WALL – movie review

WALL
National Film Board of Canada
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cam Christiansen
Screenwriter: David Hare
Cast: David Hare
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/19
Opens: April 3, 2019 at Film Forum in NY

Wall (2017)

If you wonder why the animation, which informs the whole of this feature, is black-and-white, you might wait until the concluding minutes to get an answer. The final moments of the picture are among the most vivid that you’re likely to see this year. As for the rest of the unusual documentary, it’s a mind-blower of sophisticated animation, of the interface or light and shadows, and what’s more, the narration by British playwright David Hare is both lengthy and fascinating.

Hare takes sides.  If if you like the Israeli point of view you’d think he’s just another fan of the Palestinians. After a suicide bomber hit a Tel Aviv discotheque in 2001 killing many of the youths having a the kind of good time that would be frowned upon by the religious on both sides, Israel built a wall that is four times the size of the one in Berlin, twice as high in points, and successful. Eighty percent of the terrorist attacks on Israel—or of freedom fighters if you’re on the Arab side—have been stopped based on statistics from the pre-wall era. Four billion dollars was spent on its construction by a small country with only seven million Jewish inhabitants, a point that our own president may use to garner support for the wall on the border with Mexico. But unlike the American version, many Palestinian landowners were uprooted as the wall was built partly on land that was part of the Palestinian West Bank.

Why the wall? As noted, this was an attempt to prevent land incursions by Palestinians in the West Bank, but the whole project may be for naught, as the Arab side may not be able to cross over with weapons but can now rely on flights of drones and rockets to cause the same damage without inflicting deaths on themselves. In fact the most fascinating point absorbed by the animated character of screenwriter David Hare in his interviews and road trips is that while we on the outside consider Israel to be strong (it has, after all, the most powerful army in the Middle East), Israelis themselves consider their country to be fragile and weak, and have not settled in the way most of the rest of the world has done in thinking that they have a secure, permanent place to live. Planning ahead to 2030 is out of the question.

Much of the information passed on by the movie is well known by those of us who follow politics. The Arabs are regularly harassed, sometimes having to take heavily trafficked roads and may be stopped for hours at checkpoints. Why does Israel do this? “Because they can,” states one Davuid Grossman who lives in Israel. Most of us know by now that a half million Jews live in the West Bank in settlements, making any peace ever so much more difficult. Aesthetically, the wall is an eyesore in the countryside, and given the frenzied energy of building in Jerusalem, that capital city (at least capital as recognized by the U.S. and Paraguay) has lost its religious ambiance.

If you are among the political junkies following Israeli politics through the Times of Israel, or the Jerusalem Post, or Haaretz, or for that matter any major New York media, you are likely to put aside the boredom you think you’ll feel before you watch the film. The MoCap animation technology (“Black Panther,” “Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy) will capture your imagination and make the road trip engrossing.

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

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

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING – movie review

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING
Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for Shockya.com &BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amy Jo Johnson
Screenwriter: Joanne Sarazen
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson, Lauren Holly
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/15/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Sometimes when a little kid cries apparently for no reason, her mother will say, “You ought to be an actress—you cry so easily.” In a story written by Joanne Sarazen in her freshman feature and directed by Amy Jo Johnson, also her first full length narrative film, “Tammy’s Always Dying” finds a the title character’s only daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) able to cry in front of a TV audience so successfully that she receives a new Toyota Camry. For many of us, anything below a Mercedes of a Beamer would be considered chump change, but to Catherine it’s a bigger prize than she had ever seen. Not that her mother Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is better off. Both mother and daughter are sad sacks, losers, the kinds of people who, if American not Canadian, might vote for Trump not realizing that nobody, not even a slick-talking pseudo-populist, could help such deadbeats.

From beginning to end, Tammy and Catherine MacDonald (strangely, in real life mother and daughter are only ten years apart) we can predict that the two are going nowhere in life, having missed any opportunity at the right time to advance a career or even consider such an unusual thing to strive for.

So we’re left with wondering: is there anything about these two women to make us care about them? Do we know anything about why mom is depressed to the point of regularly considering jumping from a bridge, or daughter so easily manipulated by her mother that she has little pleasurable to think about save a quicky against the wall with married Reggie (Aaron Ashmore)? At least she has one person who shows he cares about her, her gay boss in a seedy bar, Doug (Clark Johnson) who treats her occasionally to dinner and doesn’t mind when she sleeps past her alarm and shows up late.

We know nothing about them. No backstory to give clues to why chain-smoking Tammy is always depressed, why she confesses to Catherine that she always loved her but could never show it, and how Catherine winds up like the rotten apple that does not fall far from the tree.

When Dr. Miller (Ayesha Mansur Gonzalves), a poised, confident woman who is the exact opposite of the two women, diagnoses Tammy with Stage 4 cancer, Catherine moves in with her. Yet the younger woman nonetheless on why day shouts “Why don’t you die, already?” With that in mind, she asks to be a guest on a TV show featuring women who cry about their tragic lives, wins a place and is coached by its producer Ilana (Lauren Holly). She invents a tale that her mother had committed suicide, a death wish that could apply to Catherine as well as to Tammy.

From the opening scene, this movie looks like little more than a vanity format for Felicity Huffman, perhaps able to scrounge up an audience based on her recent conviction of trying to buy her daughter a place as a freshman in USC. Otherwise the two people who must carry the film are so empty, so irritating, that the project is difficult to sit through.

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

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

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY – movie review

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Justin Pemberton
Screenwriter: Adapted by Matthew Metcalfe, Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty, based on Thomas Piketty’s book
Cast: Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett, Kate Williams, Gabriel Zucman, Ian Bremmer, Rana Foroohar, Francis Fukuyama
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/5/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2019)

People with any rational perspective in our country are fighting mad. Never mind that Fox News tells us that we have the lowest rate of unemployment in decades, or that what’s good for Wall Street (the booming stock market) is good for Main Street. The trouble is that instead of focusing on the real problem, which is the rising rate of economic inequality, too many people are instead distracting themselves by blaming immigrants, by blaming Muslims, by dispelling their anger is ways that are not only dangerous but ineffective. This brings us to Justin Pemberton’s bold, incisive, riveting documentary, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” based on the dense book by Parisian Thomas Piketty, who gets a considerable platform in this striking new documentary.

Pemberton, whose previous docs run the gamut including “Chasing Great” about a black rugby player, “The Golden Hour” about New Zealand Olympians, and “Is She or Isn’t She” about a hairy woman with a penis, now takes on what is arguably the major economic hazard of our time, which is the inequality of wealth. Piketty, who holds gigs at the London School of Economics among other prestigious institutions, believes that the rate of capital return in the developed countries is greater than rate of economic growth, and that is what is causing inequality. President Reagan offered the view that tax decreases will pay for themselves and afford everyone a slice of a bigger pie. Instead Piketty advocates a global tax on wealth, which would bring about the necessary redistribution of income. After all, it’s not always hard work that thickens your wallet; in fact it’s possession of capital largely brought about through inheritance.

In his book, Piketty goes further than what we see in this movie, heads and tails above what Bernie Sanders bases his campaign on. He wants a schedule of taxation on income and wealth that reaches ninety percent and the elimination of nation-states in favor of a vast transnational democracy securing a universal right to education and the abolition of borders. Among other reforms, this would prevent capital from moving to havens to avoid taxation like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and even the tiny national state of Vanuatu.

Economics writing can be intimidating, but Pemberton transcends the difficulty of the printed word by supplying a staggering series of archival films, forming the historical background of income inequality. The idea that one percent of the population makes as much money annually as the bottom three hundred eighty billion folks has roots beginning at least as far back as the Eighteenth Century. If you’re a buff of movies like “Downton Abbey,” “The Favourite,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Reign,” “The Medici” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” and you marvel at the costumes and the breathtaking splendor of the land, the minuets, the sumptuous feasts, you are too distracted to get your blood boiling with the knowledge that the aristocracy is only one percent of the Europeans on display while the masses outside are suffering.

You will, however, be impressed with the scenes in this movie about royalty, including a splendid few moments of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Les Miserables,” but your excitement plummets when you watch the black-and-white shots of poverty in times past and, much more recently as the way capital has led us to the near depression of 2008 when banks gave out mortgages to people who shouldn’t have received them, and through the shuffling of paper sold those mortgages to other financial institutions through a mind-boggling template of Wall Street intrigue. Other historic celluloid on display looks into sections of “The Grapes of Wrath,” featuring a farmer telling a dude with a convertible that “Nobody is going to take away my land.”

I love what Amazon does for me, but given Piketty’s focus on redistribution, Jeff Bezos would have to fork over $409,000,000,000 (that’s four hundred nine billion dollars) in year one of the plan. If big corporations continue to take the lion’s share of money, they will be able to continue exerting monumental power. What better example than that of Trump’s getting his Republican congress to lower the corporate tax rate from thirty-five percent to twenty-two percent, one of the major disasters that our great-great grandchildren will pay for as the deficit continues past the stratosphere.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” then, serves as one of the best documentaries in recent years. There is scarcely a dull moment given the fast editing provided by Sandie Bompar and the deft selection of historic clips that Pemberton uses to nail down his points. Economics is oft considered a dismal science, perhaps much of it is. With the excitement generated by this doc, punctuating the talking heads with dramatic cinematics, you might expect thousands of students to select Economics as their major and adults long past college to inspire vivid discussions around the table about where America is headed. What’s in your wallet?

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

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

VIVARIUM – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY – movie review

THE BURNT ORANGE HERSY
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Giuseppe Capotondi
Screenwriter: Scott B. Smith based on a novel by Charles Willeford
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

There are more ways to commit high crimes and misdemeanors than those we’ve seen recently at a trial in the United States Congress. Typical are large ones like bank robberies, smaller ones like street muggings. Fascinating movies have been made about the former like “Bonnie and Clyde” and the latter by the 2004 movie “Mugged.” Now “The Burnt Picture Hersey embraces an unusual crime, its execution exquisitely planned and carried out by a people with an intimate knowledge of the art world. It helps mightily that Giuseppe Capotondi, whose “La dopia Ora,” about an ex-cop and a chambermaid who meet at a speed dating event, indulges a witty, fast-talking script by Scott B. Smith and a pair of actors who are adept at the verbal sparring that is so much a feature of Charles Willeford’s noir novels.

Like Capotondi’s “La dopia ora,” (“The Double Hour”), the first part of the film features dialogue you might expect at a classy and prestigious off-Broadway theater like The Promenade and The Cherry Lane. There is not a wasted word in the repartee enjoyed by Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) and Claes Bang (James Figueras). (Bang is Danish while Debicki’s roots are Polish and Irish.) During an extended date at Italy’s Lake Como, the American and the European delight in sparring like the candidates in the Democratic Party debates. Just when the theater audience believe that they are in for an evening of a simple romantic fling before the couple go to their separate homes, the plot spins delightfully out of control. If you are familiar with Charles Willeford’s fiction, you can see why that author’s 1971 novel from which the movie is adapted is considered by critics to be his best work.

The opening scene features art critic James Figueras in the midst of wowing an American audience in Milan, explaining a surreal painting on the wall. The painting may not look like much, yet Figueras calls it virtually a masterpiece—wrapping up his spiel with an acutely comic finale. This is where he meets Minnesotan tourist Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), who comes on to him and is invited on a trip to the Lake Como estate of art collector and gallery owner Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), who has invited Figueras to use him for a job that will leave Cassidy with clean hands.

Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a recluse who is living on the estate, shows up, allowing himself to be interviewed by Figueras, the two guests charmed by the world-famous painter. At the same time Figueras figures that he can further his languishing career. He increases his creds as a critic, but far more important for him is a chance to make millions, and therein lies the thriller.
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What does director Capotondi want us to take away from the story aside from providing us with some breathtaking chills and thrills? Probably the idea that we do not really know each other whether from simple meetings like a weekend date or even after years of thinking that we can see beneath the surface of our friends and associates. Scott B. Smith’s script is largely responsible for the wit and razzle-dazzle of the conversations, and the quartet of Sutherland, Debicki, Bang and Jagger provide the human touch that do justice to the words.

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

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

BALLOON – movie review

BALLOON
Distrib Films US
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Herbig
Screenwriter: Kit Hopkins, Thilo Röscheisen, Michael Herbig
Cast: Freidrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg, Thomas Kretschmann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/6/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

Poster

The Jews in Germany had a real problem during the 1930’s, the situation escalating rapidly right up to the extreme dangers they faced in the forties. By contrast, the people of East Germany, mainly Christian, could hardly consider themselves similarly persecuted by the Communist regime. I fear that Director Michael Herbig, best known in the German comedy scene by performing and directing works like the parody “Bullyparade: The Film,” does not get across with his feel-good thriller “Balloon,” why families are so eager to escape from the Communist sector into the Western area that they would risk their lives. Still, since this is based on a true story, two heroic families go through a lifetime of anxiety in just a few weeks to get out of the land where everyone is under surveillance by the Stasi (police). We see that people seek a new life in the West where they would lose their furniture, their money, and visits with grandparents, in order to go to another part of their own country.

The families on exhibited here are not outliers. A large number of East German citizens tried to escape to the West, some from East Berlin where the distance to a new life is almost as close as that between North Korea and South in the DMZ. But under the leadership of Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke), a not-so-merry band of travelers need to go from their village across to Bavaria. They plan to do this in an almost unique way, however, by building a balloon just as you and I would build a kite and float above the clouds, descending slowly into the forest across its informal border. Since “Balloon” is a thriller, and since the Strelzyks and another family actually make the trip, we visualize that the heroic people would meet with so many failures that you can see them spending their lives in a Stasi jail—though they would be free when the country became unified.

Peter and his wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) live in town of Possneck where Peter makes a living as an electrician—not the best training for building a balloon. Yet they have a car, a TV, and through their friendship with the people next door whose household head (Ronald Kukulies) happens to be Stasi, they are able to take a vacation at an East Berlin hotel. At the same time their oldest child is being “hit on” by the Stasi official’s daughter, the whole setup reminding Amazon Prime customers of the friendship between an FBI agent and a Soviet spy in the wonderful series “The Americans.”

Together with their friends Petra (Alicia von Rittberg) and Günter (David Kross), who at first were unwilling to take the risk, they build the balloon, somehow unnoticed by the local Stasi head Lieutenant Colonel Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann). As if the perils of the balloon trip were not enough, Doris accidentally drops her bottle of thyroid medication in the woods, recovered by the police who begin a search of the three pharmacies that may have filled it.

If you saw “The Aeronauts,” about pilots launching a historic balloon flight in 1862 for scientific purposes, you would be privy to all the things that might go wrong. But that picture lacks the excitement of “Balloon,” which could be appreciated not only by people who are political wonks but by those who don’t know Berlin from Ouagadougou. The thriller aspect reaches its climax when it appears that the entire East German military are in the chase, using helicopters and cars and communicating with frantic phone calls. You’d think that these were important nuclear scientists carrying their secrets into unchartered territory. You might wonder: if these people got away with their scheme—as they did—would the entire Communist system collapse (as it actually did after the collapse of the Berlin wall, built in 1961 allegedly to prevent Western “fascists” from entering the East to destroy the socialist system)?

Whether that frantic pursuit of these humble people took place as we see on the screen or not, this is not a documentary but a well-made narrative dramatizing a heartwarming tribute to the men and women who shed their property and risked their very lives simply to go from one part of the country to another.

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

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

BOMBSHELL – movie review

BOMBSHELL

Lionsgate
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Cast: Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Morrison, Nicole Kidman
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 11/10/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

In “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Megyn Kelly, a larger-than-life lawyer best remembered for her aggressive questioning of candidate Donald Trump who replied when she cited Trump for calling women dogs, pigs and bimbos, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” This is the kind of programming, perhaps, that made Fox the number one cable news program in America. The picture as whole, though, is directed in a pedestrian way by Jay Roach, whose “Trumbo” was a devastating look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who in 1947 was blacklisted for his leftist political beliefs. Except for a documentary-style run showing events during past years, “Bombshell” follows a chronological trajectory, the style used by documentary filmmakers, but Michael Moore could probably make a doc with more biting satire and a boatload of humor that is largely missing from this film.

Roach uses a screenplay by Charles Randolph, whose “The Life of David Gale” is generally considered a flub but whose “The Big Short” is a dynamic piece of muckraking exposing financers on Wall Street who actually hoped that their clients would be unable to pay their mortgages. The current movie is anchored by three women, all blondes with fine figures, which Fox demands of its frontline news people. Charlize Theron serves as first among equals in the role of Megyn Kelly, who turned to journalism after a career as a corporate defense attorney and was included in the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people. Her career town a sharp turn downward following her accusation that Roger Ailes, here played by John Lithgow complete with the jowels and triple chin of the news boss from the second floor and who is so large that he needed a walker to get around. Kelly accuses the late Roger Ailes of trying to kiss her on the lips, noting that Ailes freely told her that she has to play ball with him behind locked doors if she wants to unlock her career with Fox.

As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman portrays the journalist and author, also called by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. Like Kelly, she accuses Ailes of harassment, shown here almost desperate in her goal of attracting the testimonies of other women who had been approached by the news boss in similar unsavory ways. She is perhaps the person most able to show that her testimony is not simply lies in order to collect a fat paycheck, suing Roger Ailes directly rather than Fox News, and signing up some twenty additional women with similar tales of sordid behavior.

For her part Kalya Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is stunned when called into Ailes’ second-floor office, eager to move up to “the front of the line” in news broadcasting, only to be commanded to life her skirt higher, and “no, higher,” “higher,” by Ailes, sitting comfortably behind his large desk, his breath seeming to come in greater spurts as Kayla, with considerable ambivalence, does what she is told.

The performers are made up to look quite like their real-live counterparts in much that Saturday Night Live has been able to disguise Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon (also appearing here as a closeted lesbian) as KellyAnne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton among others. Malcolm McDowell gets a small but important role as Rupert Murdoch, the boss of bosses stationed on the eighth floor of the Fox building (filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Los Angeles). Though a big supporter of Ailes, even he turns against the man, refusing even to appear with him to announced Aiels’s dismissal from Fox, though he did hand over a handsome severance check, sending him off on a lavish party.

Fox News, with the slogan “Fair and balanced,” is clearly within the Republican-conservative view of politics, favoring free trade, an anti-abortion platform, and strong family bonds. Hypocrisy abounds, however, beyond the purview of this film, as accusations mounted up against Fox News Latino vice president Francisco Cortes who tried to coerce Tamara N. Holder into performing oral sex, Bill O’Reilly, whose show sporting combative, right-wing propaganda, is canned with the network’s settling with Juliet Huddy, including the firing of Fox sports president Jamie Horowitz.

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

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

 

LITTLE JOE – movie review

LITTLE JOE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

 

Take a ride on the New York subway. Look around at the people surrounding you while pretending you’re looking at your smartphone. Do they seem particularly happy? If not, do they seem really depressed? Not usually. Would you be surprised to find out that a large number of your fellow New Yorkers are taking anti-depressants? In other words, people who take Prozac or the older medications like Elavil are acting relatively normal in public. They are not “different” people zombied out by their medication from the way they were before swallowing the pills, but Jessica Hausner, who directs and co-wrote “Little Joe” appears to warn us that Big Pharma is out to get our money and willing to take away our personalities as well. Then again we don’t really know what her point is since nothing in the story takes a firm stand.

The people in this film who have become affected by a feel-good flower have not particularly changed their character. They are not pod people. Nor are they carrying on as though they have just downed a couple of ecstasy pills at an all-night party. The changes that they undergo are subtle, which makes Hausner’s treatment a lot more nuanced than that taking place in your typical horror movie. By contrast think of how different they become in Jordan Peele’s excellent “Get Out.”

In one sense, this is good. “Little Joe” does not go over the top with horror tropes but rather makes the changes in personality almost too subtle to notice. On the other hand, since the people do not change much, what’s the big deal? Is this enough of a warning that we are too dependent on happiness pills? Not by my reckoning.
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Vienna-born director Hausner, whose terrific “Lourdes” in 2009 focuses on a wheelchair-bound woman attaining a miracle by going to Lourdes, films in Krems an de Donau, Vienna and Liverpool putting Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) front and center. The pixie-ish redhead is dedicated to her work in Planthouse Biotechnologies currently experimenting on a flower whose aroma can make people happy, provided that they are affectionate with the plant and water it regularly. In fact the hundreds of flowers laid out in the opening of the film do appear to respond well to human beings, opening their petals as though they were Venus flytraps that have just digested a scrumptious meal of caterpillars.

However the plant has not yet been approved by the necessary government agencies leading Karl, the boss (David Wilmot) to warn his crew about excess optimism. In violation of the rules, Alice takes a plant home, one of a species that she has named Little Joe in honor of her 13-year-old son Joe (Kit Connor). She becomes alarmed when Kit, who has never expressed a wish to live with his father who is Alice’s ex-husband, falls under the influence of Little Joe and suddenly wants to move out and live with his dad. Is he changing because he is going through puberty, or because of the influence of the petals?

For her part Alice is being pursued romantically by her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), rejecting one of his advance but reconsidering later. Is that change of heart an effect of the Little Joe? We in the audience need to interpret that and several other aspects of the movie. As we can see, the biotech workers who have been in contact with the flowers have not changed, although they may, like those of us who take antidepressants, be trying to act their regular selves. If Géraldine Bajard, who co-wrote the script with the director, wants us to see noticeable transformations, why be so subtle as though shrugging off all the melodramas inherent in other sci-fi movies?

One character, Bella (Kerry Fox), had returned to work in the lab having been on leave after a suicide attempt. She has a nice sheepdog which she brings to the lab, a sweet, obedient fella who had suddenly turned vicious, ignoring Bella’s commands and threatening to bite her. She decides: “This is not my dog.” Is the dog acting strange because he senses that Bella is not the same woman? And why isn’t Bella, despite her mental illness, made as happy and content as the others?

These questions may be to the credit of the writers and director, or on the other hand may be so inconsistent and vague to warrant audience confusion and frustration. Finally is it supposed to be terrible that depressed people change their personalities for the better under the influence of Big Pharma? At least one person is happy even without the use of Little Joe, and that would be Emily Beecham who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.

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

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

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+

THE REPORT – movie review

THE REPORT
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Linda Powell, John Rothman
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 11/7/19
Opens: November 15, 2019. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video November 29, 2019

The Report Movie Poster

The title, which has a cute redaction of the middle word (hint: the word is “torture”), covers the antics over several years during the current century of CIA operatives assigned to get confessions and information from alleged terrorists. The agency wants especially to find out the dates and times and locations of the next attack. The goal is prevent another 9/11, the only foreign attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor.

The Senate investigation committee under Dianne Feinstein (Annete Bening), who relies on special investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), seeks to know two things. 1) Are the CIA interrogators of suspected terrorists using methods that are immoral, that go against America’s stated traditional values? 2) More important, are the interrogators getting valid information that could lead to the capture of terror leaders like Osama bin Laden and could allow the U.S. to thwart future attacks within the United States? The answer, as known now by anybody with the slightest interest in following politics, is “yes” to the first, and a resounding “no” to the second question.

This is a serious movie, one with nary a smidgen of humor. It is needed to educate the public, now regularly taken for a ride by the White House which pretends it is acting in the interests of the people, but it is likely that the core audience will already be familiar with just about everything that emerges. Though “The Report” is a dramatization, which is usually the kind of treatment that is more exciting and hard-hitting than a documentary, just think of what Michael Moore could have done with this kind of subject matter.

There is limited archival film, briefly showing waterboarding, involving throwing a towels around the face of a prisoner and pouring water through the towel giving the suspected terrorist not just the feeling of drowning but actually drowning himself. Another brief shot of rectal hydration that could have you swear off enemas forever features a prisoner on his back, water thrust as threw a fire hose into his anus. Yet another hapless victim is naked, hanging by a wall, while other individuals are being sleep-deprived thanks to heavy metal blasted into the room more loudly than anything you have ever heard in the multiplex.

Writer-director Scott Z. Burns has supplied us with more entertaining scripts, principally “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Informant!” but also had produced “An Inconvenient Truth,” which bears at least tangential similarities to “The Report” in advising about global warming and environmental dangers. Anchoring the role of investigator under Senator Dianne Feinstein looking into the secret goings-on of the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation (a euphemism for torture), Driver’s character, Daniel Jones, works tirelessly for several years putting his nose into buried secrets that in a spy movie would lead to his assassination.

Annette Bening is dolled up to look at least a passable variation of Senator Feinstein, never going overboard with emotions, contrasted against Adam Driver’s barely controlled rage that might make you think that real fireworks will start from him that will turn this into an action thriller.

Ultimately a tells-all report of almost seven thousand pages clears a Senate committee, most Republicans voting to keep it secret and even suggesting that a mere leak of this damning information would be treasonous. Perhaps those of us who believe Edward Snowden to be a hero would be most in favor of releasing the full report without redactions, while those who condemn Snowden might like the nefarious CIA activities to remain secret.

“The (partially redacted) Official Senate Report on CIA Torture” can be had by anyone for $12.99 on Amazon, the company that is now distributing the film. Additionally you can watch the movie on Amazon Prime Video beginning November 29.

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

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

PARASITE – movie review

PARASITE (Gisaengchung)
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Chang Hyae-jin, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ziso, Lee Jung-em, Jung Hyeon-jun
Screened at: Dolby, NYC, 10/8/19
Opens: October 11, 2019

Theatrical one-sheet for Bong Joon Ho's Parasite (2019).

Some say that the best way to disturb and undercut people like Trump is not to criticize him directly but to laugh at him, to consider his administration to be a clown show. Bong Joon-ho, the celebrated South Korean writer-director, would probably agree, though with his latest movie “Parasite,” the good guys act the clown part getting their digs at people who are richer and who think of them as merely useful servants. (Thin, of how an established white family has contempt for and uses their black servants in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” the best movie of 2017).

Bong’s “Okja” that same year tracks a young girl’s introducing of a beast to prevent a kidnapping by a multi-national company, and his “Snowpiercer” finding most people dead after a failed climate change experiment save for lucky people on a train who threaten class warfare. We have no doubt that class inequalities are on top of the fifty-year-old director’s mind. Now with “Parasite” Bong unfolds a combination comedy-horror tale, constructing the inevitable envy of the rich by the poor, the latter wanting either to emulate them or destroy them. The story is involving throughout with a doozy of a concluding half hour, a culmination well earned from the careful exposition.

Though South Korean people have an average income some thirty times that of the fellows north of the thirty-eighth parallel, there is considerable poverty in that country just as there is in ours. In the view of Bong and of his co-scripter Han Jin-won, the Kim family composed of patriarch Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), his son Kim I-woo (Choi Wood-shik) and his pretty daughter Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), has good reason to envy the rich given their own bug-infested digs which are occasionally visited outside by a homeless man who urinates on their wall. However given dad’s flexible ethics, these folks have a way of exploiting the fabulously rich family of executive Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun). In a cuttingly humorous manner, 20-year-old Kim Ki-woo forges a college diploma and gets a job tutoring the daughter (Jung Ziso), a high-school sophomore, while Ki-woo’s dad becomes the CEO’s driver and mother uses her wiles to displace the long-term housekeeper. At the same time Ki-tak’s daughter gives “art therapy” to the Parks’ young and bratty kid, demanding a high wage because she can “discover” schizophrenic tendencies in the little kid and help him to overcome these. Through hook and crook, then the four poor folks have insinuated themselves into the huge and beautiful mansion high up in the city, though leaving the previous staff unemployed.

In an elegantly plotted movie, carefully preparing us step by step for the drama that will inevitably follow, Bong evokes terrific performances from the entire ensemble, giving his audience a stark picture of wealth inequality, a situation that Bong presumably believes to be the essence of corrupt capitalism. Hong Kyong-pyo films in the touristic city of Goyang, South Korea, his lensing deftly comparing the squalor of the Kim’s basement apartment with the exquisite residence of the Parks, with a classical music soundtrack serving to give the film the tone of an Asian Downton Abbey.

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

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

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG – movie review

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Scheinert
Screenwriter: Billy Chew
Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler
Screened at: Technicolor, NYC, 9/3/19
Opens: September 27, 2019

The Death of Dick Long Poster

“The Death of Dick Long” was filmed on location in Alabama but you’ve got to wonder whether the production team needed to smuggle copies of the film out in the middle of the night. The characters on the screen may be the kind that Hillary once called “a basket of deplorables,” and yep, they are indeed dumb enough to vote for Trump. And to vote for him again in 2020. That may be why they make for the amusement of people in the movie audience who like to see people below themselves in intelligence. You’re not surprised to find that director Daniel Scheinert co-helmed “Swiss Army Man” about a fellow stranded on a desert who befriends a dead body, making a surreal journey to get home. “The Death of Dick Long” likewise involves a dead body, a man who thought he had two friends, but they dumped him, bloody and unconscious, on the street. They never heard that friends don’t let friends dump them at the door of a hospital and run away.

Billy Chew’s script finds Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland) and Dick Long (played by the director) practicing classical rock in Zeke’s garage. Nothing far out there. But when high as kites they cross to a barn, they do so not to continue practicing. What they now seek is something a lot weirder. We’re kept wondering what could they possibly be doing that’s more exciting to them than their music. All is revealed in a conclusion that knocks the lid off even what some of us think that people in the Alabama of broken-down shacks and trailers are up to.

All the events take place in a single day, one that they will remember for the rest of their lives—provided that they don’t go ahead to do stuff that would get them into more of a panic. Zeke and Earl do not have criminal minds, but they are akin to the types of petty culprits with arrest records as long as the arm of the law. These are people who do not have enough equipment upstairs to get away with a single misdemeanor. The main problem facing them is that clothing and blood are soaking everything around them. They cannot remove the blood in their car so they sink the entire thing—except that the vehicle refuses to sink. Detergents have little effect on clothing, so they throw the clothes away in the woods right by where they live. While Dick’s wife Jane (Jess Weixler) wonders where her husband is, she is sure that he is having an affair—which in a way he is. Instead of burning Dick’s wallet, Zeke hands it over to Sheriff Dudley (Sarah Baker), who is excited that her boss, Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) is assigning the case of her for apparently the first time. You wonder how these two female officers—one of them bringing to mind the indelible character of Marge Gunderson from the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie “Fargo—could be trusted to give a parking ticket to a vehicle left out on the road.

If the case is to be solved, the hero would be Zeke’s small daughter Cynthia Olsen (Poppy Cunningham) whose loose tongue arouses the suspicions of Zeke’s wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) and the sheriffs. Whether the movie humanizes the backwater folks or allows us to feel some compassion for their limitations depends on how you see them. At the very least, “The Death of Dick Long”—the title with an obvious double-entendre—is an indie-ish treat for the right audience. Or a downright irritating story that will make you pine for the loss of shows like “I Love Lucy.”

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

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

HUSTLERS – movie review

HUSTLERS
STX Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 9/10/19
Opens: Sept. 13, 2019

Hustlers Movie Poster 24" X 36" Or 27"x 40"

Based on Jessica Pressler’s 7,237-word article in New York magazine December 8, 2015, “Hustlers” deals with young women who work in strip clubs, which generally means that they do pole dancing and for extra money they perform lap dancers on the men who attend. Whether they all go further with the guys after closing time is not discussed, as writer-director Lorene Scafaria wants us to think that these “girls” are not dime-store street hustlers but are regular women who need the money to support their grannies, their children, college tuition and the like. They may have tried their hand working in retail stores at nine dollars and hour, so you can see how they can greatly increase their income with the bills that the mail clients throw at the stage or put inside the workers’ skimpy clothing, or the Benjamins that come out for the more private sessions. In fact these women are not exploited by their customers, since after all they make a good living dancing for them, but the real tawdriness comes from the bosses at the clubs that they have to cut in on their income.

“Hustlers” takes as its theme something said toward the conclusion of the movie by Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez) that “the whole country is a hustle,” a critical view that is more likely akin to left-leaning political philosophy, the liberals, the Marxists, the students at elite colleges presumably blaming others for being on the make. The livelier segment of “Hustlers” takes place during the first half, the second part reserved to provide the girls with a sounding board on what they think of their trade, of their customers and their bosses, even reserving some contempt for their employers in retail stores where they can barely make ends meet.

The most involving part shows Ramona, an experienced pole dancer, taking the innocent Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing, teaching the shy newcomer the tricks of dancing, and in doing so giving the movie audience the treat of some classic “steps” that you would hardly think possible from a fifty-year-old actress. The entire story is framed by Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a journalist taping testimony from Ramona and Destiny about the activities that went from just doing their jobs on to grand larceny, the progression that might make us think that they are getting revenge on the Wall Street crowd that fills the seats at the club. I’m not sure that the showgirls want revenge for the role of executives in the 2008 collapse of the American economy, since banks, working with the funds, had shred the economy with their shady manipulations leading to the closing of the club. The women proceed to haunt the bars that accommodated these rich guys, both young and adult, acting as a team by making each targeted man believe it’s his charm that arouses the cuddly affection of four or five women.

In reality, though, they would spike the drinks with MDMA and ketamine, which both wiped out their memory of the nightly events and put customers into semi-comatose conditions. They would take the credit cards and sometimes had the dazed marks sign credit slips, then going on to simply taking the cards and charging up to $50,000 per man, getting the transactions approved, and sending the money to a corporation they set up. They would then proceed to buy fur coats and the like, and to show the movie audience that they are not that bad, we find that they are supporting families including one grandma.

There’s little question that Jennifer Lopez turns in a spectacular performance, maybe even her best so far, as a tough, experienced woman who acts as mentor to Constance Wu’s Destiny. We men may look at women performing in strip clubs as obviously attractive and capable of knocking some impressive splits in their miniscule clothing, but they really are human like you and me, capable of maintaining friendship and providing conversations just like any other working stiffs. In the lead role, Constance Wu’s Destiny does not have even a high-school diploma though she has passed the so-called equivalent, which would have made her eligible to any number of civil service jobs. Their customers, hustlers just like them, are rich white guys (strangely nobody of color shows up to patronize the shows,) can be seen as exploiting the less-educated women and you’re free to think that, though remember the handsome income that these men provide to women who would more likely be cashiers in CVS making minimum wage.

The pop songs are many, running through the soundtrack, the production values emphasizing the darkness in the clubs and the brightness of the digs that the conniving women can now afford are spot-on. Yet the proceedings can become awfully repetitious, and while the jokes are there, there is not enough here to call “Hustlers” a comedy, nor is the drama deep enough to be insightful.

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

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

READY OR NOT – movie review

READY OR NOT
Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

Jokes are often made about marriages of Hollywood actors. They have elaborate ceremonies, their receptions are written up in People, interviewers ask all sorts of personal questions such as “How many kids to you plan to have?” Then two years later, four years later, “in sickness and in health” becomes the big lie. Divorces are common after short periods. If you really want to see an extreme version of this as though satirizing the concept, look into “Ready or Not,” featuring a marriage that lasts all of twelve hours. Blame it on the in-laws. Though “Ready or Not” is fiction, some viewers may think that it’s a send-up of the one percent, the belief that any family that is rich enough to be in that bracket must have gained their wealth through stealth, even murder somewhere along the line. Still, that would be a difficult thesis to prove, nor do Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who share directing credits as well for “Devil’s Due,” about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon facing an earlier than expected pregnancy.

Unlike “Devil’s Due” the couple may or not have an unexpected pregnancy, but they have one hell of a bad honeymoon. Nor is the bride favored by in-laws, an eccentric group of people living in a mansion with rooms that may be larger than the cubic feet of an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. (The pic is filmed by Brett Jutkiewicz in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto, considered the safest place in the area where kids can play at night—but tell that to the people in this film.)

Samara Weaving anchors the activities as Grace, whose history as a foster child compels her to want a family. She lucks out, or so she thinks, in meeting Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) not realizing that she is being set up like Chris Washington by Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s superior film “Get Out.” After an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the estate, she returns with Alex to meet the family—one which could be compared, except in appearance, to the folks in Charles Addams’ cartoons. These are people bound by tradition, as shown in an opening scene thirty years earlier. A satanic pact has been made with the ancestors, agreed to by the family to pay back the man who originally made the money by creating and selling games.

Told that she must pick a card, any card from a deck featuring games, Grace selects Hide and Seek, the worst choice she could have made. As the family counts to 100, she is delighted to run away, hide in the dumbwaiter, and then think of a less cozy place. Soon enough she sees that if she cannot escape from the mansion by dawn, she will die at their hands, nor can she count fully on her husband Alex, who loves her but is conflicted by the pact of which he too is a part. Soon she is hunted down by Alex’s brother Daniel Le Domas (Adam Brody with Etienne Kellici as the young Daniel), Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell with Kate Ziegler as young Becky), Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun) who needs help in using a crossbow), Tony Le Domas, the majordomo of the outfit (Henry Czerny) and Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the aunt who most resembles a Charles Addams character.

As is customary in horror pictures, people get picked off, one by one, in this case by crossbow, weights smashed on their heads, strangulation, gunshots, and ultimately by a Götterdammerung of a conclusion that comes off more like a deus ex machina than a scene that you might expect. While some critics believe that Adam Brody comes off tops in his role as the bride’s brother-in-law, also with conflicted feelings, I have high regard for Henry Czerny, who is the epitome, or perhaps society’s stereotype, of a chief executive. Czerny, who delivered a powerful performance as a pederast in John N Smith’s 1992 “The Boys of St. Vincent,” has a lesser role here but his depiction of the family’s leader is compelling. Best of all, Samara Weaving, whom we have seen in Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” about a virus that causes white collar office workers to act out their worst impulses, is perfect for the role. She starts out in her bridal dress, a long white gown, innocent in the ways of people whose riches she could only imagine. She reflects the tension that all feel, with a terrific depiction of fear, shaking, breathing hard, tearing her dress to allow her to run, then becomes an angel of vengeance.

The visuals are great. An estate with wall paintings of ancestors becomes symbolic of the home of the super-rich, though weighed down by a pact with which only some are enthusiastic with others conflicted. The music, which includes sections of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, is perfect. There is one serious weakness, found in Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s freshman feature screenplay. The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight which has served as the highbrow companion of 20th Century Fox, has the visual quality of its traditional art-house fare. But the dialogue, with its incessant use of the f-word and the s-word, is vulgar, not warranted except to draw in those moviegoers who never get tired of the profanity used well beyond its function in the movies. Screenplays are important: some consider writers, not directors, to be the most important elements of a movie. The juvenile language amid the paintings of the masters and a soundtrack that includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is incompatible.

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

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

JAWLINE – movie review

JAWLINE
Hulu
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Liza Mandelup
Cast: Mikey Barone, Bryce Hall, Jovani Jara, Julian Jara, Austyn Tester, Donovan Tester, Michael Weist
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/18/19
Opens: August 23, 2019
Jawline Movie Poster

In at least one sense, the social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—have not changed teen-aged girls. The bobby soxers screamed when Frank Sinatra performed during the 1940s and 1950s, and ditto Elvis Presley during the sixties. Their hearts skipped beats when their owners listened to the Beatles, (while their elders saved their lusty emotions for Liberace from 1936 to 1986). There is a quantum difference to teen girls’ choices, however, thanks to Instagram. People of little talent but stunning good look have been able to arouse their yelps and gasps and breathlessness, as long as the celebrities are their own age. “Jawline” takes us to this age of technophilia with “Jawline,” the implication of the title being that as long as a boy has granite features—with a thick head of hair to help and the ability to charm—he can be a celeb and not for just fifteen minutes.

Director Liza Mandelup in 2016 contributed a ten-minute short “Sundown” about the camp life of kids who are allergic to the sun and, more apropos to her current offering, the five-minute “Fangirl,” about social media celebs you never heard of but your adolescent daughter has. Now in her freshman full-length feature, she explores the excitement that young high school coeds feel when they Instagram their favorite hunk and their completely off-the-wall reactions when seeing him in person.

Austyn Tester tests his luck as the film’s anchor, a 16-year-old who lives in a rundown house in a broken-down town of Kingsport, Tennessee. He is eager, like so many millions of young people, to get out of a town where the mall is the only hangout, and to go to the big city, in this case to L.A. Though five university have satellite branches in Kingsport, none of the teens in the film show the slightest interest in attending college and, in fact, we have no idea what life is like for them in school.

Austyn, however, is home-schooled. His favorite social media platform is YouNow—which I had the curiosity to explore and lasted there for ten minutes. He talks with his fangirls as do other so-called boy broadcasters, who have fans perhaps in the millions. The young women are not listening to great songs like Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elvis’s “I’m All Shook Up,” or the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” So what exactly is holding their attention? Austyn appears to rivet them whether talking about topics of such originality as “believe in yourself,” just like Elsie Fisher in the far superior Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” But he spends most of his time shucking off self-help platitudes in favor lip-syncing a song just out or simply changing focus on his laptop from a medium sitting position to a close up that exploits his thick blond hair and chiseled jawline. His friends are good-looking as well, though only Austyn could pass for a young Brad Pitt.

He occasionally signals his following that he will appear at a local mall, giving the date and time. Sometimes a dozen girls show up, all eager to do selfies with him and most of all to hug, sometimes he gets a larger following. He lucks out, however, when taken under the wing of Michael Weist, a guy who looks about twenty-one years of age and who, as CEO of a business promoting vacuous, talent-less boys with good jawlines organizes photo shoots and takes them around L.A. treating them to massages and shopping sprees. It’s no wonder that Kingsport, Tennessee becomes even more the place to leave, as there you have no chance of ascending to the stars.

We don’t find out what kind of income Austyn is getting when he appears on stage before scores of screaming Mimis, but the entire picture challenges us to figure out who is being exploited, if anyone. If you think the girls are the victims of fake celebs, of people with no talent and probably little education, we remember what one of them said: that their Instamatic and online friends are better than the kids at school, where they are bullied. Could this explain why so many of their gender are plugged in seemingly 24-7 with their phones on their pillows all night, ignoring the crowds around them, sometimes bumping into people accidentally? Shouldn’t they be spending some more time reading books, magazines, anything that could give them a deeper perspective on life than the endless, repetitive phony entertainment provided by the small screens?

If a look at vacuity is Liza Mandelup’s theme, she has succeeded despite the repetitiveness of the action on the big screen. If she is satirizing a society that makes kids want to shut down the world and enter the small screens, she has done her job. This is not to say that the documentary is spellbinding. It can be downright work to slog through if you’re a thinking adult, laughing at or, being kinder, empathizing with the kids and wishing we could do something to break their need to conform without challenging their imperative to fit in.

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

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

THE MOUNTAIN – movie review

THE MOUNTAIN

Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rick Alverson
Screenwriter: Rick Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa, Colm O’Leary
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Hannah Gross, Denis Lavant, Udo Kier
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 7/22/19
Opens: July 26, 2019

The Mountain Movie Poster

If you enjoyed a highbrow feature like Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a film that hones in on a young man who follows a surgeon around as though he were trying to be the doctor’s best friend, you might be looking forward to another ethereal drama, “The Mountain.” In this tale, a young man who never smiles follows a doctor around presumably because the older man performed a lobotomy on the kid’s mother. Given the status of Lanthimos and Rick Alverson as maverick directors, you figure you would enjoy “The Mountain,” but what you anticipated turns out to be a far more enigmatic, static, color-drained look at a strange decade in America in which women who were not as repressed as the rest of the population, women who had opinions of their own, were subject to pre-frontal lobotomies. If you saw “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a solid, middlebrow look at a hospitalized man whose fellow inmates were so horrified by what happened to him after such surgery that they suffocated him. But don’t expect such a narrative to be present here.

Rick Alverson, whose “Entertainment” in 2015 is about a has-been comedian trying to revive his career in the Mojave Desert, is known in some circles as being anti-movie, even anti-pleasure. Those traits are visible here in a film that highlights a relationship between a despondent twenty-year old and a doctor who roams about the country performing lobotomies. Since Andy (Tye Sheridan) lost his mother, who is institutionalized, and since his stiff father Frederick (Udo Kier) died while teaching figure skating, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) befriends him, giving him a job (that could be make-work but looks needed) taking Polaroid pictures of women who are being lobotomized. Actually the term lobotomy is not mentioned, so Alverson trusts his sophisticated audience to put 2 and 2 together.

While lobotomies are said to be frequent as late as the 1950s, somehow Fiennes cannot find steady work and has to travel about the asylums of California (photographed largely in Washington State). The Polaroid pix are made into slides to show to the doctor’s colleagues. As a side hobby, the doc also administers electroshock. However the most catatonic person in the story is Andy, and he had not even had a lobotomy—yet.

The most memorable scene, one that might prompt some viewers to turn away in embarrassment, features Jack (Denis Lavant), who works as an alternative healer in hospitals but who is the craziest dude in the picture. Jack dances about the room giving spastic monologues in English, French and Franglich, subtitles provided. Jack authorizes a lobotomy for his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross), who like other women barely shows signs of rebellion, though in a moment of anguish. Suddenly Andy changes from his placid self into a roaring volcano.

What does it all mean? It could be a satiric look at lobotomies, but criticism of that horrid procedure is outdated. Maybe it’s a spoof of the 1950s, with those small-screen TV’s and dull entertainers, a prosperous era but one which produced and nurtured repressed people, especially women. Or maybe you don’t care, and shouldn’t.

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

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

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+

STUBER – movie review

STUBER
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Tripper Clancy
Cast: Kumal Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/2/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

Stuber Poster 2019 Movie Dave Bautista Kumail Nanjiani Film Print 24x36" 27x40" - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

Nobody expects “Downton Abbey” or “Last Year in Marienbad” to open in the summer. We expect movies to take in our air conditioning with violence, with sitcom romances, maybe a few Marvel Studio entries. But “Stuber” represents a new low even for a July opening. It has the violence, the comedy, even a romance of sorts, but the funny parts aren’t, the violence leans toward the non-stop, the romance involves one of the principals emailing a woman he’s been dating, the woman virtually harassing him to come right over and they’ll “have sex.”

Co-star Karachi-born Kumal Nanjiani is best known as a stand-up comedian and for his role in “The Big Sick.” Time magazine calls him one of the hundred most influential people in the world, presumably because he is Pakistani-American, and newscasts rarely focus on Pakistan as one of the world’s centers for comedy. “The Big Sick” deals with cultural barriers; Nanjiani co-wrote that film with his wife Emily Gordon. This time, however, he faces off with a big guy who insists “I’m not white” the difference being of personality rather than ethnicity. Vic (Dave Bautista), a cop, is obsessed with finding and bringing to justice a drug dealer, Teijo (Iko Uwais) who killed his partner during one of the several fight scenes in the film.

The never-ending set-up for jokes takes off from Vic’s Lasik eye surgery, which leaves him legally blind for a day and obviously affects his ability to catch the drug dealers. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets him up with a phone app to allow him to spend the day Teijo-hunting, but Vic, a virtual techno-phobe, instead hails an Uber driven by Stuber (Kumal Nanjiani), which is not his real name but a combination of “Stu” and “Uber.” The two share a fragile bond: if Stu does not do what the cop says, he may die at the hands of the criminals. Even worse, he will get a one-star review on Yelp, which could sink his career, as he had received a stack of one-star comments from racist passengers.

Believe it or not, in this comedy based on physical violence that has people slammed into walls, shot at, racing around to catch up with Teijo, there is a sentimental core. Two people who only intermittently show themselves not to be dumb as doornails advise each other on dealing with significant others. Stu is in love with Becca, a friend with benefits (Betty Gilpin), but is afraid to declare his secret love for the lass. Vic lets Stu know how to get around the dilemma. To square away an obligation, Vic is required to listen to Stu’s cajoling: Vic does not pay enough attention to his daughter, a sculptor, who in one scene has opened a show, her work going far over her dad’s head.

This road-and-buddy moves along the two drive around California, hitting spots in Koreatown and Compton among other areas. A struggle in a veterinary office, in which Vic winds up adopting a pit bull, does not lead to an arrest, and police captain McHenry may be other than she seems. The story, which lacks anything in the way of nuance and fills the screen with the kind of violence that some audiences are unable to get enough of, may remind you of those Amazon reviewers who say “I would have given this product zero stars if I could.”

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

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

 

THE OTHER STORY – movie review

THE OTHER STORY
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Avi Nesher
Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer
Cast: Maayan Blum, Maya Dagan, Sasson Gabai, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Sean Mongoza
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/19
Opens: June 28, 2019

The Other Story (2018)

When Israel was born in 1948, there was much joy outside the Arab world. Jews both in Israel and around the world rejoiced, but in addition so did most governments and people in the industrialized world. “They made the desert bloom” was the watchword when Jews cultivated what was then a barren land. The kibbutz was a popular kind of work on collective farms, and democratic socialism was the norm in a society that surprisingly enough was mostly secular. Problems arose later after wars that were forced on the tiny state, and the country expanded its borders into territories formerly inhabited only by Palestinians. Let’s not forget, though, that Israelis are today not a unified people where everyone thinks alike, any more than are Americans nowadays. The ultra-religious including the Hasidic sects have grown in population and influence. As a result there is conflict between the religious Jews and the secular majority, the former imposing its will by its voting bloc in the Knesset, or parliament.

Two camps exist to this day: the ultra-religious have been able to ban public buses on the Sabbath and to run Mea Shearim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, as though it were an independent state. Their influence is considered undemocratic by the secular society. You could barely imagine that a secular Jewish woman would get together with an ultra-orthodox man in marriage, and for the most part the two groups are almost never romantically involved. In the rare cases when they are, however, the sparks fly within the families, which is good, because without sparks, there is no drama.

Now Avi Nesher, who has an impressive résumé as producer, writer, actor and director including his direction of such movies as “The Matchmaker” (teenager’s relationship with a matchmaker who survived the Holocaust) and “Turn Left at the End of the World” (a family from India moves into a desert neighborhood in southern Israel). His “The Other Story” is an involving and often riveting story featuring two plots that merge seamlessly, the principal one being the more absorbing tale while the other is more melodramatic, even off-the-wall. Both plots center on women who are rebelling against their upbringings. Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger) is your typical product of dysfunction having seen his father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), a psychologist, all too rarely since her parents divorced and he moved to the U.S. Nor is love lost between Yonatan and his successful real estate agent wife Tali (Maya Dagan). He returns to Tali after getting an urgent message: their daughter, who has thrown off her secular upbringing and is now Orthodox, is set to marry Shachar (Nathan Goshen), also a drug-addicted secular musician who introduced his fiancé to drugs and now denies that he is an addict.

At the same time, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai) is playing host to his son Yonatan. Both are psychologists. Shlomo is treating a couple on the verge of breaking up. Rami (Maayan Blum) accuses his wife Sari (Avigail Harari) of threatening the safety of their young son Izi, as a member of a feminist cult given over to worshiping idols and having occult ceremonies that recall Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” She ultimately will rely on the testimony of both Yonatan and Anat regarding both a kidnapping charge and their opinion that the occult ceremonies are not endangering her son’s safety.

“The Other Story” is the name of a song, but it refers as well to the other story of both Yonatan, who has been involved in criminal dealings in the U.S., and the situations of the two young women rebelling against the conformity their families represent and, on a greater level, the impositions of the patriarchal society. The principal conflict, though, pits young Anat against the horror that her parents feel at the idea that their daughter has voluntarily upended her free life to become an Orthodox Jew. This conflict mirrors that troubles that all of Israel goes through nowadays, the religious Jews generally siding with their current prime minister in favor of expanding the country into the West Bank, while the secular Jews generally favor a peace with the Palestinians based on two societies living side by side.

The film is welcome both as a primer to people of all religions who are open to educating themselves to the schisms within such a small country, and an indictment of those who side with one point of view to such an extent that they cannot understand the rationality of the other. As such, it mirrors the split in our own country between Republican and Democrats, right and left, and splits within the parties as well.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

 

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

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

MA – movie review

MA

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: May 31, 2019

Related image

 

When people are asked how they enjoyed their years in high school, their answers might make you think of movie critics. With us reviewers, there is often little agreement, some saying that such-and-such movie is “a triumph, an instant classic,” while others call the same film a “Turkey,” a “Lemon,” or a “Dog.” What accounts for similar differences of opinion about high school? Probably those who say the years were “the worst of their lives” while others say “I’d give anything to go back and relive those years,” has to do not so much with their grades or their teachers, but how they were accepted by their peers. Those who were bullied “hated high school” while those treated as though they were captains of the football team “loved it.” Along comes a killer thriller called “Ma,” which Melania Trump ought to see when she’s not watching her husband in the ring with sumo wrestlers. The first lady took upon herself the task of stopping all bullying among the young. Her motto: “Be kind to each other” which has as much effect as Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” Director Tate Taylor, whose “The Help” won a Best Actress academy award for Olivia Spencer, wants to show that even if bullying ends on the day of high school graduation, its effects are far reaching, at least for some victims who are hell-bent on revenge.

In the first horror movie led by an African American female, Olivia Spencer anchors the proceedings as Sue Ann, the title “Ma.” Through flashbacks edited smoothly by Lucy Donovan and Jin Lee, we get enough of Sue Ann’s backstory to make us believe in the vengeance she seeks. She is out for blood just like Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” in Brian De Palma’s shocker; however Sue Ann was humiliated not just at her senior prom like Carrie but throughout her years in high school. Now, some time later as an adult, she will get back for that, not only against sixteen-year-olds who had nothing do to with Sue Ann’s high school days but also some who directly made her life miserable.

Filming by Christina Voros in the director’s Mississippi birthplace (though in the city of Natchez), Taylor, using a script by Scott Landes in Landes’ first feature film screenplay, “Ma” finds Sue Ann pleaded with by a rowdy group of underage folks who ask her to buy liquor for them, needed for a party. At first she demurs, probably playing hard-to-get, then gives in, not only getting the sauce but inviting the lot of ‘em to her house. She hosts them in her basement, warning them never to go upstairs (where they would find African objets d’art thereby emphasizing a racial component in the movie), which makes us in the audience certain that they would use her private bathroom and, in a switch from the situation in “The Help” would be punished far more than Tate Taylor’s Minny Jackson in that film.

Soon the house is wall-to-wall kids, having a ball until two of their parents, the mother (Juliette Lewis) of adolescent Maggie (Dana Silvers) and Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans), the father of Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), catch on to the danger faced by their children. But before that happens, director Taylor treats us to rousing parties, where an innocent Maggie is pressured to vape, smoke a joint, drink, and even kiss. It turns out mama Erica was once young (Skyler Joy) as was Ben Hawkins (Andrew Matthew Welch), the two guilty as hell in bullying and humiliating young Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson).

Though there are racial implications in the picture, don’t expect “Ma” to be another “Get Out.” Given a powerhouse performance by Octavia Spencer, whose facial expressions give away every emotion, and fine ensemble acting particularly by Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers, “Ma” delivers its chills in a runaway climactic scene as the body count mounts. Allison Janney does a cameo as the veterinarian, Dr. Brown, who makes the mistake of hassling Sue Ann, her assistant, and none other than Taylor Tate shows up as Officer Grainger.

High school bullies should be required to see this movie. If they can think past the coming Saturday night’s party, say, ten or twenty years later, they may be warned sufficiently to “be kind to each other.”

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

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

PHOTOGRAPH – movie review

PHOTOGRAPH
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqi, Sanya Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Virendra Saxena, Farrukh Jaffar
Screened at: Soho House, NYC, 5/1/19
Opens: May 17, 2019

Photograph Movie Poster

If you’re disgusted by the present status of male-female relationships in the U.S., notably the custom of college students nowadays to abandon the practice of dating in favor of hooking up, and of every young person’s compulsion to text even when in the company of their friends and lovers, you’ll be delighted to see a throwback to the old days in looking at the relationship of two people in Mumbai. If you’re old enough in America, you’ll remember that dating was never casual in the 1950s but marked by curfews of women in college and a dress code that featured more formal attire that is customary today. This is not to say that we should adapt the matchmaking and dating practices in India and so much of the world outside the West, but take a look at what goes on in Ritesh Batra’s “Photograph.” You’ll go to this movie with high expectations if you loved Batra’s film “The Lunchbox”—which emerged from the custom of delivering lunch boxes to workers at mid-day, the drama coming from a misdirected lunch which leads to a correspondence between a widower and an unhappily married woman.

“Photograph,” which juggles differences of caste, religion, class, and age but nonetheless does not try to uproot the custom of matchmaking in India, is a delightful look at an unusual dating scene. A man approaching middle age, seemingly a confirmed bachelor, meets cute a younger woman of a higher, more educated class. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqi), who barely scrapes by taking pictures with a Nikon at Mumbai’s famous Gateway of India, lives in a cramped, communal setting with other low-level workers. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), an introverted young woman who never laughs, only occasionally smiles, is lightly pressured by her solidly middle-class family to match up with guys. She is perfectly willing to do so to please her folks, but one day, as she is strolling around the famous Gateway of India, she agrees to be photographed by Rafi. Summoned elsewhere, she runs off without paying him leaving him with her picture. It so happens that gossip is spreading among Rafi’s pals that Rafi’s grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), upset that she may never become a great grandmother, has stopped taking her meds. He jumps at the bait, invites the elderly woman to meet him in Mumbai, noting that he would like to introduce her to his fiancé. Fiancé? No such luck. Rafi asks Miloni to play the part, changing her name to Noorie for the role, and she surprisingly agrees, perhaps from a sense of adventure which she does not get from her classes in accounting.

Your heart knows things that your mind can’t explain, the only possible reason for the growing attraction between a shy, introverted girl and a confirmed bachelor. They go on a few dates, not touching each other until Dadi, taking a picture, asks him stand closer to her and to put his arm around her, asking her for good measure to smile. The grandmother may be getting wise to the scam, warning Rafi that she is not the girl for him. “She is not our religion,” having heard a made-up story by Miloni that her parents both died when the walls of a mosque caved in on them.

To illustrate class differences most graphically, director Batra shows Miloni jumping from her seat during a movie date, while her Rafi calms her that “it’s only a rat that crossed by your seat.” Batra takes what could have embraced screwball comedy, transcending the genre in laying out an ultimately sad, but meaningful slice of Mumbai life. In Gujarati and Hindi with the usual faded-white subtitles that are difficult to read against light contrasts.

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

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

 

FAST COLOR – movie review

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

Fast Color Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BRINK – movie review

THE BRINK
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alison Klayman
Screenwriter: Alison Klayman
Cast: Steve Bannon
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 2/20/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

Steve Bannon appears in The Brink by Alison Klayman, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Steve Bannon could use bariatric surgery, a better dentist, and a Brooks Brothers overhaul of his wardrobe. None of these flaws takes away from his charm, and remember that even Darth Vader has been called a charmer by the huge crowds that pack theaters when he’s around. He has been picketed around Europe and the U.S. with the same sorts of signs that greet Trump now and then, though a great deal of picketers are not protestors: anything but. As CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, he considers himself virtually the sole reason that Trump was able to thumb his nose at the pollsters. Though fired by the POTUS for a side comment Bannon once made in the book “Fire and Fury,” he claims to be on the president’s direct line, and despite his sendoff shortly after the president’s swearing-in, he maintains that he is still treasured by the man with the long red tie.

Since Bannon is a filmmaker among other diverse traits, it was only natural that he would grant producer Marie Theresa Guirgis the thumbs-up for a film about his ideologies and skills at communicating them. Guirgis tapped Alison Klayman to be a fly on the wall, a wise choice as Klayman’s documentary “Ai Wei Wei…Never Sorry” chronicles the trouble the activist has endured from the Chinese government, and “Take Your Pills” puts America’s drug Adderall front and center by people who need the boost to outpace the competition.

That Bannon has been vilified by progressives is no problem for him, in fact he gives the impression that he’d agree with the view that the only bad publicity is no publicity. More specifically, he believes that every time he is trashed by progressives at demonstrations picked up by the media, he gains prominence. Therein lies his welcome of director Klayman, who allegedly spent well over one hundred hours following him around, both in the U.S. and Europe. The best part of the doc is not a rehash of what we already know about him, but the ways he acts informally when nobody but his “fly” is around to capture both his manic moods and his frustrations.

Aside from the idiosyncrasy of wearing two shirts everywhere he goes and, when filming himself with another gent and a woman tells the woman that she is a rose between two thorns, he probably won’t strike you as either an intellectual or a fellow who can easily one-up his company with his wit; and in fact he appears awkward when he speaks to large crowds. Nor does he hesitate to repeat his views before groups of progressives who in one scene loudly boo him, telling them “I have a whole night to convert you.” His attempted conversion leads to a non-hostile laugh from the crowd.

What is his goal? Well, Winston Churchill stated that his goal is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror.” Bannon smells victory, a strong smell at that, when Trump (thanks to him) won the presidency against all odds. He is a one-note politician, a nationalist, a populist, who insists that he cares not what is your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preferences. Nationalism is generally defined as identification with your own nation to the exclusion of the interests of other countries. In concrete terms, he wants America for Americans, considering that people who come here illegally should be sent back to where they came from, and even better, to prevent them from crossing the border in the first place. He travels to France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, in each case beating the drum for the candidates who want to seal the borders or severely restrict immigration. He believes that high walls make good neighbors and supports Trump’s call to take money needed for schools away from going for more schools for the children of the military.

Given his rah rah USA beliefs, we wonder why he is so motivated to further the interests of far right parties outside his country–in Europe such as the Italian League, The Brothers of Italy, Alternatives for Germany, Spain’s vox, and others, nor does the documentary probe deeply enough into why it’s important for him, a nationalist-minded American, to embrace the ideologies of other states. He does get creds for calling persecutions or Jews and others at Auschwitz, which he visited, a horror. Again, he denies that he is a racist, but then Minister Farrakhan says he is no anti-Semite. Groups like the neo-Nazi bunch—remember, the fine people on that side—eagerly brag that they want a country exclusively of white Christians, but for others, those who are regularly in front of the cameras, that is a no-no. Bannon, in fact, would like to deny that he had dinner with Filip Dewinter of Belgium’s racist party, but thanks to Ms. Klayman, we have documentation.

Don’t look for Michael Moore moments but you will, instead, get to know more about Bannon than you could otherwise find in “Darth Vader” sound bites and press releases. As for the title of the movie, President Lincoln noted in a letter “We are now on the brink of destruction,” Lincoln said. It appears to me that even the Almighty is against us. I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Hmmm.

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

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

ROCKING THE COUCH – movie review

ROCKING THE COUCH
Avail Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Minh Collins
Screenwriter: Minh Collins
Cast: Lauren Anastasi-Peter, Ikon Barenbolm, Alana Crow, et al
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/8/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

Kim Johnston Ulrich, Greg Cope White, Andrea Evans, Carrie Mitchum, Tonja Walker, Minh Collins, Sadie Katz, Josephine Gorchoff, Alana Crow, Tiffani Fest, Jennifer Durst, Jerry Sommer, Pritesh Shah, Nick Patriarca, Lauren Anastasi-Peter, Ikon Barenbolm, Don D. Meredith, Susan K. Hayn, Peter Scalisi, and Stephen G. Rodriguez in Rocking the Couch (2018)

For a long time, men have gotten away with sexual harassment and, what’s worse, with sexual battery and assault. As attorney Stephen Rodriguez points out in Minh Collins’ “Rocking the Coach,” women have been afraid of losing their careers or chances to make it big in Hollywood. What’s more they’ve been justifiably afraid of being humiliated of being told that they brought on the harassment by the way they dress and act. Even unions like Screen Actors Guild have tried to hush up accusations lest its own prestige be affected. “Rocking the Couch” deals exclusively with the casting of actresses for movies and TV spots. Unlike the way that Michael Moore would direct a documentary, Collins concentrates on talking heads but enlivens the conversation with animation, re-creations, and pictures. The one distracting and unnecessary element he uses is music in the soundtrack, which does nothing to accent the proceedings.

Collins begins with accusations against Fatty Arbuckle and segues into Natalie Wood, the latter among those who were told that spilling the beans would hurt their careers. The spokespersons, who come forward with accusations and are allowed to speak their minds without interviewers’ questions, are generally women who in middle age still look great but were stunning while in their twenties. Among the more fascinating stores is one in which a handsome producer set up a premise—a woman is trying to get back with her former boyfriend—then tells the actress to improvise and strip until both are naked. When she charges the man with having pushed his penis against her, his defense lawyer notes that the angle of his penis is such that it would not be possible for a woman to feel it. Whether the judge or jury had a laugh is not disclosed.

In another case a former policewoman checks out a guy who has had accusations against him. She wears a wire, with other members of the force waiting outside to jump in if she utters a code word. She has to push the accused off the bed forcefully but did not invoke the code word.

There is still one problem. Many aspiring actresses would be happy to give their sexual services in return for parts in commercials and movies. This break in the potential unity of women to stand up against their assailants operates to make it difficult for others to resist, as they see that the casting directors and producers could do just fine without them.

Aside from the trio of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey, the most high-profile alleged violators and whose stories encouraged the #MeToo movement, the most damaging punishment cited in this film is that of a Burbank talent agent to five years and four months of prison, though the probation officer recommended probation to a fellow with an otherwise clean record. When Wallace Kaye, age 52, was put on trial for felony sexual battery, his victims testified that they came to Kaye seeking acting or modeling jobs and were assaulted while improvising dramatic scenes with him. Said one of his victims, “I feel like a big load has been lifted and that I can go on with my life. I’m glad he’s going to prison.”

In this film, men are not given spots to challenge their accusers nor do we see men introduced to us in the audience to give their sides of the story. Yet even without them, the evidence is compelling, prompting the police to urge women who are raped to go immediately to a hospital for a rape kit, not to shower away the evidence of molestation.

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

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

THE MUSTANG – movie review

THE MUSTANG

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre
Screenwriter: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/4/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

In Frank Loesser’s musical “Guys and Dolls,” Nicely sings “Future for Tinhorns,” which opens “I got the horse right here/The Name is Paul Revere/And here’s a guy that says/That the weather’s clear/ Can do, Can do.” Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre’s movie “The Mustang” has to do obviously with horses, but the “can do” in this case rides on whether a particular convict in a North Nevada penitentiary can succeed in breaking a particularly fearsome wild mustang.

The Mustang Movie Poster

“The Mustang” directed by de Clermont-Tonnerre—whose familiarity with prisons led her to make “Rabbit” which finds a female prisoner entrusted with the care of a small animal—now broadens her sphere. No longer dealing with females who need to connect with animals for their therapy, she turns her attention to a detention center holding violent criminals. Though too many of our prisons do nothing to deserve the euphemism “correctional institution,” this Nevada center connects with a program of the Federal Department of Land Management. Our government believes that wild horses cannot continue to roam the West in unlimited numbers. They multiply, doubling their numbers every four years. Allegedly there is not enough foliage or even water to support them, therefore they are culled to allow for healthy animals. Or that’s our government’s story. However the reasons for the roundups are not revealed in this film, making the audience wonder how much is simply a desire for the government to make money auctioning them off. In this case, the horses are expected to be sold at auction if and when they are domesticated by prisoners—who in turn, we hope, will become changed people with their violent urges “corrected.”

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is at the center of the action as Roman Coleman, head shaved, in the Nevada Correctional Institution for a violent crime that is revealed later when his pregnant daughter Martha (Gideon Adlan) visits him, demanding that he turn over for sale the home that she shares with him. With a demeanor that might make audiences confuse him with Dwayne Johnson, Schoenaerts opens the dialogue on a scene with the prison psychologist and anger-management specialist (Connie Britton), whose favorite question is “How much time passed between your thinking of doing a crime and actually doing it?” (Seconds, is the typical answer; a fraction of a second in one case.)

Ruben Impens’s lenses reveal a fantastic creation of an actual roundup with long takes and closeups as helicopters maneuver a gathering of mustangs. They are then locked up in tight quarters, slamming against the walls, an apt metaphor for the appalling condition of the human prisoners Coleman is not a big talker, preferring to remain in solitary because he is “not good with people.” He begins to open up when assigned by Myles (Bruce Dern) to a program of training wild horses. .

Myles assigns Coleman to break one crazy mustang, believing that Coleman has some affinity for the animal. With the help of Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow inmate who appears to love the outdoor work he’s doing, Coleman goes step by step, leading the horse this way and that, until human and animal develop a bond. Having read an article in an equestrian magazine dealing with an 18th century marquis, he names the animal Marquis. Coleman has come a ways since the violent crime he committed twelve years previous, though while first training Marquis, he is so frustrated with the lack of response that he punches the animal so hard that Marquis is on the ground—knocked out—to Myles’ fury.

In addition to Schoenaerts’s terrific performance—we don’t know to what extent he is involved with riding the horse and falling from him and where the stunt people come in—we in the audience become enlightened further to the terrible conditions of American prisons. The cells are small. Coleman shares a cell with a toilet, no cover, and no door to afford a minimum of privacy. We long to show the appropriate authorities in our government the movie “Where To Invade Next, which illustrates Norway’s penitentiaries which critics trash as being too “luxurious,” where each inmate has an apartment with a stove and knives. Yet predictably, Norway has among the lowest rates of recidivism anywhere. We are also privy to the horrendous way our government rounds up “excess” wild horses, ultimately to be auctioned off. Some are allegedly given to the border patrol, others will wind up in Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses.

As a critic with Variety magazine has stated, the picture is only partly about a convict who becomes a horse whisperer but is more about a horse that is a convict whisperer.

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

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

3 FACES – movie review

3 FACES (Se rokh)
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jafar Panahi
Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei, Maedeh Erteghaei, Narges Del Aram
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: March 8, 2019

Jafar Panahi in Se rokh (2018)

In March 2010 Jafar Panahi, among the best-known of Iranian film directors, was arrested, sentenced to a six-year jail term , spending much of that time under house arrest and forbidden to leave Iran. He was accused of making propaganda films against the Iranian government. While awaiting the result of an appeal, he made This Is Not a Film (2011), a documentary feature in the form of a video diary in spite of the legal ramifications of his arrest. It was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden inside a cake and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

That act of smuggling is what could pass, justifiably, for excitement even here in the U.S., a sort of incident that patrons of commercial movies might line up to see. Nothing of this sort occurs in “3 Faces,” the title characters being one aging actress who performed before Iran’s 1979 revolution, one who is famous today, another being a young woman accepted to a conservatory who dreams of being in the movies. Panahi’s latest offering is a road-and-buddy movie using the genre’s tropes: a couple of friends who travel outside their neighborhood to observe the customs of folks from a less sophisticated walk of life. When Panahi travels from Tehran to a rural village in the Northwest of his country with actress Behnaz Jafari in the passenger’s seat, he entertains us with the odd folks you’ll probably find in the sticks anywhere. They are a friendly people who throughout the village invite them to tea, but under the surface is a hostility to women, sometimes shows vividly, and at other times with passive aggression.

This is not to say that Iranian women are like those of their gender in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They do not have to cover themselves head to toe and get whipped if they show so much as an ankle. They do wear hijabs, or coverings, on their heads but can push the scarfs back to expose some hair. (This would not be so objectionable if men were also required to cover themselves. Wouldn’t people with the uncovered looks of Brad Pitt get the women all hot and bothered ?)

Performers use their own names as though this were a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The movie gets off to a vivid opening when Marziyeh (Marziheh Rezaei), a woman of about eighteen, makes a video of her suicide, tying a rope around her neck, the other end fastened to a tree. She sends the video to Jafar Panahi who shows it to Behnaz Jafari, who becomes obsessed with what she considers the injustice: the young woman’s parents will not allow her to attend a school for acting. Women who “perform” are said to dishonor the family, at least in this rural area where Turkish and Azeri become the dominant languages of the people. (I won’t bother to say obvious things about the millions of Americans living predominantly in rural and suburban areas of red states.)

As the director and the celebrated actress negotiate the unpaved roads in areas where many people had probably never seen Tehran, they take note of oddities. An elderly woman relaxes in a grave that she has dug, keeping the snakes away because the reptiles will punish her for her bad deeds. An old man soon after instructs Panahi to honk his horn once, then twice, seemingly a compulsion but in fact having a rational purpose. Toward the conclusion, another resident hands Jafari a foreskin of her infant to serve as a talisman. And a bull with “golden balls” that has practiced his stud service in a single night on ten cows lies in the road with a broken leg, its owner determined not to put the animal out of his misery because the animal makes a living for him.

There is virtually no music in the soundtrack. Panahi respects his audience enough to take many a long shot, all filmed expertly by Amin Jafari’s use of handheld cameras. Of course the young woman’s “suicide” is faked, designed to get the famous actress to visit and to talk the girl’s parents into allowing her to “perform.” In this film the acting profession is used to symbolize the patriarchy of the country, strongest of course, in the sticks. The three faces of the title include Shahrazade, who does not appear, having performed before the 1979 revolution and now living alone and miserable. While Behnaz Jafari has had success in her profession and is treated with excitement by the teen girls in the village who crowd around her, she is not all that welcomed by the oldsters. We wonder whether the third and youngest face will be able to compete for the success of Mrs. Jafari. “3 Faces” demonstrates the solidarity of women, all the more pronounced when it is repressed, a compassionate look at what some would call the “real people” of their country, all the more moving because of the film’s meditative nature.

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

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

PROSECUTING EVIL – movie review

PROSECUTING EVIL
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barry Avrich
Screenwriter: Barry Avrich
Cast: Benjamin Ferencz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/24/19
Opens: February 22, 2019

The best kinds of documentaries feature fly-in-the-wall eavesdropping. After that, you could get a good story about people facing the interviewer, whereas the worst kind of non-fiction movie-making finds has one character simply talking to the camera, with some archival shots thrown in. “Prosecuting Evil” is an exception. Most of the film finds Benjamin Ferencz simply talking to the lenses with perhaps little need for fancy direction. Yet this fellow is so riveting in his testament that his articulate chat is even more interesting than the black-and-white archival shots taken during the Nazi Holocaust.

Remarkably short, Ben was the lead prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the 1946 Nuremberg trials. You would not expect this since he did not do undergraduate work at Harvard but instead this Transylvania-born attorney who grew up in Brooklyn attended City College, which at the time was free, catering largely to men and women who could not afford private universities. He then headed to Harvard Law on a full scholarship, after which he was called upon by Telford Taylor who was prepping up for the Nuremberg trials.

Plunging into research he found the needed journals which, thanks to the meticulous recording of just about everything under the sun by Germans, saw entries on the mass killing by death squads during the early forties. He discovered that the people on trial had all received copies and therefore could not state in defense that they had no idea what was going on during the mass shootings and concentration camp exterminations.

Nuremberg was the scene of history’s most notorious murder trials. Director Barry Avrich, whose “Romeo and Juliet” film shows a similar theme of rivalry between two houses leading to tragic ends for the heroes, had to stand on a stack of books behind the lectern, and he, with an assortment of the most evil defendants you might ever see, laid out his case to the judges. None of the defendants claimed “I was just following orders,” or at least we heard nothing of this trite excuse in the doc, but not a single man showed remorse for killing 10,000 Jews and more in cold blood. Most were sentenced to death by hanging and we’re told that each one faced eight minutes of strangulation.

After the trials, Ferencz advocated for an international court to try war criminals, his dream coming true when the International Criminal Court at the Hague was formed. Though President Bill Clinton signed on for the U.S. at the last minute, President George W. Bush, fearful that American sovereignty would be lost by the court’s judgements, scrapped the treaty.

In the final shots we see Ferencz swimming, keeping up his stamina at his current age of 99, warning that though this is not his world any more, it’s up to the politicians to do what they can to prefer the rule of law rather than force.

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

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

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS – MOVIE REVIEW

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS

Final Cut
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Screenwriter: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Cast: Oleg Afanasyev, Alexandra Ryabichkina, Yarik
Screened at: Neuehouse Madison Screening Room, NYC, 1/9/19
Opens: February 1, 2019 in LA

Poster

Oleg Afanasyev is a cute ten-year-old boy living in what our President would call a s…hole. There is this village in Ukraine of Hnutove, which has a population of 700, it’s just empty space with nothing growing and sporting no particular buildings, and worst of all it’s a short distance from the gunfire and mines and missiles set up by agents of the so-called Donetsky People’s Republic. Or maybe the Ukranian army is responsible. Ukraine has been at war with Russian separatists in their country who are backed by Putin in Russia, a miserable fight with cease fires that are routinely ignored. However, there’s a fairy story happening there. Young Oleg and his beloved grandmother Alexandra Ryabichkina were scooped up by Simon Lereng Wilmont, who directs a documentary called “The Final Barking of Dogs” and taken to New York where I had the pleasure of listening to them discuss their roles in the making of the film. We in the audience may have expected both Ukranians to say that they love New York, that they love America, and they can’t wait to file for asylum because of their anxiety-ridden lives on the battlefield. But no, both said that New York City is “nice” but they want to go home. Grandma is specific: “We are part of the place, part of the land.” There’s no second-guessing people. They love their land and wouldn’t trade it for a secure for life in New York, where they could presumably fit in with either the Ukranian section in Manhattan’s East Village or the Russian sector in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Surprisingly their talk is so apolitical that we do not know even whether they are ethnically Russian or full-scale Ukranian. (For more info on the war, check here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_military_intervention_in_Ukraine_(2014%E2%80%93present).

Simon Lereng Wilmont, in his debut as sole director of a full-length movie, watches over Oleg and his grandmother as would a fly on the wall, apparently succeeding in coaxing them to behave normally and not to look at the camera. Little Oleg has pillow fights with his cousin Yarik, heartbroken when his pal leaves a for safer haven, but overjoyed when his cousin returns. They have an older friend Kostya, who acts like a big brother to them, showing Oleg how to hold a pistol and fire at bottles—though Oleg winds up with a fairly deep cut on his leg from a ricocheted bullet and is calmly and lovingly censured by his grandmother for shooting and killing a frog, making him promise never to that again.

This is the kind of documentary that happily is not the kind with dozens of talking heads. Nobody is interviewed. The three or four people do behave as though the director-cinematographer is not around, though we wonder how much landed on the cutting room floor during the year and a half that the movie was shot. If anything, Oleg is often curious about the waging of war, examining a mine, though carelessly zipping around the neighborhood without a thought that he could be blown up in an instant. This documentary landed on the Oscar short list for best doc where it will compete with the likes of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “Free Solo,” and “RBG.”

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

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
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+

ASHES IN THE SNOW – movie review

ASHES IN THE SNOW
Vertical
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marius Markevicius
Screenwriter: Ben York Jones, based on Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray”
Cast: Bel Powley, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Martin Wallstrom, Sam Hazeldine, Peter Franzen, Sophie Cookson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/3/19
Opens: January 11, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

When Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray” came out, it made a hit with some middle school and high school educators and was relegated in some public libraries to the YA sections, meant primarily for youths. Some parents inevitably complained that the book was so bleak, the action so violent, that it was robbing their precious children of their innocence. Innocence: in the 21st Century when kids are likely to witness torture and killing on a mammoth scale on the screen? Maybe. In any case the film’s dialogue, a product of Ben York Jones’s screenplay adaptation of the novel, is simplistic, as though meant for a target audience who barely know that the U.S. fought Germany and not the Soviet Union in the 1940s and could expect to make a chore of several minutes when ordered to find Lithuania on a map of Europe.

Marius Markevicius, who directs his sophomore feature, is in his métier, having presided over the documentary “The Other Dream Team,” about Lithuania’s basketball squad, struggling under Soviet rule, making the hoop sportsmen a symbol of the Baltic country’s independence.

Markevicius assembled actors from the U.K. Norway and Sweden, even one from Finland, and shot the movie almost entirely on location, using a topography as bleak as the story line, with miles of miles of snow that make you want to race from the theater at the conclusion and head for Punta Cana. If this film came out in 1950, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were no longer pals, you’d think it had CIA funding, once again stressing the simplicity of the plot and the dialogue to make clear to all common denominators in the audience that we were the good guys and not those people speaking with strange accents. Though Uncle Joe Stalin is not seen except in a photo on the wall, he is responsible for sending millions to the gulags in Siberia, including a few score folks right now in this movie.

While the Soviets are battling the Nazis in 1942, they have time to dispatch people from occupied Lithuania to the far north for, what exactly? For digging up potatoes? Really? The exploited workers seem to have conditions as bad as inmates in Hitler’s concentration camps, doing penance for crimes that the idiot Nazis considered to be crimes. A whole family are accused of treason, and hauled out of their flats, which gives director Markevicius—who is of Lithuanian heritage—the opportunity to focus on one actress with whom the principal expected audience would identify. That would be English actress Bel Powley, a 26-year-old in the role of one who is but sixteen, and whose agonized face is seen throughout. Hoping to be an artist, she is the pride and joy of her mother, Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli who is Norwegian). Martin Sallstrom as Nicolai Kretzsky, is a bad guy but not entirely. To one prisoner, he admits that he does not want to be where he is either. Would he prefer to be transferred to the Russian front?

Aside from the acting talents particularly of Wallstrom and Kongsli, a fine job comes from Ramunas Greicius behind the lenses. The makeup team does splendid work in changing the appearance of the happy Lithuanian family to a chorus that could march off the set to the second job in Les Misérables.

Though many a film has Germans speaking English and Scandinavians imitating just about anybody else with their multi-lingual capabilities, the authentic scenes are the ones in which the Russians speak Russian, the Lithuanians speak a language which has roots in Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek. The English language, which takes over the majority of the 100 minutes, could have used subtitles given the forced accents put on by Powley and others.

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

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

COMMUNION (Komunia) – movie review

COMMUNION (Komunia)
HBO Europe
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Anna Zamecka
Screenwriter: Anna Zamecka
Cast: Ola Kaczanowski, Nikodem Kaczanowski, Marek Kaczanowski, Magdalena Kaczanowski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/2/19
Opens: January 4, 2019

Komunia (2016)

In his book “Bowling Alone” author Robert D. Putnam laments the loss of American community using the sport of bowling as metaphor. In former times we used to have bowling leagues. Now those who attend alleys increasingly see men and women bowling by themselves, perhaps because they cannot find people to join them or maybe they prefer being away from the stress of bonding with others. A more serious situation occurs when children cannot even enjoy the stability that a two-parent family should be able to provide. This is true not only in America but in Poland as well. Anna Zamecka, in her debut as director, writer, editor and producer, knocks out quite an opener using a non-traditional documentary format, a fly-on-the-wall method to capture the tensions within a working class Polish household.

“Working class” would be a promotion in the Kaczanowska household. The father, Marek is lethargic, a layabout on the dole, a chain-smoker with a love of the bottle. It does not help that his wife Magdalena left him a few years back and now has a baby with an abusive spouse. Nikodem (was he named for the patch you wear on your shoulder to quit smoking?) is autistic, makes animal imitations and sounds. He moves his body about spastically. He is being prepped for communion at the age of thirteen, the local priest being too strict to accept the boy’s apparent deficiencies of memory. The star of the movie, though, is Ola, a fourteen-year-old who has friends her own age but is called upon at her tender years to be the majordomo of the family: to sweep, to prepare her brother for the upcoming service, to coax her dad away from the bottle. In other words she is being put upon to act the adult and naturally would like her mother to come back to the fold and restore stability to the dysfunctional family. The boy’s communion provides the opportunity for the get-together, and while the father is optimistic, Ola, more realistically, knows that the get-together will be but brief.

Given the lack of family functions the world-over, “Communion,” which as a narrative focus is about a specific religious event, is more broadly the effort to get four people to commune together, to stop bowling alone, so to speak. Dad, daughter and son are of course aware that the camera is on them, a feature that could serve, if anything, to increase the stress, which is all to the good. We are aware of the fragilities of family life, we are told that family is the one place to which we can escape the pressures of the outside world. But what happens when life within offers no respite to the life outside in the cold, cruel world? As the Kaczanowskis’ lives unfold, we wonder what will happen when mom flies the coop once again. We can ponder that no miracles will happen with them and, by extension, with so many of the folks in Poland, in the U.S., in Wherever. Ola turns in an authentic, semi-scripted performance but for pure entertainment, we cannot fail to focus our eyes on the hyperactive thirteen-year-old who, though his spasms reflect a sad condition of autism, his clownish behavior serves for us a laugh that gets caught short in our throats.

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

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

TO KID OR NOT TO KID – movie review

TO KID OR NOT TO KID

Helpman Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Maxine Trump
Screenwriter:  Maxine Trump
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/1/18
Opens: November 15, 2019


Being married and childless or even being single and having no spawn may be more acceptable today at least in New York or Austin or Hollywood, but it hasn’t yet really caught on with the broad swath of Americana or the whole rest of the world.  Maxine Trump comes to the rescue with “To Kid or Not to Kid,” a 75-minute documentary that does not try to give both sides equal treatment. Yet even film-maker, writer, editor Trump is not entirely sure she made the right decision.

Turkish PM Erdogan says women are not complete without kids.  Denmark, which needs population, put up billboards saying in effect that people have more sex on vacation.  “Take a trip and nine months later you will have a baby.”  Pope Francis notes that people who choose to have no kids are selfish.  Is that why officials in his church are not allow to marry?  The idea that it’s selfish to be childless, or as proponents say, child-free, is absurd since, in fact, having kids is the selfish decision.  Why do people have kids?  Because they want to add people to the banquet of life and to refuse to do so is depriving someone unborn, someone completely without the motivation to be brought to life?  On the contrary.  We have kids because we want someone to love us.  We want to give love to someone.  We want to turn to children when in a crisis.  We want our name to live on forever and forever.   This sounds a lot like selfishness to me and to the proponents of To Not Kid.

Maxine Trump, or if you prefer Maxine Tr*mp,  is a documentary filmmaker who shoots films around the world.  She’s free as a bird.  No mess no fuss. In this chick-flick that she made—a chick flick because men have as much exposure here as they have in the movie “The Favourite,” about British Queen Anne and her two female lovers.

She films the action at a Cleveland No-Kids summit where an African-American woman says in the microphone that in her decision to have no kids feels to her like she’s letting Martin Luther King Jr. down.  While the film is not balanced—and documentaries have no obligation to be neutral—there are some expressions of conflict bordering on regret.  Right now one out of five American women will never have children, so this potential regret is causing a lot of sleepless nights.

Even I, as a member of the male persuasion, have heard these arguments over and over, so there’s nothing new here, though you’re not likely to see a plethora of documentaries or dramas about the no-kid decision.  You are more likely to see more films like the 2006 dystopian drama “Children of Men,” wherein a global loss of fertility could be the death-knell of civilization.  One man has the power to save the earth.

The film had a world premiere at a DOC NYC festival November 11th at 2.15 at the IFC Center on 323  6th Avenue.

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

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

AT ETERNITY’S GATE – movie review

AT ETERNITY’S GATE

CBS Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter:  Jean-Claude Carriere, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Cast:  Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Mathieu Amalric,  Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup
Screened at: Bryant Park Hotel, NYC, 11/10/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What is the principal selling point made by real estate agents when they try to sell pricey apartments?  You’d probably think it was the space that the dwelling affords, though agents try to get away with calling a space that looks like your closet “cozy.”  A most important selling point aside from the quality of the neighborhood and its schools is the amount of light the occupants might enjoy for most of the day.  If you’re not spenders your winters in Iceland, you would indeed be tempted to loosen your wallet if your digs offered brilliant sunlight.

And sunlight is probably the key word when you think of Vincent Van Gogh.  He is portrayed by Willem Dafoe as the director’s accurate image of the artist, the movie itself often an impressionistic look at the post-impressionist painter. (By post-impressionism is meant the attempt by artists of the late 19th and early 20th century to opt for color, line and form rather than the naturalism of the impressionists, emphasizing the artist’s emotional responses–a new style that would lead shortly to expressionism.)

Rather than a biopic, Schnable’s “Eternity’s Gate” is based largely on the painter’s letters, and much of the content of the movie is fictional, but the basic look of Van Gogh’s last years showcases his poverty from the inability to sell his paintings.  At one point he tells a priest that he may have been born too early, that like Jesus, nobody talked about him during his lifetime.

As played by Willem Dafoe who is made up in the image of the painter, Van Gogh has psychological problems which we today all know because the best known fact about the painter’s character is that in a rage he sliced off part of his ear and presented it to a woman.  Though born into an upper-middle class Dutch family, he relies on his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) for support of 250 francs a month, which allows him a decent enough way to live while he does the only thing he says that he knows how to do: paint.  Whether he is hallucinatory in several parts of the movie, whether Schnabel creates scenes from the director’s own imagination, or whether these scenes actually occurred, is anybody’s guess.  For example, at one point he is out in nature on a bright day—the sort of day that keeps him within the limits of sanity.  He is attacked by a class of school children who ignore their teacher and run to him shouting “a painter, a painter,” as though they had just discovered a Ben and Jerry’s out in nowhere.  They upset his paintings and cause Van Gogh to shout “Get out of here,” which is not unlike what occurs later as some kids of about twelve years of age throw rocks at his head and even later when he is threatened by a couple young people with guns.

What comes to mind at some point in the story is whether mental instability is the sina qua non of great artistry. Would Van Gogh have been a greater painter if he were completely normal like some organization man who decades later might be seen riding the French metro?  As a digression consider this example: Neil Simon, who came across in America as someone who could pass for a businessman, knocked out a great many plays and drew large audiences, but none of his writing could be called the work of genius.  Somehow, you may think a guy like Van Gogh is great because he is driven by his demons to do nothing other than paint.

There is little melodrama and even less humor in this serious, albeit imaginative, study.  Some of the interesting conversations include one with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) working in an asylum for mentally disturbed.  The cleric has no use for one of the paintings, finding it ugly, and indeed it was not one of Van Gogh’s brilliant and famous studies such as “The Starry Night.”  In one conversation with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac, who looks the part), he listens as another rebel against the current style of painting states his intention to go to Madagascar, but of course will wind up in French Polynesia.  The final scene you expect Van Gogh’s to shoot himself in the chest, but fiction prevails as young people torment the man with a gun.  Or is that his imagination?

Considerable imagination goes into Schnabel’s portrait or a painter, one which actually gives us a better picture of Van Gogh’s mental state than would a literal biopic.

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

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

OF FATHERS AND SONS – movie review

OF FATHERS AND SONS

KINO LORBER
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Talal Derki
Screenwriter: Talal Derki
Cast: Abu Osama
Screened at: Crosby St. Hotel, NYC, 11/7/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What informal outdoor games did you play with your pals when you were a kid? When I was 12 we played stick-ball in the street, watching out for cars and dodging them as best we could. Punch ball was a variety of this without the technology of the stick. We relied on our own fists to knock out what we called spaldeens (acutally Spaldings). My favorite indoor game was spin the bottle. What do kids in Northern Syria do for fun? In their bombed-out country, courtesy of Bashar al-Assad with the help of the Russians, they play war. There’s not much else to do, as we can see from Talal Derki’s sophomore feature documentary. Derki, whose prize-winning 2013 doc “The Return to Homs” filmed over 3 years, is about a 19 year-old militia leader in a city in Syria’s West, virtually destroyed by Assad’s forces. Homs is a city full of history but is now pockmarked, block after block, its citizens largely having deserted.

This time the brave, even audacious Derki spends two years in Northern Syria as a war journalist who feigns sympathies with the jihadists, gains their confidence, and serves up his documentary as though a drama, full of action, with no tedious interviews—just people chatting with the camera as though it were an old friend, presumably excited to give their views to what they think will be millions of movie fans.

There is plenty of hated among the particular family being filmed by the writer-director’s photographer, Kahtan Hassoun, but though you might expect half the movie to be broadsides against America and Israel, only a token conversation bothers to mention the two states. Even stories of Moses and Abraham are treated warmly. Instead the hatred is directed against Bashar al-Assad who destroyed a good deal of his own country, gassing his own people, welcoming Russian jets into his air space to create more havoc against who he calls “terrorists.” What comes across most vividly, however, is something not overtly covered in the film. This is this: while a large percentage of Americans believe that our government should be arming the rebels against the Syrian dictator, it’s possible that most of the rebels themselves are members of a branch of al-Qaida, a terrorist group that may have contempt for ISIS but is just as much in favor of occupying a vast amount of Middle-East space to form an Islamic caliphate.

As principal character, Abu Osama, is proud of his eight sons—his daughters are not part of the conversation at all and in fact the camera captures only seconds of girls in school. He is proudest of the oldest boy, Osama, who he is training along with the others to become, if necessary, martyrs in the fight against the Syrian government. He passes his hatred down to his offspring, who when not play war games with live ammunition, their faces covered by balaclavas, wrestle with one another and practice throwing rocks at invisible enemies. Sadly, for the forty-something father, he steps on a mine and loses a foot, all of which occur during the two-year time period that Derki patiently spends in the company of what we in America would call terrorists.

Abu Osama is no one-dimensional foe. In a nuanced portrait, we see that he has justifiable rage against the Syrian president who obviously does not drop bombs and engage in chemical and biological warfare for fun. Assad is under attack for years now and has no problem gassing people as collateral damage rather than trying to pick out who are the actual combatants. We in the audience could not be blamed for treating Abu Osama as a character we can to some extent sympathize with, a father who is adored by all eight of his male children, who must suffer the loss of a foot with corresponding pain that is not treated with palliatives. The women who are wailing in sympathy are not shown, presumably because Abu Osama would not permit them to be filmed.

Derki, who lives in Berlin and has received considerable funds from Germany for the making of this film, has succeeded admirably with the risk of his own life and limb to capture the lifestyle—if you can call it that—of people under siege in a battle to which they have committed themselves for revenge against the destruction of their country. It is intimate, a fly-on-the-wall treatment of a single family, while broadly capturing the mind of the jihadist close up.

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

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

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN – movie review

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery, based on David Grann’s New Yorker magazine article
Cast: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John David Washington, Tom Waits, Sissy Spacek, Elisabeth Moss
Screened at: Fox, NYC, 9/27/18
Opens: September 28, 2018

The Old Man and the Gun Movie Poster

In the 1993 movie “Indecent Proposal,” a gentleman offers a million dollars to a married woman if she would have sex with him. This sounds like a no-brainer. One night of sex and the couple played by Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson would be set for life. Not even the hottest escort service could begin to match that indecent, albeit (to me) obvious grab. The guy with the money is played by Robert Redford, and the joke that went around is this:

Joyce: “Abby, would you have sex with Robert Redford for a million dollars?”
Abby: “Sure, but you’ll have to give me time to raise the money.”

Redford, one of the handsomest men ever to grace the movie screen, was then 57 years old looking like 40, so it’s no wonder such a dialogue could seem realistic. Now at 82, but in “The Old Man and the Gun” playing someone in his sixties (quite credibly), he sports face that had never tried the miracle of Botox though presumably the thick, avy, blond hair was once someone else’s. In any case he looks great, and as Forrest Tucker he is so smooth and civil, that I think he could still have women saving up to get the million dollars if he made such a proposal to them today.

Forrest Tucker is a true character. The full story which David Lowery adapted from David Grann’s New Yorker magazine can be found here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/01/27/the-old-man-and-the-gun

It’s a great story, one you might read and be warned: you will likely want to subscribe to the New Yorker, the best magazine in your local kiosk. The tale recount the many times he escaped from prison: 16. It’s a manual to prisoners throughout the land on how they can do the same, and will make the most hardened convict wish to subscribe to the magazine.

In his farewell appearance—Redford retired last month but maybe we can organize demonstrations to change his mind—he takes on the role of this bank robber who sticks up banks not because he desperately needs money but because he’d rather live than make a living. With two cronies, Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), the partners serving as lookouts and getaway drivers, Tucker would enter a bank with the flimsiest of disguises—a thick mustache, a broad hat, nothing more except that he charms his victims who are almost happy to give him the bills—and by just showing a gun, he gets managers across five states to order tellers to fill Tucker’s brief case to the brim.

Not only do the bank people fall for him. So does Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), married to Maureen (Tika Sumpter) with two kids. His passion to track the man down and put him behind bars is secondary to any wish for a promotion: he is enamored with this outlier of a bandit who gets what he wants with his savoir faire and probably without even showing the gun. Chased by police cars, Tucker gets out of his car to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), whom he meets cute while looking to repair her overheated car. (He uses the ploy to get the police cars to pass him by in a high-speed chase.) The movie’s center, in fact, is his chemistry with the woman in one of those rare films that have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with how the affection of two older people can be so intense that no hanky-panky is necessary. When Jewel finds out what her beau does for a living—no, make that what he does for a life—she disapproves, but she is not about to be judgmental.

This is the kind of policier that uses bank robbery almost as a MacGuffin. The real aim is to turn a bank robbery drama into the opposite of “Bonnie and Clyde” or the intense French thriller “Mesrine” and make it a story about a relationship between an older man and woman. It’s no wonder that it has been distributed by Fox Searchlight, the art studio under the Fox label, as many of us would probably pass this sort of drama by as just too sleepy. That’s too bad, because of all the movies you’ll see this year, the vast majority dealing with Millennials and folks around that age area, you’re not likely to find a couple with chemistry nearly as authentic and powerful as that between two first-class performers, Redford and Spacek.

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

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