MARRIAGE STORY – movie review

MARRIAGE STORY
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Larua Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 11/13/19
Opens: November 6, 2019  Streaming December 6, 2019

Marriage Story Movie Poster

Divorce is a traumatic event for many, and considering that fifty percent of marriages end up that way, many of us in the U.S. have undergone its agony. These are the people who can immerse themselves in “Marriage Story” and be particularly caught up in the emotions on display. What’s more, since it is based on what the writer has experienced—specifically Noah Baumbach’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh—the exposure becomes even more arresting.

While some get divorced because their partners commit adultery (surprisingly, in a liberal state like New York, adultery was once the only allowable argument for a split), others get bored with their partners, maybe some more have changed emotionally and intellectually, growing apart from their spouses. In the case of “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach—whose “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005 finds two boys in Brooklyn trying to cope with their parents’ separation—the split is not desired mutually. The woman, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) seeks divorce from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver). Neither of them is a typical nine to five worker. Both are directors, though Nicole is primarily an actress. Nicole feels slighted for having obeyed Charlie’s insistence that she remain with him in New York City where he is an up-and-coming director of off-Broadway plays, while she has repeatedly had to turn down offers for movie roles in Hollywood.

The divorce could have been amicable, or as amicable as you sometimes think when you read about celebrities who say they “remains friends.” But a child is involved, and children complicate lives. Disputes over custody of eight-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson) turns what could have been as close to “let’s be friends” to matches of yelling and screaming, in one case their raised voices and just a threat of physical violence puts you on notice that they will rehash the histrionics of “The War of the Roses,” when Michael Douglas’s Oliver Rose and Kathleen Turner’s Barbara Rose virtually reenacting the American Civil War in their fight to determine who moves out of the house.

In what could be regarded as playing the feminist card, Nora (Laura Dern), serving as Nicole’s aggressive lawyer, notes that fathers get away with near murder. The society expects women, says Nora, to be like the Virgin Mary, perfect, while men can get away with doing as little as possible, that the world expects men to be screw-ups. For his part Charlie hires Bert Spitz to be his lawyer, a laid-back fellow with some old-fashioned jokes at $450 an hour, but Charlies fires him for the more aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta), $950 an hour with $25,000 retainer. Since Charlie insists on continuing his job directing plays in Brooklyn while Nicole is determined to remain in L.A. to continue her career with films, the battle is fought out in court, the sparring of the counselors, particularly Nora, scoring points for those of us in the audience who sympathize with her.

We may be manipulated into sympathizing with her from the beginning, but as the story goes on, Charlie, and especially Nicole,go through emotional changes, sometimes showing vulnerability, other times a rugged determination to win custody of the boy. With a terrific performances all around. Special kudos to young Azhy Robertson as a boy who wants to remain in L.A. and appears to lean toward siding with his mom.

“Marriage Story” is far from a downer, but is instead mixed with comic moments at some times hilarious, and other times examples of pure entertainment. Julie Hagerty turns on an eccentric performance as Nicole’s mom who, rather than having the traditionally suspect relationship with her son-in-law loves the poor guy and appears almost ready to marry him as soon as the divorce becomes final. Score one for a male director’s empathy for feminism, ready and able to sign on to the idea that in marriage as in the corporate sphere, women are getting shafted.

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

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

THE OTHER STORY – movie review

THE OTHER STORY
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Avi Nesher
Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer
Cast: Maayan Blum, Maya Dagan, Sasson Gabai, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Sean Mongoza
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/19
Opens: June 28, 2019

The Other Story (2018)

When Israel was born in 1948, there was much joy outside the Arab world. Jews both in Israel and around the world rejoiced, but in addition so did most governments and people in the industrialized world. “They made the desert bloom” was the watchword when Jews cultivated what was then a barren land. The kibbutz was a popular kind of work on collective farms, and democratic socialism was the norm in a society that surprisingly enough was mostly secular. Problems arose later after wars that were forced on the tiny state, and the country expanded its borders into territories formerly inhabited only by Palestinians. Let’s not forget, though, that Israelis are today not a unified people where everyone thinks alike, any more than are Americans nowadays. The ultra-religious including the Hasidic sects have grown in population and influence. As a result there is conflict between the religious Jews and the secular majority, the former imposing its will by its voting bloc in the Knesset, or parliament.

Two camps exist to this day: the ultra-religious have been able to ban public buses on the Sabbath and to run Mea Shearim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, as though it were an independent state. Their influence is considered undemocratic by the secular society. You could barely imagine that a secular Jewish woman would get together with an ultra-orthodox man in marriage, and for the most part the two groups are almost never romantically involved. In the rare cases when they are, however, the sparks fly within the families, which is good, because without sparks, there is no drama.

Now Avi Nesher, who has an impressive résumé as producer, writer, actor and director including his direction of such movies as “The Matchmaker” (teenager’s relationship with a matchmaker who survived the Holocaust) and “Turn Left at the End of the World” (a family from India moves into a desert neighborhood in southern Israel). His “The Other Story” is an involving and often riveting story featuring two plots that merge seamlessly, the principal one being the more absorbing tale while the other is more melodramatic, even off-the-wall. Both plots center on women who are rebelling against their upbringings. Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger) is your typical product of dysfunction having seen his father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), a psychologist, all too rarely since her parents divorced and he moved to the U.S. Nor is love lost between Yonatan and his successful real estate agent wife Tali (Maya Dagan). He returns to Tali after getting an urgent message: their daughter, who has thrown off her secular upbringing and is now Orthodox, is set to marry Shachar (Nathan Goshen), also a drug-addicted secular musician who introduced his fiancé to drugs and now denies that he is an addict.

At the same time, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai) is playing host to his son Yonatan. Both are psychologists. Shlomo is treating a couple on the verge of breaking up. Rami (Maayan Blum) accuses his wife Sari (Avigail Harari) of threatening the safety of their young son Izi, as a member of a feminist cult given over to worshiping idols and having occult ceremonies that recall Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” She ultimately will rely on the testimony of both Yonatan and Anat regarding both a kidnapping charge and their opinion that the occult ceremonies are not endangering her son’s safety.

“The Other Story” is the name of a song, but it refers as well to the other story of both Yonatan, who has been involved in criminal dealings in the U.S., and the situations of the two young women rebelling against the conformity their families represent and, on a greater level, the impositions of the patriarchal society. The principal conflict, though, pits young Anat against the horror that her parents feel at the idea that their daughter has voluntarily upended her free life to become an Orthodox Jew. This conflict mirrors that troubles that all of Israel goes through nowadays, the religious Jews generally siding with their current prime minister in favor of expanding the country into the West Bank, while the secular Jews generally favor a peace with the Palestinians based on two societies living side by side.

The film is welcome both as a primer to people of all religions who are open to educating themselves to the schisms within such a small country, and an indictment of those who side with one point of view to such an extent that they cannot understand the rationality of the other. As such, it mirrors the split in our own country between Republican and Democrats, right and left, and splits within the parties as well.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

 

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

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

INVISIBLE LIFE – movie review

INVISIBLE LIFE (A visa invisível)
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenwriter: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz based on a novel y Martha Batalha
Cast: Carol Duarte, Juilia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavis Gusmao
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/9/19
Opens: December 20, 2019

Invisible Life

Sisterhood is powerful. That’s a good slogan for our own time but had a different meaning in the 1950s. With “Invisible Life,” director Karim Aïnouz follows up on his “Praia do Futuro” about a doomed relationship to reveal the long story of two sisters who cannot get enough of each other but who are separated in Brazil’s famed city of Rio never to meet again. An American watching the picture can’t help thinking that the fifties, which despite prosperity marked a dull, conventional era in the U.S., has its reflection in the manners of a family in Brazil.

The film feature two women whose bond is obvious in the opening scenes when sisters Guida (Julia Stockler), now twenty years old and Euridice (Carol Duarte) now eighteen, making it all the more tragic that they are fated to be separated by Manuel (Antonio Fonseca)a mean-spirited father whose tyranny, supported by a patriarchal society, is unchecked by man’s passive wife Ana (Flavai Gusmao).

In one fateful night, Guida sneaks out of the house to attend a dance club with Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a Greek sailer. Euridice, a classical pianist, looks forward to traveling to Vienna to audition for a conservatory, an ambitious plan especially considering the need to travel by ship to a far-off city. Believing that she will marry her Greek boyfriend, Guida discovers that Yorgos (Nikoas Antunes), after making her pregnant, is off to find more sexual conquests. Guida returns home to a father who, seeing her daughter with child, disowns her and throws her out of the house. What’s more her conservative dad lies, telling her that Euridice had gone to Vienna. Little do the two young women realize that they may never cross paths again.

Guida, having no skills and no home, becomes a sex worker, mentored by an older hooker Filomena (Barbara Santos), who becomes her lifeline given the absence of her own family, while Euridice fares just a little better, having married a brute of a man via arranged marriage from her father, who sees that the young man has money and can treat her well. While Guida does marginally well, her sister, refusing the numb life of church, children and home, has a barrier put in the way of her feminist ambitions.

A Hollywood movie would doubtless have the two women find each other, surely by the close of two years or more. In one clever twist, the desire of the two sisters to meet is thwarted by a creative ploy, leading Euridice, now in her seventies or eighties, ultimately understanding why she is unable to meet up with her long lost sister. Yet director Aïnouz and her co-writers Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, adapt the novel by Martha Batalha to show the resilience of the two women, a trait that might make you think of how #Me Too people have spoken up, leading to the firing of major celebrities. A musical score that include Chopin and Liszt, and cinematography that brings out the period nature of the piece, help to make this film the obvious choice of the film people in Brazil to set up this candidate for end-year awards.

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

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

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – movie review

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en fej)
Neon
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-

LITTLE WOMEN – movie review

LITTLE WOMEN
Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig, adapting the Louisa May Alcott novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, Abby Quinn
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 11/21/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)

When I attended middle school, on the last day of classes before summer vacation the teacher gave us a list of books that she recommended for summer reading. One list headed “For Boys” recommended “Johnny Tremain,”about the American Revolution, while the other list titled “For Girls” lobbied for “Little Women.” At the time I had no problem with that, since after all, boys will be boys and will want books with action, while girls, wearing pink, would like romance. But now, the practice of separating the genders in reading lists is obsolete because, gee, how are boys to supposed to know what girls think about and what they’re like if they don’t read books that focus on women? As a result of this hopefully obsolete practice in schools, men know more about what women are like. But since I did not read Louisa May Alcott when I was twelve, to this day I do not understand women. But wait! Here comes another adaptation of the 1868 novel on the screen to make up for everything missed in middle school. Take advantage and go to the movie. On the whole it’s delightful, really gets into the heads of the fair sex, shows them concerned not only about boyfriends, believe it or not, but ambitious, talented, wanting to get ahead in the world on their own terms and not depend on men for emotional and financial support.

Greta Gerwig, following up her “Lady Bird” two years back about an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl–which included some of the performers in this picture–adapts Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel which deals also with an artistically inclined quartet of sisters. I think that Ms Alcott would have been pleased with the adaptation since we come away knowing what by now even I understand about women. They want financial security, sure, so do men, and like men they want to be loved, and even more important if you follow the trajectory of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) who anchors the film, they want to be able to love others. Jo March, like her three sisters, wants love, but she is unsure whether she can areciprocate that affection with any man. Like Alcott, who never married, preferring the liberties that come with those unencumbered by family restrictions, Jo, who stands in for the author in a movie that is loosely based on the novel, is concerned primarily with her ability to write stories and novels.

In fact judging by the movie, Jo’s sisters are all talented, each with a special skill to show to the public. Meg March (Emma Watson), likes acting. Amy March (Florence Pugh), is a painter. And Beth (Eliza Scanlen), is an accomplished pianist. To follow their lives from adolescence to young adulthood, Gerwig presents the story in two time frames seven years apart, a choice that can cause confusion but at the same time allows us to watch their growth as though this were a Michael Apted type of documentary about people during each seven years of their lives. (Apted’s“63 up” is playing in New York.) If you’re surprised by the feminist theme, wondering whether such ideas were prevalent in the mid-19th century, you need only turn to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in with the theme “We wish to be free as man is free” which launched the women’s suffrage movement. Like Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, who encouraged her creativity as a writer—luckily because “Little Women” flew off the shelves as soon as it came out—Marmee March (Laura Dern) nurtures each of her daughters’ talents while not pushing them into marriage. In that sense she is somewhat unlike the girl’s wealthy aunt March (Meryl Streep), who is not so crass as to say “marry for money” but advises rather “Marry well.”

The most humorous scenes take place between Jo and her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who at first lets her down, telling her that the stories are not commercial, but that she should send more as she churns them out. Ultimately he is excited by the manuscript of “Little Women,” urging her to marry the principal character off because otherwise the book would not sell. As for the other men in the movie, none of whom really in the center of things, Timothée Chalamet in the role of Theodore “Laurie” Laurence claims his long-term love for Jo, who turns him away, given her insistence on being unburdened by marriage. For her part Meg March has committed herself almost from the beginning to marriage, going with John Brooke (James Norton) who is barely getting by on a teacher’s salary, while Laurie Laurence discovers that he can love two sisters at once, getting Amy March as his bride. The story’s tragedy unfolds on Beth, the recipient of a free piano as the March family could not possibly afford such an instrument. She dies of scarlet fever.

Filmed by Yorick Le Saux in Boston, Concord, Harvard, Lawrence, Stoughton in Massachusetts to stand in for Concord, Mass., “Little Women” profits from exquisite, sometimes even painterly photography, while Alexandre Desplaut’s music hits a highlight in the athletic Irish dances, the stomping on the floor, the physical exuberance of the young women matching that of their male counterparts.

Greta Gerwig, able not only to write and direct but is featured largely in quirky acting roles such as Florence Marr in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” A woman of impressive, all-around talent, she continues to play up her principal theme of female dynamics, and does so here with aplomb.

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

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

THE TWO POPES – movie review

THE TWO POPES
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 11/18/19
Opens: November 27 in theaters and Dec. 20 streaming

The Two Popes (2019) movie photo

Much of the humor of Fernando Meirelles’s fictional encounter between two popes whose ideologies are almost polar opposites comes from what Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI did for amusement. Audience laughs purportedly come from the mysterious idea that “Wow. These heads of church are not gods, they’re not saints, they’re human.” For example in one scene they shares a pizza. Imagine that! In other we see Pope Francis (when he was Cardinal Bergoglio) watching soccer and rooting for his home team from Argentina. And Bergoglio even tells a joke. A follower of the church asked whether he could smoke while praying. “Of course not,” replied the church official. Then he was advised that the question needed re-framing and became “Can I pray while smoking?” The answer presumably changed. It’s how you express yourself that counts.

Brazilian born director Meirielles follows up his famed “City of God” (2005) about two boys from the Rio slums whose paths diverge, just as Bergoglio and Benedict could be said to argue from different opinions. And writer Anthony McCarten (not my Irish cousin) takes off from “The Theory of Everything” encompassing the differences and similarities between Stephen Hawking with his wife. So what is “The Two Popes” about? It’s mostly about performance. We watch two veterans of the cinema Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio meet. What do they talk about? Does either fellow change his opinions based on the chit-chat? Benedict is Bavarian, a status quo pope, whom some people might consider a reactionary given that he wants to go back to the Latin mass (which, by the way, Mel Gibson prefers). By contrast Bergoglio, an Argentinian, emphasizes the needs of the poor while serving as the Holy Father. He even carries his own luggage (like Jimmy Carter), does not live in the Vatican, and visits Lampedusa to welcome the African refugees.

What is not emphasized, however, is that they agree on the basics. Meirelles and McCarten glide over the fact that Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, endorses the usual views on the Catholic Church against divorce, homosexuality, clerical marriage, abortion and contraception. He is, however, more forceful in dealing with priests who stray by exploiting their choir boys, but even there we don’t hear much about this.

The most trenchant archival film puts us up close to the brutality of the Argentine military after a coup under which opponents disappeared, were tortured, kidnapped, placed in secret concentration camps. The film suggests that since Bergoglio as a high church official was silent during the reign of military dictator Jorge Raphael Videla, he feels so guilty that he asks the pope for permission to resign from the church. For his part, the conventional Benedict is about to make the most unconventional decision to retire from the papacy, the first time in some seven hundred years that such an action would occur. Whether he was burdened by any guilt for serving in the German military during the World War 2 some time after being drafted at fourteen into the Hitler youth is glossed over. The bottom line is the big surprise: that Benedict, knowing the liberal views of the man who succeeded him, refuses his offer to resign and suggests that Bergoglio get right into the running of pope following Benedict’s retirement.

You might want to take the civilized interchange between these two larger-than-life people as a sign that the nations of the world which appear to have irreconcilable differences might actually come together in compromise, or even the more unlikely idea that Republicans and Democrats would become the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum that they used to be when I was a kid.

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

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

SCANDALOUS – movie review

SCANDALOUS
Magnolia
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mark Landsman
Screenwriter: Mark Landsman
Cast: Gereroso Pope, Jr., David Pecker, Carl Bernstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: November 15, 2019

Scandalous Movie Poster

How does a journal get a wide circulation? The same rules apply here as those which drive movie box office returns. A blockbuster movie like “Terminator,” or “Purge,” or “Joker,” lots of violence and some sex, will attract a larger box office than a picture like “Frankie,” or “Jojo Rabbit,” or “Little Jo.” A movie aiming for big box office is going to be more expensive than one catering to an elite, so in that sense an investor can wind up ahead of the game by taking chances on an indie. Now with newspapers and magazines, the ones that hope to capture a large share of the American audience are bound to be simple, like “Readers Digest,” which does not exploit sex and violence, or like AARP journals that go to members of the huge older community. Both of these have to cater to the lowest common denominator. If ever a magazine in our country had a chance of going viral, or whatever the equivalent of viral is to print journals, it would be the National Enquirer, given its splashy headlines about sex scandals, celebrity divorces, politicians’ career suicides. In the early days the Enquirer would concentrate on UFOs, in other words false news designed to capture the attention of people who believe in such nonsense. Now, the Enquirer concentrates on what is partially true, blowing up those events for maximum melodrama.

Using impressive archival footage wedding to ultra-fast editing, director Mark Landsman who made the scene with “Thunder Soul,” about a high school band in Houston that returned 35 years later to pay tribute to its beloved leader, takes on a story with national interest. This time, the Enquirer, which started as a New York paper, was converted under Gereroso Pope’s leadership to a national format. Pope had an idea that people might be ashamed to tell pollsters what they are truly interested in but will have no problem stopping their cars on a highway to rubber-neck a gory accident. These folks, who both envy celebrities while wishing these reputations to be marred, will go for anything that given them schadenfreude. Think of Princess Diana’s death in a car accident, or Gary Hart’s undoing when a candidate for president found to be cavorting with beautiful women. Consider Elvis’s death, or Trump’s marriage to Marla Maples. Big, big interest.

Currently, UFOs and violent stories take a back seat to celebrity take-downs, its most recent philosophy to advance the cause of political candidates it favors.

Landsman shows us how political the paper can be. In 2016 the Enquirer endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. When ownership fell to David Pecker, often seen in photos with Donald Trump, his paper refused to publish a story from Karen McDougal about an alleged affair she had with the president in 2006. Pecker bought out her story for $150,000 for exclusive rights to any relationship she had with a married man, and buried the whole account.

If some people believe everything in the Enquirer on the grounds that if it’s in print it must be true, you can easily see how Trump’s lies, also published in national newspapers, are believed. This is a hard-hitting documentary, lots of footage including items on Bill Clinton and Hillary (“Hillary has six months to live”). Trump has said that being “presidential” is boring, an attitude that captivates tens of millions of Americans. In like manner, a “gray lady” like the NY Times, considered to be the world’s most trustworthy and comprehensive newspaper, cannot compete in sales with the National Enquirer, a periodical pandering to the average Joe.

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

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

 

FRANKIE – movie review

FRANKIE
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ira Sachs
Screenwriter: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Greg Kinnear, Jérémie RenierPascal Greggory, Vinette Robinson, Ariyon Bakare, Carloto Cotta Sennia Nenua
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/4/19
Opens: October 25, 2019

Frankie Movie Poster

If you seek the answer to the age-old question “What is the meaning of life?” look no further than Ira Sachs’s picture “Frankie.” Sachs, whose “Keep the Lights On” deals with friendship, intimacy, love, addictions, compulsions, highs and lows pretty much covers the answer already. To that add the coming of death and you pretty much have it all. “Frankie” deals with all of the above, is graced by the usual charismatic performance by Isabelle Huppert, and takes place in Sintra, Portugal, one of the world’s most beautiful UNESCO Heritage sites. Too bad some people in a potential audience will continue to search for life’s meaning, turned off by the way Sachs unfolds the plot; namely, through talk. More conversation than you’d find in a French movie, just about as much as a picture done by Eric Rohmer, who has refused to be concerned with plot but deals only with people’s thoughts and feelings. “Frankie,” in like manner, introduces us to the woman’s extended family, called together to meet at Sintra when Frankie seeks a final closure with fewer than six months to live.

At some point in the film you get the relationships down almost pat. Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) was married first to Michel (Pascal Greggory) who learned that he was gay, leading her to hitch up with Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson). She is an actress on her final vacation, eager to marry off her perpetually single son from a previous marriage Paul (Jérémie) to her movie hairdresser Irene (Marisa Tomei). He is uninterested, though Irene is pursued by budding film director Gary (Greg Kinnear), who lives in New York’s Upper West Side but now wants to “settle down” in a country home with Irene—who is coy, leading him on but no willing to be penned up in an isolated area. Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Jimmy’s daughter from a previous marriage, is married to Ian (Ariyon Bakare) but that entente looks frayed and about to topple. With one woman about to die, a marriage ready to fall apart, an older man virtually in tears contemplating his wife’s imminent death, this is a sad situation, taking place ironically in such a splendid location.

The only cheerful family member, teen Maya (Sennia Nanua), spends the day with a local boy she meets on the tram going from Sintra to the beach, has little idea what life has to offer, though one might infer from the adults around her that, giving her time, she’ll see how much melodrama and tragedy await. Even the Portuguese guide Tiago (Carloto Cotta) is involved with a strange marital situation, spouting the usual tourist palaver about which building comes from the 16th century and which fountain will cure all illness.

One-on-one exchanges give way at midpoint once to a vivacious birthday party thrown by locals for Frankie, who is recognized by the community from her pictures on magazine covers. The movie’s most tender scene finds Frankie and her second husband Jimmy hugging in bed, Jimmy appearing more concerned by thoughts of his wife’s approaching death than is she.

Call this Eric Rohmer-light, “Frankie,” which takes place in a single day in a single location, falls short of embracing the Classical Unities by its involving subplots. Though hardly needed, Schubert is introduced on the piano, punctuating the loveliness and the fragility of life.

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

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

JOJO RABBIT – movie review

JOJO RABBIT
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi based on on the book “Caging Skies” by Chrstine Leunens
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Scarlett Johansson
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/14/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

The time is long past that we did not dare to treat Hitler and the Holocaust with broad comedy. Hitler was a demon, the most evil man of the 20th century, so how can we deal with him other than with serious documentaries and dramas? Must everything be as serious as Berthold Brecht’s 1941 play “The Resistable Rise of Urturo Ui”? No. Charlie Chaplin knew that the best way to take such people down is to laugh at them, thus “The Great Dictator,” though in 1940 Chaplin could scarcely have known just how evil the German chancellor was. “The Producers” could be considered the first major movie that laughs at Hitler, and now comes “Jo Jo Rabbit” that mocks Hitler as a fool but hardly shows the depths of depravity in his characterization by Taika Waititi. If you’re wondering about the name of this inventive director, Waititi hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast of New Zealand, and is the son of Robin Cohen, a teacher, and Taika Waiti, an artist and farmer. His father is Maori (Te-Whanau-a-Apanui), and his mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent.

While the director has twenty-two credits, largely from overseeing TV episodes, his “What We Do in the Shadows” about vampires who worry more about paying the rent than about nourishing themselves, gives us a hint of the oddball and original works to come. The title figure in “Jojo Rabbit” is a ten-year-old boy from a German village played by Roman Griffin Davis, the son of Rosie Betzler, (Scarlett Johansson), who has an adult playmate in his spacious house named Adolf Hitler (the director himself). In the opening scenes which are the movie’s fastest-moving and zaniest, he attends a Hitler Youth camp taught by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), where the young men are taught military skills while the girls, scarcely teens, are instructed in how to get pregnant. (Truth to tell, the Nazi government cared not a whit about marriage. Women’s purpose was to give birth as many times as they could to populate the Reich with Aryan babies.) The girls here are instructed by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who gave the Fatherland eighteen of ‘em.

When Jojo Belcher is injured by a grenade he is drummed out of the camp but not before taking part in such fun activities as burning books. When he refused orders to kill a rabbit, he is derided by the counselors, given the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Filled with ridiculous tales of alleged Jewish depravity he is shocked to discover that his mother is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish woman of about eighteen years of age. You might expect that Elsa, when discovered by this young nazi kid, would cower, but instead she boldly declares that if Jojo turns her in, she would tell the Gestapo that he and his mother were hiding her, even using some physical force to show her lack of fear. Eventually, as everyone in the audience knew, he would hear about the Jewish tradition, how Jews were chosen by God, and comes around even to falling in love with her.

Brief archival shots show the genuine love for Hitler as thousands lined the streets when he passed in his car, reminding us that the people in charge of governments, the CEOs as you will, are often hardly the types of people that Plato advocated to be leaders. Few of them even now are Platonic philosopher kings, and many subjects are blown away by their vulgarity and cannot understand how their decisions could spell disaster for themselves and their country.

This is a remarkable feel-good movie in the style of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner who must shield his young son from the terrors of the Nazis. Eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis is the actor to watch, having turned in an astonishing role, evoking the full range of emotions from surprise to joy to terror. “Jojo Rabbit” was filmed in the Czech Republic.

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

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

#FEMALE PLEASURE – movie review

#FEMALE PLEASURE

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barbara Miller
Screenwriter: Barbara Miller
Cast: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Yithika Yadav
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

#Female Pleasure (2018)

During the Age of Aquarius in America, Joan Baez would sing “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ She’s always controlled, she’s always confined/ Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife/ A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.” You might not think that in free America—as compared, for example with Saudi Arabia—that women have it so bad, but of course there’s room even in our country before we can declare the two sexes absolutely equal. Things are worse, then, in some parts of the world, and Barbara Miller, who wrote and directs “#Female Pleasure,” takes us around the globe from Brooklyn to Japan to India and to the UK and to Italy, where women activists are challenging the rules enforced upon them by religion or by culture. You come away with the impression that Karl Marx was right in saying that religion was invented by men to keep women down–though he could add repressive cultures in general.

The Swiss director hones in on five women, capturing their legitimate beefs through both the interview format and through observing them living their lives. In one case she indicts entire societies in discussing the evil practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation, in which babies, really, five-year-old girls, are held down and have their clitoris cut out so that they cannot feel sexual pleasure. Strangely, though, the women do not explain why this is done. Presumably this is to prevent women from straying from their husbands. In other cases, religion, which of course is part of a culture, is indicted, interpreted by men to pronounce themselves superior to women and to exploit them for their own satisfaction.

The woman whose story meant the most for me was Deborah Feldman, as I had read her book “Unorthodox,” there describing her view of the Hasidic religious sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was one of the few who actually left, taking off on her own, living in Greenwich Village, her book describing her dismal view of the highly Orthodox people who do not allow women to choose their mates. (I think she did a disservice on those pages in which she tells all, describing the sexual practices of her ex-husband which must have humiliated him.) Feldman is seen driving her son inside the Hasidic community, asking him whether she should return to the fold and getting the obvious answer from the young man, “Let’s get out.” And that’s a male talking! We see films of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, where the residents post large signs about respecting the local culture. Women are told to dress modestly—long sleeve shirts, skirts down about her ankles, though what Feldman could have added is that tourists who walk through the community with outfits that the residents consider immodest are spat upon, the women addressed as whores.

At least nobody in the Hasidic culture favors FGM. The bizarre custom of cutting a woman’s genitals when she is but a small child occurs largely in North Africa—Egypt, Somalia, for example, but also in Kenya. We hear from Leyla Hussein, who had the procedure forced on her. Like Feldman, she ultimately escaped the repressiveness by moving to the UK. At the very least she has convinced women in the expate Somali community to the anti-FGM cause, and when she visited the Masai in Kenya, learning that these women too had been mutilated, she gets their pledge not to do the same to their own daughters. As for the view that, hey, men, too are mutilated by some cultures by having their foreskins removed, she counters that the equivalent would be to have their entire penises removed.

Rokudenashiko, the nickname of manga artist Megumi Igarashi which means “good for nothing,” put vaginas in her cartoons for which she was arrested, tried, and acquitted of that charge, but she was convicted for making 3D images of the vagina, creating necklaces, iPhone cases and even a kayak using her own vulva as the design.

Miller also gives time to Doris Wagner, a German nun who claims that she was raped more than once by a priest, though we wonder why she would remain in the convent after a single instance, particularly since her charge was not taken seriously. She had written to Pope Francis, receiving no response, and is now a free woman who loves pop songs which, unlike what she heard in the convent deals with real human emotions.

Vithika Yadav, a feminist activist in India, makes us aware that the government in India appears not to take rape seriously, thinking, perhaps, that “Boys will be boys.” A street demonstration cast with men sympathetic to her cause reenacts the humiliation that women go through.

Some might say that the film is “all over the place,” since it deals with a variety of themes from genital mutilation to arranged marriage, but all falls under the umbrella of ways that women are not valued as much as are men, looked upon—except by me and you—as nothing more than baby-making machines whose pleasure is considered unimportant by men. If you are “woke,” i.e. socially aware, you know and rejects the attitude of male supremacy unearthed by this fascinating trip around the globe. Even so, you will be attentive to the sharp visuals in Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart and Anne Misselwitz’s photography.

The film garnered awards and nominations at film festivals in Locarno, Leipzig, Austria and Thessalonika.

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

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

CYRANO, MY LOVE – movie review

CYRANO, MY LOVE
Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director:Alexis Michalik
Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik
Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mithilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice De Lencquesaing
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

Cyrano, My Love poster

We go to movies to see stories of lovers and criminals, cops and robbers, Batman and Robin, but who would think that a story about a writer could be both funny and sad, bubbly and mournful, especially about a playwright whose magnum opus is known by everyone but whose name slips our mind? With “Cyrano, My Love,” director Alexis Michalik, a handsome young fellow with a long résumé as an actor, slips into the director’s chair with a first feature that mimics the trajectory of Edmond Rostand. With this wonderful, effervescent movie, Michalik hits pay dirt much like Rostand, a Parisian who, in 1897, had not written for two years only to rise above his station. Filled with both boisterous moments and expression of deep loneliness, “Cyrano, My Love” finds Rostand at age twenty-nine in Paris, desperate for money to pay the rent and to support his wife and two kids.

Rostand, given stunning new life by newcomer Thomas Solivérès, shares the glory in this film with Olivier Gourmet in the role of noted French actor Constant Coquelin, who is about to take on the costume, the poetic wit, and most of all the nose of Cyrano. Herein is a fanciful re-creation of Rostand’s struggle to make a name for himself after the turkey he had written for Sarah Bernhardt (Clementine Celarie). Since necessity is the mother of invention, Rostand’s recovers his ambition and his hopes, investing everything in a new play that seems unlikely to draw much of an audience given his previous flop. Enlightenment comes from the local restaurateur Honoré, a black man, who suggests the plot lines for Cyrano, holding that like Honoré, Cyrano has been treated like an insignificant soul.

Since a cardinal rule is to write what you know, Rostand bears witness to the plight of his friend Léonidas Léo Volny (Tom Leeb). Volny is in love with a theater costume designer Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah) and, given his good looks should be able to connect with the pretty young woman. But looks aren’t everything (or so some people think). Volny is unable to speak what he feels, and what a woman wants in Paris at least during the fin de siècle is a lover who can sweep her off her feet with words, verses preferred over mere prose. By contrast, Rostand is flawed with his ordinary appearance, his only hope lying in his words. While Volny pretends to speak passionately with Jeanne, who stands on a balcony, Rostand hides beneath delivering Volny’s words of love, making Jeanne fall in love with the poetry.

This being Paris, love and sexuality are more open than they had been for, say, the U.S. during the 1950s, which makes one wonder why the City of Lights needs brothels at all. Director Michalik, who by the way takes on the role of George Feydeau known and celebrated for his one-act farces, chooses to shoot a scene in a brothel which he could have left on the cutting-room floor, perhaps spending more time fleshing out some of the minor characters like Feydeau and some of the women including Mathilde Seigner as Maria Legault, who in the re-enactment of the play falls twice through a trap door, and Rostand’s wife Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing), who fears that the passion in her marriage is gone.

This is an expensive production given the hundreds of well-dressed extras that fill all of the theater’s 1050 seats and the rentals of expensive costumes probably from the Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic where much of the movie was filmed. “Cyrano, My Love” is a fast-moving comedy-drama that builds excitement from the scores of mishaps that threaten to close the play even before opening night, including a police action that would ban the presence of the title character and the disappearance on opening night of a major player. However the show must go on. See this obvious crowd-pleaser for scenes that are partly highbrow but with a strong emphasis on the down-to-earth hilarity that can be appreciated by theater snobs and groundlings alike.

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

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

DOWNTON ABBEY – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READY OR NOT – movie review

READY OR NOT
Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEL AVIV ON FIRE – movie review

TEL AVIV ON FIRE
Samsa Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriter: Sameh Zoabi, Dan Kleinman
Cast: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yaniv Biton
Screened at: Cohen Media Group, NYC, 7/11/19
Opens: August 2, 2019 in New York and Los Angeles

Tel Aviv On Fire Poster Sizes 11x17" 16x24" 24x36" 32x48"

Think of the most talked-about rivalry within a country today. Israel has a Jewish majority and a Muslim minority and, to my knowledge, has blessed far too few intermarriages between the groups. In fact if you set up a TV program with a proposed marriage between the clans, you might get little support from either side. But in “Tel Aviv on Fire,” such an arrangement is possible because in TV soap operas, anything can happen. Sameh Zoabi, co-writer and director, gives us a light comedy that spoofs soap operas with their far-fetched plots and more importantly treats the possibility of a marriage between a Jewish general and an Arab spy. You might consider this the kind of story that would not gain prominence from either side, but “Tel Aviv on Fire” was not only showcased at the 34th Haifa Film Festival but garnered a best actor award for a Palestinian actor. Zoabi is in his métier on the subject of cultural divisions, having directed “Under the Same Sun,” a story about two businessmen from opposite tribes set up a solar energy company, and “Man Without a Cell Phone” about modernization coming to a Palestinian village.

In “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam Abbas (Kais Nahef) serves as a low level movie production assistant living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah. He’s a good-natured slacker given a job by his producer uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawahlha). He is fluent in Hebrew and charged with correcting the way characters on a soap opera speak. Because of his low status, his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Alhady) is not interested, which motivates Salam with the goal of impressing her. When a clueless Salam is given the job of screenwriter for the soap, he has his chance to become Maryam’s hero but lacks the talent for writing.

The soap being satirized, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is lightly anti-Zionist but not to the extent that would alert Israeli censors. The cheesy soap-opera plot finds Marwan (Ashraf Farah) training Tala (Lubna Azabal) to be a spy, to use the name Rachel, and acquire military secrets held by General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef Sweid). The episodes are not yet complete. As Salam is writing, he is stopped at a checkpoint separating Ramallah from East Jerusalem by Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), who recalls that the soap is eagerly watched by both Arabs and Jews. The captain grabs the incomplete script from Samar, making his own suggestions and even insisting that the captain’s script be utilized (and his portrait held on a shelf in the background). The captain wants his family to be impressed that he knows how the story will proceed and insists that Tala and Edelman fall in love and marry.

While this looks as obvious as any soap would be, the entire film is full of surprises, unpredictable right until a sudden coup de théâtre in the final seconds. The entire movie is filled with ironic humor, not the kind that seeks belly-laughs but goes for more subtle, satiric notes. While the entire ensemble performs nicely—probably having to go through may takes as they involuntarily smile at the ironies while acting—you can see why Kais Nahef would take away a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival while Haifa’s 34th International Film Festival awarded “Tel Aviv on Fire” best film and best screenplay.  Nahef exudes loser  authenticity, turning the tide and winning the respect and affection of his ex-girlfriend Maryam. This is one of the best comedies to come out of the Middle East in recent times.

In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

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

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

SKIN – movie review

SKIN
A24 & Direct TV
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Guy Nattiv
Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv
Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Louisa Krause, Zoe Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett, Mike Colter, Vera Farmiga
Screened at: Tribeca Screening Room, NYC, 7/17/19
Opens: July 26, 2019

Skin Movie Poster

White supremacy and neo-Nazism evoke ugly memories as depicted in several movies about its ideology in addition to a wealth of articles in journals. In the 2001 film “The Believer,” Frank Collin is a Jewish Nazi. In “Keep Quiet,” the founder of a Hungarian Nazi party, Csanad Szegedi discovers that his maternal grandparents were Jewish. He embraces the religion during a three-year study with a rabbi. The other day, an online UK journal cites the case of a white supremacist who takes a DNA test and discovers that he’s not pure Caucasion. Some of his colleagues want to throw him out of the party. But another, who is sympathetic and tries to comfort him, states “You know who controls the DNA companies,” obviously meaning Jews, “And they want nothing more than to render the entire population diversified.”

Now with “Skin,” a white power member from the Midwest has second thoughts about his ideology. As played with the intensity that could merit an Oscar nomination, Jamie Bell inhabits the skin and soul of Bryon “Pitbull” Widner in a film based on a true story (the real-life people are shown in the end-credits). Byron is a member of the so-called Vindlanders Social Club stationed in Indiana, though when we first see him we notice that he is not entirely comfortable with either the ideology or the methods of the group. Its leader, Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp), defines himself in a pep rally, calling on his followers to fight against Blacks, Muslims and Jews, though the terms he uses are not the polite ones. His goals are to organize pogroms against groups he hates and to recruit young, rootless, stupid people to the cause. To bring in new members he relies on his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga), a den mother of sorts who looks more like a middle-aged girl-next-door than an Ilsa Koch, using her feminine wiles to offer attention and affection to prospective recruits.

When Bryon is disgusted by the one of the group’s activities—to burn four Muslims alive—he has had it, his flight from the organization evoking a chase by the Vinlanders to find a “traitor,” though at that point he had not turned himself in to the Southern Poverty Law Center or to the FBI. The group’s harassment leads him to confess to a spokesman for the SPLC, Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter). His decision to “turn” is motivated largely by the love of a woman, his relationship with Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), who has three children from a previous marriage. Julie shares her man’s conflict with the group—not the best kinds of men and women to influence her adorable young ones.

Flashbacks provide us with another example of violence, of a kind that is self-inflicted by Bryon. A plastic surgeon, subsidized with money from a private donor, uses a laser to wipe away the tattoos through an excruciating process. This is not the kind of laser you may be familiar with when you are getting a tooth filled. As photographed by Arnaud Potier in close-up, it resembles two cylinders, each spewing sparks like a cigarette lighter than tries to light but cannot. Even a tough guy like Bryon cannot help crying in agony, a message that should be spread to members of the general public who are following the unfortunate custom of painting their entire bodies with permanent images—and who may seriously regret doing so when tattooing falls out of fashion.

Bell’s performance lifts a simplistic narrative that follows a predictable curve. This is a tale of falling into a far-right organization, having regrets and conflicts, and getting out ahead of the people who are determined to kill traitor like him. His role can be compared to that of Edward Norton in “American History X,” an examination of the roots of racial hatred in America. Guy Nattiv, an Israeli now living in California, won an Oscar for the best live action short of 2018 with the title “Skin,” which takes flight when a black man in a supermarket smiles at a ten-year-old boy across the checkout lines. Whatever the Academy thinks of the current picture, you can expect that Jamie Bell’s name will come up in the nominations this year.

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

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

THE FAREWELL – movie review

THE FAREWELL
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lulu Wang
Screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 6/19/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

[ FAREWELL POSTER ]

A childhood friend of mine had a father who was dying of cancer though he seemed fine to us. He attended a wedding of his niece. He danced. He gave a lovely speech about his new son-in-law. He had three weeks to live, but didn’t know it, and since all this took place in the early 1960s, he was kept in the dark. “What’s the point of telling him? That will only ruin his last days.” This aspect of American culture seemed to make sense, though nowadays, things are different. We believe that a patient has the right to know what’s going on with his own body.

Chinese families enjoy a culture that in many ways is similar to ours. When writer-director Lulu Wang’s characters in “The Farewell,” were told that their beloved matriarch had Stage IV lung cancer, all are sworn to keep that the secret despite the opinion of Billi (Awkwafina), a granddaughter—as one who left China from an early age and lived in New York. She believed that a lie is a lie. There is no such thing as a good life, a white lie.

In this fictional drama based on “a lie experience,” Billi, a young single woman working in New York, is invited to return to Changchun, China, to celebrate a family wedding whose date may have been pushed ahead so that Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) could attend the festivities. A controlling person, grandma Nai Nai handled all the planning, complaining that the menu mentioned that crab would be the highlight, and not the lobster that she had proposed.

During this time Billi is disturbed that nobody else in the family is willing to tell Nai Nai the truth, but she keeps to the bargain, in one case speaking to the doctor who is treating Nai Nai, knowing that her granny does not know a word of English. Like any American nanna, Nai Nai is ready to fix her granddaughter up with the doctor. Our cultures are not that far apart in many ways.

Filmed by Anna Franquesta Solano on location in Changchun, the largest city and capital of Jilin province with a population of over seven million, “The Farewell” has comic touches particularly in exploring the relationship of the dim marriage couple, Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara)—who had started dating just three months earlier and seem unable to speak to each other in a common language. Writer-director Lulu Wang in her sophomore feature evokes solid work from the entire ensemble, anchoring the story with Awkwafina, who, you may recall, took on the role of Peik Lin Goh in the more commercial movie “Crazy Rich Asians.” Awkwafina presents the granddaughter with all the nuances needed as a woman who reluctantly plays along with the charade. Does she finally break down and tell all or does she remain as shut down as Stormy Daniels in the recent American posturing? What would you recommend?

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

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

FOR THE BIRDS – movie review

FOR THE BIRDS
Dogwoof
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Richard Miron
Cast: Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, William Brenner
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/23/19
Opens: May 31, 2019 at IFC Center in NY

Kathy Murphy

Although both the title and the early scenes make you think that this will be little more than another propagandistic tale of animal welfare, Richard Miron, who shot the documentary over a five-year period in Ulster County, New York, nails what it’s like to be a nonconformist in a village community, and the effects on a marriage of a 58-year-old woman’s hobby which could not have been pursued in any but a rural space.

Starring in the film, Kathy Murphy, obviously an animal lover, seems destined almost masochistically to bring about an end to a long marriage and the possibility of winding up behind bars should a prosecutor increase his reputation by fighting a woman who is obviously poor (note her missing teeth) and who has only the best intentions toward her pets. And what a world of quacks and cock a doodle dos! Kathy and Gary find a small duck in their yard, one which happily will never wind up on a hook in a New York Chinatown restaurant. A decade later, lo and behold, she has a menagerie of ducks, roosters, chickens, geese and turkeys that should make her a candidate for woman of the year in the town of Wawaring, New York. Her devotion to these pets is so unbounded that she is will not only destroy her marriage to Gary, who is hardly as enthusiastic as his wife, but is so consuming that she would die rather than lose them. Or so she said, because when the authorities got after her, calling her a hoarder who boards the birds in filthy conditions—feces everything, chickens in her bed, dirty water–she manages to stay alive but suffers not only a matrimonial crisis but the chance to be sentenced to a fine of $1000 and/or imprisonment for up to a year.

When officers from the Woodstock animal sanctuary, a beautiful place surrounded by a mountain range with grass and water everywhere, speak with her, they are sympathetic, at least more so than the judicial branch. When the long arm of the law closes in, she is defended pro bono by William Brenner, a country lawyer with as large practice and three assistants who also plays a mean banjo and sings “You Are My Sunshine” with the appropriate rural twang.

Things were better in previous days, at least from archival pictures we see of her wedding to Gary, a war veteran, which probably would have been stable for decades to come if the birds had not entered the story. When we see Kathy now, she is a veritable motor-mouth, defending her boarding of animals with such passion that we wonder whether she is bi-polar though with 100% of the time experiencing the manic stage. When the darkness lifts, we are happy to see that Kathy has let bygones be bygones and can look forward to caring for at least a legal percentage of her the animals that appear to share and return the woman’s devotion to them.

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

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

THE THIRD WIFE – movie review

THE THIRD WIFE
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ash Mayfair
Screenwriter: Ash Mayfair
Cast: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Pham Thi Kim Ngan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/5/19
Opens: May 15, 2019 at New York’s Film Forum

a

Fortune magazine states that in a survey involving one thousand asking Americans what they simply could not do without, 65% said it was their smart phones. In fact 15% would give up sex all week rather than do without their phones for one weekend. The world today is as fast-paced as it ever was, making it difficult to believe how even rich people lived in the 19th century without electricity, radio, TVs, computers, phones, planes and the internet. In Ash Mayfair’s freshman debut as director (she had previously helmed shorts such as the eight-minute “Walking the Dead” about a man with a zombie pet), she takes a serious and quite lyrical look at life in a rural Vietnamese village, where a rich landowning family indulge in polygamous marriage. The chosen brides are taken from a youthful age against their will and bonded to older men who would naturally lean toward favoring the youngest of his wives. What’s more, it is possible for a younger woman to elevate her status and rise even to become First Mistress if she could give her husband a boy. This is the situation in which May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), cast by the director at the age of twelve and shown here as a fourteen-year-old, was hitched up to middle-aged Hung (not necessarily a metaphoric name), as performed by Le Vu Long.

Instead of what we modern Americans would suspect, May is greeted warmly by wives two and three,Xuan (Mai Thu Huong May) and Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe). Though May says barely one word to her husband, she apparently knows what is expected of her. Before her deflowering, she takes down her long, black hair and lies expectantly below her man, complaining later to the two older wives that all she feels is pain. Not to worry, they assured her; you will grow to like it. But May is rather advanced for a fourteen-year-old in a stratified culture, discovering that her heart and other parts belong to Xuan. At first Xuan is flattered and responds, but later, when May is pregnant, the older woman believes that a continuing lesbian relationship would bring down the ire of the gods.

The subplots hardly congeal and are jarring, particularly revolving around son named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam) who does not likely take to being railroad into a marriage to someone he doesn’t know, and Tuyet (Pham Thi Kim Ngan) looks awfully young to be sent off for life to these rural grounds. For her part Lien (Lam Thanh My) goes almost as ballistic as Son, refusing in one scene to eat, contemptuous of her static life under a patriarchy.

From the human side, we see what life was like in a time not so far back and yet seemingly remote to current-day Vietnam with its stock market and its international sales of shoes and other clothing. Writer-director May makes sure that her pace remains placid. We see several lovely shots of the moon, in one case as the dark clouds cover it; of caterpillars and silkworms doing whatever turns them on; of the surrounding mountains that you might well have seen in the country’s current tourist brochures. Animal life comes front and center at times: the birth of a calf; the wishing a sad farewell to their aging cow too ill to rise from the ground; a rooster that does not go gentle into that dark night.

“The Third Wife” is strictly for the art-house crowd, the types of people who line up frequently for tickets outside New York’s Film Forum. Criticism if any will doubtless revolve around the old-fashioned nature of the form with no flashbacks, limited if any visual effects, and lacking in changes of pace. For the patient moviegoer interested in foreign cultures and the mores of times gone by, Ash Mayfair’s film is a potent symbol of what we might expect to come from the regisseur.

The movie was filmed in Vietnam, the English subtitles in splendid bold lettering.

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

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

TOLKIEN – movie review

TOLKIEN
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Cast: Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Gibson, Pam Ferris, Genevieve O’Reilly, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 4/10/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Tolkien Movie Poster

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien is as dull and stodgy as the title of the film. The Finnish-born, Dome Karukoski, whose“Tom of Finland,” about the artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, projects the director’s interest in biopics, this time deals with Tolkien’s youth from the time he was about twelve (played by Harry Gilby) through his experience in World War One, marriage and fatherhood. Tolkien could have been one of the those writers whose parents typically advise “continue with pen and paper as a hobby if you like, but be sure to have a career to earn a living.” But we know little of his parents’ wishes as his father had died in South Africa, his mother of diabetes, making the lad an orphan who is lucky to come under the wing of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). From Father Morgan’s strict management of his charge, Tolkien winds up under the wing of a rich woman, Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), his studies bringing him up to entrance to Oxford University.

Much is made of the influence of young Tolkien by friends of his own age who form a brotherhood, horsing around, teasing one another, and helping to mold the young man into a scholar whose interest in philology, the study of language, brings him into the world of Europe’s most celebrated linguist and writer (Derek Jacobi). Scenes of his years in high school, where male students wear jacket, vest and tie to classes, alternate with cuts from World War One, where we find Tokien submerged in a trench as was the custom of the time, until the unit is ordered on what looks like a suicidal charge of the German lines reminiscent of a similar devastation in the Battle of Gallipoli. Central to his life is his courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the on-again, off-again woman who will become his wife and give him four children. Bratt plays her part wonderfully, flirtatious at first, showing her increasing enthusiasm of her bond with Tolkien, a woman who Father Morgan tries to drive away from Tolkien because she is “not Catholic,” and might prevent his success at Oxford.

As you already know, Tolkien’s first published work, “The Hobbit” in 1937, brought the author fame and elevates him to perhaps the world’s foremost scribe of mythological subjects. If you have seen “The Hobbit” and Peter Jackson’s 2001 hit “Lord of the Rings” which won a boatload of Oscars and critics’ awards, you might expect the film “Tolkien” to throw in scenes—not necessarily from the movies, but at least of some of the dramatic personae of the man’s creations. Yet we see a fire-eating dragon just twice, and for a scant few seconds, and some vague scenes of warriors on horseback. Without the special effects that would have brought the audience the full measure of the man, “Tolkien” becomes a biopic that’s stodgy, lacking in imagination and the creativity that could have come with an array of visual effects.

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

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

THE INTRUDER – movie review

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

The Intruder Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOCKHOLM – movie review

STOCKHOLM
SGM and Dark Star
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Robert Budreau
Screenwriter: Robert Budreau, inspired by a 1974 New Yorker magazine article “The Bank Drama”
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Ethan Hawke, Mark Strong, Christopher Heyerdahl, Bea Santos, Thorbjørn Harr
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 3/15/19
Opens: April 12, 2019

Stockholm Movie Poster

If you’re American, you may have thought that the Patty Hearst case was the first time the concept of Stockholm Syndrome was used.
The most famous case of Stockholm Syndrome in America occurred in 1974 when Patricia Campbell Hearst was kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which took her hostage to gain the release of some imprisoned members of the group. She bonded with her captors, called her granddad, William Randolph Hearst, a fascist, took up a machine gun and robbed businesses and made explosive devices, all allegedly in voluntary service to the SLA. However the first time the concept was used was in 1973 involving a hostage situation in the main bank of Stockholm, Sweden.

Budreau, whose “Born to Be Blue” about the reimagining of Chet Baker’s jazz comeback in the sixties, now departs wholly from that biographical subgenre to tackle what is unlikely the first case in which a hostage bonds with her captor, but is the first time that the “Syndrome” term was used. Ethan Hawke departs from his restrained performance as a minister grappling with despair in “First Reformed” to go over the top, and Noomi Rapace shucks her over the top performance as the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to play a meek bank clerk. “Stockholm” is off and running when Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) adjusts his fake, hippie-style hair, combs his mustache, strolls into Stockholm’s central bank, removes a machine gun from his duffel, fires a few shots at the ceiling, and give every impression that he’s out for money. He does ask for a million, but his real goal is to get the cops under chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) to free his bank robbing pal Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail.

As the two criminals settle in for what will be five days and the police occupy the second floor of the bank, Lars both terrorizes and comforts his two hostages, Claire (Bea Santos) and Bianca Lind (Noomi Rapace). As a wife and mother, Bianca would not seem the type of person who would be taken in by Lars, except that Lars is the kind of person that women say they’d like to have fun with but not marry, while Bianca’s husband Christopher Lind (Thorbjørn Harr) is the groomed, steady type, the marriageable kind, taking care of the two kids during the hostage crisis. In the film’s most absurd moment, when Christopher shows up at the bank to see what his wife is up to, Bianca patiently gives him a fish recipe so he can return home and feed himself and the little ones.

This is the kind of movie that may disappoint thrill seekers who think it will be another “Dog Day Afternoon,” but will encourage a potential audience interested in human psychology, particularly in the surprising ways that people can react when in a situation that should inspire nothing but terror. Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace play off each other, convincing us in the audience that in spite of all logic, they get to do some smooching as the crisis proceeds day by day.

Almost all action takes place inside the bank, which could allow for some playwright in the future to consider the plot for the legitimate stage. The inspiration for the movie came from a New Yorker magazine article called The Bank Drama published Nov. 25, 1974 about Jan-Erik Olsson’s takeover of Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, where the hostage-taker and an accomplice held 4 hostages for 6 days in Aug. 1973.

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

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

 

THE LAST – movie review

THE LAST
Plainview Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeff Lipsky
Screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky
Cast: Rebecca Schull, Jill Durso, AJ Cedeño, Reed Birney
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/16/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

The Last (2019)

Prospective viewers take note. “The Last” features a story that would play better on the stage than on the big screen. Writer-director Jeff Lipsky, whose “Mad Women” features a mother of three daughters who commits a crime of conscience and becomes radicalized in prison, segues into a new movie about one woman who is mad-insane (arguably, at one time), another two who are mad (angry as hell and rightly so), and two men whose views about where to put the great grandma are radically different. Since “The Last” is rich in dialogue, including a stunning forty-five minute monologue by the 90-year-old actress Rebecca Schull as the 92-year-old Claire, could easily fit on an off-Broadway stage with a little sand to represent a beach.

Here is yet another take on the Holocaust, the greatest crime of all time. “The Last” is not likely to be the last look at the atrocity, nor should it be. Lipsky puts an elderly woman on the front burner, rare enough in the movies these days, a character who is quite different from the person her many-generation family thinks she is. The film’s advertising notes that she will reveal some details of her life three-score and ten years ago that has a sobering effect on her family. However, no film critic should destroy the suspense by revealing the coup d’ètat, nor should readers who suspect the revelation to be a shattering read any commentary on the film that exposes this key feature.

With a stunning performance from nonagenarian Rebecca Schull, perhaps best known for her role in the TV comedy “Wings” about two brothers trying to run an airline from Nantucket, “The Last” opens on the kind of Rosh HaShanah service in which Josh (AJ Cedeño), wearing kippah and identifying as Modern Orthodox, challenges the group by revealing that he does not really believe in God. Yes, there may have been a burning bush, but not one that was lit up by a Divine Bic. Yes, the Red Sea may have seemed to part, but perhaps the good guys escaped from Pharaoh’s army by walking on the rocks. Despite Josh’s skepticism, his wife Olivia (Jill Durso), has undergone a conversion to Judaism, not without feeling embarrassed by her nudity after dunking in the purifying Mikveh baths.

A Mikveh would have been better suited for Claire, who is the least pure family relic, and who in the film’s key middle delivers one of the longest monologues ever to appear on celluloid rather than its more appropriate place on the legit stage. Claire’s tale is of her escape from Germany during the rise of Hitler and her attainment of U.S. citizenship thanks to a marriage of convenience with one Moishe. Her granddaughter Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), married to would-be graphic novelist Harry (Reed Birney), can identify strongly with Claire, given that Melody lost both of her parents in the war.

When Claire reveals that she is terminally ill and has booked passage to Oregon for a gentle end to her active life, the stage (or rather, the screen), is set for yet another surprise that leads Olivia into a convulsive tantrum, wracked with psychic pain.

While you might expect “The Last” to be targeted to a Jewish audience—it did, in fact, play at a Jewish center prior to its March 29th opening this year—there is every reason for an audience of all faiths or none to find universality in the plot. Despite the low level of histrionics in favor of some carefully written dialogue, “The Last” is a daring film that can be appreciated by a select, sophisticated audience.

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

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

THE WEDDING GUEST – movie review

THE WEDDING GUEST
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 2/27/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

The Wedding Guest Movie Poster

“I’ve got a confession to make,” says kidnapper Jay (Dev Patel) to his kidnapee, Samira (Radhika Apte). “I can’t swim.” “No matter,” replies Samira, “I’ll teach you.” This is about the level of dialogue to expect throughout “The Wedding Guest,” a movie that does not do credit to its writer-director, Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom, whose superb fare includes “24 Hour Party People,” (which brings Manchester’s music to the world), “Welcome to Sarajevo” (during the Bosnian war a journalist takes a kid from an orphanage back to England), and “Code 46” (a romance is doomed by genetic incompatibility), now is at the helm of a thriller with banal dialogue throughout. Actors have not much to do, and a pair of leads’ slow-burning romance never catches fire. What’s more there is little backstory to the Jay and Samira. We know nothing about how British citizen Deepesh (Jim Sarbh) found out that he could hire Jay to kidnap his girlfriend from Pakistan, where she is about to be wed against her will in an arranged marriage. If you know about Pakistani culture, you realize that a woman cannot refuse to marry her parents’ choice lest she be killed, as a refusal would dishonor the family.

This is why when Samira is kidnapped in the dead of night by Jay, she is both frightened and elated. At the same time that she is bound, gagged, and hooded by the abductor, she knows that she has been saved from what would probably be a frightful life, though when thrown into the trunk of his car, she has other thoughts about trusting the kidnapper.

Jay may or may not be a professional criminal with a major in abduction, but he’s in it strictly for the money that has been promised by Deepesh. Yet when a hunk like Jay gets to spend time with Samira, who slowly gets to trust him, you expect a hot romance to follow before she is turned over to the boyfriend. The first flirtatious steps are taken—by her—but despite her beauty, Jay seems reluctant to deal with her other than as his ticket to a fat payment. For her part, Samira’s feelings for Deepesh are not on the up-and-up. She, who at one point is called a “snake” by the guy who dished out thousands of dollars to rescue her, may have been correct about the lass. After some twists and turns in the script, we see that nobody is what he or she seems and everybody is out for something below the surface.

Given the absence of chemistry throughout, we wonder what the picture has to offer. Look then to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens to provide some awards-worthy photography in various locations in India, ranging from a look at fleabag hotels right up to Delhi’s majestic Taj Mahal digs. Filmed in Delhi, Goa, Jaipur and most impressively Amritsar where we get a shot of the temples that jut out in the holy city of the Sikh people, we have a view of both tourist India and what our president calls a sh*hole—the endless traffic of bikes and cars, the honking that fills the air, the shady dealers in forged passports, and one establishment jewelry store that cannot buy a diamond because it would not find a buyer for the $100,000 stone. When the Oscar ceremony takes place Feb. 2, 2020 and the 5,000 or so voters remember “The Wedding Guest,” be ready this picture to go to the top of the class in cinematography. Yet the movie fails to deliver passion or wit or thrills.

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

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

SOMETHING – movie review

SOMETHING   
Subspin Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Stephen Portland
Screenwriter:  Stephen Portland
Cast: Michael Gazin, Jane Rowen, Joel Clark Ackerman, Eric Roberts
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

Something

If you want to make a horror film to catch on with the typical fans—teens, maybe 20-somethings—you may need name actors and an expense account to hire a crew of animators, set designers, costumers and the like.  In his debut feature, though, Stephen Portland goes with a true, low-budget movie, though it’s clearly not the kind of picture you could make at home behind your iPhone as director, writer, editor and cinematographer.  In his “Something” everything takes place inside a spacious ranch house with just a shot or two of the land outside.  The focus is on just two people, one named Man (Michael Gazin) and the other, his wife Woman (Jane Rowen).  Later, Portland, who wrote the script as well, will bring in a couple of cops, one named Cop (Joel Clark Ackerman) and the other named Rookie (Evan Carter); then finally, Eric Roberts, wearing a frightful rug, takes a role with a job that should not be revealed in a review to avoid giving away a surprise.

Actually “Something,” while remaining in the horror genre, is really a mood piece.  If you’re a mature moviegoer who realizes that nothing made after William Friedkin’s 1973 movie “The Exorcist” has been able to hold a candle to that classic in the horror genre, you will be pleased watching this movie.  This is the kind of pic that people like us can identify with, whether you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s like Man and Woman or whether you have ever lived in a house or apartment with another person.  (Michael Gazin in his sophomore feature film role is 34 while Jane Rowen looks about the same age.)

If you pay close attention, you will notice a couple of hints early on that will allow you to guess the surprise ending.  Most of the story is a dialogue between Man and Woman, the type of talk that could take place in any household with a new baby, with a mother who may love her little man but is also frustrated with latter’s crying.  Both are sleepy: he, possibly a freelancer, is about to take a business trip out of the country to the dismay of woman, who is frightened.  He finds a knife in the baby’s crib.  He chews her out, wondering how she could do such a thing.  Twice, the door to the nursery is locked requiring Man to force the lock.  He blames her for that as well.  He finds his passport in the trash, and he naturally blames her since she had a strong motive to sabotage his trip.  When the baby carriage is outside during the night in the cold, she again states that she doesn’t know what she’s doing lately.  That could have just about broken up their marriage.

As if their marriage bonds have not been frayed enough, a ghostly presence appears several times inside the house, disappearing without having to open and close the windows and the screens.  She sees it.  He sees it.  At least one other person is going to spot the creature as well.

Have you guessed the identity of the intruder?  I did not because I probably was not paying close enough attention to the unfolding of the story.  There is reasonable chemistry between Man and Woman, though three nights straight they both go to bed in their street clothes, wishing each other a good night.  The dialogue is naturalistic; the sorts of subjects that married people who are not cast in a Shakespearean tragedy say to each other.  As a whole this modest picture, notwithstanding the lack of conspicuous cleverness in the writing or bells and whistles is an enjoyable enough experience.

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

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

EVERYBODY KNOWS – movie review

EVERYBODY KNOWS (Todos lo saben)
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín, Eduard Fernandez, Barbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 1/23/19
Opens: February 8, 2019

Todos lo saben Movie Poster

The long-running TV series “Cheers” features the bar as a character in its own right, the bar where everybody knows your name. Many of us would be overjoyed to meet almost daily in a place so friendly, but there is a limit. If everybody knows your name, that’s fine. But would you like everybody to know everything about you? This is the situation in Torrelaguna, an autonomous region of Spain’s Madrid community where Asghar Farhadi’s latest film was photographed. It has the small-town ambiance despite its proximity to the nation’s capital, a fair-sized segment of land given over to a vineyard which is co-owned by Paco (Javier Bardem), a gentleman who will figure greatly in the plot.

“Everybody Knows” is the first movie in Spanish from the Iranian director. Farhadi, whose principal work in my opinion is “A Separation”—about whether a couple will provide a better life for their child by moving out of Iran or whether they should stay in their home country to treat a father with dementia—this time focuses on a large community involving an extended family, groups of neighbors, and an assortment of grade pickers working in a vineyard. At first, the film could be taken as a lively documentary about how people celebrate a wedding, the family members drinking as they would in just about any event of its kind. This looks like a group that seem as close and friendly as you would hope to have in your neighborhood. But when a kidnapping occurs, fissions become active, leading to fights involving Antonio (Ramón Barea), the elderly father of Laura (Penélope Cruz), who is said to have gambled away his share of the vineyard.

Imagine yourself at a large wedding, a friend of the bride who has only a faint idea of the guests invited by the groom. This is the situation you’ll find yourself in while watching the celebration. Allow some time to figure out who is married to whom, who may have fathered someone outside of marriage, who is the young man flirting with the young woman, and then some. After a half hour or so, you’ll get an idea of how everyone fits in, especially the situations of Laura and her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), who spend most of their time in Buenos Aires and travel up to Madrid only for special occasions and brief visits. Some of the principals are afflicted with problems of their own making. Old man Antonio—Laura’s father, remember?—is a drunk who lost his land. Alejandro is a friend of the bottle as well and is unemployed, having gone to Germany to look for a job without success. Paco has a secret life that everyone in the small community knows about.

The kidnapping of high-spirited Irene (Carla Campra), a teen who is drugged at the celebration and kidnapped by what looks like an inside job, is employed by writer-director Farhadi to turn the movie a psychological thriller while at the same time the crime is a catalyst to expose the family secrets. Some of the action borders on soap opera, but a more refined soap than you get on the afternoon TV shows here. When you think about the crime, you try to guess who from the wedding is involved. When you think about the families, you’re in the sphere, of course, of family drama. Dysfunction abounds. The crime aspects are gripping, enough so that you’ll barely notice that two and one-quarter hours have passed since you watched the opening credits amid the background of a church bell tower. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem have the chemistry you’d expect from two first-grade actors who in real life are married to each other since 2010 (two children), while the entire ensemble portray their qualities in a flawless fashion. The two principals aside, there’s little doubt that “Everybody Knows” is an ensemble piece, eminently watchable, allowing us to project our own lives into the bittersweet muddle that comprise this fine drama.

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

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

VICE – movie reveiw

VICE

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Adam McKay
Screenwriter:  Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Screened at: DGA, NYC, 11/23/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
Vice - Poster Gallery
Adam McKay is nothing if not a patriotic critic of United States policy.  With his adaptation of “The Big Short,” he took on the folks who gave us the worst recession since the Great Depression.  With “Revolt of the Yes Men” he and his fellow directors struck at corporate crimes for Big Business’ efforts to fight climate change.  “Anchorman 2” showed the man’s ability to make a light movie just for fun, though he is probably critical of any newscaster who came after Walter Cronkite.  Now he does it again with a satire that has elements of Michael Moore’s hard-hitting humor but tempered in his depiction of former Vice President Dick Cheney to such an extent that you might think at times that he is simply neutral about the man’s “accomplishments.”  “Vice” is a most delightful description of Cheney and his times beginning in 1963 and ending with the closing of the Bush administration where he watches the Obama inauguration from a wheelchair, pretending for the photographers that he is not completely disgusted with the afternoon’s activities.

As played by Christian Bale, who gained forty pounds for the role (not a wise choice considering that this could put him in league with the Veep who had five heart attacks), Cheney influences President George W. Bush to such an extent that journalists and pundits believe that he is not just the man behind the throne but the guy who is actually serving as President of the United States.  Cheney is a master manipulator, using his street smarts to get Bush to give him more power than any preceding Vice President ever enjoyed.  In fact he had been so aggressive in his determination to influence American foreign policy that he may have made the big decision to move troops from Afghanistan into Iraq, the kind of mistake to which the U.S. had become accustomed–not such our policy toward Vietnam but dating back to colonial days when patriotic countrymen strung up those dreadful witches.

Though his approval rating when he left office was 13%, you’ve got to wonder where the people who became the rank and file of the Tea Party were. Surely more of us, particularly in the red states of course, are willing to defend anything the Republican Party does, even tolerate a serial liar and womanizer simply because the person occupying the Oval Office is doing what they want him to do.  Cheney himself notes that like Nixon, he believes that anything the President does is ipso factor legal.

McKay, who wrote the script as well as directs, reaches back to 1963 when the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-living politician attended Yale and later the University of Wyoming getting a graduate degree in Political Science.  McKay brings us to the Nixon and Ford administrations where he pushes his way into getting appointed as White House Chief of Staff, then in 1978 becomes the sole Wyoming representative in the House where he is reelected five times, then Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush presidency.  He has time even to become the CEO of Halliburton which, by coincidence no doubt, won many government no-bids contracts to supply war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s little wonder that when he resigned from Halliburton—whose stock rose 500% at one point—he was given a separation sum of $22 million.

Much is made of the domestic life of the man.  He is given hell by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) during the early years of their marriage for being a drunk and getting into bar fights, but soon enough he shapes up to watch his star rise and see the pride that Lynne takes in him.  His wife, surprisingly, does not want him to accept an appointment from Bush to be his running mate since the job is considered ceremonial—or in more colorful terms as John Nance Garner once put it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Little did Garner realize that a manipulator of the sort that Cheney was could actually set policy, which would be officially announced as the thoughts of the President.  The only character who shines as much as both Bale and Adams is Steve Carell, a busy man indeed, who can emcee an evening of Saturday Night Live and now just as effectively portray Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Michael Moore comparison: the most comical scene occurs when Bush (Sam Rockwell, who is truly funny to nobody’s surprise) tries to coax Cheney into becoming his running mate.  Cheney resists, telling POTUS that instead he could recommend a slate of people he considers worthy.  Little does Bush realize that Cheney is playing him, acting coy in order to make demands that Bush give him more policy-making power than any Vice President had before him.  Cheney is  mum on the issue of gay marriage, which a conservative Republican would surely oppose.  Could it be because one of his two daughters, Mary, is an open lesbian now living in Virginia with her wife Heather Poe?  And could that explain why Cheney broke rank with most of his fellow conservatives by supporting gay marriage?  If only the man were that decent and not the one who supported waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation!  Never mind that Mary’s sister, during her own campaign for Wyoming’s rep in the House, insists that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Ah, politics.

Even serious matters like Cheney’s heart attacks are choreographed with wit.  When the Vice President falls to the floor and an ambulance is called, that’s the usual way.  In two other cases he stands with colleagues and announces casually and almost ironically that they should call the hospital.  When Cheney gets the heart of a man who dies in an auto accident, instead of praising the hero’s family he says that he is proud to have “my new heart.”  If Cheney is truly the man with the most influence on foreign policy during the Bush administration, he deserves censure for the loss of life of our fighting team and for 600,000 mostly civilian deaths in Iraq.

This is not the first satiric movie about Cheney but arguably the most incisive and best acted.  Oliver Stone directed a biographical drama using Richard Dreyfus to impersonate Cheney; in “Who is America” Sacha Baron Cohen pranked Cheney into signing a makeshift water board kit.  Ultimately you might agree that Cheney is so out of touch with common decency that you don’t need to pen a satiric book or a broadside on the screen.  He is his own caricature.

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

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

COLD WAR – movie review

COLD WAR (Zimna wajna)

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Screened at: Soho, NYC, 10/25/18
Opens: December 21, 2018

In “Meet Me in Saint Louis” Judy Garland sings: “How can I ignore, the boy next door, I love him more than I can say.” It’s quite possible that most marriages today are between people from the same town, but if you’re European and you don’t like the folks living near you, you can find a mate somewhere else in your country. Or you can go abroad, which is easy enough to do on the Continent. No data exist on whether marriages survive better if you’re with a mate from the same area, though common sense dictates that this is likely true. In the case of “Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” the original Polish title being “Zimna wajna,” the two principal lovers travel considerably, not always the easiest thing to do when you live in Communist Poland in 1949 through 1964. Whether distance makes the heart grow fonder or whether out of sight is out of mind is the rule, these two people show that both proverbs are true.

Pawlikowski, whose best known movie drama “Ida” is about a woman about to take vows and join a nunnery in 1960 but whose plans are disturbed by a surfacing secret about her father, this time spends time not only in Poland but also in Yugoslavia, and France. Communism has an effect on two lovers, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pushing them into locations where they separate, but you can’t blame simply politics for the destruction of a passionate love. These two people are from the same country but they are different sorts who probably could not survive under the same roof for more than two years, notwithstanding their vows of eternal affection.

Despite the fine performances by Joanna Kulig Zula and Tomasz Kot, the best parts of the film take place during the musical concerts, where folk dance performances in costumes of the traditional Poles and similar exhibitions forced by Communist officials to set the mood of land reform and the god-like image of Stalin, are given a respectable amount of time for us to enjoy. While Zula is perfectly willing to conform to the political correctness of the time by remaining with the folk group and doing what the government requires, Wiktor, the pianist and orchestral conductor is disgusted. Though Wiktor and Zula are passionate about each other, the schism begins when they agree to leave the Communist-controlled Poland and go to Paris. He leaves. She stays behind. Thus begins a twenty-year affair during which time she marries an Italian and then a high-ranking Polish official.

They meet and part. They appear in jazz clubs and concerts in Yugoslavia. Wiktor is more of a steady force while Zula is a firebrand. The stage is not set for a Hollywood ending.

The principal problem is that black-and-white photography and an Academy ratio of 1.37:1—representing the width and the length of the screen—may give a period look, but then OK: we get it. It’s 1949. It’s 1960. There is enough atmosphere within the filming to know that this is a period piece. Why compromise the beauty of the Polish folk-dance concerts with shades of gray? Why not have the usual aspect ratio of 2.39:1, giving us in the audience benefit of a wider screen? The dances together with the colorful, harmonic singing would be enough to allow us even to overlook any behavior of the principals that does not rivet us. Still, given the gestalt, a look at the sick requirement of Communism to force works of art into glorifying the state, the fantastic music which includes Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (my favorite R&R song), and the joys and pains of Wiktor and Zula, all combine to make this Poland’s obvious choice to promote for Best Foreign Feature for the 91st Academy Awards show.

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

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

BECOMING ASTRID – movie reveiw

BECOMING ASTRID (Unga Astrid)
 
Music Box Films
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Pernille Fischer Christensen,
Screenwriterd:  Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen
Cast:  Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm, Henrik Rafaelsen, Magnus Krepper, Björn Gustafsson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/14/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Unga Astrid Movie Poster
Pippi Långstrump, Pippi Longstocking as we know her here in America, is the principal character in a series of books translated into eighty-five languages.  The little girl is a red-head, unconventional, strong enough to lift and carry a horse with one arm.  She has contempt for adults for their pomposity and condescension (kutchi-koo, presumably, and “you look like your mother”).  Her sense of morality is as strong as her muscular arm, as she cannot tolerate a man’s beating his horse.  All this comes from being the daughter of a buccaneer captain, who provides her with a solid role model or inner and outer strength, the ability to tackle just about anything, including dedicating hours daily to cleaning a house and cooking.  It’s no wonder that the book series itself provides a terrific model for the readers the world over.  In fact, I would opine that if you find high-school students today who can barely read, who have no idea of emotions behind the words in a book, those youngsters probably did not have moms and dads to read stories as they tucked them into bed.  (I know this from personal experience with hundreds of such high-school boys and girls.)
Yet the words “Pippi Longstocking” gets nary a mention in a movie loosely based on the author’s early life.  Co-writer and director Pernille Fischer Christensen bookends her charmer of a movie with the author, now an elderly woman receiving sacks upon sacks of mail from youngsters everywhere, many of whom ask the key question, “How do you write so well about childhood when you’re are not yourself a child?  How can you write about PippI, monkey, horse, Tommy and Annika?  What comes across in “Becoming Astrid” is that by the time the movie wraps up, you have a good idea of the experiences she has from age 16 to about age 23, the hardships faced, all fueling her vivid imagination. Her books enjoy the popularity of those written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. She’s a Dr. Seuss on the loose. 

Ms. Christensen may be best known for “A Soap,” hardly as conventional a movie as her latest, as the 2006 film deals with the relationship of the owner of a beauty clinic and a transgender woman.  Now she takes a break and goes conventional, tackling her subject in strict chronological order from ages sixteen to about twenty-three.  That should appear to a wider audience rather than the small arthouse crowd that indies often have to accept.  Not that this is a sentimental, Hallmark-type film, considering what happens to the principal subject, Astrid Lindgren (Alba August), despite spending her youthful days with religious parents Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and listening to Sunday sermons of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Under Erik Molberg Hansen’s lensing, we get the feel of the life in a small farming village in the Sweden of the twenties where Astrid begins to display the unconventional behavior of her favorite character Pippi.  Bored with the Saturday night dancing and from the exhausting work on the small farm, she is discovered by Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor who has read some of her essays and hires her to intern on the paper.  Instead of settling for routine, she branches out with articles of her own and falls under the influence of fashion magazines.  She has the barber cut her braids and becomes a thoroughly modern Astrid.

The editor becomes more than a boss, falling in love with her despite an age difference of some twenty years, and gets her pregnant despite his promise to be careful.  Abortion in freewheeling Sweden did not become legal until 1938, leaving the young woman without quite the dilemma.  To avoid the censure of her whole family by the locals, she goes to Copenhagen by train where she lucks out by finding one Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who takes care of the babies of women like Astrid.  Though Astrid could take the easy way out by accepting the father’s marriage proposal, she refuses his entreaties and develops the strength that even nowadays could label her a liberated woman.

It’s not that anyone who makes strong choices is able to write children’s books.  The problems faced by Astrid might appear resolved, as she had the option of leaving Lasse, the child—played by Sigrid af Ekström at three weeks of age, Ludvig V Görensson at six months, and an already accomplished performer, Marius Damslev, at three years.  None of these experiences really explain how the woman who would become Astrid Lindberg became such a popular writer, so maybe we should forget about Pippi Longstocking and not worry about the fictional changes the director and writers make.  This is an involving enough tale brought nicely up to date as in 1987, Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) makes room in her home for the sacks of mail from appreciative kids whose missives are in plain envelopes and in sturdy wrappings alike.  Those of us born before the digital revolution might wonder whether such hero worship of a writer of children’s books could ever come to pass in 2018.  But take a look at any Barnes and Noble store, go to the children’s section, and you’ll find young mothers sitting on the carpet with their small fry as though they are monitor-hating intellectuals who keep reading and books alive in the marvelous sci-fi picture “Fahrenheit 451.”  In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

RBG – movie review

RBG

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net & Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Cast:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Orrin Hatch, The Notorious B.I.G, Gloria Steinem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/3/18
Opens: May 4, 2018, Streaming August 28, 2018 and sure to be considered for awards votes beginning 11/29/18.
RBG Movie Poster
With whom on the Supreme Court would you feel most comfortable to have a beer?  Roberts? Alito? Gorsuch, Kavanaugh?  These four may be too conservative, even reactionary for you, assuming that you’re a progressive at heart, but that’s not to say they’re no fun. Remember that progressives and conservatives, even reactionaries, can have good times together. As we see from this biopic, the title character, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had a remarkable friendship with Antonin Scalia though they were polar opposites in their legal ideologies.  They were both opera buffs and even shared an elephant ride in India, quite a bit more time together than just enjoying a Bud Light.  If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you probably can’t imagine sharing much with a woman 85 years old and give or take a couple of inches standing five feet tall, but whenever Justice Ginsburg speak before a group of high-school or college students she generates formidable  electricity.  If you can forget about the recent nomination kerfuffle involving Brett Kavanaugh, it’s possible that RBG is the only Supreme Court Justice that a broad sweep of Americana had even heard of.

Co-director Julie West, known for “American Veteran” (a veteran returns from the wars with serious injurious from an IED in Afghanistan) and Betsy West, at the helm of “The Lavender Scare” (President Eisenhower determines that homosexuals are a security risk) are able to express their progressive views again, teaming up for the picture with what will probably be the shortest title this year.
And the picture is a doozy.  If you expect some solemn, government-issued coverage of one of nine Supreme Court justices, you are happily mistaken, because Cohen and West make sure to capture some of the key comic moments of Ginsburg’s life.

To be sure, some portions of the movie will deal with cases that were turning points in American jurisprudence, giving Ginsburg the opportunity to write dissenting opinions with the one-after-another 5-4 rulings.  Most of all, though, the documentarians, who have caught key moments in her life, make this quite an entertainment while grounded in the RBG as a human being.  Chief among her views is that men and women should be considered equal, getting the same pay for the same work and the same chances for promotions.  It should be obvious to all that anything less than such equality is beyond the pale, yet in the case of Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973, a married woman had to fight the U.S. Air Force to get the same housing benefits as her male colleagues.  In United States v. Virginia, a 1996 case held that women must be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI.  What woman even today would not appreciate given the choice of dating classmates when outnumbered by men by some 50 to 1?

The film quickly covers her childhood in Brooklyn, New York, her high-school days, and the higher education which allowed RBG to practice law and to climb the ladder to sit with the highest court in the land.  Martin Ginsburg, her late husband, comes across as her leading cheerleader, which may have helped them to enjoy a marriage lasting over half a century.  A Saturday Night Live sketch highlights Kate McKinnon’s gleefully impersonating RBG lifting weights, and so constantly in motion that she is virtually break dancing. And in fact to this day she works out in a gym with a trainer who gets her to 20 pushups at a time while a couple of women approaching her age joke that they could probably not be able even to get up from the floor—or even to get down to the floor!

As a badge of honor she was criticized by President Trump for saying that in effect the man is unqualified to sit in the Oval Office, and while not mentioned in this film, she joked that she might consider moving to New Zealand if he became President.  Caricatures show her as Wonder Woman and other Marvel heroes, roles you would not expect for such a slight, quiet, woman, unassuming—that is until she shows her teeth in trashing some of the Supreme Court majority opinions that set the country back to the bad old days, according to progressives.  She pulled no punches while interviewed by the Senate, which had the power to confirm or withhold Bill Clinton’s nomination of the woman, holding that women should have reproductive rights.  Such a viewpoint in 2018 would probably have a nominee rejected by the world’s most prestigious club, yet she was confirmed 96-3.

It’s a pleasure to take in the full-of-life biopic of the Court’s most vivid, celebrated, and revered woman.

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

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

THE FRONT RUNNER – movie review

THE FRONT RUNNER

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Jason Reitman
Screenwriter:  Matt Bai, Jay Carson, Jason Reitman, based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai
Cast:  Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Josh Brener, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/15/18
Opens: November 6, 2018
The Front Runner Movie Poster
People in power are chick magnets.  Their influence can be in music, politics, Hollywood, business, finance.  It seems not to matter whether the magnet is rich or not as long as he is well known, with a publicized career.  Being a chick magnet turned out to be quite bad for Gary Hart, but even worse for the United States.  If Hart kept his pants zipped, here’s what would have happened.  George H.W. Bush would not have been elected because Hart would have creamed him in both popular vote and the electoral college.  With the elder Bush out of the picture, George W. Bush, i.e. his legacy son Dubya, would not have been even nominated.  Hart would have enjoyed two terms, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have happened, the Supreme Court would be firmly progressive, and Trump would continue with his life bilking the public with his university and stiffing his workers on his buildings.  Hillary would be president now.

This is all possible, but who knows?  The public is fickle.  The American people did not know or care that FDR, LBJ, and JFK were having affairs outside of marriage.  The three were elected, in part because winning World War 2 and getting out of the Great Depression were more important to us than what Roosevelt did privately in his wheelchair.  Nowadays the public seems not to care much about the most womanizing president in history, one who dismisses what he has said about women as “locker room talk.”  But between the events in administrations from the sixties and the who-cares attitude of even Evangelicals nowadays was a flurry of puritanism.  Gary Hart lost the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984, though in 1988 he was 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, Dukakis and could have beaten Bush.  Thanks to the sneakiness of the press, particularly the Miami Herald—which caught Hart spending the night with model Dona Rice in his Washington digs and also sitting on his lap during a yacht party—he was rejected by the voters and had to withdraw from the campaign.

In Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” Gary Hart is played by handsome Hugh Jackman, with a thick head of graying hair; his wife Oletha “Lee” Hart, by Vera Farmiga, his campaign manager Bill Dixon, by J.K. Simmons, and Donna Rice, the model who ruined his presidential chances, by Sara Paxton.  An assortment of folks, almost all men, represent the Miami Herald and the Washington Post.

The opening is done in the style of Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” an assortment of people talking over each other, in a confusing array of jabbering.  The audience cannot be blamed for longing for a scene that focuses on a few people and one journal as was done successfully by Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” but then, you don’t find a director like Spielberg everywhere.  For his part, Montreal-born director Jason Reitman, whose best picture “Up in the Air,” dealt with a guy hired to travel the country firing workers, now takes on the media, responsible for firing what would have been the next president.

In scenes involving just two people, Gary and his wife Lee, you would not be faulted for thinking of Hillary and Bill who, like Hart and Lee remained married despite their men’s being in heat at the wrong times.  The most outrageous scene takes place outside Hart’s Washington D.C. home (his wife stayed behind in their Colorado home) where reporters sneaked into his garden, watched Donna Rice entering, but not did not see her leaving.  They therefore assumed that Rice spent the night, which is doubtless what they wanted to believe, since sex sells papers.  Though Hart, as furious as Brett Kavanaugh in denying wrongdoing, insists that Rice left by the back door, nobody is convinced.

Hart made two mistakes. He challenged journalists to follow him everywhere as though to prove he was a choir boy—and of course he wouldn’t be doing anything risqué during that period).  He also insisted, however accurately, that what he did in his home was none of anyone’s business, though one reporter challenged him by saying that the country looked for a leader with a code of sexual morality—which would be news to the Trump campaign.

For all we know, the studio has entered “The Front Runner” into this year’s awards competition, perhaps thinking that the audience for “The Post” would also lift this movie’s success in both the box office and in critics’ writings.  The principal fault is that Reitman does not focus on a single point, such as “the intrusiveness of the media in things that should not concern them,” of “the way Hart’s relationship with his wife changed, if at all,” or “the nature of the individual who becomes a magnet for the opposite sex and simply cannot keep it zipped even when on the cusp of winning the presidency.”  Blame the media if you will, or even the American public for being concerned about the wrong things.  Certainly Hart was his own worst enemy.

The film should be seen not only by people who lived through the campaign of 1988 but by those who don’t know Hart from George Washington.  It’s a pleasure to see Hugh Jackman in a serious role—particularly if you knew him only for “The X-men,” “Wolverine” and “Logan.”  One of Jackman’s favorite quotes is “Everything is like stepping stones, and I’ve seen people I admire falter.” Prescient words.  Jackman shows a fairly wide range of emotions successfully: sometimes reacting with justifiable anger, other times convincing us that if elected, Hart would have been able to implement his democratic ideals about the economy.  Vera Farmiga has so much class as Hart’s wife versus the bimbo-ish and juvenile attitude of Sara Paxton’s Donna Rice (despite her graduating from college Phi Beta Kappa), that you may wonder what sort of idiot would threaten that relationship along with the presidency for a roll in another barn’s hay.  Filming was in Georgia, particularly Atlanta, Savannah and Stone Mountain Park.  The screenplay adapts Matt Bai’s book “A the Truth is Out,” available on Amazon for under $14.

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

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

WILDLIFE – movie review

WILDLIFE

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Paul Dano
Screenwriter:  Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 10/11/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Wildlife Movie Poster
Should parents who are having arguments stick out their marriage for the sake of the kids, or would the children be better off if their parents split, thereby ending the confrontations?  This question comes to mind when you’re watching “Wildlife,” which looks at parental conflict through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy.  Based on a novel that first appeared in Atlantic magazine in 1990 by Richard Ford and set in the town of Great Falls, Montana, “Wildlife” finds Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) staring with owlish eyes at events surrounding him that he cannot much alter.  He is caught between what actually appears to be flirtations from his own mother, Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), a woman who is only twenty years older than her son, and the affection he harbors for his dad, Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), who practices tossing the football around and encourages his son to play the game in high school.

Director Paul Dano, known to cinephiles for diverse acting roles such as in “Little Mary Sunshine” (family wants their young daughter to compete in the beauty finals) and in “Swiss Army Man” (guy stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body), now comes through with his freshman directorial debut, and it’s looks like a movie from a director who has had considerable experience in the field.

As young Joe stares at the unfolding scene in school, on a job as a photographer’s assistant, and most of all at home, he keeps his emotions to himself until cutting loose toward the tale’s conclusion.  But this is Carey Mulligan’s picture.  The wonderful British actress, playing the role of a person of her own early-thirties age, runs the gamut of emotions.  At first she supports her husband, Jerry, who has just been fired from a job as an assistant to pros on a golf course, urging him to find another lest she would have to enter the employment market herself.  When Jerry refuses to return to that job (the boss said firing him was a mistake) and not open to a gig bagging groceries (“I won’t do a teenager’s job”), Jeanette begins to lose patience.  When Jerry compounds the problem by hiring himself out to fight forest fires as a dollar a day, not great pay even in 1960, she looks for opportunities, finding one as a swimming teacher.

At the pool, she teaches Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy businessman with his own plane, who begins to court her.  Despite his unattractive demeanor—he’s portly, balding, a drinker and cigar smoker—she responds to his invitations, all to the growing dismay of the boy.  Still, Miller has a glib way of expressing himself, introducing the kid to a scene which found him 4000 feet up, watching a gaggle of honking geese, so entranced that he turned off the motor thinking that this is what it must mean to be an angel.

What’s in the Brinson family for the future?  Will Jeanette and Jerry break up, leaving the 14-year-old to an uncertain fate?  In this case we really do care about these people.  We hope that she does not team up with the divorced Warren Miller despite the financial boon for mother and son, confirming “Wildlife” as a feminist film that may have us rooting for her to find her own steady job rather than depend on her need to find a man.  It looks as though all’s well that may end well, a coming-of-age tale just as it is a feminist film, well designed for a potential audience of moviegoers who do not need much melodrama and have contempt for formulaic soap operas.

Rated PG-13.  104 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WHAT THEY HAD – movie review

WHAT THEY HAD

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Elizabeth Chomko
Screenwriter:  Elizabeth Chomko
Cast:  Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/10/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
What They Had Movie Poster
There’s a reason that 65% of registered voters in the U.S. will not go to the polls for this all-important mid-term election, or at least this is so if we go by history.  We’re too busy with family squabbles, maybe earning a paycheck which adjusted for inflation has not risen in decades, to care all that much about Iran, North Korea, and our present dysfunctional White House.  Elizabeth Chomko may be on to something in reflecting the lives of three generations in “What They Had” (whatever that means).  The director, who has a longer resume as an actress than a director (this is her freshman project) does show possibilities for further work in the director’s chair, but “What They Had,” a look at a dysfunctional family brought under one roof to argue what should be done with the ailing family matriarch, is a soap opera.  It’s a classy one, but still a soap.  It does have superb performances from an array of top actors going for it, but that’s enough to shake off potential audience ennui given its tiresome script.  It might also get young people in the audience—the few that would attend a movie with a concentration of older, more mature performers—to rethink whether they even want a family.

Though at first we might expect the story to focus on Ruth (Blythe Danner), taking a breath from her commercial for Prolia, which she says can strengthen bones and relieve arthritis. The Alzheimer focus becomes secondary to a free-for-all of family squabbles, none of which is either original or compelling.

Set in a large Chicago-area brownstone occupied by Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth, “What They Had” brings in Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) one woman from flies from California ready to break into tears (as she eventually does) because of her stale marriage to Eddy (Josh Lucas).  She kvetches that she was pushed into wedlock by her dad who figured he was more than good enough for her.  For his part Nicky (Michael Shannon), who bought a bar and tends it, is not meeting his potential according to father Burt.  Young Emma Ertz (Taissa Farmiga) is super unhappy in her freshman year of college, her mother Bridget clueless about how her daughter feels. Mom is called upon, in effect, to allow her to drop out.

The principal conflict pits Nicky against his dad, Burt. Nicky wants to send her mentally ailing mom to a facility that could take care of her but Burt, a former Marine now suffering a heart condition, insists that she can do best by staying just where she is.  Never mind that they had to send out a posse to rescue her after she walked in the snow and took a commuter train out of town.

You can do better by renting “Away From Her,” Sarah Polley’s trenchant, yet humorous look at a woman hospitalized for Alzheimer’s, who transfers her affections from husband to a fellow resident at the center.  “What They Had” has a terrific ensemble of actors but they can’t overcome the weakness of the soapy script.

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

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

LIZZIE – movie review

LIZZIE

Roadside Attractions/ Saban Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Craig William Macneill
Screenwriter:  Bryce Kass
Cast:  Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Jeff Perry
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/11/18
Opens: September 14, 2018

“Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died…”

Considering the low status of women in America during the late 19th century, it’s surprising that the jury took only 90 minutes to find Lizzie Borden not guilty of murdering her father and stepmother.  Didn’t they see that she had a strong motive to do the deed?  And didn’t they have respect for her father, perhaps the richest man in Fall River (his fortune would be worth $8 million today)?  Nor was there any sign, at least in this film, that the man was disliked by the community.

In this version of the Lizzie Borden story, one which has been told and retold in books, TV episodes and movies, the occurrences in Fall River, Massachusetts that made the title character one of the classic cases of multiple murder, Lizzie is played by Chloë Sevigny as a stiff, somewhat repressed woman, an old maid though in her early thirties, as folks called spinsters in 1892.

“Some folks say she didn’t do it/And others say of course she did
But they all agree, Miss Lizzie B/ Was a problem kinda kid”

Nowadays we don’t consider lesbians to be a problem, at least not in blue states, but then, as her father, Andrew Borden (Jamie Sheridan), states, when he witnessed her daughter making whoopee with Bridget the maid (Kristen Stewart), her retorts “You’re an abomination,” to which the daughter comes back in a second with “So are you.”

“Lizzie kinda rearranged him/With a hatchet so they say/ Then she got her mother/In that same old fashioned way.”

Let’s see, now.  What might motivate Lizzie to murder her father AND her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw)?  Could it be that she wanted her hands on that fortune which, after killing Abby (first—before dad, that’s important), she and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), would get it all?  If she killed dad first and stepmom second, the money would got to stepmom’s children from another marriage.  That would make the lyrics of the nursery rhyme inaccurate, since of course she killed stepmom an hour or so before rearranging her dad.

“No, you can’t chop your Papa up in Massachusetts/ You know how neighbors love to criticize.”

There’s plenty of reason besides money that would motivate the murder, as her dad was so concerned about what the neighbors thought that she refused to allow Lizzie to go on her own to a concert, then relented, demanding that she be home by midnight..

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/And then blame all the damage on the mice.”

There were no mice in the Borden household but there were caged pigeons, Lizzie’s pets.  She kept them in cages until her father decided he’d had enough, that the pigeons would draw the curious hoi polloi to the house, and used the axe to prepare them for dinner.  Lizzie cries.

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/ That sort of thing just isn’t very nice.”

The lyrics to the nursery rhyme as you guessed are a terrific example of understatement.  I use the poem teaching English classes to demonstrate the power of both understatement and overstatement as literary devices.

As director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass note, this Andrew Borden is something like the way J. Paul Getty is described in “All the Money in the World.”  The latter, a billionaire, would wash his own clothes in a hotel.  Borden did without electricity and without indoor plumbing, stating the advantages of frugality.  If such skinflint tactics helped him gain a fortune, so be it.  But what did he do to enjoy the money, except to terrorize his daughter and repeatedly rape the maid?  His wife knows what was going on, but she serve as enabler, hoping to get the money eventually—which gives both her and the maid a motive.

The film brings out the tenderness and sexual feeling that Lizzie has for the maid, and she helped the unlettered lass along by teaching her to read.  Two lonely women find each other.  It helps that Bridget could serve as an alibi for Lizzie.  See nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.

The film does not seek to educate the viewers about the WHAT but more about the WHY, serving admirably to point out four people who might be motivated to murder (the fourth being the old man’s brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare), who called Lizzie some awful names and could have served to back up Andrew Borden’s desire to send both Lizzie and her sister Emma to a lunatic asylum.  Such are the conditions of women long before #MeToo that men in black uniforms would, upon petition of the pater familias, cart women off for life.

A well acted story, nice and slow moving with only a modicum of horror.  This is not “Hostel 2.”

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/ She gave her mother 40 whacks/ And when she saw what she had done/ She gave her father 41.”

Nope.  Count ‘em.  18 for mom, 19 for dad.

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

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

WHERE HANDS TOUCH – movie review

WHERE HANDS TOUCH

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Sweet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/18
Opens: September 9, 2018 at Toronto Film Festival

Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

Once you get past the absurdity of Germans’ speaking only English in a film that has a little French spoken in the final scene, you realize that this Holocaust story is one that to my knowledge had never before been explored. “Where Hands Touch” examines the life of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who comes of age by having her first sexual experience with an “Aryan” member of the Hitler Youth. To the young woman’s discredit, she does not have a problem with her liaison with Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who does not try to get off the hook by pretending that every kid had to accommodate himself to the Nazi program and join the organization. He is so loyal to the Nazi regime that time and again states that he might even try to be assigned to the Russian front, and who is protected by his father (Christopher Eccleston) who assigns him to work in a concentration camp.

For her part, Leyna is protected from persecution, at least for a time, by her mother (Abbie Cornish), an “Aryan” German who had had a relationship with an African, thereby producing a mixed-race child.

Amma Asante, a London-based actor, screenwriter, and director who was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Film, is known by her fans largely for her 2004 film “A Way of Life.” That story is about a 17-year-old girl who is paranoid that a Turkish neighbor is plotting to take away her 6-months’ old baby. Asante, therefore, is in her métier by this lataest story requires no paranoia to realize that Leyna is really in serious trouble. Her mother is sensible, as mothers often are when dealing with their daughters’ passions, doing her best to have her daughter fade into invisibility. That she is having an affair with a die-hard Nazi troubles her, while her daughter, passion trumping rationality, plunges headline into danger.

So much is known about the Nazi persecution of Jews that we overlook the fact that Afro-German professionals found it almost impossible to work in Germany under Hitler. They were forbidden to have sexual relations and marriage to Aryans, they were called “Rhineland bastards,” and were subjected to undergo forced sterilization. Yet they were better off than Jews and Romani, segregated with a plan to make them disappear by having the 25,000 women of color disappear after the present generation.

“Where Hands Touch” does give us insight into the Holocaust as it applies to women who are not Jews but whose papers were somehow not in order. In the situation here, Leyland’s mother is taken away for producing a mixed race child while her daughter is confined to a concentration camp located not far from a neighboring facility where Jews are murdered and sent up in smoke.

The film bills itself not particularly as a coming-of-age story, though Leyland’s virginity is lost and the girl is made pregnant by her Nazi lover. Instead, I believe the writer-director wants us to look at the work as principally a romance, albeit a love affair dominated by the political and social order of 1944-1945. The film has received some backlash, including a screed by Tara Nafisa, a Nigerian critic who is incensed that we are “expected to develop a special bond with a mixed-race girl who sees past the blood in his hands, the emblems on his uniforms, and the philosophy of the association he represent.” However let’s face facts. Leyland, who is the principal character, is not meant to be a shining example of a caring, compassionate woman, but is rather limited by her tender age, driven by passions that her mother fears. In the same sense, her young man, despite his love of Germany, partially to overlook his ideology, which would make similar people avoid and even denigrate women of mixed race. He is willing to risk his standing with the society of his day and become alienated from his father. There are no saints in this story with the possible exception of the girl’s mother, but rather a basket of flawed personalities, some, like the boy’s father, who would fit easily into a basket of deplorables. The same could, of course, be said of the extras, the Nazi officers who bark orders, demand right and left that citizens produce papers, shooting some in the back as easily as they could put a hook on a fish.

Ultimately the picture is flawed by a script that is both saccharine and simplistic, the British actors delivering their lines in a stilted manner. The dialogue between Leyland’s mom and the girl, and between the Aryan and her father could remind us of the long-winded advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius gives to Laertes, but there is nothing in the conversations that transcends the banal.
So give Ms. Asante the credit for exposing us to a segment of the Holocaust not before treated in a film that, despite being based on a true story, does not come across as credible. Remi Adefarasin films in Belgium, moments of melodrama aided by Ann Chmelewsky’s music.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE WIFE – movie revie

THE WIFE

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Bjorne Runge
Screenwriter:  Jane Anderson adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel
Cast:  Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Alix Wilton Regan
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 6/27/18
Opens: August 17, 2018
The Wife
In one scene, Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd), a writing professor at Smith College during the late ‘50’s is advising Joan (Annie Starke), a student, about a story she submitted to him.  Surprisingly, he then asks young Joan for her opinion of a story that he wrote.  After some hesitation and allowing time for some white lies, she admits that she thinks his characters are lifeless, inauthentic.  She, a mere student, suggests that she can edit the tale to animate its dramatis personae.  He agrees.  Therein lies the story line of Björne Runge’s film.  Runge, the Swedish director, is in his métier. Consider that his previous movie, “Happy End,” deals with people whose anxieties lead them to obsess that some miracle will occur that would end their need to prevaricate.

The plot itself is nothing extraordinary, though it takes place among the intelligentsia, in fact a satire on literary pretensions.  What’s amazing instead are the two principal performances from Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as an elderly couple, Joan and Joe Castleman.  Glenn Close plays a fully fleshed-out woman who displays just about every emotion known to human beings, one feeling’s superseding the next, some emotions obvious from the situations, others of the kind that are so unexpected that you’d think that the plot has the twists of a thriller.  She is a furious woman, full of repressed rage, and yet during the moments that find her calm and orderly, such as when she is laying out the pills for her husband’s blood pressure, you can feel the seething going on beneath.  If somehow Joe cannot sense this, he may be too narcissistic, too much in denial about the contributions made by his wife toward his successful literary career.  As for her own options, she has given up trying to write as she believes—and as Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern) agrees—that if you’re a woman in a literary world shaped by male editors and publishers, your books will line shelves unread.

When Joe gets a call from Stockholm telling him that he is the winner of the year’s Nobel prize in literature, he is so excited—as is his wife—that the two jump up and down on their bed like a couple of pre-teens at a pajama party.  If Joan has done more than simply an edit job on Joe’s novels, only their son David (Max Irons) would know, since his parents would barricade themselves in a room for eight hours at a time, ignoring David’s needs to the extent that the young man has been hostile, irritated, argumentative, a brat, and would several times lash out at his father to the older man’s puzzlement.

We become privy to what happens when a Nobel prize is won.  First Joe, Joan and David board a plane to Stockholm, as Joe badgers David about the son’s smoking and is treated with equal hostility by David, who abhors his father’s “stuffing your face with animal fat.”  During the journey, Joe is badgered by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has deliberately booked himself onto the flight to pursue his motivation to write Joe’s biography.  If Joe is unimpressed, it could be because he has something big to hide.  Does he ever!

Though during his speech upon receiving the Nobel he praises his wife to the sky, she is so infuriated that she stomps out of the hall.  Now, would you do such a thing if a celebrity smothered you with kudos?  It turns out that she has been damned with faint praise (in the immortal words of Alexander Pope) because given a different political situation in America, she could have been a Nobel recipient herself instead of the little wife who is taken on a shopping tour by her Swedish handlers.

Joe’s writing and Joan’s “editing” (actually re-writing) have given them material comforts, a solid middle-class life, their daughter about to have a baby and their son as angry as his mother though with no intention to hide his frustrations.  Joan has been her husband’s support throughout their marriage, living with the knowledge of his affairs (in fact he had left his own wife and baby way back to marry Joan).  In the film’s most dramatic confrontation, Joan lets loose, unfolding decades of repressed rage caused not only by her husband’s lack of insight and narcissism but by the male domination of the literary industry. She blames both for her own lack of achievement.  (There is a similar argument coming from some film critics who are concerned that, in their view, 65% of us are white males in a field that should become as diverse racially, ethnically, and gender-wise as the movie-going public.)

Joan Castleman has been an enabler, a woman who deserved more, has spent her life supporting her man’s career, while her husband does not have enough class to advise his own son gently about the young man’s own writing.  That she is not yelling at the top of her lungs and threatening to leave the family throughout the movie indicates the restraint that her character has shown when she might have been concentrating on her own career and breaking through the male-dominated industry.  Her kaleidoscope of emotions is testament to the skills of a magnificent actress whose résumé includes movies and TV appearances since 1975, one best known perhaps for her role as Alex Forrest in Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction.”  Alex Forrest, however, is a one-dimensional, obsessed person who wants only to consummate her passion for a married man.  But as Joan Castleman the seventy-one year old actress may have given the performance of her life.

Rated R.  100 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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