Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jason Woliner
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Swimmer & Peter Baynham & Erica Rivinoja & Dan Mazer & Jena Friedman & Lee Kern
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Baklova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/20/20
Opens: October 23, 2020

borat, sacha baron cohen

“Borat Subsequent Film” is subsequent to “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan.” It’s difficult to believe fourteen years have passed from the film that at least one journalist thinks is the funniest movie ever made. If this is your first trip to Kazakhstan, movie-wise, you will probably be more delighted than those of us who are veteran “Borat” fans, but if you’re not new to the genre (simply calling it “comedy” would not do justice to such an original), you will find the gags more predictable and less amusing. And the gags come thick and fast thanks to the genius of Sasha Baron Cohen in the title role, a fellow who is Jewish and tends to speak Hebrew a lot in the film as he is probably more versed in the language than he is in Kazakh or even Tatar. Why is it significant to note that Boris is Jewish? Chances are if he were not, he would not get away with some depictions of anti-Semitic humor, all of which are really a send-up of slogans and faux-philosophies that blame Jews for everything.

The loose plot, serving as a foundation for a series of vaudeville-like comedy both verbal and physical, finds the title character (Sasha Baron Cohen) ordered by the Kazakh ministry to go to the U.S. and deliver the gift of a monkey named Johnny to Vice President Mike Pence. His fifteen-year-old daughter Sandra Sarah Parker Sagiyev (Maria Bakalova) has smuggled herself out of the country in a large box meant for Johnny, and what’s more has eaten the monkey (though she insists the animal had eaten himself). Borat notes that the monkey is “not as alive as he used to be.” The gift idea has changed: Sandra is to be given as a gift to a former mayor of a large U.S. city, but first she has to get out of those peasant clothes, color her hair blond, and learn how to out as a big-city journalist that would convince people in both Washington DC and deep into Trump country.

During the odyssey of this odd couple, they visit a baker who inscribes a greeting on the cake, a slogan that begins to make some people nervous as similar actions did in the original movie. What if some people watching the movie take everything seriously, their ethnic prejudices catered to? She decides that she needs a larger bosom or she would not be worthy of a man, and visits a plastic surgeon who does not approve of simply putting potatoes inside her blouse. (He probably could not charge $21,000 for that.) She upsets a debutante ball in Macon, Georgia with the kind of dance you would not expect among Republican woman and is clued in by Luenell (Luenell) about how to act like a confident woman who does not need a larger breast in the film’s most sensible celluloid.

The physical humor finds Cohen dressed in a bikini, with a fake (I think) phallus, and in a succession of disguises that introduces a fellow with a nose longer than Pinocchio’s (two women in the synagogue try to prove that Jews do not necessarily have long shnozzes) and a guy with a large beard who encourages a crowd of rural folks to sing a racist song. (Again: what if members of the movie audience are literal folks without a sense of irony?)

“Borat 2” was written by eight people which might qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records and looks it. The sketches are sufficiently different, albeit delightfully vulgar (not so charming to Republican women, perhaps), always fitting right into this mockumentary. Jason Woliner has a stack of TV episodes in his résumé but for him this is a refreshing, funny, vulgar, satiric sendup of Americans who believe everything they hear and Americans who probably do not. This is also the freshman performance of Irina Novak who can persuade you that she can play a village maid from a backward country and a sophisticated feminist that could be a New York TV journalist.

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

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

SOROS – movie review

Reviewed for & 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


ETERNAL BEAUTY – movie review

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

Eternal Beauty Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kit Fraser films in various locations in Wales.

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

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


AN AMERICAN PICKLE – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brandon Trost
Screenwriter: Simon Rich adapted from his novella “Sell Out” in New Yorker Magazine
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Sean Whalen, Jorma Taccone, Joanna Adler, Jeff Daniel Phillips, David Mattey
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/30/20
Opens: August 6, 2020

An American Pickle' trailer: Seth Rogen talks 'unique' HBO Max comedy

Rip van Winkel fell asleep in the borscht belt and woke up twenty years later. Or so he thought. “Fiddler on the Roof” focuses on the Jewish community in 19th Century Eastern Europe, its residents always watching out for the Cossacks. In the movie “Borat,” the title character, Borat Sagiyev, wanders to the U.S. from the Kazakh backwaters to interview people in the modern U.S. In David Mamet’s “Homicide” (1991), Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), a police detective investigating a murder that takes place within an Orthodox Jewish community, is criticized by a Hasidic Jew for being secular, the latter wondering whether there is anything spiritually real in a cop who does not embrace his religion. All of these and more are channeled in “An American Pickle,” directed by Brandon Trost in his freshman offering and written by Simon Rich, based on the writer’s novella “Sell Out” which appeared in New Yorker magazine January 28, 2013. By the very title of this HBO Max production, you’d figure that it would be a comedy since, after all, isn’t Seth Rogen, veteran of “The End,” “Super Bad,” “Sausage Party” and “Sorority Rising,” one of the great comic artists in the movies today?

Seth Rogen's An American Pickle finds a home at HBO Max

Truth to tell, “An American Pickle,” which bills itself as a comedy-drama, or dramady, is sadly unfunny and its lesson on the importance of religion and family is generally superficial. The one big plus is that it takes place not only in Eastern Europe but mostly in my home town, Brooklyn. Oh but wait. It was filmed in Pittsburgh.

Let’s look at an example of Simon Rich’s original novella in the New Yorker.

One day at work I fall into brine and they close the lid above me by mistake. Much time passes; it feels like long sleep. When the lid is finally opened, everybody is dressed strange, in colorful, shiny clothes. I do not recognize them. They tell me they are “conceptual artists” and are “reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space.” I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn. The science men come and explain. I have been preserved in brine a hundred years and have not aged one day. They describe to me the reason (how this chemical mixed with that chemical, and so on and so on) but I am not paying attention. All I can think of is my beautiful Sarah. Years have passed and she is surely gone.

The initial twenty minutes or so takes place in Eastern Europe in 1820 when Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) courts and weds Sarah (Sarah Snook), supporting his new family with a job in a pickle factory. Assigned to swatting innumerable rats who begin to attack him, he falls into a barrel of pickles just as the factory is closing down for good. The lid is placed on the barrel, and the factory is unoccupied until Herschel wakes up one hundred years later, preserved in brine so that he has aged not at all. He goes to America where he learns of a relative, Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen in his second role!), who has been working on providing a logo for a website called Boop Bop. With a full beard and an Eastern Europe hat, Herschel quickly learns the meaning of “logo,” and is of course astonished by what he sees in Brooklyn and Manhattan—just as you and I would be if we woke up in one hundred years to observe people wearing strange outfits and speaking Esperanto.

He works at what he knows, selling pickles, obtaining cucumbers from a dumpster and sinking them in rain water and salt. At first he is a success covered by TV but has a falling out from his envious brother who retaliates against Herschel for involving him in criminal activities—seemingly ending Ben’s career.

Seth Rogen's An American Pickle Gets A UK Trailer

The virtues of national attention through TV interviews and features in lecture halls appear to propel the man onward and upward but he makes one mistake, and it’s a mistake that makes me worry about how the Christians in the audience for this movie will react. I’m all for free speech, but even the First Amendment (like the Second) has its limits. What Herschel states in answer to a question about Jesus and Mary is so despicable that it has no place in such a film. Couldn’t the producers have found some other screw-ups if they wanted to show the evanescence of fame? We get enough racist crap and Islamophobia weekly from Donald Trump. There’s no need for disparagement of a religion with billions of followers. Sure it’s OK to kid as does the movie “I, Pastafari” (a bizarre group of people follow a religion whose god is a flying spaghetti monster) which opened July 7th and has all of eight reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But this is going too far.

Ultimately, the picture turns sentimental, when the brothers reunite after their schism, announcing that family is important, and (according to this picture) so is religious ritual. But there is not much in the way of either comedy or drama, though the visuals—which allow Seth Rogen to play both roles, even to hug each other seamlessly—are awesome.

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

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

SCREENED OUT – movie review

Dark Star Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Hyatt
Screenwriter: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
Cast: Jon Hyatt, Alicia Dupuis, Jim Steyer, Syd Bolton, Adam Alter, Jean Twenge, Hilarie Cash, Alex Pang, Ramsay Brown, Mihael Rich, Nir Eyal, Nicholas Kardaras
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/22/20
Opens: May 26, 2020

Screened Out (2020)

One glaring omission from Jon Hyatt’s blandly informative but virtually humorless documentary “Screened Out” is the name Donald J. Trump. CBS news the other day reported that since he took office, he has sent out 50,000 tweets. Was he stupid before computers and the internet were even invented, or did he become the way he is because of all the screen time that he indulges? But wait: his addiction to Twitter may accord with  Hyatt’s thesis that excessive time on smart [sic] phones and computers will mess with your brain, so to the president’s credit, he announced that because Twitter is now fact-checking his tweets for accuracy and truth, he will do what he can to shut the company down. You go, man. Less Twitter, more time for engaging directly with life.

While I do not even have a Twitter account, I was not born into the computer age, so I cannot fully comprehend that men and women below the age of thirty (when home computers started to takeoff) are so dependent on this technology. On Memorial Day, the folks spending six to nine hours daily “talking” to their thousand Facebook friends, retweeted a video of a woman who lost her six-figure job because her racist comments were caught. Thirty million people had seen the altercation when the video went viral (Ugh, that word again). Heaven known how much time many of these followers are spending on their devices rather than looking flesh-and-blood people in the eye and talking to them or gaining genuine wisdom about life by reading “War and Peace” instead.

Other points left out by the doc include the more concrete danger of distraction on your screens while driving your car, resulting in giving some pedestrians nasty bumps, or that of great armies of mostly young people glued to their phones and slamming into people on the sidewalk or falling from cliffs. Still, co-writer and director Hyatt knows whereof he speaks since he was (is?) himself a screen addict. Many years earlier he would play out in the yard with kids his own age, having a ball, learning how to relate directly to others while getting the sufficient amount of vitamin D that others are missing. He now spends more time reading the fiction that was crowded out because of his addiction while his wife has been unable to kick the screen habit. Imagine guys and gals in college assigned to read “Jane Eyre” but glancing every ten minutes at the phone when hearing the buzz or ring or theme song from “Gone with the Wind.” As one talking head advises, multi-tasking does not work.

Among the gems delivered from the documentary which I was watching on my computer when I could have been re-reading “Jane Eyre,” is the concept of intermittent rewards. When a pigeon gets a pellet of food each time it (or he or she) pecks at a button, the bird is rewarded. Soon, however, the pigeon gives up, winded. Everything’s too predictable. When the pigeon does not know which peck at the button will release the food (the mechanism is programmed to release the pellet intermittently), the bird retains excitement. In that regard slot machines keep people glued not because they win a fortune every time they swing the one arm—that would be boring albeit enriching—they are fascinated by wondering when or if the quarters will bounce into the slot. So is it that when people hear the ping of the phone (or the opening bars of “Twist and Shout” as sung by Ferris Bueller), they will salivate at the thought that the texter’s message may be more interesting than their Social Studies teacher’s talk on the Congress of Vienna.

The documentary barely presents another point of view, so intent is Hyatt to list and elaborate the many dangers of social media and other plagues. He might have said that video games improve cognitive function and motor skills, and that at least the youths are reading words. On the other hand, teen suicide is way up since technology allows them to compare their miserable lives with the bragging from their peers who are equally miserable. Then again there’s bullying by callow adolescents, while in my day you could just grab a kid from the street who is half your weight and show him how much better you are.

How’s this for irony. When this movie shown on your computer ends, you get to click, or not click, the button “like.” I thought and debated and meditated and clicked it.

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

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B- (near absence of animation)
Overall – B

THE LAST VERMEER – movie review

Tristar Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dan Friedkin
Screenwriter: James McGee, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez
Cast: Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 3/19/20
Opens: November 20, 2020

It’s about time that the film industry has come around to portraying a first class melodrama of one of the great forgeries in art history, one of many that allowed Hans van Meegeren to amass enough of a fortune to buy 52 properties and 15 country homes throughout Europe. Van Meegeren’s story has is covered in an elaborate Wikipedia essay, a fellow well known to the residents of the Netherlands but until now unfamiliar to the average American. “The Last Vermeer” is adapted from a book by Jonathan Lopez, “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” available on Amazon, now brought to life before cinematographer Rami Adefarasin lenses with all the splendor of Fort Widley in Portsmouth, England and Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

The film should cast Dan Friedkin in the limelight as a first-time director with a potential future in uncovering the lives of people as colorful as Van Meegeren, who thanks to this picture will allow us in the U.S. to dig further into aspects of the Third Reich rarely illuminated before. This film is graced by a stunning performance from Guy Pearce in the role of the forger who must have been thankful that he did not make the cut as a grade-A painter, but who amassed a fortune of thirty million dollars (that’s in 1943) by swindling the number 2 man in Hitler’s stable, art lover Hermann Göring. Implied in the tale is the certainty that if Göring knew he was taken advantage of, he would have had Van Meegeren shot. Then again, some of Van Meegeren’s countrymen might have done the deed given that Dutchmen who collaborated with the Nazis were tied behind a pole in a central square and shot before a mass of citizens screaming epithets.

The two central characters are Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) and Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang). The movie, like the book, emphasizes the captain’s Jewish background given his disgust with the Nazis for stealing hundreds of masterworks in the art world when Jews escaping the Nazis in the Netherlands as in most of the rest of Europe had to sell their collections for bargain basement prices. Presumably van Meegeren acquired these paintings partly for his collection, but always conspiring to sell them and accumulate vast riches. What Göring did not know was that the painting of “Christ and the Adulteress” that he bought from van Meegeren was not an original Vermeer and that in fact Vermeer had not been credited with the work at all. One must wonder—though the film does not—why Göring could not check on the complete list of the works of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) where he would discover that no such title exists.

The film is bogged down by a large number of characters, most if not all might be unfamiliar to American viewers. Otherwise the story involves throughout with several melodramatic touches, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene presided over the three judges, with the Dutch people gathered outside seemingly favorable to van Meegeren as they credit him with swindling the Nazis. On the other hand the judges and the prosecutor are adamant about prosecuting the forger and giving him a death sentence, as they consider him a fellow who enriched himself by collaborating with Nazi bigwigs.

The women in the story get short exposure, lost in the maze of personages, including the forger’s ex-wife and his mistress, while Piller, a handsome Dutch fellow with a clear, penetrating voice, has his own bedmates. Yet Guy Pearce, well known to American audiences for roles in “Mary Queen of Scots,” “The Catcher Was a Spy” and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Genius” takes a role in which he is almost unrecognizable, giving support to Claes Bang, recently seen in the wonderful “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which also deals with the world of painting.

An epilogue that tries to imitate some of the novels of John Grisham—wherein a winning case unravels in the final pages—is unconvincing, dealing with a suggestion that the Dutch painter indeed collaborated with Hitler himself.

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

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

THE MISOGYNISTS – movie review

Oscilloscope Laboratories/Factory 25
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Onur Tukel
Screenwriter: Onur Tukel
Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/2/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

In just 85 minutes writer-director Onur Tukel compresses three years of seemingly endless political discussion into a stagy tale spotlighting Dylan Baker, whose somber performance as a Russian spy in “The Americans,” goes against type as Cameron in “The Misogynists.” This hilarious tale, one that sends up Cameron who stands in for a type of Trump supporter that Hillary once called “deplorables,” deliberately portrays Cameron as a one-dimensional racist, homophobic, prejudiced, misogynistic citizen and voter, standing in as a the kind of person who may not express his bigoted ideas at the workplace or at home but is free to let loose in locker talk with his best male friend.

Cheering as he probably had done many times in his life, this wealthy businessman, separated for four months from his wife and living in a luxury hotel in Manhattan, is over the moon when on election night in 2016 the media calls Donald J. Trump the winner of the presidential election. His pal Baxter (Lou Jay Taylor) is a more nuanced gent, possibly a liberal at heart but seemingly able to be convinced under the right circumstances, with the right shots of Vodka and lines of coke, to find common ground with his boorish compatriot.

The Misogynists (2017)

For the most part what Cameron likes about Trump is only partly the commander-in-chief elect’s plan to build a fortress America on our southern border but mostly because this victory will symbolize man as ruler, leaving woman to cook steaks in the kitchen. Cameron cannot credibly be called the voice of the Christian Right, the Evangelicals, who may have held their noses when they voted for the developer, but more akin to the white nationalists, the anti-elitists, the know-nothings, really, like the folks in that political party who in the 1840s bonded with like-minded Protestants who feared a conspiracy to undermine their religious and political values.

Playing the part of Cameron’s straight-man, Taylor evokes the impression of a klutz who is likely in conflict with all sorts of things in his life, including his ties to his wife Alice (Christine M. Campbell), who calls him on her cell demanding that he come home, the controlling woman who is often the target of Cameron’s wrath. His own political beliefs in conflict, Baxter would like to fit in with the views of Cameron, the dominant male, but he is neither a Hillary voter nor a Trump supporter. Given the curfews that Alice appears to set down, Baxter could readily go whole-hog over to Cameron’s position that men should rule.

Some of the sharpest dialogue occurs between the hotel guests and a Mexican-American busboy (Rudy de la Ctuz), inviting the lad to extend his break and do some lines. While you might expect the busboy to be anti-Trump, he, like some of friends, simply did not vote. He cares not a whit what the resident in the Oval Office has in store for people like him. Best of all is the exchange of obscenities between Cameron and the two hookers, Sasha (Ivana Milicevic) and Amber (Triests Kelly Dunn), who for their part get thrown out of the cab by the driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma) for insulting Muslim men.

Dylan Baker turns in a spot-on performance, emerging from his previous, quieter roles in “The Good Fight” on TV and “Anchorman 2.” Almost all the action takes place in a single room, the TV performing as a separate character turning itself on and off and showing clips in reverse order.

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

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

PROMISE AT DAWN – movie review

PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema

La promesse de l'aube (2017)

In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.

And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.

You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”

The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.

During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.

I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.

In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.

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

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

READY OR NOT – movie review

Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

Jokes are often made about marriages of Hollywood actors. They have elaborate ceremonies, their receptions are written up in People, interviewers ask all sorts of personal questions such as “How many kids to you plan to have?” Then two years later, four years later, “in sickness and in health” becomes the big lie. Divorces are common after short periods. If you really want to see an extreme version of this as though satirizing the concept, look into “Ready or Not,” featuring a marriage that lasts all of twelve hours. Blame it on the in-laws. Though “Ready or Not” is fiction, some viewers may think that it’s a send-up of the one percent, the belief that any family that is rich enough to be in that bracket must have gained their wealth through stealth, even murder somewhere along the line. Still, that would be a difficult thesis to prove, nor do Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who share directing credits as well for “Devil’s Due,” about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon facing an earlier than expected pregnancy.

Unlike “Devil’s Due” the couple may or not have an unexpected pregnancy, but they have one hell of a bad honeymoon. Nor is the bride favored by in-laws, an eccentric group of people living in a mansion with rooms that may be larger than the cubic feet of an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. (The pic is filmed by Brett Jutkiewicz in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto, considered the safest place in the area where kids can play at night—but tell that to the people in this film.)

Samara Weaving anchors the activities as Grace, whose history as a foster child compels her to want a family. She lucks out, or so she thinks, in meeting Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) not realizing that she is being set up like Chris Washington by Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s superior film “Get Out.” After an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the estate, she returns with Alex to meet the family—one which could be compared, except in appearance, to the folks in Charles Addams’ cartoons. These are people bound by tradition, as shown in an opening scene thirty years earlier. A satanic pact has been made with the ancestors, agreed to by the family to pay back the man who originally made the money by creating and selling games.

Told that she must pick a card, any card from a deck featuring games, Grace selects Hide and Seek, the worst choice she could have made. As the family counts to 100, she is delighted to run away, hide in the dumbwaiter, and then think of a less cozy place. Soon enough she sees that if she cannot escape from the mansion by dawn, she will die at their hands, nor can she count fully on her husband Alex, who loves her but is conflicted by the pact of which he too is a part. Soon she is hunted down by Alex’s brother Daniel Le Domas (Adam Brody with Etienne Kellici as the young Daniel), Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell with Kate Ziegler as young Becky), Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun) who needs help in using a crossbow), Tony Le Domas, the majordomo of the outfit (Henry Czerny) and Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the aunt who most resembles a Charles Addams character.

As is customary in horror pictures, people get picked off, one by one, in this case by crossbow, weights smashed on their heads, strangulation, gunshots, and ultimately by a Götterdammerung of a conclusion that comes off more like a deus ex machina than a scene that you might expect. While some critics believe that Adam Brody comes off tops in his role as the bride’s brother-in-law, also with conflicted feelings, I have high regard for Henry Czerny, who is the epitome, or perhaps society’s stereotype, of a chief executive. Czerny, who delivered a powerful performance as a pederast in John N Smith’s 1992 “The Boys of St. Vincent,” has a lesser role here but his depiction of the family’s leader is compelling. Best of all, Samara Weaving, whom we have seen in Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” about a virus that causes white collar office workers to act out their worst impulses, is perfect for the role. She starts out in her bridal dress, a long white gown, innocent in the ways of people whose riches she could only imagine. She reflects the tension that all feel, with a terrific depiction of fear, shaking, breathing hard, tearing her dress to allow her to run, then becomes an angel of vengeance.

The visuals are great. An estate with wall paintings of ancestors becomes symbolic of the home of the super-rich, though weighed down by a pact with which only some are enthusiastic with others conflicted. The music, which includes sections of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, is perfect. There is one serious weakness, found in Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s freshman feature screenplay. The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight which has served as the highbrow companion of 20th Century Fox, has the visual quality of its traditional art-house fare. But the dialogue, with its incessant use of the f-word and the s-word, is vulgar, not warranted except to draw in those moviegoers who never get tired of the profanity used well beyond its function in the movies. Screenplays are important: some consider writers, not directors, to be the most important elements of a movie. The juvenile language amid the paintings of the masters and a soundtrack that includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is incompatible.

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

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

ALL IS TRUE – movie review

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Ben Elton
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 4/11/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Shakespeare has been mutilating college students’ GPA for decades, maybe centuries, as English majors, perfectly fine at interpreting Byron, Shelley and Keats, are at a loss in parsing the Bard’s 17th century English. Still, the scholars do remember “to be or not to be” but what they would enjoy more is one of the quotes in Kenneth Branagh’s film “All is True.” When a radical Puritan (these were the Christian right types in England) razzes Shakespeare, condemning one of his daughters for alleged pre-marital pregnancy and his wife for illiteracy, he replies, “There is more wisdom in Anne’s shit than in your entire body.”

Branagh, who directs and takes on the principal role in “All is True,” is more acquainted with Shakespeare than any other actor, given especially his ability to memorize all the lines of the title characters in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” playing the key role Iago in “Othello,” Berowne in “Love’s Labour Lost,” and Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing” among other treasures, and is the ideal person for this speculative treatment of Shakespeare’s final three years. As written by Ben Elton, known for TV episodes like “The Thin Blue Line” and “Upstart Crow,” William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagah) is demoralized when the Globe Theatre burns to the ground, the result of a misplaced cannon shot. Having spent most of his adult life in London, leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and his young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) to fend for themselves, he now returns to Stratford-upon-Avon as a retired man with no ambition to write further.

Not a lot is known about Shakespeare the man much less how he spent his final three years, but we do get writer Ben Elton’s insights based on what we know of the customs and culture of England at the time. Shakespeare cannot understand why his allegedly beautiful daughter Judith is hanging around, a spinster, and pressures her to find a guy and get out of the house—which, by the way, is a spacious mansion, testament to the fact that Will did not have to wait for his own death to be a financial success. Most of all, though, he mourns Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven, and while Shakespeare is doing some gardening to provide his lost son with a respectable piece of land around his grave, he questions whether Hamnet died of the plague as his wife Anne repeatedly assures him. Yet there is some mystery surrounding the death. Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is aware that all is not what it seems, ultimately revealing the truth of the boy’s demise.

In the movie’s most memorable volley of talk, Shakespeare plays host to the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who looks foppish with long blond hair, as the two recount with more than a hint that there may be truth about Shakespeare’s sonnets: that they were written not to a woman or to women in general but to the playwright’s male lover. McKellen is in his element quoting his favorite lines from the sonnets.

There is more than a hint of feminism in this take of the writer’s final years. Daughter Judith, who finally does tie the knot, loses self-control, accusing her father of favoring the boy Hamnet, elaborating on the jealousy she feels, thinking that if one of the two children msut die, her father would prefer that it be Judith. Further, though Shakespeare proclaims that he’d had no problem if women played their parts in his plays, but the society would not condone such women’s liberation.

There are fine performances all around as you’d expect from Shakespearean actors like McKellen and Branagh, with interesting photography that takes advantage of the fact that electricity had not been harnessed. Zac Nicholson photographs indoor scenes in natural light from the fireplace, which makes you realize how difficult it must have been for the masses of people—those without Shakespeare’s financial as well as critical success—to function. This is art-house fare as you would expect from a studio with the integrity of Sony Pictures Classics, with little of the fireworks of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 “Julius Caesar” or Baz Luhrman’s modernized 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.”

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

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


Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Chester
Screenwriter: John Chester, Mark Monroe
Cast: John Chester, Molly Chester, Alan Young
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/4/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

In “An Essay on Man” (1733) an optimistic Alexander Pope notes:
“All discord, harmony, not understood,
All partial evil, universal good”
He concludes: “Whatever is, is right.”

Pope believed that one God, all-wise and all-merciful, governs the world providentially for the best. While Pope is not invoked in John Chester’s movie “The Biggest Little Farm, “if Pope were alive today Chester could have been the model that helps to prove Pope’s wisdom. After all, when you are forced out of your cramped Santa Monica apartment because your dog Todd would bark all day when left alone, Chester must have believed that life is nothing more than one discord after another. However, being forced out of your flat turns out to be just what John Chester and his wife Molly needed to turn their lives around, to go from being just another anonymous pair of city people who turn all partial evil to universal good. What to any impartial observer looks like a land scam, since the farmland John and Molly purchase one hour’s drive from L.A. is dust-dry, turns out to be just the challenge that this creative couple needed to make themselves productive beyond their wildest imagination.

“The Biggest Little Farm” is an extraordinary documentary, not only because it was filmed over a period of ten years but because it is photographed with detailed attention to nature by John Chester himself with four other cinematographers and includes a few comical animations, courtesy of Jason Carpenter. All is augmented by Jeff Beale’s music. Like Israel, a country known during its founding to have “made the deserts bloom,” these incredibly hard-working, motivated Chesters take land ruined by a California drought and turne it into not just any old farm, certainly not the satanic factory farms that make life hell for animals, but an organic property filled with a huge diversity of crops and animals. By the time this movie ends, we note in a eight-year period they planted 10,000 orchard trees, 200 crops, and a variety of animals that would make Noah envious. To bring this animal menagerie down to human proportions, the Chesters have two pets. One is a large black dog, Todd, with human eyes that they saved before it was scheduled to be put down by a shelter. Another is Emma, a pig that provides entertainment for tourists who visit the farm, an attraction principally because it stands as a model of diversity, diversity, diversity. And Emma must have helped the farmers by producing one litter of 17—that’s 17—piglets. (Eventually they would be sent “to market” since you can’t have ideals without money.)

John and Molly see first-hand that there is a balance in nature. For example, coyotes had a tendency to sneak around at night to kill the farm’s chickens, though why they don’t eat the bodies is a mystery to me. John has to take his rifle to kill the pesky creatures. But then he discovers that coyotes are actually needed to balance nature because they eat gophers, another pest which left on their own would help destroy the farm. As for the tens of thousands of snails that eat leaves, they’re taken care of by ducks who would eat the French delicacy without bothering to get a thank-you from their human friends.

The Chesters are lucky to get the expert help of one Alan Young who had vast experience in natural farming, though since nature can be cruel, this mentor died or a particularly aggressive cancer. They were helped as well by a crew of workers, all collaborating to make this a dream farm, a paradise borne from a land that could have been the site of a dystopian movie. All of this takes place despite nature’s other cruelties: a drought thought to be the worst in 1200 years and a series of wildfires that we have all seen on recent news reports.

This sumptuous drama whose photography, including close-up, slow-motion shots of bees, hummingbirds and other critters could rival any nature drama shot by National Geographic and Disney. This is how a doc should be made: no interviews, not talking heads; in other words make it indistinguishable from a clever and vastly entertaining narrative drama.

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

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

THE INTRUDER – movie review

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

The Intruder Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPERNIUM – movie review

CAPERNAUM (Chaos) سافرنام

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Nadine Labaki
Screenwriter:  Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeilly, Michelle Keserwany, in collaboration with Georges Khabbaz and with the participation of Khaled Mouzanar
Cast:  Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/28/18
Opens: December 14, 2018

Capernaum Poster #1

Next time a “homeless Vietnam veteran” enters your car in the New York City Metro asking for “a dollar, a quarter, even a penny to feed my three hungry kids,” are you tempted to say “If you’re too poor to take care of yourself, why the hell did you have three hungry kids?”  (Ironically, Trump would not be tempted to say this, given that he opposes requiring health insurance companies to cover birth control.)  The rich make money, the poor make children.

Homelessness and poverty are in no way intrinsic to New York or the U.S. but are more prevalent in what Trump might call sh*thole countries.  Doubtless he’d include Muslim Lebanon, since that Middle Eastern state is no Norway, but while Beirut has a thriving middle class, others live in slums that make a tourist wonder how anyone can bear living there—without water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and everything else.  Nadine Labaki, who directs and co-wrote “Capernaum,” took hundreds of hours of film in a hell-hole Beirut slum to capture children who are not likely to become the next slumlord millionaires.  What emerges is a three-hanky movie about the tragic lives of people who live there, some without papers, without money, without hope, including children whose occupations are more likely selling chiclets than running a hedge fund.

Director and co-writer Nadine Labaski, whose “Where Do We Go Now” is about how some Lebanese women try to moderate the tensions between Christian and Muslims, is in her métier, writing what she knows about the Beirut of her birthplace.  Evoking incredibly subtle performances from non-professional actors especially the young boys and girls who are likely to be acting out their own slum lives, she delves particularly into the life of 12-year-old central character Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), serving a five-year sentence for stabbing “a sonofabitch” and sues his parents for giving birth to him.  This kid apparently knows more than the parents the world-over who have no concept of family planning and whose large brood will keep them in poverty.  In fact the adults in “Capernaum” make do by selling their offspring, including one eleven-year-old girl who is married off and who dies bleeding to death in childbirth. 

Zain is a Lebanese boy who wants to pass himself off as a Syrian refugee to allow him to emigrate to Turkey or Sweden, while probably knowing nothing about those two states except for thinking that Sweden is prettier.  In many scenes this street kid is taking care of an Ethiopian baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and the infant’s mother Rahil (Yordanos Chiferaw). The baby is too young to talk but ready to cry and feel abandoned like an anxious puppy if his would-be baby sitter leaves him on the sidewalk to run an errand.  This responsible young lad takes better care of the Ethiopian refugee than his own mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Eadi Kamel Youssef), which explains the unusual lawsuit.  The parents’ lack of care comes principally from their poverty as they are unable even to give Zain the modest sum to allow him to get a passport, nor would a hospital take him in if he needs medical care as he has no ID.   He scrapes by as a delivery boy for a grocer who has his eye on Zain’s kid sister Sahar (Cedra Izam).  He trusts Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) to forge an ID.  As though their poverty were not enough to bear, these slum dwellers are exploited by miscreants who run a black market adoption scheme.  Yet there are moments of humor as when Zain is asked why “his brother” is darker than he pipes up that his mother drank a lot of coffee. 

Most Americans with the wherewithal to travel stick to our own country or to other well-off regions in Canada and Western Europe. Those who prefer more exotic excursions and go to poor countries—and there are a lot more of them than the other kind—will observe the same problems that we see hear—the rusty tin, corrugated boxes that slum dwellers call home, the sending our of their small fry to sell gum on the street, even encouraging some to do as Zair did by selling drugs like the opiate Tramadol (which Zair gets from a suspicious pharmacist.)

“Capernaum” (pronounced cap AIR nay um), meaning “a place with a disorderly accumulation of objects,”  is Lebanon’s entry to the 91st Academy awards and commands your attention for its authentic acting, its visuals, its humanism. In Arabic with English subtitles.  The film got a 15-minute standing ovation at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

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

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

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – movie review

Focus Features
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josie Rourke
Screenwriter:  Beau Willimon, adapting from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart
Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Martin Compston, Gemma Chan, Guy Pearce
Screened at: Crosby Hotel, NYC, 11/19/18
Opens: December 7, 2018
Mary Queen Of Scots Movie Poster 18'' x 28 FINESTPRINT88
With due respect to Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major, none of them could hold a candle to Mary Queen of Scots.  They cannot be the focus of an adventure movie like this one, even while wearing their cool, white, parliamentary wigs.  Benjamin Disraeli and William Pitt, maybe. In fact, yes, William Pitt the Younger (movie: 1942) doing battle with France and Napoleon.  OK I’d grant that.  Or could it be just that history itself grants majesty to the people conveyed therein?

There is ample majesty in Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots.”  Two majesties in fact, though one wanted to expand her power, and like many leaders, authoritarian and otherwise, met their downfall because they overreached.  If Mary remained content to be the Scottish monarch, all would be kosher, but she provoked her cousin Elizabeth who felt threatened—as anyone in her position would.  Mary believed she was rightfully queen of Scotland, England and Ireland: think of it as office politics with jewelry and makeup.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan—rhymes with “inertia”) became, in her country in her time, what we in the United States would require a chief exec to be at least 35.  She ascended the throne of France at 16, widowed at 18, returning to Scotland where she finds that Scotland and England are being ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  In Josie Rourke’s version, love becomes as important a theme as power.  Conspiracies abound (Conspiracies: those are the things that American politics today have nothing to do with.)  One branch of Scottish nobles are with Mary.  They’re all for putting her on the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Another faction in Scotland is opposed and favors recognition of Elizabeth.  Naturally the English encourage the faction that wants to quell the competition so that all can live in peace.  But this is not to be, lucky for us, as we can watch a beautifully costumed, made-up, jewel-wearing rival monarchs, though for beauty, Mary has it all.  Elizabeth, afflicted with smallpox as of Oct. 10, 1562, must cover her pock-marked face with increasing layers of white powder—which, by the way, made her ill and caused her hair to fall out.

If you’re a cinephile having absorbed previous attempts to bring Mary to life, you’ve seen Katharine Hepburn in “Mary of Scotland” and Vanessa Redgrave as “Mary, Queen of Scots,” Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton squaring off in “Elizabeth:  The Golden Age,” and a lesser known “Mary Queen of Scots” in 2013 with Camille Rutherford.  This time directing honors go to Josie Rourke in his freshman movie, but whose qualifications come from his being director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater company.

Rourke’s version brings the episodes into modern times, portraying at least two men of color among the conspiring nobility, with much warmongering going on among people who might fit well into today’s Tea Party and would be most welcome by Bible-thumpers with political ambitions.  Difficult as it might seem today when all religions in America are living in peace and harmony (granted with some exceptions played up bigly in the media),  Catholics and Protestants are at one another’s throats as they were in recent times in Northern Ireland, with the fanatics playing up the fact that Mary is Catholic and is accused of wanting to smuggle the pope over the border to rule with her.

Forget about the complexities of accession.  Suffice it to say that Mary became Catholic Queen of France and Scotland, Elizabeth the Protestant Queen of England.  Mary comes across as more aggressive in the movie than she may have been in life.  She might have settled at first for the dual monarchy but those Bible thumpers orated against Mary for being not religious enough or at least not caring whether her people worshipped as Protestant or Catholics. (In America today the word is that our great people might not oppose a President who is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, even Muslim: as long as he or she is not an atheist.)

If the monarchy were to be decided on mere looks, Mary would be accepted unanimously.  Saoirse Ronan is stunning, carrying herself as regal as a woman can be, stretching her terrific acting chops as a woman whose judgment in men is not always on the money. Elizabeth is made difficult to look at once had face is covered with the boils of smallpox, then has her face whitened to cover the scars, and, were it not for the elaborate red rug that she is entitled to wear could scare your children with the impact of that dread disease.  Much of director’s time is taken up with the conspiracies of the males since aside from the two monarchs, the only other women are ladies-in-waiting who at one point stand fretfully at the door of the royal bedroom while Mary tries with her insufficiently excited man to conceive an heir.

This is a picturesque look at the scepter’d isle in the Sixteenth Century, an authentic one so far as anyone but a historian might see, a multi-cultural, feminist drama with the occasional battle scene as two rival Scottish factions wave their swords at each other, though for what purpose one would want to risk his life is beyond the ken of the film.

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

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

MEMOIR OF WAR – movie reveiw


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUMMER 1993 – movie review

SUMMER 1993 (Estiu 1993)

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Carla Simón
Screenwriter:  Carla Simón
Cast:  Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermi Reixach, Isabel Rocatti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/15/18
Opens: May 25, 2018

There was a time not so far back that little was known about AIDS, about how it’s transmitted, whether it could be treated, and what you have to do to avoid the deadly virus.  “Summer 1993,” known by its original Catalán title as “Estiu 1993, is removed from a time of ignorance.  But when a six-year-old child’s parents die, the little girl is kept in the dark.  As acted by Laia Artigas, newly orphaned Frida is removed from her digs in Barcelona to live with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí). The pair have a three-year-old daughter, Anna, played by the pudgy Paula Robles.  The film has “autobiographical” hinted in every frame and is indeed a memoir of the writer-director Carla Simón in her freshman movie entry.  While Frida is a city girl introduced to a small-town mountain village (filmed by Santiago Racaj in Girona and Olot), you might expect her to enjoy the change as a summer vacation which will likely extend until she’s an adult.  But she is troubled by the loss of parents as any child might be and is involved in a micro-power struggle with her host’s own child.  In the back of her mind, she must wonder every day about the illness that took her parents’ lives but nobody is willing to be frank with her until the conclusion of the story, when Marga discreetly hints about the cause.  She does assure the little girl that her folks are looking at her from heaven and that “they loved you very much,” which makes me wonder: if they are watching Frida from up there, wouldn’t they “love” her very much?

Carla Simón is intent on focusing on every detail from the spot in the mountains that gives the air of a typical village pueblo, complete with a parade toward the conclusion, performers in masks dancing around to the music of a small band, flags flying.  The chickens have the run of the place and are doubtless happier than the chicks that are factory farmed in the U.S. or “cage free” but still without more than a few centimeters of space.  Ms. Simón, as a six-year-old, has been indoctrinated in religion by her grandmother, Maria (Isabel Rocatti), a regular visitor who tests the girl on the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  Indoctrinated, maybe, but can a six-year-old have a sense of ethics?  “She has no morals,” barks her foster mother to Esteve, when Frida beckons little Anna to a wooded area, a plan in her head to see the girl injured.  When Anna falls from a tree (not shown), her arm in a cast, Frida is now certain that she is on hostile ground and is determined to run away with her grandparents.

Frida is quiet almost throughout, a single tantrum hinting that she is sitting on repressed anger.  Who wouldn’t be given the unfairness of being orphaned at such a young age?  In that role, Laia Artigas comes across as a sweet young woman who does regret leaving her little “sister” to be injured and who, as school beckons, has made a peace with aunt and uncle—taking part in horseplay and caring especially for her foster mom who is preparing her for school with lessons in math.  It appears that she will be fine, lucky to be indulged by people who like her presence, especially serving as a playmate of their own daughter.  The film has few surprises, no raging conflicts, and instead serves to allow Simón to give pleasure to an audience that is content with entering the mind of a six-year-old in a sober manner without histrionics and with great attention to detail.

In fact that audience is likely to be reminded of their own childhoods, comparing their joys and sorrows with Frida’s, each of us discovering we’re not alone with our emotions after all.

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

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




USC Shoah Foundation
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vanessa Roth
Cast: Xia Shuqin, Chris Magee, Xia Yuan, Li Yuhan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

The Girl and The Picture Poster

As right-wing, authoritarian parties are gaining influence in the West—think Hungary, Greece, France, Germany, Russia, and (gulp) the U.S.– we would do well to remember the consequences of extreme nationalism wherever it exists. Among the best examples is that of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. Known as a highly civilized country where talking in a loud voice was considered virtually a crime, Japan fell prey to Fascist politics, which led the country—even before its attack on Pearl Harbor—to invade China, provoking atrocities especially in Nanjing where up to 300,000 civilians were tortured, raped and murdered. Faced with unusual resistance beginning in Shanghai, Japanese soldiers turned barbaric, ignoring the rules of war by focusing on ordinary people, though some Japanese went over the line under the influence of Crystal Meth, resulting in the exclusion of civilized norms of morality.

We in the U.S. have been apprised of the Holocaust in Germany by an onslaught of films. Even high-school classes sometimes devote an entire term to the murder of six million Jews. But the Holocaust by Japan is given twenty minutes of so in a world history class (I can testify to this as a retired history teacher). But China has a constructed an elaborate memorial to the victims in Nanjing, all civilians, with some memorial constructs similar to those found in today in Berlin and especially by a block-long museum in the city where the devastation took place.

To remind us once again of the dangers of fascism, Xia Shuqin, an eighty-eight year old survivor who was able to hide until the soldiers went away, is questioned by her granddaughter with the great-grandson in attendance. Among her dramatic testimony is her recollection as one of the only two survivors of the massacre. The Japanese killed her father immediately when he opened the door, then her one-year-old sister, her mother, grandparents and two sisters. Xia shows three scars on her back as she was bayoneted by the soldiers.

Xia reveals with still pictures the horrors of bodies everywhere, but most important we in the audience see archival films, now faded, of the weeks beginning with Japan’s invasion of Shanghai in September 1937, then on to Nanjing, where the Japanese acted with barbarity that might have shocked some Nazis. Chris Magee demonstrates the camera used by his missionary grandfather to create a moving image of the slaughter. Had he been caught filming by the Japanese, he would not have died in bed.

Nanjing today is a completely modern city, as renovated after the war as was Rotterdam after the German bombings. It appears so clean and friendly that it should a tourist destination for visitors who cannot tolerate the pollution in Beijing and Shanghai.

This film is as much about Xia Shuquin as a record of the slaughter. She is intent just as Holocaust survivors today in the U.S. to ensure knowledge of fascism in the hope that similar tragedies will never occur again. Tell that to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Tell that to the Russians who are propping up the worst dictator in our time.

The film is a project of the USC Shoah Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg to record eyewitness accounts of genocides, whether they be in Nanjing or Europe or wherever. Festival dates TBD.

Unrated. 40 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BYE BYE GERMANY – movie review

BYE BYE GERMANY (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriter:  Michel Bergmann, Sam Garbarski, based on Michel Bergmann’s “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes
Cast:  Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyfi, Mark Ivanir, Anatole Taubman, Hans Low, Pal Macsai, Vaclav Jakoubek
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Bye Bye Germany poster
Here are some of the words that turn up in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany.”  Schlemiel, L’Chaim, Tsuris, Shiksa, Schmuck, Tuchis, Meshuga, Mazel.  Do you know what these words mean?  Each is the basis for a little gag in a movie that is loaded with jokes.  If you are not familiar with any of these Yiddish and Hebrew terms, no matter.  You will understand them in context.  Jokey though the film may be, it has serious intentions.  The humor is often dark and ironic, the greatest irony being that 4,000 Jews including the principal character in “Bye Bye Germany” remained in Germany after the war, while most, after a stay in a Displaced Persons camp, took off for America and Palestine (later Israel).

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), who holds his own throughout the movie as its anchor and hero, is one Jew camps survivor who in 1946 chooses to make a good living selling linens to Germans in Frankfurt.  He is questioned by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), who seems suspicious of any Jew who survived internment, and in this case she wants to find out whether Bermann should be punished as a collaborator with the Nazis.  Remember that some Jews were able to live longer than expected in horrific concentration camps like Auschwitz by playing musical numbers to make the condemned think they are going to the shower room and not the gas chambers.  Others, called kapos, were the Jewish police assigned by the Nazis to keep order, and some of them did so with the same brutality as the German officers on duty.  They are considered the lowest form of humanity among the prisoners.  Another way to survive was to entertain the SS, which is the way that Bermann, always ready with a quip to get the commandant (Christian Kmiotek)  in stitches, is valued by the Obersturmbanführer, “even though a Jew.”  This film is Bermann’s story to the special agent, who is skeptical of his claims.  And we in the audience are treated to his backstory, some of which involve embellishments, and some punctuating the way that Bermann, who raises a group of fellow survivors, manages to con some of the non-Jews of Frankfurt into buying his linens.

The story is adapted from the first two books by the German-Swiss novelist Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy, about a group of Jewish traveling salesmen.

Like the three-legged dog that appears now and then, hobbling along as though scarcely knowing that he is handicapped, Bermann makes the best of his precarious situation together with his partner Holzmann (Mark Ivanir).  In one scam David, who is the son of people who sold linens in a high-end store in Frankfurt until it was burned down, uses the old trick of pretending that a dead soldier had given an order and that his widow would naturally want to accept the linens and pay.  This is not only a way of raising money but also getting revenge on the Germans.  However the most significant vengeance is taken when one salesman, Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek), discovers that a man who sells newspapers is the very person who burned down a synagogue, killing Krautberg’s parents. Similarly special agent Sara gets her revenge by interrogating Nazis, a woman who had survived by escaping to American when escape was still a possibility.

Filmed in Luxembourg and Germany by cinematographer Virginia Saint-Martin, “Bye Bye Germany unfolds in a stunningrecreation of 1946 featuring cars with the split front windows that were the best that technology could offer at the same. Given Moritz Bleibtreu’s convincing, humorous, and poignant performance, a man whose roles in works like Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” a super-fast paced movie about a woman who has to raise a large sum of money within 20 minutes), is pitch perfect.

In German with English subtitles.

Unrated.  101 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

A BAG OF MARBLES – movie review

A BAG OF MARBLES (Un sac de billes)

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Duguay
Screenwriter: Alexandra Geismar, Jonathan Allouche w/ collaboration of Laurent Zeitoun and based on the graphic novel by Joseph Joffo and Vincent Bailly
Cast: Patrick Bruel, Dorian Le Clech, Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, Elsa Zylberstein
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/8/18
Opens: March 23, 2018

This narrative film based on a graphic novel by Joseph Joffo and Vincent Bailly purportedly relating true experiences takes place in Paris and Nice, exhibiting a phase of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) and his big brother Maurice Joffo (Batyste Fleurial). “A Bag of Marbles” includes some shots of unprovoked brutality, although if you’re seen enough Holocaust films and read enough books on the tragic era, you’d be naïve to think that this represents Germans and some French acting on their full-pledged antisemitism. The director, Christian Duguay, has a resume packed with TV episodes including one called “Human Trafficking,” about the brutality of kidnappers who sell young women into prostitution.

An authentic performance by Patrick Bruel in the role of the boys’ father is the highlight, a man who runs a barber shop in Paris that caters only to Jews (who in 1942 would not be allowed to patronize a shop run by Christians). For me a big surprise was that two German soldiers among the occupation troops in France’s capital visited the barber as customers, and that Roman, the boy’s father, freely stated to the two customers that “everyone in the shop is Jewish.” I had figured that by 1942 the windows would be broken, a Star of David would be painted on the walls, and the Jews would have to go immediately into hiding.

Since the film involves the travels of the two brothers without their parents to a freer area in the south, largely on foot but sometimes by hitched rides, you could this a road-and-buddy pic, involving various people, mostly friendly and talkative. Among the events encountered by young and naïve Joseph, who could barely believe that the lives of Jews were in danger, and his more mature, older brother Maurice, is one in which the lads, traveling alone on a train heading south toward Nice which was governed by the French Vichy regime under Petain, are terrified when about to be confronted by the authorities asking for papers (they had none). They came under the immediate protection of a priest, one of two gents of the cloth who would protect the identity of the two. Other events include their presence in a training program of youths expected to fight for Germany, wherein the boys feign Catholicism, and another in which Joseph, following the counsel of his father who literally beat into him that he must always deny his Jewishness, worked for an anti-Semitic bookseller for six months without guessing the identity of his employee. This middle-aged shop owner, who would be dealt with by the Resistance after liberation, blamed the Jews for the war, a classic Big Lie of the Nazi regime, and who furthermore states that the real enemy of France is England, not Germany.

With a solid supporting role by Elsa Zilberstein as Anna Joffo, the boys’ mother, “Bag of Marbles” is yet another film on the horrors of the Nazi regime with its own particular niche. It should be required viewing by those who tend to believe whatever governments are telling them, with a manifesto that should read “Question authority: Trust No One.” This especially in view of the rightward movement of several Western countries whose naïve citizens are going along with the hatred spewed by candidates for government. Beware of anyone with statements about neo-Nazis and white supremacists in our own country that there are fine people among them.

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

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

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS – movie review


    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: C
    Director:  F. Gary Gray
    Written by: Chris Morgan
    Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
    Screened at: AMC 34th Street, NYC, 4/11/17
    Opens: April 14, 2017
    The Fate of the Furious Movie Poster
    If you were researching a term paper for your film history class on the topic “The Early Use of Vehicles by the Film Industry,” you would undoubtedly mention the first narrative film, “The Great Train Robbery,” released in 1903 when cars were first appearing in the U.S..  The movie, inspired by an actual robbery of the Union Pacific in 1900 in which four men blew a hole in the safe and took off with $5,000 cash, must have been the year’s most exciting event to its audiences, many of whom ducked under their theater chairs when the characters appeared to jump from the screen.  Imagine if, instead of seeing that as the first viable, commercial picture, they were introduced to “The Fate of the Furious.”  Really, in 1903!  The event would have made eclipsed the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in North Carolina and would position director F. Gary Gray to be Time magazine Man of the Year if Time had such an award then.

    So granted: “The Fate of the Furious” is a technological marvel, but unlike the folks 115 years ago, we have gotten accustomed to crashing cars, exploding helicopters, well-aimed torpedoes, countless bullets from machine guns bolted to the tops of cars, even a revolver or two pointed at people but completing the act of killing in only one such case.  Really, folks, have you had enough of such wall-to-wall mayhem?  I guess not.  “The Fate of the Furious” is set to break opening weekend box office records.

    More interesting, to me at least, is that the film gave jobs to three hundred Cuban people in Havana, namely transportation coordinators, producers, location advisors, drivers and the like for six months.  This is what may have worried Fidel, that the big bad capitalists were handing more money out to the local extras in six months than doctors make in a year.  Even “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” filmed there in 2013, required elaborate permissions from both Washington and Havana, so one imagine what red tape may have frustrated many an executive before this one could  approved, but one incentive that seems to have worked was the money that the U.S. gave to the state-run Cuba Institute of Cinematographic Art.  We’re supporting Communism?  That’s one way of looking at it.  Anyway, look for feature articles on how the U.S.-Cuba deal was made.

    This installment, the eighth in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, one sadly missing Paul Walker, had early segments shot in Old Havana and Centro Havana. These were the most interesting scenes in the movie, including the singular case of a soulful exchange when Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is on his honeymoon with Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez).  A sneering, local bully seeks to take off with Dom’s cousin’s heap.  They agree to a race, the winner taking the other driver’s car.  Dom strips the jalopy to its very essence, continuing just behind the bully even when fire engulfs what’s left of the vehicle, but darn if the hero doesn’t cross the finish line first—and by driving backwards in the final stretch.  If you believe that, you can believe anything you see, but “The Fate of the Furious” is not about being rational, credible, justifiable, but about technology.

    Cipher (Charlize Theron) introduces herself to Dom, seeming to know all about him and demanding that he work for her, showing something on a cell phone that makes him go rogue to the distress of Dom’s crew including Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris Bridges), his wife Letty, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and later agents Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood).  What passes for Cipher’s motive as chief villain is her desire to teach superpowers a lesson so that only she, and not they, will be able to explode nuclear bombs.  In that interest, she captures a nuclear code from a Russian defense minister in New York, though not before threatening to cut his car and him into two neat parts.  She will then dictate “accountability,” warning the superpowers never to explode another such bomb.

    To make an overlong story just long, the convoluted plot finds Luke breaking out of jail along with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), his rival, Computers—not your father’s computers and not yours but some that you’ve seen before only in action-adventure movies—are tap-tap-tapped to dazzle the audience, even one giant machine that starts cars in New York operating with no input from their drivers, and of course crashing, flying through the air, dodging fireballs and the like.  As for writing, the script allows for just one memorable remark:  that the trouble with putting your foot on a tiger is that you would not be able to take it off—which could remind moviegoers of the movie “Mine” about a soldier who steps on an IED in the desert and will not be able to move for fifty-two hours, when rescue arrives.

    There is every indication that there will be a “Fast and Furious” episode 9, perhaps filmed in other parts of the world than this episode 8 which takes us from Havana to Berlin to New York and Russia, though Iceland stands in for that last country.  This is expensive moviemaking, but one which lacks convincing performances, a lyrical script, a realistic set of conflicts.  “The Fate of the Furious” (who’s furious, by the way?) is a technological dream but about as soulful as your computer monitor’s advertising “Black screen of death.” People who turn up their noses not so much at action adventure films, which can be quite good, but at off-the-wall repeated mayhem such as we see here, can be considered snobs.  What are movie snobs like?  They believe that from good books, films and theater, we learn something about the human condition.  If instead of a steady diet of video games like this one, you want to know what people are really like, people who are not just like you and your friends and family, you might continue seeing popcorn movies by all means.  But be open as well to be entertained not exclusively by special effects and visual effects but by honest, funny, tragic, melodramatic and complex illustrations of human character and personality.

    Rated PG-13.  136 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

ONE WEEK AND A DAY – movie review

  • ONE WEEK AND A DAY (Shavua ve Yom)

    Oscilloscope Laboratories
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Asaph Polonsky
    Written by: Asaph Polonsky
    Cast: Shai Avivi, Evgenia Dodina, Tomer Kapon, Alona Shauloff, Sharon Alexander, Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan, Uri Gavriel
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/14/17
    Opens: April 28, 2017

    Jewish burial customs are different from those of all other faiths.  Judaic law requires that upon death, a body must be buried within twenty-four hours, Sabbath and Holy Days excluded.  At the same time, a week is set aside for shiva, a mourning period attended by the immediate family and friends of the departed.  In Orthodox circles, people observing shiva sit on low stools or boxes to symbolize that they are “brought low,” and customarily visitors to the house of the bereaved take food as well.  Asaph Polonsky’s dramedy, in part the kind of comedy that will bring smiles rather than laughs to those who can appreciate his mumblecore-style dialogue, and the other part the facing of tragedy, opens on the day after the shiva in the home of Eyal Spivak (Shai Avivi) and his wife Vicky (Evgenia Dodina). Most of the time, you’d hardly know that the couple’s son Ronnie had died at the age of twenty-five after a stay at a hospice.  Presumably sitting shiva allowed the couple of grieve and for Eyal to distract himself by playing ping pong.

    As with many films of this sort, dramedies if you will, the first segments will be comic while sadness seeps in during the latter sections.  Eyal, whose part is played by Israeli comic Shai Avivi, who might remind you of Larry David of the TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does not laugh, he rarely smiles, and appears to sit in judgment on everyone.  He complains that his next-door neighbors, Shmulik (Sharon Alexander) and Keren (Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan) are like rabbits, their copulation sounds disturbing, as the houses are spaces just a few meters apart.  Their son Zooler (Tomer Kapon) is a live wire, a delivery boy who is fond of his two neighbors.  He rides a bike on errands but is not afraid of trashing the scooter just to have an excuse to remain with Eyal and to teach him how to roll the medicinal weed Eyal stole from the hospice that housed his late son.  In the one burst of energy in this generally shaggy dog story, Zooler performs a wild, solo dance to some heavy metal music, pretending to play his guitar while jumping over tables and landing on the couch.

    On her side, Vicky, who spends most of the picture disapproving of her husband’s experiments with marijuana (he has to hide the bag he stole from the hospice inside his fly) and wonders how her husband and the young neighbor who frequently visits have anything in common.  The only time any character cries occurs when Vicky is in the dentist’s chair trying to balance x-ray adhesives in her mouth, while the whole episode takes on the tone of sadness when they discover that the burial plots they wanted to reserve for themselves next to their son’s have been taken by another.

    This is the sort of film that might make some in the audience wonder whether it’s a comedy or a drama, but any experienced moviegoer will realize that like our own lives off screen, we could be laughing one moment, crying the next not unlike babies.

    The movie does not go beyond its natural limits in time, is frequently delightful and may even cause some in the audience to shed a tear—particularly those of us who have lost people near and dear.  That their son died of cancer rather than in the military makes the story even more poignant.  The most heart-wrenching moment occurs in the cemetery as another funeral is being performed, the mourner singing a mournful prayer for the dead.

    In Hebrew with English subtitles.

    Unrated.  97 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

KEDI – movie review

  • KEDI

    Oscilloscope Laboratories
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Ceyda Torun
    Cast: Bülent Ütün, Mine Sogut, Elif Nursad Atalay
    Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 5/4/17
    Opens: February 10 , 2017 in theaters.  May 10, 2017 on YouTube Red
    Kedi Movie Poster
    Some people are dog people and some are cat people.  Much depends on both the residencies of the human beings and their psychological makeup.  Those who like to be fawned over, to be treated like a god, prefer dogs.  Those who admire and respect the aloofness, yet the occasional willingness of animals to be  loved  by people prefer cats.  America, France, England and Germany are big on dogs.  Turks in Istanbul have the equivalent respect and love for cats, and how could they not, considering that the animals seem to be everywhere.  The felines are of various colors; ginger, black and white being their favorites.  The breed like rabbits and treat their spawn as any animal would.  In this gracious and lovely documentary, we find that the principal subjects do not speak; they are thankfully not the talking heads that bore us in other documentaries.  But they will deign to allow people to feed them, hold them, pet them, brush them.

    They are not simply tolerated but appreciated, even though they appear to outnumber the people of Istanbul.  They are used as ratters, as terriers used to be employed, and we are told by some of the many human beings who have speaking roles in “Kedi” (the Turkish word for “cat”) that they were kept on ships for that purpose.  But the Turkish-born director Ceyda Torun, who now lives in the U.S., shows us only a single rat, and while Alp Korfali and Charlie Wupperman do not train their lenses on what is to happen to the poor rodent, they do afford us with a variety of shots including fantastic closeups that appear to penetrate the feline soul.  They might even have put cameras on the heads of some of the cats, allowing them to become assistant cinematographers.

    What do these cats do for the Turks aside from conning them for food?  One fellow, who cites his nervous breakdown in 2002, states that the therapy he received from the cats cured him of his depression.  Another man, learning from experience perhaps, rather than books, notes that you should watch out when petting a cat lest those creatures near it react in a feral way because of jealousy.

    There’s no doubt whatever that these are resourceful animals, able to lay guilt trips on human beings who may prefer to eat all that turkey and chicken themselves.  So many people in Istanbul go beyond sharing their own plates by traveling about with large bags of the particular edibles that “their” cats like.

    You may go away from this nature story with the thought that we in the U.S. who own cats should not be keeping them indoors.  Dogs cannot tolerate sitting around in a living room if not taken out, and would tear up your apartment if you did not feel like walking them.  These cats love being outdoors all the time, taking a break from climbing trees and socializing with others of their ilk by stepping into restaurants for nourishment.  Who needs to remove the claws that nature gave to them and imprison them in your home when they should be let out on their own to roam for a few blocks, then return to you at the end of each day’s adventure?

    The many stars of this delightful movie may be the only ones who can with punity resist the growing powers of their country’s president, as they are not the sort who would take dictation from anyone whether with two legs or four.

    Unrated.  79 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

13 MINUTES – movie review

13 MINUTES (Elser)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by: Fred Breinersdorfer, Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer
Cast: Christian Friedel, Hatharina Schuettler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Buelow
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 2/15/17
Opens: June 30, 2017
Elser Movie Poster
Here’s a question that you might ask to test the courage and ethical values of a person.  If you had could see the future back in 1900 when Hitler was still an apolitical young man, would you have killed him if you had the chance?  Remember: that since you are the only person to see far ahead and you would be treated as a common killer.  You would be an unrecognized hero as the war would not have taken place, and you would be serving a life term for a crime that nobody could understand.

Something similar happens in 1939, though conditions were different. Europe is on the brink of war because of provocations of one man, who holds most of his Germany mesmerized by his oratory.  Were it not for Hitler, World War 2 might have been averted and 55 million people would have been saved.  Therefore, assassinating this ruthless tyrant, the most evil person of the century, would be a noble task. Would anyone step forward to do the deed?  One man did, though he thought he could get away with the murder.  Though a Communist sympathizer living in a small town in the Swabian Jura, he acted alone.  The fellow was “Georgie” Elser, quite the ladies’ man, a handsome fellow, even better looking than the comely Christian Friedel who portrays him and can be found in virtually every frame.  He could be defined as a free spirit, one who believes in individual freedom and keeping the government out of the business of planning and executing senseless wars.

Oliver Hirschbiegel, who directs, and whose stunning 2004 film “Downfall” describes Hitler’s final day in his bunker, brings Fred Breinersdorfer and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer’s screenplay to life, setting the suspenseful tone without delay.  A sweating, grunting, Elser (Christian Friedel), working alone with dynamite that he assembled and places just below a Munich speakers’ platform, is timed to go off during Hitler’s address to a crowd of supporters.  The timer works, but the explosion comes thirteen minutes after Der Führer had already left the town hall.  Elser seeks to flee to Switzerland, but is arrested by suspicious soldiers and stupidly has incriminating evidence on his person.  The rest of the film switches regularly to his happier days in town where the women had eyes on him, and to an unhappy time when he is interrogated by the Gestapo and others in the German high command who firmly believe that the assassination attempt was  planned by a group.

While Elser’s only enemy before 1939 might have been Erich (Rüdiger Klink), the abusive, drunken husband of George’s main squeeze Else Härlen (Katharina
Schüttler), he fares badly after his arrest, subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Lying flat on some springs with a vomit basin beneath his mouth while repeatedly asked by head of criminal police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) for his name and date of birth, he answers with silence and is met with a severe whipping that led to his throwing up right into the basin.  But when his family is threatened, he relates how he got the explosives and continues to insist that he worked alone.  Punishments increase incrementally under the orders of the SS Obergruppenführer (Simon Licht), who demands that the prisoner name his accomplices.
It’s intriguing to watch the ambience of Elser’s small-town Koenigsbronn (which lies on the tourist belt now).  The town is at first a zone for Communist activities, then shifts to an alliance with the Nazis, the youths harassing Elser’s family for being church-going Christians.  If you want to know how a town like this could support the National Socialists, look simply at these small-fry, proud in their uniforms as Hitler Youth, with bright, swastika banners virtually proclaiming that Hitler would transform his country into paradise.
There are sentimental scenes in the film.  One shows that the secretary (Lissy Pernthaler) typing notes develops sympathy for the hapless prisoner, agreeing to do him a favor. Even one of the Nazis questioning Elser—who is considered too soft by his colleague—ends up collaborating later in an assassination attempt against Hitler.

One of the cinematic pleasures is a scene in which Elser is given an injection of truth serum, which serves only to make the prisoner hallucinate about happier days in his small town.  Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann also serves up close-ups expressing the passion that the abused wife Else feels for Elser during the early 1930s.  Nor does Christian Friedel portray Elser in any but the most worthy way, contrasting his skirt-chasing joys with his physical and psychological pain after his arrest.

We are left with a mystery. Some viewers may fault the script for not telling us why Elser, in custody from November 1939 through April 1945, was given preferential treatment in the concentration camps, or why he was even left alive for over five years after the assassination attempt.  In fact he was given such treatment as use of the Dachau bordello holding Russian women, a daily shave, and all the cigarettes he could smoke.  The reason for this unusual behavior by the Nazis is not given because, simply, to this day, nobody knows!

Rated R.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnlineComments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?


POLINA (Polina danser sa vie)

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Valérie Müller, Angelina Preljocaj
Written by: Valérie Müller, Bastian Vivès
Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Juliette Binoche, Aleksey Guskov, Niels Schneider, Jérémie Belingard, Miglen Mirtchev, Kseniya Kutepova, Sergio Díaz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/8/17
Opens: August 25, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
If you want to make it in the dance world, whether in classical ballet or modern, forty percent of the requirements is your chemistry with your partner. This may not be true, but you can pick it up from the comments thrown at the title character by her choreographers. Estimate that another twenty percent comes from pulling the broomstick from your butt, but those who cannot shake the sweeper out will never get past the high-school drama club play.

To find the ideal principal performer for the title role of “Polina,” which is directed by real-life choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his partner Valérie Müller and adapted from Bastian Vivès’s graphic novel, the production team interviewed six hundred candidates in France and Russia before coming up with Anastasia Shevtsova.  The team found some who were perfect for the classical ballet segments, and some who could do modern improvisations.  They chose Shevtsova because she is comfortable with acting.  Anastasia Shevtsova, who carries the movie and, as an adult, appears in virtually every frame, has a mystical gaze, can move her body with the steps that would influence the Bolshoi Ballet to hire her, but most important for this film, she can do modern, she can improvise, and finally she can rise to the status of choreographer.  For her, this would fulfillment of her dreams, since she is one of the few dancers in the Bolshoi to have the courage to split from the highest status a Russian can have in dance, eager to break away from all convention and invent her own moves.  In the business world, we’d call that entrepreneurship.  In the dance world, that would be throwing away the tried and true in quest of the authentic you.  In the movie industry, call it art, rather that commerce; surprises rather than formula.  “Polina,” in fact, meets that standard of art, as a film that can enrapture even an audience that has never seen Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, nor marveled at the gyrations on TV’s “Dancing with the Stars” or “Bring It!”

Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 movie “The Red Shoes,” in which a young ballet dancer is torn between her lover and her ambition to be a prima ballerina; and like Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film “Black Swan,” projecting a dancer who is losing her sanity, “Polina” has a solid story to give genuine context to Polina’s quest for artistic freedom.  As an eight-year-old (Veronika Zhovnytska), she is tyrannized by the choreographer Bojinsky (Aleksey Guskov), whose demands for perfection would cause many a girl to drop out and fall back on twelve hours a day of texting.  Polina is stressed by family problems as well.  Her father, Sergio (Sergio Díaz) is engaged in illegal trade to pay for his daughter’s ballet studies, a man who in one scene has a gun pointed by a thug, forcing him to agree to the “Afghanistan route.”   That is never explained, nor do we know who trashes the family apartment.  No big deal.

Quitting the Bolshoi to the dismay of her father, she travels with her lover Adrien (Niels Schneider) to Aix en Provence in the south of France, where she studies modern dance with Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche—who worked for months on her own performance).  Liria reads the riot act to Polina after watching her dance with Adrien, stating “You are focused only on yourself; you must harmonize with your partner.”  After falling and spraining her ankle, she loses hope for a job, traveling to Antwerp in Belgium which is known for modern dance.  In one scene there, a choreographer asks the class to imitate any animal, at which point one male dancer takes off to electronic music in a frenzy that could make anyone want to chuck the strict rules of classical ballet and do your own thing.

In a final scene, which arrives without much preparation, she is totally fulfilled, performing an intricate modern dance with her partner, showing that she has learned well to focus on his feelings as well as her own.  So, the dance takes work, years of hard work if you want to be a professional.  There are mishaps along the way, family problems to work out.  As Polina, Anastasia Shevtsova shows the audience what has to be overcome; that not everyone can make it like her, and only few can chuck the classical rules of footwork, move into contemporary dance, and ultimately become a choreographer—the inventor herself.  Call “Polina” a feminist movie if you must, one certainly more authentic in showing the way a real human being can move to the top, and not a pop fantasy like Patti Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman,” which has been touted as feminist but is really just a surreal entertainment with few roots in humanity.  In French and Russian with clear English subtitles.

Unrated.  112 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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LOVING VINCENT – movie review


Good Deed Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Written by: Jacek Dehnel, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Cast: Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, John Sessions, Helen McCory
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/19/17
Opens: September 22, 2017
Loving Vincent Movie Poster
Stand next to a group of people looking at paintings in a major museum like the Louvre, the Prado or the Metropolitan, and you are likely to hear people showing off their ability to analyze the work of one artist.  Only the real aficionados, the people who look forward vto isiting museums in their home cities and not just in Europe when they’re on vacation, and you will hear their interpretations meshing with the knowledge of the artists’ actual lives.  Make a movie about an artist, a dramatic film rather than a documentary, and you’re likely to see that the writer and director embrace a theme to make the subject of narrative interest.  In the case of music, Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” is not simply events in the Mozart’s life, but the fascinating idea that he was poisoned by his chief rival, Salieri.  Though that is not likely given what we have learned since, Forman winks at us in the audience, showing that yes, indeed, the man was murdered.

Similarly, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, using their script in collaboration with co-writer Jacek Dehnel, show us events in the life of Vincent Van Gogh, but with the special theme: that Van Gogh died by a shot in his stomach not as a result of suicide but of murder.  Though “Loving Vincent” does not quite resolve the question which is posed to catch the viewer’s curiosity, its principal value is that the action on screen with actors serving as voices is done in Van Gogh’s impressionist style, and what’s more it involved seven years’ work copying the pictures that tell the story: 65,000 paintings in all.  Amazing!

During the 94 minutes of the movie’s running time, you are staring at not one of more of his paintings, but at thousands of frames, making this the world’s first fully painted feature film.  That alone makes your attendance at the film compelling.  The story begins one year after the death of the artist by that gunshot wound, under which he suffered for two days without sufficient medical attention.  It looks like an open-and-shut case with the artist insisted that the police and neighbors should accuse nobody, that he wished the suicide on himself.  But: was he covering up?  Was it an accident?  And why should a man, though having cut off his ear in a fit of psychosis, do himself in during a period in which he was calm?

The directors situate a pair of folks who sat for some of Van Gogh’s oils: Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) served as the Netherlands’ Sherlock Holmes.  Roulin, at home in Arles, journeyed to Auvers-sur-Oise, the scene of the painter’s death, to chat with anyone familiar with the painter.  As the son of the village postmaster (Chris O’Dowd) he had a letter to deliver to Vincent’s brother Theo, who had died soon after the painter. Chief subject of the interviews would be Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), difficult to find, thereby allowing for interviews with other subjects including Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) who supplied paint, and a young woman Marguerite (Saorse Ronan) the doctor’s daughter.  For flashbacks to Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) black-and-white photography is used.

In this one-of-a-kind movie, we come away with either a greater appreciation of the impressionist style of the 19th century or by contrast a flooding of images that could make us dizzy.  And we get insight into the life of an artist, a biographical look that might deepen the insight you would gather.  This affords an impressionistic show that may not in itself show you why the painter used the bold colors of, for example, his most famous work “The Starry Night,” but might cause you to emphasize with the man through this conversation with the people in his life.

Rated: PG-13.    94 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

WINDOW HORSES – movie review

  • WINDOW HORSES: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming

    First Pond
    Director:  Ann Marie Fleming
    Screenwriter:  Ann Marie Fleming, Maryam Najafi
    Cast:  Voices of Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ellen Page Sandra Oh, Navid Negahban, Nancy Kwan, Omid Abtahi
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017

    If you don’t like poetry because you cannot understand its meanings, you’d do fine by watching “Window Horses.”  Ann Marie Fleming’s animated creation evokes poetry in the exotic scenery, and the verses read especially by the awkward Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) are as clear as good writing can be.  This is animation created for adults, although responsible children can surely profit from watching and hearing from the stick figure of Rosie and the more elaborate designs of all the others.  The story would be found particularly poignant by people whose fathers had abandoned them, and when Rosie discovers the real reason she was lost to her dad, you may find sympathy for the man who left his daughter through no conscious fault of his own.

    Rosie Ming, who is half Chinese and half Iranian lives in North Vancouver with her supportive grandparents, who, upon hearing that she is invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran, have mixed feelings.  They know that she loves Paris, though she has never been there, and try to persuade her to shift her travel plans—but at the time she had no invitations to similar festivals in the French capital.  Rosie’s best friend Kelly (Ellen Page) did not know even that Rosie was a poet, though Rosie explains that “it’s nothing,” an indication of her self-denigrating posture.

    Arrival in Shiraz wearing a black chador—whose symbolic meaning she probably does not know—she is encouraged by people she meets that she has no real need to dress that way.  She makes friends with a scruffy German, Dietmar (Don McKellar), fascinated that the fellow with a straggly beard lives in the city of her dreams.  Warmly met by fellow poets and by the festival’s cultural ambassador Mehrnaz (Shohreh Aghdashloo), she reads on two occasions from her poetry. When the festival’s MC Cyrus (Camyar Chaichian) tells her the reason for her father’s disappearance, her principal fear (that she was not wanted) and hostility (how could he do such a thing?) melt away.

    Criticism of the present government of Iran is so subtle that one might expect that country’s censorship people to OK the animation, at least for export.  Political satire is hardly the point of the 89-minute film by Ann Marie Fleming who directs her first feature since 2003, but there is no small feminist message throughout.  We learn something of the history of Persia, a glorious chapter in the world’s record of the past, the brilliance of a fourteenth century’s beloved Persian scribe seemingly snuffed by a government that cares more about arming terrorists in Hezbollah than in reflecting on the country’s humanistic past.

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

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