ABOUT A TEACHER – movie review

ABOUT A TEACHER
Hanan Harchol Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hanan Harchol
Screenwriter: Hanan Harchol
Cast: Leslie Hendrix, Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Aurora Leonard, Kate Eastman, Yan Xi, Hanan Harchol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/26/20
Opens: April 7, 2020

About a Teacher

As a guy who spent a 32-year career in the high school classroom, I sometimes wondered why there are far more movies about police than about teachers. Think of “Training Day,” “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Untouchables,” and the best of all, “Serpico.” After all only a small fraction of us have had careers in law enforcement and most of us were never in real trouble, but we’ve all been in classrooms and we should we fascinated by stories about teachers, comparing the movie pedagogues with our own. Wait. On second thought, there are at least one hundred movies about classrooms that are considered among the best, including “Election,” “Chalk,” “The English Teacher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “School of Rock,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” So maybe our own experience in classrooms is mirrored by quite a number of shows about our favorite mentors and our worst nightmares.

Now comes what the marketing people might call a feel good movie. It’s “About a Teacher,” and though happily not a documentary, it follows the experience of an award-winning instructor who felt like quitting during his first year in an inner-city school. Since his favorite word is “perseverance,” he struggled through the first two years, was almost fired before beginning even a second semester, and went on to guide students into using the imparted knowledge to win many thousands of dollars in awards from festivals and the like.

Writer-director Hanan Harchol also has a bit role of “Mr. Caldwell,” an assistant principal who in real life is the great man who helped create careers of his rambunctious students in a tough school. The title character is played by Dov Tiefenbach, known to his students as Mr. Harchol, or just Mister, or Mr. H. At the same time Harchol’s fellow teachers call each other Mr. or Ms., rarely by first names, which in my experience might have been the case before the mid-1960s when we had to wear jackets and ties but now just first names and a t-shirt are de rigueur. The current dress code is good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was good enough for me—and for Hanan.

You would think that Hanan Harchol would have no problem even from the first day since, after all, he is not teaching algebra, which might be of little interest to teens in almost any high school, but instructs them in film making. Here the kids have something to do with their hands. They don’t sit still facing the front of the room listening to long lectures or trying to participate in subjects they can’t really get their minds into. Instead, Harchol faces the indifference so dismaying in “Precious,” in which that title character, sitting in a history class where students are simply talking to each other and ignoring the instructor, bops a kid on the head with a notebook, demanding that the whole class pay attention.

Because of the discipline problems facing Harchol during his first year, he gets into frequent tiffs with Ms. Murray (Leslie Hendrix), the department chair, who could easily fit into a role as Ilsa Koch, the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald concentration camp. She will turn out to have a heart of gold, though, which makes us recall that people wear masks to cover their real feelings and attitudes.

So the kids are a problem. When one of them refuses to turn off his computer, Harchol moves to turn it off himself. The youngster grabs him by the wrist, inflaming the educator who yells “Get out,” notwithstanding that at a previous time, several of his pupils are roaming around the hall leading to an admonishing by an administrator for sending someone out of the classroom without supervision—which could make him lose his license. Seeking a mentor (not realizing that Ms. Murray has been just that all along), he consults a young, attractive Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard) whose algebra class quietly works at their desks, seeking to learn what she does to get such attention. After receiving feedback from her, he is startled to hear her ask him a key question: “Do you like the kids?” Aha. A genuine affection for your charges will be felt by them, and you’ve won half the battle.

I related strongly to the discussions in the faculty lounge, which features the burnt-out Mr. McKenna (Tyler Hollinger), whom Ana Martinez calls an a**hole. There is considerable grousing when the department chair conducts a meeting, telling the men and women about the demands of the state: lesson plan every day, suitable for inspection. Call each parent of every failing student. Keep the pace: do not fall behind, spending too much time on one project.

Inevitably Harchol cannot avoid taking his problems home, where his sometimes bored wife has to listen to her husband’s tales of woe when all she wants to do is to get some sleep. But when they clash on whether to start a family, you might think the marriage can go belly-up just as Harchol may get fired from his job. Harchol notes several times that he received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools, which makes one wonder why he did not opt to get a gig at least in a community college. It’s not as though he carried with him a liking for teens, so what’s the deal? Since the story is based closely on real life, I would like to know the answer, especially since hell, the maximum pay right now in New York City public schools, one of the highest paying municipalities in the country, is $119,000, but you have to work 25 years and have a Master’s plus 60 credits to get there. A lawyer getting a fairly decent job right out of law school can make that at age twenty-four. So can a pharmacist. So can a lot of people.

Harchol deals with individual problems of some of his charges, including one girl who had been “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend from the age of five to the age of nine, and another who sleeps in class because he has two jobs after school and has to look after a child, though he is only seventeen. In the end comes a Hallmark statement by Ms. Murry, who notes (decades before the coronavirus business), that we have little control over many things, but that “the only thing we have is the ability to give away.”

If you do not expect the movie to be as lively as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or chaotic and violent like “To Sir With Love,” or as wacky as “Teachers” (an escaped mental patient serves a day as a substitute), or as horrific as “Never Let Me Go,” you should have a good time enjoying the inevitable rise of Harchol from a miserable failure to brilliant educator. No, that’s not a spoiler: you already know the trajectory. It’s quite well played by Dov Tiefenbach, though at the age of 38 he seems long in tooth to perform as a beginning teacher. He has particularly interesting conversations in a coffee shop with his dad (Tibor Feldman), who makes fun of his son’s gig entertaining restaurant guests with his guitar but is proud of the lad’s choice to be a teacher.

The students, who may be improving much of the dialogue, were actual pupils of Harchol who came back to play themselves at age seventeen. As their teacher said to them many time, “good job.” This is Hanan Harchol’s freshman film, though he may be known to some at the helm of the short, animated TV episodes of “Jewish Food for Thought.”We look forward to his next venture.

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

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

TEACHER – movie review

TEACHER
Cinedigm
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Adam Dick
Screenwriter: Adam Dick
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/2/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Teacher (2019)

Melania Trump’s took on a mission as First Lady to deal with cyberbullying. Her “Be best” message is probably at least as effective against bullies as Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No made a dent in drug addiction. Cyberbullying aside, the most painful kind of bullying occurs directly, physically, not on the ‘net, although the latter has been unfortunately responsible for suicides among victims. “Teacher,” Adam Dick’s movie, which deals with both forms of bullying, has a clear message, which is that bullies are people who have been abused themselves. His characters, from a 16-year-old student who commits horrendous acts of torturing others, to the title character himself, now an English teacher who had been physically attacked in the past, commit acts of bullying which reflect back to their own childhoods. One of the abusers is a sixteen-year-old kid who you will think has always been coddled and who is sufficiently respected by his classmates, turns out to have been a victim, while the teacher, picked upon when he was of middle school age, has a psychotic break, doing what you’d never expect such a meek gent to execute.

There are surprises in “Teacher,” making it often riveting in its brutality. James Lewis (David Dastmalchian) serves as an English teacher in a suburban Chicago high school. It’s no coincidence that the play he chooses for his class, “The Merchant of Venice,” is his preferred text given that Shylock, like the teacher and like one particular kid in his class, is both victimizer and victim. As a kid himself (played by Bryce Dannenberg), he was endlessly taunted, in one scene pushed into the mud by a body of water by young men who threaten to drown him. Now, as an adult with a drinking problem and undergoing the stress of an impending divorce and anxiety about making tenure, he has the making of a gentle, almost saintly man who is ripe for a psychotic break.

He is pained by the experience of Daniela (Esme Perez), who is cyberbullied for her race and who becomes a candidate for suicide, but even more so by the experience of Preston (Matthew Garry), an intelligent, sensitive boy with a hobby in photography who is tormented by jocks under the leadership of Tim Cooper (Curtis Edward Jackson). In one scene on a school bus, Cooper plunges a needle into Preston’s seat causing a back injury, but that injury turns out to be scarcely worth worrying about when his very life, or at least his eyesight, is in Cooper’s crosshairs. Cooper is a rich kid pushed to achieve as a pitcher for the high school team by his rich, well-connected father Bernard (Kevin Pollak). The stage is set for a showdown involving father and son, the teacher serving to be the surprising combination of hero and villain.

Writer-director Adam Dick, building upon his twenty-minute short “Teacher” about an unbalanced high-school instructor, turns out an expanded freshman film sure designed to engage the emotions of his viewers. He is fortunate in employing the skills of David Dastmalchian, who can do meek and aggressive with authority.

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

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

WHITE NOISE MOVIE REVIEW

WHITE NOISE

Netflix
Reviewed for FilmFactual.com and BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach, novel by Dom DeLillo
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, May Nivola, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, Henry Moore, Dean Moore
Screened at: Netflix subscription, 12/30/22
Opens: December 30, 2022 streaming

You’ve probably heard people say, “I’m not afraid of dying.” First, what do they mean? Are they not sorry to lose out on the good things that continued existence would offer? Do they not simply care that their existence, which they take for granted, will no longer be? Second: They are probably lying. Just as racists are the first ones to say “I don’t care if he’s white, black or polka-dot,” people who put on a show of bravery by appearing devil-may-care are likely to be scared shitless of dying.

We bring this up because Dom De Lillo’s 1985, postmodern novel is more about the fear of death than any other emotion: that death is stronger even than love. But Noah Baumbach’s movie, which follows the De Lillo’s test closely, is thematically about our fear of dying. In the film as in the novel, people take a pill that allegedly frees them of that fear, but of course the anxiety about dying is too strong for any pill to work. Our anxieties are symbolized by a white, poisonous cloud that wraps itself around a neighborhood. Even when nothing appears wrong, our anxieties are driven as well by the endless media’s endless stream, call it a white noise, projected with such force that one of the children in “White Noise” recites a part of one TV ad in her sleep.

If you get the idea that “White Noise” is a mordant film, you can drop that assumption, since Baumbach’s happily embraces the humor in the novel, injecting absurd analogies, going off on wild tangents. The family that “White Noise” deals with is ordinary, mundane, commonplace, and at the same time the dialogue is not what you’re likely to hear if you’re a typical man or women concerned about bills, your job stability, or your marriage—which, by the way, are concerns that distract us from our fear of death.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) narrates the whole shebang. He’s the chair of the department in a mid-west college and founder of a department called Hitler Studies. As such he parades about the campus with a black, academic town. For some of us, the next idea might be found either ordinary or far out: his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) shares the bringing up of kids mostly from his previous marriages. His life becomes even more unusual since like others in the vicinity he is forced to evacuate his home when a toxic white cloud appears, thereby accentuating the possibility of death.

In the classroom Jack does something else out of the usual. He teams up with Murray (Don Cheadle) a fellow teacher whose course deals with celebrity, at this time with Elvis. They have a joint discussion with their classes evoking the idea that Hitler and Elvis were similar, since, what-do-you-know, they both loved dogs. The classroom is an ideal locale for absurdist scenes like that.

Of family discussions, the principal one is a discussion about who will die first, Jack or Babette, with Babette’s insistence that she would prefer to die before her husband—leading us in the theater audience to wonder whether she is outright lying, or clueless about her real feelings.

Like other classics, “White Noise” has universal motifs, as useful today as it was in 1985. Don’t leave the theater before the final scene shows a huge A&P supermarket, the customers and clerks dancing as though they were at a Saturday night party. What is communicated here is that life in America may be screwed up but let’s take it as it is and enjoy. Whether you enjoy the film will depend on your acceptance of dark humor, of theater of the absurd, and of family dramas with the kinds of quirky people you won’t find on sitcoms and soaps. Director Baumbach is in his métier, having helmed such idiosyncratic fare that allow some of us to compare his treatment of relationships like those in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”

136 minutes. © 2023 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SOFT & QUIET – movie review

SOFT & QUIET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY POLICEMAN – movie review

MY POLICEMAN

Prime Video
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Grandage
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by Bethan Roberts
Cast: Gina McKee, Linus Roache, Rupert Everett, Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, David Dawson, Kadiff Kirwan
Screened at: Prime Video streaming
Opens: October 21, 2022 in theaters. November 4, 2022 streaming

When Oscar Wilde was convicted of a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, sixteen years his junior, we can see that the pendulum swings back and forth, from a perverse interest in jailing people for victimless crimes to a broad acceptance today of gay relationships. In fact, so far as historians know, beginning in 600 B.C., in Celtic Britain when a man hosted a gathering, a dinner party, or whatever and his male guest rebuffed his advances, the host would feel insulted just as he might if you refused today to share scones with him at tea. Diodorus Siciulus, a Sicilian historian during the 1st century BC, noted “Though Celtic women were beautiful, men preferred to sleep with each other.” (Courtesy Wikipedia.)

Homosexual relations are legal today in the UK, via bills introduced in 1958 to decriminalize them. Bethan Roberts in his year 2021 novel “My Policeman,” adapted for the screen by scripter Ron Nyswaner, focuses on a just three people with various nuanced feelings about gay activity. “My Policeman” is directed by Yorkshire-born Michael Grandage, whose “Genius” deals with Max Perkins as book editor of Scribner. Now he makes a dramatic turn, honing on three people as they were in 1958 and as they are forty-one years later on the cusp of a new century.

Often films that alternate between two eras can be confusing, but here they compliment each other to a fault. Opening on a miserable, wheelchair-bound Patrick (Rupert Everett), felled by a serious stroke and virtually incapable of clear speech, “My Policeman” shows the poor man cared for by Marion (Gina McKee) but resented by Marion’s husband Tom (Linus Roach) who wants his wife to send Patrick to a nursing home. You might wonder about the division in loyalties, given that four decades earlier Tom (Harry Styles) is a best friend with benefits to Patrick (David Dawson).

Tom is bisexual, a poorly educated cop, whose life changes when attended to by Patrick, a museum curator whose mission becomes helping Tom to better himself aesthetically. Tom, a beer drinker who might well be a fan of Donald Trump were he born in the U.S., is attracted to the sophisticated Patrick, who if born in the States could be a Bernie Sanders voter. Posing for Patrick, an accomplished sketcher, Tom is seduced and swept into a new kind of life: Scotch instead of beer, Verdi and “Anna Karenina” opposed to TV, the two become enmeshed in a new passion, in one instance escaping from a police bust when they are discovered kissing in a dark alley. Patrick is beaten and imprisoned: Tom escapes.

At the same time Tom, who would have it both ways, is conflicted. He also wants a wife and a family. Marrying Marion (Emma Corrin), an elementary school teacher, he keeps his other love interest from her, lying about his involvement with the man who had introduces them to concerts and museums. Marion, wanting to put the past away and move on with her marriage, nevertheless comes to Patrick’s aid at a trial, serving as a character witness while trying to avoid implicating her husband.

Grandage does not shy away from nude sex scenes, which are graphic yet not sensationalized. Ben Davis behind the lenses shows a Brighton that can be compared with Coney Island, a depressing place with cheap amusements not unlike the penny arcades of its Brooklyn counterpart. Emma Corrin stands out as one who would go along with the 93% of Brits who in the mid-20th century considered the gay life with disgust, trying to save her marriage even while pondering whether to throw in the towel and walk away for good. As the story gives way to a melodramatic conclusion, we viewers can look back and marvel how well the tale has been told, how the six characters change from youthful passions to people who in some ways have not really grown. “My Policeman” is a class act with political dimensions; an endearing but not sentimentalized picture which nonetheless may find enlightened viewers reaching for Kleenex.

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

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

YOUNG PLATO – movie review

YOUNG PLATO

Soilsiú Films
Reviewed for FilmFactual.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Directors: Neasa Ni Chianáin, Declan McGrath
Screenwriters: Neasa Ni Chianain, Etienne Essery, Declan McGrath
Cast: Kevin McArevey, Jan-Marie Reel
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/22
Opens: September 23, 2022

Does anybody major in anything these days outside of computer science and business management, focused on companies they hope will recruit them for big bucks? Oh, you say you heard that a few are taking Poli Sci, History, Cinema Studies? How about philosophy? There was a report a few months ago holding that some corporations are actually going all out to hire philosophy majors. Why? They know how to think. That’s what philosophy teaches you. And while Spinoza and Kierkegaard are too difficult even for graduate students, they have no problem with Plato and Seneca in one primary school in Catholic-majority Northern Belfast. Yes, students there up to the age of ten lap it up because they have a super teacher as principal.

Let’s be realistic. These kids are not going to be turned on by Plato’s theory of the tri-partite soul or pay rapt attention to Sartre’s “No Exit.” But they can think for themselves on their own level. What principal Kevin McArevey of the Holy Cross Boys School wants them to learn, especially in an area that has seen enough violence involving British troops and Irish armies, is anger management. When you think with the help of philosophy, you realize that violence does not solve anything but leads only to more violence, and this principal, with the aid of a few teachers, makes his presence felt. Though some children still fight in the schoolyard now and then, they are brought to task, made to apologize to their combatant friends, and express remorse—real remorse as they cry with shame and hug their sparring partners.

Just like young people here especially from the ghettoes where drive-by shootings and random violence affect their lives, so do kids in Belfast, one of whom noting that his grandmother still keeps a bullet in her back as though a souvenir from the Troubles of the 1980s. Directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath bring archival black-and-white shots to show the class to remind them of how brutal lives were then before they were born.

McArevey, a big fan of Elvis judging by the chachkas in his office, goes over just as well with the parents, who sit rapt in attention as he explains to them how to use the examples of philosophy to deal with their own children. He is also physically fit, leaping up three stairs at a time, doing chins in the gym along with a few colleagues, kicking and punching a bag and pedaling furiously on the stationary bike.

Children often lose their enthusiasm for school as they get older. They raise their hands furiously in primary school, holding on to some enthusiasm, by Middle grades, but are typically silent when asked questions by teachers as though to show their classmates that they are too cool to bother answering. Yet these poor kids from Northern Belfast may reject the philosophy of the typical high school student in America, retaining their enthusiasm thanks to their experience with this incredible Renaissance man.

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

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

MURINA – movie review

MURINA

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Croatian and English with English subtitles.

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

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

THE COURTROOM – movie review

THE COURTROOM

Topic
Reviewed for FilmFactual.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Screenwriter: Arian Moayed
Cast: Kristin Villanueva, Linda Powell, Michael Chernus, Mike Braun, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kathleen Chalfant, BD Wong
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/22
Opens: June 16, 2022 at New York’s Metrograph Theatre

'The Courtroom' Trailer Teases a Deportation Film Made Entirely of Court Transcripts

After teaching high school for five years, I met a new, twenty-two-year-old faculty member who almost lost his career before it started. In the lunchroom he related how he mistakenly checked a box on his license application that states, “I am a member of a fascist political party.” The examiner, happily, told him to recheck that answer, which he did, and thus, thanks to a sympathetic employee, he began his life as a teacher.

A similar situation took place in an Illinois courtroom in 2008. A woman from the Philippines who married an American and lived in Bloomington, Illinois, was filling out a license form in the Illinois motor vehicle department, and with only a knowledge of English that she gained in her home country where English is a second language, mistakenly checked a box declaring that she is an American citizen. She relies on the examiner who does not ask her whether this is true. She receives a voting card and, together with her husband, votes for her district congressman. When she applies for a green card, the examiner calls her attention to this lie and apparently forwards papers to the Department of Homeland Security, which acts in court to throw her back to the Philippines, leaving her husband, her child, and a stepdaughter to fare for themselves.

The film “The Courtroom” deals with the case in a theatrical manner, almost all the action taking place inside courtrooms except for a final rah-rah talk by a person giving the oath to a group of new citizens. The film uses the verbatim transcript from the actual trial.

The first thing that comes to mind is, hey! We’re faced now by an epidemic of jerks with assault rifles who use them to kill multiple persons all over the country. We’ve got fifteen million undocumented immigrants pursuing their lives in this country, in effect hiding out from Homeland Security. The U.S. is going to make a big production to deport a lovely woman, no convictions, a family values individual if there ever was one according to her husband, who rose up from a failed marriage to bring her into the country because, he states, she meets the ethical values that he was seeking?

The film follows a production in my neighborhood theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Heights. The players are all actors including Marsha Stephanie Blake as Judge Zerbe, Michael Braun as the agent for Homeland Security, Linda Powell as defense lawyer Richard Hanus, Kristin Villanueva as defendant Elizabeth Keathley, Michael Chernus as the defendant’s husband John, and Kathleen Chalfant as Judge Easterbrook.

One of the interesting quirks is that the judge asks the defendant whether she needs an interpreter, which leads to a back-and- forth conversation indicating that she speaks not Tagalog, the official language of her home country, but Visayan, a dialect, which, good luck finding an interpreter. She deals with English just fine. The key defense point is that the state official rushed her through the motor vehicle application, leading her to improperly state that she is an American citizen, but the charge comes because she received a voting card and actually casts a vote. Federal law states that anyone doing so shall be deported. Sounds clear enough, albeit heartless. The defense points out that she is a victim of “entrapment by estoppel,” meaning that she was urged by the official to submit the application. Think of this: you are approached by a treasury agent who wants to trap a criminal. You are told to sell $10,000 in counterfeit bills to a suspect. The suspect would be nailed as soon as he makes the purchase. Are you, the person told to help the department, guilty of a crime? Of course not. But does this concept apply in a civil case as well? That’s what the immigration case turns on.

Among my surprises is the courtroom which I would have expected to be mayhem, like New York’s housing court, our city’s Small Claims Court, and even criminal cases that are each allegedly dispensed in a matter of minutes. The modern courtroom is empty except for the people connected with the case, and plenty of time is allowed for all sides to be heard.

“The Courtroom” may not be “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” but it commands audience attention in the suspense created. Most of us would probably side with the defendant, a good person who should remain with her family and be excused for doing what anyone, especially without fluent English, might make. Then again, why didn’t her husband tell her that she is not permitted to vote?

This is director Lee Sunday Evans’ debut film, playing out with appropriate tension even though we’re not dealing with the Johnny Depp Amber Heard proceedings or a mafia showdown, but just a nice woman trapped by the letter of the law. There is happily no music in the soundtrack to distract from the verbal sparring.

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

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

PLAYGROUND (Le monde) – movie review

PLAYGROUND (UN MONDE)

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Laura Wandel
Screenwriter: Laura Wandel
Cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Lena Girard Voss, Simon Caudry, Thao Maerten, James Sequy, Naël Ammama, Émile Salamone, Karim Leklou
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/5/22
Opens: May 10, 2022

Wasn’t former first lady Melania’s “Be Best” campaign a plea to stop bullying? Judging by the film “Playground,” she was no more successful in her job than her husband in his. Guns may be an American thing, but fists and pushing and screaming probably occur everywhere. Note that the original title of this Belgian drama is “Un monde.”

Nor does bullying occur only in tough neighborhoods. Parents and teachers, no matter how understanding and loving, cannot prevent it. Take a look at the adorable children expertly directed by the Belgian director Laura Wandel in her freshman offering. Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a girl of about seven who is likely in second grade of a public school, is at first afraid to go when the school year opens. A new arrival whose family had just moved, she clings at first to her father (Karim Leklou) and then to her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). Upset by the chaos of the halls, she does eventually make some friends. We in the audience cannot help smile when we see a broad grin on her face for the first time, but not before a teacher insists that she sit not with her brother but with kids from her own class.

Tension erupts on the playground when Abel, who hangs out with a group of bullies, is himself tormented, but he insists that Nora not snitch. That’s not the schoolyard code of behavior. Teachers allegedly supervising arrive either too late or not at all, though in one case Abel and his tormentor are dressed down in the principal’s office where one lad is forced to apologize, and thereby a final peace treaty is signed. Not. What really happens is almost predictable. Abel himself picks on a weaker child, putting a plastic bag over his head, and Nora might as well have the letter “S” tattooed on her neck. Nobody likes a snitch.

As Nora, Maya Vanderbeque could not be better. The seven-year-old thesp can be seen also in “Was zählt” (What Counts) and as herself in the TV drama L’invité.” She exudes a roller coaster of emotions from crying to lighting up the room with her smile; from disgust and despair to anger at her brother, in one scene wishing he were dead. To her dad, who seems unemployed but takes time to visit the playground and to dress down a bully, she can be clinging and she can be dismissive. “Playground” avoids even a hint of “documentarianism,” coming across instead as a fleshed-out look at the variety of tensions facing kids when they should not have to suffer the torment of their peers and of those who are slightly older.

The Brussels-born director certainly has a way with this assortment of sprouts.

In French with English subtitles.

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

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

PASSING – movie review

PASSING

Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Rebecca Hall
Screenwriter: Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/12/21
Opens: October 27, 2021. Streaming November 10, 2021

Passing (Movie Tie-In) - by Nella Larsen (Paperback)
Passing as white

Chaz Ebert, the CEO of Ebert Digital, passes along some information on the process of passing white. “Someone was considered Black if she had only one drop of Black blood. An octoroon was someone who had an ancestry that was one-eighth Black. To escape the peculiar institution of slavery or a lifetime of discrimination, some African Americans chose to pass as white. They could then become doctors and lawyers, businessmen and engineers, land owners and teachers. One woman would visit a beauty salon at night to have her blond hair straightened with chemical relaxers.”

To dramatize the custom and for full period detail, Rebecca Hall takes off her actor’s cap to deliver a powerful debut direction, filming in 4:3 boxy aspect ratio and black-and-white to mirror New York in the 1920’s. Her focus is on two Black women who, despite their friendship back in high school and a growing affection in the story’s present time will, their distinct personalities will turn them into hostility bordering on murder. Adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel that takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, Hall evokes terrific performances from Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare as mismatched friends.

For those who may not have lived through a period in New York when racism was even more overt than now, some Black women who were light-skinned tried to pass themselves off as white, not because they believed white was superior but because they believed they could get ahead in a white person’s world more easily than if they denied authenticity. “Passing” is not the first movie to deal with the subject; in fact, John Ford and Elia Kazan’s 1949 film “Pinky” finds a Black woman passing as white, married to a white doctor who does not guess her race.

We get the impression from the first scenes watching Irene a.k.a. Renie, walking in downtown Manhattan, wearing a large hat and avoiding eye contact, that she is the one who is passing. She does in fact, hide her features in a mostly white neighborhood, on this day taking a taxi to the Drayton Hotel to cool off in its tea room on a sweltering day. By coincidence she runs into Clare, an old friend, whose own husband has no idea that she is Black. In fact her man John (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-to-do banker who expresses his hatred of “Negroes” while later speaking to Clare and Irene in his home. Wouldn’t you know that Clare trumps her husband in intolerance, refusing to hire a colored maid.

Months later, Irene, living with her doctor husband Brian (André Holland), reads a letter from Clare who hopes to get together again. When Clare shows up in Harlem and climbs up the walkup, we see that Brian resents a woman who refuses to accept her race, but nonetheless warms up to her sexually making Irene becomes anxious enough to drop and break a treasured teapot. Clare is self-aware, stating that she would do anything to get what she wants, a feeling which, as in a Greek tragedy, will lead to her downfall. Irene’s irritation continues even with her husband, who wants their two young sons to be aware of murderous racism in the country while Irene thinks that the boys should be allowed their innocence.

“Passing” will be especially enlightening to the majority of the country who have no idea that at one time, some African-Americans denied their blackness to get ahead. The film is emotionally vibrant, intellectually honest, and blessed by sterling performances of the two principals and a debut by director Rebecca Hall, who may worry that any second feature she will hopefully present to us will be unable to equal or excel this awesome work.

One more compliment: there is virtually no music on the soundtrack, allowing us in the audience to hear every word without the musical distractions that ruin so many American movies.

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

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

WILDLAND – movie review

WILDLAND (Kød & blod)
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeanette Nordahl
Writer: Ingeborg Topsøe
Cast: Sandra Guldberg Kampp, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Joachim Fjelstrup, Elliott Crosset Hove, Besir Zeciri
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/13/21
Opens: August 20, 2021 at New York’s Film Forum

Criminal family values

“Wildland,” whose Danish title means “flesh and blood,” is a gangster film, a crime drama, one in which a murder takes place which leads police to intimidate the person they believe should be easiest to crack and confess. But if you’re looking for another “Godfather” (though a loyal family is involved), you’ll have to look a lot father than Denmark where the action takes place. (Given that “Wildland” is filmed in the Danish ‘burbs, you would not guess the location unless you spotted the spoken language as Danish.)

This is a muted story, too low key for a Hollywood-only audience, more suited to the kinds of indie-lovers that may have seen it at a festival. In her freshman entry, one that will lead the proper audience to keep their eyes on direktør Jeanette Nordahl to watch for later contributions, the film, which highlights strong female performances, opens with a car turned upside down. Seventeen-year-old Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) survives, walking away later to receive a cast on her arm, but her alcoholic mother dies. What’s to become of Ida, who not surprisingly asks her social walker to set her up in her own apartment?

No deal: she is sent to live with her long-estranged aunt Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who demonstrates throughout the story her love for her three sons Jonas (Fjel Joachim Fjeolstrup), David (Elliott Crosset Howe) and Mads (Besir Zeciri). A good deal of the time, Ida acts as would an American high-school senior, who would doodle while her teacher drones on about the Congress of Vienna. She is understandably upset, not acting hysterical as some kids might, but appearing so indifferent to her new family that you might wonder why they do not return her to the social worker as though she were a phlegmatic Basset hound.

She bonds with one boy’s girlfriend, shows signs of life at a dance hangout, then slowly becomes more attached and at home to such an extent that when she is driving with the boys and witnesses a murder, she knows that she is dealing with a loan-sharking, criminal gang. Will she testify against them when the cops browbeat her, or will she obey the iron-fisted family matriarch who pleads with her to keep silent because “family is everything.”

Happily, direktør Nordahl does not fill the soundtrack with music as a Hollywood regisseur might do but instead opts to give Frederikee Hoffmeier permission to include pulsating music at the film’s major climactic moment. All leads are doing stærkt arbejde (strong work), with young Sandra Guldberg Kampp delivering a thoroughly believable set of reactions each time she discovers something new about this atypical suburban clan.

“Wildland” was featured at the 2020 Berlin Festival. In Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

THERE IS NO EVIL

THERE IS NO EVIL (Sheytan Vojud Nadarad)
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Writer: Mohammad Rasoulof
Cast: Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shourian, Kaveh Ahangar, Mohammad Valizadegan, Mahtab Servati, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Baran Rasoulof, Jilla Shahi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/4/21
Opens: May 14, 2021

There Is No Evil - Wikipedia

Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “It is only in our decisions that we are important.” “There Is No Evil” is a feature film with four stories, unrelated to one another except in the theme of how decisions make each central character important. The first three deal with executions in Iran: how the principal character in each story makes up his mind whether to go along with orders or to defy them, which tells us much about the writer-director, Mohammad Rasoulof, who has been sentenced to prison and whose every feature film has been banned from exhibition in his country.

One can see how the absolutist government of Iran would not want citizens exposed to people who make personal decisions to override what others expect of them or, in one case, to go along without compunction to perform a task that few of us would agree to voluntarily.

The first episode is untitled, and though this is the one that has the least melodrama, it has the most effect. Rasoulof respects his audience to the extent that he will show his protagonist, Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), driving around Tehran, seemingly aimless, with no consequential occurrences anticipated. When he picks up his schooolteacher wife Razieh (Shaghayegh Shourian), she bickers and complains about little things, projecting the ease with which she trusts her husband not to go ballistic with anything she says. She picks up his check in the bank, complaining about red tape that she must go through to have the salary released to her. Razieh must wonder what he does on the night shift when he gets up at three in the morning and pulls away with his car. When he goes about his task without thinking or considering its ethics, we know more about him than his wife does.

The second installment, with the title “She said, you can do it,” is the kind of episode that a general American audience would like given the histrionics that take place in a military detention center. In Rasoulot’s most theatrical story given how much of the action unfolds inside the barracks among a group of soldiers, Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) trusts his fellows to sympathize with his terror. He has been ordered to execute a man by pushing the stool out from under him, which would result in the man’s death by hanging. But his fellows, with one exception, debate as though in a college freshman bull session about whether a person under orders has the right, even the duty, to disobey if he considers the order immoral. When the time comes for Pouya to obey, which would give him the chance to be released from the prison and get some time off, we leave the theatrical in favor of upheaval.

In “The Birthday,” Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), a soldier with a three-day pass takes a bath in the woods before visiting his fiancée, Nana (Mahtab Servati). We can see that the immersion in water is a self-designed baptism: the news he feels compelled to give is hardly designed to allow her and her family to reconsider whether his visit is a good one. Sometimes the less you say—becoming more like Heshmat in the first episode—is the most desirable way to go. In any case, going back to Sartre’s quote “It is only in our decisions that we are important,” Javad becomes the man of the hour: his fifteen minutes of fame or infamy.

“Kiss Me” is unusual in that it does not feel it belongs with the other three under the theme of executions. Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr), is a dying man who lives with his wife Zaman (Jilla Shahi) in a remote area cut off from other people but immersed in the raising of bees. He picks up his young niece Darya (Baran Rasoulof, who is the director’s daughter) on a visit from Germany where she lives with Bahram’s brother. She becomes attached to Bahram, disturbed when he coughs up blood, and could have returned to Germany with tender views of her uncle. However, there is tension in the air. We wait for an announcement that will change the college girl’s attitude forever. Given the overlong running time of the film, “Kiss Me” could have easily been left for a future narrative, assuming that the next offering could be smuggled out of the country like this one. We can see how in an absolutist nation like Iran, none of the writer-director’s films have been exhibited at home.

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

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

SLALOM – movie review

SLALOM
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Charlène Favier
Writer: Charlène Favier, Marie Talon
Cast: Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Danarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maïra Schmitt, Axel Auriant
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/6/21
Opens: April 9, 2021

Slalom (2020) - IMDb

Take it from me. If you have ever taught in regular New York City public high schools, do not expect students to be motivated, to be eager to learn about the Congress of Vienna, to recite answers longer than 20 seconds lest they incur the ribbing of their friends, or even to show interest that they genuinely feel. Coaching sports; that’s different. Put the trainer on the basketball court, on the baseball diamond, on the 50 yard line, and you’ll get quite a different response. However even there, coaches may find that their junior varsity troupe will not put up with solid, tough preparation for the game.

In France, things may be different as co-writer and director Charlène Favier finds in her first full-length narrative film. Having given us “Odol Gorri” about a fifteen-year-old who escapes from a juvenile center, hides in a fishing boat, and finds herself and the crew at sea, Favier, with the input of co-writer Marie Talon (in her first screenplay), takes us to the French Alps. There coach Fred (Jérémie Renier) is the star attraction at an elite French ski school. Though teachers are not supposed to show favoritism, Fred is taken by Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita), who is the most likely to bring back the gold in an upcoming ski-race competition.

Fifteen-year-old Lyz (twenty-one at the time of the filming) is in virtually every frame, the teen showing in D.P. Yann Maritoud’s close-ups almost all the conflicted expressions that a young woman can exude. Feeling great joy at one moment, she is depressed and disgusted with herself in another. Physically attracted to the coach (who in real life is forty at the time of the filming), she needs a father figure since her own has been absent. Since Fred appears with her day and night, even boarding her with him and his girlfriend Lilou (Marie Denarnaud) to enable the failing student to catch up academically with her classes, we know where this is headed. Fred soon escalates the abuse he gives her in the training. Making her lift weights that look to compete with her own weight of 110, he erupts with passion as she needs next to him in the car, later consummating the sexual act which will make the virginal girl both elated and confused.

Is Fred acting professionally? Hardly. His girlfriend quickly sees what’s going on, though the girl’s mother, who is unable to spend much time with her because of a job in Marseilles and who from time to time reminds Lyz how much she is sacrificing for her, remains clueless. Of course the whole story reminds us of gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall who abused 700 women over a 17-year-period, but there are differences. The age of consent in France is 15, though there may be a question of legality when an older man with influence on a teen takes advantage of the situation.

The movie is set in Les Arcs ski station which cinephiles will recognize as the location of the wonderful “Force Majeure” about a man who, during an avalanche, runs from his family in search of safety for himself. Noée Abita is a find, a young woman who made her debut as the title character in “Ava,” about a 13-year-old who knows that she will lose her sight earlier than expected. There are a few shots of professional skiers slaloming down the slope, zig-zagging between markers in races where both speed and agility are everything. In the dramatic conclusion, Lyz must decide what to do when Fred promises to remain virtually her private trainer, looking forward to a competition in the U.S. at Beaver Creek, Colorado. You may recall a similar, momentary decision of a young delinquent, Colin Smith, in Tony Richardson’s 1962 “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

The movie is a Cannes selection. In French with English subtitles.

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

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

SIX HOURS TO MIDNIGHT – movie review

SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andy Goddard
Writer: Andy Goddard, Eddie Izzard, Celyn Jones
Cast: Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Carla Juri, Kevin Eldon, David Schofield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/21
Opens: March 26, 2021

Poster

Just when you think you’ve seen movies on every political aspect of Europe on the brink of World War 2, along comes an original film of international intrigue, a spy story with the usual basket of twists, leading up to a series of exciting chase scenes for which director Andy Goddard prepared us for quite well. Goddard, who has an impressive résumé of made-for-TV movies and TV episodes (including many for the great “Downton Abbey”), now tackles his sophomore full-length feature. That “Six Minutes of Midnight” is based on the true story of incidents surrounding Augusta-Victorian college, a finishing school for girls on England’s south coast, might make us wonder just how many original cusp-of-war stories must be available for writers and filmmakers.

You can tell that this is a finishing school rather than a real college as you watch the girls walking about, each with a book on her head, casting fierce glances at the one pupil whose book drops noisily to the floor. There’s an even better example. When Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), who had been hired by headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judy Dench) after the suspicious death of his predecessor, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay, playing a flawless death body washed up on the beach), asks what book the girls had been reading, they reply “no book.” They insist that Wheatley told them stories. To conform to the culture of the school, Miller does likewise and is well liked by the young people and by the headmistress as well.

This is no “Room 222,” however. Miller is a British agent, the girls are German, sent via the Anglo-German Fellowship to represent the best of Nazi youth. As September 1, 1939 approaches, which will signal the opening of World War 2 in Europe, Hitler’s plan is to evacuate the girls suddenly. At the same time Whitehall wants to hold them hostage—though the UK’s motives are not entirely clear.

The major segment of the film takes place within the school. We see that headmistress Rocholl considers her charges to be “her girls” despite their nationality, and is highly motivated to do the best job in teaching them notwithstanding their being daughters of members of the Nazi high command. By contrast Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), a young, pretty teacher, is a dedicated Nazi who makes sure that the girls listen to propaganda on the radio and is soon to become more than a mere, quiet cog in the German war machine. In fact Ilse’s murderous action outside the school will lead to the dramatic chase scenes, the arrest of Thomas Miller who is now considered by authorities to be a British traitor, and a series of twists that turn the movie into a real thriller.

Judi Dench can do no wrong and is ideally suited to be the dedicated head of the school, a woman who would likely protect her girls even as war with Germany begins. But the picture belongs to Eddie Izzard, known to British audiences as a stand-up comedian. He convinces us of his ability to play a teacher who must conform to the culture of a finishing school and yet act as a prized spy for Britain, infiltrating the soon-to-be-defunct Anglo-German Fellowship.

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

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

 

QUO VADIS, AIDA? – movie review

QUO VADIS, AIDA?

Neon Super Ltd.

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Writer: Jasmila Zbanic
Cast: Jasna Djricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Isakovic, Johan Heldenberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/16/21
Opens: March 5, 2021 at Angelica Theatre in NY. VOD March 15, 2021

Quo Vadis, Aida?

I recall in my high-school days the units on World War 1 and World Was II that emphasized that all wars are caused by four general conditions. They are: Imperialism, Nationalism, Alliances, and the fourth is given the fancy term “international anarchy.” That last item means nothing more than there were no effective peacekeeping forces able to intercede against the warring parties to force them into peace. We do have the United Nations now, the UN does send well-armed peacekeeping forces to war zones, but that international organization has been criticized for its impotence against aggression.

Among the best examples of this deficiency is the genocide conducted particularly in 1995 during a war between Bosnian Serbs who are Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims, sometimes called Bosniaks, who inhabit the same country—itself an offshoot of the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo-born Jamila Zbanic, who dealt with the Serbian rapes of Muslim women in“Grbavica: the Land of Our Dreams,” brings to vivid life the barbaric killings by members of the Serbian army together with paramilitary units of innocent Bosnian Muslims in the village of Srebrenica. Under the command of the brutal Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), the soldiers emptied out the village, sending up to 8,000 civilians of all ages to the death by machine guns while escorting the women away. (Zbanic does not go into what happened to the women, implying that they may have been given safe conduct though the reality is that they were raped and possibly killed.)

Everything is seen through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), the energetic Bosniak interpreter who had been a teacher in the town, called upon now to translate the Bosnian into English for the benefit of the Dutch UN forces. The UN under Colonel Thom Karremans (Johann Heldenbergh) is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you are cynical enough) inept, unable to prevent the Serbs from doing whatever they felt like doing, notwithstanding that Srebrenica was called a safe town under UN protection. Given the incompetence of UN peacekeepers, Serb army units did not fear threats to call in air strikes if necessary, which may remind you of how former President Obama threatened Bashir Assad’s Syrian government with military action should the Assad unleash gas during the civil war there, then did nothing when provoked.

Aida acts heroically, negotiating with the Serbs but is furious at the UN for allowing only 5,000 people to remain within a gated area while others are stuck outside. (This is an expensive production as the company has obviously hired hundreds of extras to take the roles of the oppressed Muslims.) But she is human as well, giving special attention to saving her husband and her two boys from being gunned down on the spot.

In the role of Aida, we may find it curious that Jasna Djuricic is Serbian, while one would think that nobody from that ethnic group would be willing to take part in a film that is anti-Serb. The scenes are horrific, the only sentimentalism coming from a woman who gives birth on the grounds. It is impossible to look away, so vividly is the toxic toying by the Serb general of the populace dependent for the lives on his orders.

As for the puzzling title “Quo Vadis, Aida,” the term means “Where are you going,” referring to a legend that Peter comes to a crossroads where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina, which he means the risen Jesus. The reply: “Romam vado iterum crucifigi” or “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” It’s anybody’s guess how the title applies, but perhaps it means that after the peace, the teacher remains in the town to conduct classes. To be oppressed again?

The film is a co-production of twelve production companies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.It is the Bosnian entry for best international film in the 93rd Academy Awards competition, and has been deservedly shortlisted into the top fifteen.

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

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

SPOOR – movie review

SPOOR (Pokot)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Olga Tokarczuk, Agnieszka Holland, adapted from Olga Takorczuk’s novel
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Gierszal, Patricia Volny, Tomasz Kot
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

Poster

The difference between a B-movie crime story/TV episode like NCIS and an art movie that deserves greater concentration, is that the crimes, be they murder, robbery, rape, kidnap, and arson, should be entertaining thrillers, while the more intellectual dramas use the crimes as stepping-stones to the development of characters. “Spoor”is a good example of the latter. The title refers to the scent, droppings, even the trails trodden by animals. Animals, specifically dogs, boars, and antelopes, each have their brief starring roles, quite necessary to the development of plot. Since this is a film by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, you would expect the story to be similar to that of her other contributions, such as her 2011 film “In Darkness” about one man’s rescue of Jews in the German-occupied city of Lvov. “Spoor” is more about the intended rescue of animals which are shot for fun, each month a different creature made legal to kill, in a small, southwest Polish town near the Czech border.

Holland, who studied filmmaking in Prague, focuses primary attention on Duszejko, an elderly woman who is the town’s only, animals rights advocate. Her personality might convince some diners that vegetarians and spokespersons for the four-legged are eccentric at least, crazy at most. Duszejko (Agnieska Mandat), a woman who objects vigorously to being called Janina though we do not find out why, is a part-time teacher in the local school whose 8-year-old kids love her, even hugging as you’d expect a dog to hug its human partner. She has studied astrology for years—not in itself eccentric, since even former first lady Nancy Reagan was a fan of the pseudoscience as well. When she protests against town laws that allow hunting, she undercuts her points with the police by screaming. The police have other concerns on their minds when bloodied bodies turn up in the snow, the film audience presuming that the wolf-hugger is the perp.

Though photographers Jolanta Dylewskh and Rafal Paradowski’s lenses are on Duszejko throughout, there are an abundance of secondary characters ranging from the wolves, boars, deer, foxes and even insects to people who enter in and exit from the scenes regularly. Among the folks introduced in this hayseed village are the priest, a man she should not have bothered to confide in, given that he considers equating dogs with people (my dogs are my daughters, insists Duszejko) with blasphemy since God gave us dominion over them and besides, animals do not have souls and therefore cannot be candidate for salvation. She has a brief affair with Boros (Miroslav Krobot), a wandering professor of her own age, an entomologist who advises her about how dead bodies can attract certain types of beetles.

Of the side roles, the most meaty, so to speak, is that of young Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal) who works for the police setting up and instructing them in how computers can help and who fears that he will lose his job because he has seizures. He will obviously team up with Dobra Nowina (Patricia Volny),the only twenty-something female in town.

Some of the material is rambling that would not be hurt by more attention from Pavel Hrdlika, its editor, but supplemented by more activity form the forest creatures that sometimes run quickly through the snow, and other times, as with deer that come over across the Czech border, and stand still, too dumb to be unafraid of humans.

Don’t expect too much blood, though one animal, apparently really gunned down by a hunter, is hugged and prayed over by Duszeklo. The principal reason for seeing this movie is the performance of Kraków-born Mandat, 64-years old when this was filmed, well known in her own country for roles in a host of TV dramas. Otherwise there are too many moments of tedium in this overlong, 128-minute offering, but enlivened by many of the secondary characters coming across not as salt-of-the-earth just-folks but mostly as fierce adversaries of animals, from the priest to the types you probably found climbing the walls of the capitol to protest a fair U.S. election.

In Polish with English subtitles.

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

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

 

MY LITTLE SISTER – movie review

MY LITTLE SISTER (Schwesterlein)
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Directors: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Writers: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Cast: Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/22/20
Opens: January 5, 2021

Poster

The song that Joan Baez made famous goes “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ we’re always controlled, we’re always confined,/ And when we get married to end all our strife/ We’re slaves to our husbands for the rest of our lives.” Such is the focus of “My Little Sister,” directed and written by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, whose “The Little Bedroom” focuses on an older man who accepts the help of a woman, leading to a bond. They are not so far off thematically with their current offering, which finds Lisa (Nina Hoss) pausing her career as a playwright to care for her cancer-stricken twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) while at the same time furious that her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) decides unilaterally to remain in Switzerland as a teacher in a posh Swiss school despite their previous agreement to return together to Berlin.

Martin is arrogant in tearing up his agreement with Lisa in order to sign a five-year contract that would keep him where they are in Switzerland. But you can’t fault her brother Sven who suffers from cancer, whose stem-cell transfer was rejected, and who needs his sister to remain with him. At the same time, she is eager to remain in Berlin with her two kids (Linne-Lu Lungershausen and Noah Tscharland) and her mother Kathy (Marthe Keller), who beams with the successes on stage of her famous actor son while thinking little of her daughter’s interest in writing plays with more originality than “Hamlet.”

Though you can see what is going to happen miles away, “My Little Sister” should resonate with an audience familiar with Nina Hoss’s acting smarts. Hoss has entertained her fans in “The Audition,” which sees her imposing her will at a conservatory to admit a student against the wishes of others, and “Return to Montauk” where she meets in New York with a man she had not seen in seventeen years. One particular scene that illustrates her talent involves her breaking down in a hospital, when dialogue is unnecessary since verbal silence enables us to admire her ability to capture a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The ensemble performances are all first-rate. Lars Eidinger performs as Sven, a man eager to return to the theater to play “Hamlet” for almost the four hundredth time, dejected when David (Thomas Ostermeier), the theater director scraps the plan, concerned that his sick actor may not last for fifteen minutes on the stage. Not long after the director’s wise decision, Sven is vomiting into the toilet, sweating and frightened with pain “all over,” giving up plans to try options at the hospital in favor of returning home to die.

Filip Zimbrunn trains his lenses on several Swiss locations, with a remarkable action shot of Sven’s gliding amid the Alps, running as fast as he can, then taking off like an eagle. What you may take away from the film is a view of Switzerland that makes you realize how the Swiss people, with no wars to worry about for hundreds of years and with scenery to die for, can make you envious of the lucky people who are citizens therein and who might laugh at Lisa’s eagerness to remain in Berlin.

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

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

 

ANOTHER ROUND MOVIE REVIEW

ANOTHER ROUND (Druk)
Samuel Goldwyn Company
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writer: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, Lars Ranthe
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/11/20
Opens: December 4, 2020

Druk Movie Poster

If you limit yourself to two glasses of wine per day (one for women) you’ll get a buzz. You will feel high, less inhibited, looser tongued, friendlier, more fun. So why do so many people drink until they’re stone drunk, passing out, vomiting, suffering the next day’s hangover? This life of drinking excess which leads to car accidents, broken homes, and lost jobs is a problem greater than people have faced with marijuana, but try as they may, politicians have been markedly unable to stop the disease of drunkenness whether by the 18th amendment, the Volstead Act that put teeth into it, and lectures from the schools and from Alcoholics Anonymous. In “Another Round,” Thomas Vinterberg, whose has often flirted with Dogme 95 (filming with natural light, unfussy camerawork and minimalism such as in his “The Commune” about life in a Danish commune during the 1970s), looks at a quartet of middle-aged high-school teachers “experimenting” with liquor.

One of the teachers I believe, calls attention of his friends to the theory by one Finn Skårderud that we are all born with a 0.5 percent deficiency of blood alcohol. This flaw can easily be corrected if we drank throughout the day but stopped at 8 pm. This concept works well, but only for a while. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a history teacher in a school with small classes, a professional sounding choir singing the praises of Denmark, and uniformed kids following their coach’s instructions to a letter, is unlike any public high school I’ve experienced. They’re a rowdy enough group but let loose with dancing and singing only on graduation day.

Martin, enjoying an alcohol high, becomes a better teacher immediately, quizzing his students about which of three powerful political men they would vote for, but he does not give away their names. Turns out that the vegetarian, the teetotaler, who never cheated on anyone, is the dude they would vote for. You probably know which 20th Century character that is. So: the guy who doesn’t drink is the one who turns out to be pure evil. There is yet another reason to hit the bottle, and you might be envious in the friendship that Martin enjoys with his faculty buddies.

A central theme that is virtually ignored for most of the time but takes on a big role in the concluding third of the film, the time that so many comedies turn serious, is Martin’s trouble with his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) He asks her if she considers him a bore, to which she replies that “you are not the same Martin that I once knew.” Maybe he should have quit then, but while he and his pals go well beyond the 0.5% blood alcohol, Martin’s marriage is headed for the rocks—not the ice that may be in his glass of Smirnoffs.

Though the quartet, one of whom sponsors his 40th birthday party which is the time that is officially the beginning of middle age, is fun to watch, the movie bogs down during the melodramatic third with a generic look at the final breakup of a marriage and an unfortunate occurrence that befalls one of the four. Despite the performance of the reliable Mads Mikkelsen, who enjoyed roles in “At Eternity’s Gate” as a priest during a film about Vincent Van Gogh, and “Arctic,” as a man who is stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash, his only moments of real drama here occur in the final minutes as he dances along with newly graduated high school students. Otherwise, whether pre-alcohol or post, his character is a bore.

The Danish title “Druk” means binge drinking. The film is in Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

 

THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD – movie review

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

The Big Scary 'S' Word Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SOUNDING – movie review

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

Catherine Eaton in The Sounding (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ALBERT EINSTEIN: STILL A REVOLUTIONARY – movie review

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

Still a Revolutionary - Albert Einstein (2020) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YES, GOD, YES – movie review

YES, GOD, YES
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karen Maine
Screenwriter: Karen Maine
Cast: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz, Francesca Reale, Susan Blackwell
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/16/20
Opens: July 27, 2020

giclee Poster - Yes God Yes (Natalia Dyer) 2020 Movie 12"x18"

Horace, one of the wise men of ancient Rome, once said, aturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. Latin may be a dead language but it’s alive enough to know the proverb’s truth, which is: “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but it will always come back.” In other words, no matter what we say, no matter what homilies we think we live by, we are all hypocrites if we think we can really fight against our natural inclinations, both emotional and sexual. Here’s an example. Some time back some teen-age girls in high school took oaths of virginity administered by the Catholic church and some Baptist denominations—to refrain for intercourse until marriage. According to the poll, by graduation day, 75% of the girls had lost their virginity. Which brings us to this comedy taking place in a Catholic high school somewhere in a rural district composed of handsome homes and youngsters from the middle class.

“Yes, God, Yes” sounds like a stereotyped version of what women scream in the midst of an organism, or it could refer to kids who say “yes” to Jesus but are not likely to abide the strict rules of the church. You’d have to ask Karen Maine, the film’s writer and director in her freshman contribution to the world of narrative comedies. She situates the scene amid high schoolers who are well behaved and who seem not to tell jokes about how nuns rapped their knuckles in grade school or by the funny conversations among a priest, a rabbi and a minister who meet in a bar. There are no gross-out scene that might be typical of the Farrelly brothers in “There’s Something About Mary,” but even better, the comedy comes from situations that might very well take place in a parochial institution.

While the school’s priest, Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) and pregnant teacher Mrs. Veda (Donna Lynne Chaplin) lead a four-day retreat that includes senior class would-be devotees as student leaders, Alice (Natalia Dyer), a bright but confused 16-year-old, recalls the priest’s lecture back in class to the effect that Jesus does not want unmarried women to have sex. He explains that men are like microwave ovens and women are like conventional ovens; the former get turned on in a second, the latter take some more time to be in the mood. We watch nature overcome Catholic rules over the course of the brief, 78-minute story, as even Father Murphy must succumb to the wisdom of Horace’s proverb and so does 17-year-old Nina (Alisha Boe).

Perhaps the boldest epiphany driving the movie occurs during a scene in a lesbian bar a short walk from the retreat when Gina (Susan Blackwell), the owner, asks Alice what goes on in the retreat, and dishes out wise counsel to the young woman who until then thinks she has no choice other than to go to college a half-hour from home. Look into colleges in the east coast and west coast to get your education, she advises—which makes you wonder what she’s doing in a one-horse town. Eat sushi. That half-hour meeting will likely be more convincing to Alice than anything she learns from the school or her home.

If the movie is anti-Catholic, it generally pulls its punches, allowing even the pious in the audience, while listening to an array of songs both original and known, to pick up its gentle message without urging everyone to boycott the picture. As Alicia, Natalia Dyer, who came of age in real life with her role as Nancy Wheeler in the Netflix horror series, “Stranger Things” (33 episodes), is an absolute charmer whose frowns clear up as she knocks her school officials down a peg or two.

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

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

MOST WANTED – movie review

MOST WANTED
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Roby
Screenwriter: Daniel Roby
Cast: Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Josh Hartnett, Stephen McHattie, Jim Gaffigan, J.C. MacKenzie, Rose-Marie Perreault
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/4/20
Opens: July 24, 2020

When I was in third grade in 1945 I learned that the policeman is my friend. In fact the teacher said that we should call policemen “officers,” and “police” and never use the word “cop” because that was a slang term that the authorities would not like. It means we do not respect them. Things have changed since 1945 when the worst thing a policeman would do was to get a doughnut in the local coffee house and not pay for it.

In June, as though the coronavirus was not enough of a burden for us, the country faced an uproar of protests against the senseless killing of a suspect who was murdered by four cops for the horrendous offence of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. The idea that there is a thin line between a cop and a criminal, that a policeman can either way, may be extreme, but on top of that we have racist officers not just in the south but in a midwestern blue state, Minnesota. For those who still doubt that the law can be a rogue, just check out movies like “Training Day” (2001), “Bad Lieutenant” (1992), and “Internal Affairs” (1990). A new, sad tale of corruption among the people who are supposed to protect act comes out of Saban Films, and it’s “Most Wanted” written and directed by Daniel Roby, following up “Hold Your Breath” about the struggle of a family to survive while Paris fills with a deadly gas. “Most Wanted” is more down-to-earth with some enlightening shots of Bangkok, surprisingly filmed on location though one would expect the Thai government would object to having a scandal rubbed into its face.

“Most Wanted” is inspired by a true story that takes place mostly in 1989, when Daniel Léger (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a low-life heroin addict with no criminal record, is set up by rogue cops in Vancouver, though the police are not so much interested in entrapping the usually penniless guy than in having him negotiate the purchase of ten kilos of heroin—for which they could get far more money in Canada than they would have to pay in Bangkok. Légar was caught, found guilty, and escaped the death penalty for heroin smuggling by pleading guilty (after his conviction!), then sentenced to one hundred years in a jail that would make you wish you had not pled guilty and accepted the death penalty. (For stark contrast compare the jails in Norway where prisoners get their own private rooms with cooking equipment.) He would have been incarcerated still were it not for Victor Malarek (Josh Hartnett), a journalist who acted as a one-man Innocence Project, searching for a way to get a page one scoop for his newspaper, desperate for money since he had just had a baby.

Convincing the editor to finance a trip and warned that if he did not come back with a scoop he would never find a job again in the newspaper business, he is motivated even more when his gut tells him that the man may still be guilty, but that as an ameliorating factor the police had paid for his trip from Vancouver to Bangkok: hotels, meals, the works. The film meanders with several time changes, catching up with Légar as he gets a job on a fishing boat from Picker (Jim Gaffigan) who seems like a nice guy but who is involved with the conspiracy to get the heroin. Similarly guilty are a trio or quartet of shady police who, together with Picker pay so much attention to a loser like Légar that he gets sucked into the sordid plan.

Best performer is Montréal-born Antoine Olivier Pilon as Daniel Léger, with twenty-three film credits in his résumé, quite an accomplishment for a twenty-three-year old. Josh Hartnett exudes the electricity running through his body when he is on a mission, buffeted by several roadblocks. However, the movie is so spliced up that you might have to watch for a half hour before you realize the zig-zaginess of the editing. For that reason, “Most Wanted” cannot be enthusiastically recommended.

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

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

GUEST OF HONOR – movie review

GUEST OF HONOR
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenwriter: Atom Egoyan
Cast: David Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Tennille Read, Rossif Sutherland, Tamara Podemski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/27/20
Opens: July 10, 2020

guest-of-honour-poster-600x867

A sleazy bus driver is obsessed with a beautiful young woman. A depressed and confused father cannot understand why her daughter, in jail for a crime she did not commit, resists all chances for release. While Atom Egoyan, whose “The Sweet Hereafter,” about complications following a tragic accident involving schoolchildren may be his best film, he now presides over a relationship that brings out the character of both Jim (David Thewlis), the dad, and his adult daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira). To the movie’s credit, the performance by David Thewlis, the emotional center of the film, is superb, and Egoyan is able to evoke an accomplished job from De Oliveira. However the zigs and zags of time are so frequent and distracting that we wonder why he could not have played the story straight.

The story is framed by a conference between Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) and Father Greg (Luke Wilson), a priest. After her father dies, Veronica wants to give the minister clues to her dad’s life for the eulogy, though the details she reveals may be simply too truthful for the testimonial. She describes Jim’s profession, that of a food inspector in Ontario with the power to close down small businesses. She seems cheered when remembering how much care and attention he paid to her pet rabbit Benjamin when she was away from home conducting concerts with the school orchestra. But she has no problem raising one issue that caused her trauma. When her mother was ill with cancer, she saw Jim holding hands with another woman, an observation Jim defensively tries to refute.

After driving the teacher and the kids to a concert, Mike (Rossif Sutherland), the driver, gets into Veronica’s cell phone and texts a message pretending it is from one of the youngsters. When Veronica realizes that the driver is the guilty party, she stages a prank in which she pretends to have sex with two of her underage boys in order to drive Mike crazy. She feels so guilty for her own actions that she goes willingly to jail for statutory rape and refuses a chance to be released. Melodramatic as this venture can be, Jim’s search for redemption is the real heart of the film. He is a failed restaurateur turned Ontario food health inspector, willing to close down restaurants with a single inspection almost as if he is getting revenge on those successfully plying the food trade. He finds a rat in one place, sniffs at the temperature of the meat, and in one dastardly deed he plants rabbit poop in the men’s room of one restaurant for reasons that become clear. The highlight occurs when he threatens to close down an Armenian place for processing meat on the premises, a violation of code. When days later when a large, boisterous party enjoys the rabbit meat, honoring him for keeping the place open,even making him the guest of honor. The sad, hesitant speech he delivers to the bemusement of the crowd sums up buried feelings.

In several scenes, Thewlis wears a green shirt with green slacks and jacket amid a background of sickly green, the colors becoming warner as the story continues. While granting that the convoluted plot, a characteristic of Egoyan’s general directing, may keep the audience on edge, withholding information to tease an audience into wondering about a payoff, in this case the technique goes so far that the plot is too muddied.

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

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

I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY – movie review

I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Arthur
Screenwriter: Michael Arthur
Cast: Niko Alm, Mathé Coolen, Mienke De Wilde, Daniel C. Dennett, Pedro L. Irigonegaray, Edward J. Larson, Bruder Spaghettus, Derk Venema, Bobby Henderson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/2/20
Opens: July 7, 2020

Poster

What makes a book sacred? Is there anything intrinsically sacred about the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, the New Testament? For example, if members of the Guajajara indigenous tribe in Marantao state in Eastern Brazil saw a copy of one of these books, studied it, put a spear into it, would they find anything holy? Not likely. Is “The Art of the Deal” sacred? It is, if at least one American says it is, and you’ll probably find one patriot claiming that it is so. Books and the religious orders they teach are sacred only because people say they are. If you realize that much, you can go into a screening of “I, Pastafari” with an open mind.

Niko Alm (I) in I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story (2019)

When you inspect the title of this movie, which would be better called simply “Pastafari,” you will guess that it has something to do with spaghetti and its cousins like ziti, macaroni, and linguini. Are the Pastafarians a joke? Yes and no. Though the documentary does not support the premise that the Pastafarians are just some jokers on spring break, we discover that they take themselves seriously when they insist that theirs is a religion like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Mormonism and the like. In fact they make frequent journeys to courtrooms in their home countries, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, to prove that they meet the criteria of real religions, because they’re serious. Worshippers of the flying spaghetti monster, the deity that should be put into capital letters as with other faiths The Flying Spaghetti Monster, love their logo featuring two eyes atop a mound of pasta with two meatballs. They even show off a painting of mankind reaching out, naked to the right, to receive the gift of life from a bowl of noodles.

Still of Bruder Spaghettus in I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story (2019)

Still, this is no “Animal House,” but features instead a multi-national group of some young people and some with long white beards who wear colanders on their head. They refuse to remove their respectful metal attire when told that they could not get drivers’ licenses unless they wear the headgear for religious reasons, so they pounce on that loophole and win the right, at least in the ultra-liberal Netherlands, to take their pictures, so long as their faces are clearly shown.

In archival films, we see the Pastafarians with somber faces defending their right to be considered a religion just like the older ones that have established themselves, winning a few court decisions, losing most. Those of us viewing the picture get the point that they are really atheists who piggyback the idea posited by proponents of the theory of intelligent design, that if you cannot prove that it’s wrong, it should be upheld as a legitimate point of view. Some archival shots of the so-called Monkey Trial involving Scopes, a high school teacher who lets himself be arrested when he taught the Theory of Evolution and whose lawyer, Clarence Darrow, trashed the state’s attorney William Jennings Bryan in an eight-hour interrogation (which was the subject of the enormously entertaining play “Inherit the Wind”).

Yes, Virginia, there really are Pastafarians in the world, who, instead of lecturing people, use the arguments of religious people to show the arbitrary nature of a faith in supernatural beings. In fact Franklin Foer did an article in the Atlantic magazine of November 2016 about Flying Spaghetti Monster acolytes across the Continent who are a genuine organized movement “founded in large part to critique organized religion…[with] the trapping and some of the social functions of a real religion.” He notes that their Sabbath is on a “Friday, because our god was faster than the other gods, and he finished with the creation of the Earth earlier.” New Zealand became the first country to legally recognize marriages.

Leave it to the U.S., a generally more religious country than much of Europe, to deny a Nebraska prisoner’s request to practice the Pastafarian faith, ruling FSM a parody and not a religion. The Netherlands went the other way granting the group official status. “If you are not satisfied,” notes 24-year-old Bobby Henderson, “Your old religion will likely take you back.”

“I, Pastafari” is a broadly humorous movie with a consequential metaphysical philosophy, marred only by an insistence on intrusive music in the soundtrack, as though director Michael Arthur in his freshman offering does not trust the theater audience to know when the Pastafarians are messing with our mind. And hey, it’s only 56 minutes long, so what can you lose (except your faith)? R’amen.

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

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

THE LAST TREE – movie review

THE LAST TREE
ArtMattan Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shola Amoo
Screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/23/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

The Last Tree (2019) - IMDb

Distributed by Artmattan Films which boasts” films about the human experience of people of color,” “The Last Tree” is a coming of age story that focuses on the changes that form the boyhood and teen years of a British man with Nigerian roots. The drama is the second feature of Shola Amoo whose “A Moving Image,” about gentrification in Brixton, England, blurs the line between reality and fiction by incorporating real people affected by gentrification and who consider a young artist to be a symbol of a revitalization that excludes them.

In this latest project, the writer-director gives approximately equal time to Femi as a child (Tai Golding) and to him as a teen (Sam Adewunmi), hinting that we in the audience might take sides as to which incarnation is the more enjoyable. You can’t help noting that the young Femi is the more adorable fellow, his charm arising largely from the happy childhood he enjoys in a bucolic British suburb with Mary (Denise Black), a white foster parent. Femi fits in just fine with white friends his own age. We never find out why Yinka (Gbemisola Ilumel), his biological mother, could not take care of him, but unlike the foster children we hear about on the 6.30 news who had been taken in by exploitative women out for the money, this lad has clearly lucked out.

Too bad, like so many things, his halcyon home life takes a bad turn when his real mother, coming to see him for what is promised to be merely a visit, wants him back. You’ll think that Yinka lacks the stability to keep him for long, the boy remains in the less promising atmosphere of a London slum (“Careful—there’s pee,” warns his mother). After the passage of ten years, Femi, who spent years in what so many children can only dream about, has become sullen. He no longer has white friends, and Mace (Demmy Lapido), presumably a drug seller, has taken a shine to him, coaxing teen however reluctantly into joining a small gang.

Femi treats his mother like an enemy, not only for taking him away from a loving foster parent in a pleasant suburb, but also because she beats him if he does not take care of the house while she is away working as a cleaning woman. While he tries to avoid Mace—a rotund man with a ready smile—he alienates a few other locals by rescuing Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), bullied because of her dyed-blue braids and her studiousness. While his dedicated teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) takes time out to visit Femi at home, suspecting that he is ignoring his studies and is likely to drop out, the teacher is a good role model, telling the boy that he was not always a preppie and an old, boring teacher, but was once headed in the bad direction of his student.

Stil Williams sharply photographs the bucolic neighborhood, comparing it to the near slum of an inner city, and Segun Akinola’s music may swell at times but is not intrusive. In what amounts to a long coda that changes the tone of the picture, we find Femi and his mother abruptly in Lagos, Nigeria, where he meets his biological father. Though dad is a pastor, he is living in a house that bears comparison to New York’s Trump Tower with his golden staircase, polished marble floor, and enough space to take in a dozen foster children should he so desire. These final scenes are such a precipitous break, the story cries out for some explanation but never finds it.

It’s easy for us in the audience to relish Femi’s good luck as a child with a ready smile, we may find it difficult to empathize with the dour teen. Nonetheless, we leave the theater optimistic that Femi will soon “find” himself. Once that’s achieved, we need not worry about him.

English subtitles on the link that I used are superlative, clear, bold and easy to read, an important feature when those of so many movies and cheap and difficult to read.

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

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

THE AUDITION – movie review

THE AUDITION (Das vorspiel)
Strand Releasing
Reviewed by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Director:  Ina Weisse
Screenwriter:  Ina Weisse, Daphne Charizani
Cast:  Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mishiev
Running Time:  99 minutes
Reviewed on:  5/19/20
Opening Date: June 26, 2020
The Audition Poster
Just as psychoanalysts go through their own years on the couch to make them realize the effects that their own concerns could negatively affect their therapy of others, so mothers should go to analysts themselves to help prevent them from foisting their own childhood flaws and neuroses on their families and others.   If anyone should have spent as much time on the couch as Woody Allen that would be Anna.  We in the audience don’t know this at least until midpoint, because Anna Brodsky (Nina Hoss) is as controlled and disciplined as she expects her students to be.
Ina Weisse, who acted in some fifty films, now contributes her sophomore feature as director, having been the filmmaker for “The Architect,” about a fellow who returns to a village he had not seen in twenty years and stuns his children about his double life.  Using a script that Weisse co-wrote with Daphne Charizani,  she explores a middle-class family in Germany as they spend their weeks alternating from concern with their ten-year-old boy Jason (Serafin Mishiev) and one of her violin students, Alexander (Ilja Monti).
She might be excused for some neuroticism shown here when she and her husband Phillipe (Simon Abkarian) dine in a bistro.  As Phillipe could have predicted, she regrets that she ordered a pasta dish, sampling and preferring her husband’s steak and potatoes.  The good-natured Phillipe calmly exchanges dishes with her—after first agreeing to her demand to move to another table.
While her restaurant behavior is too trivial to portend a tragic event during the concluding moments, Weisse and Charizani concentrate on the way Anna treats her ten-year-old, who is more himself when in the hockey ring than he is when forced to practice his violin. A scene that finds Jonas finally kicking up a storm, rebelling by refusing to play, will be reflected in a more crucial encounter after a violin lesson that Anna gives to Alexander, for whom she had stood up when he performed in an audition at a Berlin conservatory that can be compared to our Juilliard.
Anna pays enough attention to Alexander, whom she is tutoring for an upcoming audition, to engage the envy of her own son, suffering emotional reactions to the apparently loving care she fosters on the young man who is now practicing four hours a day for the audition.  Alexander is technically competent but he is unable to meet the challenges of his teacher, who in one scene yells at him because he keeps raising his shoulder and because he appears unable to let the music into his body.
The scenes Anna has with Christian (Jens Albinus), a cellist in a chamber group with whom she carries on an affair, and the view of her during a visit to her aging parents, might well have been excised.  Nina Hoss’s performance is as flawless as her character’s perfectionism, a German actress who in her private life lobbies against African genital mutilation and the destruction of Brazil’s rain forest. In “The Audition” she can register emotions from the happiness she feels when the two adult men in her life shower her with attention to the rage and depression as she regrets not becoming a concert violinist.
The picture is in German and a little French with English subtitles.  The music, mostly by Bach including his “Presto,” is wondrous.
© Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online
Story: B
Acting:  B+
Technical:  B
Overall:  B

MADAGASIKARA MOVIE REVIEW

MADAGASIKARA
Global Digital
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cam Cowan
Screenwriter: Cam Cowan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

Madagasikara Poster

Though Republican politicians in the U.S. don’t know or don’t care, the largest economic problem here is the inequality of income. So let’s look for places that have little inequality. Try Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world with sandy beaches and the pure waters of the Indian Ocean. If there is little inequality there perhaps it’s because 98% of the country live on less than $2 a day! And boy do they have children! Maybe those earning $2 a day are envied by those making $1.50, but it’s probably unlikely that the 2% who make money are gobbling up almost all the wealth of the island.

So how do you live on two bucks a day, supporting children, paying rent, eating mostly white rice? Not too well, and yet there are smiling faces that we see in Cam Cowan’s documentary. This is Cowan’s freshman entry, though his next feature, “Opeka” to be released in 2020, deals with a similar subject: how an Argentine priest is teaching people who live in a Madagascar landfill to build a functional city.

In this mostly Catholic island that practices traditional religions as well, Pedro Opeka, a priest with a large white beard and shocks of snow-white hair complains that when he arrived to the island in 1970, the poverty rate was thirty percent, then became worse: in 2009 the rate hit ninety percent and by now it’s even worse. So much for calling this part of the world a “developing nation.”

The name of the movie, “Madagasikara,” sound like something Disney would call it if that company were to set up a Disneyland of sorts, but instead it is simply the name that the local people of the island call their nation. Though there have been protests with populations marching on the capital city, there has been no civil war, no foreign expeditions of conquest, and no natural disasters.

Then again, maybe a Trump-like poltician is responsible for some of the starvation there as one half of the children are malnourished, affecting their growth and intellectual potential. A rich guy who assumed the office of president despite losing an election (apparently the military supported him) aimed to sell off half of the good land to South Korean businesses. President Obama hit the land with sanctions, perhaps not realizing that Madagascar desperately needs foreign aid.

However most of the film focuses on a few women, one of whom named Lin is busy raising seven children and one grandchild on, yes, under $2/day. She takes in nine batches of laundry to earn the equivalent of 28 cents, which is 1,066 MGA or Malagasy Ariary. That gets her 2 cups of white rice, hardly enough to put meat on the bones of the kids and worth virtually nothing nutritionally.

Deborah, another woman who once had to resort to sex work beginning at age 12, complains that some of the men do not even pay her and some even beat her up. And don’t forget the wives of these “men,” instead of beating the crap out of their husbands, took out their venom on the poor woman. She had determined to stay in school to become a lawyer, though I can barely think of what people would have the money to hire attorneys but had to drop out, now hoping that some of her offspring could do what she had been unable to. Not likely, though we do see one school with kids crammed on makeshift desks watching teacher put mathematical formulas on the board.

A vocation that attracts some is breaking big rocks into small ones to make gravel, a task that looks similar to what U.S. prisoners on chain gangs had to do. The folks do not even wear gloves to protect their hands, nor can they presumably even afford them.

The production team encourages people to make the long journey to what is called one of the most beautiful islands on earth, but at present there are few if any international hotels, though prices are incredibly low. The Anjiamaranco is $29 a night with free breakfast, the Sakamanga is $20. The most expensive hotel is about $350 a night. Now none of this is mentioned since the focus is on the lives of some women living without running water and presumably no toilets. Still the doc, in addition to enlightening us, may encourage us to look up most facts about this island in Wikipedia and to price hotels via Trip Advisor and Trivago. I also discovered, though not particularly dealt with, that the country provides the world with 80% of its vanilla and a majority of its cloves, while having coffee, lychees, shrimp and providing one half of the world’s sapphires plus some titanium, chromite, coal, iron cobalt, copper and nickel.

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

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

CORPUS CHRISTI – movie review

CORPUS CHRISTI
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jan Komasa
Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Kurzaj, Leszek Lichota
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/13/20
Opens: June 23, 2020

Corpus Christi Poster

You may leave this film, a rigorous drama embellished with Catholic ritual, with a thought.

When Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is about to leave juvenile detention in a small Polish community, he tells the institution’s priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlatl), that he wants to work in a seminary. Daniel might be considered teacher’s pet by his youthful fellow convicts who spend their time training to work in a sawmill. He is the one called upon by the priest to add to the devotionals, sings the 23rd Psalm without a trace of self-consciousness or embarrassment, and thinks rightly that he could minister to a small town congregation. But Tomasz cautions that with his record, no seminary would take him on. What’s puzzling is: why is it so difficult for an ex-convict, anywhere, any country, to be trusted with a responsible job, even one that is not known for having cash around?

Daniel eschews working in a sawmill and takes a bus to a distant community where he becomes a fake priest. He convinces the vicar (Zdzislaw Wardejn) that he has been recently ordained in Warsaw, whips out a clerical collar with which he absconded, and is asked by the vicar to take his place for a while as he goes off to take care of health problems.

The dark, intense, absorbing and surprisingly credible tale of revenge and redemption is directed by Jan Komasa, whose “Warsaw 44” is a tale of the uprising against the Nazis, with a story line that features love, friendly and adventure. “Corpus Christi” is a more intimate story which benefits greatly from Bielenia’s stunning performance as twenty-year-old who may be faking his credentials but is the real thing otherwise; a fellow whose ministrations to his small-town flock leads to record numbers at services including absolute trust in him as parishioners go to confession.

Aside from the principal action in which we in the audience may suspect that a reckoning, there is a secondary plot. A middle-aged man had crashed his car into a vehicle holding six youths, killing all. The vicar, with the support of the community including the sacristy caretaker Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), refuses to bury the man. Daniel goes against the opinion of everyone except the widow (Barbara Kurzaj) of the “murderer” and the caretaker’s daughter, Marta (Elilza Rycembel), who is sexually attracted to the priest. He bucks even the town mayor and leading employer (Leszek Lichota) who wants the planned burial to just go away, Daniel must face a crossroads when inevitably, people back at “juvie” discover the fraud.

If this were a documentary or a “Christian” feature, the moral would be: give former convicts a chance a redemption. As a drama, the same noble message would come across, but more importantly, “Corpus Christi,” with its powerful performance by a 28-year-old with a passionate gaze, will serve as a dramatized sermon that few actual religious leaders can regularly match.

The movie is in Polish with English subtitles and benefits hugely by the absence of music in the soundtrack. “Corpus Christi” was the Polish entry for the 2020 Academy Awards for International Feature.

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

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

CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY – movie review

CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rauzar Alexander
Screenwriter: Rauzar Alexander
Cast: Moni Yakim, Laura Linney, Michael Urie, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Mackie, Alex Sharp, Kevin Kline, Mina Yakim, Charles E. Gerber, Peter Jacobson, Michael Stuhlbarg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/20
Opens: June 19, 2020

Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy

When I taught a drama class in an urban high school, I won a grant that would enable students interested in acting to be graced by a few lessons from teachers at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. The lessons would take place in the school auditorium with twenty students participating, no audience in the 800 seats. Each time I observed the classes, I noted that the instructors put emphasis on body movements, in the service of loosening the emotions of the performers and enabling them to express their inner selves not through words but through movement. The movements of these seventeen-year-olds, as lithe and full of energy as teens could be, would not duplicate what goes on in the Juilliard School’s drama division. In this brief documentary, director Rauzar Alexander in his freshman project gives us a rare look at some of the classes that took place in the school’s four-year drama program. The aim is to look in awe at the talent of Moni Yakim, a founding member of the school since the 1970s, with some insight into why the students love him. And you can see that affection daily as they laugh at his mild jokes (in on introductory class he asks for the students’ names because “I forgot them,” then adding “You all know my first name, but I forgot it. -Laughter)

Moni Yakim, who was born in Jerusalem, got a start not as a teacher but as a performer himself, taking part in classics like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” but this background did not become a major part of the film, though some interesting archival film of Jerusalem especially at the time of Israeli independence in 1948 makes an impression.

Moni’s heroes are Étienne Decroux, who created mime, and Stella Adler, who believed that actors must master techniques beyond their own knowledge and experience in order to portray a variety of characters. Moni gives over much of his teaching time to having his gifted young actors imitate mime, but spends most of the class time in getting them to twist their bodies every which way—the gymnastics forming the main interest of the movie. In one class he has the students yell gibberish, in another to crawl on the floor like commandoes on D-Day. “The more you free the body, the freer the imagination is to go wherever it needs to go,” he insists.

The doc does not make clear whether the students go to another studio in the school to learn to project their voices and to do other verbal work that actors are required to perform, so the impression is that Moni puts 90% of his energy into the physical work. He takes students beginning in their second year, his wife Mina dealing with the lucky freshmen. Not mentioned is that the Juilliard acting division goes through at least 1800 applicants yearly, takes 40 or 50 who try out, and selects only eighteen. Take that, Harvard and MIT with their generous 4% selection rate.

Interviews with proud alumni include Jessica Chastain, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie. Watch particularly former student Alex Sharp who went on to win a best actor Tony for his lead role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time.” We documentary-loving viewers saw the lad when he was working in Moni’s class.

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

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

SHIRLEY – movie review

SHIRLEY
Neon
Review by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Screenplay by: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Cast:  Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young
Reviewed from a critics’ link on 5/15/20
Opening:  June 5, 2020
Running Time:107 minutes
What gives one person the impetus to become a psychoanalyst, another an optometrist, yet a third individual a teacher and a fourth a writer?  In these cases consider the possibility that the optometrist had early onset myopia, was prescribed coke-bottle glasses, and is determined to help others by inventing thinner lenses; the teacher had unfortunate experiences with her own pedagogues and knows she can do better; and the psychoanalyst suffered from childhood anxiety and depression, spending long, creditable hours on the couch and hoping later to sit on a padded chair rather than the sofa.  This last scenario could apply to Shirley Jackson, a prolific writer with 200 magazines articles to her credit, an impressive contribution of novels, and a home library with 25,000 volumes.  She did not become a shrink but penned psychological/horror stories to exorcise her demons.
Shirley Poster
One of her shorter novels, “The Lottery,” which became a short movie, is a hair-raising, nightmare-causing story of a bucolic region of farmers in which, to further the fertility of crops, the town holds an annual lottery of all residents.  The “winner” of the lottery is sentenced to death by stoning, presumably donating blood to the fields.  Jackson did not herself live in a farming community but rather in North Bennington, Vermont, the location in the early 1960s setting of the movie an all-girls’ college until 1969. She suffered considerable neuroses, even borderline psychosis, her anxieties, her agoraphobia that essentially sentenced her to her house for months as though a plague  infested the outdoors.  She may not have been cured of her psychological problems, but at least she could use them to create great art.  And so she did.
The film directed by Josephine Decker, an actress and who as a director gave us movies like “Madeleine’s Madeline” (a theater director’s young actress takes her performance too seriously), is adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by Sarah Gubbins, scripter for TV episodes of “I Love Dick.” The movie lifts off by Elisabeth Moss’s electrifying performance in the title role.  Not only that: take a look at Shirley Jackson’s picture on Wikipedia or on Amazon books and you’ll find quite a likeness—except that Moss does not have the weight problem of her character which, together with Jackson’ chain smoking led to the novelist’s death from cardiac arrest at the age of 48.
While Moss carries the principal focus, Decker and Gubbins provide the film with an ensemble performance—three characters given about equal time to express their disappointments, their frustrations, their happy moments, in short, their personalities.  Consider Shirley’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington where he enjoys sexual favors at the women’s college.  He is extroverted, peering at the world though thick glasses with the black frames no longer fashionable in our times.  He insists on originality, on creativity, exhibiting his persona by playing a record by jazz and folk musician Lead Belly, who died in 1949 and seems to be unknown to the bright young co-eds.  At home, he shows his dismay with his wife’s habit of staying home, often skipping dinner to work on her stories, leaving him to dine alone as she would clack away speedily on her standard typewriter.
As though there were not enough drama in the household, enter a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scenario when a young couple arrive, invited by Stanley to remain in the couple’s home.  Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is nervous and pregnant, and her classically handsome husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are soon to incur the wrath of the residents.  The young couple are regularly baited, but Fred is staying on, hoping to get Stanley to recommend him to teach English at the college.  Though Rose is naïve and trusting, she is soon to find out that her husband is following the same path of infidelity as his new mentor.  Among the barbs: Stanley has read the young man’s dissertation.  At the dinner table he announces that the paper lacks originality and is mediocre.  “Have you considered teaching at the high school level?”  If that were not enough to make Fred bolt from the dinner table, what is?
Anyone who has seen Elisabeth Moss knows that she is among the best actresses of all generation.  Her work on Margaret Atwood’s TV episodes “The Handmaid’s Tale” as June Offred Osborne, gave her the extra push to work for women’s causes and led to her telling an interviewer that it made her “a stronger woman.”  She needs no dialogue in “Shirley” to signal her every emotion.  Coiling like a snake, a fierce look at her husband and guests, she could keep you up nights if you were her guest.  Rose is eager to leave this house, virtually haunted by its occupants, but nonetheless she is drawn to Shirley, considering her a friend notwithstanding the difference in age.  It helps that she responds to Shirley’s sexual advances, their playing footsies under the dining table being one of the comic moments in the film.
And Stuhlbarg is no mere straight man to Moss’s manipulations.  His is a formidable performance whether leading a group dance at the college dean’s party, barking at his wife to leave the house, or baiting the poor young man who has been effectively relegated to teaching high school.   As for Odessa Young’s Rose, we can see how Stanley uses her to help his wife complete her latest book, which, in fact, is based on the author’s experiences with her husband and the young boarders.  Write what you know.
The film appears to toy with two endings: one which results in Rose’s suicide, the other finding her sitting in the back seat of the car driven by her Tom-cat husband.
Kudos to Tamar-Kali’s use of music, largely jazz tracks, and Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s lensing, making good use of  the house’s interiors, the lively faculty party, and the rural pleasures of a state whose slogan, “Freedom and Unity,” is, judging by this movie, surely ironic.
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B
Overall – B+
© Harvey Karten, Director, NY Film Critics Online

SCREENED OUT – movie review

SCREENED OUT
Dark Star Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Hyatt
Screenwriter: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
Cast: Jon Hyatt, Alicia Dupuis, Jim Steyer, Syd Bolton, Adam Alter, Jean Twenge, Hilarie Cash, Alex Pang, Ramsay Brown, Mihael Rich, Nir Eyal, Nicholas Kardaras
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/22/20
Opens: May 26, 2020

Screened Out (2020)

One glaring omission from Jon Hyatt’s blandly informative but virtually humorless documentary “Screened Out” is the name Donald J. Trump. CBS news the other day reported that since he took office, he has sent out 50,000 tweets. Was he stupid before computers and the internet were even invented, or did he become the way he is because of all the screen time that he indulges? But wait: his addiction to Twitter may accord with  Hyatt’s thesis that excessive time on smart [sic] phones and computers will mess with your brain, so to the president’s credit, he announced that because Twitter is now fact-checking his tweets for accuracy and truth, he will do what he can to shut the company down. You go, man. Less Twitter, more time for engaging directly with life.

While I do not even have a Twitter account, I was not born into the computer age, so I cannot fully comprehend that men and women below the age of thirty (when home computers started to takeoff) are so dependent on this technology. On Memorial Day, the folks spending six to nine hours daily “talking” to their thousand Facebook friends, retweeted a video of a woman who lost her six-figure job because her racist comments were caught. Thirty million people had seen the altercation when the video went viral (Ugh, that word again). Heaven known how much time many of these followers are spending on their devices rather than looking flesh-and-blood people in the eye and talking to them or gaining genuine wisdom about life by reading “War and Peace” instead.

Other points left out by the doc include the more concrete danger of distraction on your screens while driving your car, resulting in giving some pedestrians nasty bumps, or that of great armies of mostly young people glued to their phones and slamming into people on the sidewalk or falling from cliffs. Still, co-writer and director Hyatt knows whereof he speaks since he was (is?) himself a screen addict. Many years earlier he would play out in the yard with kids his own age, having a ball, learning how to relate directly to others while getting the sufficient amount of vitamin D that others are missing. He now spends more time reading the fiction that was crowded out because of his addiction while his wife has been unable to kick the screen habit. Imagine guys and gals in college assigned to read “Jane Eyre” but glancing every ten minutes at the phone when hearing the buzz or ring or theme song from “Gone with the Wind.” As one talking head advises, multi-tasking does not work.

Among the gems delivered from the documentary which I was watching on my computer when I could have been re-reading “Jane Eyre,” is the concept of intermittent rewards. When a pigeon gets a pellet of food each time it (or he or she) pecks at a button, the bird is rewarded. Soon, however, the pigeon gives up, winded. Everything’s too predictable. When the pigeon does not know which peck at the button will release the food (the mechanism is programmed to release the pellet intermittently), the bird retains excitement. In that regard slot machines keep people glued not because they win a fortune every time they swing the one arm—that would be boring albeit enriching—they are fascinated by wondering when or if the quarters will bounce into the slot. So is it that when people hear the ping of the phone (or the opening bars of “Twist and Shout” as sung by Ferris Bueller), they will salivate at the thought that the texter’s message may be more interesting than their Social Studies teacher’s talk on the Congress of Vienna.

The documentary barely presents another point of view, so intent is Hyatt to list and elaborate the many dangers of social media and other plagues. He might have said that video games improve cognitive function and motor skills, and that at least the youths are reading words. On the other hand, teen suicide is way up since technology allows them to compare their miserable lives with the bragging from their peers who are equally miserable. Then again there’s bullying by callow adolescents, while in my day you could just grab a kid from the street who is half your weight and show him how much better you are.

How’s this for irony. When this movie shown on your computer ends, you get to click, or not click, the button “like.” I thought and debated and meditated and clicked it.

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

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B- (near absence of animation)
Overall – B

HOPE GAP – movie reviews

HOPE GAP
Roadside Attractions/Screen Gems
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: William Nicholson
Screenwriter: William Nicholson based on his play “The Retreat from Moscow”
Cast: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/5/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

In one scene Grace (Annette Bening) sighs that after a while, unhappiness ceases to be interesting. This may be true but “Hope Gap,” filled with unhappiness and meditative poetry, remains interesting throughout. Perhaps the major reason for this is the near-miraculous performance of the kind that Annette Bening gives. Or maybe because the film written by directed by Williams Nicholson in his sophomore contribution (his play “The Retreat from Moscow” compares the costly withdrawal of Napoleon’s forces from Moscow to the end of a three decades’ long marriage), pairs two thesps who work so well together that they convince of their inability to get along. The story is based on the marriage dissolution of the writer-director.

As you watch Grace and her long-term husband Edward (Bill Nighy) argue, you might be tempted to side with Edward, who has been worn down by his more outgoing wife’s insistence that he talk, even fight. In fact her nagging gives the appearance that she is a shrew who wants to make her man not what he really is, and in fact Edward states that she has been in love with her fantasy of a husband. Then again, you’d want to consider that she may have a good point. Women generally like to talk while men like to act, or so Esquire Magazine sometimes tells us, and Edward, who is a high-school teacher who discusses poetry as though he were declaiming to college majors in English literature, is clearly introspective.

Though Edward is actually in love with one Angela (Sally Rogers), the mother of one of the pupils, he has waited to tell Grace of his unhappiness and his wish to change gears somewhat past middle age. He wonders, as do we in the audience, whether he has been unhappy during the entire length of the marriage. He uses his own son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) as a sounding board, is advised by the twenty-something lad who lives alone and so far as we see has no girlfriend or love life, to keep the bond with his wife. When Edward tells Grace “I’m no good for you,” he uses the standard self-deprecation that both sexes have employed in efforts to mitigate their guilt.

Like Jamie, who is given a considerable role to show his personality when he is with two friends his own age, Jess (Aiysha Hart) and Gary (Nicholas Burns), Nicholson does not take sides, allowing us in the audience to spend the evening with our own friends discussing who is more at fault. Edward’s guilt aside, what is most fascinating is watching how Annette Bening, the only one in the cast who is not British, takes on the king’s English in registering a wide range of emotions, particularly the rage that is covering up the intense feeling of abandonment and lack of agency in negotiating with the person she has lived with for twenty-nine years. Yet she has only a vague inkling that they may have been a mismatch from the start.

There is an extra dose of disappointment to see that Seaford is a spot perfect for a romance of people during their mature years. Anna Valdez Hanks films on location in the south of England which looks over the English Channel from its white cliffs. Some may argue that we do not know enough about the couple, something that may give us insight into the one-sidedness of their split, but we see enough to fill in the backstory with our imagination.

The film will be appreciated by a prospective audience in middle age or beyond, though it’s a pity that dramas focusing on the mature are rarely attended by the callow.

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

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

ON A MAGICAL NIGHT – movie review

ON A MAGICAL NIGHT
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christophe Honoré
Screenwriter: Christophe Honoré
Cast: Chiara Mastoianni, Benjamin Biolay, Vincent Lacoste, Kolia Abiteboul, Camille Cottin, Carole Bouquet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/4/20
Opens: May 8, 2020

“The French don’t care what they do, actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.” So says Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and if Higgins were present at the Cannes Film Festival watching “On a Magical Night,” he would be doubly assured. Under the direction of Christophe Honoré, a busy man whose “Les chansons d’amour” deals with a threesome evoking the mysteries and fragilities of love, is in his métier with “On a Magical Night.” When one character says “When should we die: in our 30’s, our 40’s?” we know we are dealing thematically with people who regret the passing years but who had used those periods to accumulate multiple partners. Maria Mortemart (Chiara Mastroianni) and Richard Warrimer (Benjamin Biolay) have been married for twenty-five years, affording Maria a bounty of male lovers, none gay even if the writer-director’s previous picture, “Sorry Angel” finds one Jacques in love with Arthur. Since Richard claims never to have cheated on Maria, he resents her infidelity.

The movie is theatrical, most action taking place in Room 212 (the original title is “Chambre 212”) and across the street in a hotel. Bringing to mind the Beatles’ “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64,” Honoré considers a question that has must have been asked by anyone with a pulse, “Would I have done anything different if I could reconsider my choice for a life’s partner?” The question is not resolved, but Honoré uses magical realism to examine the fantasies of Maria when, after an argument with Richard she moves to a hotel across the street and considers all the men she slept with during her marriage and the two principal women in her life as well.

So this time the cheater is not the man. Maria, a glamorous law professor, looks through the hotel window at Richard who, by now, is kicking up a storm, and spends the night receiving “visits” by Richard’s piano teacher Irène Haffner (Carole Bouquet at 60 years and Camille Cottin at 40), by her dead mother (Marie-Christine Adam), and by a succession of past lovers including one present one, Asdrubal Electorat (Harrison Arevalo). The men include Richard as a young adult (Vincent Lacoste) and as her teen student(Kolia Abiteboul). Stéphane Roger performs as La Volonté, a one-man Greek chorus singing like Charles Aznavour.

Much of the time she ponders her bedding Richard decades ago, which might have the audience wonder whether this technicality means that she is not really committing infidelity. Since this is a French movie, there’s lots of talk, largely of regrets, the veritable platoon of men and women taking up the space of the hotel room but giving Maria the freedom to conduct most of her truth-seeking chats with the piano teacher.

Light and fluffy like a French farce but played on a more somber and less over-the-top performances of Feydeau’s plays, “Chambre 212” might be just the thing we need since our globe went viral. The conclusion, a dance to forget your troubles to the bouncy tunes of Barry Manilow, may have been planned to have us in the audience forget for a while the seriousness of love and sex and life. For those of us curious to soak in trivia, you probably guessed that Chiara Mastroianni is the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni’s and Catherine Deneuve and that the two principals, Mastroianni and Biolay were once romantic partners.

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

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

VIVARIUM – movie review

VIVARIUM
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwike, Jonathan Aris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: March 27, 2020

One of the most explosive and controversial books in recent times, David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament,” takes the view that giving birth is bad. Benatar is an anti-natalist not so much because of the usual reasons—too many people in the world leads to disastrous climate change and food shortages—but because, he believes, you are inflicting pain on your children. The happiness our children feel will is subordinate to their pain. Citing Benatar’s example, would you be willing to accept an hour of pain in return for getting an hour of pleasure? Hardly anyone would say yes. Which brings us to “Vivarium,” the word meaning a structure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation and experimentation.

Director Lorcan Finnegan, whose “Without Name” follows a land surveyor’s measuring an ancient forest, who loses his reason under supernatural conditions, is in his métier with “Vivarium,” a intriguing puzzle of a movie that will evoke several interpretations. The easy one is that the film is a satire on suburban living, which it is, not unlike “Suburbican,,” “The Burbs,” “Pleasantville,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out.” However, think of the movie on deeper terms and you may agree that Garret Shanley’s screenplay is in its way a promulgation of Benatar’s book as the images on the screen for most of its 98 minutes show a young couple whose initial happiness gives way to months of continuing pain.

How so? Watch the progress, or regress, of a young couple on the cusp of life; Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They’re looking for a dream house, white picket fence and spacious rooms, of course, because that’s what America is about. Gemma, an elementary school teacher, is good with her class, putting them through an exercise that has them identify with winged creatures. Just after dismissal she runs into one of her pupils who discovers two dead birds who have fallen out of their nest shortly after birth, a time that finds the young birds with open mouths tasting their first pangs of hunger. Perhaps they have just bird brains or maybe they can tell already that life is a vallis lacrimarum.

When Gemma and Tom consult Martin (Jonathan Aris), a real estate agent whose oddball behavior should have them running for the hills, they are escorted by him to a development called “Yonder,” where they behold a labyrinth of ticky-tacky houses, all painted puke-green. (Great set design by Julia Devin-power.) Impressed by the spaciousness inside number 9, they are surprised to note that the agent has disappeared. Set to go home, they wind up driving in a circular fashion, always landing back on number 9. Life is a circle, isn’t it? They take in a baby deposited in a box outside, a brat who grows daily, who imitates the actions of his, or its, foster parents, screams like the devil, and speaks in a voice not like Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist,” but like a grown man. Tom is ready to kill. Gemma has not reached that stage but hates the kid’s calling her “mother.” “I’m not your f******mother!”

Already the suburban dream has been smashed. The desire to have a child? Gone. The boxed-in togetherness of the trio drives both off the wall, the child being the only one who, despite screams, is looking to learn. Benatar’s prescription is swallowed with a vengeance, as relative moments of happiness are dissolved into hellish suffering. Like many other psychological thrillers, “Vivarium” begins with a light touch, moments of humor, dissipating in the second half, just as weird as the opening but loaded with misery.

This is a low-key sci-fi adventure with almost bloodless smidgens of horror which, with the crackerjack acting especially of Imogene Poots with Jesse Eisenberg in almost a supporting role is entertaining and enlightening. A fine performance from child actor Senan Jennins, who looks and acts something like CBS’s Young Sheldon, delivering the goods. Think before you marry or before you trust that a long-term relationship is heaven on earth. Think before you have children. Think before you believe suburban life is a cure-all or protective cocoon for life’s misfortunes. The universe is indifferent to you and so is your real estate agent.

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

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