HER COMPOSITION – movie review


Picturetrain Company
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Stephan Littger
Screenwriter: Stephan Littger
Cast: Joslyn Jensen, Heather Matarazzo, Lulu Wilson, Christian Campbell, Margot Bingham, Rachel Feinstein, Kevin Breznahan, John Rothman, Meg Gibson
Screened at: Amazon Prime, NYC, 7/27/18
Opens: On DVD May 1, 2018. Originally viewed theatrically in 2015 and available now to Amazon Prime members for no extra charge.

Her Composition (2015)

Artists are different from you and me. They see and hear things more creatively than the masses of people. Because of this, while they may have more joy from what they’re doing than accountants and burned-out physicians, most find it difficult to pay the bills. What artists crave above all, maybe even more than money, is inspiration, without which they will feel unfulfilled and ultimately driven into the cruel world of routine jobs.

Do you know people like that? If not, you will meet one such person, maybe even an icon in her ability to demonstrate the frustrations that come from a failure of inspiration. Maybe they will blame others, as this young woman did, and maybe they realize that fifty percent of the problem is not from society but from their own paucity of imagination. This young women, Malorie Gilman (Joslyn Jensen), is having difficulties, both financial and artistic. As a student in one of New York’s most prestigious conservatories, Malorie is told by the dean that the scholarship she needs to continue her studies has been awarded instead to a man. She blames the patriarchy at first before realizing that while women are still not treated right in our republic, moaning about injustices will neither pay the landlord nor give her satisfaction. So her Brooklyn apartment is going up $200 a month. So her dull accountant boyfriend Arthur (Ryan Metcalf), is dropping her. So she’s about to be discarded by the conservatory. Happily, help comes along that will solve her problems, both financially and artistically. We should all be so lucky.

Her friend Gila (Margot Bingham) works for a women’s rights organization, attracting the attentions of Kim (Okwui Okpokwasili), who is willing to turn over a list of her clients for possible FBI prosecution. Kim wants the info to be delivered to Gila, a list of clients with each one’s fetishes, though she praises her favorite guy as “romantic.” Instead Malorie keeps the documents and, bypassing escort agencies, contacts a few of the men herself. Somehow, though these fellows all dug a black escort, they are all fine with a skinny white woman who is on the shy side and at first does not really know what to do in bed to warrant payments of $1500 to $4500 a night. She makes heaps of money, but mirabile dictu, she uses her sexual experiences to write a thesis project for the school, one which she hopes would allow her to proceed with her doctoral studies.

In fact she mixes her bed times with sounds of the city—African drummers in Washington Square park, the vroom of the subway, people’s chit-chat. Now she is not only a composer: she is a painter who, after rolling white paint on her walls uses her new creativity in the service of an unusual cartography. She knocks out a map of New York on the wall with arrows pointing to the men she has been servicing. I don’t know if you find this concept appealing. In fact you may be more interested in the sex scenes, a few of which could qualify as soft porn in the style of “Fifty Shades of Gray.” The most sensual scenes are with the romantic, a hip bearded fellow who, given the sculptures in his apartment could mark him as a world traveler. The scariest is with a guy in a New York Sheraton Hotel who makes sure to double lock the door and who in one scene does something to cause Malorie to fight him off.

This movie is the feature of Stephan Littger, who also wrote and edits the film and whose previous work, “Toxic Oranges:* a Wall Street Fairy Tale” is about a homeless seller of oranges on Wall Street who gains success by inventing a credit system. This marks him as a man with the imagination to create movies with fairy tale implications, the trippiness of “Her Composition” serving as a sharply edited bit of cinema with stunning sound effects, segments of musical compositions, and a story that makes the most of sounds—city scenes and sexual unions—that are transformed by one creative person into surprisingly absorbing music.

As for Malorie, Joslyn Jensen is in virtually every frame captured by Andres Karu’s lenses, sometimes in extreme close-up, sometimes with her hair in a bun (not attractive) and other times free flowing (yes!). Her emergence from a timid, frustrated near-failure to an assertive woman thanks to her sexual experiences (which only an artist would be able to translate into painting and music) is oddly credible. And the film is a love letter to New York; its subways, its diversity, its schools, and the creativity it offers to those who can profit artistically.

Unrated. 92 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en fej)
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noemi Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/4/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Now that Céline Sciamma’s film has been tapped by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Cinematography, you may be even more curious to find out just how good the movie is. Be assured: it is excellent in every way, from the unusually authentic acting, to the Pinteresque pauses that define the two principal characters’ dialogue; from the composition of the scenes, each one serving as a potential painting in itself; to the remarkable isolation of the scenery shot on location in the French province of Brittany. Sciamma follows up on her previous film “Tomboy” about a ten-year-old girl who presents herself to other children as a boy named Mikhael with her current entry, about two women who are not tomboys but who broaden their concept of sexuality in similar ways.

The title of the film is also that of a painting executed by Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and depicts the sexual awakening of a previously closeted woman who had spent her early years in a monastery. The action, which takes place in 1760, opens as a number of men row Marianne out to the island, complete with her painting gear—which she recovers when it had left the boat and is floating in the water by jumping right in and taking it back. Except for an additional segment of the film that shows bewigged men looking at paintings in a museum, there is no sign of masculinity to be found. This is strictly a study of women, focusing on the way that a liberated Marianne and an isolated woman about her age are ablaze with desire, though spending a fair amount of time before throwing off resistance to action.

How did this lesbian relationship begin? Marianne, who makes her living by receiving commissions from rich and titled women for portraits, shows up at the home of a countess (Valeria Golino), observing a portrait of her sponsor painted by Marianne’s father years back when the countess was a young woman. Yet the countess’ daughter Hèloise, having refused to sit for her own portrait, is reacting to the suicide of her sister who had been pledged by her mother to a rich Milanese man. To ease the way for Hèloise’s eventual surrender to the proposed painting, Marianne has been told to pretend she is merely a walking companion, during which time she understands that Hèloise is enraged by the thought of marriage to a man she had not met.

In a subplot, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the housekeeper who does embroidery, is pregnant, desperate enough to abort the fetus to go to an abortionist who uses an undisclosed poison to separate the unborn from its mother.

Gratefully the soundtrack is almost bereft of music, the kind of distraction that ruins so many Hollywood movies whose directors do not trust their audience to know when to cry and when to feel joy. As the two women go about walks on the beach, heading back to the quarters to work on the portrait, they are filled with desire. Hèloise begins to ask Marianne whether she had ever “known love,” asks how it feels, and yes, succumbs to the mutual urges of the two women. Their tsunami of forbidden emotions is palpable, the two offering a shower of sparks to display their mutual love. At one point Hèloise even allows her dress to catch afire, taking her good time to put it out.

“Portrait” received not only a best cinematography award from the prestigious NY Film Critics Circle but has been blessed by a best screenplay citation at a Cannes Festival. Photography and screenplay and direction aside, nothing would have come of this film were it not for the passion of the two actresses evoking forbidden love at a time that might surprise moviegoers who believed that lesbianism was created in the 20th century.

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

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



First Run Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Tristan Cook
Screenwriter:  Tristan Cook
Cast:  Dane Johansen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/18
Opens: May 4, 2018

Strangers on the Earth Movie Poster

There are tourists and there are travelers.  Tourists go to places to sightsee and perhaps to engage in an activity that cannot be found  in your neighborhood.  Skiing in August? Portillo. Spring break?  Mexico. See Leonardo’s work on a ceiling?  Vatican City.  Food?  Italy or France.  Preference?  No hardships.  Travelers, though, would have to include Anthony Bourdain, who doesn’t go simply to a restaurant in Bologna or León but to the far reaches of the globe sampling street cuisine with the locals.

Yet it’s difficult to think of travelers who put up with hardships as those who hike the Camino, the long stretch of land in Spain marked out by either the Church or the tourism department, with group tours available on caminoways.com.  The walk could be some 700 kilometers, maybe 700 miles.  The folks in this documentary film did not book tours but hiked on their own, and they’re all ages, plugging along on the Camino with the destination of the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  As you hike the trail, you realize that you’re treading on land that hosted fellow pilgrims for hundreds of years.  You think a lot about life, and if you’re like the people shown here, you don’t spend your day texting with your Facebook friends.  There are many reasons for going, but the deepest thought is that you do the pilgrimage to perfect yourself, to become a different person.  However if you think you’re stripping life to the bone like Thoreau, realize that you have to carry your belongings on your back like any of the crowd that drive to a campsite and consider their trip to be real traveling.  And you don’t sleep under the light of the moon but in pensions, albergues each housing perhaps twenty people snoring, picking their calluses or their noses, and probably not smelling like people who use Dial soap “and don’t you wish everybody did?” as the commercial stated way back.

The principal character speaking English to us in the theater audience is American Dane Johansen, who carries not only the typical pack with his raincoat and whatever, but adds a cello on his back.  As the producer of the film directed by Tristan Cook in his freshman entry into full-length filmmaking, Johansen anchors the doc with philosophic musings such as his view that there are seven dimensions to life (don’t ask) but more important gives something back to fellow pilgrims and apparently to some of the locals who sit on portable chairs outdoors or inside in churches to listen to Johansen playing Bach by memory. The soundtrack carries the master’s compositions (Bach’s, not Johansen’s) throughout the project.

There’s not a lot of humor here, though its absence for the bulk of the work makes us in the audience appreciate a tale by a man who is traveling with a prospective soulmate that he meets on the Camino.  He is disgusted that she is charging her phone on his charger!  Imagine the chutzpah! Realizing that she may be too self-centered to be a pleasant walking companion he breaks up with her.  Over a charger!

Along the route we watch the passing scene under the lenses of photographer Iskra Valtcheva whom we never see but wonder how this camera person can carry luggage and perhaps the heavy equipment needed to bring the Camino to life—the donkey that one fellow uses to carry too much weight, the owls that turn 180 degrees, a large bird perhaps an eagle flapping wings while trying unsuccessfully to fly, the lambs (or goats) lying peacefully within a fenced area, a few cattle.

The loneliness of the long distance traveler is broken up now and then as the pilgrims gather in restaurants along the way, toasting one another, and urging on each traveler who, using the famous Spanish porrón, is able to chug some red wine without lips touching the bottle.  In the epilogue, some pilgrims end their trip in Finisterre, the westernmost tip of the European continent, where they burn articles of clothing to announce the beginning of a new life.

As you watch these people performing a feat in blistered feet, far more difficult than training for a marathon, you may feel exhausted yourself in your theater seat.  You will likely be motivated to catch other treatments of the pilgrimage.  There is a scene in this movie taken from “The Way,” probably the most popular movie about the Camino, detailing the journey of Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen), starting with the death of Avery’s son (Emilio Estevez).  “Walking the Camino: 6 Ways to Santiago” finds director Lydia B. Smith and crew beginning at St. John Pied de Port where they meet over 15 pilgrims for interviews.  Several reasons are given by the subjects for taking the stroll.  “Tres en el Camino” deals with one lonely Dutch man, a Japanese poet, and a Brazilian girl walking in different seasons, and how the experience changes them.  For the best scenery, check “Oh Ye of Little Faith.”  “I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles” released just last year checks in on Justin and Patrick, two friends who walk together.  When Justin is diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that left him without the use of his arms and legs, he was confined to a wheelchair: Justin pushed him all along the route.  That’s friendship.

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

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

LA LA LAND – movie review


    Summit Entertainment (A division of Lionsgate Films)
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Damien Chazelle
    Written by: Damien Chazelle
    Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
    Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 11/16/16
    Opens: December 9, 2016
    La La Land Movie Poster
    If you’re of a certain age or simply catch up on movies made before you were born, you are likely to say “They don’t write musicals the way they used to.”  You’re thinking of the oeuvre of George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  Some of their traditional musicals are revived on Broadway, and deservedly so.  Consider “My Fair Lady,” the perfect musical; South Pacific with its outdated(?) theme of racial tension, “Yankee Doodle Dandy, which features a stirring performance by the great James Cagney.  The splashy modern musicals are no slouches: think of the ones still playing on Broadway like “Chicago,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera.”  The distinction between the old and the new is more a line drawn on sand than on stone.  Capitalizing on the idea of doing a traditional musical, Damien Chazelle, whose “Whiplash” shows him as a man who understands and loves jazz, knocks out “La La Land” (a slang term for Los Angeles) with an opening and closing that will look familiar to any who have taken in the lavish spectacles of the forties and fifties.  “La La Land” opens with a small screen logo of the company, Summit Entertainment, then surprises the audience with an expanded screen and a mention that this is a Cinemascope production.  At the conclusion, we see the letters “The End.” Now that’s something you don’t see at movie endings any more.

    “La La Land” is the sort of musical that might find a better environment off-Broadway than in the big ones, with one exception, the spectacular opening number, a single take, choreographed with brilliance and sung with abandon but a diversified group of Los Angeles drivers and passengers in one of those daily, tortuous jams.  When one driver in a convertible, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) honks and passes the auto driven by Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), Mia gives him the finger, which is not the best way to start a romantic relationship, but in this case, absent the bird, there would be no coupling off.

    Hearing music back on land Mia enters a crowded restaurant to find Sebastian, who at first conforms to the manager’s demand that he play Christmas clichés but then takes off with the kind of jazz piano he knows and loves.  This gets him fired by the boss (J.K. Simmons), so, teed off, he knocks Mia on the shoulder as he passes Mia—which qualifies as a meet-cute.  For Mia, this is love at first sight; never mind that she doesn’t like him.

    They get together, they talk, they dance, they click. They find out that they’re not simply drivers: they are human beings young enough to hold onto dreams.  Sebastian likes jazz, but only the kind that he considers pure.  He tries to influence Mia to share his affection for the music.  In the planetarium they dance, literally rising through the air like a modern Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, gazing at the stars above, sharing their fantasies.  He wants to stop playing what the band leaders want and to start his own club.  She wants to be an actress, and takes off from her job as barista in the Warner lot whenever her smartphone informs her of an audition.

    Mimicking the splashy colors favored by Jacques Demy in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”—which featured the stunning Catherine Deneuve as a 17-year-old in the French town of Cherbourg—and Demy’s use of saturated colors in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”, Chazelle alternates dazzlers like the opening scene, with fast-moving jazz compositions, Gosling on the keyboard, and slow, moody, lyrical songs.  Unlike “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Music Man” and scores of other musicals, there are no memorable songs in “La La Land,” nor are the lyrics that clear to make out.  The dancing cannot match that of the pros like the aforementioned Astaire and Charisse and the singing is not on the level of South Pacific’s Ezio Pinza.  Nor does it have to be.  Though many critics will rave and gush, ultimately this is a middling musical measured against the gold standard works of the forties and fifties but is well worth a visit for setting a romantic mood, enjoying the jazz, and feeling as good as you can after the recent political debacle in the U.S.

    Rated PG-13.  128 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online