UNDER THE WIRE – movie review

UNDER THE WIRE

Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Chris Martin
Screenwriter:  Chris Martin based on Paul Conroy’s book “Under the Wire:Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment.
Cast:  Paul Conroy, Marie Colvin, Wa’el, Ziad Abaza, Janine Birkett, Julian Lewis Jones, Karine Myriam Lapouble, Nathan Dean Williams, Anne Wittman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/12/18
Opens: November 16, 2018
Under the Wire  Poster
President Trump implied that Senator John McCain was not the hero most of us thought he was, implying that despite the five and one-half years the man spent in a Vietnamese cage, Trump prefers people who do not surrender.  President Trump also said that the media are the “enemies of the people.”  Both of his opinions are not only false but mean-spirited, going beyond what a politician should be comfortable about saying whether campaigning or playing to his base after the election.  Take POTUS’ latter point: if the media are the enemies of the people, what should we make of the fearless war correspondent Marie Colvin, who received the equivalent of a purple heart by losing an eye thanks to a Sri Lankan rocket propelled grenade, an injury she sustained while covering the civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.  The patch became a trademark, her picture landing on the publicity campaign for both “Under the Wire,” a documentary, and the narrative film “A Private War.”

In fact she turns Trump’s view on its head.  Her reporting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2012 in the province of Homs is all in the service of alerting the world to the Assad’s scattershot brutality, not fighting simply terrorists but  waging full-scale bombardments and shelling of the area though its principal occupants are civilians.  We can regret only that despite the service she performed, there has been no change of government in Syria, no major actions by the United States to get Assad out of the way thereby joining his fate with Gaddafi’s.  There have been just a few shellings here and there by Israel when Syrian troops allegedly crossed the border into Golan while Russian, ignominiously, has sent jets to Syria in support of its government.

The documentary finds American war correspondent Colvin and her trusted British photographer Paul Conroy crawling through a tunnel as part of a desperate attempt to cross from the Lebanese border into Syria—a site that might remind cinephiles of a similar crawl made by Central American refugees heading toward California in Gregory Nava’s 1983 movie “El Norte.”  The photographer caught live action scenes, a shelling that appears to go on and on with just one brief stoppage to allow the Syrian Red Crescent to transport the wounded to hospitals—a sinister ambulance at that.  Conroy, with her experience in Sri Lanka under her belt and another jaunt to Libya where she met with Muammar Gaddafi, she heads into the firing range in Homs .  She is more than “one of the guys,” shouting profanities, smoking, insisting that she was here to stay so that the world would understand the brutalities of this government.  Though we know that Colvin was to be killed on February 22, 2012, we should find the film sometimes creating considerable tension in the viewer.

Though this is a documentary as opposed to the narrative treatment in “A Private War,” Paul Conroy’s book “Under the Wire,” published in October 2013 and available on Amazon for under $6, is brought vividly to life. One can imagine the treatment that Colvin and Conroy would have received from Assad if captured, pulling out fingernails would be just a start.

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

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

WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody speaking English.

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

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

UNCUT GEMS – movie review

UNCUT GEMS
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Screenwriter: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Sanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 11/29/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

If you like your movies over-the-top like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Inglorious Basterds,” then has A24 a movie for you! The pace doesn’t let up for a second, the photography evokes New York on amphetamines, and Adam Sandler gives the performance of his lifetime. Yes, that Adam Sandler, moving up from a waterboy for a football team, a manchild with a stutter, to a jewelry merchant on New York’s 47th street with a gambling disability. “Uncut Gems,” directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie following up their New York-centered pic “Good Time,” about an attempt by a guy to get his younger brother out of jail. Given that “Uncut Gems” shoots many of its scenes inside a midtown jewelry store which has a way of locking people inside, the Safdies are right in their métier.

Even if you have a hearing disability you’ll have no problem understanding the dialogue. The shouting is combination of the floor of the Chicago Futures Market and Donald J. Trump’s ersatz press conferences that are drowned out by his chopper. Anchoring the proceedings, Adam Sandler in the role of Howard Ratner knows and loves gem stones.  He does not think that he could make the kind of life he wants at his desk in the back room, preferring to gamble on basketball games, chiefly because he has faith that his main man, Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics (who plays himself), will sink enough baskets and pick up enough rebounds to make him an instant millionaire.

The shouting, in fact, starts right in the beginning, not in New York but in Ethiopia, where a large group of miners who had just extracted a fellow worker from a grievous accident. The bosses are getting hell for allowing unsafe conditions, but when two miners re-enter the tunnel they find a large rock with brilliant opal stones imbedded as though fashioned by an expert cutter.

On a hunch, Howard buys the rock, then lends it out to KG who convinces Howard that he will buy it. To contrast Howard with his long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who is aware that Harold has a woman, Julia (Julia Fox) on the side, the couple are at a theater to watch their daughter perform in a play. Dinah is sitting with her teen son, but Harold who should be with them, is running about outside, all in the service of making his fortune while at the same time avoiding or putting off his creditors.

Harold is larger than life, just like Trump, and like the president he is wrapped up in himself, playing a high-wire act that finds him tending to his business but more involved in actions that could make big trouble for him. He is a rabid sports fan, liking the Celts not as a mere hobby but as his chance to make it big financially. It would be nice to say that a win that bring him over a million dollars would allow him to retire, but you can bet that he will gamble it away within a month.

Daniel Lopatin’s score, particularly in the miners’ scenes, can be madly intrusive, making one wonder why the bold and furious action would not serve to excite the moviegoers. For Darius Khondji who is behind the lenses, no action that he captures is too fast. The ensemble cast are terrific, but wouldn’t it be great if Adam Sandler, seeking the big movie guild prizes this year, winds up competing for the over-the-topness with “Dolemite”’s Eddie Murphy?

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

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

1917 – movie review

1917
Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dean-Charles Chapman, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Colin Firth
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 11/23/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

1917 - Poster Gallery

There’s a reason that for Sam Mendes, landing the slot as director of this movie about a single mission during the First World War is his most heartfelt project. “1917” is based on an actual episode in northern France taken from an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. Mendes is following up his direction of such films as “Spectre,” based on a mission executed by James Bond, and “Skyfall,” based on a threat to Britain’s MI6 that Bond must destroy. If “1917” were a James Bond vehicle, the title character would likely be called upon by his country’s military to prevent the British army from falling prey to an ambush that would have resulted in a massacre: the deaths of the entire unit of 1600 men. This war movie will doubtless remind cinemaphiles of Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli,” in which Australian troops were massacred in Turkey by following terrible orders.

The mission here to which two lower officers Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned to a perilous mission to go through German-hold territory in France and warn a division under Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch in his smallest role) to stand down from a plan to attack Germans when the enemy are allegedly on the run. The truth is that the Germans encouraged the attack given the ambush that they had in store. At the same time Schofield makes a promise to Blake, his partner in the mission, to find Blake’s brother in case Blake were to die during the run, a theme that will remind you of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” an attempt to find Ryan and send him home since his brothers had all been killed in the Second World War.

What proceeds largely as a two-hander, Schofield and Blake, becomes a one-man project as Schofield must survive a booby-trapped shack abandoned by the Germans, in which a rat crosses a trip wire that the retreating foe had left to blow up trespassers. Schofield falls into ditches, he dodges bullets with only a grenade, his primitive single shot rifle, and assorted packs on his back. He must deal with a German pilot whose plane had been downed just a few steps from where he is standing, and fight to the death, hand to hand, with a German soldier that had remained back from the front. You may wonder how the Germans (luckily) are such bad shots that they are unable to get Schofield in their metaphoric cross-hairs.

When Schofield does ultimately make contact with the division, he receives retorts from a Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) and Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbath). They refuse to accept the plea to abandon the wave, so sure are they that they could knock out an entire German division.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman perform their roles with aplomb, running, jumping, shooting, seeming to do their own stunts. In a period in which the #Me-Too movement is ascendant, only one woman, a French lass with a baby who have survived the massacre of her village by Germans.

Thomas Newman’s music on the soundtrack does much to pump up the thrills while Roger Deakins, behind the camera, films the horrors of war fought in mud and raging waters. The production design team under Dennis Gassner does indeed transport us to the year 1917, to a war that historians are still trying to discover which country was the guiltiest party. In fact, since the victors write the histories, many believe that the harsh treatment of the defeated Germans under the Versailles Treaty was the principal factor leading to the rise of the Nazi party and the next world war.

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

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

AMERICAN ANIMALS – movie review

AMERICAN ANIMALS

The Orchard
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bart Layton
Screenwriter: Bart Layton
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 5/8/18
Opens: June 1, 2018

Whoever said that young men are not interested in books should see this movie. And if you think that a highly focused interest in birds is monopolized by women of a certain age who travel to remote destinations with high power binoculars, again: see this film. Four college students who like books do some traveling, though to no areas more remote than Amsterdam. They have a variety of temperaments as well. In fact they are so involved in acquiring a book, “The Birds of America,” by John James Audobon (1785-1851) that they are risking their careers and years of their lives to get it from a library. But this is not a book you can borrow with a card from your university. It dates back centuries and is said to be worth $10 million. The book seems too heavy for tucking under your winter coat, the planning by the collegians to take this book is amateurish, and these students for the most part are not in dire need of money. They want only to be special. They see the lives as replicas of their parents’, and given that they live in the red state of Kentucky they believe they are missing out, attending, as they, are the University of Kentucky and (I thought this was a joke), Transylvania University.

This is a bold entry into the indie world by writer-director Bart Layton, who you’ll remember for his “The Imposter,” about a young man who tells a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who had been missing for three years. The doc received hundreds of critics’ reviews, a story whose thing resembles that of “Martin Guerre” and “Six Degrees of Separation.”

From time to time, the characters in “American Animals” return to the screen fourteen years after the heist to re-evaluate their plans. With the benefit of maturity they can admit what went wrong and perhaps even how at the time of the burglary they simply did not count on a few simple things. For example, where is the key that housed the Audubon masterpiece? How did they expect to fence the volume given that the art world would have heard of the theft almost immediately? But who cares? College kids just want to have fun, as we know from fraternity hazing rituals, though in this case, the only person hazed would be the librarian, Ms. Gooch (Ann Dowd), whose work consists largely of escorting groups of people into the inner sanctum of birding—and of Darwin, as that explorer’s first edition is locked up as well.

A wired Warren (Evan Peters), the most excitable of the quartet, turns on to the founder of the theft idea, Spencer (Barry Keogahn). They pick up two others, a student of accounting, Eric (Jaren Abrahamson) and fitness fan Chas (Blake Jenner). They work out a plan, filling up a wall with maps and charts, first going into the library disguised as old people (old people are next to invisible, one says). When that plan goes awry, they are about to give up and spend their lives as nobody special, but the next day, they are back in the field without disguises—after one of their number had gone to Amsterdam to deal with a fence.

Everything goes wrong, leading to some humorous interludes—as when the elevator they take from the main library building to the basement opens on the library floor instead of the basement, the thieves witnessed by scores of students. The minute-by-minute robbery in the special collections room is the subject of some humor as well. You may think that since these are young, impulsive men, if they are caught they may get away with a suspended sentence, and I agree. People generally do not become fully mature with a sense of ethics until their brains turn 25, and if the judicial community does not realize this, they may lock up perpetrators like these for a long time.

The actor who turns out the most mature of this immature group is the relatively calm Barry Keoghan whom you remember from his terrific job in what I think is the best picture of 2017, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” in which he plays a high-school student determined to avenge the operating table death of his father by going after the surgeon and his family. This film does not have the complexity of Yorgo Lanthimos’ work but with the blessings of fine editing and electronic music in the background, this should make us look forward to Burton Layton’s next project.

Rated R. 120 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE 12th MAN – movie review

THE 12TH MAN    (Den 12. mann)

IFC Midnight
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Harald Zwart
Screenwriter:  Alex Boe
Cast:  Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Marie Blokus, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Martin Kiefer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/24/18
Opens: May 4, 2018

When you see a title like this one you can’t be blamed if you think it’s about the one guy who leaves a jury hanging, the only not guilty vote in the dozen.  This is a story about an even more unusual fellow, though, a man who risked far more than a member of any jury would and whose long days of suffering would seem almost unprecedented even in the midst of a global war.  In fact it’s difficult to believe that the story is true, and yet I’ve heard at least one moviegoer who is usually in the know mention that the true facts are even more unbelievable.  Again: life is stranger than fiction.

Harald Zwart, the Dutch-born director, is known here in the U.S. for contributing such commercial works as “Pink Panther 2” and “The Karate Kid.”  This time he casts his net on a bigger catch, one with more tension than can be found in those two previous movies and his “Agent Cody Banks” put together.  The dialogue is in German except for an opening scene in Scotland, giving the British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers a workout as he must chuck his native English (or, if you prefer his Irish) to take on the role of a high-ranking officer in the Nazi war machine.  If that’s unusual, what would you make of a Norwegian hip-hop performer, Thomas Gullestad, in the role of a commando, taking part in a planned sabotage of German facilities in his native Norway?

Though the mission fails, Jan Baalsrud (Thoams Gullestad) is given the hero treatment for his tenacity in using non-traditional methods to be the only person in the mission to escape, while the others are captured and executed.  You might think he would find his hapless friends lucky to be shot,  Jan suffering a deadly gunshot wound in his toe,  making his way across Northern Norway, snow-covered with freezing water in May.  In hot pursuit we find Obersturmbanfuhrer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Nazi who brags that nobody ever escaped under his watch.  He tracks Jan like Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, refusing to give up while diverting his unit by vehicle across the fjords.  Were it not for ordinary Norwegians who risked death by helping the man get away, he would not have come within a few miles of Norway’s border with neutral Sweden, marked in the snow by a simple barbed-wire fence though surveilled by a Nazi guard post.

The only guts the movie audience needs is a willingness to watch Jan empty half a bottle of whiskey before cutting off his gangrene-infested toe.  We cheer for the help he receives, among others from Marius (Mads Sjogard Petterson) who together with his sister Gudrun (Marie Blokhus) risk execution if their underground activity were uncovered.  The most amusing scene finds Jan on skiis, given to him by a helpful Norwegian bumping right into Kurt Stage, even falling on his butt, only to have Stage come up with “I thought Norwegians knew how to ski.”  How a man who rose in the ranks of the Nazi party could not have considered this collision almost a sure indication that Jan is the man he seeks is beyond me.

The tension continues throughout, though the audience, if familiar with the true account of the chase in 1943 would know the outcome.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes the perfect villain, obsessed with his inability to capture a single, heavily wounded man.  Special credit for the quartet in the make-up department and for Geir Hartley Andreassen behind the lens, especially with the vista of the Northern Lights.  One item of curiosity.  This was filmed in Troms, supposedly in May 1943, in the Northern part of Norway where the midnight sun begins in June, yet we have many scenes in pitch darkness.  Why so?

In German with sharp, yellow subtitles taking the place of the pallid white subtitles so prevalent in European cinema.

Unrated.  131 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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