DOWNTON ABBEY – movie review

DOWNTON ABBEY
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Engler
Screenwriter: Julian Fellows
Cast: Joanne Froggatt, Mathew Goode, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Hugh BonnevilleLaura Carmichael, Raquel Cassidy, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Sophie McShera
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 9/18/19
Opens: September 20, 2019

2019 Downton Abbey movie poster silk art print 12x18  32x48 image 0

Rational people would assume that the folks who most want their country to continue supporting royalty would be the rich, the landed gentry, who look, think and act like kings and queens themselves. And they would think that the detractors of royalty who might favor a republic would be the poor, those who kowtow as servants to their well-to-do employers. The opposite is true. The servant class are in awe of the king and queen while the gentry treat them as scarcely meriting a bow or a curtsey. We know this because Julian Fellows who wrote the script to “Downton Abbey” and Michael Engler who directs the filmed version of the beloved TV series, show us.

When the king and queen announce that they will visit the famed Downton Abbey and spend the night, the servants are exhilarated, while the privileged keeper of the chateau including Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) keep the famed British stiff upper lip. If they’re ecstatic there’s not showing it because that’s not the way the British upper class act. The film rides on the concept of the visit of the royal family to Downton Abbey, together with their personal butlers, ladies in waiting, chef and the like. This is a concept that’s original; it’s not in the beloved TV series, so those of us who binge-watched a couple of years ago need not worry that the movie repeats an old approach.

Nonetheless, just as some books should not have been made into movies such as novels in which the thoughts of the characters are paramount, some TV series should not have been done as films. The trouble with “Downton Abbey” the film, is that newcomers who are totally unfamiliar with the characteristics of the characters, imbedded in memory from hour after hour of being engrossed on their TVs, will feel either out of it like students who did not do their homework and cannot follow class discussions the next day. More important, those who are quite familiar with the folks they have cherished on the small screen will feel that too many subplots are thrown at them in just two hours. In small TV segments, by contrast, only one of two themes are dealt with at a time, each given its proper breadth and depth.

Two years after the close of the TV episodes, The Crawleys in Downton Abbey are now facing 1927 during the week that King George V and Queen Mary are to visit. The servants, in a tizzy as mentioned above, feel insulted. They are given time off, the festivities to be handled by the royal couple’s own staff. A snobbish French chef is to cook while the king and queen’s personal waiters are to serve. But the staff at the abbey are excited and won’t have it. They will concoct a scheme that will allow them to do all the honors themselves. They are delighted that Mr. Caron (Jim Carter) is being called out of retirement to manage the crew. This scheme, which serves as considerable comedy and even suspense, anchors the show.

Among the individuals, director Michael Engler ticks off the elements of both comedy and drama. Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who would be heir to the abbey after the death of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wants to sell the estate but is convinced by her maid, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), to hold on in order to preserve the jobs of the staff. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who serves as the story’s repository of Oscar Wilde-like witticisms, battles verbally with the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), because the latter is determined to leave all to her maid). Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the designated gay servant, finds romance. Perhaps the most down-to-each and philosophic aristo Tom Branson (Allen Leech)—who rose from chauffeur to noble by virtue of marriage to an aristocrat—describes how he, an Irishman who believes in the Republican cause, has made his peace with his position in the abbey.

As photographed by Ben Smithard in England and in Highcleer Castle in Hampshire, England and embellished by John Lunn’s musical score, “Downton Abbey” is great to look at, though the dances are not unlike what we’ve seen in many a costume drama before.

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

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

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY – movie review

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Justin Pemberton
Screenwriter: Adapted by Matthew Metcalfe, Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty, based on Thomas Piketty’s book
Cast: Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett, Kate Williams, Gabriel Zucman, Ian Bremmer, Rana Foroohar, Francis Fukuyama
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/5/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2019)

People with any rational perspective in our country are fighting mad. Never mind that Fox News tells us that we have the lowest rate of unemployment in decades, or that what’s good for Wall Street (the booming stock market) is good for Main Street. The trouble is that instead of focusing on the real problem, which is the rising rate of economic inequality, too many people are instead distracting themselves by blaming immigrants, by blaming Muslims, by dispelling their anger is ways that are not only dangerous but ineffective. This brings us to Justin Pemberton’s bold, incisive, riveting documentary, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” based on the dense book by Parisian Thomas Piketty, who gets a considerable platform in this striking new documentary.

Pemberton, whose previous docs run the gamut including “Chasing Great” about a black rugby player, “The Golden Hour” about New Zealand Olympians, and “Is She or Isn’t She” about a hairy woman with a penis, now takes on what is arguably the major economic hazard of our time, which is the inequality of wealth. Piketty, who holds gigs at the London School of Economics among other prestigious institutions, believes that the rate of capital return in the developed countries is greater than rate of economic growth, and that is what is causing inequality. President Reagan offered the view that tax decreases will pay for themselves and afford everyone a slice of a bigger pie. Instead Piketty advocates a global tax on wealth, which would bring about the necessary redistribution of income. After all, it’s not always hard work that thickens your wallet; in fact it’s possession of capital largely brought about through inheritance.

In his book, Piketty goes further than what we see in this movie, heads and tails above what Bernie Sanders bases his campaign on. He wants a schedule of taxation on income and wealth that reaches ninety percent and the elimination of nation-states in favor of a vast transnational democracy securing a universal right to education and the abolition of borders. Among other reforms, this would prevent capital from moving to havens to avoid taxation like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and even the tiny national state of Vanuatu.

Economics writing can be intimidating, but Pemberton transcends the difficulty of the printed word by supplying a staggering series of archival films, forming the historical background of income inequality. The idea that one percent of the population makes as much money annually as the bottom three hundred eighty billion folks has roots beginning at least as far back as the Eighteenth Century. If you’re a buff of movies like “Downton Abbey,” “The Favourite,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Reign,” “The Medici” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” and you marvel at the costumes and the breathtaking splendor of the land, the minuets, the sumptuous feasts, you are too distracted to get your blood boiling with the knowledge that the aristocracy is only one percent of the Europeans on display while the masses outside are suffering.

You will, however, be impressed with the scenes in this movie about royalty, including a splendid few moments of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Les Miserables,” but your excitement plummets when you watch the black-and-white shots of poverty in times past and, much more recently as the way capital has led us to the near depression of 2008 when banks gave out mortgages to people who shouldn’t have received them, and through the shuffling of paper sold those mortgages to other financial institutions through a mind-boggling template of Wall Street intrigue. Other historic celluloid on display looks into sections of “The Grapes of Wrath,” featuring a farmer telling a dude with a convertible that “Nobody is going to take away my land.”

I love what Amazon does for me, but given Piketty’s focus on redistribution, Jeff Bezos would have to fork over $409,000,000,000 (that’s four hundred nine billion dollars) in year one of the plan. If big corporations continue to take the lion’s share of money, they will be able to continue exerting monumental power. What better example than that of Trump’s getting his Republican congress to lower the corporate tax rate from thirty-five percent to twenty-two percent, one of the major disasters that our great-great grandchildren will pay for as the deficit continues past the stratosphere.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” then, serves as one of the best documentaries in recent years. There is scarcely a dull moment given the fast editing provided by Sandie Bompar and the deft selection of historic clips that Pemberton uses to nail down his points. Economics is oft considered a dismal science, perhaps much of it is. With the excitement generated by this doc, punctuating the talking heads with dramatic cinematics, you might expect thousands of students to select Economics as their major and adults long past college to inspire vivid discussions around the table about where America is headed. What’s in your wallet?

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

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

PARASITE – movie review

PARASITE (Gisaengchung)
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Chang Hyae-jin, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ziso, Lee Jung-em, Jung Hyeon-jun
Screened at: Dolby, NYC, 10/8/19
Opens: October 11, 2019

Theatrical one-sheet for Bong Joon Ho's Parasite (2019).

Some say that the best way to disturb and undercut people like Trump is not to criticize him directly but to laugh at him, to consider his administration to be a clown show. Bong Joon-ho, the celebrated South Korean writer-director, would probably agree, though with his latest movie “Parasite,” the good guys act the clown part getting their digs at people who are richer and who think of them as merely useful servants. (Thin, of how an established white family has contempt for and uses their black servants in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” the best movie of 2017).

Bong’s “Okja” that same year tracks a young girl’s introducing of a beast to prevent a kidnapping by a multi-national company, and his “Snowpiercer” finding most people dead after a failed climate change experiment save for lucky people on a train who threaten class warfare. We have no doubt that class inequalities are on top of the fifty-year-old director’s mind. Now with “Parasite” Bong unfolds a combination comedy-horror tale, constructing the inevitable envy of the rich by the poor, the latter wanting either to emulate them or destroy them. The story is involving throughout with a doozy of a concluding half hour, a culmination well earned from the careful exposition.

Though South Korean people have an average income some thirty times that of the fellows north of the thirty-eighth parallel, there is considerable poverty in that country just as there is in ours. In the view of Bong and of his co-scripter Han Jin-won, the Kim family composed of patriarch Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), his son Kim I-woo (Choi Wood-shik) and his pretty daughter Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), has good reason to envy the rich given their own bug-infested digs which are occasionally visited outside by a homeless man who urinates on their wall. However given dad’s flexible ethics, these folks have a way of exploiting the fabulously rich family of executive Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun). In a cuttingly humorous manner, 20-year-old Kim Ki-woo forges a college diploma and gets a job tutoring the daughter (Jung Ziso), a high-school sophomore, while Ki-woo’s dad becomes the CEO’s driver and mother uses her wiles to displace the long-term housekeeper. At the same time Ki-tak’s daughter gives “art therapy” to the Parks’ young and bratty kid, demanding a high wage because she can “discover” schizophrenic tendencies in the little kid and help him to overcome these. Through hook and crook, then the four poor folks have insinuated themselves into the huge and beautiful mansion high up in the city, though leaving the previous staff unemployed.

In an elegantly plotted movie, carefully preparing us step by step for the drama that will inevitably follow, Bong evokes terrific performances from the entire ensemble, giving his audience a stark picture of wealth inequality, a situation that Bong presumably believes to be the essence of corrupt capitalism. Hong Kyong-pyo films in the touristic city of Goyang, South Korea, his lensing deftly comparing the squalor of the Kim’s basement apartment with the exquisite residence of the Parks, with a classical music soundtrack serving to give the film the tone of an Asian Downton Abbey.

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

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

LUCY IN THE SKY – movie review

LUCY IN THE SKY
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noah Howley
Screenwriter: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Ellyn Burstyn
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 10/1/19
Opens: October 4, 2019

Lucy in the Sky Poster

Lucy Cola may be in the sky part of the time, but as storytelling, this Fatal-Attraction-like revenge fantasy lacks wings. Based on an actual tale of a female astronaut, Lisa Marie Nowak, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006, Noah Howley’s dramatization follows her as she is floating on a mission, segueing into her romance with a handsome devil who dumped her, thereby leading to her going insane. Howley’s résumé cites him for directing TV series like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Fargo,” now delivering a freshman feature with a lot more ambition than one would expect from a director with that background.

Howley appears to make up for a lack of solid storytelling (he has two co-writers) for a wealth of cinematic tricks, almost all of which serve nothing more than to distract the audience. He would expand the screen when Lucy’s world opens up, then cut back on the aspect ratio when she is in the doldrums. Credit Natalie Portman with a class act as the title character—she is alternately seductive, pleading, violent, sensitive, running the gamut of emotions depending on the circumstances. As a larger-than-life woman, an astronaut, no less, you might expect her to be so satisfied with her profession, willing and even demanding to take on risky assignments, that she would never fall to murderous rage when a “ladies’ man” drops her for another.

Opening scenes may well remind you of “Ad Astra” and “Gravity,” a slow-moving triptych into outer space which finds Lucy looking exhilarated by her gig. She is like the type of person who risks his life in Afghanistan in 110 degrees, is sent back to the States with an honorable discharge, looks at one hundred cereal boxes in the supermarket, and heads right back to the fighting. He has a nice albeit irresolute husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a grandmother Nana Holbrook who like Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey” has an unlimited supply of witticisms. This earthbound life is simply not enough for someone who finds more thrills being alone in space.

During the second part of the film, in which Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fellow astronaut and womanizer hits on her, Lucy is smitten. She is head over heels as she might be when floating in space in the absence of gravity. She should have realized that this fellow is not the settling kind, but in a moment of sexual flush she kisses him, and the affair begins. Lucy will risk all for both her profession and her boyfriend, insisting on the administrator of the space program that she does not like the way he grounds her, taking the big chance of chucking her husband, going nuts, and losing all. In the final scene she is once again courting danger, a scene that should be seen as one providing a strong clue not just to her willingness, but to her real desire to be in danger.

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

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

STUBER – movie review

STUBER
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Tripper Clancy
Cast: Kumal Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/2/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

Stuber Poster 2019 Movie Dave Bautista Kumail Nanjiani Film Print 24x36" 27x40" - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

Nobody expects “Downton Abbey” or “Last Year in Marienbad” to open in the summer. We expect movies to take in our air conditioning with violence, with sitcom romances, maybe a few Marvel Studio entries. But “Stuber” represents a new low even for a July opening. It has the violence, the comedy, even a romance of sorts, but the funny parts aren’t, the violence leans toward the non-stop, the romance involves one of the principals emailing a woman he’s been dating, the woman virtually harassing him to come right over and they’ll “have sex.”

Co-star Karachi-born Kumal Nanjiani is best known as a stand-up comedian and for his role in “The Big Sick.” Time magazine calls him one of the hundred most influential people in the world, presumably because he is Pakistani-American, and newscasts rarely focus on Pakistan as one of the world’s centers for comedy. “The Big Sick” deals with cultural barriers; Nanjiani co-wrote that film with his wife Emily Gordon. This time, however, he faces off with a big guy who insists “I’m not white” the difference being of personality rather than ethnicity. Vic (Dave Bautista), a cop, is obsessed with finding and bringing to justice a drug dealer, Teijo (Iko Uwais) who killed his partner during one of the several fight scenes in the film.

The never-ending set-up for jokes takes off from Vic’s Lasik eye surgery, which leaves him legally blind for a day and obviously affects his ability to catch the drug dealers. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets him up with a phone app to allow him to spend the day Teijo-hunting, but Vic, a virtual techno-phobe, instead hails an Uber driven by Stuber (Kumal Nanjiani), which is not his real name but a combination of “Stu” and “Uber.” The two share a fragile bond: if Stu does not do what the cop says, he may die at the hands of the criminals. Even worse, he will get a one-star review on Yelp, which could sink his career, as he had received a stack of one-star comments from racist passengers.

Believe it or not, in this comedy based on physical violence that has people slammed into walls, shot at, racing around to catch up with Teijo, there is a sentimental core. Two people who only intermittently show themselves not to be dumb as doornails advise each other on dealing with significant others. Stu is in love with Becca, a friend with benefits (Betty Gilpin), but is afraid to declare his secret love for the lass. Vic lets Stu know how to get around the dilemma. To square away an obligation, Vic is required to listen to Stu’s cajoling: Vic does not pay enough attention to his daughter, a sculptor, who in one scene has opened a show, her work going far over her dad’s head.

This road-and-buddy moves along the two drive around California, hitting spots in Koreatown and Compton among other areas. A struggle in a veterinary office, in which Vic winds up adopting a pit bull, does not lead to an arrest, and police captain McHenry may be other than she seems. The story, which lacks anything in the way of nuance and fills the screen with the kind of violence that some audiences are unable to get enough of, may remind you of those Amazon reviewers who say “I would have given this product zero stars if I could.”

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

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

 

RONDO – movie review

RONDO

Fantasia International Film Festival
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Drew Barnhardt
Screenwriter:  Drew Barnhardt
Cast:  Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 7/26/18
Opens: July 27, 2018 at Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal
Rondo (2018)
After spending 60 hours watching Masterpiece Theatre-like episodes like the magnificent “Downton Abbey,” you might be in the mood for something not as nuanced, not as dainty, without hoity-toity royalty or the filtering in of characters from a different era.  So no offense,  members of the spacious English mansion, but sometimes you want to sit back, hear pounding electronic music on the soundtrack, and not have to worry about whether the characters are believable, or the plot credible.  Yes.  You can be as riveted by a exploitation movie that has you rooting for the good guys and wishing mayhem for the villains, just as you might sometimes prefer “Greenback Boogie” on the soundtrack of “Suits” rather than the ethereal tones of Liszt’s Étude No. 13.  That’s where “Rondo” fits in.

“Rondo,” which opens July 27 at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montréal, has elements of horror but without the subtle touches of last year’s horror masterwork, “Get Out.”  There is no real satire either in “Rondo,” no hidden messages about current U.S. politics however that makes you fall back in terror, no A-list actors either but a coterie of villains and good people that can keep you riveted.   Writer-director Drew Barnhardt, whose freshman feature “Murder Loves Killers Too” (about one “Big Stevie” whose idea of sex is murder and who loves to kill carefree teens), is obviously in his métier with his sophomore production “Rondo.”  Part slasher, part black comedy, and all designed to have the audience focused without moving for a quick 88 minutes, “Rondo” is a doozy of a film.  Just check out the director’s hip picture on the IMDB and you know what to expect.

Steve Van Beckum narrates as though reading sentences in  novel, and this time the technique of voice-over does not mar the quality of the picture since Beckum’s voice-overs are kept to a minimum and even serve to inject irony into the festivities by being so matter-of-fact when blood is gushing from every pore.  At first Paul (Luke Sorge) appears to be the principal actor.  He has returned home with PTSD after a dishonorable discharge, takes to the bottle until he becomes homeless, and is housed by his incredibly beautiful and sexy sister Jill (Brenna Otts).  She sends Paul to Cassie (Gena Shaw), a therapist, who tells her new patient what we all want to hear from our psychoanalysts: get laid.  And she tell him where to go.

With the password on a card in his pocket, he goes to a “Rondo party,” meets the suave host Lurdell (Reggie De Morton) and two other patients. Soon enough we realize that he is not having hallucinations.  Weird things begin to happen, Paul becomes perhaps even more scared than he had been when in the military.  He tells his sister about this experience until finally he convinces not only her but also her father, Sam (Michael Vasicek).

Any more exposure of the plot would ruin the twists, the about-faces, the aspects of criminality indulged by the host and his three accomplices, but strangely, the simpler, the sleazier the plot dynamics, the more engrossed you might be (particularly when the gorgeous Jill strips down to bra and panties).  While the voice-over is not at all intrusive, the same cannot be said of Ryan Franks’ and  Scott Nikoley’s pounding music, which drowns out some of the dialogue.  John Bourbonais films entirely in Denver, spending much of his time inside a contemporary-designed apartment to die for.

Rated R.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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