SHEPHERD: The Story of a Jewish Dog

SHEPHERD: The Story of a Jewish Dog
JDog Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lynn Roth
Writer: Lynn Roth, Based on Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog”
Cast: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Ádám Porogi, Viktória Stefanovszky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/21/21
Opens: May 28, 2021

If you have even been owned by a dog or two, if you have felt the reciprocal love that comes from this lucky break, prepare to shed a tear. “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog,” tells of the separation and the ultimate reunion of a 12-year-old boy Joshua (August Maturo) and his German Shepherd Caleb (Hebrew for “dog” also connoting “as if it understands”). But if you are the kind of person who, when told by a friend that her dog got lost, or died, and you respond, “So what? It’s a dog and you can get another,” you might miss the emotional impact evoked in this film or, who knows…you might see and feel the tragedy when dog and human are separated.

The idea of a Jewish dog may be ironic, or maybe not, but in any case Lynn Roth, who directs and co-wrote, adapted Israeli Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog” translated into English by Michal Kessler, which on Amazon states that it is meant for people fourteen years of age and up. It is, I believe, meant for the entire family, if you overlook its basic simplicity (meant as a compliment because it is kid-friendly) and the fact that everyone speaks good English—the Germans played largely by Hungarians, the folks playing Yugoslav partisans, and to a lesser extent the American actors.

Surveys have found that forty percent of Americans have no idea what the Holocaust was all about, certainly true of the “Proud Boys” and Oath Keepers who are sure that it was all made up by Jews who pushed for the creation of Israel, and who spread the fake news via the “worldwide Jewish control of the media.” There is a direct line from the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Life is Beautiful,” made largely for teens, so you don’t have to worry that your adolescent girls and boys will hear any curse word stronger than the “damn,” or that any dog would have the bad manners to pee and poop for the camera, or even to sniff another canine butt. But you will see the phenomenal brutality of the Nazis save for one guy, Ralph (Ken Duken), who adopts “Shepherd” with the job of chasing runaway Jews, calls him “Blitz,” and gives him love. Never mind that he is ready to kill young Joshua, a resident of the Treblinka concentration camp, for stealing crumbs meant for the camp animals.

The tale opens on the Berlin of 1935 when Jews are increasingly oppressed by signs on stores “No Jews allowed.” Joshua’s mother Shoshonna (Ayelet Zurer) and father Samuel (Ádám Porogi) break the news that Jews have been forbidden to have pets and that all their dogs were impounded. Shepherd is adopted first by the housekeeper’s husband Frank (Miklós Kapácsy), who calls him “Wilhelm,” and is henpecked by his mean wife Greta (Lois Robbins) who uses the opportunity to tell Frank how worthless he is.

Shepherd runs away, finds his way home, sees that his family is missing, and is caught on the street by the dogcatchers. In short order, he’s chosen by Nazi Ralph (Ken Duken) who now tells the dog his name is Blitz. Blitz is so brilliant that he learns to give the Heil Hitler salute, ingratiating him with the German officer corps who assign Ralph the job of training him to cut down anyone wearing a yellow star.

Life as shown in the Treblinka barracks is neither “Stalag 17” nor “Escape from Sobibor.” Little Joshua is assigned to feed the camp’s ducks, chickens, pigs and dogs, at which time Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz excitedly sees the boy and Joshua excitedly sees “Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz. The rest follows the tenets of historical fiction, though the movie ends before the book does so we do not see the death of the dog or Joshua.

The key conversation in this film takes place early on, as Joshua’s family tries to sell Caleb in the park. They are confronted by a potential sale, but the interested gentleman takes a pass because he cannot get the dog’s papers and therefore may not be pure. Call this a subtle dig at the show dog world, but more important, the passerby has internalized the absurd idea of the purity of blood. As sixty percent of Americans know, Jews, gypsies, even Jehovah’s Witnesses went to death camps because of the so-called impurity of their red stuff in a film which avoids graphic scenes like prisoners hanging (though a few get electrocuted on the camp fence, but that’s a distant shot).

This is a compelling enough movie, an effective Holocaust 101 course, entertaining enough for the big fry and likely absorbing the teens and prepubescent. The show’s star, the title character, is uncredited in the IMDB may be played by more than one dog.

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

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

FIRE WILL COME – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRE WILL COME – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RADIUM GIRLS – movie review

RADIUM GIRLS
Cine Mosaic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ginny Mohler, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Writer: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Cast: Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Collin Kelly-Sordelet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/28/20
Opens: October 23, 2020

Poster

Pity executive in our poor corporations. You guys make nice products for us Americans, and for that we are grateful. You’ve learned how to put tobacco plants into cigarettes. You can’t go to the tobacco fields and smoke, can you? And the gasoline for our cars. You guys found a way to get the oil from the ground, get it to the local gas station, and off we go. So what happens? You guys get sued. They say you pollute the water, you destroy the air, you cause cancer, you gouge the customers, you destroy the Amazon rain forests. Maybe you corporate guys, especially the founders should have stayed in bed.

Look at radium. We honor Marie Curie for isolating it on April 20, 1902. Radium is used for calibrators and other medical equipment, lighting rods, luminous paints. But pessimists were right. When radium was used for painting the hands of watches to allow you to read time in the dark, big problems arose that continued until radium ceased being used for watches in 1970. “Radium Girls” is a disease-of-the-week-type movie to show the heroism of one teen-aged girl who in 1925 was busy with a group of others, all women, in painting the hands of watches with radium. They were told to lick the radium-soaked brushes to give them a fine tip, and then some used it to paint their fingernails, faces, teeth. The bosses at the American Radium Company told the women that there was nothing wrong with doing this, and that it was even healthy. People drank radioactive water for health and generally, Americans believed that radium had no bad side effects.

But here is the key point. The owners of American Radium knew that dipping brushes on tongues could cause serious, even fatal illnesses, but they hid that information; just as the American tobacco lobby knew well in advance that cigarettes cause cancer but did not inform the rest of the country about this.

This brings us to “Radium Girls,” based on the true story involving the women working in the factories painting watch hands eight hours a day, piecemeal work that awarded them twelve cents for each watch. In today’s money that would be about $1.78. The film does not go into how much time one watch would take so we cannot calculate what a woman’s wage would be today, but it’s not enough to live on then or now.

Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) and her sister Jo (Abby Quinn) live with their grandfather in a New Jersey dump. Bessie somehow avoids licking the camel’s hair brush, but Jo does, and as a result succeeds in being employee of the month. The seventeen-year-old Bessie becomes worried when Jo falls ill, particularly since she is the better breadwinner, is somewhat less anxious when she is diagnosed by the company doctor with flu. A short time later, the doctor reports that she has syphilis, not an easy thing to get if you’re a virgin like Jo. Other girls show symptoms—dizziness and the like. Jo goes to a labor organization under Wiley Stephen (Cara Seymour) to find help in getting a lawyer, but in her spare time she begins a relationship with Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordeldet), who introduces her to an integrated group of progressives that includes Etta (Susan Heyward), who would feel at ease protesting today in Portland or Minneapolis.

The company tries to buy off the two girls but instead the case goes to trial and gets worldwide attention. Once again: it’s not that radium is dangerous, but that the company knew it was toxic and did nothing. The rest of the film goes by predictably albeit with one major twist involving the testimony of a one Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), an exec with American Radiuim.

In the co-director’s seat, Lydia Dean Pilcher has shown her interest in women’s issues, as her “A Call to Spy” finds Churchill looking to dig up a women’s spy group. This is Ginny Mohler’s first film as co-director. They include archival films, each on screen for seconds, including women with signs urging everyone to join the Communist party, a fashionable choice during the Depression.

Needless to say the war against well-heeled corporations who know things but don’t tell (nicotine is addicting, guns kill, alcohol causes auto accidents, fracking ruins property, animal diets cause obesity and cancer and destroy the rain forests). Not mentioned in this film, which is acted with passion especially by Joey King in the star role as Bessie and edited chronologically, is that the real radium girls died miserably thanks to Big Corporate’s treatment of their employees as wage slaves depending on their jobs and willing to continue licking the brushes even after hearing of the dangers.

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

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

 

MARTIN EDEN – movie review

MARTIN EDEN
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pietro Marcello
Writer: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello, novel by Jack London
Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/2/20
Opens: October 16, 2020

Martin Eden Movie Poster

In the forceful prose that is the backbone of his writing, Jack London says this in his novel “Martin Eden.”

Who are you, Martin Eden?. He gazed at himself long and curiously.
Who are you? What are you? Where do you belong?
You belong with the legions of toil, with all that is low, and
vulgar, and unbeautiful. You belong with the oxen and the drudges,
in dirty surroundings among smells and stenches.
And yet you dare to open the books, to listen to beautiful music, to
learn to love beautiful paintings, to speak good English, to think
thoughts that none of your own kind thinks, to tear yourself away from the oxen

You need not have a whole lot of insight to note that these are the insights of a man who hates being lower class, who dislikes having to work for bosses who treat the workers like crap, to shoveling manure, toting that barge and lifting that bale. Eden is the name chosen by the author perhaps to sound ironic or maybe to illuminate the higher class to which he aspires. “Martin Eden” is considered a bildungsroman, a novel based closely on the author’s life and feelings and aspirations. The film, like the book, traces Eden’s yearnings for a life of the intellect, a life that would give him ease, and most of all a life to make him a worthy lover of a rich, beautiful woman.

As played with passion by Luca Marinelli and directed by Pietro Marcello, whose “Lost and Beautiful” deals with a man’s promise to a shepherd to save a young buffalo, Eden is a sailor who travels the world and who is told by friends and associates to stay with this kind of existence. It suits him. They warn him not to strive to be something that he is not. This passionate man, who has only a primary education, falls hopelessly in love with Elena (Jessica Cressy) after having met her and her impossibly rich family after saving the family’s young Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) from the fists of a brutal security guard.

Given Eden’s sensibilities contrasted with the ethereal personality of Elena (who plays piano, loves paintings, and enjoys the trapping of a life not distracted by the need to work), Eden absorbs the advice given to him by the young woman to first get an education. The lack of formal schooling, however, does not prevent Eden from writing, and given his world-wide experiences at sea, he has experiences to project. But his stories are rejected time after time (think of John Grisham whose manuscripts were rejected some thirty times), so Eden hopes to gain the requisite literary touch as a feverish reader.

He may have gotten nowhere with his writing or his courtship had it not been for a kind widow Maria (Carmen Pommella) who had “known love” and gives him room and board; and Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a writer and editor, who sees potential in his prodigy. Still Eden remembers his roots, shown convincingly enough when he picks up a waitress (Denise Sardisco), comparing her favorably with his upper-class love. His desire for Elena, however, is waning.

Eden has a run with politics brought on by the demands of working class people who are fighting for socialism. You might think that Eden would agree, but instead, having read the libertarian writings of Herbert Spencer, he rises to the podium and, to the disgust of the crowd, announces that subordinating the individual to the community is wrong, and that evolution teaches that we will always have masters.

“Martin Eden” is of epic scope, the kind of film that could easily have gone on for three hours, digging ever so much more deeply into the principal character’s metamorphosis. As the picture stands, filmed with evocations of the color of Neapolitan streets by Alessando Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo in Balzana Santa Maria La Fossa and Naples, “Martin Eden” is an enterprise that would likely garner the respect of Jack London.

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

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

 

WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

WAITING FOR ANYA
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ben Cookson
Screenwriter: Ben Cookson, Michael Morpurgo, Toby Torlesse adapting Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Sadi Frost, Jean Reno, Nicolas Rowe, Thomas Kretschmann, Frederick Schmidt, Gilles Marini, Tómas Lemarquis, Elsa Zylberstein, Joséphine de la Baume
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/23/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

Jean Reno, Sadie Frost, Anjelica Huston, Thomas Kretschmann, Urs Rechn, Nicholas Rowe, Elsa Zylberstein, William Abadie, Tómas Lemarquis, Gilles Marini, Joséphine de La Baume, Phin Glynn, Frederick Schmidt, Raj Awasti, Noah Schnapp, and Lukas Sauer in Waiting for Anya (2020)

Geography is destiny. If you’re born in America or Canada you have less chance of starving to death than if you come from Burkina Faso or Eritrea. If you’re born in Western Europe, you are not much of a candidate for malaria or diphtheria as you would be if you your village is near Mogadishu or Djouba. And if you’ve been privileged to be baptized a Catholic in Sioux City, you are probably not going to be victim of anti-Semites.

However! If you have the distinct disadvantage of entering the world in Germany or Poland during the 1930s and remain there despite warnings, you are in deep defecation. Once the German borders closed, Jews remaining there or in any of that country’s occupations will inevitably be shot or gassed, perhaps tortured in a concentration camp and hanged. So what to do if that’s your state of affairs? You’ve got to forget about your house, your clothing, your bank account, and hightail it into a nearby more tolerant country like Albania and Bulgaria. Ben Cookson’s narrative drama “Waiting for Anya” deals with one hero who escorted a Jewish family over the Pyrenees to safety in (Fascist, ironically) Spain.

Despite how gruesome a movie on this subject looks, you probably should not worry about taking your children, even as young as eight. The movie, like the movie of the same name written by the British laureate author Michael Morpurgo, could not be described as “Holocaust 101,” because that would imply a college level course. This is more like middle school material which might be laughed at by some adults who think that this is a mature film, but clearly the dialogue serves as easily digestible for kids. (Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse” is about a horse fighting in France who longs for the return of his human companion.)

In his sophomore feature, director Ben Cooksen sets his film in the French village of Lescun during the early 1940s and filmed who-knows-where because the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are clueless about the breathtaking “Sound of Music”-style mountain range, “Waiting for Anya” centers on Jo (Noah Schnapp), a shepherd in his mid-teens, impressionable, a lad who is obviously not thinking of where can find a date for Saturday night. Why not? He is too busy risking his life to save Jews. Since he and his family—most notably his grandpere (Jean Reno) and a no-nonsense widow, Horcada (Anjelica Huston)—await the return of Jo’s dad (Gilles Marini) from a prisoner of war camp. At the same time Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jew, had escaped from a train taking his fellow Jews to a concentration camp, not before depositing his little girl Anya through a window into a bus. (Benjamin’s escape is among the less credible points in the movie, as he simply leaves the sealed train, hiding under it until it departs.) Benjamin hangs out hidden in the village, awaiting the return of Anya, who had departed in a different direction by bus.

Though the southern French village is under the Vichy regime, not directly occupied by the Nazis, a group of soldiers under a Lieutenant (Tómas Lemarguis) are guarding the frontier to prevent Jews from escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain. Jo takes time from supervising the sheep and feeding the pigs to make sure a band of Jewish survivors stay hidden in a cave, all means for death (including Jo) if discovered.

Aside from the sheep and pigs, “Waiting for Anya” features a dog, perhaps a Border Collie which is the breed best suited for herding sheep; and a bear, which threatens the life of Jo in one scene. Though the whole town are in on protecting the Jews, there is also one good German, a corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) who may the only one from his country who knows where the Jews are hiding but says nothing. He endears himself to Jo, acting as an unusual mentor to the boy.

A lively performance from Noah Schnapp who is 15 in real life and can be seen on the Netflix series “Stranger Things” should captivate the youngsters in the movie audience with his audacity, his desire to learn (even if it’s from one of the Bosch), and his high ethical conduct. Think of similar Holocaust adventures marketed to kids as well as adults such as “Life is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (which makes you think that the young son of a concentration camp commandant chats amiably with an inmate on the other side of barbed wire). Don’t guffaw at the simple dialogue and the sentiment projected herein, now that you know that Morpugo’s novel is recommended for kids, its scary cover noting that “they only have one chance to escape.”

As Holocaust survivors die off and as teens are riveted to the dumb-phones, many young people have no idea what the word “Holocaust” means. This movie serves as a decent primer. (Hey! It’s not just kids who are uninformed. Even some adults today think that Trump is being impeached for cutting a devil’s bargain with Czechoslovakia.)

Everybody speaking English.

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

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

BRIAN BANKS – movie review

BRIAN BANKS
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tom Shadyac
Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
Cast: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 6/5/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

Brian Banks Movie Poster

When Spain in the 15th century determined to make the entire country Catholic, Jews and Muslims were told that if they did not convert to Catholicism, they would be expelled from the country. Most did. The authorities set up the Spanish Inquisition. If a converso, i.e. a Jew who converted to Catholicism, could be caught secretly practicing Judaism, e.g. by lighting candles on Friday night, he or she could be hauled before the court of the Inquisition and, if found guilty, could be tortured and executed. Some say that it was enough for a servant to accuse her boss of heresy, of practicing Judaic rituals though professing identity as a new Catholic. The servant’s word would be taken. A similar event in a way, made into art by the 1960 novel by Harper Lee “To Kill a Mockingbird,” deals with a false accusation of rape made by a Mayella Ewell, a white woman against Tom Robinson, a black man.

It took some guts to produce the movie “Brian Banks” at a time that the #MeToo movement carries momentum as women have stepped forward in greater numbers than ever before accusing men of sexual harassment and more. Men who have questioned the veracity of accusers are ostracized as Neanderthals who want to bring back the 1950s, when women, having pledged to honor, cherish and obey their future husbands, stayed in the kitchen and sucked up (so to speak) any harassment of a sexual nature. “Brian Banks” is the anti-#MeToo movie, though since it’s based on true facts, the cast and crew cannot legitimately be faulted for standing up for a man who had been falsely accused of rape.

The title character is played by Aldis Hodge in a career-making role. Hodge, one of the most muscular guys you’ll see in the movies, delivers a stunning performance in a powerful movie closely based on true events that took place beginning in 2002. Though his director Tom Shadyac is known largely for comedies like “Bruce Almighty” and “The Nutty Professor,” Shadyac does quite an impressive job hammering home the injustices of our legal system, here specifically against what is called California’s “broken system.” (If a blue state’s system is broken, what must be going on in Alabama?)

Brian Banks had everything going for him. A football player at Long Beach, California high school offered a scholarship at USC which may have seen him as destined for the NFL, he briefly flirts with a female high school student, Kennish Rice (Xosha Roquemore) in the hall. They go past other classrooms into a secluded area known as a make-out spot, kiss, and are spotted by a security guard. Returning to class, Kennisha—who later admits that she was afraid to tell her mother that she was sexually active—accuses Banks of rape. Banks’s lawyer, who must have been as stupid as Kennisha, never insisted on DNA evidence, tells her client that he should plead guilty and take probation rather than risk a 41-year-sentence, but looks as shocked as Banks when the judge denies probation and hands down a six-year sentence with years of parole following. His football career appears over, Banks cannot get a job, and he is harassed repeated by his parole officer when Banks temporarily leaves the county to interview for jobs.

Banks contacts Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), founder and head of the California Innocence Project, who at first sees the man as another of the hundreds, more likely thousands of petitioners asking for help in getting their sentences overturned. Behind the scenes, Kennisha’s mother (Monique Grant) sues the school for providing lax security, winning a $1.5 million settlement. With that kind of money, we cannot expect Kennisha to ‘fess up and admit that she lied, thereby losing the award and freeing Banks to get his life back.

Many scenes should enrage an audience of fair-minded people who still think that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Watch how the technicalities of the law prevent common sense judgments. Best example: during the end of his parole period Banks gets Kennesha to admit her lies, the confession is taped, but the tape cannot be admitted in court since Kennesha did not give permission to be recorded. Banks is provoked into a fight in prison, breaks the guy’s jaw, and is sentenced to 60 days in the hole, in solitary, a tiny room that could be used on the set of a movie taking place on Devil’s Island. If Americans who regularly cite the Second Amendment would protest violations of the Eighth Amendment as forcefully, maybe we would get somewhere to creating a more just society.

Greg Kinnear delivers mightily as a man who has noble ideals but can disappoint since he must choose his cases among thousands of requests, while Sherri Shepherd plays the kind of mom we all want who will stick up for her boy, wanting his happiness more than anything else. Contrast her role with that of Kennisha’s mom who, in sticking up for her lying daughter enacts a scene that smacks of racist stereotypes.

Yes, the movie can be schmaltzy, but the schmaltz is what brings tears to the eyes and joy in the ultimate outcome. This is a movie that’s easy to recommend for large public consumption, a “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 21st Century.

For the actual facts of the case go to https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3901

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

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

FAST COLOR – movie review

FAST COLOR
Code Black
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, David Strathairn, Christopher Denham
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 3/27/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Fast Color Movie Poster

Are movies in 2019 heading for the metaphoric and the allegorical? You’d think so after seeing Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which throws symbols at us so fast that we’re glad the film is not in 3D. Where his “Get Out!” was about racism and the white liberals’ hypocrisy, “Us” is about the whole America, which Peele divides into the rich and powerful and the underclass that serves it. “Fast Color” is at base a sci-fi thriller with a few mild aspects of horror, its domestic scene serving largely to make us more aware of the need for men to crush feminism, but it is also about a helicopter parent who smothers her daughter to such an extent that she becomes rebellious and moves away for a long time. Still, it can be enjoyed even by folks who don’t give much of a fig (to coin a metaphor) for symbols, since it shows domestic scenes to which some of us can relate. And for those who like computer graphics/visual effects, director Julia Hart has her abundant visual effects team throw in some bright color, albeit not of the fast kind.

Julia Hart, whose “Miss Stevens” tracks a teacher who shepherds a group to a drama competition (to which I can relate since I arranged similar activities for my high school students), and the upcoming “Stargirl,” about a homeschooled teen who shakes this up in an Arizona high school, may not be dealing with high-school kids in “Fast Color” but her interest remains with young women. The primary focus, and that of her real-life husband Jordan Horowitz who serves as co-writer, is on Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a confused woman in her early thirties who is on the run. Formerly a drug addict, she for the past eight years of so has left her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) in the care of Ruth’s mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint).

Without the help of her mother, she is on the run from the government in a dystopian America that has not seen rain for a long time, conjuring up John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” if you will. She has a special power that makes a pursuing government out to haul her in to study her since when she has a seizure, the earth shakes and pictures fall from the wall of her solitary New Mexico town where Bo and Bo’s granddaughter are living. In particular Bill (Christopher Denham), a scientist who will advise Ruth to stop running because she is “hurting people,” has been trying to track her down.

This power has been handed down through the generations, though Bo, who does not get seizures, has a hobby of breaking up objects into molecules and putting them together, shown as she whips her cigarette into its toxic parts and puts it together. Much of the action is like the CGI; on a low key until the final minutes when the sky bursts into colors, the family’s principal trick consisting of taking the sky apart and putting it together into its current, bland blue color. Ultimately Sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn) hopes to track the runaway down, while we in the audience get the story’s principal twist. Yes, there’s something about this fellow that makes him more than just the enforcer of laws, a guy who has no intention of locking up his prey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has entertained audiences in “A Wrinkle in Time,” another imaginative tale involving a father’s disappearance in space and the team sent to find him, but you’re probably wondering about her name. Her father, Patrick Mbatha is a Black South African doctor, and her mother Anne Raw, a Caucasian English nurse. The British-born actress delivers nicely, whether causing earthquakes all around her during her seizures, breaking free of the ropes that bind her, or checking into a fleabag motel that charges as much for a huge jug of water as it does for the room, though despite her special powers she is vulnerable almost throughout.

The problem with “Fast Color” is that the story is not solid enough to convince the audience that it serves the transcendent purpose of seeing it as a feminist allegory of three women (yes, even young Lila can make a bowl rise from the table and disappear into a collage of colorful dots) being chased by men who, if they could, deprive the trio of their powers. Nor are we convinced that the behavior of Ruth’s mother, Bo, caused Ruth to disappear from a forlorn home and desert her own daughter for eight years. In short, the tale could have used more flashes of melodrama.

“Fast Color” was filmed by Michael Fimognari exclusively in New Mexico.

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

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

WHERE IS KYRA? – movie review

WHERE IS KYRA?

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Andrew Dosunmu
Screenwriter:  Darci Picoult based on a story by Darci Picoult and Andrew Dosunmu
Cast:  Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Sam Robards, Suzanne Shepherd
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/12/18
Opens: April 2018
Inline image 1
Andrew Dosunmu, who directs “Where is Kyra?” is known to cinephiles especially for “Mother of George,” which finds a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn, the woman unable to have a child and thereby undermining her Basotho culture.  The woman, panicked at the thought of criticism she would get from her own society, takes dramatic action to override her shame.  Similarly, in “Where is Kyra?” the title character played by Michelle Pfeifer is desperate, not because of her specific culture but because she has no money. She apparently has little hope of getting a job (though only about 40 years old and, if we believe her, knowledgeable in Power Point and Excel), and needing to do almost anything simply to keep avoid eviction from her Queens, New York apartment.

Just as people might attend this film as fans of Pfeifer rather than via a special interest in the story, others may pick it up because of the particular techniques of its director, since Dosunmu keeps most of the action in the dark, lets visuals rather than dialogue express a good part of the plot, and is fond of long takes during which time he has his cameraperson Bradford Young focus on close-ups and medium shots of Kyra’s face.

The tale seems a cross between the working-class themes of Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake” for example) and the absolute pits of Maxim Gorky (“The Lower Depths”).    The influence of “The Lower Depths” comes from that classic film’s treatment of the imprisoning hold of poverty; the disheartening odds of people rising from such social despair.  Kyra, who at first does not resemble the typical personality of the homeless and the near homeless, appears to be living in a recent time when we had ten percent employment.  She is unable to find anything, nor does she expect too much when she visits a seedy restaurant where she was promised a job but is told “My husband hired someone else without telling me.”  She cannot get office work though she allegedly has the skills and the middle-class personality to handle this.  At the bottom, she sandwiches a sign for a tax office, giving out circulars, and even here nobody picks up the ad and the tax office does not even keep her on the job the next day.

Yet she is a deserving person.  She has taken care of her physically old and disabled mother, bathing her, fixing her oxygen mask, keeping her out of a nursing home.  When her mother dies she tries to cash her pension check, ultimately committing a crime by disguising herself as a crone with a silver-colored wig, large shades and a winter hat, hobbling down the street in a cane and pretending to be the old woman.  With shaky hands and the tip-tap of her cane, her performance is so convincing that we in the audience might wonder if the role is played by Suzanne Shepherd, who does quite a job in the guise of Kyra’s mom.  While distracting herself in a bar, she meets  Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), another victim of our callous capitalist system, working part time driving people to and from the airport and finding a place in a nursing home as a caretaker.  What looks like a one-night stand becomes a relationship, as Doug not only continues the courtship but becomes enveloped in Kyra’s illegal acts.

The title of the film, “Where is Kyra?” could relate to the scenes in which various officials look for Kyra, asking her “mother” when she will be back, and those scenes in which she becomes the mother and tells officials that Kyra is out. This is a slow-moving, dark, perhaps allegorical tale of poverty in the midst of plenty, which makes me wonder how many Americans, known for having no savings, can manage long-term unemployment and retirement.  It also reminds me of what one homeless man, soliciting funds in the subway, admonishes, “This can happen to you.”

Unrated.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THY FATHER’S CHAIR – movie review

THY FATHER’S CHAIR

No Permits Produktions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Àlex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi,
Cast:  Abraham, Shraga, Hanan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/23/18
Opens: In Theaters Oct. 13, 2017. Available on VOD March 30, 2018.

When you really dislike a film, perhaps the worst insult you can throw its way is that “it’s like watching paint dry.”  How about a film that’s about a  crew’s cleaning out a filthy house in Brooklyn?  It’s tempting to say the same, but Spaniard Àlex Lora and Australian Antonio Tibali deliver a documentary that at first appears like an instructional film for house cleaning trainees.  However given the rich conversations that they evoke while at the same time avoiding interviews, often the worst part of documentaries, they give us a rich, fly-on-the-wall look at two brothers, Abraham and Shraga, who worship in a Hasidic synagogue though not quite Haredim themselves.  Whether we come out of the brief seventy-five minutes understanding why this pair have filled their inherited home with the detritus of years is debatable.  I’m guessing that since their mom and dad died, they did not want to lose memories of their beloved parents.  This may explain why they kept the books intact, though some were not picked up in years (a set was upside down).  But why keep stuff that they picked up during the past months and years including trash bags from the supermarket, bedbug-infested mattresses, crumbling newspapers, and sour milk, plus some strange mixture in a pot, all of which smelled to high heaven (perhaps not the best word to describe it) as did their rooms?

In fact the twins, especially the more highlighted Abraham (two minutes younger than Shraga), call a professional clean-up crew when their upstairs tenants threaten a rent strike, complaining about the stench and maybe about the pereginating roaches that they would inevitably inherit if they had not already been so visited.  Like the stereotypical little old ladies who fill their homes with cats, Abraham and Shraga have the neshama to open their abode to the lucky felines, who did not seem to mind the filth and stench at all.  In fact in the movie’s most ironic scene, one of the nameless kitties spends her entire screen time cleaning herself on one of the several mattresses that the brothers had collected.

Abraham sports a huge gray beard and speaks English throughout without a trace of a Yiddish accent (there’s a touch of Brooklynese in some of the words, though), even chatting with his brother in English.  He is of course fluent in Hebrew, delivering an all-too-brief, mellifluous concert from a Jewish scroll.  Yet while Hanan, the Israeli head of the cleaning agency, professes his atheism, he is probably be surprised that Abraham, with all the trapping of Orthodoxy, labeled himself agnostic.  He uses the word “God” two or three times, a practice considered taboo outside the synagogue by Orthodox Jews, who refer to the Deity instead as “Hashem” or “Adoshem.”

You of course know the directors from their movie “Godka Circa,” a ten-minute look at one Alifa, who looks up at the Somai sky, contemplating her life as a shepherdess, and knowing that some time soon, her life will change.  The theme is obviously present in “Thy Father’s Chair,” since the brothers are about to embark on a new phase of their lives.

Hanan, who invades the house, finding the toilet packed with schmutz (probably not kept so in remembrance of the occupants’ parents), works with an a group of understanding Black employees, who take a week, maybe more, turning out a spacious abode that portends a new beginning for the brothers.  Or does it?

Unrated.  75 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

A DOG’S PURPOSE – movie review

  • A DOG’S PURPOSE
    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Filme
    Grade: B+
    Director: Lasse Hallström

    Written by: Cathryn Michon from W. Bruce Cameron’s novel

    Cast: Britt Robertson, Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, K.J. Apa, Peggy Lipton, Logan Miller, Bryce Gheisar

    Screened at: Regal E-Walk, NYC, 1/23/17

    Opens: January 27, 2017

    A Dog's Purpose Movie Poster

    Not only does the movie “A Dog’s Purpose” answer that very question: Lasse Hallström, who directed, is wrestling with another, one that must have been puzzling Hindus and Buddhists for centuries. That is: when a dog dies, a good dog mind you, into what living thing is it reincarnated?  To find the answer to the first question, you have to see the picture. The intriguing, albeit not original, answer is revealed near the conclusion. As for the second, the Golden Retriever named Bailey is so good, so really good, that he returns to earth after his demise as…you guessed it. A dog! Remember what “dog” spelled backwards is, and you’ll realize that the highest form of life for a dog that has (temporarily) gone to his Great Reward, is to come back as another, but always a different breed. 

    The novel of the same name by Bruce Cameron was on the New York Times best-seller list for forty-nine weeks, the novelist presumably happy that this film is directed by Hallström, who has good credentials. He was at the helm for “Hachi,” the heartbreaking, sentimental tale based on a real life of a stray Japanese dog taken in by a college professor who bonded so exquisitely that the dog met his human companion after work daily at a train station and stayed with the man many years after the professor died. “A Dog’s Purpose” is more like a two-hanky fable than “Hachi”’s four-hanky but it sits well on the shelf of pup films at least since my favorite “Lassie Come Home.” (One may wonder whether Hallström was named for the collie.)

    The tale of reincarnation focuses on four principal dogs; Bailey, Buddy, Tino and Ellie. After each one dies (the demise occurs offstage), the new incarnations are fully aware of their previous lives despite being of different breeds. The most lovable, Bailey, a golden retriever, is taken in by young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) who implores his dad to adopt him. Since they live in a rural area,that should have been a no-brainer, though dad’s good will is to be tested later when he becomes a drunk and fights with his wife. Ethan throws the football; Bailey retrieves. Ethan meets cute Hannah (Britt Robertson) at a festival site. They like each other, the dog interferes with their kissing, Ethan gets a full football scholarship to a college in Michigan, but tragedy strikes. When Bailey becomes too old to play and ultimately dies, he is reincarnated into a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, who is later reborn, and then again and again: déjà vu. 

    Considering that a large dog has a life span of at least eight years and a small dog can have up to fifteen, you would think that forty or more years would have passed from the film’s introduction to the conclusion. As a German Shepherd, Ellie is in the K-9 corps, monitored and trained by Carlos (Juan Ortiz), in one incident doing his duty in chasing down a kidnapper.  In any case Bailey, who decades later returns as Buddy and is coincidentally adopted by Ethan (Dennis Quaid), tries mightily to convince his new owner that he still responds to the name Bailey. Happy ending.

    Why do people have dogs? Kevin Kline’s character Otto in the 1988 film “A Fish Called Wanda” wondered about dog ownership: “I don’t get it!” The answer could be human loneliness as Carlos, the policeman in the K-9 corps is a widower dining at home alone, the middle-aged Ethan (Dennis Quaid) had split with his girlfriend, and is also alone, while young Ethan is at a loss when his parents continually fight and his drunken father embarrasses him in front of his friends.

    All is told from a dog’s point of view, as we watch the human beings from the ground up in many cases. With the help of Josh Gad, who takes on the voices of all the dogs, we are made privy to each dog’s psyche. Each wonders at first what’s going on, though never challenging the fact of reincarnation. Each likes food, which means that in a children’s movie inevitably tables are turned over, adults are tripped, cheeks are licked. This is a delightful interpretation of the novel, perhaps too long for a children’s dramedy, so maybe one of the dogs should have been left on the cutting room floor. One scene that I thought was omitted was the video that went viral of the attempt by the crew to drop a dog into the rapids. Though the German Shepherd did well at rehearsals, we watch as the crew people tried to force the reluctant dog into the water while the American Humane Association monitor must have been asleep. (He was suspended.) The premiere had to be canceled, but in the current incarnation we do see the Shepherd jump merrily into the rapids to save a drowning woman. 

    The movie was filmed in Winnipeg, Manitoba to evoke the rural scenery.
    Rated PG. 100 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments?  Do you agree or not with this review?

MEGAN LEAVEY – movie review

  • MEGAN LEAVEY         

    Bleecker Street

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade: B

    Director:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite

    Written by: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt

    Cast: Kate Mara, Ramón Rodríguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton, Sam Keeley, Common, Edie Falco

    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,

    Opens: June 9, 2017

    Megan Leavey Movie Poster

    When I was a kid I thought that Norman Ferguson and Tee He’s “Pinocchio” was not only the best movie I had seen but probably the best movie that will ever be made.  Seventy-six years later, when I sit in on some allegedly more mature pictures, I am likely to think back to my judgement on that cartoon with fondness for its accuracy.  I graduated from kiddie cartoons three years later when “Lassie Come Home” became my favorite picture of all time and began my admiration for the acting chops of Elizabeth Taylor.  “Lassie Come Home” features a destitute family that has to sell its faithful collie, a dog which, having bonded with its original family, escapes from its new owner and treks from Scotland to its Yorkshire home.  The term “faithful” does not begin to describe the intense feeling of a dog and its human partner.  The dog-human bond is now explored with finesse and sentimentality by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose “Megan Leavey” recounts a true story in narrative terms and focuses on Kate Mara as the title character.

    “Megan Leavey,” the story of a young woman and the dog she loves, has a PG-13 rating, which would make this a natural for the small fry, though given their limited experience in life they may assume that the only people who enter the service voluntarily do so because they have distressing home lives or cannot find a job that suits their ability.  The title character, played by Kate Mara, is fired from her job entertaining kids because, her boss says, she does not have the ability to bond with people.  At that point she has no idea that she’d be an ace bonding with a large, aggressive German Shepherd, but she finds out after enlisting in the Marines, following a serious argument with her mother Jackie Leavey (Edie Falco, who plays a different Jackie on TV) who is divorced from her father, Bob (Bradley Whitford).  Jackie is not physically abusive but is simply fed up with a daughter who loafs around the house with nothing to do.  Give Jackie credit for motivating her unfocused daughter to find herself.

    In the Marines, she is assigned after urinating in public at the base to the K9 unit, washing down the dogs’ “business,” and feeling threatened by one particularly fierce Shepherd called Rex. With her new perseverance, she persuades her superior officer Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common) to let her train Rex after the dog had inflicted a bad cut on the arm of her handler.  She, the dog, and her fellow Marines go on missions in Iraq to find weapons and explosives, and Rex handles the job with aplomb, though not even this prize dog can find weapons of mass destruction.  But when Rex is injured and retired from the force as certified “unadoptable,” Megan takes upon herself the project of getting the Marines to overturn their ruling, using the persuasive skills of her New York Senator Chuck Schumer to use his office for her benefit.

    Some action is shown, including one scene in which an Iraqi citizen, thanking the Marines for “dealing with the insurgents,” is uncovered as a terrorist with an array of guns hidden behind some carpeting.  Rex once again becomes a war hero and by extension his devoted trainer.  But this is in no way the kind of war picture like “American Sniper,” a terrific action movie also based on a true story, and perhaps the lack of more explosive action results from its direction by a woman.  (Cowperthwaite is best known for “Blackfish,” a documentary about people and whales, similarly a fine choice for parents and their kids.)

    Before seeing “Megan Leavey,” I had assumed that women in the Marines are tough-as-nails, the sort you wouldn’t want to mess with.  Given that this picture is based on the real-life hero who is petite (the real Megan Leavey is somewhat taller), with nary a smidgen of vulgarity—though she can go out and get drunk and be one of the guys.  No sexual harassment is present in this man’s Marines, and the ending, oozing with sentiment, could have you in tears of joy.  Kate Mara fill the role quite nicely, trekking with the crew to filming locations in Rome Georgia, Charleston South Carolina, and in Spain’s Cartagena, Mazarron and Zaragoza.

    Rated PG-13.  116 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member NY Film Critics Online

LAST FLAG FLYING – movie review

 

LAST FLAG FLYING

Amazon Studios
Director:  Richard Linklater
Screenwriter:  Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan, Darryl Ponicsan
Cast:  Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/23/17
Opens: November 3, 2017

With our current President”s making a badge of honor about lying—one source states that since he took office he made 1,200 statements with at least partial untruths—“Last Flag Flying” serves as a criticism of the lies that administrations make that lead us into unnecessary wars.  The sad part is that the U.S. has been fighting countries that have not attacked us and which cost so many lives that Presidents seem unwilling to pull out lest they admit that the soldiers died in vain.  (This is obviously false when talking about the Vietnam War, since the Americans fled in helicopters almost when the Viet Cong were rumbling into Saigon.)

Richard Linklater is known to cinephiles for his look at generational rites as in “Suburbia,” wherein teens support each other in their advance to adulthood. “Last Flag Flying” is no exception as the director and co-writer assemble an ensemble of three people with only their Vietnam experience in common—and that appears more than enough.  Never mind that one buddy, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) is a raging extrovert, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) a decent and quiet fellow, and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) a bridge between the two, one who in reverend garb can barely tolerate cussin’ but who opens up during this road movie.

The action takes place in New Hampshire, Boston, and Virginia in 2003 as “Doc” stops at a bar run by perpetual inebriate Sal—who proves at least that he likes the product he sells.  Though difficult to recall him by looks after thirty years, Sal is over the moon at running into his Marine buddy, though he soon learns that his friend with the suppressed emotions is on his way to fetch his son for burial.  The twenty-one year old died allegedly in an ambush that saw him opening up his weapon like a hero, but the first major lie of the day is planted as the threesome discover the real story.  They head to an African-American church led by their pastor friend, get invited to his home where the pastor admonishes Sal to watch his language.  But when the three take off to meet up with Doc’s son’s casket, he opens up almost as much as when he was on active duty in the ‘nam.

Much of the story is somber, and indeed a melancholy mood clouds the action, though there is a single, laugh-out-loud hilarious scene when the three recall Vietnamese bordellos surround the American base, and penis jokes abound, particularly about Sal’s phallus that was so rock hard in the whorehouse that he could scarcely move the rest of his body.  Alas, now that Sal has a metal plate in his head, the hustling action is a thing of the past.

In a critical blow against the Marines, an action that surpasses in audacity the kneeling this year of some football players during the National Anthem, “Doc” demands that the Corps not bury the body in Arlington, as he has learned the truth about the killing, but insists on driving it in a U-Haul van to his New Hampshire digs to be buried next to the young man’s mother.

The picture has a solid, credible mixture of comedy and drama, melancholy and hilarity, as you might expect from three of the best actors in the business, particularly from Bryan Cranston who is arguably the best movie actor of his generation.

Rated R.  124 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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