shooting and killing a frog, making him promise never to that again.

This is the kind of documentary that happily is not the kind with dozens of talking heads. Nobody is interviewed. The three or four people do behave as though the director-cinematographer is not around, though we wonder how much landed on the cutting room floor during the year and a half that the movie was shot. If anything, Oleg is often curious about the waging of war, examining a mine, though carelessly zipping around the neighborhood without a thought that he could be blown up in an instant. This documentary landed on the Oscar short list for best doc where it will compete with the likes of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “Free Solo,” and “RBG.”

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

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

UNDER THE TREE – movie review

UNDER THE TREE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Screenwriter: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Huldar Breidfjord
Cast: Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson, Edda Bjorgvindottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdittir, Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving)
Undir trénu Movie Poster

Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/13/18
Opens: July 6, 2018: Iceland’s Oscar Candidate for 91st Academy Awards!

Second graders in America know something about George Washington designed, obviously, to encourage the little elves always to tell the truth. When the Washington household’s cherry tree was found on the ground, George’s father asked the future president who chopped down the tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” says George, “I chopped it down.” For telling the truth, George Washington was forgiven, and could hold his head morally high when he took the oath of office. A tree is the source of quite a problem in a movie that opened this year from Iceland, specifically a suburb of Reykjavik where the cube houses all look as though they were just built, there is no litter on the ground, a car in the garage, and hey, this is Iceland where everyone is civilized. Not everyone, though, in fact possibly nobody in this taut yet often hilarious dramedy is quite the person you would expect them to be.

Iceland has daylight six months or the year and darkness the remaining months, so you wonder whether the climate can make people edgy, but there are no real excuses for the spats that escalate from a simple request from a gentleman to the older man living on the other side of the fence. Both leave their doors open most of the time, but when the story plays out and their compatriots in Iceland learn from the newscasts what happened, you can expect the locksmith business to start booming.

Inga (Edda Bjorgvindottir) and her husband Baldvin (Sigurdur Sigurjonnson) live next door to Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his athletic second wife Eybjorb (Selmer Bjornsdottir). Inga and Baldvin have a son Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson), who is married to Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdittir) and have a pretty young daughter Asa (Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving). When Agnes catches her husband Atli watching a porn and quickly discovers the film was actually of her husband and a neighbor, she kicks him out of the house, leading to a second series of conflicts. While Konrad complains to his neighbors Inga and Baldvin that their tree is shading Konrad’s porch, Konrad does nothing. One thing leads to another. Tires are slashed, a cat is missing and suspected of being poisoned, while something unusual happens to a dog. With tension sky high, the stage is set for a Shakespearean climax.

Actors are probably among Iceland’s leading thesps, each contributing mightily to the ratcheting up of tensions, while a Bach requiem sung by the local chorus foreshadows its use. Though the neighborhood could have been anywhere and is not easily identifying as a Reykjavik suburb, the unusual (to us) names cannot be mistaken. (You won’t find anywhere there with a simple, British name like Sam Jones or Bob Wilson.) They are citizens of a small European state comparatively close to us in New York (a five hour flight on Icelandair), sometimes used by tourists on a two-nights’ break before proceeding to the continent.

Iceland’s candidacy for our Oscar race to be announced February 24, 2019 is a strong one but will face serious competition from scores of other foreign language movies, especially from the German entry, “Never Look Away.”

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

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

AT ETERNITY’S GATE – movie review

AT ETERNITY’S GATE

CBS Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter:  Jean-Claude Carriere, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Cast:  Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Mathieu Amalric,  Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup
Screened at: Bryant Park Hotel, NYC, 11/10/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What is the principal selling point made by real estate agents when they try to sell pricey apartments?  You’d probably think it was the space that the dwelling affords, though agents try to get away with calling a space that looks like your closet “cozy.”  A most important selling point aside from the quality of the neighborhood and its schools is the amount of light the occupants might enjoy for most of the day.  If you’re not spenders your winters in Iceland, you would indeed be tempted to loosen your wallet if your digs offered brilliant sunlight.

And sunlight is probably the key word when you think of Vincent Van Gogh.  He is portrayed by Willem Dafoe as the director’s accurate image of the artist, the movie itself often an impressionistic look at the post-impressionist painter. (By post-impressionism is meant the attempt by artists of the late 19th and early 20th century to opt for color, line and form rather than the naturalism of the impressionists, emphasizing the artist’s emotional responses–a new style that would lead shortly to expressionism.)

Rather than a biopic, Schnable’s “Eternity’s Gate” is based largely on the painter’s letters, and much of the content of the movie is fictional, but the basic look of Van Gogh’s last years showcases his poverty from the inability to sell his paintings.  At one point he tells a priest that he may have been born too early, that like Jesus, nobody talked about him during his lifetime.

As played by Willem Dafoe who is made up in the image of the painter, Van Gogh has psychological problems which we today all know because the best known fact about the painter’s character is that in a rage he sliced off part of his ear and presented it to a woman.  Though born into an upper-middle class Dutch family, he relies on his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) for support of 250 francs a month, which allows him a decent enough way to live while he does the only thing he says that he knows how to do: paint.  Whether he is hallucinatory in several parts of the movie, whether Schnabel creates scenes from the director’s own imagination, or whether these scenes actually occurred, is anybody’s guess.  For example, at one point he is out in nature on a bright day—the sort of day that keeps him within the limits of sanity.  He is attacked by a class of school children who ignore their teacher and run to him shouting “a painter, a painter,” as though they had just discovered a Ben and Jerry’s out in nowhere.  They upset his paintings and cause Van Gogh to shout “Get out of here,” which is not unlike what occurs later as some kids of about twelve years of age throw rocks at his head and even later when he is threatened by a couple young people with guns.

What comes to mind at some point in the story is whether mental instability is the sina qua non of great artistry. Would Van Gogh have been a greater painter if he were completely normal like some organization man who decades later might be seen riding the French metro?  As a digression consider this example: Neil Simon, who came across in America as someone who could pass for a businessman, knocked out a great many plays and drew large audiences, but none of his writing could be called the work of genius.  Somehow, you may think a guy like Van Gogh is great because he is driven by his demons to do nothing other than paint.

There is little melodrama and even less humor in this serious, albeit imaginative, study.  Some of the interesting conversations include one with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) working in an asylum for mentally disturbed.  The cleric has no use for one of the paintings, finding it ugly, and indeed it was not one of Van Gogh’s brilliant and famous studies such as “The Starry Night.”  In one conversation with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac, who looks the part), he listens as another rebel against the current style of painting states his intention to go to Madagascar, but of course will wind up in French Polynesia.  The final scene you expect Van Gogh’s to shoot himself in the chest, but fiction prevails as young people torment the man with a gun.  Or is that his imagination?

Considerable imagination goes into Schnabel’s portrait or a painter, one which actually gives us a better picture of Van Gogh’s mental state than would a literal biopic.

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

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

CHANGE IN THE AIR – movie review

CHANGE IN THE AIR

Screen Media Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Dianne Dreyer
Screenwriter:  Audra Gorman
Cast:  Mary Beth Hurt, Aidan Quinn, Peter Gerety, M. Emmet Walsh, Rachel Brosnahan, Macy Gray, Olympia Dukakis
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 10/4/18
Opens: October 19, 2018

There’s a ghost in Dianne Dreyer’s movie, but “Change in the Air” has nothing to do with Halloween.  Nobody gets stabbed, hacked, beheaded, shot, guillotined, or drawn and quartered. True, one old guy gets run down by a car, but no problem.  He comes back to life, only to painlessly die of a heart stoppage.  The only horror in the pic is the suburban community, a quiet place where doors are unlocked, neighbors barge in, mail is delivered on time, the cops are unlikely to ticket the neighbors they know.  In fact it is so quiet and peaceful that I’m reminded of the best in line (not an exact quote) in this year’s best drama so far, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Melissa McCarthy in an Oscar-worthy performance), “He died, Or moved to the suburbs.  I can’t tell the difference.” Don’t see this movie one day after you see the McCarthy gem.  “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” will make much of what follows mediocre or, in the case of “Change in the Air,” pretty terrible.

As Wren, Rachel Brosnahan is ideally cast since the young actress is an ethereal presence with her light blue eyes and her light clothing and face so white you might holler at the screen “Just put on a sheet as long as you insist on playing a ghost.”  We may wonder why she’s hiding from the police, who knock on her door only to find her hiding in the house (even though she presumably could disappear or turn into a bird).  Her next-door neighbor Jo Ann Bayberry (Mary Beth Hurt) tells her ornithologist husband Arnie Bayberry (Peter Gerety) that she’s lovely—three or four times.  Since Wren receives a full bag of mail daily, Jo Ann wonders whether she’s a speed-reader. She can’t resist allying with Josh (Satya Bhabha), the local postman, convincing him to join her in stealing a couple of letters and reading them.  The only person who is not nosy, Walter Lemke (M. Emmet Walsh), spends the movie time sitting and manspreading in a chair on the lawn.  No dialogue from him, which is fine.

It’s no secret that Alison (Rachel Zeiger-Haag), Jo Ann’s daughter, had passed away since, of course Wren knows all.  The only real conflict finds Moody (Aidan Quinn), the cop, arguing with the pharmacist who does not want to fill his script because it’s 6.01p and the pharmacy division closes at 6.

How does Wren shake up the town and wake up people who would come to life in an apartment in a thriving metropolis?  If it’s by a quick scene of magic realism in the end, I guess that would qualify.  If it’s another action, I must have missed it by dozing for the wrong half-minute.  If you read this carefully, you’ll know the antidote, one that will shake you up and maybe have the same effect on the suburban town.  Go see “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”  It will restore your faith in the movies.

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

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

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

POPE FRANCIS: A Man of His Word – movie review

POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Wim Wenders, David Rosier
Screenwriter:  Wim Wenders
Cast:  Pope Francis, Recep Tayvip Erdogan, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Shimon Peres, Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Win Wenders
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/14/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

As an occasionally lapsed member of PETA, I have a favorite saint, which of course would be St. Francis.  He once had birds surround him, intrigued by the power of his voice.  As he preached, not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand. Even more sensational, in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though Francis pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet, at which time he lectured the animal, warning him to stop devouring the aforementioned men and animals.

Given my affection for the man who did his good deeds during the first half of the 13th Century, I’m surprised that no other pope beginning with the first one, St. Peter, took his name, though a few were members of the Franciscan order.  What impressed the current holder of the office most is arguably his medieval namesake’s embrace of poverty.  Though the son of a rich silk merchant whose father gave him (if you’ll allow) hell for hand alms to the poor, he redeemed himself from the sinful life of the haute bourgeoisie by giving himself to a life of poverty.  For his part, Pope Francis eschewed living in luxury, instead resting his head in a small apartment near the Vatican—at least when he is not traveling outside Argentina to places like Bangui in the Central African Republic and the favelas of Rio, where somehow the residents are not especially pleased with their own penurious condition.  The Cariocas on display in this documentary do not consider picking up food and clothes dropped by the neighborhood dumpster to be an act of holiness, and would probably give up their chance to go through the eye of a needle if by consolation they could dine on oysters at Marius Degustare’s place at Avenida Atlantica 290.

Wim Wenders, whose best work in my view is the mystical “Wings of Desire,” spends much of his time listening to Pope Francis one-on-one, where the Pontiff elucidates his philosophy without the buzz of the tens of thousands of people he gathers whenever he visits a foreign country, blesses the crowd at the Vatican, or entrances the multitude in his own Buenos Aires.  He is called a charismatic man, but would surely not be classified with JFK or Churchill as a rousing speaker.  Rather, his charisma, his hold on vast numbers of Catholics and other too, comes from the fact that, well, he does hold the highest office in the Church and receives a pope’s share of publicity.

What are his views?  Principally, though he extols his 13th Century namesake for choosing poverty, and is angry at the world’s inequality, wherein 20% of the global population holds 80% of its wealth.  (Even more dramatic statistics come out of the U.S.)

Also he wants governments to build bridges, not walls, wants people to stop ruining their mental health by getting off the accelerator because “we’re not machines,” and praises Judaism for founding the Shabbat when no work is done.  Gays? He tells people on a special flight that “Who am I to judge?”and wants couples whose arguments sometimes lead to “plates flying” (which draws a big laugh from the audience though if you or I said this there would be stony silence), to make peace before bedtime.  Unlike U.S. politicians who preach to the middle class but act to enrich the upper classes, his constituency is the poor.

With all these praiseworthy beliefs in his DNA, it’s no wonder that, as he puts it, the cardinals sought him out “from the end of the world,” meaning Argentina.

Also impressive is director Wenders’ use of his and Lisa Rinzler’s shoots in Assisi, black-and-white, deliberately faded and silent film, showing an actor playing St. Francis who at the key point in his life heard God tell him to restore a dilapidated church—which I believe he did thinking that God’s will is more important than his father’s rage at the saint’s alleged throwing away his money.

The film got added publicity five days before its May 18th opening when CBS’ Sixty Minutes showed excerpts.  Now if the movie crowd is anything like the 10,000 folks who line up every time he speaks, the box office should exceed that of “Black Panther.” After all, what other movie has a cast that includes Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Simon Peres (hugging Abu Mazen, believe it or not), Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, John Kerry, John Boehner, Joe Biden, and  hundreds of extras in the U.S. Congress who give the pope standing ovations.

Unrated.  96 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEAST – MOVIE REVIEW

BEAST

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Pearce
Screenwriter:  Michael Pearce
Cast:  Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Oliver Maltman, Charley Palmer Rothwell
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 5/1/18
Opens: May 11, 2018
Jersey Affair Movie Poster
If you managed to catch the 28-minute short film “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” you might have guessed what’s in store for Michael Pearce’s first full length feature film, which he both wrote and directs.  The short, which played at numerous festivals, reveals a man’s true colors when his wife is kidnapped by business associates.  Now with “Beast,” a well-developed thriller with some horror undertones, Pearce emerges as a fellow to watch, since he keeps the audience with an uneasy feeling throughout while trying to guess the identity of a serial killer and wondering whether the woman on whom he focuses so much attention is in danger of being murdered.

“Beast,” however, is not a typical, superficial treatment of the subject of serial killers but a story with enough depth that even European history becomes a player.But blink, and you’ll miss a key point, when Pascal (Johnny Flynn) informs snobbish family members at a family dinner on the British island of Jersey that they, despite their wealth and haute manners, are sitting on land that belonged to his ancestors.  (Jersey is not part of the UK but the United Kingdom is responsible for its defense.)  Pascal is the kind of young man, which, according to some sociologists, is the type who are favored by women for a good time, but not a good prospect as a potential father and husband.  He is strikingly handsome with Nordic features but is suspected of killing a number of a teenage women.  He works with his hands, carpentry and the like, and his magnetism head-on and immediately draws the lust of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a 27-year-old woman who still lives with her parents under the repressive rule of her mother, Hilary (Geraldine James).  Hilary has been home-schooling Moll since the young woman was expelled from school for having stabbed a classmate who had bullied her.  Between the bullying then and the harsh treatment she must accept from her mother, she could understandably be treated by the audience as a suspect in the serial murders.  Just watch the way she shoots a rabbit under the guidance of her new boyfriend.  When the animal is wounded and suffering and she is told that it’s cruel to leave it that way, she does not simply put a bullet in the bunny’s head but smashes it several times with her rifle.

Writer-director Pearce, who situates the story in Jersey where it is filmed, has lucked out by getting two incredibly attractive performers together as the young couple in love.  He builds the tale in graduated steps, digging deeply into the emotional handicap that guides and appears slowly to destroy Moll’s stability.  She is courted by a detective who is a friend of the family, a man who believes that Moll is covering up for her boyfriend, giving him the alibi that she was dancing with him all night at the time that a fourth body is discovered.  Moll, who feels almost repelled by a guy who is staid when the love of her own life is so adventurous, once tells him that what she remembers most about him is his smell.  The police are convinced that Pascal is the man they seek and are frustrated when Moll continues to defend him, though Moll, despite her fear that Pascal is indeed the serial killer, remains turned on by a guy who is so natural when her mother is a witch and understanding when Moll expresses her anger.

As a redhead, Moll is even physically different from the neighbors who share some terrific Irish dancing on a typical Saturday night on an island that appears to offer little for young people.  As interpreted by Jessie Buckley, who once played Miranda in Jeremy Herrin’s 2014 film “The Tempest,” she brings fire and fury into her role as a woman determined to break the chain of her snobbish and repressive mother, willing to take her bond with Pascal wherever it leads and damn the possibility that she could be one of his victims.  A terrific performer, Buckley creates a woman who should have been able to move away from her family years earlier and who is now making up for her vulnerable years with fever that’s conveyed to her movie audience.  You may not guess the surprise ending, but having seen it, you’ll say, “Of course: why didn’t I think of that?”

Unrated.  107 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEYOND THE CLOUDS – movie review

BEYOND THE CLOUDS

Zee Studios International
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriter:  Majid Mafiji, Mehran Kashani
Cast:  Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Monanan, Gautam Ghose, GV Sharada, Dhwani Rajesh, Amruta Santosh Thakur, Shivan Puj
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 20, 2018
Beyond The Clouds Poster
Celebrated Iranian director Majid Majidi invites us to a tale that could serve as a fable, pitting good against evil, redemption against corruption, light against darkness, ultimately the glow of the moon against limitless darkness. Majidi, whose “Barat” focuses on a girl who like an Iranian Yentl disguises herself as a man in a Tehran construction site and “Children of Heaven” about a boy who loses his sister’s shoes and ventures to find a pair, this time tells an epic, Dickensian story in a Mumbai slum.  This is hardly the place that rich tourists seek out while preparing to move on to Agra and the Taj.  At its center, Amir (Ishaan Katter), a spirited young man who serves as a drug courier cycling around the neighborhood to deliver the goods, will soon find that he endures a series of events that will both make use of his restless energy and at the same time allow him to struggle against the hardships that are the fate of many of his neighbors in a typical shantytown.

Just as he finds himself heading deeper into trouble, his sister Tara (Malavika Monanan), defends herself against her boss Akshi (Goutam Ghose) who, having advanced money to Tara to allow her a nice apartment now thinks he owns her.  Struggling to avoid being raped by Akshi, Tara clubs him on the head with a stone and is imprisoned.  Her fate rests on whether Akshi, now immobile in a hospital, lives or dies.  If he dies, Tara faces life imprisonment without a trial, and the jail shown here is not designed as a copy of any penitentiary in Norway.  Because of his sister’s situation, Amir must care for the man he hates, hoping that Akshi will survive.  During his stay at the hospital, he meets the man’s mother and his two lovely grandchildren.  When Amir is not caught up with getting the man medicine, even sleeping under his bed to be on the site should a crisis occur, he is frantically trying to get his sister released from prison, even thinking of selling the man’s ten-year-old daughter into prostitution.

Melodramatic runs break up the dialogue, as the curly-haired Amir bolts in an opening scene through a Mumbai market to escape the two police who are making a drug bust, and later bounding forth to escape a couple of goons ordered by a brothel keeper to rough him up.

There’s little question that Amir is quite the performer, seemingly doing his own stunts, as in one episode he is not only beaten but pushed into a landscape of mud just off the Indian Ocean.  While Amir is redeeming himself by caring for Akshi and his two young daughters, Tara is bent on reforming herself by caring for a small boy whose mother is dying in the prison.

We’ve got to wonder whether the Tourist Board of India welcomes such a film, since it shows not only the hardscrabble life of people who have nothing but also the dramatic color of the marketplace including the saris sold on the street that are quite a contrast with the suits-and-ties uniforms of the West.  This is a well-acted piece of cinema backed up by A.R. Rahman’s score and will remind cinephiles not of the typical, light Indian pieces that end with dancing but of more serious films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” centered on a teen’s reflections of his life in a Mumbai shantytown.

Unrated.  120 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PICK OF THE LITTER – movie review

PICK OF THE LITTER

KTF Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Don Hardy, Dana Nachman
Screenwriter:  Dana Nachman
Cast:  Ron, Janet: Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Poppet, Primrose
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/16/18
Opens: June 12, 2018 at Slamdance

The United States gets along with many countries, though admittedly fewer now than before January 2017.  But if there’s one aspect of American culture that puts us squarely against most nations of the Middle East and a few in the Far East, it’s our love of dogs.  Some societies use them for food, and others think simply that they’re dirty.  But with in estimated 40% of American homes where dogs have become parts of families, the U.S. may be statistically ahead of all others.  America first!

It’s not enough that dogs fill the hearts of the good people who share their homes with them.  They are called upon by police to search for drugs and weapons.   Perhaps most of all they serve a purpose above and beyond eliciting the love of people, and that’s to guide the blind.

Don Hardy and Dana Nachman,who spent over two years directing “Pick of the Litter,” succeed beautifully in capturing key moments; those times when Labrador Retrievers are officially handed over to people who are either totally without sight or without peripheral vision.  At the same time that these fantastic animals change hands, there is heartbreak in the homes of people who have raised them since puppyhood, understanding that they must fulfill their part of the bargain in losing them.  At the same time they feel gratification that largely as a result of the training they give to the seeing-eye dogs, the animals are going to be indispensable to up to 1100 sight-disabled people who apply annually to the organization for them.

This is not a simple procedure.  There’s a reason that the movie is called “Pick of the Litter,” because these dogs have to pass a battery of tests in order to participate in graduation ceremonies, where the humans who need them give speeches and the Retrievers, who may not know what applause is for, will content themselves with treats.

Hardy, who co-wrote the script with Dana Nachman, serves also as the film’s editor and director of photography.  His skill in choosing the right scenes to photograph and in putting the show together in an understandable order is without question superb.  Some of the shots that will evoke the “aw” factor from viewers include the only moving photo I’ve seen of a dog actually giving birth.  When the human being in charge of helping a Retriever shed, in this case, five puppies, you may get the impression that the dog is laying an egg.  That’s how small the newborns are, and their miniature size explain just how a mature dog is able to keep the litter within until the time comes to relieve herself of them.  A pup can fit in the palm of the hand.

After several months when the Retrievers are kept behind gates in spotlessly clean surroundings, they are handed out to volunteers who raise them—the folks who give of their time partly because they have a good heart  to helping the blind, and partly because they love the animals they raise and train.  Before a dog is ready for a final test, the volunteer raisers answer questions, such as whether they spotted too much lunging, whether they show fear of shyness, and whether they can heel, sit, stay, lie down.  A veterinarian will inspect the ears, eyes, and take imaging, but simply passing the physical test is a piece of dog treat compared to the obedience demands later.

Dogs must prove especially that they can ignore orders from the blind human beings when the order runs counter to the safety of the pair, such as when a car may be leaving the driveway or when there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood.

Unhappily, many dogs fail, even after retests; I believe out of the stars focused on here—Primrose, Poppet, Potomac, Phil and Patriot, only one or two make the cut.  Phil is judged to be perfect.  Those who fail are either returned to the raisers or serve in another capacity such as animals for diabetics of veterans with PTSD.

It’s a pleasure to witness ecstasy when a dog is handed over to a blind person.  Ron, for example, a man who lost sight in both his eyes from a genetic disease that skips some generations, reports having butterflies, as nervous as he would be when meeting a blind date.

I would like to know what happens to dogs when because of age, they are no longer able to service their people.  Is there a sanctuary available?  Do they go back to the building that houses them?  All in all, America’s Best Friend is given the equivalent of a 21-gun salute by this well-crafted documentary.

Unrated.  81 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE FINAL YEAR – movie review

THE FINAL YEAR

Magnolia Pictures/HBO Documentary Films
Director: Greg Baker
Screenwriter: Greg Baker
Cast: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/4/18
Opens: January 19, 2018

The choice made by Greg Baker, who handles the direction of “The Final Year,” to end this film with the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are a Changing” is strange. Baker is clearly a fan of the Obama administration and heartbroken at the dramatic upset made by the Republicans in the last presidential election. Now what Dylan is saying is a progressive message: our country has been moving leftward since its inception. Yet the election showed an America in changing times that make Dylan’s plea ironic; fearful of progressive upticks; of strides made by minorities, women and gays in particular. This is an America heading back in time, a reactionary idea that would have us trashing the gains of Obamacare, the environment, climate research, all as though it were simply an attempt to get back at our forty-fourth president.

Sometimes the pendulum swings back before it can move forward again. As you watch Barack Obama, noting his lean build, his empathetic demeanor, his law school professorial speech, you can’t help comparing him most favorably to the current leader, who boasts and lies with all the rationality of a drunken sailor as he strides about like a colossus, his paunch leading the way. If you can’t shed a tear by the time the movie concludes—when you see Obama’s senior staff pulling down the framed certificates on the walls and filling cardboard boxes with the items they can’t bear leaving, you probably pulled the lever for Trump.

Teary emotions notwithstanding, Baker’s doc gives the viewer a look at four powerful people during their final year in Washington, listening to their views when talking to the camera or to the people whose paths they cross. You see John Kerry, a secretary of state largely responsible for a solid treaty with Iran, but we do not see him as we see Téa Leoni in the role of Madam Secretary, lovey-dovey with her important husband and her three children and walking about the neighborhood seemingly unaccompanied by the secret service. You watch Samantha Power, who served our country as U.N. ambassador but whose miles around the world make her look like a secretary of state. Ben Rhodes, then our national security adviser doubling as speechwriter, appears ironically (for a speechwriter) unable to let out a single sentence as the camera finds him in shock just after the announcement of a Trump victory. Of course President Obama, who won two terms of office and had stated that he could have beaten Trump, is the hero of any true-blooded American patriot who believes that we should strive for a world dedicated to peace, and not one who believes we should turn the clock back to 1920 or 1890 or take-a-guess, when we did not have to worry about pollution or climate change or how to pay the medical bills pre-health-sector technology that has raised the ante on costs.

Relatively little time is spent in the Oval Office by Martina Radwan and Erich Roland’s cameras. Instead we go to Cameroon, Austria, Chad, Greenland, Laos, Vietnam, Hiroshima, and Nigeria and to archival films on Syria at war. We observe an empathetic Powers console Nigerian women whose daughters have been kidnapped by the Boko Haram. We see John Kerry negotiating with a smiling counterpart in Iran. We watch as Ambassador Power takes down the Russian Federation at the U.N. for Russia’s role in Syria.

Voters for the Democratic party, 2.5 million people more than those voting for the GOP, can take heart by Power’s concluding view that “The idea that we could go gently into the night…has been vanquished.” We may have to wait twelve months for a change in Congress and twice as long to cast our ballot for a read leader in the White House as opposed to the current fake, but hope breathes eternal in the human breast.

Unrated. 89 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WAKEFIELD – movie review

  • WAKEFIELD

    IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Robin Swicord
    Written by: Robin Swicord
    Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo
    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/1/17
    Opens: May 19, 2017
    Wakefield Movie Poster
    Think of Syrian refugees who escape the bombings in Aleppo and arrive to our in tatters without two dimes to rub together. Can you begin to imagine what they would think if they saw Robin Swicord’s movie “Wakefield” (Arabic subtitles)?  “These Americans are completely crazy,” they would say.  “Did we come to a country that’s one big lunatic asylum?”  What would baffle these good folks no end is the idea that an upper-middle-class Wall Street partner, Mercedes car in his two-car garage and a large house in a suburb of New York City, would chuck the whole thing and become a vagabond, a bum.  True, some people in the business world might go into a low-paid teaching job when they retire at 55 or even quit the firm looking for a profession without the pressure of producing for the bosses.  There are even people who desert their families and take off to a distant state and begin a whole new life.  But to give up your wife, your two children, your home, your credit cards, only to move to the attic next door and live there for a year?  To grow a beard like Rip Van Winkle, dumpster-dive for what the perfectly good food that the neighbors have thrown out, including melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, segments of a steak, a baked potato that would taste oh-so-good if you’re hungry enough?

    Howard Wakefield is that guy who appears to flip out, tired of the same old routine, driving to the station and taking the train to Grand Central, sitting in on parties initiated by his wife and attended by people including one guy who he thinks is flirting with his wife and one woman, Babs (Beverly D’Angelo)  to whom he accords the epithet “bitch.”  Howard, in fact, looks like somebody out of the casting of TV’s “Mad Men,” one of those handsome, if bland characters with an inflected American pronunciation, who has the usual two kids, and pays the mortgage and the insurance policies.  It helps writer-director Robin Swicord, who was partially responsible for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (surely a more creative project than “Wakefield”), that she enlisted Bryan Cranston for the title role.  Cranston, who showed us that he is one of the great actors of his generation with his portrayal of the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, now follows up with a virtual one-hander as narrator and performer in this theatrical piece of celluloid.

    One day, after having a nervous breakdown, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) takes the train from Manhattan’s Grand Central station to his suburban home, but after a breakdown of the train and a necessary hike along the tracks, he decides to forego entering his home.  Instead he camps out in the attic next door, using the days, weeks and months to spy on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner), who always leaves her blinds open.  Diana reports the missing husband, and the police arrival is observed by Howard, who can virtually read his wife’s lips and mimics what she is saying using his impression of her voice.  That he’s talking only to himself and the movie audience probably means that he is psychologically a goner, especially when he laughs hilariously at scenes that would make a normal person cry.

    He is discovered in his lair by two developmentally disabled kids, Emily and Herbert (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva) who live in the adjacent home under the care of a professor, but they agree to keep his secret—though if you watch the young girl giggling, you realize that she is happier than Wakefield.  He presumes that a fellow employee, Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) is hitting on his wife and unable to think that he might be wrong about her reaction to this flirtation.

    There’s a reason for Howard’s narration.  He is quoting from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, who like John Updike frequently wrote about upper-middle class suburban life.  Such narration does not often work in the movies, where screenplays should be acted and not spoken, and it does not help the film here either.  Still, Bryan Cranston is a superior showman whose virtual one-man show is the movie, though without him probably someone like Kevin Spacey could do the job almost as well.  Note also that Doctorow has virtually taken the story from Nathaniel (“The Scarlet Letter”) Hawthorne’s 1835 study of the same name which took place in London and was published in the New England Magazine in May of that year.  One literary critic noted that “even as Hawthorne castigates Wakefield, he colludes with him relishing an ordinary man’s extraordinary caprice.”  Go the source, namely one of America’s great writer of short stories and full-length fiction, and you’ll see that even in 1835, “Wakefield” seems remarkably modern, treating a man’s escape from marriage and the routine of his life.

    Rated PG-13.  106 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

GOOK – movie reveiw

GOOK

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Justin Chon
Written by: Justin Chon
Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz, Omono Okojie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/8/17
Opens: August 18, 2017
Gook Movie Poster
The pejorative term “gook” was used daily by our servicemen during the Vietnam War.  Never mind that the perceived enemy was the North: even America’s allies in South Vietnam got the “gook” treatment.  Many of us, seeing how Asian-Americans hold a considerable number of high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley, and in Google where they are thirty-five percent of the work force, cannot believe there is discrimination against them in the U.S.  Asian-Americans are not considered a minority group that merit government help via affirmative action, either.  That’s why Justin Chon’s film is an eye-opener, showing that not only whites, but particularly the African-American population in this movie, living near Compton, California, are surprisingly racist, notwithstanding what should be their own empathy with another persecuted group.

As I recall, during the L.A. riots following the sickening police beating of taxi driver Rodney King and the acquittal by the officers, one of the Korean store owners shouted to a group of demonstrating Blacks threatening to smash her store window, “I’m Black!” Of course she meant that she was an oppressed minority as well, but that cut no ice with the protesters, just as the African-Americans (except for one) in “Gook” do not consider Korean-Americans to be “one of them.”

While the principal focus of “Gook” is on Eli (writer-director Justin Chon), the surprisingly good performance comes from Simone Baker as the 11-year-old orphan, who would skip school to hang out in the broken-down shoe store owned by Eli and his brother Daniel (David So) and try to stay away from her volatile brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).  For his part Daniel hopes for a better future, while ultimately Eli is so frustrated from the treatment he and his brother get from the local population that he would as soon burn down his own store rather than stick around the neighborhood.

The movie opens with Kamilla, showing her free spirit by dancing gleefully in the street, even motivating Eli and Daniel to join her in their store.  Not so free-spirited are the local thugs who in one case, out of pure racism, beat Daniel, who tries to run away on the street.  The store owner next door, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director’s non-professional dad), runs a liquor store and has no use for Kamilla, accusing her of stealing some Twinkies.

Though the L.A. riots of 1991 take place a mile or so from the shoe store, they are much a part of this story, which cinematographer Ante Cheng shoots in black and white to evoke the dismal surroundings and wasted lives of the residents.  Writer-director Chon, whose 2015 film “Man Up” (about a slacker who gets his Mormon girlfriend pregnant and is helped to become a man by his stoner friend), can be dubbed “Chon Up” with this picture, a more serious, convincing, job with good ensemble performances and some insight into Asian-American culture among those who cannot aspire to work for Google or in Silicon Valley.

Unrated.  95 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

QUEST – movie review

  • QUEST

    First Run Features
    Director:  Jonathan Olshefski
    Cast:  Christine’a Rainey, Christopher Rainey, P.J. Rainey, William Withers
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/17/17
    Opens: Dec.1 in Philadelphia; Dec. 8 in NY; Dec. 15 in L.A.; then wider.
    Quest Movie Poster
    A brief segment of this loving study of an African-American family in North Philadelphia, filmed over a period of almost ten years, finds Donald Trump trying to persuade African-Americans and Hispanics to vote for him.  Why?  Because “what do you have to lose?”  While African-American spokespersons nationwide condemned the speech because it implied that all African-Americans and Hispanics are living in poor neighborhoods, it is perhaps an irony that director-cinematographer Jonathan Olshefki, obviously a progressive, situates his study inside a community that is probably the kind that Trump envisions for all Black families.

    Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a Rainey, their son William and daughter P.J. live in an urban ghetto probably like the kind that Trump may understand, yet the Rainey family do not agree with Trump’s condescension.  “He doesn’t know how we live,” offers P.J., whom we see first as a kid and now as she is graduating from school. Those mostly conservative folks who wonder why Quest and Christe’a have not pulled themselves up by their bootstraps should pay attention to one bit of dialogue between P.J. and her mother.  The young girl wants money for school supplies, about $100, but she also wants a dress.  Her mother, called “Ma,” as a nickname for a character in August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is sympathetic but informs the young woman that she can barely afford the Benjamin for a school necessity, much less for a modest dress.  Implied is that you can’t rise on the economic scale unless you have some money to get the education you need, and so the poverty is passed on to other generations.

    The Rainey family had the bad luck to watch their son diagnosed with a brain tumor, but now, as an adult William is in remission.  In a more graphic misfortune, one that should not have had to happen, P.J. loses an eye from a stray bullet, the result of a fight between two or more people on the street—who to this day have not been found.  What’s more, P.J. apologizes to her parents for getting shot. On a more pleasant note, Quest has a weekly radio program discussing community relations, and during the week he, having overcome addiction, runs a recording studio where neighborhood young people are free to come in to practice their rap.  For her part, equally pro-community Ma works at a shelter for abused women.  One has to wonder how, between the two of them, they have enough money just for themselves to say nothing about providing for their son and daughter.

    During the ten years that Jonathan Olshefki trains his lenses on the Raineys, he would have time to pick up signs of exuberance in the neighborhood.  This comes out dramatically as he catches a uniformed parade of his neighbors, and spots a torn American flag hanging on a residence in an area of housing that has caught their share of bullet holes as though north Philly were a war zone.

    This is how perhaps a majority of our country’s African-Americans live.  These are not the quarters of Barack Obama, or Beyoncé or Rihanna, superstars that have transcended their group’s barriers. Though political discussions involving the Raineys and their neighbors are few, we can’t help noting that just months ago, three states that voted for Obama twice could not overcome a presumed lack of excitement for the Democratic candidate.  We may infer that they voted for Obama as “one of us,” helping to give the President the electoral votes he needed, then simply stayed away from the voting booths in 2016, having seen that the first African-American President did not turn their communities into Shangi-La.

    Movies depicting the lives of an underclass are not difficult to find.  In this year’s glitziest entry, “Get Out,” a rich white family is satirized for having progressive ideas while at the same time acting out an agenda of less visible racism.  “Quest” is obviously not in the same class, being far less expensive to make and involving not highly paid actors but real people.  “Quest” shows us a cross-section of working-class Blacks in a most authentic style, a film that may not appeal to typical filmgoers for whom “Thor” is the movie of the year.  But in its homespun way is a better guide to what goes on within a depressed urban community.

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

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

ETERNAL BEAUTY – movie review

ETERNAL BEAUTY
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Craig Roberts
Writer: Craig Roberts
Cast: Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, Billie Piper, Penelope Wilton, Alice Lowe, Robert Pugh, Morfydd Clark
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/22/20
Opens: October 2, 2020

Eternal Beauty Movie Poster

“How are you?” says the psychiatrist (Boyd Clark). “Fine,” replies Jane (Sally Hawkins). “Fine or good?” “Good.” This dialogue occurs session after session as the doctor examines the patient, diagnosed twenty years back as schizophrenic. Later, Jane, recalling her sessions with the shrink asks a photographer, “How are you?” “Normal,” he says. “Boring,” says Jane. Her sister had told her that being normal is difficult. So this movie is about how schizophrenics can have more fun than people who are considered everyday-normal, and mirabile dictu, by the end of the film, you are convinced that Jane, notwithstanding an upbringing by a mean-spirited mother Vivian (Penelope Wilton) and passive father Dennis (Robert Pugh) is happier than most of us. Or at least the most of us who are normal.

In his sophomore offering writer-director Craig Roberts whose “Just Jim” portraits the relationship of a Welsh teen with an American neighbor possesses the soul of a person not content to knock out a normal movie but more interested in the inner life of a schizophrenic, in no way dangerous or likely to be mumbling, homeless, on a New York City street. The surrealism is tailor-made for Sally Hawkins, who, in one of her crowning roles in “The Shape of Water” as Elisa Esposito, a janitor in a research facility with a special relationship to a giant laboratory fish, evoked the joke by a TV film critic, “Are men so bad nowadays that a woman has to date a fish?”

Playing the role chiefly as often zonked but as a woman with the vivid imagination of a mentally unbalanced person, Jane appears in virtually every scene, though often as the younger, twenty-something girl (Morfyedd Clark) whose diagnosis takes place at about the time she was stood up at the altar. We can understand that twenty years later, the voice she hears in her head most prominently is that of the boyfriend Johnny (Robert Aramayo), without an explanation for his caddish treatment but now expressing deep love and a desire to see her again.

One day in the hospital, she meets fellow unbalanced Mike (David Thewlis), and voilá, too nuts “find” each other. Leave it to Jane’s mean sister Nicola, just suffering from the loss of a rich boyfriend Lesley (Tony Leader), to try to ruin Jane’s relationship, driving her back to the hospital.

Perhaps the funniest scene occurs at a Christmas gathering with her sisters Alice (Alice Lowe) and Nicola (Billie Piper). Jane distributes gifts which as usual nobody likes. She presents receipts and expects them to pay her back.

This is a frothy comedy about people who look laid-back, but with spurts of enthusiasm like those of the excitable Michael, expecting to get a gig and pay Jane back for staying at her digs. Director Roberts plays up the surrealism by showing Michael on stage singing with his electric guitar and by repeated images of the younger Jane in her wedding dress clueless about what will soon come. The expertly done color palette mirrors Jane’s feelings throughout as does a multiplicity of Sally Hawkins’s facial expressions. Hawkins is in her oils.

Kit Fraser films in various locations in Wales.

94 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE KEEPER – movie review

THE KEEPER (Trautmann)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marcus H. Rosenmüller
Writer: Robert Marciniak, Marcus H. Rosenmüller, Nicholas J. Schofield
Cast: David Kross, Freya Mavor, John Henshaw, Harry Melling, Michael Socha, Dave Johns
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/26/20
Opens: October 2, 2020

The Keeper (Trautmann)

 

Do you think that it’s possible or even praiseworthy to forgive and forget a people for atrocities? Forgiving is difficult. Forgetting is impossible, as it should be. The most impressive sight in Berlin today is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or, in German Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas. An entire city block is covered with 2,711 slabs of concrete as a memorial to the Jewish dead that will hopefully last for centuries. Though Turkey refuses to admit to the genocide of Armenians, Germany’s governments have stepped forward to make sure that their own people, even men and women who had nothing to do with the Holocaust or World War II, never forget. Nor should the world.

In the biopic, “The Keeper“ (Trautmann in the original German title), the Bavaria-born director Marcus H. Rosenmüller, whose Beste Zeit is a frothy look at two country girls seeking love from boyfriends and more freedom from parents, takes on a more serious project. Throughout the two-hour biopic, I think that what Rosenmüller and his co-writers Robert Marciniak and Nicholas J. Schofield, want us to keep in mind is this question: Can we/should we forgive the Germans for starting the most catastrophic war the world has known resulting in deaths in the tens of millions and destruction of a good part of Europe? The ethical question is not really answered, though the film glorifies one man, Bert Trautmann (David Kross), who through his good looks, his charming personality, and most of us his incredible talent as a goalie for the Manchester City football (soccer) team encouraged the Brits to feel warmer toward their enemy.

The film is a good, solid, old-fashioned tale with a tasteful sample of archival films of actual soccer games that appear to be won thanks to Trautmann’s athletic ability. But how did a guy who was not only a soldier but a Nazi gain the respect, admiration, and even the love of British people so quickly after the horrors of war? Rosenmüller takes the story step by step in straight time choosing to show the forest if not the trees. What is not described? One is that Trautmann had a daughter by a previous relationship before he married Margaret (Freya Mavor); another is that the marriage ended in divorce, that Trautmann had three wives, and that he died in Spain at the age of eighty-nine. Here is the time line from the film…

Trautmann is in a British prisoner of war camp in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, in 1944 toward the end of the war, a place that despite the barking leadership of Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling) looks more like Stalag 17 than Terezenstadt. The prisoners play football when they are not shoveling shit or doing whatever busywork is required by the camp. Jack Friar (John Henshaw), the manager of a local football team, notes that Trautmann is superb as a goalie, catching everything aimed at the net he guards. He convinces the camp command to let him play for his team, promising to return him daily after each game. Jack’s daughter Margaret, who Trautmann is ordered to help in a general store, is both repelled and fascinated by the German, the disgust taking root when she discovers that Trautmann’s claim that he had no choice other than to serve as a soldier is splintered. She learns that he not only volunteered for the army but had won the Iron Cross.

During the years 1949-1964 Trautmann served as goalie, at first shunned by the team, then razzed by the fans who shout Kraut go home, all of which may make you think of how Jackie Robinson, the first Black man in the majors, was shunned by his fellow Dodgers, the National League threatened with a strike by players with the St. Cardinals. Fans in the stadiuims shouted Go back to the cotton fields.

Because of the old-fashioned nature of the film, dividing time among the prisoner-of-war camp, the football field, and the romantic relationship with Margaret, you may get the impression that this is a Hallmark Hall of Fame type of sentimental piece. You would be partly right. Still, the sincere acting of the players, who look as though they came right out of the forties, jitterbugging to the sound of the Big Bands. There is an able contrast between sombre scenes (the Trautmanns‘ child is killed by a car) and the lighter ones led mostly by John Henshaw’s portrayal of Jack Friar, a tough hombre with a heart of gold. All makes this a movie that’s relevant particularly in light of the protests taking place here in Portland, Louisville, and in big cities around the world. If it seems as though Freya Mavor’s character Margaret changes her attitude too quicky from revulsion to acceptance to love, well, you never know how we human beings can surprise one another by our often unpredictable behavior.

The screener that I used for this review came with English subtitles, and though the Manchester speech is clear enough and even David Kross’s fluent English comes across understandably, the studio should be credited for not assuming that all of us Americans can easily understand our neighbors from across the Atlantic.

120 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

PAPER SPIDERS – movie review

PAPER SPIDERS
Cranium Entertainment/Idiot Savant Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Inon Shampanier
Writer: Natalie Shampanier & Inon Shampanier
Cast: Lily Taylor, Stefanía LaVie Owen, Peyton List, Ian Nelson, David Rasche, Max Casella, Michael Cyril Creighton,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/18/20

You do not often see a movie featuring the closeness that a mother and daughter can have for each other, which makes it all the more fortunate that Dawn (Lili Taylor), a middle-aged widow, might be helped to a semblance of emotional health by her daughter Melanie (Stefanía LaVie Owen). Bearing the possibility that “Paper Spiders” is semi-autobiographical, given the details cited by the husband-wife writing team of Natalie Shampanier and Inon Shampanier and directed by Inon Shampanier, “Paper Spiders” gives its audience the feel of what it’s like to be not schizophrenic, but almost hopelessly delusional (if that brings to mind anybody in the present U.S. government, you’ve been following politics).

You can almost swear that Owen and Taylor are an actual mother-daughter team; that’s how empathetic they are, and that’s how convincing albeit unwise that an eighteen-year-old girl might actually give up a full scholarship to a prestigious college and transfer to a local one to take care of her mom. There’s nothing fancy about the direction here; little of no animation, special effects, flashbacks, all the more bringing a sense a authenticity into the action which is at first comic, then spiraling into a more serious analysis of what it means to have a treateable, but uncurable, emotional condition.

Lacy’s paranoia would be comical if it were not pressing. She believes her neighbor is spying on her, throwing rocks at her house, stalking her; even at one turn when she develops a serious pain in her head, she is certain that he has a machine in his home that can mess with her mind. She is a constant embarrassment to her daughter; causing an uproar at her high school graduation that stops the proceedings, and earlier, during a tour of potential students, suggests that a library open to students even at 4 a.m. is flirting with danger, and by the way “What are the crime statistics of the college?”

For her part, Dawn possesses maturity in her sacrifices to help her delusional mother but enters movie coming-of-age territory when she learns, through Daniel (Ian Nelson), a persistent, handsome and rich boyfriend with a Beemer convertible, to drink beverages stronger than Virgin Mary and at about the same time to lose her virginity.

Comic interludes include meetings of the principal characters with Mr. Wessler (Michael Cyril Creighton), an awkward campus social counselor who relies on reading descriptions of mental illness right out of the DSM, the antics of a private investigator, Gary (Max Casella), and the frustrations of Lacy’s lawyer boss Bill Hoffman (David Rasche) who after six years finally gets the nerve to fire his paralegal.

If the writers and director are getting things right, we find out that paranoia does not come up to the surface at every moment, but relaxes enough to allow for unforced comic moments from the fine acting of Lily Taylor.

109 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

MY PRINCE EDWARD – movie review

MY PRINCE EDWARD
Cheng Cheng Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Norris Wong
Writer: Norris Wong
Cast: Stephy Tang, Pak Hon Chu, Hee Ching Paw
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/26/20
Opens: September 2, 2020

Right up until the mid-1960s, all my single friends and I lived with our parents, even though we had already pushed into our early twenties. On second thought not all. One of my pals moved out of Brooklyn into a small apartment in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. The rest of us thought: what’s wrong with Steve? Doesn’t he get along with his folks? Predictably, our parents did not want to lose us so quickly, insisting “You can move out of here when you get married. You don’t want to go off alone.” What’s wrong with going off while single? Who knows? Happily, times have changed.

This brings us to Norris Wong’s “My Prince Edward” which takes place in the Prince Edward area of Hong Kong’s North Kowloon where most of the action takes place. The principal character, Fong (Stephy Tang), has a rebellious spirit. She no longer wants to “live at home” as we say when we don’t mean “home” but mean “with our parents.” Yet for reasons surrounding Hong Kong’s culture, she thought she would have to get married to do so. So she sets up a sham marriage with Yang Shuwei (Jin Kaiijie) from Fuzou on the Chinese mainland, which “allows” her to move away to the mainland and gain more freedom. In return Yang is able to fulfill his desire get a permit for Hong Kong by marriage to her. Years later she’s back in Hong Kong, this time living with Edward (Pak Hon Chu), and continues to live with him without marriage for years, bristling at Edward’s mother, who dominates her son, and confused because the chemistry with Edward just is not there. The two work in a bridal shop with Edward serving as photographer.

Edward discovers years later that his girlfriend had this fake marriage, is furious, then realizes that she and her fake husband never lived together as man and wife but in fact are trying to jump bureaucratic hoops to get divorced. If we see Edward as representative of the Hong Kong culture, the city does not come off well. Mainland China turns out, contrary to the view most of the world has, to be more culturally progressive than Hong Kong, as Yang, though he is about to marry a woman he got pregnant, wonders why Fong is so intent on marrying. “No one rushes to get married any more,” Yang says, obviously, apparently summing up the view of the people of his mainland city. Presumably, given the steady rioting of Hong Kongers against the incursions of the mainland, politics is a different story.

Norris Wong, who wrote and directs an impressive first film and whose Facebook page can be found here https://www.facebook.com/norrisfilm/, evokes performances all around by characters who are more than representatives of marital ideologies but are sympathetic people: one who is fully independent (Yang), one who is still a schlemiel (Edward), and one (Fong) is in the middle on the cusp of greater maturity, independence and happiness. Perhaps the best representative of a trait is the tortoise that Fong buys because the poor reptile has flipped over on its side, its vulnerability treated with empathy by its purchaser who wishes it to be turned back and regain independence.

The film is in Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles in both Mandarin and English.

92 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

GRIPPED: CLIMBING THE KILLER PILLAR – movie review

GRIPPED: CLIMBING THE KILLER PILLAR
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Benjamin Galland
Screenwriter: Corey Fischer, Benjamin Galland, Donna Laemmlen
Cast: Kaiwi Lyman, Megan Hensley, Amanda Maddox, Natalie Duran, Bryce Wissel, Jacki Florine
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/4/20
Opens: August 17, 2020

Gripped Film Picked Up for Distribution, Announces Release Date ...

If you want a climbing movie with a plot, you’ll want to look back to Clint Eastwood’s 1975 “The Eiger Sanction,” wherein a a hit man, who is an experienced climber, is ordered to take out a climber. He sees three men scaling the Eiger in the Swiss Alps and does not know who is the true target. The plot is unbelievable, but so what? It makes for interesting action fare, scenes of the Alps, and an exciting motif. “The Vertical Limit” is another, also a ridiculous plot, but keeps the viewers glued as a young climber seeks to save his sister and a summit team before time runs out. “Shivaay” focuses on a skilled mountain climber whose daughter is kidnapped while he seems helpless to save her. Eleven percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but then again, there’s a plot.

The plot is not ridiculous in “Gripped: Climbing the Killer Pillar,” but Benjamin Galland in his sophomore full narrative feature doesn’t have much of a story, which makes one wonder why three screenwriters were needed when the chatter on level ground could have been improvised. The story takes place in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains featuring one thousand foot rock cliffs with enough cracks to place your fingers to propel you from the ground up.

The two leads, Bret (Kaiwi Lyman) and Rose (Amanda Maddox) meet up with others on the grouind, spending the first night drinking beer and partying. You can believe that Kaiwi Lyman would know how to scale a cliff given that he’s an outdoorsman, having played water polo, sailed, indulged in Brazilian jiu jitsu, surfed and acted as a magician, but as his bio states, nothing excites his more than being on the stage. It’s not that he should stick to the stage. The trouble is that the rock-climbing movie which is billed as a comedy but is really a romance in the great outdoors is not much of a watch unless you are yourself a rock climber.

In the movie’s favor is that there are no stunt people. The actors do their own rope-climbing and must worry that the head and shoulder injury faced by Bret would not be too serious. There is excellent cinematography by John Garrett, who may have done even more than the two climbers by lugging heavy equipment up the rocks—if indeed he got the close-ups and far shots from a neighboring peak.

Rose falls for Bret, not unusual given the man’s chick-bait looks with long blond hair and beard, a kerchief tied to his forehead, and since there’s nothing like danger to arouse the passions, the two hit it off hundreds of feet up, kid each other, find time to kiss, and Rose is able to save Bret (not the other way around) when the gent slips and hits his head and shoulder. While the folks back on land, Jade (Megan Hensley) and company rush into action when the two injured daredevils do reach the land, whatever amounts to a story is predictable. Still it’s a woman-empowerment film especially since the woman saves the rugged man.

89 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE PAINTED BIRD – movie review

THE PAINTED BIRD
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vàclav Marhoul
Screenwriter: Vàclav Marhoul, from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski
Cast: Petr Kotlár Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/20
Opens: July 17, 2020

Harrowing World War II drama The Painted Bird gets a UK trailer ...

In “Leviathan” (1651) Thomas Hobbes calls life “solitary, nasty, brutish and short,” and “A war of every man against his neighbor.” Every picture of Hobbes shows an unsmiling man, looking disgusted, contemptuous, and constipated. Yet as we know after we lose our innocence that there is more than a smidgen of truth in such a pessimistic manifesto. Still, the dour philosopher may have smiled just once from his grave when the movie “The Painted Bird” was first shown in film festivals. Vàclav Marhoul wrote and directs the epic drama inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s book about a shattered post-war Europe, which Amazon calls the story of “a dark-haired, olive-skinned boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, wandering from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for.” (Kosinski committed suicide at the age of 57, his novel available on Amazon for under $14.)

“The Painted Bird,” which was the Czech Republic’s submission for the Academy Awards held in 2020 did not make the short list for Best International Film, but I would rate it as good as South Korea’s “Parasite.” The title is metaphorically taken from an event in which a painted bird, up for sale amid scores of others, is released and promptly killed by a flock flying hither and thither, because they apparently consider him “The Other.” The inability of people to respect those who are not like them, who look different or follow different customs did not die out after World War II but is a concept relevant today as we in America mourn the killing of African-America men by white police officers. The whole of “The Painted Bird,” showing human beings cruel to a cute and polite but mute young man abandoned by his parents is an allegorical tale. Therefore, take “The Painted Bird” as a journey of authorial cherry-picking that displays, with few exceptions, a society of people in war-torn Eastern Europe taking out the misery of their own lives on an innocent boy.

Written and directed by Vàclav Marhoul, whose “Tobruk” deals with a World War 2 battalion of Czech soldiers in the Libyan desert, “The Painted Bird” is seen from the point of view of young Joska (Petr Kotlár) in a startling breakthrough role. Joska wanders through Eastern Europe during the war, only occasionally running into action by German soldiers, Russian Cossacks and regular army, but his troubles come not much from fighting units but mostly from local peasants. The boy is mute throughout but is able to hear dialogue spoken in German, Russian, Czech, and what’s labeled Slavic Esperanto. For most of the running time, Joska, who is Jewish but rarely outed as such, is pleasant looking, obedient, polite, and seemingly able to put up with tortures of ordinary people either driven to hostility from the deprivations of the war or simply full of hate.

In the earlier part of his wanderings, he is picked up by a handful of ignorant peasants, the most gentle of whom calls him a vampire. He becomes enslaved by the superstitious hag. In the movie’s goriest scene, he witnesses a stolid, unsmiling Miller (Udo Kier) who at dinnertime overturns the table on a younger guest because he is convinced that the fellow has been staring with lust at his wife (Michaela Dolezalová). He gouges out the man’s eyes with a spoon and feeds them to the cat, who is too finicky to bother. A sympathetic Joska carries the eyes to the newly blind victim who is lying, sobbing by a tree, beckoning him to replace the eyes in his socket as though they are contact lenses. Later Hans (Stellan Skarsgård), a German soldier, is ordered to take the boy for a walk and shoot him, but Hans, one of the few sympathetic characters, orders Joska to run, firing two shots into the air. Another character who shows a rare humanity is a priest (Harvey Keitel), who takes the boy into his church, fixing him up with a crucifix, asking Garbos (Julian Sands), a pedophile, to take care of him. Bad decision.

In the picture’s most action-filled episode a group of Russian Cossacks gallop into a village, shooting the residents and torching the houses. We hope that no kid in the United States today has to go through what this pre-adolescent lad did—surviving rapes, in one situation thrown into a latrine filled with poop and in another forced by a sex-crazed young blond woman to perform fellatio on her.

“The Painted Bird” is only tangentially a Holocaust film, a subject that the Czech filmmakers know well since releasing “The Shop in Main Street” in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s 1965 “The Shop on Main Street,” in which a carpenter in a Nazi-occupied Slovak state is appointed Aryan Controller of a Jewish widow’s store. That picture won the International Film’s Oscar as did Jirí Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” two years later.

Opinions of “The Painted Bird” might vary from those who think the movie is little more than a relentless succession of tortures to those who, like me, consider it an epic drama in sharp black-and-white that both captures human beings acting in extremis during wartime and displaying irrational hated even here in America during a fragile era considered by some to be a relative peacetime.

169 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE TWO OF US – movie review

TWO OF US (Deux)
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Filippo Meneghetti
Screenwriter: Filippo Meneghetti, Malysone Bovorasmy, additional writing by Florence Vignon
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier, Léa Drucker Muriel Benazeraf, Jérôme Varanfrain, Herve Sogne
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/19/20
Opens: July 10,  2020

Deux (2019)

A nine-year-old boy learns all about sex in his hygiene class at P.S. 103 augmented by discreet animated visuals that show him how it’s done. “EEEEEUUUU Gross,” he shouts, “My mom and dad would never do that!” Now imagine that a woman in her forties is about to discover that her mother, now in her seventies, is “doing it.” She realizes that granny must have done something or mom would not be here, but “at age seventy? And what? Wait a sec. With another woman!” Still this is France, not Saudi Arabia, so many middle-aged moms will come around. After all, Professor Henry Higgins (“My Fair Lady”) suggested, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Joshing aside, “Two of Us” is a remarkably well-acted, exquisitely photographed chamber piece featuring two stellar performers who act out a scenario that must have jogged the imagination of so many of us, meaning: do people in their seventies have sex lives? And more specifically, do lesbians in their seventies have sex lives? If so, are their sons and daughters aware of this? (Yes Virginia, some lesbians have children of their own through marriage or less perilous means.) In this case Madeleine or Mado (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) have been lovers for decades. Living next door to each other in a town in the South of France, they have to sneak into each other’s apartment because theirs is a romance that not all French people can understand, least of all Madeleine’s mother Anne (Léa Drucker) and Anne’s brother Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain).

It may be hard to believe in these times, when most of the West—certainly France—has come to accept lesbianism, but sneak around they will, and their almost daily pas de deux gives this slice of life a comic touch. Filippo Meneghetti, who directs and co-wrote “Deux” as his first narrative feature scores big, and will hopefully evoke a deep emotional impact from his theater audience. The story begins simply, becoming more complex when the two principals realize that deux en compagnie de trois est une foule.

German expatriate Nina is next-door neighbor to Madeleine. They should have been able to be roommates but Madeleine, at any rate, fears the opprobrium of her daughter Anne. They plan to spend the rest of their lives in Rome but Madeleine gets cold feet and backs out of selling. Madeleine determines to come out of the closet with her daughter and son who are sure that their father was adored by her.

Their secret is complicated by Madeleine’s caregiver Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf) who believes that her job is being taken over by Nina, and senses the secret that Madeleine has kept from her son and daughter. At long last Anne and Frédéric are on to Madeleine, are understandably shocked, though the single moment when Anne discovers her mother’s secret is both amusing and melodramatic.

No scenes are wasted in a pas de deux that could easily fit on your TV or on an off-Broadway stage. The storytelling is crisp, to the point and forms a terrific palette for a dance that to my memory is thoroughly original.

95 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE LAST TREE – movie review

THE LAST TREE
ArtMattan Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shola Amoo
Screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/23/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

The Last Tree (2019) - IMDb

Distributed by Artmattan Films which boasts” films about the human experience of people of color,” “The Last Tree” is a coming of age story that focuses on the changes that form the boyhood and teen years of a British man with Nigerian roots. The drama is the second feature of Shola Amoo whose “A Moving Image,” about gentrification in Brixton, England, blurs the line between reality and fiction by incorporating real people affected by gentrification and who consider a young artist to be a symbol of a revitalization that excludes them.

In this latest project, the writer-director gives approximately equal time to Femi as a child (Tai Golding) and to him as a teen (Sam Adewunmi), hinting that we in the audience might take sides as to which incarnation is the more enjoyable. You can’t help noting that the young Femi is the more adorable fellow, his charm arising largely from the happy childhood he enjoys in a bucolic British suburb with Mary (Denise Black), a white foster parent. Femi fits in just fine with white friends his own age. We never find out why Yinka (Gbemisola Ilumel), his biological mother, could not take care of him, but unlike the foster children we hear about on the 6.30 news who had been taken in by exploitative women out for the money, this lad has clearly lucked out.

Too bad, like so many things, his halcyon home life takes a bad turn when his real mother, coming to see him for what is promised to be merely a visit, wants him back. You’ll think that Yinka lacks the stability to keep him for long, the boy remains in the less promising atmosphere of a London slum (“Careful—there’s pee,” warns his mother). After the passage of ten years, Femi, who spent years in what so many children can only dream about, has become sullen. He no longer has white friends, and Mace (Demmy Lapido), presumably a drug seller, has taken a shine to him, coaxing teen however reluctantly into joining a small gang.

Femi treats his mother like an enemy, not only for taking him away from a loving foster parent in a pleasant suburb, but also because she beats him if he does not take care of the house while she is away working as a cleaning woman. While he tries to avoid Mace—a rotund man with a ready smile—he alienates a few other locals by rescuing Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), bullied because of her dyed-blue braids and her studiousness. While his dedicated teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) takes time out to visit Femi at home, suspecting that he is ignoring his studies and is likely to drop out, the teacher is a good role model, telling the boy that he was not always a preppie and an old, boring teacher, but was once headed in the bad direction of his student.

Stil Williams sharply photographs the bucolic neighborhood, comparing it to the near slum of an inner city, and Segun Akinola’s music may swell at times but is not intrusive. In what amounts to a long coda that changes the tone of the picture, we find Femi and his mother abruptly in Lagos, Nigeria, where he meets his biological father. Though dad is a pastor, he is living in a house that bears comparison to New York’s Trump Tower with his golden staircase, polished marble floor, and enough space to take in a dozen foster children should he so desire. These final scenes are such a precipitous break, the story cries out for some explanation but never finds it.

It’s easy for us in the audience to relish Femi’s good luck as a child with a ready smile, we may find it difficult to empathize with the dour teen. Nonetheless, we leave the theater optimistic that Femi will soon “find” himself. Once that’s achieved, we need not worry about him.

English subtitles on the link that I used are superlative, clear, bold and easy to read, an important feature when those of so many movies and cheap and difficult to read.

99 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DISCLOSURE – movie review

DISCLOSURE
Breaking Glass Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Bentham
Screenwriter: Michael Bentham
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Lucy McMurray
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/3/20
Opens: June 30, 2020

Disclosure Poster

To paraphrase Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Lord, what children these adults be!” In a narrative involving four middle-aged adults in Australia (filmed by Mark Carey in Victoria), a conversation begins in a civil way but breaks down into a melodramatic conclusion. The movie “Disclosure,” is written and directed by Michael Bentham in his freshman full-length narrative film. Bentham, who was born in Switzerland, lived much his life in the UK and now resides in Melbourne, is an accomplished viola player and a writer-director who does a smashing job in building tension in this entry. By implication he indicts not only the foursome in “Disclosure” but shows us without mentioning any American government officials that politicians as high up as president can sometimes act like kids. Correct that: can always act like kids. That may go over at a wedding, but politics should demand more mature representatives than we in the U.S. must suffer with now.

“Disclosure” can be compared most closely to Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which finds two couples meeting cordially to discuss what to do about their children who had been engaged in a fight, ending up shouting and threatening in an increasingly childish manner. Like sons, like adults. Though the performers in “Disclosure” may be little known here in the States, certainly not people with the reputations of Polanski’s Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster, they do a fine job arguing back and forth about their children’s behavior, attempting to compromise, and showing what could happen when the chance to settle a six-week’s-old event ends in physical violence.

Emily Bowman (Matilda Ridgway) is a documentary filmmaker living with her journalist husband Danny Bowman (Mark Leonard Winter). They are concerned that their four-year-old daughter Natasha has advised them that Ethan, a nine-year-old, did some bad things to her, presumably of a sexual nature. Ethan is the son of Bek Chalmers (Geraldine Hakewill) and her politician husband Joel Chalmers (Tom Wren), a member of Parliament being considered for a high position. It helps to know that though the four individuals are neighbors and friends, both with enough money to own spacious homes with kidney-shaped pools in their backyards, there is a difference in social class not related to money. The politician is straight-as-an-arrow as you might expect a person to be when he needs the votes of a community, while Emily and Danny are hip. In fact the movie begins with an extended period showing the latter two photographing themselves while having sex, blurting out language that would make a sailor blush.

The four exchange pleasantries at first, their conversations becoming steadily more assertive and aggressive. Emily (but not so much her husband) wants to report the alleged behavior of the two children to child protection, which could ruin Joel’s chances to get ahead in his field. (Australian politics is different from that in America. Here a man holding the highest office in the land can grab women in any parts of their bodies and tell strings of obvious lies, thereby actually increasing his popularity with some voters.)

Did Natasha make the story up? Can’t be, insists Emily. Her daughter does not lie. What about Ethan? He doesn’t lie either, say his folks. Somebody’s lying and we cannot be sure which one, but the conflict becomes red hot when events turn up that, allow each couple to blackmail the other.

Though some of the threats and counterthreats are repetitious, the film at 85 minutes does not overstate its time. It features compact editing, colorful cinematography, and a quartet of citizens downunder who recall the antics of George and Martha’s baiting Nick and Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” A good, entertaining and credible show.

Can’t Australians just get along like us here in the States?

85 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

UNTIL THE BIRDS RETURN – movie review

UNTIL THE BIRDS RETURN (En attendant les hirondelles)
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Moussaoui
Screenwriter: Karim Moussaoui, Maud Ameline
Cast: Mohamed Djourhi, Sonia Mekkiou, Mehdi Ramdani, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/20/20
Opens: April 28, 2020

Until The Birds Return (2017) Movie Review from Eye for Film

An intriguing first feature by Karim Moussaoui filmed in Algeria is an eye-opener, not the least because it gives us in the West a picture of a country that some of us believe to be merely developing. Instead, by opening up parts of the country via a road trip, we can see well-built highways albeit with a lack of traffic that could make Angelenos turning green with envy. The three stories are only slightly connected, an Altmanesque format is not used, but through a look at three generations of Algerians, we get a picture of a place that few of us here in the U.S. have visited (Morocco gets the lion’s share of the Mahreb’s tourism). In fact much of what we see indulges scenes that I thought would be censored by the Algerian government, showing the cavorting of men and women, the latter taking off their hijabs and shaking up their hair and their hips, which would be obviously condemned by any Saudi official. The freedom exhibited here is mighty refreshing.

The middle story is easily the most interesting, as Moussaoui and his co-writer Maud Ameline appear merely to be warming us up for the delicious tale to come. But first: Mourad (Mohamed Djourhri) is a builder whose problems are not so much with his professional life but with family hassles. His ex-wife Lila (Sonie Mekkious), whom he visits in order to see his son, pressures him to motivate their son to become a doctor, but the lad cannot be budged. At the same time his second wife (Aure Atika) is fed up with Algeria and wants to return to France. In addition, on the road Mourad gets a flat tire and, in a dark, remote area he witnesses a man being beaten “to a pulp,” as he puts it to Lila, who criticizes him for not reporting the action to the police—even when he is safely home.

Better luck comes to Djali (Mehdi Ramdani), Mourad’s employee, who gets a few days off to drive a neighbor to a wedding, though he and Aïcha (Hania Amar), had been secret lovers. Aïcha is in no mood to celebrate the upcoming nuptials to “a good man,” so when her father takes ill and must be hospitalized overnight, he entrusts Djali to drive his daughter to place to spend the night, paying him to get separate rooms at a hotel for the night. Taking a break from the driving, Djali walks behind her and is repelled as though dealing with a woman playing hard to get, but lust will out. When they enter an empty bar, the musicians strike up a vigorous tune. A seductive Aïcha asks Djali to dance, and while waiting for him to make up his mind, she proceeds to shed inhibitions in the film’s most exciting part. Like a Greek chorus, a large group of dancers and musicians follow the two back to their car.

Shades of Harvey Weinstein in the final episode, as Dahman (Hassan Kachach), a neurologist intent on a promotion to a hospital directorship, is caught up in an accusation. The woman (Nadia Kaci) has spent months looking for the physician whom she is accusing of rape during a time that a group of terrorists during the Algeria’s sectarian war of the 1990s subjected her to gang rape. He threatens her, but she sits, confidently crosses her legs, and insists that he is guilty. What’s more she has an autistic son in the rickety house. The doctor is charged not with taking part in the rape but in doing nothing to stop the men. (This is a possible reference to the incident with Mourad in the opener who refuses to call the police upon witnessing a beating.)

Among the happier moments in a generally somber tale the doctor, who is marrying a much younger woman, takes part in a wedding dance to the accompaniment of a large group of enthusiastic guests. Among the good qualities of the movie is that aside from the time that music is actually needed as part of the action, “Until the Birds Return” avoids Hollywood movies’ often intrusive music in the soundtrack.

In Arabic and French with English subtitles.

113 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

NINA WU – movie review

NINA WU
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Midi Z
Screenwriters: Ke-Xi Wu, MidiZ
Cast: Ke-Xi Wu, Yu-Hua Sung, Yu-Chiao Hsia, Ming-Shuai Shih
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/10/20
Opens: TBD

Could it be that even in faraway Taiwan, the people who make films are inspired by the justice meted out to Harvey Weinstein? If only it were true that the former Miramax producer is the only man to take advantage of his power in assigning roles to women, but we suspect that some men, not all, I’m told, will use whatever authority they have to ease or frustrate the ambitions of women whose careers and even their very lives rest in the hands of manipulative people with power. In the Weinstein case, the jury had little reason to doubt the testimony of women he is accused of exploiting sexually, though some have waited two decades to come forward, since Weinstein would allegedly threaten to blackball any woman who resisted his advances so they will never work in Hollywood again.

Now comes Midi Z, the Myanmar-born director, whose “The Road to Mandalay” about two Burmese who flee from a government with a succession of authoritarian political leaders to find new opportunities in Thailand, shows him eager to enlighten the public about class struggle. Morever Ke-Xi Wu, who appears in almost every scene, also co-wrote the drama, indicating that for her this is likely a personal film. The woman she portrays projects her depression, her very post-traumatic stress after a single event that changed her life and pushed her down the road to terrible fantasies and paranoid notions. She handles the role with so much fervor and such authenticity that we cannot help thinking that she is portraying actual events in her own life or outright delusions.

Having played on the stage in her rural town, Nina Wu seeks to advance her career by moving to Taipei. She has to settle for bit parts. She is getting older and yet hesitates when her manager suggests the chance she has for a big role in a 60’s thriller provided that (he is diplomatic about this) she is willing to play sex scenes with full frontal nudity. Wu, who spends a good part of the movie projecting psychological conflict and neurosis, gives it some thought and goes for the gold. She is not aware that playing a part like this is the least of her problems. She suspects that the producer of the film is either not too right in his head or simply taking advantage by lining up six actresses, humiliating them by asking them to play dogs and drink wine while they are doing this. All six go along until the competition comes down to two, just like the current Democratic candidates rivalry. One woman, her chief opponent, remains on all fours, looks up at the producer, and states that she would do anything. Does Wu have a chance against that?

The scenes involving Wu’s sick mother and financially unwise father, are really unnecessary. They do not further the plot except to make us wonder whether Wu inherited some of her dad’s recklessness. The story does not progress in chronological order, handing us the key scene near the end, the one that makes us realize what turns Wu’s paranoia over the top. Some of the action is Wu’s fantasies acted out, or are they? What about the one in which the person giving her a beauty treatment threatens her, accusing her of getting the role despite being not as meritorious an actress as she? How about the fantasy of the nurse who climbs into her mother’s bed and begins to strangle her?

We can assume that Midi Z gives his principal performer much latitude in this feminist tale about one of the world’s industrially advanced nation that like America has no problem putting men and women on the screen in suggestive poses. Some men who have seen the film say that they felt pain in having to watch what women have to go through. This is one of those stories that could find men with dates hiding under the theater chairs, ashamed of what people of their gender do to the fair sex. Outside of the extraneous scenes mentioned here, “Nina Wu” has the feel of a psychological thriller, all actions both physical and emotional bearing the soul of the actress-screenwriter.

Behind the lens, Florian Zinke throws in a good look at the city of Taipei and one of its neighboring villages. The picture is in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

103 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ABE

ABE
Blue Fox Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade
Screenwriter: Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Salem Murphy
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/20
Opens: April 17, 2020

“Abe” opens like the CBS sitcom “Sheldon,” dealing with parents who wonder how to get their precocious nine-year-old to fit in, segues into an American version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama “Celebration” wherein dangerous hidden truths are revealed at a 60th birthday celebration, and concludes Hollywood style, the opposing sides meeting in the middle. The dramedy stars Noah Schnapp in the title role, in real life a 16-year-old inhabiting the enthusiastic soul and creative mind of a young man on the cusp of an upcoming Bar Mitzvah who has an identity crisis brought on my his feuding parents and grandparents. The movie is a delight, light and fluffy for the most part, a model of a story that like President Trump is all for motherhood and world peace, perhaps targeted to a Y/A (young adult) audience but which is in every way suitable for all ages, religions, and identities.

The story is unfolded by Fernando Grostein Andrade, a Brazilian filmmaker from São Paulo making himself quite at home shooting scenes in Brooklyn, which I would guess takes place at least in part in the fashionably youthful Dumbo neighborhood.

The film is all about fusion in food and in people, made all the more appropriate given the lush land and variety of cultures in Brazil, more specifically Bahia. Abe is the kind of person who though not fitting in with his own age group and who inevitably is (lightly) bullied and kidded by classmates, seems happy enough—though his parents and grandparents seem to take pleasure in raising the roof at the boy’s birthday party. The attention paid to him by his family is intrusive (as is some of the music in the soundtrack), not only because he is an only child but because two groups—Muslims and Jews who get together (though they shouldn’t)—are trying to influence the boy to follow their cultural traditions. We should mention as well that the kid’s dad Amir (Arian Moayed) is Muslim but identifies as atheist. In that last regard, Abe wonders at a outdoor fair whether it’s sinful to eat pork and is told by his dad, whose birth religion should eschew pig as much as that of kosher Jews, that restrictive customs like those forbidding certain foods are ridiculous. Amir is my kind of guy.

Instead of going to summer camp, Abe plays hookey, befriending Chico (Seu Jorge), a Brazilian chef, who at first shoos the kid away, then takes him on as an intern who must first wash the pots and haul out the trash, and then will be given pointers on cooking. Experimenting successfully for the most part with fusion cooking, melding popsicles with hemp seeds, he introduces and goes with the film’s great metaphor—that his parents and grandparents may be from different, even hostile religious traditions, but need to be fused, i.e. “saved,” by this young would-be messiah.

There is no way that we in the audience would believe that the arguments at the table between the Zionist side and the Palestinain proponents would be so basic and repetitive, so “Middle East 101,” given that these people must have been together for similar feasts for years. Perhaps that is part of why the movie may be targeted to young adults who spend their days and night texting banalities, leaving them no time for geopolitics. Anyway, the whole smorgasbord, or fused falafel and Manischewitz, works well. The few sentences spoken in Hebrew, Arabic and Portuguese are given nice, bright, yellow subtitles. It’s a small world after all.

85 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ATLANTICS – movie review

ATLANTICS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mati Diop
Screenwriter: Mati Diop, Olivier Demangel
Cast: Mama Sane, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traore, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane
Screened at: Soho House, NYC, 11/17/19
Opens: November 15 in theaters and November 29 streaming

Atlantics (2019) movie photo

Senegal’s Oscar candidate is part ghost story, part romance, with even a dollop of social commentary and criticism. The film is anchored by the lovely 17-year-old Marne Bneta Sane as Ada in a breakthrough performance as a woman who is destined to marry Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich individual who spends nine months in Italy each year. When Ada confesses to her friends that she is in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and that she has no interest in coupling with Omar, they advise to suck it up. After seeing Omar’s house with a bed that is large enough to carry a man with four wives comfortably, they are envious. Given the tight economic times in this third-world country, you can’t blame them for the chance at being taken care of in style.

Director Mari Diop, who is the first female black person to present a film in competition at Cannes plays down the supernatural aspects of her new film in favor of stressing the romance, though given the shabby neighborhoods covered on location in Dakar (specifically the Plage du Virage, Plage de Yoff, and Thiarove though with key moments at the Radisson-Blu Hotel) you will not find lovers cavorting in an ersatz Paris. With a bunch of eager, nonprofessional actors photographed amid a Dakar community with a tower block under construction, “Atlantics” faces off with a group of pissed-off construction workers who have not been paid for three months. They have just about given up the possibility of getting their due, instead taking off in a rickety board for Spain Souleiman among them.

Being stiffed from wages becomes a concept that will appear toward the conclusion of the film, but the constant, understandable obsession with money finds Ada’s friends Fanta (Amina Kane) and Marianna (Mariama Gassama) hanging out at a night club on the beach looking for sugar daddies that will allow them to remain in Senegal rather than having to take off for Europe.

A fire burns down the aforementioned detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned to the case, but the police work is already beginning when the eyes of the women at the night club turn white, corneas only, crash the home of the construction boss N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene), demanding that they pay the wages owed even though the men are out to sea, dead, or already in Spain. Wherever they are, you will likely suspect that Souleiman will return to his great love, whether with milk-white eyes or seeing normally, to spend at least one night with the heartbroken Ada.

“Atlantics” is a compelling work that will disappoint those who like their zombie movies filled with terror but will be embraced by folks who like their films nuanced with supernatural elements that genuinely expand and interpret the plot.

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

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

AMERICAN WOMAN MOVIE REVIEW

AMERICAN WOMAN
Roadside Attractions/ Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jake Scott
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Amy Madigan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/16/19
Opens: June 14, 2019

American Woman Movie Poster

As you watch “American Woman,” you will soon see why its star, Sienna Miller, could rise to the top of Oscar candidates for best actress and also of the various organizations and guilds that announce awards annually. Her performance as Debra (Sienna Miller), a single mother whose reliance on men will gradually wear away as she gains in maturity, wisdom and specific experiences. Jake Scott, the director, whose “Welcome to the Rileys” focuses on an emotionally distraught man who, like Debra, finds a modicum of salvation by taking care of a woman, is obviously in his métier with the current offering. Scott’s people living hardscrabble lives in rural Pennsylvania with clouded political horizons to such an extent that they vote for Republicans if they bother casting ballots at all. The movie’s writer, Brad Ingelsby, implies that these folks are representative of a broad swath of Americans who have been cast aside as factories close down in our country.

Debra has had to overcome emotional handicaps early on as she has had a baby at the age of sixteen, had considered abortion, but decided that she wants the little fella enough to fight against more rational thoughts. She is dependent enough on man to put up with an abusive Ray (Pat Healy), who thinks nothing of hitting her and of laying down the law to her son, who is now seven years old. As though the kind of life she dreams of is not unattainable enough, she suffers the loss of her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), a kidnap victim who has most likely been murdered, perhaps by teen Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), who is Bridget’s absent dad. By contrast Deb’s sister Kath (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, is content with her devoted husband Terry (Will Sasso), a mensch who is willing to do whatever is needed to help Deb and other neighbors.

Six years go by. Bridget is still missing. Deb tries to elevate her station by taking accounting classes while raising Jesse (Aidan McGraw), now age seven. Then zap. Ten more years pass by and Deb is now attached to Chris (Aaron Paul), a devoted family man happy to become Jesse’s role model, until yet another domestic issue appears to cast Deb into blackness.

While the plot is nothing new—woman desperate for stability and affection, realizing the bad choices she has made—“American Woman” is all about Sienna Miller’s riveting performance as a lower-middle class woman whose growth comes in spurts but has never realized contentment. Her roller coaster emotions sees her at times desperate, at other moments optimistic, an American woman whose life may never reach true fruition.

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

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

JUST MERCY – movie review

JUST MERCY
Warner Bros
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 11/2/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Just Mercy (2019)

Freeing wrongfully convicted people is an excellent theme for fiction as well as for documentaries. Think of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Guardians,” in which Quincy Miller, a black man, is convicted of a murder that has no witnesses and no apparent motive. Languishing in jail for 21 years, he has his case picked up by Collen Post of the Guardian organization, which can accept only a small percentage of cases that come to its attention. There are people who don’t want Miller freed: his lawyer’s life is in danger. In Ton Shadyac’s movie “Brian Banks,” a football star is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and is later freed thanks to Justin Brooks of the Florida Innocence Project.

In time for Christmas, a season of good feelings by people who want feel-good movies, “Just Mercy” enters the genre, a film by Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton following up his “The Glass Castle,” about a young woman brought up by unconventional parents, often living in poverty, whose folks now criticize her for marrying a financial analyst in New York thereby trashing their values. While “The Glass Castle” is not about the judicial system, its theme embraces the idea of giving up a conventional life, one that everyone expects you to pursue, in favor of helping the people who need you the most—the post, the disenfranchised, the wrongfully convicted.

The most surprising thing about Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” is that it is based closely on an actual case. As the plot rolls out, you might scarcely believe that a guy fresh out of law school, albeit Harvard, without prior experience and with a view that the impossible takes just a little longer, succeeds in winning a case full of obstacles. The principal obstacle is the desire of an Alabama town sheriff (filmed in Georgia) and young D.A. to hold on to their reputations, which depends on keeping the town safe. That’s safe for the white folks on the right side of the track, since for African-Americans there never is a feeling of safety from an oppressive local and state government and hostile townspeople.

The fall-guy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) enjoys what could have been his last day of freedom, felling a tree and being arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white girl. Though he has a strong alibi, it is backed up only by the local black community. A white felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), is promised a lighter sentence if he testifies against McMillian, who perjures himself leading to a conviction (I just corrected a typo, the more adept “confiction”). Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), out of Harvard Law School, heading from a lucrative career in Delaware but choosing instead to drive south to defend hapless people who may have been wrongfully jailed. He is lucky to get out alive, drawing hostile stares from the white community and especially its lawmen, even strip-searched before the first conference with his client. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), his white paralegal who sets him up in her home pending the rental of an office,

McMillian who at first does not trust that this young man can do anything for him but soon shakes his hand in agreement. Stevenson moves for a re-trial but is buffeted by the establishment until he winds his way through the judicial process to get just mercy.

Some of the interesting side lines include the conversations that McMillian has on death row with his neighbors, all in solitary confinement. The most stellar scene in the work finds Stevenson interviewing Ralph Myers to get an admission that he lied when he accused McMillian of standing over the body of the dead girl. Tim Blake Nelson, his bottom lip twisted to the side as though a victim of a stroke, his eyes blinking, head swiveling, turns in what in my mind should make him a candidate for best supporting role awards.

For those who have never seen this type of courtroom drama, never exposed to “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Conviction” with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” based on a Stephen King novel, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” will be particularly riveted by this intense drama. An older audience might challenge this movie’s value on the grounds that it’s a straightforward biopic in strict chronology, those people wanting more free-floating imagination in their courtroom dramas. Nevertheless, for all potential audiences, “Just Mercy,” given its fiercely motivated performances, is a delight, a Christmas feel-good drama which even at over two hours does not overstay its welcome.

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

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

SEFARAD – movie review

SEFARAD
Veranda Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luís Ismael
Script History: Research Center of the Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal
Cast: Rodrigo Santos, Pedro Galiza, Ana Vargas, Gabriela Relvas, Jorge Fernandes, Rui Spranger, Pedro Frias, José Neto
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, November 1, 2019
Opens: December 15, 2019

Sefarad (2019)

In my neighborhood, young Hasidic men and women spend much of each Friday walking around, judging whether the people they see on the street are Jewish. It’s quite common for a fourteen-year-old pair of girls to approach a woman, and for a fifteen-year-old man to close in on a man, asking “Are you Jewish?” Anyone who replies “yes” might be taken inside a “mitvah tank” to get a tefillen wrapped around his arm, get a blessing, and be sent away with the hope that yet another secular Jewish person will come back to the fold. This is a half-hour procedure the closest thing to what Christian missionaries do around the world, but there’s a difference. Judaism is not looking to convert people of other religions, only to awaken the latent Judaism in those who are members of the tribe. This is not unlike situation taking place on a grander scale in Oporto, Portugal, a city to which Jews returned in the Nineteenth Century to form a small community, the leaders of which are determined to bring the “real” Judaism to a group of so-called Marranos, or Crypto Jews, living in semi-isolated mountainous villages.

These Marranos (an offensive term that should give way to the more neutral “Crypto Jews”) were Jews who during and after the Inquisition in Spain converted to Catholicism to avoid the fate of these landsmen who were massacred in 1391. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became outwardly Christians, but the Crypto-Jews are those who practiced Judaism in secret. When beginning in 1923 Portuguese army captain Artur Barros Basto became involved in reclaiming these mountain people who did not pray in the same way as do the Jews who never had to convert. Moreover they were not even considered Jews by some, especially by one London-based financier. Barros Basto recruits a segment of these people and brings them into a classroom where he teaches them the “real” literature, culture and rituals of Judaism. He insists that they be circumcised because, he notes, nobody can be accepted into the embrace of Israel without a small, symbolic penile cut. For this latter act Barros Basto, a hero of World War I, is tossed out of the army and becomes the Portuguese Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Luís Ismael, who directs this look at specific periods in Jewish history, is known for “Balas and Bolinos” about a gang that robs a gas station, following up with additional dramas about the leader of the gang. Not quite what we would expect from this director. Now he manages an epic story that covers five centuries in ninety minutes in a movie named Sefarad for an Iberian region where Sephardic Jews originated. Inspired by a true story of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961) who is portrayed here by Rodrigo Santos, this idealistic leader determines to establish a strong Jewish community in Oporto including the construction of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in 1938, the largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

This is a story without humor, a serious drama whose director is obviously inspired by one man who performs a minor revolution by getting a synagogue financed and built and means for all Jews in Oporto, but who admits ultimately that he failed. He faces resistance from the Marranos, many of whom had no intention or desire to change their ways, leaving behind a large synagogue with too small a congregation. As a former high school teacher I found the liveliest scene to take place in a modest classroom where the teens look at each other with shock and disbelief when told that they would have to undergo the placement of a knife to the penis. Inspiring is the scene of the captain as the stereotypical man on horseback, trudging through the tiny, mountainous villages and addressing the residents as if to say “Are you Jewish?” Rodrigo Santos anchors the film, speaking in fluent Portugese and English, relying on the help of his right-hand man Menasseh Ben Dov (Pedro Galiza) who will ultimately leave Portugal for what was then called Palestine.

The actors can sometimes deliver their lines too stiffly, particularly those playing British financiers with disagreements about recognizing Crypto-Jews as Jews (with good reason as many continue to attend Catholic church services), and much of the dialogue is didactic as though it were being presented to a middle school classroom. Despite these reservations, we should welcome “Sefarad” as a look at clash between Marranos culture, as these converted Jews over the centuries may have forgotten everything about the religion or, if they retained it would practice in a different way from those who never had to convert. Interestingly Barros Basto had thought of himself as a Catholic until his dying grandfather confessed to Jewish family origins. He converted to Judaism, was circumcised in Tangier, and changed his name to Abraham Israel Ben Rosh. His own converso story was passed over too lightly in the film.

In Portuguese, English and Hebrew.

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

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