A LA CALLE – MOVIE REVIEW

A LA CALLE (To the Streets)

Warner Media 150 for HBO Max
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nelson G. Navarrete, Maxx Caicedo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/13/21
Opens: September 15, 2021 on HBO Max

A La Calle (2020) - IMDb
Political Activism

Some American Marxists have a habit of endorsing the government or any country that calls itself socialist, as though each of these authoritarian regimes have not wound up with firmly statist roles. So it is that in Venezuela, American socialists and their sympathizers virtually deified Hugo Chavez for breaking up big estates and handing them over to “the people.” His successor, however, never had the Chavez’s charisma, and what’s more he has been blamed for turning his once rich Venezuela into a nation rife with starvation and hyperinflation. There is little doubt that Nicolás Maduro rigged elections and, in fact, our own previous president recognized his major opponent as the actual interim president of Venezuela. In this documentary, Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo make the case that Maduro does hold his post illegally as do hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who line the streets demanding his ouster.

“A la calle” calls dramatic attention to the situation in Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, now perhaps the poorest. But in giving so much attention to the street protests, where opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopéz and Juan Guaidó bring out hundreds of thousands of citizens of Caracas a la calle—directors Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo do make crystal clear why so many people treat these opponents as though they are messiahs.

Instead of doing their best to try to block out the speeches with intrusive music, the directors could have made clear why the country blames the current president for sinking the country’s economy. The economy is contracting as the country is almost wholly dependent on the world price of oil—which it does not control. At the same time, prices for goods are sky high, so that a family might be able to afford a kilo of cheese and a couple of plátanos, they would have to choose between the two. If it were not tragic, it would be humorous to note as we see one head of family plunk down bankrolls of bolivars as though he had just robbed a bank, but all of that paper is worth just enough to get some pasta and rice Can you imagine what would happen in our country if inflation hit 450% a year as it does in Venezuela? Some years ago a U.S. dollar would net you 100 bolivars. Now one dollar can get you 404,296,000,000 bolivars. Need wallpaper, anybody?

When the government–imposed price ceilings on food, the supermarket shelves were cleared out in days. Now that the government has backtracked, milk, eggs, flour, soap and toilet paper are unaffordable to most. But here’s the rub. While Venezuelans and an increasing number of soldiers have crossed the bridge to Colombia, the film does not explain why so many folks believe their problems would be over if Maduro departed: a corrupt dictator who refuses to allow humanitarian aid from Brazil and Colombia since that would be an admission of failure. If opposition leaders like Juan Guaidó, once head of the Venezuelan National Assembly—which at one point was dissolved by Maduro—took power in Miraflores–he is recognized as the current interim president by fifty countries—how would that solve the food and medicine shortages? Even the brief allowances that Maduro made by distributing food to his supporters among the poor through the CLAP program is corrupt. It is said that Maduro owns the company from which the food was bought, but we do not learn this from the film.

While it’s true that Maduro and his inner circle have gained weight on lavish meals while 78% of his people are starving, we’ve got to ask: once again, how would a new leadership change the situation when the country depends so much on the price of oil? We wind up with a film full of sound and fury (and did I mention the intrusive, unrelenting music?) signifying little other than rah rah speeches and impressively filmed street demonstrations.

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

Story – C-
Acting – n/a
Technical –B
Overall – C

THE LAST SERMON – movie review

THE LAST SERMON
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jack Baxter
Writer: Jack Baxter
Cast: Abdullaziz Ali Abobker, Acram Said Ahmad, Aeham Ahmad, Iyad Al-Dajani, Susan Alamo, Tony Alamo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/10/20
Opens: December 20, 2020

The Last Sermon_new poster.jpg

You can call this film director Jack Baxter’s vanity project if you like, but in any case “The Last Sermon” mirrors the kind of odyssey that will make you cheer on its filmmaker and hope that he will gain the insights he seeks. Baxter is a New York resident who was injured in the terrorist bombing of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv in April 2003. Three people were killed and many were injured. Baxter walks around now with a cane, partially paralyzed from the suicide bombing which left piece of shrapnel in his body.

Baxter, a slim fellow standing six feet two inches who has a thick mess of curly white hair and a Bernie Sanders accent, wants to know why radicalized Islamists have actually gone against the teachings of the Koran. Just as one of the principal beliefs of Judaism is “treat others as you want to be treated yourself,” in other words we are all equal, the prophet Mohammad preached in the year 632 his last sermon before a multitude of followers. He said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white. Do not do injustice to others, therefore do not do injustice to yourselves.”

Yet the world has suffered through a plethora of attacks by Muslims who apparently did not read or did not agree with the prophet, our own case here in the U.S. highlighted by 9/11, when almost 3,000 Americans were murdered when three separate aircraft aimed themselves at New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol building.

The doc starts in Jerusalem, introducing Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem outside Mike’s Place. From there the crew traveled to Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Germany the Czech Republic, France, and England. Playing the harmonica to get the attention of refugee communities in countries that have allowed Syrians and Afghans safe harbor, he discusses his quest with Muslims and others whom he meets on the way, most sympathizing with his point of view that Islam is a religion of peace. As one fellow tells him, jihadists are little more than murderers, clothing their actions with the material of religion. That in one sentence should satisfy Baxter, an insight that even I could have told him had he interviewed me. One of the refugee areas had a large sign with a picture of President Trump, a circle and a diagonal line drawn through him as though to call him their enemy—which he is.

The only lip he gets is from a far right presidential candidate in Prague, who insists that there is no way the Islamic culture could find a home in her country, that she does not mind a handful of refugees already there nor does she draw back against doing business with Islamic countries. But it is quite clear that she has no use for them in her Eastern Europe domain. In that she reflects the view of the current far-right president of Hungary, one of several authoritarian rulers that our own president admires.

The film picks up near the conclusion when in London, Baxter, unsuccessfully trying to contact the relatives of one of the Tel Aviv bombers, gets literally up on a soapbox in Hyde Park to denounce terrorism before a handful of people, curious about a New Yorker in suit and tie who expresses a point of view with which nobody there can find fault. Then, in a tense meeting with a politician who appears not to take a strong stand against jihadism, Baxter cries out, “They’re murderers! Murderers!” as he at first steps away from the man as though to protect both of them from a potential fight, then returns a few paces to cry “They’re murderers!”

This doc, in its cinema verité style, is not unlike Jack Baxter’s previous “Blues by the Beach,” about a live music blues bar by the beach in Tel Aviv called Mike’s Place. The aim is to show there is more to the Middle East than seemingly endless war and terrorism. Ironically enough, that is the very place that became the scene of a suicide bombing.

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

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

SUMMERLAND – movie review

SUMMERLAND
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Swale
Screenwriter: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Siân Phillips, Tom Courtenay, Amanda Root
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/22/20
Opens: July 31, 2020

Poster

If you’re a fan of World War 2 movies you might have seen the stirring Warner Bros. films “Into the Arms of Strangers” (2000) about the Kindertransport, wherein thousands of children were sent from Nazi-dominated Europe to relative safety in the UK. Now comes something similar; a tale of heroic actions by which women in the rural areas of the UK were volunteered temporarily to take in kids living in London during the blitz, transported to the safety of the sticks. “Summerland,” which gets its title from a pagan heaven, is Jessica Swale’s freshman output as a narrative film, a solikd beginning which is mostly a casually-paced drama of a solitary writer with a cantankerous personality that makes none of us wonder why she is still single. However, in flashes of her backstory, we find her living happier moments during a romantic relationship with another woman who must sadly abandon her because she wants nothing more than having a regular family.

The picture is bookmarked by the older Alice (Penelope Wilton) who in 1975 pecks away at her typewriter, having completed a novel based on her wartime experiences. During the early stages of World War II, Alice (Gemma Arterton), then in her mid-thirties, learns that she has been drafted to take in Frank (Lucas Bond in his third feature film), a boy of about 13 who has arrived from London with a father who is in the British army and a mother who is looking out for the lad’s safety during the blitz. Since Alice has been attacked by the local riff-raff kids who consider her a witch because she is a woman living alone, we don’t need to wonder that she agrees, kicking and screaming, to take the kid in “for a week.” Predictably enough, young Frank is about to find a place in her heart, an organ that appears semi-comatose since her lover Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) left her to find a man and raise some kids.

At first Alice barely speaks to Frank, who is expected to clean and cook while she is writing a thesis debunking pagan myths, including that of Summerland, a land of eternal summer, with grassy fields and sweet flowing rivers, perhaps the Earth before the advent of humans. a Frank is not deterred. He shows genuine interest in a picture book about the legends and in one situation actually “sees” this Summerland, which is nothing more than a fata morgana.

Given the place in which women have been kept for centuries as people who should keep quiet unless spoken to but should relish nothing more than baking cookies, raising kids, and cleaning, this woman is among those who, when the men are off fighting, are called for tasks needed for the war effort. In this case it’s for the vitally important job of taking in children to save them from the bombings in London. In the movie’s major twist, we learn more about how Alice was picked for this particular child.

The story is deepened by the companions that Frank makes in the new school, particularly of Edie (Dixie Egerickx), who at first is afraid to join her new boyfriend Frank at the home of “the witch” but softens up when she discovers that Alice may be a normal woman after all. Tom Courtney, sounding like Peter O’Toole as Mr. Sullivan, the school’s headmaster, is well cast as a good soul who, now about eighty years old is doing what he can do best for the war effort.

“Summerland” is a woman-centered film bolstered by Gemma Arterton’s role through a variety of emotional storms—heartbroken to lose her lover, fearful of having to give up the boy when his mother is ready to take him back. This is a gentle tale with moments of high drama. filmed by Laurie Rose at Seaford, East Sussex, in England’s south coast.

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

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

SLAY THE DRAGON – movie review

SLAY THE DRAGON
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance
Screenwriter: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance
Cast: Ari Berman, David Daley, Margaret Dickson, Anita Earls, Katie Fahey, Ruth Greenwood, Chris Jankowski, Justin Levitt, Vann Newkirk
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/12/20
Opens: April 3, 2020

Poster

 

The United States is not only a democratic country; it is a Democrat nation. This means that theoretically if every eligible adult voted, the Democrats would regularly take a majority of seats in Congress and in state legislatures. The Democratic Party has grown because of immigration and through the ability of formerly minority groups to increase their numbers. Minorities like Hispanics and African-Americans tend to vote Demoratic. Then how did it happen that Republicans captured majorities in so many state legislative houses and Congressional elections? Some say it’s because the poor are less likely to vote than the middle class and the rich. Others say it’s because some states are now requiring photo id’s at the voting booths, which the poor are somehow less likely to acquire. According to Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance who direct “Slay the Dragon”—a logo on the T-shirt of a successful young activist—the reason is the corrupt practice of gerrymandering.

Every ten years a census is carried out. Each state legislature is allowed to redistrict the territory since some districts lose so much population that their representatives are out of their jobs while others gain population and may be able to elect more legislative reps and members of Congress. However, wanting to hold on to their jobs and their power, states’ partisan commissions have gerrymandered, which means they have carved up districts not like boxes and rectangles but in such a way that their opponents are tossed away into a just a few districts where they can elect whom they wish, giving most other areas majorities that they would not have had if the opponents remained where they were. The new district had weird shapes: some look like salamanders, others like bats. Many other strange designs make clear that corrupt political considerations have gone through the map to keep more of their own party in power. (For more detail on the process of gerrymandering, check out the Wikipedia article.) For purposes of this left-leaning documentary, we are led to believe that the Republicans do this more than the Democrats, because, as stated above this is a Democratic (capital D) country which would have captured more seats if the districts were drawn fairly.

Why do Goodman and Durrance blame the Republicans? Because only recently they have embarked on a major plan to overturn the natural Democratic majorities in this country by their corrupt redistricting plans. Is gerrymandering just an abstract idea that should not worry us? No. Look at what happened to Flint, after the GOP had redrawn the map of the Michigan to allow Republican districts to predominate. The party hired finance managers allegedly to manage Michigan’s financial woes. These people turned the Flint River into the city’s water supply. Thus the brown water coming from the faucets such that, as one person states, “Even my dog would not drink that.”

Since state legislatures do the gerrymandering, Republicans hit on the super-rich like the Koch Brothers to finance campaigns in the individual states, outspending the Democrats and carrying districts that they ordinarily would not have had a chance to do. The principal character in the doc, a young woman, Katie Fahey who peppers her lively sentences with “like” and “awesome,” shows how she carried out a massive job in getting the required 350,000 signatures of Michigan citizens to get a proposition on the ballot. Her group, called Voters Not Politicians, is able to win the cause: that henceforth independent groups would do the redistricting rather than the politicians. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, similar grass roots movements got a case up to Supreme Court, also determined to end political gerrymandering. Ultimately, than to Kavanaugh’s rising to the Supreme Court when Anthony Kennedy resigned, the Wisconsin activists did not succeed

It’s now easy to see that just as the Electoral College, designed by rich white men, thwarted the elections of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, most state legislatures are dominated by Republicans despite the fact that in a recent election, tabulating all the votes of all the states, Democrats took 60% of the vote. We’re not a banana republic quite yet, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. to become an ideal democracy.

The doc is forceful, correctly partisan, and the smell of corruption should enrage right-thinking people.

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

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

HOW JACK BECAME BLACK – movie review

HOW JACK BECAME BLACK

Dark Star Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eli Steele
Screenwriter:  Eli Steele
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/29/18
Opens: June 1, 2018
How Jack Became Black Poster
When I taught a drama class at a vocational high school whose population is 80% African-American and 20% Hispanic, we took up an obscure play called “Affirmative Action.”  In that drama, a single black student is in a class that included Asian-Americans, the rest of the youngsters being white. The typical grade given by the teacher on reports is a B.  This black student would listen to projects performed by the Asian-Americans and the white kids and could see their merit.  Whenever he delivered a report, he could sense how inadequate it was, how it was not up to the standards of the class.  And yet, each time he had such an uncomfortable experience, those in which he would have given himself not much better than a failing grade, he received a B.  He became equal in class standing to those whose talks were admittedly better than his. Finally, he protested to the teacher (something that in all my 32 years’ experience I had never witnessed).  “Why is Kim’s speech a B and mine is also a B when I was clearly not as prepared as she was?”  The teacher hemmed and hawed and would not give him a decent answer.

Obviously the reason for the equality of grades was identity politics, in this case the result of a policy of affirmative action.  Strictly speaking identity politics is a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.  For the purpose of this film, though, it is the policy of the U.S. to consider the significance of a person’s race, religion, or ethnicity in making decisions about school admissions and later jobs. Specifically this affirmative action has been a well-meaning intent of those in power to redeem America after centuries of racial injustice; the belief that oppressed minorities must be boosted artificially to allow them to compete in the market with whites, and to help overcome white privilege.  Many of the court cases and legislative debates have come out for or against affirmative action, believing that we are all one race, the human race, and allowing preferences for some groups is undemocratic.

Eli Steele, whose absorbing documentary “How Jack Became Black” aka “I Am,” centers on the writer-director-editor, a man whose mixed race evolves from his birth to a white Jewish mother and an African-American father.  He is also profoundly deaf and wears a cochlear implant over his right ear.  As a youth he had been bullied, in one case having the lawn of his home littered with papers calling him the n-word and also berating him for having a physical disability.  You would think that Steele would become a darling of the Democratic Party, the Bernie Sanders faction to boot, but instead, he opposes identity politics, believing that does nothing more than keep race and ethnicity in the forefront of how we label people.  He wants the individual to count, and is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Though he has said that he voted for Democrats and Republicans over the years, his viewpoint would coincide with the thinking of  the conservative National Review magazine.  Who would have thought that a warrior for racial justice would think like a political conservative?

Steele was motivated to make this documentary when he was to enroll his small son Jack (and also his daughter, a year younger) in school for the first time.  He refused to check the box for race and ethnicity.  He was asking for trouble, but without that trouble how would we have had this vivid documentary?  He was informed that he could not enroll his boy in school unless he checked a box despite Jack’s being of mixed race.  He took his case to the LAUSD, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and got a runaround.  Finally he faced reality and checked “black,” and that’s how little, multiracial Jack became black.

The documentary has some colorful animations but by far the bulk consists of Steele’s interviews with a few dozen people who offer their opinions on identity politics, and some archival film about some of the protests, mostly by African-American students, who want to maintain affirmative action.  Never mind that M.L King believed that people should be judged for their character rather than their race.  For these protesters the time has not yet come, and I can sympathize with the street demonstrations since our country in recent decades has become more racist, more than less.

Consider as the best example the not guilty verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, whose white father and Peruvian mother would label him of mixed race.  When the New York Time coined the term “white Hispanic” for him, the paper opened up a Pandora’s box because now, his killing of black Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, would look like a case of a man of white privilege killing a black man, the latter being assumed a fellow who, though unarmed, attacked Zimmerman and was shot dead.  This is among the reasons that Steele believes putting people in boxes—white, Hispanic, black, Jewish, Asian, Pacific Islanders—keeps race in the forefront of our attention and individuality up in the bleachers.

With a minimum of bromides that have come out of recent movies and news reports on race, including recent shootings by white cops on unarmed black suspects, Steele’s documentary is a refreshing take on one of the controversial theories that divide America.  Steele probably knows that most black viewers will disagree, will hold that we have not come even close to a post-racial society and that being members of an oppressed race should give them special attention in the college market and the job search.  And I would agree, believing that Steele’s conservative views—those which would probably be considered in the platforms of Republicans rather than Democrats—show a person who wants to transcend current reality.  Steele is a fascinating person who, because of his deafness and its effect on his voice, seem to require subtitles, but I could make out every word clearly.  Viewers will be impressed by his work in making this film whatever their views.

Unrated.  84 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LADY MACBETH – movie review

  • LADY MACBETH

    Roadside Attractions

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade:  B+

    Director:  William Oldroyd

    Written by: Alice Birch.  Adapted from the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov

    Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank

    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/14/17

    Opens: July 14, 2017

    If you read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and were particularly mesmerized by the role of Lady Macbeth, you might get the impression (if you’re just a naïve high-school junior) that behind every successful male murderer lies an ambitious, cold-blooded woman.  A couple of centuries post-Bard, the Russian author Nikolai Leskov penned a novella which he called by the less-than-compelling title “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” and that’s not all.  Dimitri Shostakovich used the tale for his opera of the same title, first performed in Leningrad in 1934—one filled with such godforsaken dissonance that you will turn back a while to a time of less cacophony than that promulgated during the 20th Century to enjoy Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

    Like Figaro, “Lady Macbeth” focuses on a marriage of the sort not completely unknown in our neck of the Western Hemisphere.  In short, it was short.  And it was unhappy. Writer Alice Birch, faced with the challenge of adapting Leskov’s novella, shifts from Russia of 1865 to 19th Century England.  She creates a good guy who becomes a bad guy; one in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor.  (We need not mention the many areas of the world peopled by victims of imperialism and worse who are accused of becoming despotic today.)

    Since Director William Oldroyd’s reputation is on the line with his first full-length movie, he is fortunate in starring Florence Pugh as title character, a woman whose prior film experience has been only in “The Falling,” wherein she played a charismatic pupil in a 1969 English girls’ school faced with a mysterious fainting epidemic.  Given the superior script of “Lady Macbeth,” Pugh shines.

    Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been sold by her debt-ridden father to a scrofulous gaffer, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who owns a large house with considerable land and which employs a cook, a housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and groundskeepers, notably Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).  All are intimidated by the old fella, including Katherine.  Her husband’s erectile dysfunction could symbolize the reactionary British law that allowed women to be sold to men twice their age.  Though Alexander on his wedding night orders his wife to take off her nightclothes and face the wall, he oddly slips into bed and turns to his left side, nodding right off to sleep.  When Alexander must leave town for a while, the sexually frustrated Katherine does what any other subjugated woman would do: she seduces the groundskeeper.  (Feminists in the theater audience might take issue, since the brutish but strangely ethical Sebastian first tries to force himself on the young woman.)  With her new confidence and irrepressible horniness, Katherine can’t get enough of the working-class fellow, but her newfound freedom turns her from victim to victimizer.

    That’s where Katherine turns into her section of merrie England’s Lady Macbeth in a movie that’s minimalist rather than the expected Masterpiece Theatre type of drama.  The dialogue is spare yet energetic, the emotions bold and all-consuming.  In fact Anna, the housemaid who follows orders but is virtually mute, becomes the catalyst for an expose of enough murders which, if actually occurring today, would rate the attention of PM Theresa May and the membership of both the Commons and the House of Lords.  The scenery could be reminiscent of areas in classics like “Wuthering Heights,” all photographed in England’s County Durham, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear.  No attempt is made to embroider the area, and even the old Boris admits that the pasture would not be suitable for the raising of cows.

    Some in the theater audience might embrace Katherine, even excusing her sins, a woman with a force unleashed, possessing an angelic beauty but a person who will stop at absolutely nothing for vengeance and to get what she wants.

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

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

     

SHOTCALLER – movie review

  • SHOT CALLER

    Saban Films/ Lionsgate

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade: B-

    Director:  Ric Roman Waugh

    Written by: Ric Roman Waugh

    Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Benjamin Bratt, Holt McCallany

    Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/10/17

    Opens: July 20 on DirectTV, August 18 in theaters

    Shot Caller Movie Poster 

    Prison sucks.  If you want to rob a bank and are looking to cover yourself in case you’re caught (and you might be caught, or else why would our jails be overcrowded?) go to Norway.  Anders Behring Brievik, the guy who in minutes killed 77 teenagers for the crime of being politically leftist, was sentenced to 21 years.  And like others of the clan, he likely received a private apartment with full kitchenware, including knives. (Read the book “One of Us” and seeing Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.”) And he complained that he was denied the videogames he liked.  A mass murderer like that should be drawn and quartered in the opinion of most folks, but Norway is a progressive state unlike places like Mexico, Bangladesh, Iran and scores of other countries where convicts do not get apartments with kitchens.

    The U.S. is probably among the better prisons, though, for reasonably tolerant conditions, at least when compared to Bangladesh and Mexico.  Overcrowding results from overlong sentencing particularly for non-violent crimes, and overcrowding can turn reasonable offenders into bitter, vindictive-seeking hombres, just as you might expect some inmates in Gitmo might be innocent but could become become newly-honed ISIS members if and when they are released.

    Notice how many penitentiaries in America are called “rehabilitation centers” or “correctional institutions,” though the only thing they likely correct is their residents’ will to get honest jobs when they’re released.  Ric Roman Waugh, who wrote and directs “Shot Caller,” in 2008 directed “Felon”—about a fellow with a good future who unintentionally kills a burglar and is sentenced to a violent prison.  He is later transferred to a maximum security institution under the command a corrupt lieutenant.  You might guess that Waugh, whose qualifications to do prison dramas include his being a former stuntman, now looks to better box office, again writing and directing what he knows.  If we were to consider what Waugh is saying, it’s that prisons are the opposite of rehabilitation centers.  They are training grounds for violence both in the jails and outside.

    As in his previous movie, Waugh is laying into the prison system, with his principal character, Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) serving to show that there is something wrong with the way we deal with offenders. Harlon, a successful businessman, has the back luck to run a red light, accidentally killing his best friend sitting in the back seat of his car.  Because of the law which throws the book at people responsible for violent deaths, he is sent to a maximum security cell, initially offered a plea bargain that would send him away for sixteen months, ultimately for a term of life without parole.  How does this happen to a man who is presumably well educated and firm support of his wife (Lake Bell) and young son?  Simple answer: prisons can turn reasonably sane and well-educated people into savage beats.  It’s not the parole officers like Harlon’s (Omari Hardwick).  It’s not the warden or the guards.  They are just doing the best they can with a mixed and largely violent population.  It’s the fellow prisoners who could make life easier for themselves if they just quietly did their time. 

    Harlon quickly learns the ropes.  Racism is rampant.  Whites and blacks stay apart, socializing with their own, at least during those times that they are not literally at each other’s throats.  There’s a gang, there’s a rival gang, fights break out, knifings occur, the leaders are sent literally to small cages designed to break their spirit, and cons make plans for additional felonies when they get out.  When Harlon, now called by his nickname “Money,” tries to survive, he loses all sense of himself as a rule-following businessman, grows a fu Manchu mustache, combs his hair back, gets his body tattooed, and tells his wife that “it’s over.”

    But here’s the problem with the movie.  The director appears to want to evoke a masterful performance from his principal character, editing the scenes so frequently, shifting back to Harlon’s early life, then forward to his prison time, then back, then forward.  As we watch Jacob Harlon in both guises, we see how prison has changed him, made him a new and not at all better man.  This is done to such an extreme that the plot is confusing, requiring some viewers to see the movie again and maybe a third time.  I could have done without the saccharine scenes between Harlon and his son—who forgives his dad and follows the older man’s advice to “get on with life.”  Most of all though, notwithstanding the effective shots of gang warfare in a maximum security institution and the powerful performance by Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (whom you will recognize as Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones”), the insistence on a compulsive shifting from his innocent times as a successful financier to his ultimate acceptance of life without parole is simply too garbled and chaotic.

    Rated R.  121 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

A BOY CALLED PO – movie review

  • A BOY CALLED PO

    Freestyle Digital Media
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  John Asher
    Written by: Colin Goldman from his story
    Cast: Christopher Gorham, Julian Feder, Kaitlin Doubleday, Andrew Bowen, Sean Gunn, Caitlin Carmichael
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/10/17
    Opens: September 1, 2017

    John Asher is known for a wealth of TV appearances as an actor and has directed “Theo Von: No Offense” featuring Von in a comedy about singular events in his life such as his meeting with Brad Pitt.  When he was 21, Asher, whose father was the original director for “I Love Lucy,” directed “Kounterfeit,” about an ex-criminal drawn into the business of making money–literally.  This time, with “A Boy Called Po,” he focuses on a ten-year-old whose neurological condition is exacerbated by the death of his mother.  The title boy played by Julian Feder in a breakthrough performance frustrates his dad, David Wilson (Christopher Gorham), who has a difficult time keeping his job as an aeronautic engineer when he is regularly called at the office to take charge of his son for a myriad of incidents caused in part by the boy’s inability to communicate with his peers.

    Po reflects the condition of the one person in 68 throughout the United States who have been diagnosed with autism, a neurological blip in development that causes those suffering from the condition to be less able to connect with people, to communicate with them, to succeed in social situations.  The condition frustrates key people with whom he shares space, including the school principal and a group of kids who bully him and call him “freak.”

    Asher’s film, based on Colin Goldman’s story and screenplay, finds David as a single parent taking care of Po.  He loves Po and is frustrated by his inability to hug his son.  Po obviously loves his dad, but pushes him away whenever David tries to touch him.  Since autistic people are wont to display repetitive activities, Po regularly says “Don’t be afraid,” which mystifies David, though when the loose ends are tied by the conclusion, David realizes what he means.  As for Po’s regularly asking “Where’s Mommy,” David ultimately discovers that by telling his son the truth, he has opened the lad up for better communication.  Po occasionally goes to a happy hour by immersing himself in visions, such as his meeting with a pirate in a coastal area, the sort of thing that non-autistic people do only in their dreams.

    Director Asher follows Po and David through the mall, in the school, in a center for autistic youngsters, and also in private therapy lessons with Amy (Kailing Doubleday), who energetically plays with the boy especially on a swing, which for some reason is not simply fun but a way to work through the disability.  Like some autistic kids, Po is a savant in math, covering his bedroom chalkboard with such formulas as the binomial theorem.  He has been able to read since the age of three, currently most interested in the Wall Street Journal—a feature that will have dramatic payback in the conclusion.

    The chemistry between Po and David would be called excellent, but of course if that were true early on, there would be no movie.  How he develops a way to express his love for his dad is part of the film’s theme.  Julian Feder, whose personal publicist should get on the ball by releasing a Wikipedia article, or at least a biographical sketch on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) that would at least cite his age.  It’s a splendid breakthrough for young Feder in a three-hanky movie that might be criticized by some journalists for being too sweet and sentimental, but Hallmark style movies work for me and probably will for you as well.

    The movie features original music by Burt Bacharach in addition to the composer’s best-known song arrangement, “Close to You,” which became a hit in 1970 when sung by the Carpenters.  Cinematographer Stephen Douglas Smith captures the beauty of Po’s visions.

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

DRIVING WHILE BLACK – movie review

  • DRIVING WHILE BLACK

    Artist Rights Distribution
    Director:  Paul Sapiano
    Screenwriter:  Dominique Purdy, Paul Sapiano
    Cast:  Dominique Purdy, Sheila Tejada, John Mead
    Screened at: Critics link, NYC,
    Opens: February 1, 2018
    Driving While Black poster
    The best way to convince an audience of your political reviews is not to bop them over the head in your desire to proselytize.  People resist heavy-handed treatment, just as police get their dander up when suspects challenge their authority.  The best film to hit home on that score last year, “Get Out,” is perhaps the best movie of 2017 because it finds much to criticize with one large segment—the progressives, or the liberals as they used to be called—who think that they have no racism in their DNA but are effectively exposed as hypocrites.

    “Driving While Black” is itself a great title because like the Paul Sapiano’s film, it uses wordplay to impress its target audience.  Director Sapiano, whose “The Boys Guide to Getting Down” in 2011 deals with sex, drugs and bad behavior, is in his métier with this latest contribution, as he hones in on a rough section of Los Angeles whose police, whether white or black, can sometimes be as much of a problem as the gangs.  The comedy serves both to entertain and to caution those of us who think that the police can do no wrong given the extent of the criminal element. It is often flat-out hilarious.  Credit Dominique Purdy, both the principal actor and co-writer, for a movie that will inevitably be well received in early 2018.

    Dmitri (Dominique Purdy) is a typical young and hip black man who has the ghetto look—the hoodie, the baseball cap, the wtf attitude.  He does not have a threatening look, though the cops would disagree, he means well in his attempt to get a job as a Hollywood tour guide, and even has an artistic bent, using hydrochloric acid, coat hangers and a blow torch for his projects. He smokes weed (not a biggie except to the cops) and hangs out with people whose attitude toward the men and women in blue often gets them and Dmitri in trouble.

    Sapiano takes us on Dimitri’s pizza rounds and the hanging out episodes in Dimitri’s Ford Focus.  Scenes that stand out include one in which the person to whom he is to deliver pizza is under arrest in the police vehicle as the arresting officers open the box and take their free slices. They love the pepperoni, and even feed the handcuffed suspect a bite.

    The tension arises when Dimitri, on the way to an interview that would improve his life, is stopped, lined up, and insulted by police such as Officer McVitie (Peter Cilella), who is particularly racist as he received a vicious beating years back by five men.  He is certain that Officer Borty-Lio (Sheila Tejada), the only really good cop, was promoted to sergeant over the men with more experience because of affirmative action.

    The picture claims 32 festival wins and is most deserving of your time.

    Rated R.  92 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

IN THE LAND OF POMEGRANATES – movie review

IN THE LAND OF POMEGRANATES

First Run Features
Director:  Hava Kohav Beller
Screenwriter: Hava Kohav Beller
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/20/17
Opens:  January 5, 2018

First Run Features: In the Land of Pomegranates

Our President states that if anyone can negotiate peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s his son-in-law, but then, that was before he provoked days of rage in the Arab community by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  The conflict between the two peoples has been going on at least since 1948, since Palestinians recognize all of  Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as Arab land.

With the thought of stimulating discussion between young people in the two communities, a number of youths are invited to Germany to discuss their opinions with one another.  They are deliberately housed together, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Central European country when they are not trading viewpoints in a large room.  What’s called “Vacation from War” is thankfully just half of the 123-minute film.  The rest, easily the more arresting sights, involves an array of individuals throughout the West Bank and Israel proper.

First, though, as for the discussions.  There is no stated objective, but we might surmise that one aim is to show that all the individuals are human beings, none of whom possessing horns on his or her head.  They do that.  Another might be to project into the future that some of these youths might become high level members of government, using their knowledge to negotiate peace.  That’s a long shot.  What actually occurred is that the Palestinians and the Israelis acted like today’s Republicans and Democrats, remaining united with their own separate tribes, sticking together just as all Republicans in our own Congress voted the same on the disastrous tax bill and all the Democrats likewise stuck with one another.

As I see the conference, the two tribes did not get together, not even at the pace of an aging, sclerotic snail.  Quite the contrary, they dug in, provoking anger rather than kumbaya at every moment.  The Arabs declared that no Jews should remain in either Israel proper or the West Bank, though when asked whether they would support the existence in some way of a Jewish populace, they averted the issue.  For their part, the Jewish contingent brought up the Holocaust, maintaining that some place simply had to become a refuge for the oft-humiliated Jews, whether from the Holocaust or the pogroms of various countries and empires.  What’s the point of “Vacation from War” when one side believes that it is treated so badly by the Israeli government that their suffering is worse than what was experienced by the Jews of the Holocaust.  Have these people ever seen films about the camps?

Aside from the discussions’ being needlessly provocative, insipid and wholly without originality, the film is saved by events occurring on the outside over a wide area.  The most heartwarming sense involve a Gazan woman whose young child, Mohammed, has a serious heart defect and is given permission to cross the Erez frontier into Israel for surgery.  There, a Jewish doctor performs the delicate, complex operation to restore the flow of blood and end the suffering and anticipated early death of the cute lad.  “We don’t see people as residents of different areas,” states the heroic doctor.  (In a similar vein, Israeli hospitals are treating Syrian refugees who cross the Golan Heights for treatment.)

On a sadder note, 85-year-old director Hava Kohav Beller, whose film spans decades and who worked on it for years—even showing the heart-operated recipient four years after surgery—observes the tense battles erupting now and then via intifadas.  The Arabs throw stones, the Jews return the fire with rubber bullets.  We realize a dichotomy in the titles of the film, as “pomegranates” are a Middle-East-grown fruit associated with rebirth but is also the Hebrew word for grenade.  Summing up, in a future film, lose the pointless discussions and show more depth about both the fighting and incidents of heroism.

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

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

IMAGE OF VICTORY – movie review

IMAGE OF VICTORY (Tmunat Hanitzahon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEXUAL DRIVE – movie review

SEXUAL DRIVE

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

Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Japanese with English subtitles.

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

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

BREAKING BREAD – movie review

BREAKING BREAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.

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

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

THE POWER OF THE DOG – movie review

THE POWER OF THE DOG

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

The Power of the Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE GIG IS UP – movie review

THE GIG IS UP: A Very Human Tech Doc
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shannon Walsh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/2/21
Opens: October 8, 2021

Poster
Who gets the fries?

Bosses hire workers to make money from their labors. They may treat them like family while they’re associating with them in close quarters such as in an office, but if they could produce goods and services without human labor, you can be sure they would toss the employees out. One group of workers are treated even more obviously as mere moneymakers. Employers rarely if ever see them, so the human touch in that regard is out. These are gig workers, members of the huge platform economy, so-called independent contractors, which is merely a euphemism for “you’re on your own.” They are not appreciated as human beings by either owners or the people they serve.

Look at the meaning of “gig.” Originally it was a colloquial term referring to musicians. A single job playing for a wedding or Bar Mitzvah was a gig. Merriam-Webster says a gig is a job with a stated end-point, a temp. As the term is used here, a gig is a job that depends on consumers’ use of phone apps. You hail a ride with Uber or Lyft by a few clicks. You order food with Deliveroo. Some gig workers work on fine-tuning artificial intelligence of internet sites. They are metaphorically and often literally unseen by the rest of us. The worst thing about gig work is not that they do not feel respected by their customers, but that they are considered independent contractors, and not employees. That means no overtime pay, no health benefits, no sick leave, no paid vacations. It sucks.

At first director Shannon Walsh, whose “Illusions of Control” deals with people in crisis creating new landscapes, hones in on some happy gig workers, making us think that this is a documentary about the freedom of working outside of offices. You’re out in the street on your bike, digging the sunshine, nobody checking what you’re doing every minutes. What’s more it would not matter what kind of education is required, whether a worker is undocumented, whether you’ve been a felon. But as with pharmaceutical drugs, the side effects could be worse than what’s promised. How can you survive especially in a city like New York or Paris without the benefits to which most of us are accustomed? It’s a wonder that these gig workers, at least in the film, did not become homeless.

The guy you may remember most, fella in his 30s who takes care of his mother, gives the impression that his gold teeth are all natural. He’s massively tattooed, he speaks slowly, his mother spends what little money he can give her on cigarettes and lottery cards, in one case marveling that she won two bucks. A Yemeni American with perfect English shows us how to lead a strike in San Francisco, pushing for recognition as an employee and not an independent contractor.

Among the intellectual talking heads, Prayag Narula predicts that by 2025 the gig economy will become so huge, cutting down the income on the workers, that the Middle Ages would look like paradise. We hear from Mary L. Gray, author of “Ghost Work” and Nick Srnicek of the book “Platform Capitalism.” The latter is a term many of us never heard before. That and the insights given to us throughout the film makes it unique. Can you remember any other movie like it? You might call director Shannon Walsh the equivalent of Britain’s Ken Loach, though Loach’s focus is on regular, normal workers who have it just as bad as of worse than those dealing with platform capitalism.

Special attention is given to gig work in Lagos, Nigeria; Paris, France; and Shenzhen, China.

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

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

NOT GOING QUIETLY – movie review

NOT GOING QUIETLY
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nicholas Bruckman
Writer: Nicholas Bruckman, Amanda Roddy
Cast: Ady Barkan, Tracey Corder, Elizabeth Jaff, Rachael King, Ana Maria Archila, Nate Smith, Jeff Flake, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/10/21
Opens: October 5, 2021

Ady Barkan and son Carl

Life is a crapshoot. When a couple decide to have children to complete a family, their fingers are likely crossed that they will bring forth a healthy birth and that their offspring will enjoy full happy lives albeit with the strong possibility that their health will deteriorate in old age. A two-year-old with leukemia puts all heaven in a rage, as the poet William Blake might say. A person in mid-thirties who acquires Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (after the famous baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers), may well make religious folks question God’s motives. While some adults with the disease—it’s idiopathic, i.e. of unknown origin, unavoidable even by strenuous exercise, a Mediterranean diet, yoga, meditation, or picking the right parents—may resign themselves to the wasting of their muscles in this neurological nightmare, Ady Barkan is not going quietly. After receiving the crushing diagnosis from his neurologist, who gave him three to four years to live, Barkan became an activist in Congress, demanding with his group of followers that our government pass legislation for Medicare for All or Universal Health Care and to stop messing around with the reactionary idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare to allow corporations and the wealthy to pay taxes that today are way too low.

Since “Not Going Quietly” is not a biopic, we hear nothing about Barkan’s parents—one of whom is Romanian and the other Israeli—nor are we shown that he was brought up in a secular Jewish-American household and graduated from Yale Law School. Director Nicholas Bruckman, whose “Valley of Saints” is a narrative of a poor Kashmiri citizen who tries to run away, chased by the military, does not shrink away from capturing the deterioration in Barkan’s body as he goes downhill from being wheelchair bound to losing the clarity of his speech and movement in most of his body. But Barkan, who has a wife Rachael and a young son Carl who calls his daddy by the Hebrew word Abba, becomes a figure not of pity but one that thrusts him into such strenuous political activism that Time magazine has called him one of the world’s one hundred most influential people.

In addition to fighting against Trump’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh, whose politics might lead him to hand down decisions that would financially impact the health of disabled Americans, he is caught on camera buttonholing then Senator Jeff Flake on a commercial flight, begging him to vote against a right-wing supported tax bill. Despite Flake’s willingness to listen, standing up in a plaid shirt and showing empathy with the fellow in a wheelchair, he did not promise to vote the way Barkan would like. Still, this confrontation may give viewers the faulty impression that Flake was one of the large majority of ultra-conservative Republican lawmakers when in fact he was among that party’s most reasonable members (not a high bar to overcome). The talk on the aircraft went viral on social media, giving people who do not read newspapers new insight into the divisiveness of current American politics, highlighting the cruelty of self-serving politicians.

Barkan’s story is an inspiring one with limited sentimental goo, one that should give viewers the idea that perhaps our government should spend more on medical research, authorizing more money for seriously disabled people than fighting hopeless, unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. Thankfully ALS is a rare disease usually picked up in late middle age and not in one’s thirties as was the case with Barkan. It will make you wonder why Republicans speak and vote as though social services for ordinary people are disposable while expanding the Monroe Doctrine to cover not just the Western Hemisphere but the entire world commands the attention of today’s oft-times cruel and thoughtless policy makers.

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

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

SHEPHERD: The Story of a Jewish Dog

SHEPHERD: The Story of a Jewish Dog
JDog Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lynn Roth
Writer: Lynn Roth, Based on Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog”
Cast: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Ádám Porogi, Viktória Stefanovszky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/21/21
Opens: May 28, 2021

If you have even been owned by a dog or two, if you have felt the reciprocal love that comes from this lucky break, prepare to shed a tear. “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog,” tells of the separation and the ultimate reunion of a 12-year-old boy Joshua (August Maturo) and his German Shepherd Caleb (Hebrew for “dog” also connoting “as if it understands”). But if you are the kind of person who, when told by a friend that her dog got lost, or died, and you respond, “So what? It’s a dog and you can get another,” you might miss the emotional impact evoked in this film or, who knows…you might see and feel the tragedy when dog and human are separated.

The idea of a Jewish dog may be ironic, or maybe not, but in any case Lynn Roth, who directs and co-wrote, adapted Israeli Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog” translated into English by Michal Kessler, which on Amazon states that it is meant for people fourteen years of age and up. It is, I believe, meant for the entire family, if you overlook its basic simplicity (meant as a compliment because it is kid-friendly) and the fact that everyone speaks good English—the Germans played largely by Hungarians, the folks playing Yugoslav partisans, and to a lesser extent the American actors.

Surveys have found that forty percent of Americans have no idea what the Holocaust was all about, certainly true of the “Proud Boys” and Oath Keepers who are sure that it was all made up by Jews who pushed for the creation of Israel, and who spread the fake news via the “worldwide Jewish control of the media.” There is a direct line from the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Life is Beautiful,” made largely for teens, so you don’t have to worry that your adolescent girls and boys will hear any curse word stronger than the “damn,” or that any dog would have the bad manners to pee and poop for the camera, or even to sniff another canine butt. But you will see the phenomenal brutality of the Nazis save for one guy, Ralph (Ken Duken), who adopts “Shepherd” with the job of chasing runaway Jews, calls him “Blitz,” and gives him love. Never mind that he is ready to kill young Joshua, a resident of the Treblinka concentration camp, for stealing crumbs meant for the camp animals.

The tale opens on the Berlin of 1935 when Jews are increasingly oppressed by signs on stores “No Jews allowed.” Joshua’s mother Shoshonna (Ayelet Zurer) and father Samuel (Ádám Porogi) break the news that Jews have been forbidden to have pets and that all their dogs were impounded. Shepherd is adopted first by the housekeeper’s husband Frank (Miklós Kapácsy), who calls him “Wilhelm,” and is henpecked by his mean wife Greta (Lois Robbins) who uses the opportunity to tell Frank how worthless he is.

Shepherd runs away, finds his way home, sees that his family is missing, and is caught on the street by the dogcatchers. In short order, he’s chosen by Nazi Ralph (Ken Duken) who now tells the dog his name is Blitz. Blitz is so brilliant that he learns to give the Heil Hitler salute, ingratiating him with the German officer corps who assign Ralph the job of training him to cut down anyone wearing a yellow star.

Life as shown in the Treblinka barracks is neither “Stalag 17” nor “Escape from Sobibor.” Little Joshua is assigned to feed the camp’s ducks, chickens, pigs and dogs, at which time Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz excitedly sees the boy and Joshua excitedly sees “Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz. The rest follows the tenets of historical fiction, though the movie ends before the book does so we do not see the death of the dog or Joshua.

The key conversation in this film takes place early on, as Joshua’s family tries to sell Caleb in the park. They are confronted by a potential sale, but the interested gentleman takes a pass because he cannot get the dog’s papers and therefore may not be pure. Call this a subtle dig at the show dog world, but more important, the passerby has internalized the absurd idea of the purity of blood. As sixty percent of Americans know, Jews, gypsies, even Jehovah’s Witnesses went to death camps because of the so-called impurity of their red stuff in a film which avoids graphic scenes like prisoners hanging (though a few get electrocuted on the camp fence, but that’s a distant shot).

This is a compelling enough movie, an effective Holocaust 101 course, entertaining enough for the big fry and likely absorbing the teens and prepubescent. The show’s star, the title character, is uncredited in the IMDB may be played by more than one dog.

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

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

ATOMIC COVER-UP – movie review

ATOMIC COVER-UP
Exposed Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greg Mitchell
Cast: Greg Mitchell, Daniel McGovern, Herbert Sussan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: March 20, 2021 through March 30, 2021 at Cinequest in San Jose, California and streaming.

Atomic Cover-up (2021) - IMDb

Bumper stickers on the backs of cars provide sound bites of their drivers’ political views. You may think you can avoid getting parking tickets from traffic cops with the sticker, “Support your local police.” If you do not like U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, you sport the saying, “We’re creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.” Shortly after World War 2 (as I recall) and even in recent years, there is the bumper sticker “No Pearl Harbor, then no Hiroshima,” which some people today would assume is the motto of fellows on the political right. However, left-leaning folks today would find a major flaw in that last motto: the bombing of Pearl Harbor killed mostly sailors, military people, a total of some 2500. The American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000, at least 80% civilians; that includes old men, women and children. In fact the Hiroshima bombing was directed toward the center of the city and not to the military base.

Nowadays we have so many issues to think about that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings fade into obscurity. But thanks to the people who filmed “Atomic Cover-Up,” which includes grainy black-and-white celluloid taken by Japanese journalists shortly after the bombing in addition to color shots by the U.S., we get to see not only the devastation to buildings (just a few remain almost intact) but more poignantly to the people who fell victims to the heat and radiation. One poor guy lying in his stomach had a back as raw as a skinless-and-boneless salmon. Red from neck to waist. He was in agony and begged to be put out of his misery, but the doctors and nurses who heroically treated victims of the bombs were determined to treat him. He survived and is now married with kids.

Despite the intrusive music in the soundtrack, there is much praise due to the showing of this film at the Cinequest Festival in California’s San Jose, and further, that the film was declared top secret by the U.S. for decades gives it the resonance of a forbidden fruit. Shots taken immediately post-war portray and apocalyptic vision of a Hiroshima virtually leveled, and remember that this hear 1945 bomb is a pup compared to what nine countries possess today. As one commentator notes, the next nuclear war will be “the end of everything.”

The irony of it all is that a military man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the bombing unnecessary as Japan was already defeated, thereby attacking arguments by some that the atomic bomb saved tens of thousands of American lives, soldiers who would have to stage a land invasion of the Japanese archipelago in order to end the war.

After being declassified the film aired in 1970 on PBS and is available now as a streaming. Moreover film-maker Greg Mitchell had written a book on the history of the footage, now available on Amazon, though the small number of reviews there indicate that not that many prospective readers consider it a hot political issue today. Its 52 minutes’ length and its selection of only a small amount of devastating human suffering makes John Hersey’s classic “Hiroshima” the more heartbreaking.

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

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

 

THE GOOD TRAITOR – movie review

THE GOOD TRAITOR (Vores mand i Amerika)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christina Rosendahl
Writers: Kristian Bang Foss, Danja Gry Jensen, Christina Rosendahl
Cast: Ulrich Thomsen, Burn Gorman, Ross McCall, Zoë Tapper, Denise Gough, Pixie Davies, Henry Goodman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Nicholas Blane
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/25/21
Opens: March 26, 2021

Poster for The Good Traitor

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, capital city of a country that heroically ferried its Jewish population of 7200 to safety in neutral Sweden, thereby saving their lives from Nazi onslaught. Denmark, which is now among the most progressive countries in the world embracing what may be called Medicare for All, generous parental leave, long time off in the summer, has a problem in its twentieth century history. There was, I fear, something rotten in the state of Denmark, because when Hitler invaded the small country, the Danish government offered virtually no resistance, negotiating with the Hun almost immediately. The cowardly action gained more opprobrium when its king and prime minister fired its ambassador to the U.S., an action resisted by the person holding that office, which called its outpost in Washington the official government of Denmark in exile.

“The Good Traitor” is a biopic, well not exactly since it is “inspired” by the tale of Henrik Louis Hans von Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen), focuses almost equally on domestic melodrama as on political gamesmanship. The title character is considered a hero if you look backward from the present year but considered by the Danish government during World War II a traitor. Ordinarily a fellow who may represent only a small country but whose bravery catapults him to modern heroism would be too busy giving the middle finger to King Christian X to have time for a 51-year-old’s hanky-panky. But Kauffmann, married to Charlotte MacDougall (Denise Gough), is in love with Charlotte’s sister Zilla Sears (Zoë Tapper). The affair had been going on for years, leading to a melodramatic confrontation when Charlotte discovers the two kissing in the ample grounds of the Danish embassy in Washington.

Charlotte, however, has an important role to play, being an American, the daughter of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William Dugald MacDougall, giving her a special “in” with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Henry Goodman)– played with laid-back, aw-shucks behavior. While the war in Europe is raging, Henrik uses Charlotte’s influence with POTUS to help push a reluctant America into the war, noting that Hitler is not going to stop his conquests at the water’s edge. He wins the gold. Literally. He names himself the legal government rep of Denmark when he is merely its fired ambassador, which allows him to unlock the gold bars in New York’s Federal Reserve Bank to finance liberation activities in at least ten other Danish embassies including those in Iran and Egypt. He also has the chutzpah to sign away part of Denmark’s colony of Greenland to the U.S. for air force bases in perpetuity. It’s no wonder that the cowardly government in Copenhagen and a surprising number of pro-Nazi Danes consider Kauffmann an enemy of the state. History now judges the man a good traitor.

The film includes a meeting of FDR and Churchill (the latter looking more bloated than our previous U.S. president) in the presence of the Danish ambassador, who simply acts as though his firing never took place It reaches toward soap opera whenever Kauffmann, who has juice with the President for Pete’s sake, cannot get his wife to excuse his peccadilloes with her own sister. In defense of his extra-curricular recreation with Zilla, he reminds his wife that he loves Zilla’s… eyes. Who could resist? Who is so hardhearted not to excuse him, for the flesh is weak?

The movie makes no attempt to build up to a surprise conclusion that could be copied in a future horror movie by Dario Argento or Wes Craven or Eli Roth, giving us much of the final scene in the opening moments. This is a respectful projection of the crucial war years involving Kauffmann, and old-fashioned biopic complete with the beautiful ballads of the thirties and forties in America on the soundtrack. Jo Stafford’s “The Things We Did Last Summer” would have been most appropriate. Danish-born Christine Rosendahl, whose “The Idealist” deals with a nuclear disaster during the Cold War, is in the director’s seat.

The film is in English and in Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

QUO VADIS, AIDA? – movie review

QUO VADIS, AIDA?

Neon Super Ltd.

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Writer: Jasmila Zbanic
Cast: Jasna Djricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Isakovic, Johan Heldenberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/16/21
Opens: March 5, 2021 at Angelica Theatre in NY. VOD March 15, 2021

Quo Vadis, Aida?

I recall in my high-school days the units on World War 1 and World Was II that emphasized that all wars are caused by four general conditions. They are: Imperialism, Nationalism, Alliances, and the fourth is given the fancy term “international anarchy.” That last item means nothing more than there were no effective peacekeeping forces able to intercede against the warring parties to force them into peace. We do have the United Nations now, the UN does send well-armed peacekeeping forces to war zones, but that international organization has been criticized for its impotence against aggression.

Among the best examples of this deficiency is the genocide conducted particularly in 1995 during a war between Bosnian Serbs who are Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims, sometimes called Bosniaks, who inhabit the same country—itself an offshoot of the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo-born Jamila Zbanic, who dealt with the Serbian rapes of Muslim women in“Grbavica: the Land of Our Dreams,” brings to vivid life the barbaric killings by members of the Serbian army together with paramilitary units of innocent Bosnian Muslims in the village of Srebrenica. Under the command of the brutal Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), the soldiers emptied out the village, sending up to 8,000 civilians of all ages to the death by machine guns while escorting the women away. (Zbanic does not go into what happened to the women, implying that they may have been given safe conduct though the reality is that they were raped and possibly killed.)

Everything is seen through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), the energetic Bosniak interpreter who had been a teacher in the town, called upon now to translate the Bosnian into English for the benefit of the Dutch UN forces. The UN under Colonel Thom Karremans (Johann Heldenbergh) is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you are cynical enough) inept, unable to prevent the Serbs from doing whatever they felt like doing, notwithstanding that Srebrenica was called a safe town under UN protection. Given the incompetence of UN peacekeepers, Serb army units did not fear threats to call in air strikes if necessary, which may remind you of how former President Obama threatened Bashir Assad’s Syrian government with military action should the Assad unleash gas during the civil war there, then did nothing when provoked.

Aida acts heroically, negotiating with the Serbs but is furious at the UN for allowing only 5,000 people to remain within a gated area while others are stuck outside. (This is an expensive production as the company has obviously hired hundreds of extras to take the roles of the oppressed Muslims.) But she is human as well, giving special attention to saving her husband and her two boys from being gunned down on the spot.

In the role of Aida, we may find it curious that Jasna Djuricic is Serbian, while one would think that nobody from that ethnic group would be willing to take part in a film that is anti-Serb. The scenes are horrific, the only sentimentalism coming from a woman who gives birth on the grounds. It is impossible to look away, so vividly is the toxic toying by the Serb general of the populace dependent for the lives on his orders.

As for the puzzling title “Quo Vadis, Aida,” the term means “Where are you going,” referring to a legend that Peter comes to a crossroads where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina, which he means the risen Jesus. The reply: “Romam vado iterum crucifigi” or “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” It’s anybody’s guess how the title applies, but perhaps it means that after the peace, the teacher remains in the town to conduct classes. To be oppressed again?

The film is a co-production of twelve production companies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.It is the Bosnian entry for best international film in the 93rd Academy Awards competition, and has been deservedly shortlisted into the top fifteen.

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

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

ADAM – movie review

ADAM
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Maryam Touzani
Writer: Maryam Touzani in association with Nabil Ayouch
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Nisrin Erradi, Douae Belkhaouda, Aziz Hattab, Hasnaa Tamtaoui
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/11/21
Opens: March 5, 2021

Adam (2019)

You don’t want to know what happens in some Muslim societies to women without husbands who become pregnant. Happily for the characters in “Adam,” Morocco is not what of the ultra-conservative countries but is in fact wide open to Western film-makers who want to take advantage of its fascinating cities (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes particularly) and desert landscapes. “Adam”, is a Moroccan-made film by a Tangier-born director, Mayam Touzani, who is known for co-writing “Razzia,” five stories that come together in Casablanca. “Adam” is her first feature film, though you would think it’s a work by a director with an extensive résumé. It’s a woman’s story whose only men other then as customers of a woman’s snack food is a suitor, Slimani (Aziz Hattab) and the title character (uncredited) in his debut performance. (Adam shows his acting chops, able to cry on cue and dissolve into pure pleasure in the presence of a woman.)

Lubna Azabal in the role of Abla and Nisrin Erradi performing as Samia have about equal time in front of Adil Ayoub and Virginie Surdej’s lenses. Both are living in Casablanca in a section that’s considered poor but which American visitors would label quaint, with its narrow sidewalks and a plethora of vendors. Abla, a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter Warda (Douae Belkhaouida), sells pancake-like snack foods like rziza and msemmen right from her modest home but so far appears to have only a moderate clientele. That will change when Simia, in her eighth month of pregnancy and homeless, asks for work, any kind, and receive a tentative welcome from the dour Abla. Taking homeless people into your residence is not a popular pastime in the U.S. but Abla, feeling sorry for Samia who is sleeping outside, takes her in for one night. The invitation is extended when the adorable Warda takes an immediate liking to the new guest and when Samia proves to be an excellent chef, turning out better rziza and msemmen because when she kneads the dough, she feels it.

Not much happens during the first hour or so. Abla loses patience with Samia, kicks her out, then races through the Casablanca streets to find her and coax her back. In the film’s most poignant scene, Abla, who continues to grieve for her dead husband, is forced by Samia to listen to Abla’s favorite music on the radio, one that might be considered in the American culture to be a couple’s wedding song. Approaching that point, Samia takes charge of her hostess and boss, forcing her to listen carefully, to close her eyes and sway, and loosen up on her wicked witch act. For comic relief, now and then Abla’s suitor Slimani (Aziz Hattab) has marriage on his mind, asking Samia to tell her boss that his father had always had hair and that Slimani’s receding hairline constitutes the most locks that he will ever lose.

Maybe in the U.S. and Sweden, where one born out of wedlock is called a love child, at least by progressives. In Morocco, such a baby is dirt, although as Samia advises us, the baby himself is wholly without sin. Because of this, Samia seems determined to give Adam up to a good family despite Abla’s suggestion that she keep the infant. The women—Abla, Samia, and the precocious Warda, are fleshed-out human beings who have emotional ups and downs and happily, their relationship has changed them for the better. As the uneducated country girl with an eight-month unborn child, Nisrin Erradi stands out, a woman who has had to go from house to house asking for work and ending up with an inadequate resolution to her dilemma but able to turn her uptight hostess into a more caring person.

You may not want to live in Casablanca’s old Medina, but for Abla, the neighborhood provides work without a commute and for little Warda the chance to make something of herself by taking her studies seriously under her mother’s watch. A charming, low-key adventure well worth your custom.

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

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

 

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES – movie review

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Blank
Writer: Jonathan Blank
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: February 26, 2021 on PBS

“Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” really is about sex, drugs and bicycles with the implication throughout the documentary that the more you have of each, the happier you will be.

Considering the high taxes of countries with Holland’s social welfare programs and policies, you might be surprised to find out that in their lust for life, the Netherlands joins the equally social democratic countries of Scandinavia. This might seem surprising to people here in the U.S., often called the world’s richest country (as though that leads to happiness as does the night the day), but the view of our Republican politicians and the moderate Democrats who sometimes resemble them is that socialism is the monster you found under your bed when you were six years old.

Directed, written, edited and whatever by Jonathan Blank, whose sense of humor is most like that of Michael Moore, this doc moves forward like a stiff dose of amphetamines with a love for Holland that might make you think that Blank is high on Ecstasy. As for the multiple organisms and the ease of finding partners to achieve same, who’s got the time to worry about the headaches of owning cars when bicycles are the favored mode of travel and the most serious crime that Blank finds in his favorite nation-state is that the two-wheelers often get stolen. Since there are more bikes than people—which means there are more than seventeen million of ‘em—who has the need to add another to their stable?

With snappy and often hilarious animation where Blank morphs into Rembrandt, “Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” lauds, among other things, the four+ weeks of holiday that the Dutch are required to take, even getting paid for their extra month off. And unfortunately for us cinephiles, director Blank seems to have taken far more time off than that. His previous picture, “Anarchy TV,” which features teens doing nude television on the station that they capture, was released twenty-two years ago. It’s therefore not at all puzzling that Blank includes an annual naked bicycling day as one of the great things going for the Dutch.

And how can they pay attention to the windmills, which are the most notable symbol of the Netherlands, when there’s so much sex to concentrate on? Every traveler knows about the sex shops where sex workers, fully legal and licensed, get to parade their wares on storefronts in the tourist-heavy neighborhood that is the main attraction. Not only that. Kids get sex education beginning in primary school, and perhaps as a result, the Dutch abortion rate is much lower than that in our country.

As for medical care, it’s not free but it’s mandatory. Basic coverage is required and 99% are insured. Insurance is sold by private companies, and you can kick in extra cash to get more than the usual services. Even in the land of windmills, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Marijuana can be sold in legal neighborhood coffee shops, such as the one on display named “Smokes.” Teens also take drugs on TV, though Blank briefly mentions that Holland had a problem with legalize hard drugs and pushed back somewhat against it.

Bernie Sanders might be considered a “moderate” by Holland’s standards. Does Bernie believe that transgender surgery should be covered by the government health plan as do the Nederlanders? How about sex workers making the disabled happy? Holland is in the forefront of LGBTQ equality, so there’s none of the fanfare such as here when Barack Obama had to say that he’s “evolved” on his position regarding gay marriage and LGBTQ protections.

Blank takes little time reviewing what’s bad, though he does point out that the liberal policy on accepting Muslim refugees has brought right-wing politicians out of the woodwork. The press notes state “Is having month-long double-paid vacations, no fear of homelessness and universal healthcare the nightmare we’ve been warned about?” More a wet dream than a nightmare, though Holland has an increasing problem of homelessness. According to the Wikipedia article “Netherlands and Homelessness,” in 2018 there were 39,000 without roofs over their heads, afflicting mostly Muslim refugees.

As you might expect, Holland’s seventeen million people would be lost if traveling outside their borders if Dutch were their only language. Everybody interviewed in this doc spoke perfect English. So…if you’re a Michael Moore fan and you had not heard of Jonathan Blank before (as stated, he had no released a film for twenty-two years), you are likely to enjoy this movie’s eight-five minutes and get depressed when you realize that the U.S. ranks so low in the developed world in education, affordable health care (though Medicare is fantastic making it great to be old), and harbors a puritanical fear of recreational drugs.

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

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

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN – movie review

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN (L’homme qui vendu sa peau)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/21
Tunisia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards

Image result for the man who sold his skin poster

Sylvia Sims sang the classic song that opens: “You’d never think they go together/ But they certainly do/ The combination of English muffins/ And Irish Stew.” Top chefs know how to mix quite a number of things that would not have been attempted years ago. In the same way, stories combine groups from different classes, nationalities, and religions. Suprisingly, sometimes they find common ground. One example is found in female director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, which is the official entry of Tunisia into the 93rd Academy Awards competition. She mixes Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) a poor, uneducated Syrian, one who has been arrested for comically inciting rebellion on a train, with Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a world-renowned contemporary artist. They find that they can do business together profitably, but in signing a contract that represents a document that binds Faust together with Mephistopheles, the oppressed Arab sells his soul and is ultimately disgraced. Or is he? Ben Hania, whose first film, “Beauty and the Dogs,” tracks a college student brutally assaulted by police officers, turns now to a topic of more international resonance, bringing Syria, Lebanon and Belgium into the bargain.

“L’homme qui vendu sa peau,” the original title which translates directly into the English, begins smashingly on a rail car filled with people who break into cheers when Sam announces that he is in love with his seatmate, Abeer (Dea Liane). His love is requited, and in his moment of ecstasy, he calls for freedom for Syria and is arrested. The plot turns, in fact, on whether Sam himself is a free man or one who in later moments has lost all dignity, shaming his country as well. As our President would say, here’s the deal: When Sam breaks out of jail and meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his elegant assistant Saroya (Monica Bellucci) in Lebanon, he is offered unusual work. The artist will tattoo a huge Schengen visa on Sam’s back. Sam will be at Jeffrey and Soraya’s beck-and-call to show up in museums and galleries, his back exposed, his head down in a pose of humiliation. In return Sam will be able to travel throughout Europe and receive a sizable commission when the artwork is sold to a collector. Here’s quite a new form of slavery, one that leads an organization that opposes the exploitation of Syrian refugees to sue against mortification of any of its citizens.

Today’s so-called political far-left calls capitalism nothing more than the turning of human beings in commodities, possibly using this film to advance its case. Yet Sam may be able to stay in five-star hotels, “bought off and sold out” as some would say, while Sam enjoys room service caviar, but in the end he is expected (by the movie audience) to regret his agreement to the Faustian deal. Look: Sam becomes a celebrity, able to meet up in Brussels with Soroya—who had entered into her own Faustian bargain by marrying Ziad (Saad Lostan), a rich diplomatic official at the embassy in Brussels.

Concluding moments come off like an exhibition of sedate fireworks that had turned into a thunderous climax. The film’s underlying dark humor comes to the fore, leading to a satisfying conclusion. This is a bold, original work, full of twists, enjoying an ensemble of superb performances especially by Mahayni in only his second full narrative performance.

In Arabic, French, Flemish and English with English subtitles (displayed even when English is spoken!)

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

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

SONGS OF SOLOMON – movie review

SONGS OF SOLOMON
Cloudburst Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Arman Nshanian
Writer: Audrey Gevorkian, Sylvia Kavoikjian
Cast: Samvel Tadevosian, Arman Nshanian, Sos Janibekyan, Arevik Gevorgyan, Tatev Hovakimyan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/21
Opens:

Poster

Every year that I taught high school history, someone in the class would ask why Jews have been oppressed by so many different cultures in so many different centuries. There are many reasons, all of them irrational, but the principal reason today is that during periods of extreme nationalism, the folks who are in the minority of a country’s ethnic or racial minority are in danger of being considered “the other.” They are different from the majority, and may be in a minority so small that they can easily be persecuted. They are scapegoated for society’s problems, though they had nothing to do with those dilemmas. In fact it was not until the founding of the state of Israel that Jews could live in a country where they are the majority and therefore free from being marginalized.

Similarly, the Armenians in the Ottoman (Turkish-dominated) Empire, were also in a minority. They are Christians; the Turks are Muslims. When the Ottomans found themselves in World War One, they used Armenians as scapegoats, “blaming” them for their contributions to architecture, music, cultural life in general, and acumen for business. In fact they were called by some the Jews of Turkey. In 1915, the Turks exterminated 1.5 million Armenians, though less is known about the pogrom against these Christian in 1894 when 300,000 were murdered. When Nazi government officials in the 1930s and 1940s were concerned that the world might condemn them for their genocidal pogroms against Jews, Hitler said: “Who remembers the massacre of Armenians?”

Well, then, movies like this one will certainly help to remind non-Armenians as well about the oppression, but don’t count your breath. A poll indicated that 40% of Americans never heard even of the Nazi Holocaust. In any case, “Songs of Solomon” is a worthy addition to the celluloid literature of the subject of genocide, joining others like “Nahapet,” ‘Mayrig,” “Ararat,” “The Cut,” “The Lark Farm,” “Dzori Miro,” “Map of Salvation,” “1915,” “Aram,” and “Do Not Tell Me the Boy was Mad.” The actors use exaggerated facial expressions as though in a silent movie, but I suspect the reason director Arman Nshanian evoked such exaggerated emotions is that he wants the film to appeal to a youthful audience.

Nshanian, in his freshman full-length film narrative (he is primarily an actor who takes a principal role here) leads us from the murders in 1894 to the more horrific ones in 1915, going back and forth in a film that in my opinion would have been better if told chronologically. This is a biographical look at Komitas Vardabet aka Solomon, credited with saving Armenian music, singing songs with an exquisite voice. The story opens before the dreaded year of 1894 when Solomon, an Armenian Christian who is a frail, gentle orphan with a blind grandmother, becomes best friends with two girls his own age. One is Sevil who is Turkish. She is friends with Sono, an Armenian. When Solomon sings to them, an Armenian archbishop believes that Solomon’s voice is a gift from God, and puts him into a seminary, which may have been responsible for saving his life.

When Sevil is married thirteen years later, her Turkish husband (played by the director) wants her not to associate with Armenians because “something bad is going to happen to them.” What follows appears to imitate the trajectory of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany, as Nazi thugs break windows of Jewish stores, bully Jews on the street, and make them wear patches to signal their Jewishness. A Turkish colonel, played with glee, becomes the chief villain, always speaking softly, smiling with contempt, playing with his Armenian victors before letting his goons beat them to death. The most riveting scene, in fact, occurs when this colonel taunts the family harboring the Armenian woman Sono, reminding cinephiles of similar doings when in “Inglourious Basterds,” Col. Hans Lada played by Christoph Waltz, toys with a French farmer who is hiding a family of Jews.

Though “Songs of Solomon” has an excellent group of Armenian extras, it has a budget smaller than that of movies like “1915,” and that’s just fine. We in the audience have the privilege of knowing more than today’s Turks seem to know about the genocides (Turks who made their truer opinions known about the genocide are subject to arrest). It’s pitiful that though Germans today freely acknowledge the role of Nazis in their history, the Turks continue to hide facts about these tragic events. This film thereby joins the others in bringing the truth to light.

“Songs of Solomon” is the Armenian entry competing in our 93rd Academy Awards, though it has tough competition from “Minari,” which I think will be chosen. Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein filmed in Armenia. The film is in Armenian with English subtitles.

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

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

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME – movie review

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME (Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre)
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lili Horvát
Writer: Lili Horvát
Cast: Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodó, Benett Vilmányi, Zsolt Nagy, Péter Tóth
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/7/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

Film Poster

We’ve all heard this. “Let’s do lunch some time.” “We’ve really got to get together.” “My wife and I want to have you over for dinner soon.” “Stay in touch.” People who take invitations like these seriously are likely to be called rubes by those of us who have enough experience in life to distrust them. What do you think would happen if you took the speaker up on such fake invites? Humiliation, probably, so we shrug off the come-on just as does the inviter. This reminds me of the New Yorker magazine cartoon showing an executive behind the desk on the phone, saying “How about never? Is never good for you?” But you’re not likely to hear that from polite folks.

Now here’s a film that shows what happens to a woman who takes a man’s invitation seriously. She’s a neurosurgeon no less, who in Jersey meets a man in the same field. János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) is from Budapest at an American medical conference. The woman is ethnically Hungarian too. We don’t see what happens in New Jersey but apparently they agree to meet in Budapest in one month by the Liberty Bridge (and you’d better make sure of which bridge because Budapest has seventeen).

A month later, Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) flies to Budapest to meet him, and later to take up a new job in one of the city’s hospitals. She has been stood up, and here comes a scene that should land this foreign language gem an award for Best Male Fantasy. There is nobody to greet her, so she faints dead away. The scene comes from the pen of director Lili Horvát, whose coming-of-age tale “The Wednesday Child” was her freshman, full-length film. Now she has a fleshed-out narrative that labels her a feminist, a female director with a female lead, notwithstanding the principal character’s anxieties when unable to connect to the first person (at age 40) who makes her feel “like this.”

Building on male fantasy, Márta, about to fly back to New Jersey but determined to connect with János, runs from the airport and takes a job at the hospital at which János does surgery. Never mind that János had later told her that he never laid eyes on her, which takes the film from frustrated romance into psychological mystery. What’s the truth? Did she imagine everything? Because if she did, the story is a cop-out, given that you can excuse all sorts of strange occurrences on a dream. But no, there is an explanation. Wait a while.

Now isn’t it just like a neurologist to think she has a brain ailment, leading her to have a few sessions with a psychiatrist. Is she impaired? She could always hang out with a fourth-year medical student who lusts after her, thankful that she successfully treated his father, but she’s not that desperate. We’ve got a mystery here, one destined to keep us glued to the end to get some answers. Will this mature film be tainted with a happy, Hollywood ending? Will Márta become institutionalized? Is her brief affair with him in her bare, shoddy apartment, imagination or one-night stand?

If we were not wallowing in this one-year-old pandemic, “Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time” could conceivably open in any theater that has room in its marquee to fit the title. Though this is marketed here for those Americans who have no problem reading subtitles, it could draw a larger audience. The plot moves along at a good clip, highlights the impressive talents of Natasa Stork as the blue-eyed, classy but lonely protagonist, has some good shots on Budapest streets by cinematographer Robert Mály, and serves well as this year’s answer to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” In other words, this is not artsy-fartsy: hey, it’s not brain surgery.

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

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

 

SPOOR – movie review

SPOOR (Pokot)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Olga Tokarczuk, Agnieszka Holland, adapted from Olga Takorczuk’s novel
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Gierszal, Patricia Volny, Tomasz Kot
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

Poster

The difference between a B-movie crime story/TV episode like NCIS and an art movie that deserves greater concentration, is that the crimes, be they murder, robbery, rape, kidnap, and arson, should be entertaining thrillers, while the more intellectual dramas use the crimes as stepping-stones to the development of characters. “Spoor”is a good example of the latter. The title refers to the scent, droppings, even the trails trodden by animals. Animals, specifically dogs, boars, and antelopes, each have their brief starring roles, quite necessary to the development of plot. Since this is a film by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, you would expect the story to be similar to that of her other contributions, such as her 2011 film “In Darkness” about one man’s rescue of Jews in the German-occupied city of Lvov. “Spoor” is more about the intended rescue of animals which are shot for fun, each month a different creature made legal to kill, in a small, southwest Polish town near the Czech border.

Holland, who studied filmmaking in Prague, focuses primary attention on Duszejko, an elderly woman who is the town’s only, animals rights advocate. Her personality might convince some diners that vegetarians and spokespersons for the four-legged are eccentric at least, crazy at most. Duszejko (Agnieska Mandat), a woman who objects vigorously to being called Janina though we do not find out why, is a part-time teacher in the local school whose 8-year-old kids love her, even hugging as you’d expect a dog to hug its human partner. She has studied astrology for years—not in itself eccentric, since even former first lady Nancy Reagan was a fan of the pseudoscience as well. When she protests against town laws that allow hunting, she undercuts her points with the police by screaming. The police have other concerns on their minds when bloodied bodies turn up in the snow, the film audience presuming that the wolf-hugger is the perp.

Though photographers Jolanta Dylewskh and Rafal Paradowski’s lenses are on Duszejko throughout, there are an abundance of secondary characters ranging from the wolves, boars, deer, foxes and even insects to people who enter in and exit from the scenes regularly. Among the folks introduced in this hayseed village are the priest, a man she should not have bothered to confide in, given that he considers equating dogs with people (my dogs are my daughters, insists Duszejko) with blasphemy since God gave us dominion over them and besides, animals do not have souls and therefore cannot be candidate for salvation. She has a brief affair with Boros (Miroslav Krobot), a wandering professor of her own age, an entomologist who advises her about how dead bodies can attract certain types of beetles.

Of the side roles, the most meaty, so to speak, is that of young Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal) who works for the police setting up and instructing them in how computers can help and who fears that he will lose his job because he has seizures. He will obviously team up with Dobra Nowina (Patricia Volny),the only twenty-something female in town.

Some of the material is rambling that would not be hurt by more attention from Pavel Hrdlika, its editor, but supplemented by more activity form the forest creatures that sometimes run quickly through the snow, and other times, as with deer that come over across the Czech border, and stand still, too dumb to be unafraid of humans.

Don’t expect too much blood, though one animal, apparently really gunned down by a hunter, is hugged and prayed over by Duszeklo. The principal reason for seeing this movie is the performance of Kraków-born Mandat, 64-years old when this was filmed, well known in her own country for roles in a host of TV dramas. Otherwise there are too many moments of tedium in this overlong, 128-minute offering, but enlivened by many of the secondary characters coming across not as salt-of-the-earth just-folks but mostly as fierce adversaries of animals, from the priest to the types you probably found climbing the walls of the capitol to protest a fair U.S. election.

In Polish with English subtitles.

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

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

 

IN & OF ITSELF – movie review

IN & OF ITSELF
Hulu
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Frank Oz
Writer: Derek DelGaudio
Cast: Derek DelGaudio
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/13/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

DEREK DELGAUDIO’S IN & OF ITSELF Key Art Poster

There are two kinds of audiences for live shows in New York. One is represented by the tourist, perhaps not fluent in English, who would go to a Broadway musical: “Chicago,” “South Pacific,” “Guys and Dolls,” presentations that are a lot of fun. Others are a more intellectual set that would patronize off-Broadway, even off-Broadway; likely to be in a serious vein, knowledge of English indispensable. There is third type of live presentation; the kind that would challenge people who think they know everything and like to brag about going to esoterica. What they see is likely to be a mix of entertainment and a delving into our minds and souls. Such a show played at the Daryl Roth Theatre, off-Broadway in New York in 2017, called “In & Of Itself,” considered to be a one-man exhibition but depending upon enough people in the audience to volunteer to stand up, even to come up on stage.

“In and Of Itself” as presented by Hulu and executive produced by the likes of my favorite TV comic Stephen Colbert, is a filmed play and then some; meaning that the presentation puts together a collage of audiences and evenings, melding some of the stunning 552 displays that ran before an audience of one hundred diverse souls. As directed by Frank Oz (both the stage show and the movie) with generous filming of a diverse audience including African-Americans and Asian-Americans, young, middle-aged and elderly, “In & Of Itself” may require multiple viewings to allow DelGaudio’s message to sink in: that we are not necessarily what we do for a living, even what goes on within our families. Each of us is a multiple, some of our character easily comprehended by others, while the rest of is below the surface, even hidden from ourselves.

In the opening scene, he asks members of the audience to come up before a large board filled with cards, each bearing the title of an occupation: nurse, ophthalmologist, dentist, and the like. Each is an “I am.” Some of the audience members will be called up to the stage, and as we watch the unfolding drama, we may wonder whether some of the folks are shills for the company who make sure that enough volunteers are called up each time. As a whole, nobody seems shy in the audience(s) that we see.

DelGaudio is a gifted man who knows his lines cold, a fellow of medium height, a close haircut, a trace of a beard. He wears a tie but that’s soon to come off to put across his eyes for one of his tricks. He is a master storyteller, segueing from a tale about a man who plays Russian roulette—the image of the person on one of the six diaramas on the wall. The deal is that he has 5 chances out of 6 to win, to save his life, and if he comes out ahead, he is rich. His troubles are over. But then again, as DelGaudio notes, if he loses, his troubles are also over (which brings the first laugh from the audience). This guy raises the ante, putting two bullets into the gun the next night, three the following, until he points the gun with six bullets at his head. How he manages to come out ahead? Find out by seeing the film.

The most dazzling part finds DelGaudio doing card tricks that are absolutely amazing. Ricky Jay is probably envious. If you see how he manipulates the deck to do everything he wants it to do, setting out the spades in order like a super royal flush, you might consider that he is a sorcerer. In the Middle Ages, the peasants would know what to do with him, and it’s not pretty.

Later he will present volunteers from the audience with letters allegedly written by members of their families, letters that bring some of them to tears. What these letters contain are writings that could easily have come from the participants’ mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. That’s how well DelGaudio seems to know his audience.

Then just as you wonder whether these audience members are the sorcerer’s apprentices, he dazzles by getting half of the hundred to stand up in the every-seat-taken theater, looking at the folks, telling each what he or she is: an introvert, a vegan, an optimist, a lover. The audience at no point looks at a cell phone, a watch, his navel, but all eyes are concentrating on the majordomo.

What does it all mean? Paradoxically, we are all many things, and we are all alike. Forget about Superman, Batman, even Wonder Woman. This showman can see into our souls, as you can believe as you watch the audience members, one by one, feeling the magic.

Yep: he is an enchanter.

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

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

 

DA 5 BLOODS – movie review

DA 5 BLOODS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/14/20
Opens: June 13, 2020

Da 5 Bloods Film Poster

Spike Lee’s testosterone picture is no mere action-adventure film. The war scenes play out to evoke Lee’s overriding message: African-Americans have fought for our country in the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and assorted skirmishes, but the promise of America has not been kept. Police racism, Presidential bigotry, and general all-purpose fear and hatred have been part of our DNA’s since the first slave ship arrived in 1619. In fact Trump’s popularity is engendered in large part by his put-downs of Black and brown people, whether curtailing immigration from countries with people or color or advising us that militias like the Proud Boys are filled with good people. Lee throws in archival films not only of scenes from the Vietnam War but also of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and others, all hinting that the promise to African-Americans has not been fulfilled.

“Da 5 Bloods” enjoys a script from the minds of Kevin Willmott, who co-wrote “BlacKkKlansman” with a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo.

Vietnam, where the five title African-Americans had served, illustrates the bond that the quintet had formed since their service in what Vietnam calls “The American War.” They had made the long journey from the United States to bring back the body of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), one of their fighters, killed in action some five decades earlier. The discovery of gold bars which the American forces had left behind after a military aircraft was wrecked, leads them into battles with Vietnamese, who claim the riches as theirs, resulting in the deaths of some of the “bloods” by adversaries that include a French fortune hunter and a group of near-crazed locals.

As Paul, Delroy Lindo, best known to TV viewers for his role as a partner in a law firm in “The Good Fight” often
considered the best show on the tube, has suffered from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his soldier days in the Vietnam War.

Using identifying handshakes and lots of excited talk, Paul (Delroy Lindo) Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) meet up in Saigon, sharing their dismal treatment by Americans who called them baby killers (never mind that they were drafted and that the real killer was sitting in the Oval Office). Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as their guide, though some of the bloods believe that he is ideologically “in” with the Viet Cong communists. During their adventure, Otis visits his lover from the war days, finding out that she has a kid and that Otis is the dad. Among the real heroes, Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) shows up, announcing that she has repudiated her family’s fortune and is now altruistically with a group dedicated to removing old land mines.

Naturally the African-American adventurers do not always agree with one another. Otis does not entirely trust Paul, and David (Jonathan Majors), who turns up with the group, has had difficulties connecting with his father, largely because of the latter’s PTSD. Though “Da 5 Bloods” is an ensemble piece and will compete for end-year awards as such, each character has his own identity, from the hotblooded Paul to the generally calmer Melvin. Cameos include a re-creation of a Tokyo-Rose type of newscaster who, during the war, broadcasts to the Americans that racism exists at home, implying that the Vietnamese communists are not their real enemy. She notes that eleven percent of America is African-American, yet they comprise thirty-two percent of soldiers in the war.

Action scenes, archival films, evocations of racism in America down to this day make “Da 5 Bloods” my choice for Best Ensemble, allowing me to vote for the picture when New York Film Critics Online considers the best in fifteen categories.

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

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

 

BEANPOLE – movie review

BEANPOLE (Dylda)
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Writer: Kantemir Balagov, Aleksadr Terekhov, inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War”
Cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/27/20
Opens: January 29, 2020 in theaters. May 5, 2020 streaming

Beanpole

War is hell and Kantemir Balagov has a unique way of making that point. Balagov, whose “Closeness” (Tesnota) hones in a small, squalid town in which a Jewish couple are kidnapped with ransom demanded, paints on a larger canvas with “Beanpole.” Artem Emilianov’s lenses bring us up close to a hospital that is treating war injuries, where notably Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev) has apparently been paralyzed and begs for death, but he is most interested in the ways that two women are adapting to a war that killed some twenty million Soviet citizens, or one out of every ten residents.

The action takes place in Leningrad, the movie obviously affording money and artistry in showing the destruction of Russia’s second largest city, here complete with cars from the 1940s and a tram filled to the roof with people. The title character, hospital worker Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) have been emotionally injured by the war, relying on each other to find solace. Beanpole has been taking care of Masha’s child Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who joins in the hospital entertainment playing charades. To further sink in the horror of war, Pashka is asked to play a dog, getting the reply “How would he know how to play a dog when all of them have been eaten?” One day, while the child is playing with Beanpole, he is accidentally suffocated. When Masha gets the bad news, she announces that her friend “owes her,” and since Masha is infertile due to removal of some organs, she demands that Beanpole become pregnant, the newborn to be handed over to Masha.

Beanpole is obviously afflicted with PTSD—she freezes like a statue which can easily be toppled over. In fact the director not only punctuates Beanpole’s traumatic acting act but features a great many shots that last longer than anything you might see in a Hollywood movie. Dialogue, then, is only one aspect of the story: glacially-paced shots of people simply staring at one another makes this a film for an audience that is both patient and responsive to what happens to people in a war.

In a scene that could be called the film’s one burst of humor, Sasha (Igor Shirocov), who could be used to act in a biopic about Putin given his resemblance to the Russian president as a youth, is behind the wheel of his car, but is pulled over the cushions into the back seat for a quickie with Masha. Later Sasha, whose family’s residence recalls Orwell’s “Animal Farm” which holds that “some people are more equal than others, is to introduce Masha as his girlfriend, soon to be his wife. The conversation between Masha and her potential mother-in-law is perhaps the strangest but most entertaining revelation of the film.

Strong performances from both Miroshnichenko and Perelygina anchor the film amid the impressive production design, making this feature Russia’s Oscar entry for the 92nd Academy Awards. As best friends the two women look like the odd couple, as Miroshnichenko, who resembles Tilda Swinton, is just under six feet tall while Perelygina looks barely over five. Both are first-time performers who should have no problem getting a great many more parts.

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

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

 

SORRY WE MISSED YOU – movie review

SORRY WE MISSED YOU
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cast: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/23/20
Opens: March 6, 2020. Streaming June 12, 2020

Front Standard. Sorry We Missed You [Blu-ray] [2019].

The rich get money while the poor get babies. You’ve probably heard that expression, but let’s go farther. The poor regularly get screwed up the arse. Let Ken Loach tells you how. As the leading director of working-class films, Loach is not so concerned about people on the dole in the UK, folks who may have drug addiction, disabilities, even laziness in their character, as he is about the ambitious working class. Call the characters in “Sorry We Missed You” as people who are considered by some sociologists to be the upper lower class, often poor educated, with the kind of cockney or otherwise non-King’s English palaver that could not get them hired for office work. Everyone in the cast appears to say “youse,” as though they did not learn even before high school what is the proper word to describe that entity, and they say “innit” instead of “isn’t it.” If they were interviewed for a cable TV documentary targeted toward woke people, they would not likely drop their slang. They do not use these words only for their friends. They are unable to upgrade for a different audience.

So what’s left for Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a member of the gig economy? Looking for a job, he tells the foreman of an Amazon-like delivery company that he would never go on the dole “I’m too proud for that,” and he is hired by Maloney (Ross Brewster) for a job that does not give Ricky even the right to be called an employee. He is an independent contractor, a term that signs cool but means “more exploited than most workers.” He is responsible for providing his own delivery van, since the company van would deduct 65 quid daily for its use. He sells the car of his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) to get the money for a van, never mind that Abbie needs her own vehicle to get her own low-paying job dealing with elderly, some with dementia, in one situation even have to wipe the poop out of a client’s hair and on the walls.

They have a kid Seb (Rhys Stone) who deep down has a good heart and has a circle of friends, but provokes his father, who lays a hand on him just once in his life when the teen trashes him with curses. When Ricky tears away the kid’s phone, Seb is suspected of hiding his dad’s keys, so he could not go to work. The work is grueling. On Ricky’s best day, he is joined by his young daughter Liza Jae (Katie Proctor), who collects tips and loves her new, temporary job. Interesting, isn’t it, how an outsider can romanticize pure hell. Fourteen hours a day, pay your own traffic tickets, deal with snotty recipients of their packages. If Loach had Amazon in mind, he’s probably on the money.

Loach, in short, is no friend of capitalism. Ricky’s rough tough foreman ironically lectures his independent contractor, noting that the people who receive these packages do not give a crap about the lives of the delivery personnel. “They would not care if you fell asleep in the truck and hit a bus.” The foreman is aware of the evils of the Western economic system, and does his best nonetheless to fit into it. Better to be a straw boss than a prole.

There’s a message in the movie that Loach may not have thought about. Note how the working class in the U.S. are conned by our president, a billionaire, supporting him with protest marches even now as he is preparing to be escorted out of the White House on January 20—by Navy Seals if necessary. Trump exploits the idea that everyone needs someone to look down on. He believes—and he’s probably right—that there’s no better feeling for the poorly educated people who work for minimum wages than to have people to look down upon: immigrants, Black and Brown people, foreigners, even the well-off liberals who, they seem to believe, regularly look down on them as racists from flyover country.

This is a hard-hitting drama that rivets attention throughout its running time and is in full competition of the parade of annual awards.

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

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

SOROS – movie review

SOROS
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jesse Dylan
Writer: Jesse Dylan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/16/20
Opens: November 20, 2020

Soros Poster

“No good deed goes unpunished.” In a more metaphoric vein, “The tallest blades of grass get mowed first.” Ironically enough, the more good you do for others, the more people will suspect you, wonder about your motives, become envious of you, finally to hate you enough to slam you on Twitter. In the case of Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, who, if you go along with Jesse Dylan’s presentation about him thinking maybe Soros should be Time magazine’s Person of the Century, you may paradoxically see that he is the world’s most hated man. Judging by his censure all over the world, in those countries that he has helped the most, you don’t wonder that there was an assassination attempt on his life, something that is not covered in this film because enough poison has been splashed his way to make you guess at that.

According to the Wikipedia article, Soros is the target of conspiracy theories: that he was behind the 2017 Women’s March, the fact-checking website Snopes, gun-control activism, protests against the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh. Conspiracy theories the likes of which appear in Q-anon these days either subliminally or right out in public note that Soros is Jewish. So you wonder why Soros has not yet been accused of causing the California wildfires, the tidal waves in Thailand, and if there is such a thing these days, the poisoning of wells throughout the world. Another theory is that Soros was a Nazi collaborator who turned in other Jews and stole their property. Never mind that he was a thirteen-year-old child at the time who had to hide from the Nazi government.

It’s almost understandable that dictators like Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would blame Soros for financing terrorists, but hey, you don’t expect Americans living in our open society to hold conspiracy theories? They sure do, and the failure of our educational system to inform people about the dangers of people like our president who are undermining our democracy lies heavy on us today.

Director Jesse Dylan’s many videos came out of Wondros, a production company that tells the stories of the most innovative organizations and individuals. He wants to educate us about how innovative individuals are helping to change the world, and makes clear that Soros is resented by right-wingers not only because he is Jewish but because he has made billions. Envy has often been the emotion that triggers hatred of others in much the way that some people conversely hate those they consider below them as well. We see from the archival spots that pop up during the chats by talking heads that he has traveled to problem spots around the world, using his money to effect change, which in itself seems to have caused people to think, “Who is this outsider to tell us how to treat our people?” He opposed apartheid in South Africa. It’s needless to say who would hate him for that.

He is incensed by the genocide against Rohingyas in Myanmar, bringing that country’s government out of the woodwork to hate him, but at the same time Soros considered so-called human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi to be a hero when in fact she joined the haters by calling the Rohingyas terrorists.. He spoke out against the genocide of Bosnians by Serbs under the leadership of Milosevic.

Traveling back and forth from Soros’ childhood in Budapest to today’s ninety-year-old man, Dylan, son of the musician Bob Dylan, gives us a picture of the embattled giant and presumptive savior of the world. I would expect right-wingers and anti-Semites to think (why not?) that this is a vanity project financed by the title character.

The doc is vivid enough without the help of tinkling piano music in the soundtrack, as if the makers of the film worry about our intelligence so much that we would not know whom to cheer and whom to dislike. I think that most movies that are not thrillers should simply stop the nonsense of distracting our attention from the speakers with irrelevant noise.

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

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

 

COLLECTIVE – movie review

COLLECTIVE
Magnolia Pictures/Participant
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alexander Nanau
Writer: Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris
Cast: Narcis Hogea, Catalink Tolontan, Mirela Neag, Camelia Roiu
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/12/20
Opens: November 20, 2020

Collective (2019 film) - Wikipedia

During the final quarter hour of this Romanian documentary, you might swear that citizens of that Eastern European state are under the same pressures and problems as the we have in our U.S. politics. An election is held. Opponents of a party rife with corruption complain that those in awe of that reactionary group want to bring the country back to a former time. We hear that only a small percentage of people age 18-24 are voting—actually five percent, and even we in America have a bigger turnout of youths. Ultimately, the problems of Romania are felt in states around the world, as politics and corruption appear to go hand in hand.

As in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 blockbuster film “The Post,” “Collective” takes us to journalists, this time in Bucharest, though Alexander Nanau’s film deliberately lacks the pizazz brought about by music in the soundtrack (there is none here). Strangely, tales of bribery and mismanagement are being uncovered by a sports magazine. Since this is a documentary, professional actors are not used in favor of giving the cameras’ eyes to the actual people involved.

The writer-director, whose recent doc “Toto and His Sisters” tells of a family awaiting their mother’s return from prison, opens with the movie’s most melodramatic moments, a fire five years ago in a Bucharest nightclub called Collectiv, resulting in the deaths of twenty-seven and injuries over one hundred. Many hospitalized patients who died might have survived had they not been infected by highly resistant bacteria, doing their deed in the absence of effective sterility. In the principal role, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Catalin Tolontan, puts the potential story front and center, his staff taking pictures, following nurses and doctors on their rounds, ultimately to find that contrary to the view of the health minister, whose party will soon be up for re-election, the hospitals are unprepared. The disinfectant, Hexa Pharma, was watered down to just ten percent of its proper strength. The guilty
party is likely not the hospital but the pharmaceutical company, its CEO’s death in a car accident deemed a suicide.

The health minister had to go as well, Vlad Voiculescu taking his place. The genius of the film is that while I thought the meetings he held with his staff are reimagined but are actually photographed by the writer-director who is also behind the lenses. The crew is apparently given full access, a kind of transparency we wish were present within our own federal government.

Bribery is not the only corruption taken to task, as journalists under Tolontan discover that the entire health institution is rotten, bonding hospital administrators to the entire medical establishment presumably dipping their hands in the taxpayers’ money for their own use. The film was shot over fourteen months, with editing taking the better part of year. Aside from the film’s audience good luck in not having to listen to Hollywood-style music in the soundtrack, Nanau uses Tedy Ursuleanu’s testimony and her portraits to punctuate the damage done by the nightclub fire. She has a robotic hand that works just fine but her body is largely covered by burns. Hospitals are so ill equipped throughout the country that tourists should take note: if you get sick or have an accident in Romania, get your butt to Vienna’s treatment centers ASAP.

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

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

 

CRAZY, NOT INSANE – movie review

CRAZY, NOT INSANE
HBO Documentary Films and streaming on HBO Max
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Cast: Dorothy Lewis, Laura Dern (narrator), Park Dietz, Catherine Yeager
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/26/20
Opens: November 18, 2020

Crazy, Not Insane Movie Poster

October 2020 is closing on what is likely the most crazy and insane presidential election in modern history. Millions of citizens are mailing in their ballots hoping that theirs will not be discarded because or some technicality. Apropos, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled a few days ago that if the signatures on the mailed ballots do not match the signatures on the voters’ official records, the ballots still be counted. So if the signatures are not alike, does that evoke thoughts of forgery? Perhaps. But listen to what Dr. Dorothy Lewis might say if she were called in for her opinion as a psychiatrist. “Consider that the individual whose signatures do not match may have DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder,” which is the name now given to what used to be called multiple personality disorder. (You might have seen this demonstrated in Nannally Johnson’s 1957 movie “The Three Faces of Eve.”) A “different person” may have signed the official registry years ago than the individual who signed this year.

Do you believe a person can morph into a different individual, actually talking to another identity while anybody witnessing this would think he is talking to himself? Dorothy Lewis is convinced. But reading about this is not some hobby that she toys around with, arguing against people like a prosecutor, Paul Dietz, thinks the whole idea is malarkey. People with multiple personalities, appearing even shy and stable to us, may have alters, or alternate identities, that can commit murder. Utilizing that theory, Dr. Lewis, who is the principal character in this HBO documentary, has traveled around at the bequest of defense attorneys to prove to juries that their clients may be crazy, but not insane.

During the two hours we spend with the good doctor in a riveting doc that includes intriguing, home-made pulsating animations and relevant archival films and home movies, director Alex Gibney, whose “Citizen K” uncovers details of a Russian opponent of Putin and whose “Going Clear” penetrates the religion of Scientology, makes the case for the psychiatrist. Lewis, who like a majority of Americans is against the death penalty, is no pushover. She believes that though murderers have been driven to dissociate and to torture and kill thanks to abusive parents and others in their childhoods people sometimes causing permanent brain injury, should be locked up “and throw away the key” to protect those of us fortunate not to have imaginary friends. She also holds that any of us, including she, could under the right circumstances kill, and that nobody is born evil. Evil is a religious term that has no bearing on the subject at hand.

She has been able to charm some serial killers into allowing her to interview them, their perhaps hoping that she could influence juries to get them off or at least avoid the death penalty. Two of special interest are Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy. As she chats with Shawcross, who keeps his eyes closed most of the time even when not under Lewis’s hypnosis, she finds that this man who killed eleven women shares an identity with his own vindictive mother and with a 13th century cannibal. In the latter role he ate women’s vaginas. And who can better tell us that some of these abused killers have no idea they’re about to be executed (grounds for commuting their sentences) than Ricky Ray Rector, declared sane, who asked the officers to save the slice of pecan pie given to him as his last meal to eat later?

Ted Bundy is among the most interesting of serial killers, a man who is highly educated (if you consider lawyers to be so), articulate, and handsome who persuaded women to bond with him before killing them and keeping their skulls as souvenirs. He defended himself, agreeing on the day before his execution to several hours’ discussion with Dr. Lewis refuses to believe that Bundy or anyone else was born evil. She holds a fascinating interview with a man who killed more people than any of the aforementioned, Sam Jones, an electrician who picks up gigs traveling the country, pulling the switch on some hapless folks who sit in a wooden chair for the last time. He demonstrates no compunctions about his work, but try as she might have done, she could not find an alternate personality in this legal executioner.

So what do you think after seeing the doc? Do you agree with Park Dietz, who like a typical prosecutor thinks that this psychiatric explanation of murder is a hoax? Or do you buy Dr. Lewis’s point that we might do better to prevent future killings by studying murderers and not simply dispensing with them by injections, gas, the rope, electricity, or as was done in Utah, firing squads? Whatever your view, “Crazy, not Insane” the most provocative documentary so far this year, giving Dorothy Lewis the attention and credit she so richly deserves.

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

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

 

DIVINE LOVE – movie review

DIVINE LOVE (Divino Amor)
Outsider Pictures & Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Gabriel Mascaro
Writer: Gabriel Mascaro, Rachel Daisy Ellis, Esdras Bezerra
Cast: Dira Paes, Juliio Machado, Antonio Pastich, Rubens Santos, Clayton Mariano
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/21/20
Opens: November 13, 2020

Divine Love' Review: Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Brazilian Dystopia - Variety

Maybe it’s grandiose to think that directors outside the United States are using cinema to channel their disgust with customs and politics here in the United States. Maybe Brazilians never heard of Trump. When I was in Panama, I asked people on the street whether they were familiar with John McCain, who as born in Panama’s Canal Zone—at the time that he was running for President. Nope. Never heard of him.

Still it’s convenient to wonder whether Gabriel Mascaro, who gave us the wonderful film “Neon Bull” about a rodeo hand who dreams of working in his region’s blossoming clothing industry, is thinking of Trump’s faux conservatism in making the allegorical “Divine Love,” but it’s more likely that he’s sending up Brazil’s autocratic leader Jair Bolsonaro who is among our President’s heroes. More specifically, Mascaro takes aim at his country’s conservatism, which like that sensibility in the U.S. favors religious oppression. (Brazil has outlawed abortion with almost no exceptions.)

However, reactionary anti-abortion notions are the flip side of the coin here. The leads in “Divine Love,” Joana (Dira Paes) and her husband Danilo (Julio Machado) are not looking for abortion. On the contrary they are desperate for a baby. Emílio de Melle is their drive-through pastor, regularly consulted by Joana, who makes her living as a notary who deals with divorce documents, but who uses her position to sneak in advice to divorcing couples as she is eager to save their marriages. The pastor advises them to pray for a baby, as God is listening. Joana’s own nuptials are fragile, since try as they may, Joana and Danilo cannot conceive. In a bizarre train of events, the couple take part in a practice by an evangelical group called Divino Amor, a cult believing that to bring back the spark in couples, they should swing. Yes, swing. The members have sex, then switch partners. Hey, I’m not complaining, but Mascaro so much wants us in the audience to believe that they really are swinging that he indulges in long takes with full frontal nudity in a display of soft-core porn.

Say what you want about the excesses of evangelism, but Joana comes through during the third act. Or does she? When she gets what she thinks she wants, her anxieties increase, she is virtually threatened with excommunication, and her husband is ready to bolt. Is “Divine Love” really a criticism of Brazilian extremist politics, a put-down of evangelism with its concurrent hypocrisies? Viewers will likely leave the theaters with much to discuss in a film that introduces many questions with fewer answers. All is told with the benefits of cinematographer Diego García’s vivid colors to complement the sensuality, and best of all a riveting performance by Dira Paes who, like many women worldwide obsessed with getting pregnant, throws the dice with conservative Christianity.

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

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

 

SHITHOUSE – movie review

SHITHOUSE
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cooper Raiff
Writer: Cooper Raiff
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker, Logan Miller, Olivia Welch
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/16/20
Opens: October 16, 2020

Cooper Raiff, the 22-year-old director, writer, and star of this small but delicate movie, provides some enlightenment to me, though I had been intellectually aware of how college is different these days from when I went in the mid-1950s. In my day, we had parties in the fraternity house, but the young women were nowhere near as sexually free as today’s coeds. At the junior prom, the dances were more like fox trots, cha-cha’s and rhumbas, the dances which if they were on a completion test for today’s college freshmen would make them wonder what’s amiss in their vocabularies. The women had curfews—no later than midnight on weekends, but the deans need not have worried. A panty raid was as risqué an experience as you might find at that time. As for marijuana—what’s that?

Poster

“Shithouse, which is so low key that while the music at the parties is loud, there is gratefully no music at all in the soundtrack. Raiff wants us to hear the conversations clearly, and given the absence of a traditional plot, there is no need to create suspense, or romance, or whatever else you want music for.

Cooper Raiff plays his role with such authenticity that you’d swear that in real life he is like that. Strikingly handsome, he is unable to parlay his thick hair and all-around good lucks to have what everyone of us needs: attention of others and of course love. But good lucks gets him somewhere with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), the more experienced sophomore he meets at a party who invites him to play spin-the-bottle, but with more action than my 1950s friends and I ever got from that game. They have sex in her room but he is somehow thwarted, so they settle for a long time of shooting the shit in the room and on campus, where he tells Maggie about the stuffed dog he carried with him from home (which he had left only weeks before), and in the movie’s one surreal moment the dog talks to him. Almost needless to say, he has no friends and confesses that lack to Maggie.

He’s a mama’s boy who calls home to get chat with his Mom (Amy Landecker) and his sister Jess (Olivia Welsh).
When he discovers Maggie hooking up with another, he gives her hell, which leads to another long talk with her not realizing that he thinks incorrectly that his hookup and his long conversation with her the night before means less to her than to him.

None of this would likely make Alex think that we would have been better off staying at home and going to a local college. The out-of-town experience for men and women from the ages of eighteen to twenty-two is invaluable. The coursework may be similar, but being away from home for four years minus summers and holidays, and being able to communicate with a roommate who is different form you such as Sam (Logan Miller), a party animal whose dorm-room exercise consists of throwing up after indulgent in some serious alcohol, provides an education in social graces.

This is the kind of movie that fits in with the SXSW festival, where it won best narrative feature. Don’t be misled by the title, which relates to the initial party that Alex attends at the Shit House. In our day the party areas were called by Greek letters, but at least here you can’t say that “Shit House is Greek to me.”

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

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