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+

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

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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 11, 2018 at the DOC NYC Festival at IFC Center in Greenwich Village


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+

SKATE KITCHEN – movie review

SKATE KITCHEN

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Crystal Moselle
Screenwriter: Aslihan Unaldi, Crystal Moselle, Jennifer Silverman. Story by Crystal Moselle
Cast:  Rachel Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Kabrina Adams
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/18/18
Opens: August 10, 2018
Skate Kitchen Movie Poster
If you’re accustomed to hanging out with middle-class people who send their kids to pre-school and buy them Harvard sweatshirts when they’re five, you and your kids are missing a view of an urban subculture of teenagers who are likely having more fun skateboarding on the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown than you had when you were a kid.   The youngsters who are the focus of Crystal Moselle’s largely improvised, full of street-smarts, and energetic cast have a lot to say to one another, thanks largely to their refusal to spend all their time starting at the small screens that Samsung makes, i-phones that you might swear are designed to sweep away the natural spontaneity of childhood.

Director Moselle, whose “The Wolfpack” deals with a group of brothers who are locked away from society in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment whose pastime is re-enacting scenes from films, again focuses on what for a better term are called “urban”people—generally meaning African-American and Hispanic youths living on mean city streets.  With a screenplay by the director together with Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Silverman, “Skate Kitchen” is similar to “The Wolfpack” in that its principal character is also locked away from society at least metaphorically.  Eighteen-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), living with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez), is too distant from the hip streets of New York’s Chinatown.  She is still a virgin who has to ask “How do you know when you like a boy?” and “How do you know that a boy likes you?”  She had been a tomboy, bonded with her father until the age of eleven when she switched loyalty to her mom as she wanted to learn the joys of womanhood.

With her skateboard, she travels to Chinatown, meets members of a group called Skate Kitchen about whom she learned on her i-phone.  She is shy and must take her time before she is accepted by an assertive group of skateboarders who admire the risks she takes in the playground—that seems built primarily to allow skateboarders to practice their hobby amid elevations and hurdles.  She takes the Long Island Railroad regularly—it’s summer—and soon fits in just fine, whether hitching to the back of a bus, rolling through city streets and never-mind-the-traffic, or enjoying herself in the playground.  She becomes interested in Devon (Jaden Smith), a young man who works with her in a supermarket, spends one-on-one time with him, and is ejected from the group for horning in on the boyfriend of Janay (Delia Lovelace).

Some of the skateboarding techniques are a joy to watch.  Obviously these kids have been on the boards long before the director ever met them.  And given their patter, including a professional rendition by one rapper, they are comfortable enough to improvise in front of the camera and to provide the audience with a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like to be “urban” in our liberated twenty-first century.  As the principal character, Rachelle Vinberg, in her acting debut (this is the director’s non-documentary feature film debut as well), is perfect for the role.  Introverted at first as a kid unfortunate enough to be shut away from real life in a suburb, she emerges pretty quickly, coming of age, as they say, when she—and we in the audience—emotionally understand the importance of fitting in, finding your own groove.

Rated R.  105 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+

Overall – B+

HER COMPOSITION – movie review

HER COMPOSITION

Picturetrain Company
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Stephan Littger
Screenwriter: Stephan Littger
Cast: Joslyn Jensen, Heather Matarazzo, Lulu Wilson, Christian Campbell, Margot Bingham, Rachel Feinstein, Kevin Breznahan, John Rothman, Meg Gibson
Screened at: Amazon Prime, NYC, 7/27/18
Opens: On DVD May 1, 2018. Originally viewed theatrically in 2015 and available now to Amazon Prime members for no extra charge.

Her Composition (2015)

Artists are different from you and me. They see and hear things more creatively than the masses of people. Because of this, while they may have more joy from what they’re doing than accountants and burned-out physicians, most find it difficult to pay the bills. What artists crave above all, maybe even more than money, is inspiration, without which they will feel unfulfilled and ultimately driven into the cruel world of routine jobs.

Do you know people like that? If not, you will meet one such person, maybe even an icon in her ability to demonstrate the frustrations that come from a failure of inspiration. Maybe they will blame others, as this young woman did, and maybe they realize that fifty percent of the problem is not from society but from their own paucity of imagination. This young women, Malorie Gilman (Joslyn Jensen), is having difficulties, both financial and artistic. As a student in one of New York’s most prestigious conservatories, Malorie is told by the dean that the scholarship she needs to continue her studies has been awarded instead to a man. She blames the patriarchy at first before realizing that while women are still not treated right in our republic, moaning about injustices will neither pay the landlord nor give her satisfaction. So her Brooklyn apartment is going up $200 a month. So her dull accountant boyfriend Arthur (Ryan Metcalf), is dropping her. So she’s about to be discarded by the conservatory. Happily, help comes along that will solve her problems, both financially and artistically. We should all be so lucky.

Her friend Gila (Margot Bingham) works for a women’s rights organization, attracting the attentions of Kim (Okwui Okpokwasili), who is willing to turn over a list of her clients for possible FBI prosecution. Kim wants the info to be delivered to Gila, a list of clients with each one’s fetishes, though she praises her favorite guy as “romantic.” Instead Malorie keeps the documents and, bypassing escort agencies, contacts a few of the men herself. Somehow, though these fellows all dug a black escort, they are all fine with a skinny white woman who is on the shy side and at first does not really know what to do in bed to warrant payments of $1500 to $4500 a night. She makes heaps of money, but mirabile dictu, she uses her sexual experiences to write a thesis project for the school, one which she hopes would allow her to proceed with her doctoral studies.

In fact she mixes her bed times with sounds of the city—African drummers in Washington Square park, the vroom of the subway, people’s chit-chat. Now she is not only a composer: she is a painter who, after rolling white paint on her walls uses her new creativity in the service of an unusual cartography. She knocks out a map of New York on the wall with arrows pointing to the men she has been servicing. I don’t know if you find this concept appealing. In fact you may be more interested in the sex scenes, a few of which could qualify as soft porn in the style of “Fifty Shades of Gray.” The most sensual scenes are with the romantic, a hip bearded fellow who, given the sculptures in his apartment could mark him as a world traveler. The scariest is with a guy in a New York Sheraton Hotel who makes sure to double lock the door and who in one scene does something to cause Malorie to fight him off.

This movie is the feature of Stephan Littger, who also wrote and edits the film and whose previous work, “Toxic Oranges:* a Wall Street Fairy Tale” is about a homeless seller of oranges on Wall Street who gains success by inventing a credit system. This marks him as a man with the imagination to create movies with fairy tale implications, the trippiness of “Her Composition” serving as a sharply edited bit of cinema with stunning sound effects, segments of musical compositions, and a story that makes the most of sounds—city scenes and sexual unions—that are transformed by one creative person into surprisingly absorbing music.

As for Malorie, Joslyn Jensen is in virtually every frame captured by Andres Karu’s lenses, sometimes in extreme close-up, sometimes with her hair in a bun (not attractive) and other times free flowing (yes!). Her emergence from a timid, frustrated near-failure to an assertive woman thanks to her sexual experiences (which only an artist would be able to translate into painting and music) is oddly credible. And the film is a love letter to New York; its subways, its diversity, its schools, and the creativity it offers to those who can profit artistically.

Unrated. 92 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN BIGFOOT – movie revewi

From Montréal’s Fantasia International Film Festival 2018

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT

Epic Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Robert D. Krzykowski
Screenwriter:  Robert D. Krzykowski
Cast:  Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Ron Livingston, Ellar Coltraine
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Featuring a revisionist view of history, an element of horror, regret at a romantic opportunity not taken, Robert D. Krzkowski’s fantasy is mostly about the loneliness and melancholy of old age.  And who better to pay the part of a quiet man who rises several times to the occasion when only violence is justified than Sam Elliott?  As Calvin Barr, this New England resident lives a quiet life with his loyal Golden Retriever Ralph, and is a subject that is in the writer-director’s métier.  Though this is Krzykowki’s freshman feature-length movie, we can anticipate the subject matter by noting that his short “Elsie” in 2016 is located in the sleepy town of Campbell Falls, wherein one Ridley Hooper awakens to discover that he must rescue his little sister has been stolen by an army of creepy Shadowmen.

What emerges is a look at Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott), who has memories of his younger days, where he is played by Aidan Turner, a World War 2 hero and American soldier with a gift for languages who dons a Nazi officer’s uniform, worms his way into Hitler’s headquarters, and shoots him in the chest and in the head.  Of course we know that Der Fuehrer ended his own life by poison and a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after which his loyal followers destroyed his corpse in limestone.  Or do we?  According to Krzykowski, the assassination was covered up and it was really Hitler’s number two man who ended his life as the Russians moved in.

Using his signature gruff voice and monotone, Elliott appears with a thick head of white hair parted in the middle, his only roommate being Ralph the dog, and for our benefit, Calvin conjures up the past.  He is a resounding success as an espionage agent who infiltrates the Nazi war machine, observing two lines of prisoners bound to a train leading to a concentration camp.  Though he knows his killing of Hitler is both justified and essential, he has mixed feelings since, after all, he had taken a man’s life.

In a more pleasant setting, he dates Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), and is about to offer her a diamond ring in an upscale restaurant when the couple are harassed by the parents of one of Maxine’s third-grade students.  They profess their love for each other, but nothing has come of it, though events overtake the two leading to Calvin’s loneliness.  Now in 1985 the elderly gentleman is still able to fend off an attack by three thugs demanding his wallet and car keys.  Knowing Calvin’s reputation in the war and of the way he dispatched the muggers, two agents–one from the FBI, Flag Pin (Ron Livingston), the other, Maple Leaf (Rizwan Manji), from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, visit him in his cabin begging him to go to the Canadian wilds and destroy Bigfoot (Mark Streger), a monster who is spreading an epidemic that could lead to the end of the world.

Calvin is a man of few words and, in fact, he has not kept in communication with his younger brother Ed (Larry Miller), a small-town barber, who offers to give him solace if only he would use him to relieve the stress of Calvin’s loneliness.  Since the title of the film already gives away that Calvin kills both monsters, Hitler and Bigfoot, there is no surprise there.  Instead the real treat is in Sam Elliott’s performance, a delightfully underplayed execution that is threatened only by Joe Kraemer’s loud, intrusive music.  This is the kind of American myth which is however fantastical comes across as strangely believable.  And boy, do we need a myth to believe in now!

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

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

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY – movie review

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ben Lewin
Screenwriter:  Robert Rodat
Cast:  Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/9/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
The Catcher Was A Spy - Movie Posters
I was about to say that there’s not a heck of a lot of major league baseball players who are Jewish but got straightened out by Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Jewish_Major_League_Baseball_players. Morris (Moe) Berg was not only one of them, though not much more than a mediocre catcher.  His forte was intellectual.  He graduated from Princeton and Columbia, knew 12 languages including Latin, Turkish, Japanese, Sanskrit and Hindi, and read 10 newspapers daily.  In other words he was a Renaissance man, ideally suited, our military believed, for acting out a project as a spy during World War 2 and an assassin.  In a best-selling book by Nicholas Dawidoff “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” the egghead-jock was known as the brainiest man who ever played for the Majors.  Ben Lewin, who adapts the book along with Robert Rodat give us nothing to doubt that assessment.

The biopic, which takes some liberties with truth, fashions Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) as a guy who was not being entirely self-deprecatory when he describes his baseball achievements without a shred of bravado when folks crowd around him and ask him to autograph a ball.  But ultimately he does such a fantastic job as a spy that he was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can get for contributing to the national interests of the United States.

But something is amiss in the film.  Somehow a picture about espionage—about a plan to assassinate a German nuclear scientist—comes across as not only old-fashioned (which Lewin may have intended) but as plain dull.  There are stereotypical scenes at night during rain and fog which makes the viewer think of the hoariest of clichés “It was a dark and stormy night.”  And while Rudd successfully passes himself off as an intellectual, in part by playing a chess game without a board and with the man he is expected to kill, he is too bland for the role and is better suited for films like “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Ant Man,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  He does have a woman friend, Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) who is itching to marry him and who participates in one sexual scene which, however innocent today, would never have been shown if the film were released in the 1940s.

Before the war began, Berg is touring Japan playing exhibition games with American baseball stars, but he shows his capacity for spying by filming military targets from the roof of a tall building.  While playing catcher for the White Sox, Red Sox, Indians and Senators he is thought to be “queer,” and in one instance he is followed down the street by a bully and comes off able to defend himself and then some.  When William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels), a high official in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), later to morph in the CIA, is considering sending Berg out on his assassination mission, the catcher is asked whether he is “queer” and answers “I can keep a secret”—the perfect reply in that his mission requires great secrecy.

The baseball scene is all too brief and so is the battle action. When Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giammatti), a physicist working for the U.S. in Italy, becomes trapped in a shootout with German occupiers, Goudsmit comes off as a fish out of water but acts the part in a clownish and embarrassing way.  Ultimately Berg is smuggled from Italy across the Swiss border to Zurich where he does meet the would-be victim, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). While we in the audience might be tempted to think “Shoot the guy and stop talking,” we may be missing the point.  Berg is using his intellect to ignore the order at least temporarily while he tries to calculate whether Heisenberg would defect to the Allied effort.  Germany did not develop nuclear weapons.

Though Berg would hang out in gay bars, there is little indication that he was homosexual, and in any rate, the suggestion as conjured by scripter Robert Rodat is superfluous, a possible invention that does a disservice to the hero.  Andrij Parekh filmed the action in Prague and Boston, taking full advantage of cloak and dagger proceedings on dark and foggy nights.  English is spoken throughout with an occasional injection of Italian and Japanese.

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

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

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – movie review

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, Fred Rogers
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 5/10/18
Opens: June 8, 2018

In a key point made by Fred Rogers during one of his 895 shows, the country’s greatest friend of children asks the audience, “All of us have special ones who have helped you become who you are.” And he meant business, waiting in silence until some came up with answers. How about you, dear reader? Who helped you become the person you are today? Mom? Dad? Grandpa who explains his COPD to his granddaughter? Batman? There’s an implication here that not only might some of us be unable to name a single person for that award, though one would not be surprised to name Fred Rogers. In addition, are there any heroes out there, not Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman but a real hero: one who can connect with children, keep them awestruck, give them the feeling that life is good and that they are protected. And that would be Mr. Rogers. From 1968 through 2001 Fred Rogers taped his shows, always starting with the same motif, because presumably children, who often ask to see a movie twenty times, would appreciate the stability.

In “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers would come home, open the door, and sing his theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, change into blue tennis sneakers, put on a cardigan sweater, though changing the colors, giving him a Jimmy Carter look. And in fact, like President Carter, Rogers placed a great value on religion–having attended a seminary with the thought of becoming a reverend. But he did not want to preach: he wanted to connect, and there’s a difference. A trolley car would lurch forward, passing a castle, and focus largely on a puppet named King Friday XIII, who built a wall around his kingdom because he did not like change. Could Fred Rogers have forecast the present administration? He would bring the little guests up to the stage for interaction. And he would feed a tank of fish, taking care to lift a dead creature from the bottom of the tank to give it a proper burial.

Ironically he did not like television with its fast editing and especially despised cartoons featuring exploding heads, falling bodies of animals, and lots of noise. His aim was to help protect kids, and when you think about it, isn’t that the most important job a parent has? But you cannot prevent young people from watching the fate of the Challenger and the assassination of Robert Kennedy (one puppet on the stage asks the meaning of the word “assassination” and got an honest answer). He did not shy away from talking about divorce, given the rising propensity of people to bolt whenever the dinner is not out on time, stating that sometimes two people prefer to live apart because they are not happy together.

He worried about shows depicting Superman, fearing that some kids might put on red capes, sport the big “S” on their shirts, and try to fly from buildings, as some actually did. For that, he gently warned his listeners that they should not try duplication as flying is a job for professionals. To counteract racism he would occasionally bath his feet in a basin of water, inviting a man of color to take off his shows and share the bowl—which he always did.

Once Eddie Murphy did a satirical sketch of the show, fortunately shown at night when protected kids would not be awake. Even more dangerous, Fox News lashed out at Rogers’ repeated message that each child is special. “Does he mean that even if someone does nothing in his life, he or she is still special?” is what Fox more or less said, demonstrating the same kind of stupidity that they continue to spew at their audiences daily.

For Fred Rogers, the most important puppet was probably Daniel Tiger, his alter ego, a friendly creature who worried that he was a mistake, because he knows nobody else like him. This plays right into Rogers’ ideology, telling children that the beauty of each individual is that everybody is like nobody else on the planet.

The documentary is huggable. It’s a wonderful show that should leave the audience with good feelings, despite being thought too saccharine by some in the audience. Though Rogers meant to talked to the older folks, he was concerned almost totally with connecting with the small fry, a feat that he likely thought to be absent from all other TV programs. Kudos to PBS for continuing the show through the almost 900 episodes, the similarities among them not something to be criticized because, after all, kids feel protected when they can readily identify the entrances and exits, enjoying Rogers at the piano, even digging the man’s slow and careful delivery and a singing voice that would hardly rival that of Pat Boone.

Talking heads pop up throughout, unanimously embracing everything that Rogers is doing for the children, including Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, and David Newell. Given the way Morgan Neville—who had contributed such fare as “Best of Enemies,” a wholly adult pic pitting liberal Gore Vidal against conservative William Buckley—you may find it compelling that this director would be at home with both the headiest of intellectual debates and the magical, wonderful world of youngsters.

Unrated. 94 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AMERICAN ANIMALS – movie review

AMERICAN ANIMALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE SACRIFICE – movie reveiw

THE SACRIFICE

Kino Classics from Kino Lorber – new 4K restoration
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andre Tartovsky
Screenwriter:  Andre Tartovsky
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production Design: Anna Asp
Costumes: Inger Pehrsson
Editing: Andrei Tarkovsky, Michal Leszczylowski
Cast:  Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall, Guorún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter, Valérie Mairesse, Filippa Franzén, Tommy Kjellqvist
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/17/18
Opens: For complete schedule download https://KinoLorber.com/Film/TheSacrifice.  Blu-Ray and DVD available from Kino Lorber.

The Doomsday clock is ticking and while it ticks, the world remains whole, if deeply fragmented.  Now at two minutes to midnight, or is it three? No matter.  You cannot blame everything on President Trump.  John F. Kennedy moved the minute ever-so-close in the early sixties by challenging the Soviet Union on the high seas but the only bang we heard was from Khruschev’s shoes.  Now, though, with climate change competing with nuclear weapons as the ultimate globe-buster, we need something, but what do we need?  Is it more spiritualism?  More home town religion? A different President and a more flexible Congress?  Who knows?  Maybe Andre Tartovsky can clue us in as he has already done with his final film “The Sacrifice,” which he wrote and directed while dying from lung cancer.  Facing imminent death and the loss of everything, Tartovsky, an expat Russian filming in Swedish with the Ingmar Bergman’s favorite lenser Sven Nykvist, Tartovsky unfolds a drama with no music on the soundtrack save for a Bach aria, a quick melody on the flute, a movie devoid of humor, unless you get your funny-bone tickled by watching a grown man having sex with a witch.

Is that what we need?  Sex with a good witch to end the Iran crisis, the North Korea crisis, the Russia crisis?  Apparently the technique worked then, in 1985 which is the time period of the film, as the world survived thanks, perhaps, to the machinations a small group of neurotic Swedes which included not only the sex (we don’t see much of that since the film is rated PG but don’t even think of taking your eight-year-old to see it) but a sacrifice made by the principal character. Alexander (Erland Josephson), in a Faustian bargain with God, agrees to give up everything, his house and all his possessions if the Almighty would save his loved ones.

The plot, though, takes a back seat to D.P. Nykvist’s capture of the bleak landscape of rural Sweden, here a Baltic island, a scene that makes the viewer understand instantly while Northern Europeans flock to sunny Spain whenever they get a chance.  As the DVD from Kino Classics states, the film evokes an “arresting palette of luminous grays washing over the bleak landscape.”  Characters are shot at first from a distance as in the absorbing opening scene featuring Alexander, a philosopher and critic undergoing a mid-life crisis as anyone living with his neurotic friends and family might.  With his six-year-old mute Little Man in tow, he converses with Otto (Allan Edwall), a dour part-time postman and former history teacher.   Even before the thunder erupts and military jets zoom over the remote island, the two despair.

Aside from the Bach aria, the picture is highbrow, throwing names around like Nietzsche, Gandhi and Jesus while capturing close-ups of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of Three Kings,” which causes the postman fear.   And about the other neurotics: Alexander’s wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) delivers a monologue to which some in the audience will relate, “I have loved one man and married another,” implying that Victor (Allan Edwall), a doctor, is having an affair with her but wants to chuck it all for a post in Australia “to get away from all of you.”

The postman, a bit of a mystic, sees that a Maria (Guarún Gísladóttir), a weird housemaid, is a witch and directs Alexander to bike out to her digs.  And what woman can resist a seduction that promises salvation for the world if she would “lie” with the rich man?  Well, he doesn’t exactly reveal her importance yet, delivering an impassioned monologue about how, in trying to bring order to his mother’s garden, he has destroyed natural beauty.  To restore the natural order, you’ve got to see the real fire that forms a dramatic conclusion to the film.  (In the Kino Lorber DVD we learn something quite interesting about the filming of this fire.)

Message alert: Science is destroying the world!  And this movie was made before young people became addicted to the soul-crushing technology of the iPhone!

Stay with it.  If you’re into Ingmar Bergman, you’ll have no trouble doing so.  This is not middle-brown Woody Allen entertainment but a thoughtful tale with imagery superimposed on and even more important than dialogue.  See it on the big screen as it has been updated to a new 4K restoration to play in several cities.  The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Rated PG.  146 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B+

Overall – B

POPE FRANCIS: A Man of His Word – movie review

POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Wim Wenders, David Rosier
Screenwriter:  Wim Wenders
Cast:  Pope Francis, Recep Tayvip Erdogan, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Shimon Peres, Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Win Wenders
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/14/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

As an occasionally lapsed member of PETA, I have a favorite saint, which of course would be St. Francis.  He once had birds surround him, intrigued by the power of his voice.  As he preached, not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand. Even more sensational, in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though Francis pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet, at which time he lectured the animal, warning him to stop devouring the aforementioned men and animals.

Given my affection for the man who did his good deeds during the first half of the 13th Century, I’m surprised that no other pope beginning with the first one, St. Peter, took his name, though a few were members of the Franciscan order.  What impressed the current holder of the office most is arguably his medieval namesake’s embrace of poverty.  Though the son of a rich silk merchant whose father gave him (if you’ll allow) hell for hand alms to the poor, he redeemed himself from the sinful life of the haute bourgeoisie by giving himself to a life of poverty.  For his part, Pope Francis eschewed living in luxury, instead resting his head in a small apartment near the Vatican—at least when he is not traveling outside Argentina to places like Bangui in the Central African Republic and the favelas of Rio, where somehow the residents are not especially pleased with their own penurious condition.  The Cariocas on display in this documentary do not consider picking up food and clothes dropped by the neighborhood dumpster to be an act of holiness, and would probably give up their chance to go through the eye of a needle if by consolation they could dine on oysters at Marius Degustare’s place at Avenida Atlantica 290.

Wim Wenders, whose best work in my view is the mystical “Wings of Desire,” spends much of his time listening to Pope Francis one-on-one, where the Pontiff elucidates his philosophy without the buzz of the tens of thousands of people he gathers whenever he visits a foreign country, blesses the crowd at the Vatican, or entrances the multitude in his own Buenos Aires.  He is called a charismatic man, but would surely not be classified with JFK or Churchill as a rousing speaker.  Rather, his charisma, his hold on vast numbers of Catholics and other too, comes from the fact that, well, he does hold the highest office in the Church and receives a pope’s share of publicity.

What are his views?  Principally, though he extols his 13th Century namesake for choosing poverty, and is angry at the world’s inequality, wherein 20% of the global population holds 80% of its wealth.  (Even more dramatic statistics come out of the U.S.)

Also he wants governments to build bridges, not walls, wants people to stop ruining their mental health by getting off the accelerator because “we’re not machines,” and praises Judaism for founding the Shabbat when no work is done.  Gays? He tells people on a special flight that “Who am I to judge?”and wants couples whose arguments sometimes lead to “plates flying” (which draws a big laugh from the audience though if you or I said this there would be stony silence), to make peace before bedtime.  Unlike U.S. politicians who preach to the middle class but act to enrich the upper classes, his constituency is the poor.

With all these praiseworthy beliefs in his DNA, it’s no wonder that, as he puts it, the cardinals sought him out “from the end of the world,” meaning Argentina.

Also impressive is director Wenders’ use of his and Lisa Rinzler’s shoots in Assisi, black-and-white, deliberately faded and silent film, showing an actor playing St. Francis who at the key point in his life heard God tell him to restore a dilapidated church—which I believe he did thinking that God’s will is more important than his father’s rage at the saint’s alleged throwing away his money.

The film got added publicity five days before its May 18th opening when CBS’ Sixty Minutes showed excerpts.  Now if the movie crowd is anything like the 10,000 folks who line up every time he speaks, the box office should exceed that of “Black Panther.” After all, what other movie has a cast that includes Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Simon Peres (hugging Abu Mazen, believe it or not), Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, John Kerry, John Boehner, Joe Biden, and  hundreds of extras in the U.S. Congress who give the pope standing ovations.

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

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

AZIMUTH -movie review

AZIMUTH

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mike Burstyn
Screenwriter:  Mike Burstyn
Cast:  Yiftach Klein, Sammy Sheik, Alon Dahan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/4/18
Opens: April 12 in Israel.  June 7, 2018 at JCC Manhattan

On Christmas Eve and the following day in 1914 during the early stages of the First World War,  French, German, and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land to exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Events like this—enemies getting together as though friends, the phenomenon celebrated much later in the slogan “What if they gave a war and nobody came?—occur in the fictional drama “Azimuth.”

During the Six Day War enveloping Israel and five enemy nations in 1967, a cease-fire was declared, which was actually a euphemism for the end of the fighting.  But not everyone heard about the action by politicians, so, on the seventh day, some did not rest.  Two soldiers, Egyptian Rashid (Sammy Sheik), and Israeli Moti (Yiftach Klein), found themselves alone in the vast Sinai desert.  Through plot machinations, they both find themselves hold up in a bombed-out UN building, not much more than two stories surrounded by beaten-up walls.  The Israeli stayed on the first level, the Egyptians on the second. What will they do?  Will they act as hostiles throughout, trying to shoot, explode, or otherwise kill the other as the only chance for survival?  Will they talk, and arrange for a deal in a Kumbaya moment, shaking hands and wondering what all the fuss was about?  For that you’ll have to see the movie which opened in Israel April 12, 2018 and will make an appearance at several Israel Film Festivals including one in Manhattan on June 7.

“Azimuth” is essentially a two-man show with some recent flashbacks giving the two time to reminisce about life just before they were called into service.  For his part Moti thinks of better days, lying on the beach and taking photos of his sweetheart  (Naama Preis), which segues into their wedding day when Moti is called into service by a messenger.  This is the way it’s done in Israel,  No snail mails from the Selective Service folks.  For his part Rashid has a heart-to-heart with his Smira (Samar Qupty), debating how many children they will have—she wants three, he favors an army of tots.  This is all to the point of “what’s-the-war-all-about” anti-war pleas from the director, Mike Burstyn.  The Bronx-born director is known mostly for his acting in such Jewish-themes  pics as “Kuni Leml,” “The Dybbuk,” and “Shabat Hamalka.”

Since two men must hold their own throughout, it’s a relief that the film is a brief 78 minutes, but even then there’s lots of repetition, and besides, you’d have to suspend disbelief not only because the action is bizarre but because the two soldiers from opposite sides speak fluent English to each other.

The film, which is part of the Israeli Festival this year, is set against other works, some good, some ridiculous, for example the terrific “The Cakemaker,” about a Berlin baker who has a fling with a married Israeli gentleman, and the disappointing “Shelter,” about a Lebanese woman being protected by a female Mossad agent in Germany.

For more info on the festival this year contact  https://www.jccmanhattan.org/film/israel-film-center-festival/

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

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