FREE PUPPIES! – movie review

FREE PUPPIES!

First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes & IMDB by Harvey Karten
Director: Christina Thomas, Samantha Wishman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/22/22
Opens: August 12, 2022

A neighbor who is among the most ethical people I know (a vegetarian, of course) always has four dogs in a two-bedroom apartment.  And these dogs, forgive me to say, are the ugliest mutts I have ever seen.  They compensate for their looks by biting residents waiting for the elevator.  They were all rescued from the streets because nobody I know would have bought them much less take even a half hour to dump them into the pound shortly thereafter.  Her motive?  She says, “I don’t do cute.  I don’t do adorable.  I rescue dogs that nobody else would consider saving.”  I picture her one day a long time from now being comforted by Jesus, Matthew, Luke and John, because up there she will be without a single pet, as St. Peter would not admit these homely hounds past the pearly gates.

Where do all these street dogs come from?  Well, when a bitch is in heat, she does not have to be last year’s best in show at Westminster.  She will attract male attention by her aroma; never mind if she is missing teeth, and has heartworm, and fleas.  And there are no incels among the males who have cojones.  If they cannot have their way, they will commit rape and will not take care of the offspring.  It’s up to us people to take it from there.

That is where the women of “Free Puppies” come in.  Directed by Cristina Thomas and Samantha Wishman in their debut feature length film, the documentary traces the hobbies of several southern women who are doing good by our four-legged pals and through this movie get their fifteen minutes + of fame.  They are saving dog lives that might be in the hundreds, picking them up from kill shelters in the South, even freeing them from chains, and transporting them mostly to the North, the Harriet Tubmans of the canine fraternity. 

As you might expect, the vast majority are not pure-bred—not that there’s anything wrong with mongrels when you consider that “pedigree” is little more than a human construct.  Some are them are cute, depending on what floats your boat, since after all some of us think bull terriers are the cat’s meow (to mix synecdoche and metaphor), while others want beauty contest favorites like Afghans.

How do dogs wind up on the street?  As you might expect, some are tossed into the road by people who will not even take the trouble to deliver them to the pound.  Maybe they’ve been behavior problems as puppies, and their owners might or might not realize that there is no such thing as an ill-behaved dog: only ill-behaved people (who don’t know how to train their pups).   These street dogs are generally not “fixed,” so when the heat’s on, a single canine might produce ten spawn.  If they are not rescued from the shelters, they are either euthanized there, at one time via a gas chamber in Georgia and Tennessee but nowadays with lethal injections.  Even the no-kill shelters must farm out the unwanted dogs to a kill facility.

A few men in the film are what we, at least in the north, like to call “characters,” including a fellow who claims to have served in Vietnam.  The rescue women, especially one who runs a store selling flooring, will take their dogs to a veterinarian who at low cost with neuter and spay them, even imprinting microchips for identity, then return them to the “characters.” 

What do we come away with?  Unless you are the kind of dog person who likes all breeds, mongrels included, you’re not so likely to say “aw,” at least not after the first one or two “aw’s” because the film is repetitious and does not feature a small number of starring dogs from whom we can learn their backstories.  The evening before I saw this film, I was watching my favorite comic, Stephen Colbert, on the June 22nd Late Show.  A small number of dogs being offered to the TV audience are shown in a better light than the ones in Georgia and Tennessee because they are seen against a backdrop of New York’s Paramount studios and introduced, one by one, by the comedian and by the actress Emma Thompson. With production values like these, it’s no wonder that Colbert has a 100% record in getting all featured dogs adopted.

All in all “Free Puppies!” is a pleasant enough diversion giving a few heroic women the opportunity to take credit for saving lives.

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

Story – B

Acting – B

Technical – B

Overall – B

FREE SOLO – movie review

FREE SOLO

National Geographic Documentary Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Cast:  Alex Honnold
Screened at: Soho House, NYC, 9/13/18
Opens: September 28, 2018
Free Solo Movie Poster
When you hear the word “sports,” what comes to mind?  Most people in the U.S. would name football, though in Europe and South America, you would hear “soccer” or “futbol.”  Baseball comes to mind in the U.S., Japan and the Dominican Republic, horse racing if you’re from Kentucky.  If you went to prep school, it’s lacrosse, if you’re not into group sports, you’ll mention tennis.  If two players make too much of a crowd for you, what’s available for a single person?  Rock climbing, what else?  Surely you’ve heard of “Climbing” magazine and “Rock and Ice.”  Rock climbing is front and center in E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s doc, which not only fits well into the National Geographic mold, but forget for a second of Geographic’s animal safaris and consider Clair Popkin, Jimmy Chin and Michael Schaefer’s photography both more dangerous and more exciting than you’ll find on the Disney Channel or most other Geographic features.

The star of the show, multiple prize-winning, Alex Honnold, appears to have a death wish. The 33-year-old climber is among the lucky ones who have survived free solo action, which means ascending Yosemite Park (California) without a rope.  This means that the Sacramento-born spiderman, disregards the awful fact that many people indulging in this sports died in their forties and earlier, that one false move and you’re not going to get a backache: you’re dead.  Why does he do it?  That’s a question that we in the audience get some insight into, and which people closest emotionally to him try to answer.  His girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who breaks down in tears the day before the free solo, worries “What if I never see him again?”  His mother, who would naturally be opposed to her son’s hobby just as my own mom forbade me to play high-school football, is resigned, saying that the lad could not survive psychologically if he could not climb.  She butts out of trying to change him.  His dad, afflicted with Asperger’s, never said he loved him, his mom never hugged him.  With the help of his cute girlfriend, he is learning to hug, but will probably never equal in that indoor sport his achievements on the peaks. Modern science delivers another motivation.  An MRI scan of his brain indicates that he does not feel fear, nor can he derive stimulation from anything less than extreme sports.

As though to insult McCandless, he affirms that he would always choose his outdoor sport over having a life-partner, and even the photographers, one with the biggest telephoto lens you’ve ever seen, wonder about the ethics of what they’re doing.  If he falls, would they want to capture the guy’s final exit?

The movie is part white-knuckle ride and part domestic drama.  As for the latter, we eavesdrop on his tete-a-tetes with his girlfriend, watch him cook and eat right out of the pots and pans (out of concern for the environment he appears to be vegetarian, even vegan). We don’t demand that the film’s star be articulate, and he peppers his speech with at least two or even three dozen invocations of “you know” (irritating), and even the teen favorite “like.”  All build up to his climb without rope in Yosemite National Part’s El Capitán, not only with no rope but with bare hands, challenging the gods to even dare to allow him to make the miniscule margin of error that would make this last climb.  Marco Beltrami’s apt score is probably not even needed: this is a thriller that would make “Vertigo” be an even better title.

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

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

LOU ANDREAS-SALOME – The Audacity to be Free – movie reveiw

LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ: The Audacity to be Free

Cinema Libre Studio
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cordula Kablitz-Post
Screenwriter:  Cordula Kablitz-Post, Susanne Hertel
Cast:  Katharina Lorenz, Nicole Heesters, Liv Lisa Fries, Merab Ninidze, Katharina Schüttler, Alexander Scheer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/11/18
Opens: April 20, 2018 in New York’s Village East Cinema and April 27, 2018 at LA’s Laemmle’s Royal Theater

The only thing about this film that lacks imagination is the title “Lou Andreas-Salomé.”  If you were creating a biopic, would you title it simply with the name of the principal person (albeit with a subtitle “The Audacity to be Free”)?  A more appropriate heading would be “Apollo vs. Dionysus: The Life and Times of Lou Andreas-Salomé.  This intriguing encounter that we in our theater seats have been graciously afforded, is of a person who may be fairly unknown here in the States.  Yet given her intelligence, she could hold her own with Freud and Nietzsche, that intellect propelled by her inner conflict between the Apollonian (rationalism, logic) and the Dionysian (emotions, chaos).  Because she was an early feminist who drew women from her own upper class to her readings, she faced the anger of her mother, particularly as the older woman, a nice Protestant mom, wanted grandchildren, and the little ones would “keep you well occupied.”  And hopefully the little ones would not challenge a pastor in church who said “God is everywhere,” getting the retort “Is God in Hell also?”

While the first psychoanalyst is the biblical Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Andreas-Salomé, some years later, is the first female psychoanalyst, gaining insight into her own conflicts through explorations of her psyche as required of people in her field.  She is also a poet, a novelist, an essayist and a biographer as cited in a Wikipedia article, though thankfully director Cordula Kablitz-Post, using her own screenplay with co-writer Susanne Hertel, does not list her accomplishments in that vein like a laundry list.  Instead, the film tracks key points in her life, with brief attention to her childhood (Helena Pieske), her teens (Liv Lisa Fries), her middle years (Katharina Lorenz), and her older and still wiser self (Nicole Heesters).

Filmed by Matthias Schllenberg in Germany (Lower Saxony, Ludwigsburg, Potsdam) , Vienna, Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy), and from time to time with a striking  visual effect revealing scenery with characters walking through what looks like a trompe l’oeil, “Lou Andreas-Salomé” is thematically consistent throughout.  We see a woman who at first with no problem struggling through a conflict despite the oppressive conventions of her time.  She is determined never to marry, never to be intimate, never to be subjected to the will of any man.  She believes, as well, that intimacy comes with a price: erotic closeness would curtain her intellectual development.  It takes time for her to reconsider, giving herself to a man first in her early thirties.  And her marriage to Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze), a scholar without much personality, remains unconsummated as she demands.  It seems that men could not get enough of her, despite her requiring Platonic relationships, with no less than Friedrich Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer with a bushier mustache than John Bolton), and Paul Rée (Philipp Haus) who competes with Nietzsche for her attentions.  Still they agree to hang out as a threesome.

Her world turns around when she meets Rainer Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier).  Passion is unleashed.  As we watch her ecstasy during their lovemaking and the smile she sports throughout the next day with her hair down, we simply know that she will be carrying on affairs with many others, including a young doctor Pineles (Daniel Sträser) and possibly even Dr. Sigmund Freud (Harald Schrott), who wonders whether she is a classic narcissist.

The flawless acting does credit to its central character, and the men in her life exude various degrees of emotion while trying their best to repress their sexual needs.  What the film evokes ultimately is that you can be a feminist, an intellectual, a writer, even a hard-to-get player, and still maintain around you an array of men who would do anything—bring her flowers, cut their wrists, divorce their wives, write over-the-top poetry—just to revel in the aura she exudes.

Unrated.  118 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SOFT & QUIET – movie review

SOFT & QUIET

Momentum Pictures/Blumhouse Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Beth de Araújo
Screenwriter: Beth de Araújo
Cast: Stefanie Estes, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Dana Millican, Melissa Paulo, Jon Beavers, Cissy Ly, Nina E. Jordan, Rebekah Wiggins, Jayden Leavitt, Jovita Molina, Shannon Mahoney
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/8/22
Opens: November 4, 2022

The Supreme Court will shortly hand down a ruling on affirmative action which, if the court decides that previous rulings were wrongly determined will put a dent in the policy. Specifically, the justices will decide whether colleges can consider race among the factors to determine admissions. Now, if you are against affirmative action, this does not make you a racist. There are legitimate grounds to believe, as does Chief Justice Roberts, that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If the colleges lose their prerogative, it is not likely that even those who are denied admission to prestigious universities will pick up guns and commit violence.

Really? Once you watch Beth de Araújo’s debut as writer-director of “Soft & Quiet,” you may change your mind. Araújo believes that hate could transform into violence, as we saw most dramatically in the January 6 riots in the Capitol, when a large group that included members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, extreme white supremacists, turned their hatred of what some had believed was a fraudulent attempt to throw out moderates and overturn the election.

The lesson: hate may lead to violence even in the most unlikely people. Consider a group of women led by Emily (Stefanie Estes), a kindergarten teacher in a Midwestern rural area. She and a group of other white Christian women are about to transform their political right to hold extreme views into a blood-curdling episode of stomach-churning ferocity. Holding an evening meeting in a church that at first looks as though they were planning a bake sale, Emily turns up with a cherry pie (how American can you get?) but with a swastika drawn across its dimensions (not so American). The group refer to themselves as Aryans, each of the pissed off women exposing her hostility to people of color. Emily had opened the tale by telling a kid in her kindergarten class to tell off the school’s janitor, ostensibly for washing the floor even though the boy might slip and hurt himself. “Stand up for yourself,” she notes, which she will soon do in a way that you would never think these ladies would do.

Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), a former jailbird, goes to the meeting when invited by Kim (Dana Millican), owner of a grocery store in the town. Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) is denied a promotion in a favor of a woman from Colombia and refuses to believe the boss’s explanation that the Colombian had better leadership abilities. The usual right-wing laundry list of grievances gets heard, as the women blame people of color for their problems. “The Jew banks love to say ‘no’ to borrowers.” “The Blacks are loud and disrespectful.” “Jews run the media.” Surprisingly, Hollywood does not come into their grievances.

So far, these characters are doing nothing illegal. They are free to speak as long as they do not provoke violence or commit illegal acts themselves. But here is what makes this film unusual. For one thing, the writer-director captures images on a single take, to give the impression that what will occur is a train wreck. For another, she wants to wake the country up to a dangerous possibility that mayhem will occur. By presenting the chaos with the kind of violence that would in the past have given this movie an NC-17 rating, Beth de Araújo demands that her audience witness such atrocities that they would have trouble turning away. That, she appears to believe, is what is in store for America if hatred, based on racism, transforms into pandemonium.

When the women, after being chased out of the church by the pastor, go to Kim’s convenience store for wine, they get into an argument with two Asian customers Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly). They “Aryans” want to teach them a lesson that they will never forget. They break into their expensive house, the two residents arrive home before they were expected, and the bedlam erupts.

As for why Araújo introduces her feature with holy terror, as the women all shout at the two hapless homeowners, beat them, strangle them, the director has stated that “independent films have been coddling audiences,” that “KKK member[s]…movements are growing, not shrinking” She opposes “films that seek to comfort their audiences around racism and white supremacy—to remind them of the same old false narratives that…uphold white supremacy.”

With this film, Emily, who had urged her followers to avoid hard selling of their views by being soft and quiet, appears unable to stick to her plans simply to send out newsletters, or known on doors, or do peaceful things that are within the law. The message is that once you hate, there is no telling what you may do. Mission accomplished.

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

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

FOUR WINTERS – movie review

FOUR WINTERS

New Moon Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Mintz
Screenwriter: Julia Mintz
Cast: Michael Stoll, Isadore Farbstein, Chayele Palevsky, Sara Ginaite, Faye Shulman, Shalom Yoran, Moshe Baran, Frank Blaichman, Luba Abramowitz, Gertrude Boyarski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/9/22
Opens: September 16, 2022 at New York’s Film Forum

Imagine this. You are a Jewish woman living in Poland. For your prom, your date is a Polish Christian. World War 2 breaks out. You are captured by the enemy, by the Nazis. Then, mirabile dictu, your prom date shows up! Is he going to be a hero and rescue you from these bad men? Think again. He tells you, this prom date of yours, “You are a Jew. You must die.” Sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel? Could be, but this actually happened. And if you recall one of the great classic horror films, “Carrie,” you become like a prequel of Carrie and you get revenge on this miserable, sick-in-the-head Pole. When that man is captured, you are given the opportunity to take revenge, but you’re a woman, so you’re going to let him go. Nope. You kill him. Why? Because you are no longer a woman you are a soldier. Therein lie the most dramatic pieces of dialogue in the documentary “Four Winters,” which is one more movie overthrowing the passive-aggressive comment from people who wonder: Why didn’t the Jews fight back?

To be sure, many Jews were in no condition when the Final Solution is declared by Germany. They were shot on sight, they were put on trains with the big lie that they were going to be treated well, that Germany needed them for work. By the time they arrived at a concentration camp, maybe Auschwitz-Birkenau, maybe Treblinka, and if they were “lucky,” to Theresienstadt. Women who were either too young or too old were stripped naked and sent to the “showers.” However, some Jews were fortunate in jumping from the death trains and racing to the large Eastern European forests. “Four Winters” is the story of a handful of survivors, still alive today, enlightening us about the incredible but true four years that they spent in the forest, meeting up with Polish and later Russian resistors, some forming their own company of Jewish partisans.

With guns and bullets that they smuggled out of a makeshift factory where they were working for the Nazis and later with weapons that they captured from those left behind, they survived and killed as many Germans as they could. In one instance, they acted not like folks to be pitied but with toxic masculinity because this was the time that such behavior was called for. They stole pigs from farmers. They threatened a rich farmer: “turn over your stock of weapons or we will burn this village down.” They got what they came for.

With black-and-white photographs that one woman took while hiding in the woods using a blanket as a darkroom, we get an inkling of what it’s like to be them. Director Julia Mintz, whose short film “Wait for Me” is a psychological character study of a woman who needed to kill only her past rather than German soldiers, brings in some archival films of the period before and during World War 2, but gives these survivors, all of whom speaking fluent albeit accented English, most of the time. This is wise because some of their testimony is riveting. We do not know, however, where they are living today; most likely America or Israel, but imagine them taking part not simply escaping from the ovens, the gas chambers, the mass shootings, but having the chutzpah to sabotage the Nazi war effort—to derail and dynamite trains (which somehow our President FDR forgot to do, allowing the Nazis the freedom to load millions of Jews onto the cattle cars and into the camps).

Twenty-five thousand Jews took part as partisans, most of whom, of course, cannot be seen in this film including two of my brave ancestors, Isidore and Hersch Karten who escaped from the village of Swirz, sneaking into ghettoes urging Jews behind barbed wire to escape with them and join the partisans. See the Wikipedia article Isidore Karten. https://www.jewishpartisancommunity.org/partisans/isidore-karten/

Credit Faye Schulman in her leopard coat acting as photographer, the one mentioned above who used a blanket for her darkroom, allowing her to share her experience with us today. “Four Winters” will doubtless have a largely Jewish audience at New York’s Film Forum, though the film should be shared nationally to educate the one in ten Americans who never heard the word “Holocaust”; the sixty-three percent of those surveyed who did not know that six million Jews were murdered in said Holocaust; the fifty percent of the “enlightened” who believe that the death toll was fewer than two million. And of over forty thousand concentration camps and ghettos that were established during World War 2, half of respondents in a poll could not name a single one. Can you get a high-school diploma without taking a single course in world history?

Even if you know nothing about the Nazi resolve to kill all Jews, if you see this film you will see the fierce spirit, the determination, the will to survive of these partisans; these attributes will give you an idea of the resolution of an oppressed people to create the state of Israel three years after the war and make it thrive.

All testimony is in English.

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

MURINA – movie review

MURINA

Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, based on her short film “Into the Blue”
Screenwriters: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovi, Frank Graziano
Cast: Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic, Leon Lucev, Cliff Curtis, Jonas Smulders
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/6/22
Opens: July 8, 2022 at New York’s Metrograph Theater. September 13, 2022 streaming.

Even rebellious teens here in America might enjoy this striking debut feature by the Croatian director and co-writer of “Murina.” But the adolescent Americans must be sensitive enough to appreciate the beauty of a remote, rocky Adriatic Sea coastline which provides a frugal life for seventeen-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipovic), her mother Nela (Danica Curcic) and father Ante (Leon Lucev). As a retired high school teacher, I’m thinking of kids having to go to summer school in the sweltering July in New York and comparing themselves to Julija, who really should have not a care in the world, spending her days in a bathing suit diving for eel with her dad. When Javier (Cliff Curtis), a handsome, rich developer who had once employed Ante and enjoyed an affair with Nela arrives with plans to buy the property to build a resort, the family dreams of using the money to buy an apartment in Zagreb, which to me seems like a step down for them given the natural beauty, the sport of diving, and the Spartan but livable accommodations.

“Murina” has moments of violence, particularly one which will threaten the family’s dream of escape and cause Javier to consider abandoning his own plans. Julija delivers verbal barbs to her mother for staying with her boorish husband, a man who resents not only his hostile daughter but also the rich and handsome visitor. Julija has fantasies of freedom including traveling the world with Javier, even enrolling in Harvard. Yet her life, like that of her mom, is crushed by a patriarchal society, her dad in his worst burst of fury imprisoning his daughter, putting her essentially in solitary confinement without food and without light.

The title “Murina” stands in metaphorically for the moray fish that Julija and Ante hunt with spears, a member of the eel family with sharp teeth and a bite that its hunters would not like any more than would Ante during the many times his rebellious daughter drags him down verbally in front of a coterie of Javier’s employees. So too does the sea stand in for both freedom and isolation, the sparkling waters both imprisoning the girl and serving her fantasies of escape.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures the mood of an area of Croatia which may look to us as a paradise—provided that you do not have to live in squalid quarters–the only chance of escape being to sell the land and move to the city. Gracija Filipovic and Leon Lucev appear to do their own stunts, the teen sometimes staying underwater without oxygen for several minutes, the two carrying spears to catch the local delicacy. Cliff Curtis may be playing a rich European but he is in real life a Maori born in New Zealand. (As one reviewer points out, he gives away his ethnicity with a tattoo.)

“Murina” provides stunning ensemble acting with Kusijanovic’s providing direction that brings the conflicted feelings of a nuclear family boldly to the surface.

In Croatian and English with English subtitles.

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

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

MORPHINE – movie review

MORPHINE (Morphia)

MUBI
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Screenwriter: Sergey Bodrov, from short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrey Panin, Svetlana Pismichenko, Katarina Radivojevic, Yuri Gertsman, Aleksandr Mosin
Screened at: MUBI.com
The folks in the rural Russia of 1917 may not have predicted that the West would have an opioid crisis decades later, but they sure had one in miniature during that fateful year that upended their society. The film is “Morphine,” directed by Aleksey Balabanov, who died five years after its making at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind an impressive resume. Balabanov, whose “The Stoker” deals with an ethnic Yakut shell-shocked after serving in the Afghan-Soviet war, takes on this film written by Sergei Bodrov based on short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov. (Several books by Bulgakov are available in English from Amazon, including the 50th anniversary edition of “The Master and Margarita” but if you act fast you can pick up the novelist’s “Notes of a Young Doctor,” the last available copy selling for $94.01, and that’s for the used edition.)

Aleksandr Simohnov is behind the lens in the film’s settings, a rural area with primitive accommodations that promises to show a character’s fetching a ladder and climbing up to sing “If I Was a Rich Man,” but this remains a promise unfulfilled. Instead of a Hasidic community, though, we get a look at people who in 1917 still believed in Jesus, but they’d better alter their religious ideology overnight if they want to in with the workers’ paradise. The action takes place during the Russian Revolution, specifically between February 1917 when nice moderate socialists like Alexander Kerensky were defeated just months later as the Bolsheviks swept them away and took Russia out of the First World War.

If you’re an action fan, you’ll see plenty of that, though there are only a few scenes of Bolshevik soldiers demanding to see papers and, in one case, bashing an aristo taking his last ride on his horse and carriage. The action in this film is largely interior, though you’ll often see a group of nurses dressed like nuns racing hither and thither to save potential patients breathing their last in the snow. The film may look as though it were taking place around Yakuts, the world’s coldest place which once scored a Fahrenheit temperature of 84 below zero, but incredibly it’s only 126 miles as the crow flies from Moscow.

In the central role, Leonid Bichevin inhabits the role of Doktor Polyakov, a 23-year-old who must have been moved kicking and screaming from Moscow to the rural town around Uglich, which is today a tourist location in the Yaroslavl administrative district. Polyakov is virtually, even actually in two cases, bowed down to by residents who have been without a physician since the departure of one Leopold, a stroke of luck since on a busy day, the new sawbones has twenty-two patients. But here is a case of “Doctor, heal thyself.” Treating a dying patient by pumping on his chest and breathing into his mouth, he contracts diphtheria. Suffering pain form the malady, he has access to morphine, which serves like a beginner’s guide to heroin in those days. Since there may have been a shortage of Tylenol and Advil, he injects himself with morphine. When that wears off, another dose, until predictably enough he is addicted.

And boy, can Polyakov show you what it’s like to go through withdrawal, which he had to suffer several times when a nurse guards the limited supply and urges him to get treatment. He may have been angry with the woman, but he receives a door prize: an affair with nurse Anna Nikolayevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and, in a couple of cases has his way with an aristocratic woman who does an FDR impersonation with a long cigarette holder while the doc fiddles around with her body.

And what’s a movie about a doctor without showing some gore? In one scene he amputates a woman’s leg after it was shredded in a flax grinder. Balabanov gets us a closeup of the poor lady’s limb. In another case—you vote on which is gorier—he performs a tracheotomy on a teen girl who could scarcely breathe, first looking up the procedure in a book, then moving on to slice open the patient’s neck. The internist-cum-obstetrician-cum-otolaryngologist-cum general surgeon delivers a baby after cleaning up a botched technique by a midwife who powdered the new mother’s vagina with sugar to tempt the unborn baby to come out.

To assure his credentials as a supply of artful indies, the director presents the action with desaturated color, helping to project the miserable atmosphere of the countryside, while trying to match the carnage on the operating tables with scenes of the doctor vomiting—in one situation throwing up on a toilet filthier than the worst facilities in Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie “Trainspotting.”

I suppose that the closest scenes of idiosyncratic rural life in American movies is “Twin Peaks,” but the shacks there are Trump towers compared to the snow-bound dwellings here. The film is well worth your attention, the chapters marked off in an idiosyncratic way as well as though this were a Lillian Gish entertainment. The people are all flawed—even the nurse having an affair with the doctor injects herself with morphine, envious, perhaps, and wanting to shake like her doctor boyfriend as would a person without clothes walking in the Uglich snow. The melodramatic finale, which takes place in a movie house offering a film that has the doctor and the entire audience laughing hysterically, is quite a surprise.

You can stream this movie by subscribing to MUBI, where you can get a taste of the indie films free for seven days.

In Russia with English subtitles.

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

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

REFLECTION – movie review

REFLECTION (Vidblysk)

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Cast: Roman Lutskiy, Nika Myslytska, Nadia Levechenko, Andriy Rymaruk, Ihor Shulha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/22

“Reflection” is a follow-up to the director’s “Atlantis, which won top prize in Venice’s Horizons program. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s latest is a film that comes across almost as two studies centered on key months in the life of a surgeon. Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), who has not yet volunteered to fight the Russians who had invaded Ukraine in 2014, has a talk with Andrii (Andriy Rymaruk), the latter giving up-to-the-moment revelations of mayhem when he was at the front. Serhiy has a twelve-year-old daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska—the director’s own child) and an ex-wife Olha (Nadia Levchenkio), Olha now taking the role of Andriy’s current girlfriend.

An opening scene finds Polina playing paintball, a present for her birthday—a game whose popularity at the time could be a reflection of the war going on miles away. Suddenly the screen blacks out and we see Serhiy taking care of battle-scarred Ukranians, concentrating on chest compressions to a soldier who is covered with blood and who cannot be saved.

Later, Serhiy and Andrii drive toward the front and are captured by the mercenaries who shoot up the car leaving Andrii seriously wounded and both taken captive. Serhiy is tortured under the command of a Russian officer who, if the adversaries were using common sense would employ Serhiy in saving their own men. The surgeon must watch his good friend hung up by his arms, punched, and having a power drill invade his thigh. This is enough to cause PTSD in both the victim and witness. The Russians use a mobile crematory not unlike what they are using today in their cowardly invasion of a country that had already been forced to secede Crimea years back (an area with a majority of Russian ethnics), now intent on annexing the Donbas region in the East and taking over the whole country.

Serhiy, freed via a prisoner exchange, reestablishes a relationship with his ex-wife, particularly bonding with his daughter, who had been injured by falling off a horse but suffers greater inner pain wondering about the fate of Andrii, with whom she has been close and who wants him to be her godfather. Serhiy holds back on the bad news until the time comes to identify a body.

If this were a simple story about inhabitants of a war zone, it might lack originality. Instead Vasyanovych, who wrote, directs, filmed and edited the whole shebang, feels free to manipulate the proceedings artistically. He has no use for close-ups, filming most of the scene in middle-long. He will try audience patience by static shots where they seem to have no relevant impact. Close-ups are avoided in the torture scenes, making the movie difficult enough to watch, where some distance between subject and camera is justified. However, why have static, contemplative scenes such as one where the daughter does exercises on the sofa; or where Serhiy simply sits at his desk? A simple enough plot appears to serve largely as an excuse for cinematic flourishes.

However the director, thanks to a fine performance from his daughter, does provide a look at how an girl approaching her teens is growing up too fast. The war has caused a personal hardship for her—she has lost her best adult friend—and has witnessed a tragedy that should never have occurred save for the greed of a country’s president eager to restore the empire that had been lost to the Russian Federation three decades ago.

In Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles.

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

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

RIDE TILL I DIE – movie review

RIDE TILL I DIE

Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Tony Rammos
Cast: Ricky Ringer, Ricky Ringer Jr., Ernie Courson, Marilee Ringer, Renee Ringer, Cynthia Kimbrell, Kenneth Kimbrell
Screened at: Critics’ link 4/5/22
Opens: April 8, 2022

Training his lenses on the Florida rodeos and cutting away to get insights about a man committed to riding bulls for a living, first-time director Tony Rammos seeks to answer two questions: What sort of person is willing to suffer broken ribs, perforated lungs, facial scars, and assorted injuries to other body parts and come back another day for more? What is it about riding bulls in rodeos that make this the most dangerous eight seconds in all sports?

Rammos could not have found a better man to answer these questions than Ricky Ringer. His first riding at age fifteen won him $97, which at the time, he says, was a nice chunk of money. Later he would compete in three areas of Florida—Tampa, West Palm Beach and Estero—for a purse that could net him $60,000. Ricky admits that it’s a good living, though one that you could pursue until you’re in your thirties (he lasted to age forty-one!), and more important, it’s a sport that he loves, one that makes him want to ride until he dies. Spoiler: he does not die in the ring but has to be dragged into retirement on the cusp of middle age. In a happy ending, he makes a living now as a heavy equipment operator.

We see Ricky in a picture with a white cutaway jacket, maybe the only time he got out of his colorful sport shirts and boots. We hear him encouraging his son Ricky Jr. to follow in his footsteps, and we learn from junior that he loves the sport as well. Not so much Ricky Ringer’s mother, who like any other parent who is not a child abuser discouraged him from riding, nor is his charming wife gung-ho about the injuries that befall her man while at the same time eagerly following him in the stands.

During much of the film time, Ricky talks to the cameras, in close ups and at medium range, scarcely able to get out a sentence without the obligatory “you know.” If scenes of the man riding a variety of bulls do not convince you of his love affair with the ring, his own words do the trick.

Natch there are many scenes of the action inside the ring, where each contestant must keep one hand free while trying to stay on a bucking bull for at least eight seconds. Ricky manages off and on, winning money by being among the top competitors, but we also see him thrown within as short a time as two or three seconds. Close-ups? Of course.

There is a major problem with the movie, one of omission. What’s on the screen is fine, but we who do not live in Texas or Florida or any other state that sponsors our country’s most dangerous sport would have no idea of the rules. Can you be excited watching a chess match if you don’t know chess from checkers? Is it true that riding a bull for more than eight seconds is irrelevant since only that initial time is considered? How is the sport judged? Are the bulls given points as well? Lest you think it’s nuts for the bull to be competing for sports points, remember that if at some time the animal is tired, does not feel like bucking, should the rider be awarded the same number of points as others who have more difficult animals? The Wikipedia article “Bull Riding” notes that the bull and rider share points equally, one hundred points being perfect while even in the seventies is considered good. Also, like the riddle of how to get the toothpaste back into the tube, how in heaven do these bulls get coaxed back home for the night? There is not a single clip showing how the assistants coax the brave animals back to await another exciting day of making men look like major rodeo competitor Matt Bright—if not like a patient in traction.

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

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

BALLAD OF A WHITE COW (Movie review)

BALLAD OF A WHITE COW

Mubi
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Directors: Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Screenwriters: Mehrdad Kouroshniya, Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Cast: Maryam Moghadam, Alireza Sani Far, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Avin Poor Raoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour
Screened at: Critics’link, NYC, 2/8/22
Opens: February 10, 2022

Ballad of a White Cow

Only fourteen countries still have the death penalty, most of them in Asia and Africa, and to the shame of our Western democracy some of our own states still live in the Middle Ages in that regard. A principal argument against its use is that it has not proved to inhibit would-be killers, which means, let’s admit it: we execute people for revenge. While I cannot think of many cases in the U.S. in which an innocent man has been punished with death, there is nonetheless the cardinal argument: that judges and juries can make mistakes and, once a man is given the needle or the rope, he is never coming back.

Iran, interestingly enough, may allow the family of a condemned man to forgive him, thus releasing him from the extreme penalty. In the case of Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s “Ballad of a White Cow,” remarkably, when the Iranian government discovers that it had executed an innocent man, it takes steps to admit its mistake and to give his widow a cash settlement.

In directing what is more or less a chamber piece with two principals, Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha situate director Moghadam in the principal role as Mina, shown early on making a final visit to her husband in prison, implicitly believing like most others that he is guilty of the crime. She is herself treated like a guilty widow who is fired from her job in a factory making beverages, thrown out of her apartment because a man unrelated to her had an innocent conversation with her behind closed doors, and is chased by her brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimiam) who is hitting on her. How does the society expect her to care for her deaf and mute daughter Bita (Avin Poor Raoufi), who is told that her dad is “far away” and that when they both get old they will see him again?

As the story progresses with thankfully no music in the soundtrack to tell us how to react emotionally, Maryam is grateful to Reza (Alireza Sanifar), who gives her money, though she does not realize at first that the donations are to assuage his guilt feelings for being one of the judges that sentenced him to death. (He did not participate in the court proceedings but made up his mind solely from the written testimony.) He is guilty as well of a lesser lapse in judgment when, because he caused the woman’s eviction from her apartment by visiting her behind closed doors.

We in the United States, who consider Iran to be along with China, Russia and North Korea our principal adversary, are eager to point out Iran’s limitations on a woman’s freedom: forcing women to wear head scarves while men have no required “fashions,” disallowing even the most innocent visit to a woman’s residence by someone unrelated, and leaning on religion to such an extent than when a mistake results in an innocent man’s hanging it’s “God’s will.” The cow of the title refers to a passage in the Quran when Moses orders a cow to be sacrificed for a man’s death—the animal shown near the opening as a computerized white cow being prepared for slaughter. A metaphor is offered upon metaphor when Mina serves a glass of warm milk to Reza, who, slowly realizing that Mina has learned the truth may now serve as an offering to Allah for an innocent man’s death.

Chamber pieces like this one are necessarily disciplined and restrained, giving us in the audience a chance to observe Mina’s humanism. “Ballad of a White Cow” punctuates co-director Maryam Moghadam’s dignified performance as an aggrieved woman, perhaps wearing black for a year after her husband’s death. Her silence while serving the judge who essentially killed her husband hits home with the audience better than melodramatic flourishes with music or a stab at outright revenge could not.

In Farsi (Persian) with English subtitles.

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

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

BREAKING BREAD – movie review

BREAKING BREAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.

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

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

THE CARD COUNTER – movie review

THE CARD COUNTER

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/4/21
Opens: September 10, 2021. September 30, 2021 streaming.

How can I bankrupt this casino?

If you’ve ever had to pay a price for something you did while the person above you who coaxed you to do it gets away, you will empathize and sympathize with the plight of William Tillich (Oscar Isaac). Tillich’s plight is told in “The Card Counter,” directed by Paul Schrader, known for such films as “American Gigolo” (1980) about a Los Angeles escort catering to rich, older women, who is arrested for a murder he did not commit.

Tillich, who goes by the name William Tell, served in the infamous division in Abu Graib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers went beyond what is normally acceptable using the technique of enhanced interrogation.” To gain information from alleged terrorists which would presumably save American lives, the torturers would kick prisoners, waterboard them, sic German Shepherds on them (the Arabic culture does not look kindly on dogs), strip them for presentation to women soldiers. He was trained by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). When the press got hold of the procedures, showing ghastly pictures to the American public, the army cracked down (as though the perps were not directed to do this), and the public was shocked by the degradation and corruption. Tillich was arrested and sent to Leavenworth Prison for eight and one-half years, while his superiors, who ordered the violence, went scotfree.

During his time in a prison, which seems from this film to be not so bad—a clean private cell for each convict—he learns to like reading for the first time and trains himself to count cards. The latter skill would allow him to profit, to make a good living, in fact, by traveling the casino circuit playing blackjack against the house and poker against the competitors. He meets people who will change his life: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who wants to introduce him to a stable of poker tournament people who will bank his bets for a fifty percent cut; and Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), a younger man who would hang out with the card counter and whose mounting debt and estrangement from his mother would lead the title character to redeem himself by helping the innocent kid.

Oscar Isaac plays Tillich with a quiet voice, a good looking fellow who raises his fists and his voice in Abu Ghraib and once again in a domestic scene, but throughout “The Card Counter” shows him to be a man who detests violence. (This will not last.) We hear several narrations of his thoughts, which tell us much about his mind set since, after all, movies are not as good as book in that respect. A noirish movie, with most scenes in dark nights and basic motels, “The Card Counter” will suit an audience that prefers high melodrama to be a small segment of a story and which concentrates more on the inner workings of its characters than on plot.

There really are people in the real world who would sacrifice almost everything to relieve their guilt, so Tillich stands in for the sort of person who is willing to give up the pleasures of life because of a high degree of morality. A serious, well-acted story, Dostoevkien if you will.

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

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

BELFAST – movie review

BELFAST

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/27/21
Opens: November 12, 2021

Belfast Poster Kenneth Branagh Movie Art Film Print Size 11x17" 24x36" 27x40" #1 - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

The big question raised by “Belfast” is: when times are rough, when your life is in danger because of where you live, why don’t you get the hell out? For the Jews living in Germany during the 1930s, exiting the country was not easy. Some were afraid to give up their wealth. Some others considered themselves “too old to move,” whatever that means. Those who were prepared to give up their old lives could not easily enter another country. Go from Germany to Eastern Europe? Poland was no Shangri-la for Jews. And most of Western Europe was already occupied by the Nazis. The U.S. under FDR was not eager to issue visas, and Jews in ships like the St. Louis were turned right back to Germany.

When Catholics and Protestants were at one another’s throats during the 1960s, the Catholics claiming that they were oppressed by the British government which favored Protestants for jobs, Catholics could have gone to Ireland right next door. Protestants could set up residence anywhere in England, which was their country, so there would be no need for visas. But the Branagh family—this is, after all, a memoir by writer-director Kenneth Branagh of the time he was nine years old in 1969—there was a split. Buddy (Jude Hill as the young Kenneth Branagh) would not think of moving. Normally a stable, intelligent lad, he is willing to put up with the occasional bombings by the Irish Republic Army, which sought independence for Northern Ireland and perhaps annexation to the Irish Free State. His friends are in Belfast and so was classmate and love interest, Catherine (Olive Tennant), who goes to his school and sits near him in class. He is also undeterred by a Protestant gang that tries to get Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dorman) to join them in causing havoc to Catholic residences. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) says she knows nothing outside of Belfast, that if the family moved to Sydney, Australia, they would be laughed at because of their accent (strange since so many ethnic Irish live downunder). Ditto England. Only his father, who works construction in England and comes home easily is ready to ship the family out.

This is Kenneth Branagh’s seeing everything through his eyes at the age of nine. Buddy is well liked by the folks in the neighborhood who say hi to him regularly. He returns the greeting remembering to say each neighbor’s name as in “Hi Mr. West.” Kids don’t do that anymore, do they? Buddy loves his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judy Dench), the latter given over to fire and brimstone religion, the former dying from a lung problem created when he mined coal. Buddy’s grandpa gives the boy advice especially about how to win friends and influence people, especially girls. Can you blame Buddy for throwing a tantrum when da insists on moving out?

The story is told through mostly black-and-white imagery, better to capture the feeling of the period, with color taking over during the high points in Buddy’s life. And no point could be higher for a kid who later would spend his life writing, directing, and acting in movies than each time he visited the cinema. His attention is rapt. He is able to repeat the key song in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and he warns granny not to talk in the theater. The songs by Van Morrison, when songs were really songs, adds greatly to the 1960s feeling.

When Buddy says goodbye to people he knew for his entire life, he forges a memory in all of us in the audience who at one time had to leave everything behind and enter a life where everything is new. Jude Hill, who was ten years old at the time of the filming, delivers a remarkable debut, able to convey emotions from sadness to ecstasy without a stumble. At the time of this writing, Gold Derby, a website that predicts awards, is betting on “Belfast” to be the winner of Best Picture among scores of awards groups as well as the major ones, the Academy and the Golden Globes.

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

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

THE GIG IS UP – movie review

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

Poster
Who gets the fries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GAZA MON AMOUR – movie review

GAZA MON AMOUR
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser
Screenwriter: Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Salim Dau, Maisa Abd Elhadi, George Iskander
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/29/21
Opens: November 5, 2021

Poster
You’re never too old for romance.

Gaza may have never been associated with love before, a hellhole of a place that might make people who watch the news think that it’s nothing more than a training camp for Hamas, a recognized terrorist group. But in the hands of Tarzan Nasser and his brother Arab Nasser, the geography may be unbecoming but love blooms in the saddest places. The Nasser brothers’ previous film is Dégradé wherein in Gaza, two hairdressers and ten customers of various ages and backgrounds spend the day trapped in a beauty salon while Hamas police fight a gang in the street. The Nassers this time cast a romantic spell without failing to dramatize the restrictions placed by Israelis on that strip of Middle Eastern land.

Electricity is available to Gazans only at the will of Israel. Fishermen and others are not allowed to sail past a three-mile limit on the sea. Though Gaza is known to have beaches fine enough to entice tourism and develop an economy, the occupation will not allow this kind of development. Unlike the situation in Hong Kong where the British colonialists set a specific date in 1997 to clear out. Israel appears to have no intention of freeing either Gaza or the West Bank.

The characters do not spend every hour planning political movies for independence. They live their lives like the rest of us. They make livings for the market, or as fishermen, or a retailers selling dresses, and like the rest of us dream of romance, even at age sixty. Our focus is on Issa (Salim Dau) and Siham (Hiam Abbass), the former a fisherman who takes his catch to the street and negotiates sales as in much of the Middle East where every little purchase is preceded by negotiations. For her part Siham runs a women’s dress store and takes in tailoring. Issa is too shy to come right out and profess his love for Siham but despite his age, in one scene he has a wet dream and stains his pants. Yes, even at his age. He also has a bronze phallis in his pocket, broken off a sculpture of the Greek god Apollo that he catches in his net and should prove more lucrative than years of fishing. When the police get wind of the catch they search his home and haul him off to jail.

Gaza is no place for the young. We do not blame Siham’s daughter Leila (Maisa Abd Elhadi) for wanting to get out presumably to go to Europe, but no such permission exists under the occupation. Still the movie as a whole is foremost a comedy, an adorable one, complete with Issa’s matchmaking sister Manal (Manal Awad) who escorts a band of four late-middle-age women for Issa’s inspection. The movie belongs to the older couple who underplay their roles delightfully against a background of Hamas’ rule internally and Israel’s authority outside.

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

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

ONLY THE ANIMALS (SEULES LES BETES)

ONLY THE ANIMALS (Seules les bêtes)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dominik Moll
Writer: Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand. Adapted from Colin Niel’s novel ‘Seules les bêtes’
Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Denis Ménochet Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Guy Roger “Bibisse” N’drin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/21/21
Opens: October 29, 2021

Where did I put that body?

Let’s see. Near the opening we hear reports on the radio that a woman is missing. At this point her body has not been found but her abandoned car has been located on the road. That’s a no-brainer: “Only the Animals” is a documentary about Gabby Petito. Already? That was quick. No wait, oops: “Only the Animals” is a French drama, though more accurately a dark comedy, more dark than comic. Writers Dominik Moll and the director adapt Colin Niel’s novel “Seules les bêtes” (available in French at Amazon for $33.07 but if you want to save money get the German paperback “Nur die Tiere” for $19.86). The plot takes off from the central mystery, the disappearance of one Evelyne Ducat (Valería Bruni Tedeschi) during a blizzard in Lozère, France (inland in the south). Told under German-born Dominik Moll’s direction in five chapters, “Only the Animals” brings five lives together as additional proof that there are only six degrees of separation between us and everyone else in the world. Each character is given his or her own point of view, “Rashoman” style.

The acting all-around is terrific particularly that of Côte d’Ivoire native Guy Roger “Bibisse” N’drin as an internet scammer in his debut role. His actions on a laptop computer surrounded by his pals, who egg him on to success in lightening the wallets of white guys in France, are responsible for the connection between the West African nation and the farming community in Southern France.

The film opens in Abidjan with a bizarre scene featuring Armand (N’drin) carrying a goat to a room, plying one of his varied freelance trades, and ending with Michel Farange (Denis Ménochet), a Frenchman, laughing while typing on a laptop. Michel winds up psychologically crushed but appreciates the comic nature of his troubles. Each chapter is named for a character, the first being Alice (Laure Calamy), who is having an affair with Joseph Bonnefille (Damien Bonnard), plying her trade as a home care nurse whose sex with the depressed man is explained as her attempt to revive his spirits. She loves him, but unhappily his response to that affection is “Get out!” Not good news for her, especially since her marriage to farmer Michel is moribund.

Michel returns home bloodied, making us think that he killed Evelyne, and from time to time we, sitting in the theater, think back to the disappeared dead woman, trying to outsmart the characters by guessing the identity of the murderer. Alice and Joseph make way for Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), a pretty blonde waitress having a liaison with Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), great sex ‘n’ all but Evelyne is concerned that she is twenty years older than her soulmate and is about to drop her. Does this give Marion the motive to kill Evelyne? Maybe.

Filmed on location in both France and Africa by Patrick Ghringhelli, the film stock making a sad comment about Abidjan’s slums and the depressed farms of Lozère at the same time hinting that the latter region has promise as a tour destination for skiing and scenic drives. “Only the Animals” features an extended final chapter in Abidjan, the capital of a country that won independence from France in 1960, highlighting an internet scammer whose lively-turned-morose character makes us root for him despite his dabbling in crime.

In my view “Only the Animals” is running next-and-next with Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” as this year’s two best French films so far, the former emphasizing the bizarre connections between its people than on American-style suspense. The picture is in French with English subtitles and happily without the intrusive music that ruins so many of our own American pictures.

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

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

POWDER KEG (KRUDTTONDEN)MOVIE REVIEW

POWDER KEG (Krudttønden)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ole Christian Madsen
Writer: Lars Kristian Andersen, Ole Christian Madsen
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lars Brygmann, Jakob Oftebro, Sonja Richter, Nicolaj Kopernikus, Martin Greis-Rosenthal
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/29/21
Opens: September 3, 2021

Thinking of quitting the SWAT team

The political situation in the U.S. has become so divisive that some say politics has replaced religion as the factor that most divides people. Now, given the satirical banter by late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmerl and Trevor Noah, much of which was taken up with excoriating comments about the former president, you may wonder why religion gets a free pass—aside from commentary about the cover up of sexual abuses among some fathers of the church, not really a challenge to religious beliefs. So: even in free-speech America (free speech, that is, until you are a victim of cancel culture or are threatened with physical violence for advocating masks), religion goes on an unapproachable dais. We respect each other’s faiths. Yet, it’s not every day that Americans are threatened with death for criticizing a religion, but among radical Islamists, there’s a different story to tell. And Ole Christian Madsen, who directs “Powder Keg, with the original title Krudttønden, the name of a culture center in which a fatal shooting took place in Copenhagen in February 2015, tells an involving story albeit one with physical action reserved for the conclusion.

There are two shootings, actually, both by a radicalized Muslim, a frequent felon named Omar El-Hussein (Albert Arthur Amiryan). Despite his crime record, given Denmark’s liberal treatment of offenders who are often put inside luxury prisons, he is out on parole pending an appeal. His is the most sinister character in a film that wisely avoids a straight documentary in favor of a rich narrative. Omar, who kills one innocent person in each of two shootings in Denmark’s wonderful capital, is sought by Rico, a SWAT team member (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who has been battered and is ultimately urged to leave the vigorous requirements of SWAT for a gig that would preserve his life and limbs.

We will meet two other principal characters whose careers in separate avenues of the city will take them together at the conclusion. Welcome Dan Uzan (Adam Buschard), a chief of security at a synagogue who is applying for a better job in logistics; Finn Nørgaard (Lars Brygmann), a journalist-filmmaker who is an advocate of free speech without the “but,” meaning there should be no exceptions, not even against satirical treatment of any religion. When Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist sketches The Prophet as a dog, Omar’s fury passes the point of no return. Though even his buddies at an Islamic club warn him against violent action, he insists, like Rodney Dangerfield, that he gets no respect. What’s more he envisions a caliphate with Islam, “the only true religion,” giving orders to the entire world after the Conquest.

The shoot-up scenes are well done, with one principal character’s becoming a hero and giving his life to stop the gunman when he could have run like the others, though in the second event a man is killed outright. (You can read all about the true story in Wikipedia under Copenhagen terrorist shootings.)I particularly enjoyed Finn’s extended conversation at a dinner in which he tried the patience of his friends, most of whom agreed with Finn, that freedom of speech is freedom of speech. (Though even we in the U.S. can legally bar speech that leads directly to action: applied too late against the former president on January 6.) Characters are given humanity even outside the realm of the central issue. Dan Uzan, ready to move up after delivering security for yet another Bat Mitzvah outside Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, cannot get a better job for months, rejected by phone time after time. Rico, divorced with two kids, fantasies getting back with his ex-wife. Poor guy has women visiting him for sex, but one of them rejected his call for yet another date saying that he’s too tired for her.

All in all, yet another series of true events done in somewhat fictionalized narrative form, “Powder Keg” is a visceral reminder that when it comes to religion as with politics and opinions of rap music, people do not all think the same. Some will show their differences by damaging the lives and limbs of others.

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

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

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE
Music Box Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Cast: Mila Azahrani, Sara Nora Al Awadh, Dhay, Khalid Abdulrahim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/6/21
Opens: May 14, 2021

You may be able to get gasoline in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for $2.15 a gallon, but what’s the advantage if you cannot use your car to drive to the movies? Update: As of 2018, the Saudis ended a 35-year ban on movie theaters and have begun getting the public’s enjoyment. AMC is betting that the industry will explode, expecting to put up forty additional theaters in fifteen Saudi cities. Why is this important when judging Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate?” Because this represents change and is just one of the developments that are taking off despite the opposition by extremists who believe the movies are ungodly. (They’re right on target if they’re going to talk about some of the lemons that Hollywood churns out yearly.)

And with change comes more change. When segments of the public get new freedoms, then voices are raised in support. After all, when France and the U.S., notable by comparison with the Third World for accepting at least a near equality of women, that’s when modern feminism took hold. Countries in which women are wholly oppressed, such as in parts of the Middle East, had seen few demonstrations in favor of more freedoms.

This brings us to “The Perfect Candidate,” entered into our own 92nd Academy Award competition for Best International Film, a worthy achievement despite its failure to be nominated. Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” in 2012 deals with a girl’s desire to win a Koran recitation competition in order to win a green bicycle, and “Mary Shelley” in 2017, finds her moving out of the Middle Eastern culture to examine the title character’s writing of “Frankenstein.” She continues to look at the role of women–this time in Riyadh and its outskirts.

Filmed by Patrick Orth on location, the film opens on Maryam (Mila Azahhrani) in a car, but sends a message up front: Hey! She’s driving! This is something women would not do until the laws changed in 2017, a harbinger of progressive things to come. Who knows? The Saudi monarchy might next allow women to go to medical school! Update: Already done. Maryam is a full-fledged doctor, the only woman with that certification in an emergency clinic that does not even have a paved road to get people quickly into the building when they most need quick help.

Her father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrahim), grieving for his wife, is a band leader whose profession is under attack by far-right radicals at the very time that women are moving ahead. Doctor or not, Maryam still need her father’s permission to travel to a conference in Dubai. Update: that has changed too. Guardians need not grant permission. Since feminist enthusiasm rises not when women are totally oppressed but when they are given some agency, Maryam becomes a candidate for her municipal council on a platform of paving the road to her clinic, raising her father’s blood pressure and raising doubts that even women would vote for her over her male opponent.

“Hope for the best” is her dad’s motto, which he states to a fellow musician on a concert tour when the orchestra is in danger of being canceled, and is likewise Maryam’s view as she runs for office. In one humorous incident she tries to get the cooperation of an elderly male patient who shouts “get away from me” when she is trying to save her life, and prefers a male nurse to fix a problem and save his life.

The dialogue is workmanlike at best. If this were a Hollywood dramedy with American actors in middle-class American sitcom situations, it could be panned. But it is not. One might get the notion that the director, who co-wrote the movie with Brad Niemann in his freshman script, is far more interested in giving her audience a narrative view of things to come in her country than in calling the shots for a complex work of artistic merit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As cinema grows, especially given the ambition of AMC to bust the place wide open with multiplexes, we can expect Al-Mansour to develop when no longer confronted principally with educating us about Saudi cinematic progress.

You may enjoy some of the music on display as Maryam’s father leads an orchestra with the oud as principal instrument. A wedding scene near the conclusion and especially sightings of women who are among just themselves without covering their faces gives us the idea that if real progress is made and women are as equal to men as they may some day be in America, Saudi Arabia will burst forth with new ideas from a gender that until recently has been kept in the kitchen.

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

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

HOPE – movie review

HOPE (Håp)
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Maria Sødahl
Writer: Maria Sødahl
Cast: Andrea Bræin Hovig, Stellan Skarsgård, Elli Müller Osborne, Alfred Vatne Brean
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/14/21
Opens: 93RD Academy Awards Candidate Best International Film. Spring 2021 TBD.

Image result for hope movie poster norway

Don’t expect a miraculous cure like the one that Queen Latifah’s character Georgia Byrd is given in “Last Holiday” under a cancer diagnosis. She goes to a posh hotel in the Czech Republic to live it up in her final weeks only to discover that the diagnosis was a mistake. That’s comedy for ya. There is some hope, just some, in “Hope,” Maria Sødahl’s drama of a woman who likely has three months to live, but not really much. After all, this is Norway, and Scandinavia is the home of Ingmar Bergman. Could it be that these people are depicted in so many movies as folks who don’t like to laugh if they can help it?

Norwegian-born writer-director Sødahl’s recent movie “Limbo,” about a woman who moves to Trinidad with her kids and discovers that her husband has had affairs, is only slightly related to the theme in “Hope,” principally the part about an affair. Mostly, this latest contribution, which is Norway’s candidate for Best International Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards celebration, is about an unusual relationship, a partnership between Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) and Anja (Andrea Bræn Hovig). Both are theater people. She is a dancer and he a theater director, so it’s not unusual to find her executing some choreography in the film’s happiest segment—right at the start. It’s downhill from there as Anja complains of constant headache, sleeplessness, blurred vision to find that the lung cancer that was treated not long ago had metastasized to her brain.

Norwegian socialized medicine being what it is (sorry Bernie), the specialists are all off for the Christmas holidays, so Anja has to suffer the anxiety of an indefinite prognosis. She’s on a powerful steroid meanwhile, which makes her jumpy and particularly sensitive to the callousness of her husband, whose kids from his previous marriage and those from her partnership with him make this a big family affair. Little irritations add up, such as her partner’s inviting guests for Christmas lunch without consulting her.

The partners question how to break the news to the kids, who are of various ages, though she does confess to her best friend Vera (Gojertrud Louis Kynge) who has promised to help take care of the kids if “something should happen” to Anja. Aside from family matters, her two conferences with doctors show different degrees of sensitivity. One tells her not to try experimental treatments such as are found in the U.S. but instead to live it up like the aforementioned Georgia Byrd. The neurosurgeon, said to be the best in the business, wants to go through with the operation on January 2nd, which sets the mood for Anja and Tomas’s discussion about whether to marry on New Year’s Eve. This sets the stage for the film’s major conflict: Anja on the one hand explodes that she should have left Tomas long ago. On the other hand, she is desperate for a closer union with her partner at this time of great stress. Emotional discussions follow between Anja and the children and Anja with Tomas, more than had taken place in all the previous years.

This is a film with a soundtrack that is happily free of Hollywood-style soundtracks to allow a few classical pieces to have a strong effect on the audience. The performances of Skarsgård and Hovig, each having characteristics of both angels and sinners, make this a film that is far from being a saccharine Hallmark offering or a TV disease-of the-week venture. You come away with the feeling that everything taking place in the story is authentic. This is the way mature adults are likely to compress the rest of their lives into days of their most intense distress.

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

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

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN – movie review

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

Image result for the man who sold his skin poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SONGS OF SOLOMON – movie review

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

Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEAR COMRADES – movie review

DEAR COMRADES (Дораги товарищи)

Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writer: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Andrei Guseve, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish, Vlaislav Komarov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/28/21
Opens: January 29, 2021 in virtual cinema. February 5, 2021 streaming

Poster

Not only political candidates, but whole countries embarking on a new system of government promise the world in poetry and then govern in prose. In the U.S., a middle-class revolution beginning in 1776 seemed to guarantee that our nation would be the shining city on the hill, but slavery, the Civil War, and countless brutal and unnecessary wars of our various administrations in Washington belie those ideals. So it was with the Soviet Union.

Smarting under the tsarist monarchies that gave wealth and power to a small elite, the Russians fought through two revolutions that took the country out of World War One in violation of a treaty, soon winning a war between the Reds and the Whites. The Whites wanted moderate reforms, the Reds total overthow of the old system. The aim? A paradise of workers and farmers as symbolized by the hammer and sickle. Though Stalin built up a country that emerged from feudalism to win a war against Hitler, on the domestic side, no administration there gave the workers and farmers anything resembling a paradise. Instead, the Soviet Union forbade strikes, even gunning down workers with justifiable grievances though they might be unarmed, simply letting off steam about price increases on food and cuts in salaries.

“Dear Comrades” takes hold of this concept and through narrative film rather than documentary gives the moviegoing public a view in black and white to emulate the times in 1962. You might think the Soviet government would cover up a tragedy in which scores of people were gunned down for striking and others were compelled to keep the matter secret lest they suffer torture and execution. And cover up they did, except that now, in our year, Andrei Konchalovsky was given the freedom to expose the oppression of the workers 68 years ago, an unusual work for the man whose previous film, “Sin,” is about the life of the Italian artist Michelangelo. More up his alley is his “Paradise,” a World War 2 drama involving a Russian member of the French resistance, a French collaborator, and a high-ranking German officer.

Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya)anchors “Dear Comrades” in the city of Novocherkassk in the story of an actual event. A thousand workers walked out at a Soviet factory, which would make the local members of the Communist party look bad and lose their cushy jobs, so the city council, as it were, moved to blame the higher-ups; perhaps the KGB, maybe the army. Their jobs were on the line, as tensions escalated as both the Red Army and the KGB (secret police) fired live bullets at the demonstrators.

Lyudmila gets special favors as a party member (some are more equal than others) such as passing by a crowd of people trying to fill up their food baskets the normal way while Lyudmila heads into the back room for salami and the like. She is a Stalinist, believes Khrushchev is likely to cozy up to the Soviet Union’s adversaries. In fact she is more than happy to see the strikers shot dead, though her liberal daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) wants to demonstrate with the strikers. Lyudmila is horrified that her daughter might be among the scores of people killed by snipers from the army and the KGB. She searches the morgue and when bodies disappear from there presumably driven to the countryside, she is all but certain that her daughter has been buried. She has the good luck of being befriended by a KGB man sympathetic to her cause.

Throughout the film we watch as the local people are made to sign statements of confidentiality: the shootings never happened and neither did the strike. This is a deadly serious drama: The closest thing to humor in the movie is the sight of Lyudmila’s grandfather who proudly puts on the army costume he used when he defended the tsar.

The big plus for the film is the sight of hundreds of extras hired by the movie company rather than having the studio resort to using archival shots. Here in the U.S. we continue to face a diminishing number of strikes given the economy and the purported easy of replacing recalcitrant workers. Yet more to the moment we cannot help thinking that the alt-right characters who invaded the Capitol on January 6th might have suffered a similar fate if our previous President gave the word, but given that the white supremacists are in bed with their billionaire leader, such could hardly befall them.

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

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

GUNDA – movie review

GUNDA
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Writer: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/28/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Poster

Why is Joaquin Phoenix a producer of this movie? That’s a no-brainer. As a vegan (no meat, fish or dairy) he is one among a fair number of actors who allege to be against breeding and eating animals, including Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone, Betty White, Casey Affleck, Ellen DeGeneris and many others. They are putting their mouths where their beliefs are, projecting their love of what most of us consider “product” or “objects” but which they presumably consider subjects with their own lives. Like we human animals, these four-legged and two-legged fellows and even a one-legged chicken in this movie also like to mate, to suckle their babies, to protect their families, and to do what they have been created to do. (Dogs sniff, roosters makes the sun rise, piggies cool off with mud baths.)

“Gunda” may not be an animal rights movie like “The End of Meat,” “From the Ground Up,” “Death on a Factory Farm” and “Food Choices” but makes its points in ways more subtle than what PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk considers effective. (Newkirk’s statement that “A rat is a pig, is a dog is a boy” may be insightful but is not likely to win converts.) Victor Kossakovsky, who co-wrote and directs, focuses regularly on documentaries like “Russia from My Window,” which shows things in St. Petersburg that usually go unnoticed. He does not speak atop a soapbox here, in fact no human speaks at all. “Gunda” is black-and-white, dialog free, and sumptuous.

The film was shot on farms in Britain, Spain and Norway. While three types of farm animals are on display, the pigs are the stars, the animals that hog the limelight, that ham it up to the extent that they can. As seen in high-contrast black-and-white throughout with not a single human in view, “Gunda” shows an enormous sow at the moment a litter of piglets emerges, a dozen or so, button-cute. They compete to drink mother’s milk, happy that she has a generous number of teats, and she in turn takes care of her brood. They follow her around like ducklings paddling after their mom. Sometimes she nuzzles them with her large snout. They all have the run of the farm, and yet often prefer to go indoors through an opening that could barely fit the mom, who has to bend in the middle to squeeze in. They are a lot better off and happier that they are not among the 90% of pigs that are factory farmed, unable to move a muscle as they lie in their crates.

They are an intelligent animal, more so than dogs, and in some cases make good pets who learn quickly and do not bite. Though the farm is the best place for pigs, every morning, noon and night here is like the previous morning, noon and night, month after month, year after year, which may be the origin of the term ground-hog day.

As for the cows and the one-legged rooster that take up the attention of the filming crew, they are, what’s the best word, “meh.” So…if you really really really want to know what it’s like to be pig or a farm animal in general, since you can’t actually be “pig for a day,” the next best thing is to watch the movie. I can’t think of any other film like it, which doesn’t mean it will get your pulse pounding or have you in stitches.

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

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

 

BEANPOLE – movie review

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

Beanpole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE CURVE – movie review

THE CURVE
Jet Black Iris Production
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Adam Benzine
Writer: Adam Benzine
Cast: Sonia Shah, Wendy Parmet, Dr. Steven Taylor, Ilan Goldenberg, Ed Yong, Jim Rutenberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/30/20
Opens: October 27 through Nov. 4 2020 only. Go to TheCurveDoc.com/watch

Imagine that a Martian, thinking of emigrating to America, is watching “The Curve” to get a true picture of the U.S. in 2020. She aims her computer to TheCurve.Doc.com/watch. She goes to the concluding minutes, figuring on getting a summing up, and by the time she hears our president rating himself a 10 on a 1 to 10 scale for effectiveness in fighting a virus, she’s ready to pack her family spaceship. But first, she goes back to the beginning of this film which everyone can watch for free on TheCurveDoc.com/watch. She’s dismayed by the scenes of what looks like a banana republic. Here’s what she sees.

Hospitals are filled. Every bed in every ICU is taken with people who, largely because the 10 out of 10 president did not warn the American people in January 2020 that a pandemic is on its way to our shores. Under pressure, he relents, warns us of a virus, but tells us not to wear masks. He does not wear a mask, though despite his many bankruptcies he can probably still afford one. He sets an example followed by people whose idea of TV news is Fox, because Fox tells its viewers that every other channel has nothing but fake news. The Martian—her name is M’Gann M’Orzz—unpacks the space ship, making sure that she warns her family to watch out, because the virus can reach them some day, so long citizens of China are not satisfied eating pork, beef and chicken but insist on feeding themselves with bat, dog, cat, snake and rat.

The doc by the Toronto-based Adam Benzine is his freshman entry, having previously directed a short “Claude Lanzmann” about Lanzmann’s filming of the Shoah. No question that Benzine’s pic is an antidote to Fox news, a takedown of the president who, if he were running European countries whose legislatures are empowered to deliver votes of no confidence, would have his butt tossed out in a few weeks. Trump is not the only problem. He could not have done his best to destroy our country were he not enabled by a sycophantic Senate, refusing to do the job given to them by the founders of our country, to check a runaway chief executive. Ultimately the people who are not voting give Trump another four years are the real problem, folks who have been bamboozled, people who believe that saving fetuses is more important than preserving the lives of actual human beings, the American people.

For this doc, which Benzine secretly made over a seven-months’ period covering the Covid-19 from mid-January to mid-April, he backs up interviews with analysts, epidemiologists, authors, journalists and politicians, effectively backed up by archival films including several minutes on Liberia—an undeveloped country too poor to be able to contain the virus. What’s our excuse?

The documentary is solidly made, its chief problem being the music, which belongs on the soundtrack of blockbuster thrillers rather than on a film that is a sober meditation on how the world’s richest country with a military that costs more than that of the next ten countries, is being pummeled by a global enemy that nobody can see.

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

Story – A
Acting – B
Technical – C (the music)
Overall – B

 

FIRE WILL COME – movie review

FIRE WILL COME (O Que Arde)
Kimstim
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Oliver Laxe
Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe
Cast: Amador Arias, Benedicta Sánchez, Inazio Abrao, Elena Mar Fernández, David de Poso, Alvaro de Bazal, Damián Prado
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: October 30, 2020

If you are a dedicated film goer especially one who attends highbrow film festivals like NYFF, you might compare Oliver Laxe to Terrence Malick. Malick’s movies, e.g. “Tree of Life” which is about a young man struggling through conflicting parental teachings, have sometimes been compared with watching paint dry. Laxe, who was born in Paris and filmed “Fire With Come” in northwest Spain in a rural area near Lugo, may informally compete this year for directing the most glacially-paced picture. Glaciers notwithstanding, “Fire Will Come” features the hottest, real blazes you are likely to see in the movies this year. The film, which is surely not plot-centered, is not even character-focused but more to the point is nature-dominated. Forest scenes involve three cows, each with its own name, led around the woods to graze, Amador (Amador Arias) leading the pack of three bovine creatures, his German Shepherd Luna bringing up the rear. Laxe, in his third feature following up his movie “Mimosas” (a dying Sheikh wanders about the the Atlas Mountains), wants us to feel the rhythms of rural life a few hundred miles from bustling Barcelona but so apart in culture you might think he is directing on Pluto.

There is but one melodramatic moment involving human beings in a picture that is not unlike last year’s “Honeyland,” about the last female beekeeper in Europe struggling to defend her turf against some competing beekeepers who are vulgar and pushy. The strongest relationship in “O Que Arde,” which is in the Galician language with similarities to Portuguese, is between Amador and his aging mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). The other melodramatic moments open the film after a long, blank-screen pause, featuring machines blazing through the forest cutting down large trees as though the construction workers are Brazilians ruining the rain forest to make room for animal grazing.

With the principal actors bearing their actual names throughout the film, we get the impression that the fictional aspects of the story are closely based on real events. Amador has just returned to town after a two-year stint in prison for starting a fire. Though a pyromaniac who is looked upon with fear and loathing by the villagers, Amador conveys the impression that he is a simple farmer whose capital goods are three cows that give milk to support him and his mother. Still, the people of the town who are at all close to the small family, are eager to learn about Amador’s health, while a veterinarian who visits to treat a cow backs away from an invitation to share a drink because she is “busy.”

The image that stays with me is that of Amador’s dealing with a reluctant cow, something like my late terriers who loved to challenge their human companion by refusing to move. Amador pulls and tugs, but simply cannot prevail against a huge animal going on strike after producing milk and gaining no particular reward save for the free grass. The unappreciative cow should thank whatever diety he or she favors for living a life out in the open and avoiding obesity as the cow is not forced to eat corn.

You won’t discover Stephen Colbert’s wit in Amador’s conversations with his mama, but if you want to know why one fella in the musical “Tuscaloosa” prefers New York to a small town, you might come away from this movie happy to live in a teeming city with all of its chaos and to visit the outskirts of Lugo for six hours at most.

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

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

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD – movie review

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD
At film festivals October & November 2020
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Yael Bridge
Writer: Yael Bridge
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/28/20

The Big Scary 'S' Word Film

The opening question of this heartfelt documentary is a version of the most important political question you could ask yourself. Your answer would determine what you think would be the best society for both you and the rest of the U.S. This is the full version as I recall it from an article years ago: “Pretend you are about to be born. You have no idea whether you will be rich or poor, Black or White, live rural, suburban or big city, have a terrific set of parents or a pretty miserable duo, go to a great Ivy League school or drop out of high school, be mostly unemployed or on minimum wage, or be the CEO making millions annually. Now construct the kind of society you would favor. While this is a tough question for an unborn baby to answer, it is of course hypothetical.

It’s pretty obvious that you would not build an America in which one person, no, change that to five individuals, own as much as the bottom fifty percent of our residents. What’s that? Five people (can you name them?) have as much wealth as 165,000,000 folks combined. Let me guess. You would opt for socialism, wouldn’t you? Forget about the Soviet Union’s failed experiment with its brand of socialism, or China where millions of peasants starved, or Cambodia where everyone was forced to move out of the cities to work on farms for virtually nothing and if you wore glasses, you were as good as dead. We’re talking about American socialism, which, though not mentioned in the documentary, might be similar to Denmark’s.

Do you think you would want health care to be a right of all of our people? Do you favor a high minimum wage? Would you favor being in a union that has clout, and might you want to have union members on the board of the corporations for which you work? Should you be able to afford a home after laboring two thousand hours each year? Or would you build a society where CEOs of Google, Amazon and the like would make hundreds of millions each year—and remember that your chance of being such a captain of industry is less likely than your winning a lottery.

So: it turns out that you, as an unborn baby, would favor socialism. Is the society dreamed up here scary? Not to me, and yet most people who are not millennials for one reason or another think that socialism is un-American, dangerous in that it would lead to authoritarian governments where, as in the Soviet Union, you pretended to work and the government to pay you.

In this film directed by Yael Bridge in her freshman full-length picture (she made shorts like “The Habitat Game” exploring whether people are part of nature or apart from it), we get some archival films of socialists not just Karl Marx, which might be the first theoretician to come to mind, but also others like M.L. King Jr., Eugene Debs, Theodore Roosevelt, the writers of the Pledge of Allegiance and American the Beautiful, Professor Cornel West, and others teaching in prestige colleges. Academics are generally on the left politically if not socialists, and then again those who are socialists may not identify as such. We are introduced to an elementary school teacher, a single mother who cannot make ends meet even with two jobs. Would a socialist government treat the public schools the way our present leaders do, where even in the reasonably well paid New York City you can make about $125,000 a year BUT you must be willing to teach for twenty-five years before you can get what a student just out of law school might make immediately?

Among the industries cited is a co-op laundry in which the worker-owners feel a responsibility to contribute to the best of their ability because each is getting an equal share of the profits. What is not mentioned at all in the film is the concept of co-op housing, in which instead of a landlord’s cutting expenses to the extent possible with cheap paint jobs required every few years and poor responses to tenant grievances, all residents own shares in the co-op thereby having the motivation to keep the building in good shape, the profit motive gone.

Another subject the film should have mentioned is that under the American form of socialism that so many millennials favor, the government would not own the means of product, distribution and exchange, a system that doomed the Soviet Union, Venezuela and Cuba. Socialism means rule by society: that’s us. All of us, not just the society in Mar-a-Lago. And since we own the country, do you think we would tolerate bad air and water by corporations given the green light to pollute the air and water and contribute to climate change with its current effect on the fires in California and Colorado?

Actually America has been moving toward socialism steadily with a great many speed bumps along the way. We have gone from a country in which only rich white men were considered to have a stake, to the freeing of enslaved people, which involved the largest socialist revolution in our history. We have given the right to vote to women and to eighteen-year-olds. We introduced social security, Medicare, Prescription Drug programs, Affordable Health Care, all designed to prevent dire poverty form unemployment. Why not go further and ensure a job for every American? That’s what socialism could theoretically do.

In eighty-two minutes, “The Big Scare ‘S’ Word” is able to touch on examples only briefly, examining the work of some modern socialists like young Lee Carter, who is now serving his second term in the Virginia legislature, the only non-capitalist in the building. Is this because the people of Virginia, like those throughout the fifty states, simply think that socialism is a word that should be bleeped out? I think the makers of this film believe so, and I think that it would not hurt at all for the doc to get a wide audience. In fact, if all Americans saw this movie in January, Bernie Sanders might have swept the primaries and the election; who knows?

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

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

ALONE WITH HER DREAMS – movie review

Alone With Her Dreams (Picciridda – Con i piedi nella sabia)
Corinth Films
Reviewed by Harvey Karten for BigAppleReviews.net
Director: Paolo Licata
Screenwriters: Ugo Chiti, Catena Fiorello, Paolo Licata
Cast: Lucia Sardo, Marta Castiglia , Ileana Rigano, Katia Greco, Claudio Collova, Lorendana Marino, Tania Bambaci, Frederica Sarno
Release Date: October 30, 2020

Many couples with failed marriages avoid separating and divorcing until their children are eighteen years old, able to take care of themselves and old enough to be cushioned against the loss of their moms and dads. Even more concerning, though, is the psychological harm that comes when both parents leave a child, in the case of “Alone With Her Dreams” going from a seacoast town near Messina to somewhere in France to find jobs. During the 1960s, when hell might freeze over before a Sicilian is given employment in Rome or, for that matter, anywhere in Northern Italy, the mother and father of eleven-year-old Lucia (Marta Castigilia) try to sooth their traumatized little girl (known as “little one” by her family) as they board a boat that will take them by train across the border. They took just one of their brood with them, unable to take care of both, leaving Lucia in the hands of her grandmother, Nonna Maria (Lucia Sardo).

As the film progresses, we in the audience might feel angry with Maria, a widow who regularly insists that she would prefer being alone, and who appears to take out her frustrations on her charge—spanking her with a wooden spoon when she comes home late and depriving her of the kind of love a small child should expect of at least someone in the family.

Later, though, we understand why the older woman has been harsh with Lucia, but not until she comes back in the current year, a 41-year-old woman (Federica Sarno), finally hearing the truth of a story that had been a lie promulgated by her uncle, Zio Saro (Claudia Collovà). For his part uncle Saro tells his niece the fake reason that her grandmother refuses to speak to her own sister, Zia Franca (Loredana Marino).

Without question this is a coming-of-age story but rises above the glut of such dramas by Lorenzo Adorisio’s photography on a seacoast area of Sicily that might be sought out by tourists seeking a peaceful vacation away from the treasures of Rome, but an area marked by the poverty of its inhabitants.

As we see daily life of the residents of a small village—fruit and vegetable stands with food that Italians can never get wrong, gossip by the folks which means that everything and then some is everybody’s business, near-curses put on people within families, one of which becomes resolved toward the conclusion of the story—we can empathize with Lucia easily enough, but most of all we can lift our censorious attitude toward granny when you realize that she has Lucia’s long-term interests at heart.

This is Paolo Licata’s freshman offering as director, a person who may have a difficult time carving out a future story as tender and yet as unsentimental as this one, its two principals bonding as though they were parts of an actual family.

In Italian with English subtitles.

95 minutes. © Harvey Karten

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

FIRE WILL COME – movie review

FIRE WILL COME (O Que Arde)
Kimstim
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Oliver Laxe
Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe
Cast: Amador Arias, Benedicta Sánchez, Inazio Abrao, Elena Mar Fernández, David de Poso, Alvaro de Bazal, Damián Prado
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: October 30, 2020

If you are a dedicated film goer especially one who attends highbrow film festivals like NYFF, you might compare Oliver Laxe to Terrence Malick. Malick’s movies, e.g. “Tree of Life” which is about a young man struggling through conflicting parental teachings, have sometimes been compared with watching paint dry. Laxe, who was born in Paris and filmed “Fire With Come” in northwest Spain in a rural area near Lugo, may informally compete this year for directing the most glacially-paced picture. Glaciers notwithstanding, “Fire Will Come” features the hottest, real blazes you are likely to see in the movies this year. The film, which is surely not plot-centered, is not even character-focused but more to the point is nature-dominated. Forest scenes involve three cows, each with its own name, led around the woods to graze, Amador (Amador Arias) leading the pack of three bovine creatures, his German Shepherd Luna bringing up the rear. Laxe, in his third feature following up his movie “Mimosas” (a dying Sheikh wanders about the the Atlas Mountains), wants us to feel the rhythms of rural life a few hundred miles from bustling Barcelona but so apart in culture you might think he is directing on Pluto.

There is but one melodramatic moment involving human beings in a picture that is not unlike last year’s “Honeyland,” about the last female beekeeper in Europe struggling to defend her turf against some competing beekeepers who are vulgar and pushy. The strongest relationship in “O Que Arde,” which is in the Galician language with similarities to Portuguese, is between Amador and his aging mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). The other melodramatic moments open the film after a long, blank-screen pause, featuring machines blazing through the forest cutting down large trees as though the construction workers are Brazilians ruining the rain forest to make room for animal grazing.

With the principal actors bearing their actual names throughout the film, we get the impression that the fictional aspects of the story are closely based on real events. Amador has just returned to town after a two-year stint in prison for starting a fire. Though a pyromaniac who is looked upon with fear and loathing by the villagers, Amador conveys the impression that he is a simple farmer whose capital goods are three cows that give milk to support him and his mother. Still, the people of the town who are at all close to the small family, are eager to learn about Amador’s health, while a veterinarian who visits to treat a cow backs away from an invitation to share a drink because she is “busy.”

The image that stays with me is that of Amador’s dealing with a reluctant cow, something like my late terriers who loved to challenge their human companion by refusing to move. Amador pulls and tugs, but simply cannot prevail against a huge animal going on strike after producing milk and gaining no particular reward save for the free grass. The unappreciative cow should thank whatever diety he or she favors for living a life out in the open and avoiding obesity as the cow is not forced to eat corn.

You won’t discover Stephen Colbert’s wit in Amador’s conversations with his mama, but if you want to know why one fella in the musical “Tuscaloosa” prefers New York to a small town, you might come away from this movie happy to live in a teeming city with all of its chaos and to visit the outskirts of Lugo for six hours at most.

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

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

SHITHOUSE – movie review

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

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

Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE SOUNDING – movie review

THE SOUNDING
Giant Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Catherine Eaton
Writer: Catherine Eaton, Bryan Delaney
Cast: Catherine Eaton, Teddy Sears, Harris Yulin, Frankie Faison, Danny Burstein, David Furr, Lucy Owen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/1/20
Opens: October 20, 2020

Catherine Eaton in The Sounding (2017)

As a former high school teacher, I have this question for you. Shakespeare is probably taught in most high schools, and is an elective or part of required English literature in most liberal arts college. The aim of the folks who decide curricula is hopefully not simply to have students pass tests but to give them a love of literature, particularly the plays of the Bard. Then how come maybe one percent of adults go voluntarily, willingly, excitedly to performances of Shakespeare’s plays? Surely we should not be so elitist to think that every teen through 22-year-old must know at least one play, so as Joe Biden would say, here’s the deal.

Catherine Eaton, who directs “The Sounding” and serves as its star, might give you the impression that as long as you reach one person out of a hundred who becomes enamored with Shakespeare’s works, that’s enough. Eaton, in the role of Olivia or Liv, becomes the kind of fan beyond what anyone would imagine. First she refuses to speak for years; then when she finally lets loose, every word is a quote from Shakespeare that fits the occasion she’s in. Lionel (Harris Yulin), her grandfather, had home-schooled her on Monhegan Island in Maine where David Kruta films the action, a popular tourist destination for hiking and sailing. The place is nearly deserted with few year-round inhabitants, and that’s perfectly fine for Liv, though granddad, a psychiatrist, first tries to treat her silence, then gives up, realizing that maybe the young woman has no intention of communicating, of being what’s considered normal.

However, not ready to leave things be, he persuades Michael (Teddy Sears), a former pupil of his, to be her advocate, insisting that he not try to cure her nor, heaven forbid, to allow her to be hauled away to a psychiatric institution, even though one day she nearly drowns and is considered a harm to herself. She is sent on Michael’s insistence to a psychiatric hospital where she becomes a rebel, like “cuckoo” Jack Nicholson, entertaining the other inmates with Shakeseare’s quotes fitting each occasion and nothing else. Since she pushes back regularly, the shrinks believe she may have to be institutionalized for a long time. Goodbye ocean, hiking paths, freedom.

There’s a joke that the motto of the American Medical Association is “If it ain’t broke, we fix it until it is,” and this movie illustrates the saying—which, it turns it, is not a joke at all. Michael feels guilty, and despite enjoined by a restraining order, he determines to let nothing stand in the way of having her regain her freedom. The shrinks are the crazies here.

In some film festivals, for her performance in resisting the powers in the island’s snake pit, Catherine Eaton has won some best actress awards in a role that decades ago would played by Olivia de Havilland. The story is paced slowly, then picks up speed as she gathers into herself the emotions that the Bard himself must have felt. Wouldn’t it be a nice addition if we had subtitles each time Eaton delivers a quote, together with its source? So: brush up your Shakespeare: start quoting him now.

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

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

 

ALBERT EINSTEIN: STILL A REVOLUTIONARY – movie review

ALBERT EINSTEIN: STILL A REVOLUTIONARY
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Newman
Writer: Julia Newman
Cast: Michio Kaku, Michael Paley, Alice Calaprice, Herbert Freeman, Jr., Susan Neiman, Barbara Picht, Jürgen Renn, Ze’ev Rosencranz, Robert Schulmann, Milena Wazeck
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/6/20
Opens: On Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon VOD & DVD

Still a Revolutionary - Albert Einstein (2020) - IMDb

Someone once said that the four people who have influenced today’s world the most were Jews: Jesus, Freud, Marx, and Einstein. Jesus influenced one the world’s great religions followed by some two billion people. Marx was the intellectual founder or a religion of its own, communism, which though not so popular today as it once was serves as a leading critique of capitalism. Freud, in his theory of the unconscious, believed that we know not what we do since most of our emotions come from the unconscious, and Einstein said that everything is relative, which is said to be a mighty important insight.

In her freshman documentary, Julia Newman focuses not on Einstein’s contributions to the laws of physics, which many people do not understand and which in my college compelled the professor to boost everybody’s grades or nobody would have passed. Instead she looks at the physicist’s moral code, not greatly different from that of people who are quite spiritual on Sundays. He followed the beat of a different drummer, opposing the rule of conformity that guides everyone with a smart phone.

For one, he opposed war. He criticized the march of extreme nationalism that led to a particularly stupid war in 1914, left Germany to be with his folks in Italy, then returned to his homeland (the only instance in which he was not smart) under the Weimar constitution. Perhaps it was the anti-Semitism of his southern German home that turned him away from the bullying. A teacher once brought a nail to the classroom, noting that Jesus was crucified with such, humiliating Albert who was the only Jewish person in the class.

The key word in this documentary is “compartmentalization,” the idea that we separate our lives into clear divisions: family, friends, work, politics. This explains that under the Nazis (1933-1945) a German soldier could love his kin and his dog, yet harbor murderous hate toward people who are not like him, or who he believes are not like him. Some men do not like women very much. Einstein spoke in favor of women’s rights. He was pro-choice, and being anti-nationalist did not at first believe that Jews should have a state of its own. He came around to favor the creation of Israel and enjoyed a friendship with its founder, David Ben-Gurion. He supported demonstrations for the rights of minorities and was friendly to Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Though brought up Jewish, he was a pantheist like Spinoza, believing “the whole universe is God,” a notion that is akin to atheism.

When he escaped from the Holocaust, winding up in New York, he abandoned his pacifism, holding that you have to meet force with force.

Though he was a celebrity, who mixed easily with people and could talk with anyone from kings to children, he was considered a luftmensch, naïve, an absent-minded Princetonian professor, a fellow who did not seem grounded. When he was scheduled to meet some big shot, his wife told him to wear a suit, but he refused. “If they want to see my clothes, they can look in my closet.”

See if you can guess what he would think of the people in power in our present government.

Director Newman’s film has too many talking heads, though their comments are backed up by some valuable archival celluloid. We see Einstein as a man, laughing, talking, a social butterfly really, making us wonder when he had time to make contributions that led to the creation of the atom bomb, to inspire his students at Princeton, and to be a rebel with a cause. Though he was at ease with ordinary people, he was an elitist who preferred to exchange ideas with other intellectuals. Julia Newman shows the man in all of his guises, providing an entertaining enough vehicle for our consumption.

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

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

THE KEEPER – movie review

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

The Keeper (Trautmann)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE CLIMB – movie review

THE CLIMB
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Angelo Covino
Screenwriter: Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin
Cast: Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino, Gayle Rankin, Talia Balsam, George Wendt, Judith Godreche
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/4/19
Opens: TBD

As Cole Porter so eloquently composed,

“Friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship,
When other friendships have been forgot,
Ours will still be hot.”

We like to think that our childhood friendships would last forever, but while the Four Aces note “those wedding bells are breaking up those old friends of mine,” adultery could have the same effect. At least that’s what we learn from Michael Angelo Covino, who directs and co-stars in “The Climb,” which he wrote with Kyle Marvin. And wouldn’t you know that the director and both writers are in the starring roles as well?

“The Climb” is a shaggy dog story, the kind of picture that true lovers of small indies adore. Avoiding a formulaic, tightly constructed tale of bromance (a close but nonsexual partnership of two or more men, one that goes beyond mere friendship,) director Covino expands on his eight-minute Sundance short to unfold the off-again, on-again lifelong pal concept, winding up by showing that no matter high the hills that these two guys climb on their bikes, notwithstanding the threats to their bond that would surely tear most people’s friendship asunder, they wind up where they started. Have they changed during six or more years in which the events take place? Yes, but not all that much.

Toying with a series of vignettes as though each scene were parts of continuing shorts that takes place a day, a week a month, or half a dozen years apart, Covino opens his movie as two bikers traverse the beautiful scenery of the South of France, the huffing and puffing symbolizing, perhaps, that life has its, well, huffs and its puffs, its highs and its lows. The principals of the movie use their own names, which should signal that this could well be a biopic of two characters whose diverse personalities complete each other. Kyle (Kyle Marvin) is a shlubby fellow, the kind that women like to marry because, as one woman states, they “will always be there.” But Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) is a daredevil, a risk-taking ladies’ man, the sort that honorable women would love for a fling but would steer clear of marrying. But Mike is something more, something that’s not at all nice. He interferes with his pal’s love life, doing his best to break up Kyle’s liaisons as though fearing that he would lose his bosom buddy to a woman.

Much of the humor is deadpan, dry, the kind of jocularity that some people cannot understand (“Huh, you think that’s funny”?) but others practice regularly as though to test the intelligence of their listeners. Mike breaks up Kyle’s engagement to Ava (Judith Godreche), who insists that she loves Kyle even while Mike is kissing her. Conveniently she dies, leaving Mike to challenge and try to disrupt Kyle’s engagement to Marissa (Gayle Rankin). He has the audacity, though with a secret plan, to tear into Kyle once again: While they bike in France, he blurts out “I slept with Ava.” Later, during Kyle’s courtship with Marissa, he announces, “I slept with Marissa.” You usually do not find these admissions freely made, but of course Mike opts for the statements with his own narcissistic glee.

Covino and Marvin, real-life best friends with more than enough artistry to evoke a story that seems only partially fictionalized, but do not dominate the entire movie. We don’t know much about Ava who died soon enough, but Marissa has a sturdy segment focused on her character—a strong woman who pushes the mostly passive Kyle to be a better man (he loves her for that) and who declares her love for Kyle right up to a riotous wedding scene turns physical. An extended look at a family Thanksgiving feast but one without a turkey (the Golden Retriever manages to grab and eat the whole bird, leaving a digested turkey on the floor) highlights Mike’s alcoholism. In one scene he topples the Christmas tree but Sara Shaw’s excellent editing of Zach Kuperstein’s lensing highlights moments of such high drama by cutting away quickly, leaving us in the audience to figure out what happens seconds later, and even to wonder how much time has passed between each vignette.

The writer-director shares with his co-writer a love for French songs as the soundtrack is filled with big, bold music that might remind you of the wit and wisdom of Jacques Brel. Marriages come and go, but friendships like those of Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino are for life.

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

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