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 LAST FULL MEASURE – movie review

THE LAST FULL MEASURE
Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Robinson
Screenwriter: Todd Robinson
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/18/20
Opens: Opens January 24, 2020

Todd Robinson, whose “Lonely Hearts” dramatized the true story of a hunt by two homicide detectives for the pair of “lonely hearts” killers who seduced victims through the personals, might not surprise you for the war movie he directed over a decade later. Yet “The Last Full Measure,” a title whose expression means “death,” is likewise based on a true story which, though not involving city detectives, instead concentrates on battlefield heroism. Its hero is not only the soldier, William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine)but also Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan ) in particular who gave up a promising career promotion to unfold a thirty-year-old story of an airman denied the well-deserved Medal of Honor by members of Congress covering up an exposure of bad battlefield decisions. Also involved but also of the folks who held out hope for a three decades that a wrong would be righted. That hope came to life as Huffman interviews Tully (William Hurt), a bosom buddy of the Vietnam war hero and also of Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), who witnessed Pitsenbarger’s bravery during a battle taking place 56 kilometers outside of Saigon, William Pitsenbarger (Christopher Plummer) and Alice Pitsenberger (Diane Ladd) as the parents of the airman, and two other on the spot witnesses Jimmy Burr (Peter Fonda) and Mott (Ed Harris).

“The Last Measure” takes place in two time periods, one involving the bombs and bullets ducked in 1966 by a pinned-down group of soldiers whose commanders had apparently made bad decisions, and in 1998, involving scenes taking place in the Pentagon and on the territories of witnesses and lobbyists for the heroic William Pitsenberger. The film will recall similar heroism by Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) in “Hacksaw Ridge,” looked at with contempt by officers for his stand as a conscientious objector refusing to pick up a rifle, but who nonetheless saved the lives of some 75 men in World War II.

The principal role in “The Last Full Measure,” though, is that of Sebastian Stan, whose Pentagon careerist Scott Huffman determines to dig up new evidence about why Pitsenbarger, though originally considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor (the highest award given to combat soldiers), was downgraded to an Air Force cross. Those who knew Pitsenbarger had been sitting on the case year after year, never giving up hope that the medal would be upgraded, though such a review rarely recommends such an action.

Among those testifying to Huffman, perhaps the most interesting is Sam Jackson’sTakoda, a salt-of-the-earth gent who in one point grabs the recorder out of the interviewer’s hand and tosses it into the river. As the story unfolds, we learn that 20 infantrymen remained alive though hit but a burst of enemy fire, some coming from snipers in nearby trees near Vietnam’s Cam My. Helicopters are sent in to rush the wounded out of the area. When young Pitsenberger is offered a ride by the last chopper out, giving him a chance to depart the scene, he refused, dedicated to helping the wounded and comforting them with his words.

With battle scenes photographed in typical war-movie style DP Byron Werner in Thailand and with tense scenes accentuated by Philip Klein’s sometimes intrusive music, “The Last Full Measure” cannot avoid sometimes descending into soap-opera inspired dialogue. Nevertheless the subject is well served by this narrative drama, giving many in the film audience too young to have followed the Vietnam War a hint of the action, particularly of the guerrilla warfare engaged in by the enemy, some of whom serving in regular jobs during the day and as fighters by night.

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

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

FIG TREE – movie review

FIG TREE
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Screenwriter: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Cast: Betalehem Asmamawe, Rodas Gizaw, Weyenshiet Belachew, Yohannes Musa, Mitiku Haylu, Mareta Getachew, Tilahune Asagere
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/27/19
Opens: June 5, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

No sooner has the film advanced past the opening credits when someone in a hell-hole of a town outside Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa says, “Everyone wants to be Jewish.” That’s something you don’t hear every day, but it was probably quoted in one way or another in the Soviet Union when in 1989 a record number of that country’s Jews left for Israel and the United States. Some Russian Christians, not particularly pleased with the travel limitations of their Communist government, discovered that by declaring themselves to be Jews they can not only be let out but can be taken in and treated well by the Jewish state. A situation in presented itself in Ethiopia during its long civil war between a Communist government that took power after a coup ousting Haile Selassie and various guerrilla groups. Both sides in in 1989 were kidnapping men between the ages of 15 and 30, conscripting them into their armed divisions. In that background Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a feisty 16-year-old staying with her weaver grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew), both lives for the moment, giving herself over to horseplay with her long-term boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse), and looking forward to spending her life with both her grandmother and Eli in Israel once the fluctuating flight schedules allow them to finalize their plans.

Two big questions arise. There are risks that Eli faces when military units without advance warning could snatch the young man up and make life unbearable, which is at least the perception of a young woman like Mina. The other is that like her grandmother and like her mother who is already in Israel, Mina is Jewish. However Eli, adopted into Mina’s family, is Christian. Mina fears that once the equivalent of a Mexican coyote who has pocketed money that Eli would be left behind, as Mina is instructed to take flight with her grandmother first.

Time passes, military units occasionally causing anxieties such as by forcing a school’s principal to hand over the list or male students, but a climactic point arrives when Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier (Tilahune Asagere) hanging from a fig tree in a patch of land that Eli uses to hide from the military. They save the man, who takes his time becoming conscious, and we see him as a metaphor for the whole mess that faces the country. The area is wracked by fear to such an extent that we may be surprised at the good will of the two young people when shortly thereafter the soldier crawls away, collapses, and is ignored by passersby.

The bulk of the film is slow-moving and is based partly on the experiences of the writer-director, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian who left Ethiopia when she was eleven. The languid pace makes the climactic moments, when all tensions burst in an array of frantic activity, all the more riveting. Still, considering the unhurried rhythms that last for the major parts, more exposition in the opening minutes could have better clarified the theme.

In the seventies and eighties Israel gave itself lots of credit, deservedly so, for taking in so many Ethiopians, a surprising decision since—as we learn from Eliran Malka’s film “The Unorthodox”which opens one day before this one at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center—the ethnically European Ashkenazis were not exactly welcoming of their fellow Israelis of Middle Eastern origin. “Fig Tree” does give us the tensions surrounding both the civil war and the desires of Ethiopian Jews to get out of their country leaving everything behind, but should be seen as well for the terrific performance of Betalehem Asmamawe, a non-professional performer in her first role.

Daniel Miller filmed on location in Ethiopia. “Fig Tree” is an entry of the Israel Film Center Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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

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

THEY CALL ME DR. MIAMI – movie review

THEY CALL ME DR. MIAMI
Cargo Film & Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jean-Simon Chartier
Cast: Michael Salzhauer as Dr. Miami
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/1/20
Opens: May 14, 2020

Let’s say you walk into a medical arts building to take care of an infected wound on your hand. You pass by a group of medical offices and on the way you can’t help noticing that one office housing a surgeon has a large colorful sign “Make Butts not War.” Would you make a run for it, thinking the entire building may be loco? Would you whip out your i-phone to call the authorities? You’re thinking: maybe there’s a reason for the sign, so to assure yourself you open the door and find a few young women laughing and photographing the surgeon with material that will appear on Snapchat. You’re convinced. Something’s going on here.

But wait. Is there any chance that you, a resident of South Florida, had not even heard of Dr. Salzhauer? No chance. You recall the name and feel more at ease. But you’re not the only person who thought something was wrong. There are important people who even now might like to shut down the doctor’s practice, and Jean-Simon Chartier gives some Salzhauer negative reactions. Never mind that he is already world famous, as big a name even in Antigua—where women unhappy about their appearance travel to South Florida to get a procedure—as Dr. Oz is in our own country.

Do you think it’s right for a surgeon to create rap videos, culturally appropriating part of African-American culture to advertise his name and practice, and to clown around with various audiences including his own assistants and other young women who crowd around him in his office as though he were a rock star? The ethical implications—that perhaps a man of medicine should not be doing rap and sending videos through Snapchat—are given short shrift, with just one physician given time to testify his concern to the camera, but maybe he should be written off as an envious fellow with a short sense of humor.

I would tell him what Salzhauer himself states in this intriguing, entertaining documentary, one which breaks new ground on the subject of plastic surgery, that is: it makes no difference what a person does for entertainment provided that he or she is competent in the profession. (Think of Trump: he clowns around too, but is he competent)?

Salzhauer is one of the men who would be loved by the Lubavitcher folks here in Brooklyn who go around asking people on the street “Are you Jewish?, invite them into a van called a Mitzvah tank, and try to upgrade their religion from secular to Orthodox. Indeed we see several clips of the plastic surgeon laying Tefillen, clothing himself with a Tallit, and davening in fluent Hebrew. He had upgraded himself from Reform or Conservative or even secular and is married with kids to an Orthodox wife. His home life is as enviable as his office politics, his spacious home serving to give us a short piano recital from one of his accomplished kids, even allowing us to witness a brit on an 8-day old baby.

If you like entertainment but recoil at seeing close-up images of tummy-tucks, breast augmentation, and particularly butt enhancement, you will get that too, but the short 76 minutes are taken up mostly with an exploration of the doc’s personality. By the way, I understand how women may want breast augmentation, but here they seem to want bigger butt. Shouldn’t it be the opposite, with women requesting butt-tucks?

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

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

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS – movie review

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliza Hittman
Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/18/20
Opens: March 13, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

In her third feature movie, writer-diector Eliza Hittman continues to explore people who are vulnerable, youths who are missing the proper guidance in life and who are put into positions that they would not have found themselves if they had the proper direction. In the director’s “It Felt Like Love,” a young woman dreams of emulating the sexual exploits of a more experience person, putting herself into a dangerous situation. In “Beach Rats” a teen “experiments” with drugs and looks to meet older men. Now with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hitmann focuses on “Autumn” (Sidney Flanigan), a seventeen-year-old girl who must deal with a pregnancy that she never wanted but with the good luck to have a friend like Skylar (Talia Ryder), who acts more like Autumn’s older
sister willing to go the distance with Autumn during a difficult time in the younger girl’s life.

After Trump was elected president largely with the support of rural Americans, voters in small towns and farms complained that city people consider them racists, sexists, homophobic and the like. We would like to think that this is true, yet as Hitmann portrays small-town Pennsylvania, at least through the eyes of people on the cusp of mature adulthood, a large number of these Americans are what they say they are not. For example, when Autumn is performing in a talent show, one guy yells out “slut” in the middle of her song, and the attendees including even Autumn’s young parents, appear to think nothing of it.

Autumn, who appears not to realize that she is pregnant until eighteen weeks have passed since her last menstrual period, tries to self-abort the fetus by taking a slew of Vitamin C pills, then punches her belly without much result save for some large bruises. Stealing some money from the supermarket with the help of her cousin, she takes a bus to New York, not even considering that she would need to get a round-trip ticket, that she lacks money for a hotel, that she would have to stay in New York two nights. On the bus Skylar is hit on by a young passenger (Théodore Pellerin), who will try to encourage Skylar to go with him “downtown” and who the girls will later exploit for money.

In this slice-of-life drama, Hittman takes us first to a rural clinic, the agent explaining that there are alternatives to abortion, that there are people who would gladly adopt the future child. Since it’s too late for Autumn to get an abortion in her area, she and Skylar take two buses toward New York’s Port Authority Terminal, going to Planned Parenthood on 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and back up to a Manhattan facility which would be able to conduct the procedure.

Autumn has no particular support from her parents, and in fact by showing us the youthful age of the father and mother in the audience of the talent show, Hitmann may be making the point that they too had babies while they were teens. Hélène Louvart films all in 16mm, from the broken-down areas of rural Pennsylvania to the chaos of New York.

Here is an ideal slice of life drama. No melodrama, no frantic behavior, with Autumn’s emotions showing only when she began to cry during a social worker’s interview. At that meeting, she is asked a series of questions such as “Were you ever forced to have sex when you did not want to” for which she needed to answer “Never, rarely, sometimes or always.” In Hitmann’s hands, the two young performers, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder relate to each other as though they knew each other for a decade. But even to her cousin and best friend, Autumn never opens up. She does not tell her even that she’s pregnant, just that she has “cramps.” These are inarticulate people, the sort that just might vote for politicians who do not necessary offer much but who are grand showmen who can entertain and who do not evoke articulate responses from their audience.

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

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

LITTLE WOMEN – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUST MERCY – movie review

JUST MERCY
Warner Bros
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 11/2/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Just Mercy (2019)

Freeing wrongfully convicted people is an excellent theme for fiction as well as for documentaries. Think of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Guardians,” in which Quincy Miller, a black man, is convicted of a murder that has no witnesses and no apparent motive. Languishing in jail for 21 years, he has his case picked up by Collen Post of the Guardian organization, which can accept only a small percentage of cases that come to its attention. There are people who don’t want Miller freed: his lawyer’s life is in danger. In Ton Shadyac’s movie “Brian Banks,” a football star is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and is later freed thanks to Justin Brooks of the Florida Innocence Project.

In time for Christmas, a season of good feelings by people who want feel-good movies, “Just Mercy” enters the genre, a film by Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton following up his “The Glass Castle,” about a young woman brought up by unconventional parents, often living in poverty, whose folks now criticize her for marrying a financial analyst in New York thereby trashing their values. While “The Glass Castle” is not about the judicial system, its theme embraces the idea of giving up a conventional life, one that everyone expects you to pursue, in favor of helping the people who need you the most—the post, the disenfranchised, the wrongfully convicted.

The most surprising thing about Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” is that it is based closely on an actual case. As the plot rolls out, you might scarcely believe that a guy fresh out of law school, albeit Harvard, without prior experience and with a view that the impossible takes just a little longer, succeeds in winning a case full of obstacles. The principal obstacle is the desire of an Alabama town sheriff (filmed in Georgia) and young D.A. to hold on to their reputations, which depends on keeping the town safe. That’s safe for the white folks on the right side of the track, since for African-Americans there never is a feeling of safety from an oppressive local and state government and hostile townspeople.

The fall-guy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) enjoys what could have been his last day of freedom, felling a tree and being arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white girl. Though he has a strong alibi, it is backed up only by the local black community. A white felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), is promised a lighter sentence if he testifies against McMillian, who perjures himself leading to a conviction (I just corrected a typo, the more adept “confiction”). Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), out of Harvard Law School, heading from a lucrative career in Delaware but choosing instead to drive south to defend hapless people who may have been wrongfully jailed. He is lucky to get out alive, drawing hostile stares from the white community and especially its lawmen, even strip-searched before the first conference with his client. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), his white paralegal who sets him up in her home pending the rental of an office,

McMillian who at first does not trust that this young man can do anything for him but soon shakes his hand in agreement. Stevenson moves for a re-trial but is buffeted by the establishment until he winds his way through the judicial process to get just mercy.

Some of the interesting side lines include the conversations that McMillian has on death row with his neighbors, all in solitary confinement. The most stellar scene in the work finds Stevenson interviewing Ralph Myers to get an admission that he lied when he accused McMillian of standing over the body of the dead girl. Tim Blake Nelson, his bottom lip twisted to the side as though a victim of a stroke, his eyes blinking, head swiveling, turns in what in my mind should make him a candidate for best supporting role awards.

For those who have never seen this type of courtroom drama, never exposed to “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Conviction” with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” based on a Stephen King novel, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” will be particularly riveted by this intense drama. An older audience might challenge this movie’s value on the grounds that it’s a straightforward biopic in strict chronology, those people wanting more free-floating imagination in their courtroom dramas. Nevertheless, for all potential audiences, “Just Mercy,” given its fiercely motivated performances, is a delight, a Christmas feel-good drama which even at over two hours does not overstay its welcome.

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

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

DEPRAVED – movie review

DEPRAVED
IFC Midnight
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Larry Fessenden
Screenwriter: Larry Fessenden
Cast: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Addison Timlin, Maria Dizzla
Screened at: Critics link, NYC, 8/29/19
Opens: September 13, 2019

Depraved Movie Poster

Larry Fessenden’s feverish tale of a human being created by assembled body parts is an apt updating of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein,” now celebrating the novel’s 200th anniversary. Fessenden, who performed in the 2007 movie “Psychopaths” which deals with chaos inflicted by its title character, and who directed “The Last Winter” about people going insane in the Arctic, is well within his métier with this tale of horror. “Depraved” carries the message so often dished out in the horror films of the 1950s that “Maybe we should not have tampered with nature,” has been resurrected in a tale that conjures up images of young people working their parents’ garage doing exactly that with predictably disastrous results.

The film opens up with an argument between Lucy (Chloë Levine) and her boyfriend Alex (Owen Campbell), but without realizing it, the young woman has won the argument since Alex is attacked in the dark Brooklyn streets, stabbed to death. His body is dragged to a nearby lab, actually a loft in Brooklyn’s Gowanus area, where a doctor removes his brain and transplants it into a cobbled-together human being, sutures everywhere as though tattoos designed to terrify. Poof: Adam (Alex Breaux) comes to life, his first vision that of Henry (David Call), an otherwise nice guy eager to give him drugs thrice daily to prevent rejection, then to program him and together with his financier John Polidari (Joshua Leonard) make a fortune. Henry, unlike John, is not altogether greedy, but rather intent on restoring to life people killed on the battlefield where Henry, having received medals for bravery in the Middle East, now harbors PTSD.

He teaches Adam ping-pong, and watches while his lone pupil picks up one skill after another, though Henry cannot imagine what Adam is thinking. The creation’s thoughts show the impact of the brain, giving Adam memories of the good times with Lucy but also filled with lightning-like sparks that have always been a major part of films dealing with the experiments of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Henry introduces Adam to people in his life, including his girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) who is concerned with Adam’s loneliness, all the while being pushed by John toward introducing the creation to the scientific world to make a fortune. As in the classic James Whale’s 1931 film “Frankenstein” in which Boris Karloff as the monster scared the bejesus out of kids as Karloff had been doing since 1919, a monster, friendly, even cuddly, always ready to learn and accept nurturing, goes bonkers when treated badly by his creators, leaving bodies in his wake.

Of course we in the audience can sympathize in part with Henry, who is more concerned with saving lives than his financier John, but we put most of our sentiments into Adam, whose name allows us to think that maybe technology will go a lot farther than giving us smart phones to while away our days and nights by creating a new breed of human being that will have us somehow make room and disappear.

Special effects are dazzling albeit repetitious in what you could call a dystopian dream with technology running strictly on the defensive.

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

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

ALTERNATE ENDINGS: SIX NEW WAYS TO DIE IN AMERICA – movie review

ALTERNATE ENDINGS: SIX NEW WAYS TO DIE IN AMERICA
HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Screenwriter: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Cast: Leila Johnson, Guadalupe Cuevas, Barbara Jean, Sara Snider Green, Dick Shannon, Emily and Ryan Matthias
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/19
Opens: August 14, 2019

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who ironically died before the age of forty, is best known for a poem that begins like this:

“Do not go gentle into that good night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

One might presume that the majority of people want to live as long as they can, some terminal patients demanding that hospitals do everything they can regardless of their pain. Most tragic are people with ALS virtually paralyzed and looking toward an end by suffocation but barely considering a voluntary ending their own lives. All of these people rage against the dying of the light. The six families highlighted in Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill’s stunning HBO documentary shed tears for the people they are about to miss and who, of course, are destined to miss them as well. Yet all had original ways of dealing with mortality.

Although in 2018 cremations are now more common in the U.S. than burials, notwithstanding the opposition of the Catholic Church and Jewish rabbis, there is nothing common about the way families of six people dealt the end. On my terms” is the theme of each whether five years old or eighty, and this is to the good. Right now only six states and DC have legislation on the books that allow people, usually with six months or fewer to live, to end their own lives with mixtures set up in the regulations—regulation which are strange when you consider how many people have OD’d from opiates which they were able to get on their own. So let’s see what so unusual about the people here, all of whom are now passed away in a film that must have taken years to make.

Leila Johnson allowed her departed father to contribute to nature, to life, really, by placing his cremains in a coral reef. According to officials at the Memorial Reef International, corals are dying, and this kind of burial can create new environments for life. An understanding of this is beyond my pay grade so I connected with Wikipedia and found this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_issues_with_coral_reefs
Now I see the reasons for the demise of corals but not exactly how burying cremains, which Leila mixes with cement, can create new structures for ocean life.

Texan Guadalupe Cuevas give their beloved father, ill with terminal cancer and renal failure, a wake, but Guadalupe is still alive. He and his large family are entertained by a mariachi band and the whole family enjoy the music with the food, which suits Guadalupe just fine.

Afflicted with pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the dread disease, Barbara Jean does not want to be pushing up daisies while six feet under. Instead she heads to Eloise Woods Back to Nature Burials, selects a plot, and plans for a shallow burial. She even gets a promise from her best friend to wash her body after death. When she dies her body is wrapped in a cloth and laid to rest in a shallow grave next to a tree which her friends plant.

Sara Snider Green has the most unusual burial—in space—which must have cost a pretty penny but led to great joy by a boatload of friends and family. “Tuna,” who loved space travel as much as Leila Johnson’s dad cherished the ocean, had his cremains sent into space which NASA graciously allowed as a secondary payload for its latest ventures into the beyond.

Dick Shannon, afflicted with terminal cancer, his lungs failing, speaks to the camera about his venture with MAID (medical aid in dying). His doctor gives Dick a lethal drug cocktail, four bottles that require mixing, with the injunction that while others can help with the mix, he must drink the cocktail himself. He has a last supper, so to speak, with his family, calmly announcing that he will drink the lethal dose the next morning. We watch him down the liquid, lie on the couch, and within minutes snore and cease breathing.

In the least developed scenario, Emily and Ryan Matthias, who have the terrible misfortune of dealing with a five-year-old’s terminal cancer, explain to the boy about death to the extent that such a child can understand. He does realize what it’s all about when he asks for a party in lieu of a funeral, so his parents, determined to honor their promise, hold a celebration of life, a blast filled with kids eating snow cones, having a ball, and even Batman, the boy’s hero, is in attendance.

The locations include Van Meter, Iowa; Sierra County, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; San Antonio, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico. The film honors the wishes of those about to depart from the living, and while some viewers might be dismayed by all the talk about death and have nightmares about it, the more likely scenario is that we will appreciate the New Age idea that death is merely a part of life and nothing to fear.

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

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

HONEYLAND – MOVIE REVIEW

HONEYLAND
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tamara Kotevsky, Ljubomir Stefanov
Screenwriter: Tamara Kotevsky, Ljubomir Stefanov
Cast: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam, Mustafa Sam
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 7/9/19
Opens: July 26, 2019

Image result for honeyland movie poster

The Pennsylvania Dutch living in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, have a life style that most of us consider strange. In fact their land is a tourist attraction that has captivated Americans wanting to look at a group different from the typical bourgeois resident of our country, given that the Dutch (actually Deutsch) voluntarily live without automobiles, televisions, even electricity. But compared to the principal character in Tamara Kotevsky and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary, a film that happily avoids the structure of talking heads and interviewers, these Pennsylvania folks are living in Trump Tower. Filmed over a three-year period with Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuna lensing as though they were making a National Geographic nature study, “Honeyland” takes us to a remote, mountainous region in the Republic of North Macedonia, where life is anything but milk and honey. Yet Hatidze Muratova, in her mid-fifties, appears to have chosen her way of living despite the call of Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, shunning the rest of the world and involved herself in the support of her eighty-five year old mother, earning her living by nurturing hundreds of wild bees in the making of honey. The film begins as a study of a woman living in harmony with nature and concludes with a scathing criticism of capitalism. Most of all, though, “Honeyland” is a study of the only woman in the entire European continent who lives in this style, and we leave the theater wondering how this kind of life can be of interest to even a single person.

Hatidze Muratova, who allowed the directors and photographers to be flies in the wall, lives in a broken-down shack without electricity and therefore without TV or even an outhouse, with the company of only her sick mother, Jacky the dog, and one cat. She would remove a stone from a hill housing hundreds of bees, take half of the produced honey at one time, and leave the other half for the insects. In this way, by sharing, she expects that the bees will always produce enough for her to live on. She makes the long journey to Skopje on market day to sell the product, insists that this is not junk honey but prepared without chemical pollutants, and therefore deserves a decent price in euros. Hatidze could have chosen to take on a booth in the outdoor market, but she is committed to her mother, who never leaves the shack, who is ill but who understands that she is, as she admits, as static in her bed-bound life as a tree. It’s remarkable how Hatitze can go on, coaxing her mother to eat something, telling her that she must exercise at least to the extent of extending her leg, but regularly gets the reply from the old lady that she cannot do even that.

Hatidze likes to sing, using her affection for song to encourage the bees as she removes the stone exposing the helpful insects who rarely bite their caretaker though she has little protection from a netting costume. She finds that she cannot stay isolated for long. A noisy neighbor arrives with a bounty of kids from babies to teens and a bunch of cattle with which they travel. Instead of sinking more into her isolation, Hatidze plays with the kids, chats with Hussein Sam, the father, advising the entrepreneur wanting to start his own bee business to take only half the honey each time he’d collect his harvest. But Hussein Sam, a Turk like Hatidze, is like an American capitalist, wanting immediate returns, impatient to give the business time to prosper. In return, even the bees revolt, stinging him and the kids repeatedly.

From the satirical part of the movie, we see a universality. The region is as remote in Europe as you can get, yet the theme involves the trampling of nature by the corporation, a level of greed that will destroy not only the natural habitat but sink the business as well. Ultimately the new settler’s rush to profits will destroy not only his own business but that of the nurturing Hatidze.

There is considerable originality here, a look at the last woman alive who conducts her business as does Hitidze. We try to figure out why she is doing this, and even a teenage boy asks, “Why don’t you leave this place?” Hitidze has no answer, treating the question as merely rhetorical, but this is the question that everyone in the movie theater will be asking as well.

The film, in the Turkish language with English subtitles (some with misspellings), played at Sundance and at the Sarajevo Film Festival among other locations.

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

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

GRASS – movie review

GRASS
Cinema Guild
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Ki Joo-bong, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Sae-byuk, Ahn Jae-hong
Screened at: Metrograph theater, NYC, 4/10/19
Opens: April 19, 2019 at New York’s Metrograph Theater

Martin Scorsese once said that Hong Sang-soo’s movies begin in an unassuming way—(which makes some liken the writer-director to Woody Allen)—but then the unpeeling begins. There’s no way of knowing, then, when a simple conversation between two people, will turn into something both capricious and daunting, as though a given person chatting with others might be as banal as a weather report, but then, a tsunami of rising emotions turn the talk into a fierce dressing down of a partner.

Such is the case with “Grass” whose title, obviously metaphorical and perhaps applying to some shoots growing outside a coffee shop, is mysterious. In fact a better title would be “Soju,” after a Korean alcoholic drink, that loosens people’s tongues and make them utter statements that they may wish they had no said. (Think of emails you’ve sent, regretting your harsh tone two seconds after sending, which you will be unable to retrieve.)

“Grass” has its store of people who are narcissistic and needy, but whose conversations are likely to turn off the people who must listen to the words of these flawed people. Filmed in black and white by Kim Hyung-yu, “Grass,” which embraces the three classical unities of time, plot and space, eavesdrops on four conversations. The chats are followed at a nearby table by Areum (Kim Min-hee), a writer who scratches the conversations out on her Apple laptop. Or perhaps the scenarios are actually created by Areum, who stands in for Hong Sang-soo, who writes as well as directs the film.

At first, two people coming across as either shy or afraid to bring up repressed emotions, are asking “how are you?” questions, avoiding eye contact, until the real subject emerges. The girl (Gong Min-jung) seated across a table from a boy (Ahn Jae-hong), begins yelling, accusing the gent of responsibility for the suicide of a mutual friend. He thinks she’s gone nuts and says so, but in a brief minute or so she calms down, conversing as though the outburst never took place. Similarly,in a chat between two others, a middle-aged actor (Jung Jin-young) seeks a partnership with a younger woman (Kim Sae-byuk), urging her to join him in writing a screenplay. Not exactly Lerner and Lowe or Rodgers and Hammerstein, the girl nixes the suggestion.

An out-of-work actor and would-be writer, the same Kyung-soo (Jung Jin-young), begins a conversation with the writer Areum, hitting on her in an outrageous way by asking her to allow him to observe her at her home for ten days as a model for a future screenplay. Around the room again we find a middle-aged woman, Sung-hwa, (Seo Young-hwa) fending off a proposal of a friend (Ki Joo-bong), who is desperate for a place to live and asks her permission to move into her digs. Obviously that has a much chance to fly as the would-be courtship between Kyung-soo and Kim Sae-byuk).

The film’s supremely catty scene involves Areum’s lunch with her brother Jinho (Shin Seo-kho). She criticizes him in the presence of his older girlfriend Yeonju (Ahn Sun-young). “Why are you thinking of marrying? You don’t even know each other!”

You could predict the writer-director’s trajectory simply by noting the title of his first directorial project, “The Day a Pig Fell into a Well.” You might think that Hong does not have a script prepared well in advance. You would be right: he knocks out a tentative script hours before filming, making changes as he sees fit. His stories generally takes place on peaceful streets far outside Seoul’s business district, in coffee shops and in lobbies of apartment houses. This quaint, charming dramedy played last year at New York’s Film Festival and should be seen by those who take pleasure in scenes of domestic realism.

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

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

HOTEL MUMBAI – movie review

HOTEL MUMBAI
Bleecker Street/ Shiv Hans Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Anthony Maras
Screenwriter: John Colee & Anthony Mars
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/6/19
Opens: March 22, 2019

If you don’t fancy biting your nails down to your cuticles, you may not want to venture forth to “Hotel Mumbai.” While there are no back-stories to speak of in this dramatic treatment of a terrible, mindless attack in 2008, the action scenes look authentic, the entire cast are game, the faces exude fear, and best of all the archival films from 2008 that editor Peter McNulty snap in at key points in the narrative look at though they are a seamless part of the action. While the Muslim jihadists from Pakistan, some of whom sneaked into Mumbai by small boat, coordinated an attack on several points in India’s largest city, Anthony Maras centered the action on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a world famous spot of pure luxury in a mostly poverty-stricken country.

Director Maras, whose 2011 short “The Palace” covered military action by Turkish forces in Cyprus in 1974, and whose “Azadi” in 2005 follows the plight of an Afghan schoolteacher and his asthmatic son who escape their oppressive Taliban homeland in search of a new life in Australia, is obviously in his métier with “Hotel Mumbai.” Outdoor scenes on the sidewalk around the Taj Hotel are filmed on location, though the action taking place inside the hotel is filmed on a set in South Australia. (The team stayed at the International Hotel in Adelaide.)

Perhaps what Maras and co-writer John Colee want to emphasize thematically is the way that the heroes among the hotel staff—people who have been trained to consider all guests as gods—mostly stayed put to help those on the premises to avoid being shot by the young Pakistan men who carry their destructive automatic weapons. By contrast, the local police force despite their bravery in confronting the thugs are sporting nothing more potent than simple pistols, yet they rise to the occasion, entering the premises in search of the mass murderers. During a considerable part of the story, Maras’s cinematographer, Nick Remy Matthews turns the screen into a shooting gallery, as the jihadists hunt down every guest, even spending considerable time to target specific people, namely high profile Americans. Of course some in the cast are elevated by their individual heroism, including chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), Arjun (Dev Patel), a Sikh whose turban freaks out one of the guests, David (handsome Armie Hammer) and his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) whose principal aim is to protect their new baby. Jason Isaacs as Vasili is with the Russian special forces, turning in a dramatic move near the conclusion when he is tied up, refusing to show the slightest cowardice by spitting on the jihadist who has the power to maim and kill him on the spot.

Much of the action is handed to those playing the jihadists, who to a man are willing to die and become martyred for Allah. None expect to get away alive from the action, particularly when the Indian special forces, the only unit capable of ending the war, had to transport themselves from New Delhi, eight hundred miles from the action. The assailants—young men who could not be more than twenty-five years of age and played by Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi and Gaurav Paswala, casually make the rounds shooting straight ahead, hitting people in the back as they try to flee, even firing straight down to kill those on a floor below. One act of heroism aside from the general help given to the guests by members of the hotel staff finds two receiptionists from the Taj asked at gunpoint to call one of the rooms to get guests to open the doors. When they refuse, they are summarily executed.

More sophisticated moviegoers will want more than a re-creation of the events, however artistically executed. Are the principal characters merely of two dimensions, set up to represent in turn a father eager to save his wife and child, a degraded Russian opting to ask two young women to be sent to his room, a head chef serving as the chief of the rescue team? Perhaps there was little time for this since much action has to be covered, giving the movie audience the real feeling of what it means to be literally afraid for your life when you figure that the chances are that this is your last day on earth.

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

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

JIHADISTS – movie review

JIHADISTS (Salafistes)

Cinema Libre
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lemine Ould M. Salem, François Margolin
Screenwriter: Lemine Ould M. Salem, François Margolin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 25, 2019 in New York’s Cinema Village

 

 

“Jihadists” aka the French title “Salafistes,” contains words perhaps more alarming than anything our President has said, even more controversial than Rashida Tlaib’s locker room word describing her plans for taking on the POTUS. In fact the movie was temporarily banned…not in Boston, not in Saudi Arabia, not in North Korea or Iran, but in…France. During its brief 75 minutes’ running time, you will be accosted by words that will make you shudder, encourage you to shelter your small children, and, if you live in New York to dig yourself a bomb shelter, or else using the Number 1 line at 191st Street as though 180 feet of earth can protect you. Sad to say, not even that station will shield you from the ire of people who want nothing more than to kill you merely because you don’t think like them. These terrible folks called by the French Salafistes will frighten you more than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees ever did, because people like them could be a real problem for you, unlike the creeps that any Stephen King novel could imagine.

After agreeing to cut some of the scenes that went too far over the top—such as images of a police officer killed in France—the French Ministry of Culture lifted the ban giving it a rating of Interdit au moins de 18 ans. Still, the film opened in only two Paris theaters.

In answer to those of the French Culture Ministry who wonder whether this film is an apologia, or defense, of ISIS ideology, truth to tell, many people watching might be swayed to the cause because the people who are interviewed, courtesy of their bedfellows with expensive cameras, appear normal. They don’t have horns coming out of their head and if they have tails, they keep them well hidden. They do not sound like firebrands, nothing like the Hitler who depended on ranting and raving, but instead they explain their positions calmly, as though implying that they would be perfectly willing to debate the opposite side—but as equals. This would be like allowing a debate between those who believe the world is flat and those think otherwise, putting both on the same pedestal.

The assemblage of films has been edited by François Margolin, obviously French, and Lemine Ould M. Salem who is from Mauritania. Margolin is the only talking head that takes us outside of the milieu, sitting calmly with a jacket overlaying an unbuttoned shirt, describing why he chose to do this project, which is to educate the rest of us to what may be ahead especially here in the West. Subject wise, the material has been covered before and may be available on the Internet, courtesy of Isis members who have knocked out professional, Hollywood-style propaganda not unlike what Leni Reifenstahl did with financing from the Nazi Party. Her “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” are considering two of the most effective films of their kind.

Specifically “Jihadists” deals with the Sunni Islam extreme sect of Salafis, the spokesmen—all men by the way—lecturing us heathens and infidels without a smile or laugh on their faces. And that’s a good thing because if they came across as entertainers they could influence far more people than they have done to date. We see one guy whose hand is amputated for stealing, and it’s the right hand at that. Presumably only lefties could snatch wallets after that. Two homosexuals are tossed from the roof, the first one seen in slow motion, because their “crime offends God” and makes them “no better than animals.” In one unexplained strip of film, a couple of jihadists drive by in their car gunning down people with automatic weapons, which takes road rage to a somewhat higher peak. (Why they did this is not explained, so we may assume they were having sport as they had with the animals they machine-gunned from an aircraft in the opening scene.)

The countries exhibited include Afghanistan, Syria, Tunisia and Mali, in that last case focusing on sharia law in fabled city of Timbuktu, liberated by the French in 2013. During the rule of jihadists—who want their own state carved largely out of Syria and Iraq—two morals police warn women trying to sell their trinkets and foods to cover their faces completely.

H.G. Wells said that the human condition is a race between education and catastrophe. Without sufficient learning, not so much of facts but the ability to reason, even we in the United States could be electing politicians whose actions could be disastrous. Perhaps even highly educated people watch “Jihadists” and are tempted to say, “Hmmm, these fellas make some good points” but soon enough wake up from the nightmare to realize “How could we have ever thought that?” Imagine what men and women without sufficient reasoning power would think when they hear the arguments spouted by these clownish but highly toxic people! Happily, this fear-inducing picture ends with a final scene of an elderly gentleman smoking his pipe despite criticism from a passing ideologue. He demanded and received the return of what gives him pleasure saying that his health is not anybody else’s business. He got it back and defiantly exhales a huge puff for the camera.

The film is in French, English, Arabic and Bambara with the subtitles in white—those subtitles clashing with scenes involving people with white shirts. A large part of the cinema world still doesn’t get it: foreign language movies need bold print preferably in a strong color like yellow.

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

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

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 – movie review

FAHRENHEIT 11/9

Briarcliff Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Michael Moore
Screenwriter:  Michael Moore
Cast:  Donald Trump, Michael Moore
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 9/20/18
Opens: September 21, 2018
Fahrenheit 11/9 Movie Poster
In promoting an intellectually deep, emotionally charged drama whether in a book, a movie or a stage play, there’s no better slogan that a publicist can adopt than “You’ll laugh!  You’ll cry!” Yet from easily the best documentary film released so far this year, the most that you can say is that you’ll cry.  There is considerable humor along with the melancholy on display from our country’s most entertaining documentarian, Michael Moore.  But from the first riveting scene to the final compelling words, you can’t be blamed for wanting to cry your eyes out.  And that’s the strong recommendation one can make for this film.

When Andrew Cuomo campaigned for re-election as New York’s governor, one who would “stand up to Trump,” he stated that the slogan “Make America Great” is a falsehood; that America was always great.  Not so, Moore would reply, America was never great.  And that’s where the tears can flow, because from the penning of the U.S. Constitution by rich white male slave owners, giving us the absurdly undemocratic electoral college, our country has had to struggle to make inroads resonant for all the people, not just the billionaires and not just for rural folks who make the big mistake of thinking that Trump will solve their money problems and not go rogue by blaming race and immigration.

“Fahrenheit 11/9,” a title that cleverly switches the date of Moore’s previously movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” to refer to the announcement of Trump’s 2016 election victory, is a screed against the corruption endemic in our national politics.  The reference is also to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” in which a dictatorship takes over the lives of the citizenry. Moore takes aim at Democrats and Republicans alike, criticizing so-called Democrat Bill Clinton for turning prisons over to private hands, cutting welfare from the checks of millions of needy Americans, and de-regulating banks to such an extent that we wound up with the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression.  Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer could hardly be called reformers.  President Obama is chastised for deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants and pretending that the water crisis in Flint Michigan has been simply blown up to the status of national scandal.  (In Flint, Michigan, he asks for a glass of water as though to show his disappointed audience that the water is pure.  He takes just a sip.)

Still, most of Moore’s animosity goes to the Republicans, especially people like Rick Snyder, a reactionary governor of Michigan, who made nice with corporate power by building a pipeline that would bypass the pure water of Lake Huron to a separate, corroding line,that poisoned the output to the most poor, mostly African-American community.

Trump is the obvious principal target of Moore’s scathing criticism, so demonic that the doc plays archival film of Hitler with Trump’s voice replacing that of the last century’s most evil monster.  You would not be entirely wrong if you thought that this was overkill, that the “It can’t happen here” now longer applies, but there is an eerie sense that the rallies that Trump conducts, his preferred means of communication to his base coupled with his avoidance of press conferences, are a prelude to total dissembling of even what has passed for democracy in our union.

Perhaps his most controversial view is that the reason so many registered voters stayed home on that fateful day in November of 2016 is not apathy or laziness, but a giving up, a surrender to the idea that standard politics is so demented, so unrepresentative, that there’s nothing anybody can do.  In that regard, Bernie Sanders comes across as Moore’s hero, a fellow who, unlike Trump and unlike Hillary Clinton, tells it like it really is but gets shafted by the Democratic National Committee intent on giving Hillary the nomination.

Yet there is hope. Look at what’s going down in some of the red states.  In West Virginia, teachers are so fed up with their miserable wages, with their need to take two and even three jobs to make ends meet, that they succeeded in striking for five days and winning the reasonable raise for which they asked.

As though to nail home points that might have seemed peripheral to the anti-Trump camp, he virtually calls the president a perv, showing a succession of pictures with Trump and his daughter Ivanka at various states in her growing up giving each other affection that might look as though a rich boss is cavorting with his young secretary.  It did not help the president to say that if Ivanka were not his daughter, he would be dating her.

In Stanley Kramer’s movie “On the Beach,” a nuclear bomb has exploded in the North, the radiation heading toward Australia which is still habitable.  The final scene shows a Salvation Army street poster with the hopeful message, “There is still time…Brother.”  Is there?  Are we headed—like climate change—to the point of no return, or can we avoid the mistakes made by Germany’s progressive Weimar Republic when 32% of the electorate voted for the Nazi Party?  If the American voters turn out in great numbers, the Democratic Party victories would be shoo-ins, since after all, we are a left-leaning nation with a majority favoring Medicare for All, proper regulations of guns, free public colleges, and reproductive rights.  Or so Moore says.

There is much to ponder in a film that makes its 126 minutes pass like an entertaining look at an America currently in a dystopian free-fall.  Michael Moore’s hard-hitting, hard left project has not a single dull or irrelevant moment and, like Bob Woodward’s latest book “Fear” is a clearly-reasoned, cleverly edited broadside punctuated by the year’s most awesome musical score.

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

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

PAPILLON – movie revie

PAPILLON

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Michael Noer
Screenwriter:  Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière
Cast:  Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageninger, Roland Møller, Tommy Flanagan
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/8/18
Opens: August 24, 2018
Papillon (2017)
According to the Britannica, Devil’s Island has a growing tourist population, a great winter resort.  How times have changed.  In previous centuries, even in much of the last one, the place was used by France which sought to get rid of some of the more dangerous criminals, but even Devil’s Island, if we believe the new film by Michael Noer, was a respite from the harsh punishments meted by the French government in French Guiana in the Northeast tip of South America. (Note that the UK used to send criminals to Australia, Australia sent some malefactors to Tasmania.)

Mention “Papillon,” and movie buffs will instantly recall Steve McQueens’ best role in the 1973 adaptation written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.  Prison dramas were big decades ago as they are now—my favorite being “Cell 2455 Death Row,” the 1955 drama which enacts the imprisonment of Caryl Chessman found guilty of the Little Lindbergh law against kidnapping.   If you see the most recent one, “A Prayer Before Dawn,” you’ll know not to smuggle drugs when you’re in Thailand, but nothing shown on screen outside of the two “Papillon” movies exhibits a country so brutal that it would send people not guilty of murder to French Guiana.

Filmed in Malta, Montenegro, and Serbia, “Papillon” does not have enough going for it to justify its 133 minutes’ length, just seemingly endless travails by the inmates of French Guiana, most of whom are not guilty of murder.  Call it, if you will, a road-and-buddy movie, but the road is not from Paris to Marseilles but rather from the French capital across the ocean to a land that for some reason the French still hold as a colony.

The road is taken by safecracker Henry “Papillon” Charrière after he is framed for a gangland murder in revenge for having kept some of the big rocks for himself to give to Nenette (Eve Hewson), his lady fair.  Escape is on his mind throughout his imprisonment which, sadly enough, will include seven years’ in the hole, or solitary confinement with total silence.  It’s not that Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageninger) didn’t want the inmates.  He does tell them to go ahead and escape, and they will be shot in the jungle; and if they opt for the sea, the sharks are as hungry as they are.  Henry teams up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who is imprisoned for counterfeiting bonds, a fragile-looking bespectacled fellow who somehow has money on his person all the way across the ocean, money which could be used to hire a boat to escape.

In the most dramatic scene, that is, a scene that takes us away from the static photography of prisoners lining up, sleeping with little room between bodies, and one guillotine for a guy who murders a guard, Papi, Maturette (Joel Bassman)  and Celier (Roland Møller make an escape attempt notwithstanding Papi’s experience in solitary and the seeming hopelessness of getting away.

So far as the road-and-buddy movie idea, Danish director Noer, whose more imaginative “Son of God” about a dwarf looked upon as Jesus Christ by followers in the Philippines, wants us to consider this a love story.  And indeed, Papillon could have had a better time for himself if he did not attack a guard who was beating his forger pal with whom he has an almost sacred bond.

I would have expected Charlie Hunnam to look thinner about 7 years’ solitary confinement, and how did he keep his teeth when he was fed little more than soup every day in the dark silence of the most extreme punishment imaginable.  Were I there, I might try to kill a guard in order to be guillotined: life imprisonment with years of solitary is worse than the death penalty, which is why so many killers in America commit suicide as they are about to be collared by the police.

Hagen Bogdanski is responsible for the crisp photography, but if you had seen the original “Papillon,” not as brutal as this version but with more dynamic storytelling, you might wonder: why this?

Rated R.  133 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MAMMA MIA!HERE WE GO AGAIN – movie reveiw

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ol Parker
Screenwriter: Ol Parker, Richard Curtis from a story by Ol Parker, Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson
Cast: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper, Cher, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Stellan Skarsgård
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/16/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Man it’s hot! What are you going to do about it? You’ll go to Coney Island beach and look forward to your Nathan’s hot dog and fries? You don’t mind water that’s polluted, with plastic bags on the beach and not much to do with your time but read “The President is Missing”? Maybe you’d be better off on a Greek island; water clear as crystal, pristine white sands, snacking on Yiaourti me meli and Ekmek kataifi! And you won’t be reading a thick book but would instead be dancing like there’s no tomorrow, and given the present administration in Washington, fill in the blanks. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a follow-up to the 2008 musical which began as a stage play in 1999, was filmed in Vis, Croatia, where Croatians and foreign travelers might ferry when they get tired of the commercialism of Split and Dubrovnik, also in Croatia.

In the story, the folks—mostly young, handsome and energetic with a few past their prime similarly energetic—are on the (fictitious) Greek island of Kalokairi. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant via her relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper). She can’t stop thinking of her departed mother Donna (Meryl Streep) and vows to run the hotel as she would have wanted her to. She will learn more about her mother from Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), particularly about how she had three dads Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth), all of whom seem deliberately to avoid DNA tests because they love to be together with one another and with the youthful Sophie.

The movie is a mess but a delightful one, full of dancing and singing, a joyful reminder that as Donna (Lily James) notes, life is short. The movie is loaded with ABBA songs, eighteen of ‘em, a few slow and mournful but the bulk rousing and accompanied by superbly choreographed dancing—and I don’t mean tangos, fox trots and what passes for Terpsichore at weddings and bar mitzvahs, but Dionysian revelry that might make moviegoers wonder why they too seem to know intellectually that life is short but are unable or unwilling to act upon it.

Some scenes are standouts, particularly the opening, which zooms in on a college graduation that you wish you had instead of the one you attended to find out that life’s conquests await you. As Donna gives her valedictory address, she flings off her cap and gown ushering in the first sign that this movie is campy. The graduates join her and even the prune-looking vice chancellor (Celia Imrie) joins in. Later you watch the customers in a bar get up and dance, throwing down the tables, climbing on the bar, you know what’s in store for the rest of the action.

The songs from ABBA’s repertory are highlighted by the 1975 “Mamma Mia” sung originally by Donna and the Dynamos, and the whole cast join in with “Super Trouper”—Ruby, Donna, Rosie, Tanya, Sophie, Sky, Sam Bill, Harry, Fernando, Donna, Rosie, Tanya, Bill Sam and Harry.

If you’ve gone to musicals for a long time, you’re probably agreeing that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, which is why Broadway has endless recreations of “My Fair Lady,” “South Pacific” and “The Music Man.” These are musicals with stories to tell, morals to provide, all realistic within their fantasy. While “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” has no real purpose other than the fragile one about a young woman’s wanting to honor her departed mother’s dream of continuing the island hotel, it’s a lot of fun. And for that—to quote Senator Rand Paul’s statement on July 16th about Trump’s appearance with Putin in Helsinki—you’ve got to cut [him] some slack.

Lily James takes on the starring roll—as her character Donna would say based on her three one-night stands with different hunks—with passion. She is beautiful as well, which helps if you’re a star in a musical, and has emerged from roles like “Cinderella,” but this latest movie has little in common with her starring act in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (A writer forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey Island in the aftermath of World War II). Meryl Streep appears in a cameo toward the conclusion but campiness reaches its apotheosis with the arrival of Cher in the role of Sophie’s grandmother, her skin clear as a baby’s.

Ol Parker directs against expectations since we know him for his film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about British retirees traveling to India to what they expect to be a remodeled hotel but find that while it is not as advertised, its charm compensates.

Rated PG-13. 114 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ON CHESIL BEACH – movie review

ON CHESIL BEACH

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Ian McEwan from his novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronana, Billy Howie, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel Wes

Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/12/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

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The soundtrack is filled with the beautiful music of Schubert and others while at the same time finds a place for Little Richard’s assertive (and in this case ironic) “I’m ready, ready ready, I’m ready ready ready to rock and roll.” “On Chesil Beach,” adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by the screenwriter, finds two young people who are anything but ready to rock and roll. The opening sentence if Ian McEwan’s novel goes: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this their wedding night and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” That pretty much sums up the theme.

If you were born after 1970 you might find that sentence incredible. The sexual revolution, which began with the invention of the birth control pill and was furthered by resistance against authority during the Vietnam War, really was a upending of the old conventions. Both women and men who started their adult lives in 1962, the year this film begins, might well be virgins. Some were considered technical virgins, meaning that they “everything but.” However Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) were not even that. In fact shortly before their wedding Florence is seen reading a sex manual that must have been written in the forties, looked on by her kid sister Ruth (Bebe Cave), who appears more excited about the subject than Florence. For his part, Edward seems untutored by his parents Lionel Mayhew (Adrian Scarborough) and Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), his father being an elementary school teacher in a profession looked down upon by Florence’s haute-bourgeois mother Violet (Emily Watson) and to a lesser extent the father Geoffrey Ponting (Samuel West).

Dominic Cooke, who directs and who is at the helm of a miniseries of Shakespeare histories, projects the genteel nature of life in a small English town, where Edward may be considered more of a hayseed than is the love of his life despite his scholarly affinity for history. Florence is involved leading a chamber music string group whose music is given ample and most welcome time on screen by the director.

Social classes notwithstanding, the meeting of these two college graduates at a function is the foundation of love at first sight, the two unable to resist each other, their eventual marriage a natural climax to their affection. This is why it is nothing short of tragic (despite some comic undertones) that the two in their honeymoon suite on Chesil Beach, are nervous: the young man’s leg shaking nervously under the table, his partner’s hand maintaining a tight grip on her dress. Their failure at sex on their wedding night could have been treated as a slip, nothing more, but the couple lack experience even in the ways of solving disputes.

There is an argument here for having sex before marriage which, strange as it seems today when couples live together for months and years and may never even tie the knot. In fact co-habitation should be as required by law just as are the requirements of a blood test for a marriage license.

Though this is essentially a two-hander with hardly a scene that does not include either principal actor, side issues are explored. One involves a terrible accident on a train station when Edward’s mother Marjorie is hit by a door and brain damaged. On the tennis court, Florence’s dad shows his infantile side, ready to break his racket when he fails to shut out his future son-in-law in what should have been a friendly match.

The two principals are made for each other; that is, until the wedding night changes them forever. At twenty-four Saoirse Ronan, soon to play the title role in “Mary, Queen of Scots,” was generously awarded for her performance last year as Lady Bird. Less known in the U.S., Edward Howle had a smaller role in last year’s “The Sense of an Ending,” here fitting in quite well as an equal to Ms. Ronan.
While some critics may show displeasure at the way the film ends, I see nothing wrong with the use of sentiment on the screen, even of the Hallmark variety.

Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AFTER AUSCHWITZ – movie review

AFTER AUSCHWITZ

Bala Cynwyd Productions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Kean
Screenwriter: Jon Kean
Cast: Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, Linda Sherman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/28/18
Opens: April 20, 2018

After Auschwitz Poster

Only those inmates who entered the Nazi concentration camps at a youthful age are still alive today. Very young boys and girls were generally gassed as useless to the German war machine. The six brave women who populate Jon Kean documentary were about 18-23 years old when they entered Auschwitz. Some died since the making of this film and, as they say, time is running out. We cannot learn first-hand about the experiences of survivors for much longer, though thanks to the magic of celluloid, their testimonies will be with us forever.

Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman were mostly from Eastern Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. One was from Holland. They discuss in part their experiences in 1945 after the British or the Russians liberated them, but most of the doc deals with their lives in the West, particularly the USA. Still it bears mentioning that the country that is supposed to be a haven for people who are yearning to breathe free was not too eager to issue visas given the anti-Semitism allegedly present in our own State Department.

The one theme that runs through the experiences of the six women is that after they were freed from the camps, they could not return to their homes in Eastern Europe. Their property had been taken over by the locals and in some cases fellow Czechs dragged survivors through the streets, blaming Jews for the black market and yelling that they will never again see their living quarters.

After a stay in Displaced Persons camps, many went on to New York and California, though the film is not clear how they dug up the money for flights, which were more expensive then than they are now. These women, bless them, might be able to sustain an 83 minute film by talking to the cameras, but thankfully archival clips take over about half of the running time, shifting back to the camps during the week of liberation where bodies, thousands of them, are piled up unburied. Destruction in Germany as we see here was so immense that Hitler’s order to destroy Berlin did not have to be carried out. That was presumably one command that the generals ignored from the madman.

The women traveled around by train, and terrific archival shots show people riding on the top and on the sides of the carriers as though hoboes during the Depression or perhaps the way some in India travel third-class or even lower.

All the new residents of the USA are pleased with the culture here, except for one who was urged to try Coca-Cola. She drank a glass, and that was the last time for her. Others went to the wider spaces of California. They married, had kids and grandkids. Some gave talks to classes in Hebrew school to youngsters kept in the dark by their parents, though despite the need the women have to teach others so that “it will happen never again,” they do not want to be obsessed with the bad times of the past. What shocks them most is that we haven’t learned. Just mention Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Armenia. And as nations fall to right wing authoritarians today, we are bound to be faced by similar tragedies—to say nothing of the possibility of the extinction of humanity in a nuclear war.

Jon Kean wrote and directs, a man whose “Swimming in Auschwitz” featured six women who kept their spirits and their faith alive during their months in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His “Kill the Man” describes the adventures of men who try to keep their company afloat while being stressed by the competition and by a visit from a thug.

Unrated. 83 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

UNSANE – movie review

UNSANE

Bleecker Street/ Regency
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter:  Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Cast:  Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 3/19/18
Opens: March 23, 2018
Unsane Movie Poster
During the last few months when women, later embraced by the #MeToo movement, accused men of sexual abuse, the public would not always believe them.  After all, who would wait five, ten, twenty years after a series of horrific sexual attacks to report them?  Ultimately we find out that the accusing women had a right to keep silent.  Some depended on the men for their very jobs, others may not have believed that what the men were doing was even wrong (particularly the young gymnasts who let their grievances dissolve because some could not know that what the doctor was doing was illegal and immoral).  Now comes a film that warns us: ignore women’s accusations at your peril.

That’s not the only thematic concept brought out by “Unsane,” an absorbing and, for director Steven Soderbergh, one which takes him away from his usual concerns.  Think of the corruption of hospitals who sucker in patients with insurance, whether Medicare, Aetna, Oxford, of any of a number of businesses–that should be giving medical facilities an ever harder time to justify their treatments than they do now.

In a bizarre sequence of events that finds Sawyer Valentini (Clare Foy), on the fast track as a data analyst with a bank whose boss (Mark Kudisch) praises her work—seeks therapy at a Pennsylvania psychiatric hospital, where gets more than she bargained for.  When she answers affirmatively that she sometimes has suicidal thoughts, then goes a step further by signing a paper (without reading it, don’t you do that sometimes?) agreeing to a voluntary commitment, the counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) has Nurse Boles (Polly McKie) tell her to remove her clothing to search for marks notwithstanding a crescendo of objections from Sawyer.  While the hospital looks spanking modern on the outside, the interiors where patients are bedded border on the nightmarish.  (In fact, Soderbergh, utilizing Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, may want the audience to wonder whether Sawyer is having a bad dream.)  Her roommate, Violet (Juno Temple), feeling dismissed by the new patient, threatens to kill her with a knife she has secreted under her gown, Dr. Hawthorne (Gibson Frazier) ignores her objections, ending both conferences with “To be continued.”  Sawyer’s threats to call the cops does not scare the administrator: the police more or less ignore complaints from “the crazies.”

Worst of all nurse George (Joshua Leonard) takes a fancy to her, playing a larger part as the film progresses, and is accused by Sawyer, whose protestations are at the loudest pitch yet, of stalking her all the way from Boston to Pennsylvania.  She has only two people to count on: her mother, Angela Valentini (Amy Irving), who wails that her daughter is 450 miles away, and best of all Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), completely normal, a voluntary patient in for opioid abuse.  He clues her in about the corruption: the hospital tries to commit people right and left in order to collect insurance during the seven-day allowance period.

You may be scarcely aware that cinematographer Peter Andrews captures the whole film on an iPhone, which makes the movie serve as an ad for the pesky gadget that has addicted almost the entire millennial generation.  And the iPhone absolutely loves Clare Foy, a stunning performer appearing in almost every scene, a veteran of TV episodes like “The Crown,” where she connects with her audience in the principal role of Elizabeth II.

“Unsane” comes across like a B-movie, which is probably Soderbergh’s aim, a rollicking trip into a snake pit where compensation from insurance companies maintains a cuckoo’s nest that may or not serve the public for which it exists.  There is a lesson in this film that we would do well to remember.  Next time someone in the so-called helping professions asks you if you have suicidal thoughts, answer: “Never.”

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

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


STRANGERS ON THE EARTH – movie reveiw

STRANGERS ON THE EARTH

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

Strangers on the Earth Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VAZANTE – movie review

VAZANTE

Music Box Films
Director:  Daniela Thomas
Screenwriter:  Daniela Thomas, Beto Amaral
Cast:  Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Sandra Corveloni, Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/18
Opens: January 12, 2018

Vazante  Poster

1821 was a very good year—if you were King George IV of England—but not if you were born or shipped to Brazil as a slave.  If you resent the patriarchy in America, the behavior of white males in important positions, be thankful that you do not have to undergo the humiliation of enslaved people in the mining areas of Brazil, a country that imported more slaves via Luanda than any other state in the Western Hemisphere.  Forty percent of all such unfortunate people sent to our hemisphere went to Brazil, where slavery was the peculiar institution even before the Portuguese traveled to the New World.  Brazilians must have liked the institution: they were the last to emancipate all, in 1888.

“Vazante,” or “The Surge” tells the story of one family, folks of all ages, living in a shack that looks nothing like the plantations you’ve seen in “Gone With the Wind,” but still, if you owned the place and you possessed a dozen slaves to work the mines or do some planting, you did some heavy work.  Maybe you moved some cattle from place to place, riding a horse like an Argentine gaucho or relaxing in a hammock on your porch, ordering the African women to bring you not mint juleps but perhaps cachaça, the national drink.

“Vazante” is quite an impressive job from director Daniela Thomas, a Carioca who presumably lives better than even the owner of this dilapidated plantation in the Diamantina Moutains.  As in antebellum America, the owner of these people who are often chained, marching as a team from the field or tied to trees to “break” them, could have his way with the women, and as shown in one quick scene, with the young African boys as well.  Though filmed by Inti Briones in black and white, the rugged beauty of the area is apparent, the absence of color accentuating the primitive lives of the people far away from what would become Ipanema Beach.

The stage is set for drama when Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), the owner of the farmhouse seen leading a group of fresh slaves and oxen, learns that his wife has died in childbirth as well as the baby.  He is now not only a widower but the son of a senile mother-in-law (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha), who gazes about listlessly, occasionally shoveling gruel into her mouth.  One slave (Toumani Kouyate), who gives the movie audience the impression that he will lead a Nat Turner-style rebellion, speaks a different language.  His inability to communicate fills him with a rage that a freed African, Jeremias (Fabricio Boliveira), both an Uncle Tom and a Simon Legree, insists that he can handle.  Jeremias is valuable as well as he knows how to plant, a necessity for raising money when the diamond mines have dried up.

Antonio takes Beatriz (Luana Nastas), daughter of his brother-in-law (Roberto Audio), in marriage, a 12-year-old with whom he does not consummate his marriage until she has her menses.  Otherwise, he’s no Mr. Right.  He gets off with Feliciana (Jai Baptista), as masters had been wont to do with the enslaved.  For her part, Beatriz hangs out with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), a choice that will lead this slow-paced, reasonably quiet story to burst into frightful melodrama.

With the help of co-scripter Beto Amaral, Ms. Thomas has no problem challenging the probable art-house crowd to keep patient, given the long takes and the occasional, dramatic close-up.  Though I haven’t been anywhere in Brazil in 1821, I would bet that the scene is as authentic as you can get, probably backed up by the counsel of historians impressed by the 17th century discovery of emeralds, gold and diamonds in Minas Gervais.  This led to a rush of Portuguese to colonize that vast land.  As a film “Vazante” is a gem in itself, graced with serious performances albeit without the usual infusion of humor that filmmakers throw in for comic relief.  Life looks hard, whether you’re a gaucho of an enslaved person.  Aren’t we lucky all that baggage is now gone and Brazil is, like the U.S., a land of a multi-cultural population?  Some political scientists have even praised the concept of Brazil’s “coffee-colored compromise” as a solution to racial hostility, an interesting label especially considering that, as Frank Sinatra told us, “They have an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”

Unrated.  116 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

APPRENTICE – movie review

  • APPRENTICE

    Film Movement
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Boo Junfeng
    Written by: Boo Junfeng
    Cast: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad, Koh Boon Pin, Nickson Cheng, Crispian Chan, Gerald Chew
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/25/17
    Opens: March 3, 2017

    Ironically, as America moves to the left, the country votes to the right.  Gains have been made in race relations, civil liberties, civil rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, but the U.S. is the only country in the highly developed West to retain capital punishment, at least in some states.  Why so, even though studies have repeatedly stressed that the death penalty does not deter murder?  Instead of polling people who, in the comfort of their homes sip bourbon and spout their political opinions, Boo Junfeng, who directs “Apprentice,” polls the individual who could say, “The buck stops here.”  That person is the one who springs the trapdoor, pulls the switch, releases the gas, or delivers the deadly injection to the condemned.  “Apprentice” focuses on two executioners’ point of view, discovering that both deliver their deadly trade with a measure of doubt.

    Boo, whose first feature-length film “Sandcastle” deals with an 18-year-old who learns a secret about his father, shows a director who is still contrasting the older and younger generations with “Apprentice.”  Here, young Sergeant Aiman Yusof (Fir Rahman) is learning the ropes from a Singapore prison’s chief hangman, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) (“I cannot take credit for the “learning the ropes” wordplay: that’s in the dialogue).  Aiman has a generally hostile relationship with his older sister, Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), accusing her of wanting to marry a man only because the groom-to-be will get her out of Singapore into Australia.  He’s a lonely fellow for another reason.  His father, whom he never knew, was hanged for a grisly murder, and he looks upon executioner Rahim as a father substitute.  Consider it an irony, if you will, but this father substitute also pulled the lever that hanged the young man’s dad, and the assistant, or apprentice, may even be fired for failure to disclose his father’s fate.

    But never mind: Rahim, who bonds with Aiman, is impressed enough with the shy man’s demeanor and his assistance with an execution that he appoints Aiman as his assistant, a stepping-stone to a fast-track appointment to replace him.

    “Apprentice” is about a fellow who does not say “You’re fired,” but who could theoretically think “you’re dead” as he conducts his job.  The bleak, murky prison scenes are filmed in Australia as the subject matter would not please officials in Singapore. The city-state has severe laws for capital offenses, considering drug smuggling to be subject to the death penalty.  Recently Singapore executed several foreigners for just that offense, bringing down the condemnation of arguably more civilized countries.

    In preparing the film, the crew of “Apprentice” studied the subject for five years, employing Alan Shadrake’s book “Once a Jolly Hangman” as principal print enlightenment.  (The book, which has no reviews on Amazon, is for sale for just $598.99 but don’t forget the $3.99 shipping cost. And that’s for a used copy.)  You can learn the subject for less than that on the big screen, and what’s more the film seems authentic since it is based largely on an interview with Darshan Singh, who executed up to 18 convicts a day.

    I don’t know that this film should be considered a broadside against capital punishment.  At least in Adrian Shergold’s British movie “Pierrepont: The Last Hangman,” the title figure Albert Pierrepont had enough doubts about his job that during a long career, he decided that capital punishment does not work and got out of the field.   And that’s a guy who put the rope on the necks of Nazi war criminals that should have received an ever worse penal fate.

    The atmosphere of “Apprentice” is minimalist, largely dark areas of the prison where Rahim shows kindness to the condemned on their penultimate days, delivering nice clothes for the inmates to wear for the hanging.  Aiman, however, has his own view, accusing the chief of a faux kindness offered simply to make the job easier.

    The film received an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes, motivated perhaps by the journalists’ cri de coeur against the death penalty, yet my own impression is that the severity of Singapore’s laws does not have much an input in the movie.  You have learn on your own how rigidly that small country interprets crimes like drug smuggling, a crime that in the Philippines these days evokes executions of the criminals by law enforcers right on the street.  Benoit Soler is behind the lens of an Arri Alexa but is partly responsible for too literal an impression of the story.  For a more melodramatic one, you’d do well to take in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.”

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS – movie review

  • THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: C
    Director:  F. Gary Gray
    Written by: Chris Morgan
    Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
    Screened at: AMC 34th Street, NYC, 4/11/17
    Opens: April 14, 2017
    The Fate of the Furious Movie Poster
    If you were researching a term paper for your film history class on the topic “The Early Use of Vehicles by the Film Industry,” you would undoubtedly mention the first narrative film, “The Great Train Robbery,” released in 1903 when cars were first appearing in the U.S..  The movie, inspired by an actual robbery of the Union Pacific in 1900 in which four men blew a hole in the safe and took off with $5,000 cash, must have been the year’s most exciting event to its audiences, many of whom ducked under their theater chairs when the characters appeared to jump from the screen.  Imagine if, instead of seeing that as the first viable, commercial picture, they were introduced to “The Fate of the Furious.”  Really, in 1903!  The event would have made eclipsed the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in North Carolina and would position director F. Gary Gray to be Time magazine Man of the Year if Time had such an award then.

    So granted: “The Fate of the Furious” is a technological marvel, but unlike the folks 115 years ago, we have gotten accustomed to crashing cars, exploding helicopters, well-aimed torpedoes, countless bullets from machine guns bolted to the tops of cars, even a revolver or two pointed at people but completing the act of killing in only one such case.  Really, folks, have you had enough of such wall-to-wall mayhem?  I guess not.  “The Fate of the Furious” is set to break opening weekend box office records.

    More interesting, to me at least, is that the film gave jobs to three hundred Cuban people in Havana, namely transportation coordinators, producers, location advisors, drivers and the like for six months.  This is what may have worried Fidel, that the big bad capitalists were handing more money out to the local extras in six months than doctors make in a year.  Even “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” filmed there in 2013, required elaborate permissions from both Washington and Havana, so one imagine what red tape may have frustrated many an executive before this one could  approved, but one incentive that seems to have worked was the money that the U.S. gave to the state-run Cuba Institute of Cinematographic Art.  We’re supporting Communism?  That’s one way of looking at it.  Anyway, look for feature articles on how the U.S.-Cuba deal was made.

    This installment, the eighth in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, one sadly missing Paul Walker, had early segments shot in Old Havana and Centro Havana. These were the most interesting scenes in the movie, including the singular case of a soulful exchange when Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is on his honeymoon with Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez).  A sneering, local bully seeks to take off with Dom’s cousin’s heap.  They agree to a race, the winner taking the other driver’s car.  Dom strips the jalopy to its very essence, continuing just behind the bully even when fire engulfs what’s left of the vehicle, but darn if the hero doesn’t cross the finish line first—and by driving backwards in the final stretch.  If you believe that, you can believe anything you see, but “The Fate of the Furious” is not about being rational, credible, justifiable, but about technology.

    Cipher (Charlize Theron) introduces herself to Dom, seeming to know all about him and demanding that he work for her, showing something on a cell phone that makes him go rogue to the distress of Dom’s crew including Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris Bridges), his wife Letty, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and later agents Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood).  What passes for Cipher’s motive as chief villain is her desire to teach superpowers a lesson so that only she, and not they, will be able to explode nuclear bombs.  In that interest, she captures a nuclear code from a Russian defense minister in New York, though not before threatening to cut his car and him into two neat parts.  She will then dictate “accountability,” warning the superpowers never to explode another such bomb.

    To make an overlong story just long, the convoluted plot finds Luke breaking out of jail along with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), his rival, Computers—not your father’s computers and not yours but some that you’ve seen before only in action-adventure movies—are tap-tap-tapped to dazzle the audience, even one giant machine that starts cars in New York operating with no input from their drivers, and of course crashing, flying through the air, dodging fireballs and the like.  As for writing, the script allows for just one memorable remark:  that the trouble with putting your foot on a tiger is that you would not be able to take it off—which could remind moviegoers of the movie “Mine” about a soldier who steps on an IED in the desert and will not be able to move for fifty-two hours, when rescue arrives.

    There is every indication that there will be a “Fast and Furious” episode 9, perhaps filmed in other parts of the world than this episode 8 which takes us from Havana to Berlin to New York and Russia, though Iceland stands in for that last country.  This is expensive moviemaking, but one which lacks convincing performances, a lyrical script, a realistic set of conflicts.  “The Fate of the Furious” (who’s furious, by the way?) is a technological dream but about as soulful as your computer monitor’s advertising “Black screen of death.” People who turn up their noses not so much at action adventure films, which can be quite good, but at off-the-wall repeated mayhem such as we see here, can be considered snobs.  What are movie snobs like?  They believe that from good books, films and theater, we learn something about the human condition.  If instead of a steady diet of video games like this one, you want to know what people are really like, people who are not just like you and your friends and family, you might continue seeing popcorn movies by all means.  But be open as well to be entertained not exclusively by special effects and visual effects but by honest, funny, tragic, melodramatic and complex illustrations of human character and personality.

    Rated PG-13.  136 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

BABY DRIVER – movie review

BABY DRIVER

Tri-Star Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
Screened at: AMC 19th Street, NYC, 6/21/17
Opens: June 28, 2017
Baby Driver Movie Poster
“Baby Driver” is not only the best action-romance-drama-comedy of the year to date.   It not only has the best soundtrack you will hear this year—and that’s not “to date” but all of 2017: it’s a wrap.  And it’s probably the best film ever that focuses on a young man whose tinnitus is so painful to him that he must hear loud music in his earphones all the time.  As in all the time: even when he’s assigned to be getaway driver for a group of tough hoodlums who rob banks and a post office. It features three car chases, not the stereotypical ones, but chases that can be called nothing less than phenomenal in execution and even believable, including one in which a bad guy is killed not because his car explodes, not only because he is dropped five stories onto a flaming, exploding wreck, but in a most ingenious way that is so cathartic to the audience that you can expect the lucky folks in their theater seats to applaud and cheer.

And this pic is right up writer-director Edgar Wright’s métier since Wright is celebrated for the trio “Hot Fuzz” (cop movie), “Shaun of the Dead” (one of the more popular zombie pictures), and “The World’s End” (five friends, twelve pubs, twelve pints, a few random shots).

As the title character, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the cool dude: shades, earphones, and a young man of few words. He is sometimes ribbed for his silence (“What are you, better than us?”) by the guys who go where the money is. Doc (Kevin Spacey wearing a stunning rug) forces Baby to be getaway driver because Baby owes him money. And Doc threatens to put Baby in a wheelchair if he demurs.  Baby’s M.O. is to sit in the car with music blasting through the earphones, and step on the gas when robbers such as the hostile Bats (Jamie Foxx), the psychotic Buddy (Jon Hamm), and sultry Darling (Elza González) go tearing out with bags of dough.

Nevertheless the innocent-looking Baby, who got in bad with the stern Doc after stealing the older man’s Mercedes, is a fellow of good character—otherwise.  He takes care of his aging foster father (CJ Jones) who uses a wheelchair, is deaf, and converses with Baby in sign language.  When he steals a car, he throws the victim’s purse back to her and apologizes.  Best of all, he meets Debora (Lily James) in a coffee shop that always seems to have no other customers, which allows Baby and Debora to get to know each other and, credibly enough, to be lovers.  Or at least they may become lovers if Baby can finish that one last job.  Trouble is–there is always one last job.

Baby sometimes has flashbacks to his childhood when he loses his parents are in a deadly car crash while for his part the accident causes him to develop a perpetual ringing in his ear that requires him to blast music and allows us in the audience to enjoy sounds from the likes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” plus the sounds of other artists like Queen and Lionel Ritchie.  I had not seen Ansel Elgort before and know I will be seeing a lot of him based on this breakthrough performance.  Expect to watch this 6’3” New Yorker as lead male in Sacha Gervasi’s “November Criminals” about a teen who takes on his own investigation of a crime in D.C.

At the time of this review, “Baby Driver” has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes out of 28 reviews. All I can say about that is “Duh.”

Rated R.  113 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE – movie review

  • I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE (Sueño en otro idioma)

    FilmRise
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade:  B+
    Director:  Ernesto Contreras
    Written by: Carlos Contreras
    Cast: Fernando Álvarez Rebeil, Eligio Meléndez, Manuel Poncelis, Fátima Molina
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/20/17
    Opens: July 28, 2017

    Latin is considered a dead language but compared to Zikril, the idiom of the Church would be almost a lingua franca.  Not only do thousands of people speak Latin today, principally in the cathedrals, but only two people appear left in the world who know not only the language of Zikril but the fading culture of its people.  The language has one chance of a revival: the two men who still speak it (along with their native Spanish) need to come together for interviews with a local radio station.  The trouble is that the duo have not spoken for fifty years, and still resist even looking at each other.  Martín (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil) takes on the task of peacemaker, much like the way Bill Clinton got the Palestinian leadership together with the Israeli Prime Minister to iron out a settlement that had evaded success for some fifty years.

    “I Dream in Another Language” has elements of the fantastical along with the prosaic, with cinematographer Tonatiuh Martínez shaping the world of a remote Mexican village set inside a rain forest, the inhabitants probably traveling at best to a neighboring rural area with a trip to Mexico City considered a once-in-a-lifetime venture.

    The fifty years’ feud between Don Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) and Don Isauro (José Manuel Poncelis) arose from a romantic triangle in which young Evaristo (Juan Pablo de Santiago) and his best friend (Hoze Meléndez) are competing for the affections of one Maria (Nicolasa Ortíz Monasterio).  Maria’s death has done nothing to repair the schism.  Isauro never believed that she had no romantic feeling for him, and this was confirmed by Evaristo’s granddaughter (Fátima Molina).  Lluvia’s relationship with Martín, the linguist, virtually parrots that of Maria’s with the two young men. In the present case, Lluvia’s grandfather, Evaristo, does what he can to sever the bond between the two young people.

    If you’ve ever been to a rain forest (I recommend a trip to Costa Rica to sample some of the most authentic) you can imagine being surrounded by nature: the bird calls, the pounding precipitation, the mood of isolation in which human beings are dots of nature dwarfed by leafy vegetation and giant trees.

    The director, Ernesto Contreras, is known for “Blue Eyelids” (a woman wins a vacation for two, and with no-one she knows is available she invites a stranger) and for a series of documentary shorts and TV episodes including one on El Chapo.  With “I Dream in Another Language,” he focuses on two men of about the same age who themselves act like strangers who, deep down would like to be reconciled. The flashbacks that take us a half century into the past describe how the friendship of young men deteriorates, leading to a virtual lifetime of Isauro’s envy—edged out over the woman they both love. “I Dream in Another Language” may not encourage you to study Zikril, if that language really ever existed, but its lyricism, along with physical and verbal violence, may well enchant you.

    Unrated.  101 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY – movie review

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY

Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Tommy Wirkola
Written by: Max Botkin, Kerry Williamson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Robert Wagner, Marwan Kenzari
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/3/17
Opens: August 18, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
Thomas Malthus predicted a gloomy future for us all, warning that the food supply on our planet would become scarce, as population growth would outpace the ability of farms to keep up.  He was wrong, at least as concerns the developed countries, since technology has been able to yield geometrical quantities of crops.  GMO foods, widely criticized, have at least expanded what our farms could give us, but according to Tommy Wirkola, who directs “What Happened to Monday” with a script by Kerry Williamson and Max Botkin, Malthus’s creds have gone up.  In the near future, about a half century from now, famine lurks.  People are having too many children.  The solution brings to mind what the government of China had done but has now modified: the government forbids mothers from having more than one kid each.

This Malthusian thesis is given credible life but in this fantasy, Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), a fiercely ambitious bureaucrat, is in charge of enforcing new legislation, which would mean that no child would ever have a brother or sister to play with, to provide support, to counsel, even to fight.  Inevitably, though, some parents have twins, triplets, or even brothers and sisters of different ages. The trouble is that the government under this legislation could take away the superfluous little human beings, allegedly freezing them for a future time that the population would ease off, then be brought back to life.  But as we know especially from our recent U.S. election, things do not turn out as we had hoped.

In a brilliant performance, Noomi Rapace playing seven roles.  Through the wonder of cinema technology they talk to each other, fight with each other, and plan strategy.  The characters who are each named for a day of the week are under the guidance of their grandfather, played by Willem Dafoe.  The adult has forbidden the girls to go out into the street as a group of even as a pair.  The girl named Monday can leave the house on Mondays, and so on.  The children, who look vaguely alike—though one has blond hair—are warned that they must fool the authorities, even their own doorman who might turn them in—which reminds us of the Anne Frank saga.  Kids don’t always do what they’re told, but they all survive up to the time they are young women. They take care that each one has the proper hair style and color, and try to match personalities.

When the authorities enforcing the one-child-per-family are on to them, the chase begins.  Moments of physical violence appear now and then, though most of the action is verbal—the seven sisters, again played amazingly by one Noomi Rapace who was so magnificent in the “Dragoon Tattoo” series—keep one another abreast of the situation.  One incident played for comic effect finds one sister, a virgin, having to emulate another more experienced sibling when faced with a sexual situation by a man who loves one of her siblings but is credibly fooled one afternoon.

Even at slightly over two hours, “What Happened to Monday” does not outlast its welcome, as Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola, known for his 2014 movie “Dead Show: Red vs. Dead” featuring a man on the run from Nazi zombies, now functions on a deeper level with this impressive feature.  His new film has suspense, thought-provoking dialogue, a nice dose of physical violence, and especially the multiple personalities of Noomi Rapace.

Unrated.   123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

I AM ANOTHER YOU – movie review

  • I AM ANOTHER YOU

    FilmRise
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director: Nanfu Wang
    Cast: Dylan Olsen, Nanfu Wang, John Olsen
    Screened at:Critics’ link, NYC, 8/30/17
    Opens: September 27, 2017
    I Am Another You poster
    When they see a homeless man lying in the street, the first thing some people want to say to him is “Get a job!”  A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine shows a middle-class couple gazing at such a man, the woman saying to her friend, “Why doesn’t he at least take up an instrument?”  People have all sorts of opinions when passing by those without homes, people bearing simple cardboard signs, sometimes even with a protective pit bull lying beside.  Truth is, not only people who live on the street and get their meals by dumpster diving are the same.  Would you believe that some actually choose to leave their nice, bourgeois homes, even folks who may like their families, but who would rather see what the country is like?  These are people who do not haunt the same stairways, the same park benches, the same winter shelters inside train stations. One such person is Dylan.

    Dylan is not what he seems to Nanfu Wang, who immigrated to New York from China, ambitious to make documentary films.  When she ran into Dylan Olsen, she learns, but is skeptical, that the young man considers himself a citizen of the world.  He tells her that he chooses to be free, and the only way for him to escape the shackles of a bourgeois existence is to put a large camping pack on his back—no shopping carts laden with clothing—and to appear to others like a college student exploring the country.  Wang is fascinated by the idea and wants to learn more. She also wants to contribute a fleshed out look at the young man and of course to add a doc to her résumé.  She finds out more than she expected shortly after meeting the man’s father,who tells all about his son, both the flaws and the joys.

    While Wang adopts the appearance of a homeless person herself, she travels with Dylan, always wondering who this person really is, whether he’s telling the truth, and whether he may even be emotionally unstable—at worst schizophrenic.  She finds out that Dylan and his family are Utah Mormons, politically and socially conservative, that the 22-year-old was a polar opposite from his brother, an accomplished pianist who is to demonstrate his skill on the keys.  Is Dylan a modern-day Jack Kerouac, a beatnik who believes you cannot be free if rooted to a specific point?  Was Dylan born too late, missing out on the glories of hippiedom, the youthful style of the late sixties and early seventies?  Is he bucking for sainthood?

    There’s a little of everything here, as Wang not only directs but mans the camera and uses Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s original music to add further drama to what must have originally been hundreds of hours of film stock.  Are there no untoward events in the relationship?  After all, who can be with another person day and night, especially while traveling, and not feel close to breaking down oneself?  The big schism arrived when the film’s subject was generously supplied by a shopkeeper with a free bag of bagels, but Dylan wants to beg.  He doesn’t want anything given to gratuitously, so he throws the bagels out.  That’s when she breaks away from him.

    But wait!  She meets Dylan’s dad, a down-to-earth Mormon who works in the police department sex crimes unit, who testifies that his son has been a handful, while Dylan’s brother, by contrast, is salt-of-the-earth and accomplished on the keyboard.  Then the mystery unravels.  Dylan had been on psychiatric medication, but instead of taking it—which could have resulted in his staying at home—he had sold the meds and instead uses alcohol as his drug of choice.  Yes he is experiencing more freedom combined with his ability to start conversations with others, enough to get invited to their homes.  But he is not a well person.  Yet, except for the times that the doc uses sound effects to give us in the audience a club to what schizophrenia can do to a person, he comes across like a youthful, energetic, handsome specimen who, having experienced what he wanted to do may become as bourgeois as the rest of the family.

    For her part, Nanfu Wang is well on the road to documentary glory, having contributed last year’s “Hooligan Sparrow,” about a fellow who went to China’s Hainan Province to seek justice for six kids who had been abused by their principal, the justice-seeker harassed unmercifully by the government.

    Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS – movie review

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Bleecker Street
Director:  Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriter:  Susan Coyne
Cast:  Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/11/17
Opens: November 22, 2017

click for larger (if applicable)

Perhaps the biggest difference between movie critics and an ordinary audience is that most people probably prefer sentimental stories, whether comedies or drama, while critics consider such emotions gooey, sticky, clinging to the teeth, saccharine.  Perhaps that’s why Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” sold far more in its time (or even at present) than “Bleak House,” “Martin Chuzzlewit” (which tanked when first released, and even “A Tale of Two Cities.”  Everybody loves Christmas, a time that people feel charitable, have tender words for those of us who are less fortunate in health or prosperity, and may enjoy a good laugh or a nice cry.  With “The Man Who Invented Christmas” one might expect critics to trash the sentimentality, but I for one could not bring myself to follow in the paths of writers with hearts of ice.  That’s not to say it’s the next “Vertigo” or my favorite 3-hanky movie “Lassie Come Home,” but it’s quite entertaining, even absorbing, though its principal performer in the title role, Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, has the periodic, wide-eyed expressions that make one think that this movie is made for children.  (One critic, formerly on TV until he like all his colleagues, was dropped, said that the principal role could be played by a cocker spaniel.  Not entirely true, even though I adore the long-eared spaniels.

We tend to think that mature writers are in their forties or fifties by the time they turn out their magnum opus, but Dickens, who died at fifty-eight, knocked out “A Christmas Carol” at the age of thirty-one—while he was working with his wife on producing ten children.  Since many novelists write what they know, or rather what they have in some way lived through, the movie makes clear that Dickens, suffering from writers’ block after his last three books tanked, was inspired by real people whom he turned into legendary figures.  Scrooge, for example, one of his villains along with Oliver Twist’s Fagin, was like a miser he knew.  Scrooge visited him in dreams and hallucinations, played by Christopher Plummer in the role of a fellow who thought only of money and believed that he could live without friends and family—at least the ones who were not painted green.  By contrast he glamorized a poor family who despite having a crippled and sick child, Tiny Tim, were happy.

Bharat Nalluri, who directs and whose “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” about a fired London governess who is catapulted into the world of celebs, adapts freely from the real life of Dickens (available in Wikipedia, or course), showing the author’s own family as a mixed bag—including his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), his ne’er-do-well dad John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce), and his servant Tara (Anna Murphy).  Scrooge’s conversion, after getting looks at three ghosts who reveal the poverty of the rich man’s life, is too sudden to be believed.

Outside of the central plot, we get a glimpse of what life in the mid-19th Century was like for intellectuals, as we see Dickens hanging with his agent John Foster (Justin Edwards) at the Garrick Club.  You can take the kiddies to this and not suffer at all watching this appealing, if saccharine film, the cruelest segments showing the young Dickens’s misadventures in a so-called workhouse (that’s the kind of place that gets orphan Oliver Twist whipped for asking for doubles in soup) and a caged crow who has hardly room to walk in his small cage but is thankfully liberated before the conclusion.

Rated PG.  104 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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