THE TRAITOR – movie review

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Marco Bellochio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela, Francesco Piccolo
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Fabrizio Ferracane, Nicola Calì
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/8/20
Opens: May 12, 2020

What is most impressive about “The Traitor” is that this film perhaps more than any other presents the true story of the Cosa Nostra. Marco Bellochio, whose “Sweet Dreams” focuses on a child whose idyllic childhood is crushed by the death of his mother, paints on a broader canvas in directing and co-writing “The Traitor.” “Il Traditore,” the original Italian name of his current offering, hones in on one person, Tommasco Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), who is responsible more than any other informant for destroying the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, not because he is a saint but because he did not approve of the mob’s increasingly violent manner. For him, cigarette smuggling appears sufficient enough, but when the organization moves into heroin pushing and members of his own family are targeted by cold blooded bosses like Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane) and Totò Riina (Nicola Calì), Buscetta turns informer.

All names are actual in this biopic of the title traitor, including that of Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who took Buscetta’s testimony and, like others on the side of the law, treated the informer well. Buscetta’s testimony brought other would-be informers out of the woodwork to turn state’s evidence in a trial that lasted 1986-1992. As you might expect, since Bellocchio and his co-writers Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela and Francesco Piccolo are dealing with biography, the movie is not as commercial as “The Godfather Part I,” meaning that there are no horse’s heads under the bedcovers and only a minimum of gunplay and explosions.

The hostility between the old mafia (which includes Buscetta) and the Corleone faction led by Totò Riina is almost as intense as that between our current Democratic and Republican Parties, but unlike our own political chaos, the Italians find a way to call a truce. Meanwhile Buscetta moves with his family to Rio, but the plot thickens when he learns that his boys, now in their twenties, are missing.

Truces do not last long. When warfare continues between the two mafia organizations, Buscetta, still in Rio, is arrested by a Swat team of the Italian army, who are then unable to coax a confession out of him even when they dangle his third wife from a chopper. Instead he is extradited to Italy to face Judge Falcone and is treated like a rock star, perceived as the kingpin not to push drugs but to rat on the Cosa Nostra. When the big shots are arrested, they are put behind a cage in a large Italian courtroom, which houses the defendants in a cage, all of whom taunt the traitor particularly with what the Sicilians consider the ultimate insult, “cuckold.” Ultimately Buscetta rats out a prominent Italian politician, and he is given witness protection in the U.S. where he must look over his shoulder even when shopping for food.

The acting all around is appropriately scary, the audience probably feeling the paranoia during the closing scenes when Buscetta notes that he doesn’t give a crap any more if he is taken out by the remnants of the Italian mafia. Great use of operatic music when appropriate, and at two and one-half hours the picture never loses its puls ating momentum.

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

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


Entertainment One
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Francis Annan
Screenwriter: Francis Annan, L.H. Adams, Karol Griffiths, from Tim Jenkin’s book “Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison”
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webster
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/4/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

Whenever I need to have a key made I go to Bruno’s hardware down the block. Half the time the keys do not work. I twist and I turn and practically break the fragile metal. What this country needs is not more MBA’s but some good, reliable locksmiths. Now Tim Jenkin can make keys for me any time. He’s a real live character played by Daniel Radcliffe in the prison thriller “Escape from Pretoria.” He is not only a crackerjack locksmith but an author, having written the book by a similar name in 2005. I cannot tell whether Francis Annan’s movie is based closely on the contents of the book or simply inspired by the heroic plot—especially since on Amazon, the book costs $899.99. And that’s the paperback! Perhaps an upcoming movie about rare books “The Booksellers” would tell us why.

The film which is virtually bereft of women focuses on the leadership of Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe), who together with Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) gets into trouble with white-dominated regime in South Africa when apartheid was the norm. Fifteen percent of the popular were white but dominated the 85% of people with color. The grip on the country was resisted by the African National Congress, under which Nelson Mandela eventually got elected president and now stands as one of history’s great heroes.

Some folks might be surprised to note that the ANC was a movement that enjoyed the membership of several white people, considered by the apartheid government to be traitors to their race. For example: when Jenkin and Lee set off an unusual string of “bombs” in Pretoria that liberate not explosives but reams of paper announcing the manifesto of the congress, they are caught and receive stiff sentences in a jail that was not quite as comfortable as the prisons in Norway. Jenkin gets 12 years as the leader, and his pal Lee receives eight. Inside the jail the two meet up with other whites involved in wresting the South African government away from the white leaders. These are people who from the moment they were beaten were determined to escape, notwithstanding the prospect of a sentence of another twenty-five years plus the potential to be tortured.

Theirs was a unique method. Jenkin, apparently graced with spatial skills, drew blueprints for not just one key but a successive battery of them that would lead them to the street and freedom. They keys were made of wood. As the plot thickens, the initial attempts to fit these keys into the doors would fail. Sometimes a piece of evidence would fall to the floor outside Jenkin’s reach, so we in the audience sit and hold out breaths as does Jenkin to hide the evidence from the regularly scheduled checks by the guards.

Guards were awfully mean, and not just the warden (Paul Harvey) who must be addressed as “Captain” by the inmates. They appear to hold a special animosity to whites who help the blacks.

All action takes place in 1979, but if the prisoners only had the patience to wait until 1994 when apartheid fell apart, Mandela would have freed all, a welcome break especially for Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart) who was serving four life sentences. Behind his large aviator type glasses fashionable at the time, Daniel Radcliffe is able to free himself without needing the magic he embraced at the Hogwarts School. He exudes a tension that should resonate with the movie audience in a film that’s not much on dialogue but which, guaranteed, will have you keyed up.

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

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

A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

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

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

SKIN – movie review

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

Skin Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE KING’S CHOICE – movie review


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    • THE KING’S CHOICE  (Kongens nei)

      Samuel Goldwyn Films
      Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
      Grade: B
      Director:  Erik Poppe
      Written by: Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, Jan Trygve Røyneland
      Cast: Jesper Christense, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics, Tuva Novotny, Katharine Schüttler
      Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/17
      Opens: September 22, 2017
      click for larger (if applicable)
      “The King’s Choice” turns out to be a perfectly respectable piece of historical cinema, one that would be particularly appreciated by its audience in Norway, just as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” about America’s Doolittle raid on Japan, would inspire us here in the U.S.  To my knowledge this film is the only one that ever reached our shores dealing with a special patriotic segment of life during World War 2, namely the resistance to the Nazis when Hitler’s soldiers first sought capitulation from the Norwegian government, and then, failing that, proceeded to bomb the neutral country.  Norway was valued by Germany for its iron ore and its strategically long harbor.

      One may wonder, after watching the fervor of Norway’s king in refusing to capitulate whether he, and the cabinet whose votes he inspired, was worthwhile.  After all, anyone could see that the forces of Germany, a single country in Western Europe that conquered Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France—some after great resistance and others by capitulation—was a force to be reckoned with.  But Norwegian King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), an older man with a thick mustache, states to Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics),  the German diplomat urging him to surrender and to save Norwegian lives, “Your own Führer said that a country that surrenders does not deserve to live.”

      Director Erik Poppe, whose “1,000 Times Good Night” about a war photographer whose husband no longer wants to abide by her dangerous profession, focuses on the king and the royal family.  Whisked out of Norway’s capital, Oslo, by train from the Eastern Railrway Station, he heads north, where he is given authority to rule the country for the rest of the war.  He meets the German envoy, whose strongly advises capitulation as the envoy sincerely wants to save Norwegian lives.  As the king meets with his cabinet, back home in Oslo, Vidkun Quisling has been set up by the Nazis as Norway’s traitorous prime minister, one not recognized by Haakon.  The king would later set up a government in exile in London, broadcasting patriotic messages and encouraging the resistance.

      Vivid battle scenes are not the point, which, instead, is to show the courage of the king. However, cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund does capture German aircraft regularly flying across Norway and occasionally dropping bombs. There is also a dramatic scene in which Norwegian soldiers fire open a German ship that were headed into Norwegian waters without waiting to see whether they are arriving as messengers of peace or whether they are the enemy.

      Though “The King’s Choice” educates us about an incident mostly forgotten by the current generation—just as the escape from Dunkirk gets celluloid about a special incident cheered by France—it is not in the same class as that expensive movie.  Yet in some ways it is even superior, as it tells the story in chronological patterns, which “Dunkirk” eschewed in favor of three chapter in disarrayed order.  “The King’s Choice” will probably be seen by people outside of Norway as a history lesson, less inspiring than major cinema like the far more expensive “Saving Private Ryan,” but it does earn its stars by being chosen as Norway’s Oscar candidate for movies opening in 2016.

      The film is in Norwegian, German, and a smidgen of English with English subtitles, the white letters often overwhelmed by the snows of April.

      Unrated.  133 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
      Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why


PARADISE – movie review


Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Andrey Konchalovsky
Written by: Andrey Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast:  Yuliya Vysotskaya, Peter Kurth, Viktor Sukhorukov, Philippe Duquesne, Thomas Darchinger
Screened at:  Critics’ link, NYC, 10/2/17
Opens: October 6, 2017
In the final paragraph of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Sidney Carton does a far, far better thing than he had ever done before.  Even during the hellish times of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, it’s possible for people destined for the guillotine to be saved by a heroic act. A similar situation pops up during the concluding moments of Andrey Konchalvsky’s “Paradise,” which has the original title of “Ray.”  Konchalovsky (who was born two days before me), is in his métier with his wartime movie “Paradise.” In 2002 his “House of Fools,” aka “Dom durakov,” takes on the Chechen war when a lack of staff forces residents of a psychiatric institution to fend for themselves.

“Paradise” deals with what could only be called the psychopathic ideology of Nazism, with its belief that Jews must be eliminated from Europe so that the “Aryan race” could construct a paradise on earth.  Much of the action takes place in a concentration camp in 1942-44, but this is not a straight, chronological account.  Instead, Konchalovsky, using his own script together with that of his co-writer Elena Kiseleva, changes venues and time periods regularly, using 35mm footage and, for a look of authenticity, 16mm stock, all is in black-and-white.  He even has the 16mm film show deterioration with time, and what’s more slows the momentum of the epic work frequently as though pitching commercials in the midst of the story to have the major characters talk to the camera, or to us in our theater seats.

Holocaust dramas hardly make rare visits to the cinema, but this one, which uses Russian, French, and German dialogue, is an original, in large part because of the convention of actors’ speaking directly to the camera.  What’s more, it’s filled with moments that can bring tears to those in the audience with a sensitivity to the tragic and frankly unbelievable goings-on as Germany, not content with marching throughout Europe and into the Soviet Union, diverts attention from the fighting to destroy the Jewish people.

The principal characters are Olga (Yuliva Vysotskaya), Helmut (Christian Clauss), and Jules (Christian Duquesne), all of whom appear individually to talk to an interviewer or to us in the audience.  Olga is a Russian aristocrat who is arrested in occupied France for hiding Jewish children, and is immediately questioned by Jules, a French traitor who works for the Nazis as a police interrogator, responding to Olga’s seductive manner.  But Jules is assassinated by the French Resistance before he could do anything to save her. She winds up in a concentration/extermination camp under the cruel Obersturmbannführer Hans Krause (Peter Kurth).  She’s in luck even there, as Helmut (Christian Clauss), promoted in the Nazi ranks as auditor for the camp with the authority to condemn officers caught siphoning money and valuables, had been in love with her a decade ago while both were in an Italian resort.

Highlights include Helmut’s interview with Heinrich Himmler (Victor Sukhorukov), his ego and promotion allowing him to consider himself an übermench, much like his pal in the camp, with whom he has sometimes drunken, but always insightful chats.  With the war approaching an end, some make plans to flee to Nueva Germania, or Paraguay, but while some are of the opinion that the whole Nazi enterprise is a fool’s paradise, Helmut tells the camera that he has no reason to atone for anything—particularly given his plan to get Olga safely to Switzerland.

We know from many other films about the dreadful conditions of the prisoners but this film concentrates on the women, who are so degraded that as soon as one of their number dies, a fight erupts to seize her boots, cigarettes, or anything else that might make their lives a little better.  The film is testament to the folly of thinking that humankind can make a
paradise on earth.  Nazism, with its emphasis on racial purity, and Communism, with its belief that people can be forced to submit to absolute class leveling, are extreme experiments that simply have never worked.  As the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus reminded us in 65 B.C, “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”  “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back.

Unrated.  132 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?