WHO WE ARE NOW – movie reveiw

WHO WE ARE NOW

Film Rise
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matthew Newton
Screenwriter: Matthew Newton
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/1/18
Cast: Julianne Nicolson, Emma Roberts, Zachary Quinto, Jess Weixler, Lea Thompson, Jason Biggs, Jimmy Smitts
Opens: May 25, 2018

Who We Are Now Movie Poster

It’s not unusual for two actress to deliver awards-worthy performances during the prestige season of November-December. But it’s unlikely this early in the year for the academy members and all the other awards organizations to be delighted by two spot-on performances. One such actress would be Toni Collette, already considered by those in the know as one of the greats of her generation, this year delivering her best performance as a jinxed woman in “Hereditary.” The other? Julianne Nicholson, in the role of a desperate woman who, having served a decade in prison for a crime revealed only in the closing moments. Nicholson is not as known as Collette and has been underutilized, but in Matthew Newton’s naturalistic indie, we become patiently aware of not only the situation she has faced as ex-convict, but not so much about a young, not quite mature lawyer who is defender her in a custody battle.

The story unfolds so casually that we in the audience have to wonder just what is happening, what the stakes are. Soon after her release from prison, Beth (Julianne Nicholson) shows up unannounced at the home of her sister Gabby (Jess Weixler) and Gabby’s husband Sam (Scott Cohen), only to be told that next time she’d better phone before visiting. Why so? During Beth’s incarceration Gabby and Sam were granted guardianship over Beth’s ten-year-old boy Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), a lively kid obviously well-nurtured by his guardians with ambitions to move from second trumpet to principal player at his school. Beth is, after all, the boy’s biological mother but I think her sister is correct in figuring that since Alec had not met Beth at any time and had been told that his guardians are his parents, what’s the point of confusing him now?

The title of the film, “Who We Are Now,” indicates that writer-director Matthew Newton wants us to compare and contrasts the lives of two women. One is a cynical criminal whose maternal talents are unknown and who is desperate for a job paying more than she earns in a nail salon. The other is a young woman recently out of Columbia Law School treated poorly by her Waspish mother (Lea Thompson) who is concerned mostly about her daughter’s upcoming wedding, demanding more of Beth’s time for the family.

Much of the dialogue involving Beth and her women friends is unnecessary and could have been cut to give up more insight into Jess’ conflicts with her job. She works with Carl (Jimmy Smits) who wants her commitment to remain with a pro-bono law firm that works with folks unable to afford lawyers, impressed by her defense of a youthful high-school dropout inside the prison system. By contrast, Beth cannot dream of working at anything better than a job as a waitress, and even for even a chance at that job, she has to sexually service Vince (Jason Biggs), a restaurant manager, if she has any hope of landing the gig. Her hard shell is softened by her casual friendship with Peter (Zachary Quinto), a barfly who had served in Afghanistan, reports that the war is a nightmare, and can’t wait to go back for another stint.

Australian director Matthew Newton has many acting roles in his résumé, both TV spots and feature films, and before taking on this project had been at the helm of three other features including “From Nowhere” (undocumented Bronx high schools try to get papers to stay in the U.S.), and “Three Blind Mice” (Navy officers enjoy one last night in Sydney before shipping off to the fight in the Gulf). Evoking entertainment value out of a film that emphasizes naturalistic conversations is difficult: Newton succeeds admirably.

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

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

THE WEDDING GUEST – movie review

THE WEDDING GUEST
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 2/27/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

The Wedding Guest Movie Poster

“I’ve got a confession to make,” says kidnapper Jay (Dev Patel) to his kidnapee, Samira (Radhika Apte). “I can’t swim.” “No matter,” replies Samira, “I’ll teach you.” This is about the level of dialogue to expect throughout “The Wedding Guest,” a movie that does not do credit to its writer-director, Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom, whose superb fare includes “24 Hour Party People,” (which brings Manchester’s music to the world), “Welcome to Sarajevo” (during the Bosnian war a journalist takes a kid from an orphanage back to England), and “Code 46” (a romance is doomed by genetic incompatibility), now is at the helm of a thriller with banal dialogue throughout. Actors have not much to do, and a pair of leads’ slow-burning romance never catches fire. What’s more there is little backstory to the Jay and Samira. We know nothing about how British citizen Deepesh (Jim Sarbh) found out that he could hire Jay to kidnap his girlfriend from Pakistan, where she is about to be wed against her will in an arranged marriage. If you know about Pakistani culture, you realize that a woman cannot refuse to marry her parents’ choice lest she be killed, as a refusal would dishonor the family.

This is why when Samira is kidnapped in the dead of night by Jay, she is both frightened and elated. At the same time that she is bound, gagged, and hooded by the abductor, she knows that she has been saved from what would probably be a frightful life, though when thrown into the trunk of his car, she has other thoughts about trusting the kidnapper.

Jay may or may not be a professional criminal with a major in abduction, but he’s in it strictly for the money that has been promised by Deepesh. Yet when a hunk like Jay gets to spend time with Samira, who slowly gets to trust him, you expect a hot romance to follow before she is turned over to the boyfriend. The first flirtatious steps are taken—by her—but despite her beauty, Jay seems reluctant to deal with her other than as his ticket to a fat payment. For her part, Samira’s feelings for Deepesh are not on the up-and-up. She, who at one point is called a “snake” by the guy who dished out thousands of dollars to rescue her, may have been correct about the lass. After some twists and turns in the script, we see that nobody is what he or she seems and everybody is out for something below the surface.

Given the absence of chemistry throughout, we wonder what the picture has to offer. Look then to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens to provide some awards-worthy photography in various locations in India, ranging from a look at fleabag hotels right up to Delhi’s majestic Taj Mahal digs. Filmed in Delhi, Goa, Jaipur and most impressively Amritsar where we get a shot of the temples that jut out in the holy city of the Sikh people, we have a view of both tourist India and what our president calls a sh*hole—the endless traffic of bikes and cars, the honking that fills the air, the shady dealers in forged passports, and one establishment jewelry store that cannot buy a diamond because it would not find a buyer for the $100,000 stone. When the Oscar ceremony takes place Feb. 2, 2020 and the 5,000 or so voters remember “The Wedding Guest,” be ready this picture to go to the top of the class in cinematography. Yet the movie fails to deliver passion or wit or thrills.

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

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

EVERYBODY KNOWS – movie review

EVERYBODY KNOWS (Todos lo saben)
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín, Eduard Fernandez, Barbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 1/23/19
Opens: February 8, 2019

Todos lo saben Movie Poster

The long-running TV series “Cheers” features the bar as a character in its own right, the bar where everybody knows your name. Many of us would be overjoyed to meet almost daily in a place so friendly, but there is a limit. If everybody knows your name, that’s fine. But would you like everybody to know everything about you? This is the situation in Torrelaguna, an autonomous region of Spain’s Madrid community where Asghar Farhadi’s latest film was photographed. It has the small-town ambiance despite its proximity to the nation’s capital, a fair-sized segment of land given over to a vineyard which is co-owned by Paco (Javier Bardem), a gentleman who will figure greatly in the plot.

“Everybody Knows” is the first movie in Spanish from the Iranian director. Farhadi, whose principal work in my opinion is “A Separation”—about whether a couple will provide a better life for their child by moving out of Iran or whether they should stay in their home country to treat a father with dementia—this time focuses on a large community involving an extended family, groups of neighbors, and an assortment of grade pickers working in a vineyard. At first, the film could be taken as a lively documentary about how people celebrate a wedding, the family members drinking as they would in just about any event of its kind. This looks like a group that seem as close and friendly as you would hope to have in your neighborhood. But when a kidnapping occurs, fissions become active, leading to fights involving Antonio (Ramón Barea), the elderly father of Laura (Penélope Cruz), who is said to have gambled away his share of the vineyard.

Imagine yourself at a large wedding, a friend of the bride who has only a faint idea of the guests invited by the groom. This is the situation you’ll find yourself in while watching the celebration. Allow some time to figure out who is married to whom, who may have fathered someone outside of marriage, who is the young man flirting with the young woman, and then some. After a half hour or so, you’ll get an idea of how everyone fits in, especially the situations of Laura and her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), who spend most of their time in Buenos Aires and travel up to Madrid only for special occasions and brief visits. Some of the principals are afflicted with problems of their own making. Old man Antonio—Laura’s father, remember?—is a drunk who lost his land. Alejandro is a friend of the bottle as well and is unemployed, having gone to Germany to look for a job without success. Paco has a secret life that everyone in the small community knows about.

The kidnapping of high-spirited Irene (Carla Campra), a teen who is drugged at the celebration and kidnapped by what looks like an inside job, is employed by writer-director Farhadi to turn the movie a psychological thriller while at the same time the crime is a catalyst to expose the family secrets. Some of the action borders on soap opera, but a more refined soap than you get on the afternoon TV shows here. When you think about the crime, you try to guess who from the wedding is involved. When you think about the families, you’re in the sphere, of course, of family drama. Dysfunction abounds. The crime aspects are gripping, enough so that you’ll barely notice that two and one-quarter hours have passed since you watched the opening credits amid the background of a church bell tower. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem have the chemistry you’d expect from two first-grade actors who in real life are married to each other since 2010 (two children), while the entire ensemble portray their qualities in a flawless fashion. The two principals aside, there’s little doubt that “Everybody Knows” is an ensemble piece, eminently watchable, allowing us to project our own lives into the bittersweet muddle that comprise this fine drama.

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

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

MAMMA MIA!HERE WE GO AGAIN – movie reveiw

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHOCK AND AWE – movie review

SHOCK AND AWE

Vertical Entertainment & Direct TV
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Rob Reiner
Screenwriter:  Joey Hartstone
Cast:  Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel Tommy Lee Jones, Luke Tennie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 6/29/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
Shock and Awe Movie Poster
Our President lies so many times that each successive perseveration has little impact.  Psychologists say that when you say anything that comes to your head, you yourself will probably not realize that you are lying.  However sometimes a single lie is such a blooper, has so much significance, that it reshapes the world.  That lie came from President Bush, although you could say that he believed a lie told by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi defector who hoped to become his country’s next leader.  That was that Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq whom the U.S. supported when that Middle Eastern country fought against Iran who now has weapons of mass destruction, or WMD’s that he might use against the United States.  Saddam was allegedly working on developing nuclear bombs and that he had, hidden somewhere, chemical and biological weapons that could havoc in the U.S.

Some people believe that Bush had an ulterior motive for attacking Iraq shortly after two planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.  Bush’s father, according to the rumor, was being targeted for assassination by Saddam and Dubya, i.e. George W. Bush (as opposed to his father George Herbert Walker Bush) was out for revenge.  Only Bush 43 knows the real reason for going to war in Iraq, a conflict which resulted in 36,000 American deaths and injuries and over one million deaths and injuries in Iraq.

Along comes a newspaper, actually a consortium of newspapers under the Knight Ridder label, the only major media to contradict even the New York Times.  The paper of record goofed by going along with Bush and advocating for military action.  But Knight Ridder did not believe that Saddam had WMD’s, its staff members given death threats for unpatriotic actions, specifically because that paper stood alone in telling the truth.  “Shock and Awe” is based on Knight Ridder’s thorough investigation leading to its big, bold dissent.

However Rob Reiner, who directed and has a principal role, gives us a “War 101” study which however well-meaning is so elementary and so lacking the tension that we experienced with movies like “A Few Good Men” and even the more recent “The Post,”
that journalism students may be bored and so might anyone who had been following U.S. war games for decades, though it could be a primer for people who have even less interest in foreign policy than I have in Major League baseball.

Reiner uses archival films starring higher-ups in government like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“there are unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know’), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush, and featuring a dramatized Ahmed Chalabi.  The major players though are the reporters with Knight Ridder with 32 newspapers throughout the U.S.  As heroes in the struggle for truth, reporter Jonathan Landay is played by Woody Harrelson, James Marsden in the role of Warren Strobel, and Rob Reiner sits in for editor John Walcott, the man who hires Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), a war correspondent, for confirmation.  The thing about syndicates in America is that not every subsidiary is bound to follow the leader, and in fact The Philadelphia Inquirer refused to join the Knight Ridder people in publishing their scoops.

Moments of tension are dramatized but not followed up.  During one evening as Landay and his wife Vladka (Milla Jovovich) prepare to cuddle, she breaks the mood by arguing with her husband insisting that his investigation will endanger the family (we see one example of a death threat taken against the reporters by Internet trolls). Nothing comes of that. In the movie’s one romantic thread, Warren Strobel and Lisa (Jessica Biel) go on a date in which she lectures the handsome but awkward gent about Middle Eastern politics that leaves him awed, but any intelligent middle school person studying politics at all would consider her information elementary.

The film’s sentimental and heartbreaking scene finds Adam (Luke Tennie) opening the movie by testifying about the Iraq War with a congressional committee, and in fact we see the explosion that severed his spinal cord in his very first day in Iraq and left him in a wheelchair.  The film’s script comes from Joey Hartstone, known for the more intelligent and less schmaltzy “LBJ”

Rated R.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

GENERATION WEALTH – movie review

GENERATION WEALTH

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 6/5/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Laura Greenfield, a photographer who gets the lens turned on herself several times during “Generation Wealth,” indicts consumerism not only in the U.S. but also in countries that have been infected by the disease recently, principally China.  She deals with a wholly different degree of unhappiness than Ken Loach, whose working-class documentaries show empathy with the poorest people in the UK and Europe, particularly migrant workers.  By contrast Greenfield believes that the excesses in the U.S. are driving the country off the cliff, much as (allegedly) Ancient Egypt went over the edge at a time that it was at its greatest prosperity.  One would expect her to draw a parallel as well with the fall of Rome, though it was not the excesses that led to its decline but rather its overextension in the known world that could not be defended by its armies.

Still, she believes that you can understand the mainstream people in the U.S. by dealing with the excesses of a minority but this simply does not make sense. Some Americans work 100 hours a week in law offices and financial firms to build greater fortunes, ignoring their families and depriving both their spouses and children of loving attention and discovering that the gobs of money did not make them happier.  A far greater problem is the need for so many of our people to work two or three jobs simply to make ends meet and thereby spending insufficient time with their families. It’s better to be rich and ignore your families than be poor and doing the same.

At any rate, she does not focus strictly on the desire for a great deal of money especially by today’s young people as shown by polls that find college students overwhelmingly saying that money was their most important goal.  She zeroes in on women who do not want simply to keep up with or even surpass the Joneses but with women who want to look like the entertainers they see on TV and in the movies.  They go in for plastic surgery and after getting the initial treatment they want more of the same.  One woman, Suzanne, is  a hedge fund executive who wakes up at age forty to discover that what she really wanted was children.    Strippers, who actually go to dance school to learn how to massage the poles become celebrities and have money thrown at them by delighted men.

The most interesting character is Florian Homm (see his Wikipedia article), a German businessman who was indicted in the U.S. for investment fraud, fled to Italy which set him up for extradition to the U.S., but wound up back in Germany where his country would not extradite him.  He did not look unhappy as he puffed on a fat cigar.

So let us not feel too sorry for the small minority of folks who are celebrities, or who want to be celebs, and who have the money and the inclination to reshape their figures.  The people here are the extreme.  Why Greenfield understands the majority of people by studying the extreme is beyond me.  What’s more the entire film is unfocused, shifting from a hunger for wealth to a desire for celebrity status, never showing how conspicuous consumption by a relatively small number of people is a real problem for America or even for China and European nations who are generating a love for money beyond what a normal person should want.

Rated R.  107 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE – movie review

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directed by:  Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel
Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Location:  Park Avenue, NYC, 5/22/18
Opens: April 6, 2018

Novelist Jonathan Ames, whose 112-page novella “You Were Never Really Here” comes across as a book written to be put on the screen, may not have had the current administration in the White House and Capitol Hill in mind when he described the corruption endemic in our system.  No matter.  Corruption is embraced under many generations of politicians in the U.S., which is why this adaptation situates its evil within the East Side-Midtown area of Manhattan, close to the UN and to the purveyors of capital.  It may or may not be a coincidence that the mansion depicted in the final scenes could resemble a likeness of  breathtaking wealth during the gilded age, where money rules, where in fact there are no rules, and to get things done all you have to do is hire the right kind of guy to do it.

In this noirish adaptation, writer-director Lynne Ramsay—whose “We Need to Talk About Kevin” about a mother made meek because of an “incident” must struggle to love her strange child—focuses now on another person of disturbed psyche.  And who can blame Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)?  He was brutalized by his father, became an FBI agent and then a soldier in the Iraq War, and sees ghosts wherever he goes.  The specters are often women with dead eyes who stalk him, evoked by his experience in Iraq where he sees a girl killed.  He simply was never really there for her.  He dedicates his remaining time to the service of a hit man, but so far as we can see he’s a good guy.  He is part of an organization that rescues girls kidnapped for sex slavery, with Nina Voto (Ekaterina Samsonov) standing in for one thirteen-year-old that he rescues, but her own zonked out appearance could have resulted as much from abuse she faced from her father, State Senator Albert Voto (Alex Manette), as from her treatment as a sex slave.  The senator tells Joe, his hit man (for $50,000) that she often ran away from home.  Her unprotected status made her easy prey for the perverted criminals who hooked her into their lair.

The picture is filled with violence, yet don’t expect to see a grand build-up leading to a massive assassination.  The particularly artistic tone of the eighty-nine minute film presents violence often as events that had already happened, as though Joe was conducting the fury and the bloodshed off screen like the ancient Greek tragedians.  His weapon of choice is a hammer, and he appears to buy a different one for each killing.  One of the killings has poetry.  As his victim is on the ground, blood gushing from his stomach, Joe lies down with the man, joins him in singing a song from the radio, and holds his hand—whether to ease his pain of death or to sense when the fellow has taken his final breath.

Joe’s gentle moments appear in his treatment of his mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he lives, and also in his care for the rescued thirteen-year-old.  Most important as we look over the whole scene is that rarely has a crime drama been told with such a lean and mean focus, cutting everything to the bone—with moments of ironic peace such as when Joe buries a victim, large plastic bag and all, into the lake, wading into the water with suit and tie.

This picture is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, one that will hopefully be remembered at end-year awards time.  The grizzled man with a huge beard, glassy eyes, with the aura of someone wandering with seeming aimlessness as though through a dream albeit with a specific purpose, is mesmerizing. Yet the film is for a special taste, for an audience that does not need to see the actual commissions of crimes graphically reproduced, but is more than content to focus primarily not on the brutality but on one disturbed man’s psyche.

Rated R.  89 Minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

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

LIVES WELL LIVED – movie review

LIVES WELL LIVED

Shadow Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Sky Bergman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/18
Opened: February 16, 2018 in small markets, later tbd

Moe to Joe (both are 50): Hey Joe, would you like to live to 100?
Joe to Moe: Don’t ask me, Moe.  Ask the guy who’s 99.

Being a curious guy who at age fifty is thinking of mortality, Moe should take a look at “Lives Well Lived.”  The characters portrayed in this doc by Sky Bergman (who wrote, directed, edited, produced and photographed the doc) are from 75 to 103.  Spoiler alert: none of the forty folks interviewed, representing 3000 years of wit and wisdom, show interest in dying earlier than 100.  The elderly subjects are from California, where the Philadelphia-born California transplant director teaches photography at California Polytech in San Luis Obispo.  Why doesn’t anyone feel like bowing out of life before 100?  It could be because they are mostly cherry-picked group of citizens, middle-class to upper-middle-class, involved in sculpting, painting, dancing, yoga, reading, and taking long walks along the leafy roads in and about San Luis Obispo.

They do have wisdom to apart, but come up short on wit. In fact the only bon mot came from a fellow who is asked how he happened to have 9 kids.  His reply?  “My wife couldn’t take her hands off me, and since I never have a headache, I had no excuse.”

As for the wisdom, there is nothing that you don’t already know, because, after all, is there anything original on this subject; something that hasn’t been said in hundreds of self-help books, in movies, on TV, and in your own life? Examples: Family is first.  Be kind.  Have curiosity.  Take some risks.  Take one day at a time (whatever that means). Don’t worry about failure: it teaches.  There is one comment on the border of originality: “Never try to change anyone, not one bit.”

Obvious points aside, Bergman has succeeded in accumulating some dandy archival film.  Nazis occupy Europe.  People are poorly clothed during the Depression.  Japanese-Americans in California are interned in camps, though the husband of one inmate fought for the U.S. and is shown in military attire (he was killed in action).  Whites protest school integration with signs like “Racial mixing is Communism.” Shots of the train leading some lucky children out of Vienna on the kindertransport program to Britain.

The most interesting fellow grew up helping his parents make mozzarella in their food establishment, then taking time out to attend medical school while going home daily to continue baking cheese and then studying medical texts until midnight.

Did anything come across that I could relate strongly to?  Of course, but the principal comment to the question “What should young people take away from this” was a wish that young people would stop texting.  “They’re oblivious to the beauty around them.” Amen.

The film was shown at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, which was attended by Evelyn Ricciardi, who wanted most at the age of 103 to see herself on the screen for her 15 minutes of fame.  She died three weeks after her birthday and is eulogized by Ms. Bergman.

Unrated.  72 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEFORE WE VANISH – movie review

BEFORE WE VANISH (Sanpo suru shinryakusha)

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Yuri Tsunematsu, Mahiro Takasugi, Masahiro Higashide
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/18
Opens: February 2, 2018

If you’re looking for the suspense and melodrama of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you won’t find it here except in such rare moments that you’ll welcome the mayhem. If, however, you seek a philosophic understand of the concept of love and the dire necessity of it in a world that sometimes seems on the fast track to hell, you may get some satisfaction from “Before We Vanish.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has enough of a reputation to encourage attendance by cinephiles, is best known for films like “Cure,” wherein a detective investigates a series of gruesome murders by people who have no recollection of what they have done. Here the famous Japanese director continues on that theme, soon noting that Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), the daughter of a victim, may be guilty of murdering her family. When Sakurai (Hiroki Hawegawa), a journalist with a weekly magazine, is following the story when he wanders into a more original and involving tale: Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), an alien, asks the journalist to be his guide. One wonders why Sakurai would involve himself at all given that Amano speaks of an imminent invasion of Earth by his fellow aliens. Grudgingly, Sakurai acts as a guide, informing the young man, a fish out of water, of the general culture of his fellow earthlings.

The principal story, however, is a romantic one, one of the redemptive power of love. Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is having a difficult time getting along with her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has become like an empty vessel. He has no memory of his life and, resembling an autistic man of about 30, has no knowledge of social graces. When Narumi, an illustrator whose boss is not satisfied with her designs for a festival, finds that Shinji interferes with her work by following her into her office, Shinji, with the touch of a finger, transports the rigid employer into a fun-loving fellow who throws papers around the office and acts like a fellow who’d rather not wait until the Christmas party to act child-like. In other words, sometimes changing people by taking from them their concept of work may not be an altogether bad thing.

Expect people to act odd, whether they are aliens with little knowledge of the culture of earthlings or human beings who have been inhabited by them, but the moments of violence are doled out as though with the annoyance of a director who would rather remain on a philosophic plane. With a Japanese title of Sanpo suru shinryakusha, or “Strolling Invaders,” we can understand that Kurosawa is in no hurry to rush into physical actions.

At 130 minutes with scattershot attempts to discuss the meaning of life, “Before We Vanish” is highbrow sci-fi that could have made its points with a metaphoric red pencil. The film played at the prestigious New York Film Festival in 2017. There are bound to be journalists who consider this the best sci-fi movie of the year, but for me, a more intense and focused narrative would have better served the entry.

Unrated. 130 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER – movie review

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER

Kino Lorber
Director:  Amos Gitai
Screenwriter:  Amos Gitai
Cinematographers:  Oded Kirma, Eitan Hai, Vladimir Truchovski
Cast: Amos Gitai, Yitzhak Rabin, Tzipi Lipni, Tzipi Hotovely, groups of Muslims and Jews
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/18
Opens: January 26 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Toward the conclusion of Amos Gitai’s documentary a carousel is spinning, but while its few inhabitants appear to be having a good time, the carousel exists here as a symbol.  Talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been going round and round, a veritable merry-go-roundelay, just like the subjects in Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Der Reigen,” also known as “La Ronde.”  Peace talks between the two sides have occasionally appeared to make progress, such as when Bill Clinton brought Yasser Arafat together with Menachim Begin—and the two adversaries actually shook hands.  In another instance, an extremist Jew was so fearful that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was on the verge of agreeing to a settlement that Rabin was killed to the cheers of other extremist Jews.  Killed by a fellow Jew!

Here we are today, the sides still apart, no talks scheduled between Abu Mazen on the Palestinian side and Bibi Netanyahu on the Israeli’s.  But not to worry: talks will resume, and a peace agreement will remain somewhere over the horizon.  “West of the Jordan River” is another talk-fest, this one initiated by Amos Gitai (Gitai is a Hebrew translation of his parents’ name Weinraub), an Israeli filmmaker with 62 credits, lots of shorts, the last one being “Rabin: The Last Day” about the aforementioned Israeli leader’s assassination.

Not that the doc will lead to peace and a joint chorus of Kumbaya, but it’s an entertaining enough film, some, but not I, would say hopeful, filled with mournful music (that I could do without) between each segment of chats with the locals. Surprisingly Gitai knows his own language, Hebrew, and also English, plus some French for having lived in voluntary exile in France.

But when he converses with Arabic-speaking people, he needs a translator.  He probably need not worry this time that his movie will inflame his fellow Israelis and force him to bolt to France as he did in 1982 after screening his doc “Field Diary,” which found Gitai chatting in Nablus and surrounding areas, making time to hear a fellow under house arrest.  His leftist credentials never wavered, and there’s an implication even with this current film that he belives Israel’s intransigence is the principal reason for instability between the two peoples.

“West of the Jordan River” is not as antagonistic.  He does not goad Israeli soldiers with his camera as he did in “Field Diary.”  And the folks with whom he chats are friendly, though some get pretty excited even though they do not curse the Israelis.  Not all the action takes place West of the Jordan, as much of the dialogue is within Israel proper and a few clips near the beginning in Gaza.  In Gaza, which the media portray as the home of the most militant faction against “Zionists,” people lean into Gitai’s van to say that they want to work in Israel; that they can build their community just as the Israelis built their land, if only they could have the freedom of their own independent nation.  One gets the impression that these Arabs are told that if they moderated their language and even sounded conciliatory, they would have the most chance of making the final cut of the film.

The trouble with everything here is that while Prime Minister Rabin is interviewed, suggesting that he is not the pacifist hippy that some made him out to be, and while a more militant deputy, Tzipi Hotoveli, is on camera with a mystical explanation of the land, most of the talk is with ordinary people. Ordinary people do not make peace or war with the exception of revolutions that succeed by winning the support of the armed forces. It’s all well and good to sit around like the members of Breaking the Silence, a left-leaning activist group that conveys information on life in the occupied territories; and with Arab and Jewish women forming a support group citing how sons on both their sides lost their lives.  But nothing will get done until those in power can carve a peace with definite borders—less likely than ever, Gitai believes, because a “very reactionary” government under Netanyahu has held power for ages with large support, the prime minister having said during a recent election campaign that he has no use for a two-state solution.

Again blaming his own people for the obstinacy, Gitai interviews a pair of settlers, people living on ground that Arabs vociferously claim as their own. We hear one settler, a young woman who was stabbed by an Arab resident living nearby, state that the land does not  belong to anybody; it belongs to God.  And in the Bible, God promised to rent all the disputed land to the Jews.  Who can argue with God?  Probably the Muslims, whose own Koran probably makes no such promise.  Gitai spends the most interesting minutes with an Arab boy of about ten who says that when he grows up, he wants to be…no, not a fireman or a cop or an astronaut, but a martyr.  Asked whether he likes life, the boy responds, yeah, but martyrdom is better.  Does this say anything about what the upcoming generation might do absent a peace?

Unrated.  84 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE WEDDING PLAN – movie review

  • THE WEDDING PLAN     (Laavor et hakir)

    Roadside Attractions
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B-
    Director:  Rama Burshtein
    Written by: Rama Burshtein
    Cast: Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Noa Kooler, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/18/17
    Opens: May 12, 2017
    click for larger (if applicable)
    Rami Bushstein, who wrote and directs “The Wedding Plan” (former title “Through the Wall,” in Hebrew Laavor et hakir) contributed a less messy picture in 2012.  In that previous work, an eighteen-year-old Hasidic woman is pressured into marrying an older widower per Levirate custom.  This time around, Burshtein, who is strongly connected to her Hasidic community (see her picture on IMDB.com), takes a somewhat opposite view.  A Michal (Noa Kooler), a thirty-two year old single woman, wants nothing more fervently than to get married.  She wants to give and receive love, she does not want to be alone, and incidentally she does not want the community to pity or disparage her.  Unlike Shira in “Fill the Void,” who wants nothing more than to rid herself of an arranged marriage, Michal is in despair about her single status.  You get the impression that all she wants is a serious proposal: that she will accept anyone, now that Gidi (Erez Drigues) her Hasidic fiancé has dumped her, stating that he does not love her.  Hey, this is something new: that Hasidim insist on loving a proposed bride when, even in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevya’s wife had to think long and hard whether she loves her husband.

    You can learn things in “The Wedding Plan.”  One is that ultra-orthodox women and Hasidic men go on dates.  My impression is that a single woman sits home and waits for the matchmaker to send a potential husband to her whole family.  In the presence of all, they sit on opposite ends of the sofa, stealing a glance here and there, and announcing straight-out whether they like the other’s looks enough to marry and have ten children.

    But then, this independent-minded Michal, having to get over her despair about the rejection, goes on a number of blind dates set up by a matchmaker.  First she visits a homeopathic witch doctor, Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), who after assigning Michal to pound some dough sits her down and rubs some fish oil into her face to destroy the evil eye.

    We’ve seem movies before about the dating game, whether speed-dating or the traditional kind, but here she goes to restaurants such as with her meeting with a deaf mute(Jonathan Rozen) , whose signing is interpreted by a young man at the table.  Then there’s that weird date with a Hasid (Udi Persi), who refuses to look at her for two hours with the excuse that he wants to believe that Michal is the most beautiful woman in the world.

    A good deal of the tension in this romantic dramedy, which is more drama than comedy, is from audience betting on which man will win her hand.  In any case, she’d better have her hand won fast, because Michal had been independent enough to book a wedding hall for 200 guests with Shimi (Amos Tamam), son of Hulda and owner of the hall.  She pays the 15,000 shekels (about $3700 US) despite having no groom and believes that God will supply her with a man.  She has 22 days. Should she accept the proposal of Yossi (Oz Zehavi), a dreamy singer with a following of beautiful women?.  After all, he asked for her hand while the two were in Ukraine, visiting the shrine of Rabbi Nahman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect in the city of Uman (incorrectly named “Uma” in the English subtitles). But he might be too secular for her and would ask for divorce at the drop of a kippa.

    As Michal, Noa Koler is an almost overwhelming force, appearing in virtually every scene, in closeups and surrounded by her friends and family.  This is a slow-moving drama which succeeds quite well in familiarizing people with the customs of Haredim and ultra-orthodox Jews, and its does keep the audience guessing on the mystery man who will hopefully emerge before the eighth day of Chanukah, the date of the wedding.  Too bad Haredim may be sparse in the audience given their custom of refusing to attend the cinema in general.  Still this PG-rated picture could bring in an audience of Jews of other ideologies from secular to Orthodox, and may even cross over to a universal audience, since isn’t marriage the goal of people all over the world?

    This is an Israeli film in Hebrew with English subtitles.

    Rated PG.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

ONE WEEK AND A DAY – movie review

  • ONE WEEK AND A DAY (Shavua ve Yom)

    Oscilloscope Laboratories
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Asaph Polonsky
    Written by: Asaph Polonsky
    Cast: Shai Avivi, Evgenia Dodina, Tomer Kapon, Alona Shauloff, Sharon Alexander, Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan, Uri Gavriel
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/14/17
    Opens: April 28, 2017

    Jewish burial customs are different from those of all other faiths.  Judaic law requires that upon death, a body must be buried within twenty-four hours, Sabbath and Holy Days excluded.  At the same time, a week is set aside for shiva, a mourning period attended by the immediate family and friends of the departed.  In Orthodox circles, people observing shiva sit on low stools or boxes to symbolize that they are “brought low,” and customarily visitors to the house of the bereaved take food as well.  Asaph Polonsky’s dramedy, in part the kind of comedy that will bring smiles rather than laughs to those who can appreciate his mumblecore-style dialogue, and the other part the facing of tragedy, opens on the day after the shiva in the home of Eyal Spivak (Shai Avivi) and his wife Vicky (Evgenia Dodina). Most of the time, you’d hardly know that the couple’s son Ronnie had died at the age of twenty-five after a stay at a hospice.  Presumably sitting shiva allowed the couple of grieve and for Eyal to distract himself by playing ping pong.

    As with many films of this sort, dramedies if you will, the first segments will be comic while sadness seeps in during the latter sections.  Eyal, whose part is played by Israeli comic Shai Avivi, who might remind you of Larry David of the TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does not laugh, he rarely smiles, and appears to sit in judgment on everyone.  He complains that his next-door neighbors, Shmulik (Sharon Alexander) and Keren (Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan) are like rabbits, their copulation sounds disturbing, as the houses are spaces just a few meters apart.  Their son Zooler (Tomer Kapon) is a live wire, a delivery boy who is fond of his two neighbors.  He rides a bike on errands but is not afraid of trashing the scooter just to have an excuse to remain with Eyal and to teach him how to roll the medicinal weed Eyal stole from the hospice that housed his late son.  In the one burst of energy in this generally shaggy dog story, Zooler performs a wild, solo dance to some heavy metal music, pretending to play his guitar while jumping over tables and landing on the couch.

    On her side, Vicky, who spends most of the picture disapproving of her husband’s experiments with marijuana (he has to hide the bag he stole from the hospice inside his fly) and wonders how her husband and the young neighbor who frequently visits have anything in common.  The only time any character cries occurs when Vicky is in the dentist’s chair trying to balance x-ray adhesives in her mouth, while the whole episode takes on the tone of sadness when they discover that the burial plots they wanted to reserve for themselves next to their son’s have been taken by another.

    This is the sort of film that might make some in the audience wonder whether it’s a comedy or a drama, but any experienced moviegoer will realize that like our own lives off screen, we could be laughing one moment, crying the next not unlike babies.

    The movie does not go beyond its natural limits in time, is frequently delightful and may even cause some in the audience to shed a tear—particularly those of us who have lost people near and dear.  That their son died of cancer rather than in the military makes the story even more poignant.  The most heart-wrenching moment occurs in the cemetery as another funeral is being performed, the mourner singing a mournful prayer for the dead.

    In Hebrew with English subtitles.

    Unrated.  97 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE UNKNOWN GIRL – movie review

THE UNKNOWN GIRL    (La fille inconnue)

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minella Christelle Cornil
Screened at:Critics’ link, NYC, 9/1/17
Opens: September 8, 2017
The Unknown Girl Poster #1
At a time that the American people are faced with both threats and exhortations by our president over the future of health care, nobody in Western Europe has any problem with a medical system that is affordable by everyone.  The Dardenne brothers, known for their realism and feeling for social justice, focus their attention on a single doctor in that part of the world, specifically in Liège, Belgium, where a young doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), plies her trade in a poor section of town.  During the course of a week or so, we are made privy to her rounds, watching her act out an obsession with the violent death of an African girl, not yet eighteen, and making house calls to people whose lack of education causes many to act with a crassness that more enlightened people would consider taboo.

“The Unknown Girl” combines noir detective drama with moral allegory in a film (French language, English subtitles) that makes us wish the best outcome for the practitioner, who challenges both individuals and police by sticking her nose into affairs that could even get her killed.

There is no music in the film’s soundtrack, a nice plus, something that should be tried by Hollywood for non-blockbuster works to see whether the stories, well told, could involve audiences.

In the drama, Dr. Jenny Davin finds herself overwhelmed by guilt when she and her reluctant intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), at work after hours, refuse to answer the bell outside her office.  She finds out that the girl had been desperate to get away from a man who is chasing her.  Since the surveillance camera captures the girl’s image, Jenny carries the photo around the town, asking people whether they had even seen her.  What she finds out is that people lie.  An attendant in a cybercafé never saw her.  A taciturn, rebellious young man, Bryan (Louka Minnella), knows nothing.  Bryan’s father (Jérémie Renier) not only refuse to admit knowledge of the victim but even attacks the doctor for questioning his son.  Her intern is lying to himself, when after five years of studying medicine, he wants to give it all up, because (this is a new one) he cannot get an image of the beatings his father gave him.

The conclusion, that she does solve the mystery, is perhaps obvious to an audience, given our need to see a resolution to her work, but conclusion aside, it’s interesting to note some differences between small-town medicine and doctors as we know them here.  Jenny has an office, but no receptionist.  She has to excuse herself from her patients to answer the door.  She makes house calls and treats an undocumented immigrant who is afraid to go to a hospital lest he be turned in to the police.

Otherwise, she appears to have no relationships outside of her patients, but the Dardennes are not interested in handing us a story with a strong narrative.  We come away with an appreciation of a doctor who, despite telling her intern that emotional connections with patients hinder diagnoses, nonetheless takes time from her busy schedule to track down the victim’s identity so that she can have a proper burial rather than go to an unmarked grave.  And her moral courage does break down the resistance of many others who would otherwise have refused to get involved.  Everything feels naturalistic, proving once again that serious cinema does not need the interference of loud music drowning out dialogue or an array of melodramatic flourishes such as explosions, car crashes and vulgarity.

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

WETLANDS – movie review

  • WETLANDS

    Abramorama
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: C
    Director:  Emanuele Della Valle
    Written by: Emanuele Della Valle
    Cast: Adewale Akinnuove-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Jennifer Ehle, Anthony Mackie, Christopher McDonald, Reyna de Courcy
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/6/17
    Opens: September 15, 2017
    Wetlands Movie Poster
    “Wetlands” is not the only police drama cast amid the waves and sands of Atlantic City.  “Boardwalk Empire,” featuring most scenes in Atlantic City, has  TV action that is so good, with so many plots and subplots that merge easily, that it gives credence to the idea that cable is quite often better than the movies.  Atlantic City today is known as a has-been, a place once visited for getting into wheels on the boardwalk, chewing salt water taffy, and gambling in hotels that are now dilapidated, that the whole area seems to have given way to our jet age, making cross-country and intercontinental visits so alluring that New Jersey can no longer attract a tourist-hungry crowd.  At least its murky, foggy, and shoddy façade makes for detective-noir films, especially outside the three or four months that still beckon waves of visitors.

    Now, Emanuele Della Valle in his freshman expedition as writer and director, attempts an arty version of a detective tale, or at least he may think that having characters talk in low tones with only a modicum of melodrama gives the picture class.  Instead it comes off as a soporific take on people who are down on their luck, having some hope of redemption and recovery from some bad habits.  Those bad habits on display here are not only about heroin and liquor, but are the more dangerous ones: estrangement and infidelity.

    In the story Babs Johnson (Adewale Akinnuove-Agbaje), a top Philadelphia cop who is caught up in corruption and drug addiction, goes to Atlantic City to try his luck with his family, namely his ex-wife Savannah (Heather Graham) and teen daughter Amy (Celeste O’Connor).  He has a lot of work to do if he wants to turn the clock back, as his daughter gives him the bird and his ex-wife, still hostile, prefers to company of a woman (Reyna de Courcy).  Wearing the badge of a detective, Babel Johnson is embraced by his new, ebullient partner, Detective Paddy Sheehan (Christopher McDonald), a lover of gambling and of life itself.  But Sheehan has a family problem as well as his wife Kate (Jennifer Ehle), a newscaster on local TV who pops pills to keep thin and youthful, is proven unfaithful.  When a local girl is found murdered, the plot turns into a whodunit, with even Babs considered a person of interest.

    The plot lurches forward in fits and starts, with Kate’s newscasts more excited about an upcoming storm that Babs’s interest in solving a murder has to take a raincheck.  Among the cast, Ms. Ehle stands out as a woman who, because of age, worries that she may be cast aside to make way for someone younger.

    Unrated.  98 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

SWEET VIRGINIA – movie review

  • SWEET VIRGINIA

    IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  James M. Dagg
    Written by: Ben China, Paul China
    Cast:  Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/19/17
    Opens: November 17, 2017
    Sweet Virginia Movie Poster
    We in New York may think of Alaska as the place to tour once in a lifetime, usually by cruise ship because of the dearth of navigable roads.  But there are people living there for reasons other than to make money on oil rigs, and the folks in the small town that seems as though it had broken off from a mainland and disappeared into the sea (filmed in Hope, British Columbia), are not making great sums of cash.  This is a backwoods place that evokes the spirit of folks who may be at the end of their rope, often because of the death of a spouse or the alienation of a daughter.  The scene is worked out by Jamie M. Dagg in his sophomore feature, his other work being “River” which takes place also in a remote region–of southern Laos.
    a
    The noirish atmosphere makes a character of the darkness while prodding us to see the action on the big screen, and I missed something viewing it through a link on my computer.  The film opens on three men playing cards in a café after midnight, its door open (a tragic mistake), leading to a visit by the cold-blooded Elwood (Christopher Abbott), who insistence that he’s hungry.  Seemingly in a huff because he is told to leave, he returns with a revolver killing all three card players.  We find that he was hired as a hit man to take out the no-good husband of Lila (Imogen Poots) because, she says, he cheated on her. But the real motive is money, which she expects to collect upon his death. Trouble brews when she cannot come up with the cash, which causes him to remain and look for other sources of income in the town.

    There are moments of extreme violence but Dagg’s principal interest is in a psychological study of flawed characters, brought out principally by the friendship of the killer with Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) an ex-rodeo champion and now owner of the motel “Sweet Virginia,”  Both are lonely men, heartbroken, attempting to relieve their pain through human some connection.  Elwood does this, sadly, by hiring a hooker for his motel room.  Sam’s solution is a better one: a friendship with benefits with Bernadette (Rosemarie De Witt).  Bernadette is newly widowed by the murder, and much is made of the tenderness they feel for each other discerned poetically by the way she cuts his Samson-like hair, which comes across almost like sexual foreplay.

    The film can be compared to the Coen Brothers’ masterwork “No Country for Old Men,” with its greater dark humor such as killer Anton Chigurh’s making life-and-death decisions by flipping a coin.  There is abundant quiet dialogue in a film that does succeed in evoking the misery of men and women in an Alaskan town as remote as you can get, and the ensemble performances are spot-on.  Still one could hope for more tension to replace some of the soft-spoken, often aimless dialogue.

    Rated R.  93 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THREE PEAKS – movie review

THREE PEAKS (Drei Zinnen)
Greenwich Entertainment Release
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jan Zabeil
Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Arian Montgomery, Bérénice Bejo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/12/19
Opens: June 28, 2019

Three Peaks Movie Poster Movie Art Film Print 16x24" 24x36"

Though the languages spoken are German and French with just a small amount of English, and though the action takes place in the a remote area of the Italian Alps, many Americans as well as people around the world should identify with the power struggle that underscores the entire production. This is a glacier-paced movie, fitting enough since the final thirty minutes takes place where ice is giving way to water, and offers rewards to those in the audience who are not frantic channel-switchers or who cannot live comfortably without multi-tasking with a Starbucks coffee in one hand, a smart phone in the other and a backpack in which to funnel around. Alex Schneppat’s lensing during the seven weeks of filming evokes the majesty of the chilly mountain slopes with particularly fine capturing of the rising sun and the white mist that makes vision close to zero.

Now about those power struggles to which many of us might relate. Three characters dominate the scene given the near absence of humanity enjoyed by the mountaineers, understandably enough given the trio of hills that surround the family’s vacation cabin and serving as metaphor for mother, father, and son. Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and his s.o. Léa (Bérénice Bejo) have moved from a lakeside resort in Italy (which they never should have left) to their Alpine retreat in the Dolomites with seven-year-old Tristan (Arian Montgomery) whose American father has been left behind by Léa. The youngster misses his dad, wonders why his parents’ relationship fell apart, but is being cared for and even loved by Léa’s boyfriend—no slouch, but rather a fellow who crosses easily from German to French to English, is an outdoorsman, even a musician. But you cannot discount biology. Tristan and Aaron have bonded, they share quite a lot including fun in the water where the boy learns to swim, and they get along famously on the surface. Bubbling below, though, tension is created by the Tristan’s conflicted feelings. He is fond of Aaron, particularly given the attention he receives, but ingrained in his DNA is his attachment to George, the dad with whom he spent his formative years and now misses. A crisis occurs when the two take a hike into the vast, uninhabited terrain, and as the film picks up its pace, a catastrophic situation arises not too unlike that faced by a vacationing man and his wife in Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film “Force Majeure.”

Cinephiles will recognize Alexander Fehling as Master Sergeant Wilhelm in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (my favorite movie of 2009) and Argentine-French actress Bérénice Bejo as Pepe Miller in Michel Hazanavius’s “The Artist,” which celebrates Hollywood’s silent era. The most stunning performance is that of seven-year-old Arian Montgomery in his debut feature, though he had been seen in a TV movie “Beste Bescherung” and in its sequel. He is a blond whose hair was dyed to match that of his film mother. Jan Zabeil, whose who directing résumé includes “Der Fluss war einst ein Mensch” about a man lost in the marshlands of Botswana, is obviously in his métier given the melodramatic final third of “Three Peaks.”

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

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

PAVAROTTI – movie review

PAVAROTTI
CBS Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Cassidy Hartmann, Mark Monroe
Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Griminelli, Nicolette Mantovani, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Angela Gheorghiu, Carol Vaness, Vittorio Grigolo
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 6/4/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

Pavarotti Movie Poster

I had what passes for a discussion with a fellow who is fifty years younger than I am. Though a fan of movies like “Avenger” and “Terminator,” he wondered why people went to Broadway musicals. “It’s not real, I mean, people in ‘Oklahoma’ in its days as a territory did not start singing every twenty minutes. And where does the music come from? Are there orchestras wandering around the place waiting to be cued by a singing couple?” “Would you say the same about opera?” I queried. He thought for a minute and said that he heard the word “opera” spoken but had little idea of its meaning. “I countered: “In the 19th century in Italy, even coal miners went to opera. In fact the singers were the rock stars of the day, though it helped that in those days Puccini and Verdi were better known than Springsteen.”

If this sounds like fantasy, as though high-school kids can’t be that ignorant, ask twenty pupils from a typical public school to identify Luciano Pavarotti. Don’t be surprised if you get zero responses, though in the technologically primitive days of the 20th century you couldn’t miss his name, whether or not you heard him in concert or bought one of the one hundred million albums that he sold. Now Ron Howard brings forth a documentary with a boatload of archival film, the most precious being those involving snippets from favorite arias, combined with prescient interviews and sightings with folks like his manager, his producer, his two wives, and critics. “Pavarotti” fills us with momentous music including some of the singer’s high C’s (a pun for high seas), which orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta tells us could make our ears vibrate.

Luciano Pavarotti comes across through Paul Crowder’s virtuoso editing highlighting his zips and zaps of photos of the great man with and without a beard, with an expansive belly and not, singing to the point of tears as the clown in “I Pagliacci” and showing his teeth (quite often) when meeting such attention-getting people as Princess Diana—who in one scene is shown with hair completely disheveled when a large outdoor crowd at a concert closed their umbrellas during a pouring rain so better to see.

All you want to know about the facts of one of the most celebrated figures of the last century can be found in Wikipedia, which I recommend you peruse to prepare you for the rush of interviews, as the movie charges ahead at a rapid pace from concert hall to concert hall, opening up not in a large metropolis with an opera house in Modena, New York, or London but in the Brazilian Amazon where the singer is enjoying the boat ride which takes him and his entourage to a concert hall “in the middle of nowhere.”

All who know Pavarotti are aware that he was a tenor, along with potential revivals like Placido Domingo and José Carreras—both of whom have something to say and both of whom join Pavarotti in concert embracing their title as The Three Tenors. Because the film is largely hagiographic, it trips likely over his flaws, principally, of course, his relationships with women (whom he adored), but why not? After all he did raise big bucks for charities, graphically shown by his cause for the children of war-torn Bosnia—which gives director Ron Howard a single scene of bombs falling on Sarajevo. Pavarotti loves everybody and they love him back: his daughters Lorenza, Giuliania and Cristina and also his wife Adua Veroni, among millions of others. Director Howard exudes his affection for the man and is well qualified to direct this film, given his feelings for “The Beatles” (2016), the astronauts in “Apollo 13” (1995), and interviewer David Frost, enjoying a takedown of President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

Whether or not you care for the typical format of documentaries, namely interviews–of which you get plenty here– you can’t fail to embrace the incredible music that captures the Great Man at the top of his game.

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

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

MA – movie review

MA

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

Related image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR THE BIRDS – movie review

FOR THE BIRDS
Dogwoof
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Richard Miron
Cast: Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, William Brenner
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/23/19
Opens: May 31, 2019 at IFC Center in NY

Kathy Murphy

Although both the title and the early scenes make you think that this will be little more than another propagandistic tale of animal welfare, Richard Miron, who shot the documentary over a five-year period in Ulster County, New York, nails what it’s like to be a nonconformist in a village community, and the effects on a marriage of a 58-year-old woman’s hobby which could not have been pursued in any but a rural space.

Starring in the film, Kathy Murphy, obviously an animal lover, seems destined almost masochistically to bring about an end to a long marriage and the possibility of winding up behind bars should a prosecutor increase his reputation by fighting a woman who is obviously poor (note her missing teeth) and who has only the best intentions toward her pets. And what a world of quacks and cock a doodle dos! Kathy and Gary find a small duck in their yard, one which happily will never wind up on a hook in a New York Chinatown restaurant. A decade later, lo and behold, she has a menagerie of ducks, roosters, chickens, geese and turkeys that should make her a candidate for woman of the year in the town of Wawaring, New York. Her devotion to these pets is so unbounded that she is will not only destroy her marriage to Gary, who is hardly as enthusiastic as his wife, but is so consuming that she would die rather than lose them. Or so she said, because when the authorities got after her, calling her a hoarder who boards the birds in filthy conditions—feces everything, chickens in her bed, dirty water–she manages to stay alive but suffers not only a matrimonial crisis but the chance to be sentenced to a fine of $1000 and/or imprisonment for up to a year.

When officers from the Woodstock animal sanctuary, a beautiful place surrounded by a mountain range with grass and water everywhere, speak with her, they are sympathetic, at least more so than the judicial branch. When the long arm of the law closes in, she is defended pro bono by William Brenner, a country lawyer with as large practice and three assistants who also plays a mean banjo and sings “You Are My Sunshine” with the appropriate rural twang.

Things were better in previous days, at least from archival pictures we see of her wedding to Gary, a war veteran, which probably would have been stable for decades to come if the birds had not entered the story. When we see Kathy now, she is a veritable motor-mouth, defending her boarding of animals with such passion that we wonder whether she is bi-polar though with 100% of the time experiencing the manic stage. When the darkness lifts, we are happy to see that Kathy has let bygones be bygones and can look forward to caring for at least a legal percentage of her the animals that appear to share and return the woman’s devotion to them.

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

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

THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

THE UNORTHODOX
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Malka
Screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Cast: Shuli Rand, Yaacov Cohen, Yoav Levi, Golan Azulai, Shifi Aloni, Or Lumbrozo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

The old saying is that you put two Jews in a room discussing anything under the sun and they will not only disagree but will come up with three diverse positions. This is true to some extent among diaspora Jews in the U.S., people of the book who love endless discussions to such an extent that many Gentiles do not understand the verbal mayhem. And it is surely true of Jews living in Israel, who may have seemed unified when the nation was founded in 1948 with its iconic, socialist members of kibbutzim (collective farms), but has since fractured into more political parties than you can count on your fingers, with maybe your toes thrown in. “The Unorthodox” may seem at first look like a deadly serious film about ethnic discrimination but is filled with comic outbursts and undertones and includes many cartoonish figures—not excluding rabbis.

Still, it’s regrettable that Israelis fell into the kind of discrimination that pit those of European background, some of whom migrated to the land while others (Sabras) were born there, against those known as Mizrahis and Sephardim—generally of darker skin including those thrown out of their birth lands including Iran, Dagestan, Syria, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are not only in skin color, though you might scarcely tell by looking who is of European stock and who is Middle Eastern, but in culture, involving music, clothing, food and the like.

Because of this discrimination, one fellow, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), partly comic and otherwise passionate, becomes radicalized when his daughter is suspended from high school twice within two weeks and then told by the headmistress that she “does not fit in.” Turns out that she is Sephardic attending a school filled with Ashkenazi Jews, and is dropped from the register though she is neither a discipline problem nor a bad student. Forced to accept the decision, Yaakov, heretofore apolitical, realizes that the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Jerusalem can show power only by forming a party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas (an actual party of Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern extraction actually founded in 1984). Nobody but he thinks the organization will get anywhere, but in running for the City Council, Yaakov must get the endorsement of at least one rabbi, preferably the head rabbi of the city.

Given the overlong presidential campaigns here in the U.S., each election considered by the media “the most important ever,” you may not be in the mood for another culture’s campaigning, but you will be drawn into writer-director Eliran Malka’s debut feature movie. Eliran Malka presents “The Unorthodox” soon after helming his groundbreaking TV show Shababnikim, an irreverent look at the shenanigans of four ultra-Orthodox fellows studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Malka, intent on showing ultra-Orthodox as people misrepresented by the media as a closed society, highlights each of the major personalities with his or her own quirks, whether they be from the movie’s idealistic anchor played by Shuli Rand, the local rabbi actually named Yaacov Cohen, who was born in Morocco, or the henchmen who try to absorb the Shas founders into their own party thereby hoping to dissolve the divisions. But like political parties everywhere, Shas began with admirable ideals when Shuli Rand’s character ran for the Jerusalem City Council, then rubbed up against the daily corruptions of the game, wherein at least five Shas members of the Knesset were busted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy to commit crimes.

Notwithstanding the writer-director’s championing of the party through his film, today Shas has moved to the far right, against any cutback in activities settling the West Bank. At least the party as we see its members in action in “The Unorthodox” summons us to cheer their ideals, while knowing that somehow Yaacov, its founding member, will become not only corrupted but thrown under the bus by his fellow party members.

“The Unorthodox” was selected to screen at the Israel Film Festival.

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

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

THE TOMORROW MAN – movie review

THE TOMORROW MAN
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noble Jones
Screenwriter: Noble Jones
Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 4/8/19
Opens: May 22, 2019

The Tomorrow Man Movie Poster

Although two first-rate actors receive the focus of Noble Jones’s “The Tomorrow Man,” this drama that could easily have been put on afternoon TV. Though there is enough of a cutesy element guiding the trajectory of an autumn courtship that could find a place on an off-Broadway stage, the entire production is too slight to warrant a worthy full-screen adaption.

Noble Jones in his sophomore full-length movie involves two people with idiosyncrasies that in a way are complementary are both single, one “on the other side of sixty” and the other about the same age, living alone in houses that could be placed somewhere in the mid-west—though the director, who is behind the lenses, films all in Rochester, New York. Ed (John Lithgow), a retired systems analyst, is a survivalist who expects the end of the world in the near future and so has prepared himself with a few years’ supply of food and water in a garage whose location is unknown even by the man’s middle-aged son. Ronnie (Blythe Danner) works at a local gift shop, a hoarder whose small house is crammed with stuff she will never use. They get together after Ed spots her on his line at a supermarket. Ed, who is aggressive in going after what he wants, follows Ronnie to her car, exchanging names (though she is nonplussed), the two seen heading out for coffee. This would be a good time to get to know each another, but Ed talks too much about himself and would seem to set himself up for rejection. Not so.

She has only a fellow employee, Tina (Eve Harlow), to confide in, a younger woman who advises Ronnie to go for it. For his part, Ed has a one-sided phone conversation—actually a phone lecture—with his son Brian (Derek Cecil), married to Janet (Katie Aselton) with a teen daughter Jeanine (Sophie Thatcher). The cast of characters becomes relevant later when Ronnie attends a Thanksgiving dinner with Ed’s people.

Their relationship is pleasant enough, giving us more a look at what elderly people might talk about when dating. The only suspense might be to wonder when the two decide to “get it on,” but otherwise we must content ourselves with watching performances of two experienced actors whose material they could have walked through with blindfolds. John Lithgow has a huge résumé going back to 1972. Blythe Danner, known these days also for commercials, is at least equally impressive and can be easily identified with your eyes closed by her husky voice.

The only break with conventions are a) that we don’t see many movies about people romancing beyond the age of fifty, and b) the final minute opens up a scene that some of us might have predicted but comes as a welcome surprise.

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

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

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+

 

THE THIRD WIFE – movie review

THE THIRD WIFE
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ash Mayfair
Screenwriter: Ash Mayfair
Cast: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Pham Thi Kim Ngan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/5/19
Opens: May 15, 2019 at New York’s Film Forum

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Fortune magazine states that in a survey involving one thousand asking Americans what they simply could not do without, 65% said it was their smart phones. In fact 15% would give up sex all week rather than do without their phones for one weekend. The world today is as fast-paced as it ever was, making it difficult to believe how even rich people lived in the 19th century without electricity, radio, TVs, computers, phones, planes and the internet. In Ash Mayfair’s freshman debut as director (she had previously helmed shorts such as the eight-minute “Walking the Dead” about a man with a zombie pet), she takes a serious and quite lyrical look at life in a rural Vietnamese village, where a rich landowning family indulge in polygamous marriage. The chosen brides are taken from a youthful age against their will and bonded to older men who would naturally lean toward favoring the youngest of his wives. What’s more, it is possible for a younger woman to elevate her status and rise even to become First Mistress if she could give her husband a boy. This is the situation in which May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), cast by the director at the age of twelve and shown here as a fourteen-year-old, was hitched up to middle-aged Hung (not necessarily a metaphoric name), as performed by Le Vu Long.

Instead of what we modern Americans would suspect, May is greeted warmly by wives two and three,Xuan (Mai Thu Huong May) and Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe). Though May says barely one word to her husband, she apparently knows what is expected of her. Before her deflowering, she takes down her long, black hair and lies expectantly below her man, complaining later to the two older wives that all she feels is pain. Not to worry, they assured her; you will grow to like it. But May is rather advanced for a fourteen-year-old in a stratified culture, discovering that her heart and other parts belong to Xuan. At first Xuan is flattered and responds, but later, when May is pregnant, the older woman believes that a continuing lesbian relationship would bring down the ire of the gods.

The subplots hardly congeal and are jarring, particularly revolving around son named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam) who does not likely take to being railroad into a marriage to someone he doesn’t know, and Tuyet (Pham Thi Kim Ngan) looks awfully young to be sent off for life to these rural grounds. For her part Lien (Lam Thanh My) goes almost as ballistic as Son, refusing in one scene to eat, contemptuous of her static life under a patriarchy.

From the human side, we see what life was like in a time not so far back and yet seemingly remote to current-day Vietnam with its stock market and its international sales of shoes and other clothing. Writer-director May makes sure that her pace remains placid. We see several lovely shots of the moon, in one case as the dark clouds cover it; of caterpillars and silkworms doing whatever turns them on; of the surrounding mountains that you might well have seen in the country’s current tourist brochures. Animal life comes front and center at times: the birth of a calf; the wishing a sad farewell to their aging cow too ill to rise from the ground; a rooster that does not go gentle into that dark night.

“The Third Wife” is strictly for the art-house crowd, the types of people who line up frequently for tickets outside New York’s Film Forum. Criticism if any will doubtless revolve around the old-fashioned nature of the form with no flashbacks, limited if any visual effects, and lacking in changes of pace. For the patient moviegoer interested in foreign cultures and the mores of times gone by, Ash Mayfair’s film is a potent symbol of what we might expect to come from the regisseur.

The movie was filmed in Vietnam, the English subtitles in splendid bold lettering.

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

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

MY SON – movie review

MY SON (Mon garçon)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriter: Christian Carion, Laure Irmann
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Mélanie Laurent, Olivier de Benoist, Antoine Hamel, Mohamed Brikat
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/25/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Mon garçon Movie Poster

Have you noticed how critics and some normal moviegoers put a large emphasis on credibility? Do you believe this story? Look at all the plot holes! Of course if you’re talking about Marvel Studio outputs, nobody expects anything like real life. For me, an action movie—a kidnapping film such as “My Son”– may make you wonder about things like “How did the hero locate the bad guys? How does a father looking for his seven-year-old son manage to take on kidnappers with just a golf club when the villains are armed? There’s a lot in “Mon garçon,” as the French call the picture, to make you wonder about all this, and the movie risks unintentional audience laughter. But there are saving graces. First are the edge-of-the-seat action sequences. Second is the skill of Guillaume Cant in the role of Julien, the largely absentee father who is not “there” for his son, to the dismay of his ex-wife Marie (Mélanie Laurent).

This looks like an actor’s exercise, actor, singular, as Guillaume (pronounced GEE ahm) Canet, who is having a busy year, opening soon as a vindictive editor in Olivier Assaysas’ talky “Non-Fiction.”

Christian Carion may want it known that “My Son” was filmed in six days with his principal performer in the dark about the movie’s plot. Carion, who picked up an Oscar nomination for his “Joyeux Noel,” about how an unofficial Christmas truce allows soldiers on both sides of the trenches in World War 1 to socialize for a short time, in this film focuses not on large casts but really on one guy. Director Carion, who co-wrote the script with Laure Irmann in her sophomore writing project, hones in on Julien’s guilt. He had been abroad most of the year for dangerous assignments in the Middle East and Africa forgetting that he is a dad, and, as his ex tells him, “Mathys (Lino Papa) needs a father.”

So what does she do? She takes up with one Grégoire (Olivier de Benoist), who stupidly “rubs it in” to his girlfriend’s ex by talking all about how he will sell the house belonging to Julien and Marie and move together with little Mathys to a place in the sticks. Needless to say, when the seven-year-old disappears from camp, you can’t blame Julien for considering Greg to be the prime suspect.

Most of the picture finds Julien crying, overwhelmed by guilt, yelled at by his beautiful wife (who wants to go to the Middle East and Senegal when you have everything you need at home?), and heading off in search of the abductors. After knocking Grégoire out, he heads out to discover a man with an intermediate role in the abduction, burns his feet with a blowtorch and threatens to fix the guy’s face in a climactic moment of violence.

“My Son,” then, has a passable story, considerable action (as opposed to Canet’s performance in the “Non-Fiction” talkathon), and nice scenery caught by DP Eric Dumont as Julien races to find his boy.

In French, English subtitles.

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

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

ALL IS TRUE – movie review

ALL IS TRUE
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Ben Elton
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 4/11/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Shakespeare has been mutilating college students’ GPA for decades, maybe centuries, as English majors, perfectly fine at interpreting Byron, Shelley and Keats, are at a loss in parsing the Bard’s 17th century English. Still, the scholars do remember “to be or not to be” but what they would enjoy more is one of the quotes in Kenneth Branagh’s film “All is True.” When a radical Puritan (these were the Christian right types in England) razzes Shakespeare, condemning one of his daughters for alleged pre-marital pregnancy and his wife for illiteracy, he replies, “There is more wisdom in Anne’s shit than in your entire body.”

Branagh, who directs and takes on the principal role in “All is True,” is more acquainted with Shakespeare than any other actor, given especially his ability to memorize all the lines of the title characters in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” playing the key role Iago in “Othello,” Berowne in “Love’s Labour Lost,” and Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing” among other treasures, and is the ideal person for this speculative treatment of Shakespeare’s final three years. As written by Ben Elton, known for TV episodes like “The Thin Blue Line” and “Upstart Crow,” William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagah) is demoralized when the Globe Theatre burns to the ground, the result of a misplaced cannon shot. Having spent most of his adult life in London, leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and his young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) to fend for themselves, he now returns to Stratford-upon-Avon as a retired man with no ambition to write further.

Not a lot is known about Shakespeare the man much less how he spent his final three years, but we do get writer Ben Elton’s insights based on what we know of the customs and culture of England at the time. Shakespeare cannot understand why his allegedly beautiful daughter Judith is hanging around, a spinster, and pressures her to find a guy and get out of the house—which, by the way, is a spacious mansion, testament to the fact that Will did not have to wait for his own death to be a financial success. Most of all, though, he mourns Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven, and while Shakespeare is doing some gardening to provide his lost son with a respectable piece of land around his grave, he questions whether Hamnet died of the plague as his wife Anne repeatedly assures him. Yet there is some mystery surrounding the death. Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is aware that all is not what it seems, ultimately revealing the truth of the boy’s demise.

In the movie’s most memorable volley of talk, Shakespeare plays host to the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who looks foppish with long blond hair, as the two recount with more than a hint that there may be truth about Shakespeare’s sonnets: that they were written not to a woman or to women in general but to the playwright’s male lover. McKellen is in his element quoting his favorite lines from the sonnets.

There is more than a hint of feminism in this take of the writer’s final years. Daughter Judith, who finally does tie the knot, loses self-control, accusing her father of favoring the boy Hamnet, elaborating on the jealousy she feels, thinking that if one of the two children msut die, her father would prefer that it be Judith. Further, though Shakespeare proclaims that he’d had no problem if women played their parts in his plays, but the society would not condone such women’s liberation.

There are fine performances all around as you’d expect from Shakespearean actors like McKellen and Branagh, with interesting photography that takes advantage of the fact that electricity had not been harnessed. Zac Nicholson photographs indoor scenes in natural light from the fireplace, which makes you realize how difficult it must have been for the masses of people—those without Shakespeare’s financial as well as critical success—to function. This is art-house fare as you would expect from a studio with the integrity of Sony Pictures Classics, with little of the fireworks of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 “Julius Caesar” or Baz Luhrman’s modernized 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.”

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

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

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM – movie review

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Chester
Screenwriter: John Chester, Mark Monroe
Cast: John Chester, Molly Chester, Alan Young
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/4/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

In “An Essay on Man” (1733) an optimistic Alexander Pope notes:
“All discord, harmony, not understood,
All partial evil, universal good”
He concludes: “Whatever is, is right.”

Pope believed that one God, all-wise and all-merciful, governs the world providentially for the best. While Pope is not invoked in John Chester’s movie “The Biggest Little Farm, “if Pope were alive today Chester could have been the model that helps to prove Pope’s wisdom. After all, when you are forced out of your cramped Santa Monica apartment because your dog Todd would bark all day when left alone, Chester must have believed that life is nothing more than one discord after another. However, being forced out of your flat turns out to be just what John Chester and his wife Molly needed to turn their lives around, to go from being just another anonymous pair of city people who turn all partial evil to universal good. What to any impartial observer looks like a land scam, since the farmland John and Molly purchase one hour’s drive from L.A. is dust-dry, turns out to be just the challenge that this creative couple needed to make themselves productive beyond their wildest imagination.

“The Biggest Little Farm” is an extraordinary documentary, not only because it was filmed over a period of ten years but because it is photographed with detailed attention to nature by John Chester himself with four other cinematographers and includes a few comical animations, courtesy of Jason Carpenter. All is augmented by Jeff Beale’s music. Like Israel, a country known during its founding to have “made the deserts bloom,” these incredibly hard-working, motivated Chesters take land ruined by a California drought and turne it into not just any old farm, certainly not the satanic factory farms that make life hell for animals, but an organic property filled with a huge diversity of crops and animals. By the time this movie ends, we note in a eight-year period they planted 10,000 orchard trees, 200 crops, and a variety of animals that would make Noah envious. To bring this animal menagerie down to human proportions, the Chesters have two pets. One is a large black dog, Todd, with human eyes that they saved before it was scheduled to be put down by a shelter. Another is Emma, a pig that provides entertainment for tourists who visit the farm, an attraction principally because it stands as a model of diversity, diversity, diversity. And Emma must have helped the farmers by producing one litter of 17—that’s 17—piglets. (Eventually they would be sent “to market” since you can’t have ideals without money.)

John and Molly see first-hand that there is a balance in nature. For example, coyotes had a tendency to sneak around at night to kill the farm’s chickens, though why they don’t eat the bodies is a mystery to me. John has to take his rifle to kill the pesky creatures. But then he discovers that coyotes are actually needed to balance nature because they eat gophers, another pest which left on their own would help destroy the farm. As for the tens of thousands of snails that eat leaves, they’re taken care of by ducks who would eat the French delicacy without bothering to get a thank-you from their human friends.

The Chesters are lucky to get the expert help of one Alan Young who had vast experience in natural farming, though since nature can be cruel, this mentor died or a particularly aggressive cancer. They were helped as well by a crew of workers, all collaborating to make this a dream farm, a paradise borne from a land that could have been the site of a dystopian movie. All of this takes place despite nature’s other cruelties: a drought thought to be the worst in 1200 years and a series of wildfires that we have all seen on recent news reports.

This sumptuous drama whose photography, including close-up, slow-motion shots of bees, hummingbirds and other critters could rival any nature drama shot by National Geographic and Disney. This is how a doc should be made: no interviews, not talking heads; in other words make it indistinguishable from a clever and vastly entertaining narrative drama.

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

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

TOLKIEN – movie review

TOLKIEN
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Cast: Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Gibson, Pam Ferris, Genevieve O’Reilly, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 4/10/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Tolkien Movie Poster

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien is as dull and stodgy as the title of the film. The Finnish-born, Dome Karukoski, whose“Tom of Finland,” about the artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, projects the director’s interest in biopics, this time deals with Tolkien’s youth from the time he was about twelve (played by Harry Gilby) through his experience in World War One, marriage and fatherhood. Tolkien could have been one of the those writers whose parents typically advise “continue with pen and paper as a hobby if you like, but be sure to have a career to earn a living.” But we know little of his parents’ wishes as his father had died in South Africa, his mother of diabetes, making the lad an orphan who is lucky to come under the wing of Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). From Father Morgan’s strict management of his charge, Tolkien winds up under the wing of a rich woman, Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris), his studies bringing him up to entrance to Oxford University.

Much is made of the influence of young Tolkien by friends of his own age who form a brotherhood, horsing around, teasing one another, and helping to mold the young man into a scholar whose interest in philology, the study of language, brings him into the world of Europe’s most celebrated linguist and writer (Derek Jacobi). Scenes of his years in high school, where male students wear jacket, vest and tie to classes, alternate with cuts from World War One, where we find Tokien submerged in a trench as was the custom of the time, until the unit is ordered on what looks like a suicidal charge of the German lines reminiscent of a similar devastation in the Battle of Gallipoli. Central to his life is his courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the on-again, off-again woman who will become his wife and give him four children. Bratt plays her part wonderfully, flirtatious at first, showing her increasing enthusiasm of her bond with Tolkien, a woman who Father Morgan tries to drive away from Tolkien because she is “not Catholic,” and might prevent his success at Oxford.

As you already know, Tolkien’s first published work, “The Hobbit” in 1937, brought the author fame and elevates him to perhaps the world’s foremost scribe of mythological subjects. If you have seen “The Hobbit” and Peter Jackson’s 2001 hit “Lord of the Rings” which won a boatload of Oscars and critics’ awards, you might expect the film “Tolkien” to throw in scenes—not necessarily from the movies, but at least of some of the dramatic personae of the man’s creations. Yet we see a fire-eating dragon just twice, and for a scant few seconds, and some vague scenes of warriors on horseback. Without the special effects that would have brought the audience the full measure of the man, “Tolkien” becomes a biopic that’s stodgy, lacking in imagination and the creativity that could have come with an array of visual effects.

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

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

MEETING GORBACHEV – movie review

MEETING GORBACHEV
The Orchard
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Werner Herzog, André Singer
Screenwriter: Werner Herzog
Cast: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 4/1/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

Meeting Gorbachev Movie Poster

When Mikhail Gorbachev gave a talk during a visit in December 1988 with President Reagan, a member of the press asked whether he would consider running for President of the United States. “Thanks,” said the Soviet leader with a wide grin, “But I already have a job.” The exchange could be a humorous criticism of Ronald Reagan but was more likely motivated by Gorbachev’s charm. Even aside from Gorby’s wonderful personality, he would almost certainly be considered one of the one hundred major figures of the 20th Century.

There’s no doubt that Werner Herzog, perhaps the world’s most prolific documentarian, thinks highly of Mikhail Gorbachev. If they somehow met in 1944 with battles raging in Europe, they would presumably try to kill each other. Russia had no love for Germany at that time, perhaps because Hitler was responsible for killing some twenty million Soviets, mostly civilians. Some time after the war the two countries bonded, at least as friendly as are the U.S. and Vietnam today despite the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Vietnamese killed by 1975 largely with the aid of Dow Chemical. In fact Gorbachev and Herzog, representing the former Soviet Union and Germany respectively, seem like such buddies on the screen during the ninety-five minutes of the documentary “Meeting Gorbachev,” that you’d scarcely know that a great many people in Russia today probably consider Gorbachev, one of the towering figures of the last century, to be guilty of treason.

Werner Herzog, whose “Fitzcarraldo” about a man determined to build an opera house in the jungle, lies among a wealth of features, full length and shorts, on film and on TV. Announcing himself with a heavy Teutonic action that is unique enough to identify its owner, the 76-year-old Herzog sits across from the 87-year-old former Soviet leader whose principal source of identification at least in the U.S. is the birthmark on his mostly bald head. The three interviews are interspersed with a wealth of archival films, some never seen before in these parts, in both color and black and white. At this point in his long life, Gorbachev, pausing before answering each question perhaps to listen to the earphone-adapted voice of an interpreter, looks as though he has had his share of blinis as he appears relaxed in sports shirts and open jackets exuding fondness for his interviewer. As the film unwinds we learn that his accomplishments stagger the imagination, especially considering the Cold War that was raging between the U.S. and the Soviets from 1917 to 1991, with a temporary truce during World War 2. History will honor the subject for his ability to negotiate with President Reagan for a reduction of nuclear weapons; the pulling out of Eastern Europe with (to Herzog’s joy) the reunification of Germany; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin made no attempt to combat. In fact in a world in which major differences take decades or centuries to accomplish, these changes boggle the mind with their suddenness.

During a three years’ interval in the USSR, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko meet their makers (not God, because Communists are atheists), and through bizarre Soviet arrangements Gorbachev is elevated to the post of General Secretary, the highest office in the vast land. Archival films hone in on George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan; Horst Teltschik, who advised German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the latter noted for directing German reunification; Margaret Thatcher, the reactionary British PM who opposed limiting nukes because they “deter war;” and Ronald Reagan, particularly during his meeting with Gorbachev in Iceland to deal with reducing the nasty weapon.

Looking back at a country now led by authoritarian, anti-Communist Vladimir Putin, we wonder whether all of Gorbachev’s reforms will be for naught given that both the Russian leader and the POTUS are leading their countries away from democratic reforms. Not everything in the movie is political. In a sentimental break, Gorbachev is seen shedding tears in memory of his departed wife Raisa, who died in 1999, twenty years ago, but still fondly in the former Soviet leader’s memory.

Herzog is a stunning interviewer, eliciting sustained responses to his questions, and the entire production staff should be complimented for its wealth of rarely seen archival films.

Running Time: 95 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

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

THE DOG DOC – movie review

THE DOG DOC
Cedar Creek Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cindy Meehl
Screenwriter: Cindy Meehl
Cast: Dr. Martin Goldstein, Waffles, Scooby, Mulligan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

If you don’t believe that Dr. Marty Goldstein should be Time magazine person of the year, maybe you just don’t like dogs. Dr. Marty presides over dogs and their human companions in Westchester County, New York, in the Hamlet of North Salem, with a population of under 10,000 people and maybe one thousand dogs or more. (Fifty percent of homes in the U.S. have at least one dog.) The town is populated by well-heeled folks with a median household income of $154,000, so these are not the kinds of people who would euthanize their dogs and cats if their pets needed veterinary care beyond the usual check-ups. Here in New York City, dog lovers flock to the Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side, a wonderful facility with a staff able to treat every kind of illness, but it’s a large place, confusing to people entering the first time with a sick animal. On the other hand, Dr. Marty’s facility looks from the outside like a large ranch house, but inside, the place is teeming with dogs and cats and their humans, and with a considerable staff of licensed veterinary technicians.

Dr. Marty does not dress in the traditional white coat that has been known to raise dogs’ blood pressure, but come across as somewhat hippie-ish with colorful garb, an adult version of his student days at Cornell, with a class picture showing him as one of the few classmates with a thick hair and lush beard.

So what’s the deal with this animal doctor that makes him not exactly sui generis, but at least among a minority of people in the profession who believe in alternative medicine as adjunctive to conventional treatments? He takes blood, and based on each dog’s size and weight and age, he recommends treatments, whether the animals are afflicted with jaw bone cancer, arthritis, or a terrible response to a vaccination. If you read about his veterinary clinic, your first thought would be that the doc could be a quack. He is suspicious of vaccines but is not against the procedure unless the dog stepping up for the needle is already afflicted with disease. Why give unhealthy dogs more bacteria?

In short, he believes in letting the dogs’ immune systems help them naturally, and to boost the immune system, he may prescribe nutritional supplements, acupuncture, and homeopathic injections. If a dog has bone cancer, like Petey, he demonstrates liquid nitrogen to freeze the cancerous tissue, thereby saving Petey’s natural jaw formation. If a dog has blastomycosis like Waffles, a white dog of mixed breed whose energy is close to zero, you emphathize with his human mom, who saved him when he was dumped on the road. She is determined to do everything she can. “I don’t want to lose him,” she says, with tears in her eyes. Count her as a huge supporter of Dr. Marty and Dr. Ruskin, who administered Vitamin C to support Waffles’ immune system.

He does not promise miracles for dogs who have metastatic cancer, but he can help by extending their lives. In one case a dog given five months to live is still around three years later thanks to alternative treatments.

Like some of the celebrated nutritionists advising people on how to boost their immune systems with vitamins and minerals, he thinks little of the corporate-sponsored dog foods, whose products, loaded with chemicals, may lead off with corn and wheat. He counters with “Since when do dogs go to bakeries for their food?”

Dr. Marty is a personable fellow, the kind you would want to trust immediately. He listens. He asks about each patient’s history. In a lecture at Cornell, he holds a class of veterinary students in his alma mater in the palm of his hand, pushing his philosophy of using alternative medicine in addition to conventional treatments, and sometimes abandoning traditional medicine altogether depending on the patient.

The best dog movies are sentimental dramas, with “Lassie Come Home” as my personal favorite. But in this case, Marty shows that a documentary can be as charming, enlightening, even sentimental, as the best of the narratives. Director Cindy Meehl, who founded Cedar Creek Productions, is in her métier, having directed an earlier film “Buck,” about Buck Brannaman, who suffered abuse as a child and went on to become a famous horse whisperer.

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

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

NON-FICTION – movie review

NON-FICTION
Sundance Selects
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Theret, Nora Hamzawi
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/23/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, and Christa Théret in Doubles vies (2018)

In Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins, acting as a speech therapist, notes, “The French don’t care what they do actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.” This seems apropos to Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” whose original title is “Doubles Vies” since it deals with people who have double lives. The talk is literary. One can call this movie not so much plot- centered or character-centered as dialogue-centered given the heaviness of what these people have to say. As for the second part of the quotes, yes, these French don’t care what they do, given their attitude toward secret affairs that their significant others can only suspect.

Assayas, well known here as in France especially for his mysterious “Clouds of Sils Maria” (about a film star who is shown a reflection of herself in the latest drama she’s in), again employs the transcendent talents of Juliette Binoche, this time in the role of Selena (Juliette Binoche), who performs in the role of an actress, shown here in the movie’s only action segment. In a film that more than touches on the latest ideas in our ways of communicating through books, Assayas puts together Alain (Guillaume Canet) with his wife Selena, but more on a professional level with Léonard, the writer who has been regularly published by Alain. This time things are different. Alain suspects that Léonard is having an affair with Selena, so to get revenge without specifically accusing the writer, he takes Léonard to lunch only to tell him at the conclusion of the entrecôte and terrine that he will not publish his latest novel.

He has good reason for his suspicions since Léonard puts the people in his circle into the novels—which he correctly calls auto-fiction (novels that are thinly disguised plots involving his actual doings). One of the women in the book acts suspiciously like Selena. At the same time Léonard enjoys a long term relationship with Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) a political consultant, who likewise suspects that the writer is having an affair but is certain that the liaisons are with someone else.

On the one hand, “Non-Fiction” throws around a lot of ideas dealing with the present, digitalized world, in which people may or may not read literature on their Kindles. Regardless of the popularity of e-writing, books are not selling as they had been in the past. More prominently, though, Assayas is interested in the sexual round-a-lay that involves his witty and sly characters—the magnificent Juliette Binoche shining forth as you’d expect—giving the film its appeal as a sex comedy with commentary, highlighting Léonard as the anti-materialistic technophobe contrasted with the editor, who is more than willing to swim along with the current tide to stay in business.

French films are known to be talk-a-thons, and in this case, that’s mostly what you get. Consider editor, writer and their love interests sitting around Alain’s villa holding their barbecued meat on their laps rather than on tables; the same people seen separately as couples in their own homes, and the writer’s having to defend himself against a critical audience during a book talk insisting that Léonard is writing autobiography rather than fiction.

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

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

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE – movie review

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Lears
Screenwriter: Rachel Lears, Robin Blotnick
Cast: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Paul Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush
Screened at: Bryant Park Screening Room, NYC, 4/18/19
Opens: May 1, 2019

Candidates meeting in Washington DC

 

 

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is my kind of congresswoman. She favors extending the federal minimum wage to film critics. She opposes the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but nobody’s perfect. And in six years she will be 35, eligible to run for president, intent on challenging Mr. Trump when our leader refuses to withdraw from the Oval Office after his term is up. In praise of Ocasio-Cortez and three other women running for Congress in 2018, Rachel Lears, who wrote, directs and photographs the documentary “Knock Down the House” may not be the female Michael Moore. Her straightforward doc is heartwarming (unless you voted for Crowley), and her script has none of the hilarity that you can find in every Michael Moore movie. She feels bad that three of the women she follows were defeated. From the way the four candidates are described, you get the impression that they support Democratic Party ideals to the left of the Democratic establishment—such as Medicare for All, federal government jobs guarantee, and free tuition in public colleges. And you’re welcome to boo that Senator Joe Manchin easily won his primary in West Virginia, a man who is chastised for accepting support from the coal mining companies who seem not to care that their industry has led to far more cases of cancer than we find across the country.

In deciding what to edit out of a film and what to include, a director obviously cannot give her audience the kind of information about a candidate that a book or even an article in the New Yorker can address. But there are glaring omissions in Lears’s coverage of Ocasio-Cortez, who gets the major part of Lears’s time, given the candidates charisma and the mere fact of her victory. This should have been included: that contrary to what voters might think—that Ocasio-Cortez won because Hispanics finally turned out for a woman who is ethnically Puerto Rican in numbers to defeat the 20-year incumbent. The truth is that only thirteen percent of registered Democrats showed up at the booths in June for the primary, which in the Bronx determines the winner in November as well—and more important, her stunning win of 57.5% to Crowley’s 42.5% was caused thanks primarily to well-to-do young voters who are gentrifying neighborhoods in her partly Queens district of Woodside and Astoria.

The other three women who ran in the Democratic primary in 2018 have their hearts on the sleeves but none can compare with Ocasio-Cortez as electrifying speakers. The three are also progressives running to the left of establishment Democrats, favoring Medicare for All and a better deal for working people, whose wages have not risen (adjusted for inflation) since the 1970s. And they refuse to accept corporate money, which seems self-defeating, if noble. Can you really get enough money for future campaigns from nickel-and-dime contributions from ordinary folks?

Paul Jean Swearengin of West Virginia is able to knock out one gem of a quote, stating that many Americans think that her congressional district in Appalachia is inhabited by people with “no teeth, no shoes, no brains.” She drives around her area pointing out how many people in and around Coal City, West Virginia died of cancer, presumably from the pollution caused by the coal industry. Yet she does not suggest ways that her constituents can make a living if the mines were closed down in favor of renewable sources of energy. This is perhaps why Joe Manchin, a Republican in Democratic clothing, is able to use money from the coal industry to sail to victory.

In her Missouri district, Cori Bush, denied a fair shake of Lears’s time, projects her anger at the murder by police of eighteen-year-old African-American Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. We see the famous arc, clueing us immediately that we’re in St. Louis. Meanwhile out west, Amy Vilela fights a primary against the machine politician, awash in campaign money from lobbyists. Her own daughter died when a hospital refused to treat her because she had no insurance. That’s just the kind of thing that would prompt any of us to run for political office.

Lears, with four other docs in her résumé including “The Hand That Feeds,” which finds a sandwich maker in a New York restaurant uniting undocumented co-workers to fight against abusive restaurant conditions. Lears, obviously a progressive who would not see all that much to admire among establishment Democrats, is in her métier, probably glowing about the number of women, especially of color, who have captured seats in the House of Representatives to make the 2018 legislative body the most representative of the American people. That’s not saying much, though. Shouldn’t fifty percent of the House be made up of women, rather than the present twenty-three percent? In any case, Congress now has its first Native-American woman, two Muslim women, and (back to the ubiquitous Ocasio-Cortez), at 29, the youngest woman House member in history.

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

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

THE WHITE CROW – movie review

THE WHITE CROW
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter: David Hare
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raophel Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergie Polunin, Dalypso Valois
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 3/20/19
Opens: April 26, 2019

Rudolph Nureyev would likely be famous even if he remained with dance troupes in Moscow, but became an icon when he defected to France. Why would anyone want to defect from Mother Russia? Possibly the same reason people risked their lives in the bad old days, most notably when East Germans tried to flee to the West. Communism, in the opinion of many, is an example of social engineering gone wrong. It asks people to conform to an economic way of life that is unnatural. Therefore those governments who call themselves communist—whether they follow orthodox Marxism or not—have to keep control on its residents lest they evacuate en masse from this unnatural environment and make new homes in countries that simply do not need this kind of control.

But what of people who have done well in communist states like the former Soviet Union? Creative people who have become well known, have been educated by the state, and whose vocations are subsidized by the government? Think of Rudolph Nureyev, ascending to the potential of the Bolshoi Ballet, considered good enough to join a group going to Paris to dance as representatives of their proud state. Why would he want to leave everything behind? Strangely enough, we simply do not know even while we are riveted by Ralph Fiennes’ “The White Crow,” flexing his directing muscles for the third time. Sure. Nureyev liked the glitter of Paris, as did his fellow dancers who looked at the Champs Elysees goo-goo eyed. Maybe not all of them were too pleased when the bureaucrats assigned to keep an eye on the troupe gather all passports as they descend from the bus to spend a few days wowing the French. What country in West would think of collecting passports, handing them back only as they are returning to Moscow from the airport?

Then again, “The White Crow” is entertaining enough so we go home not disappointed without the insight that drove us to watch this movie. It’s fragmented, going from Nureyev’s birth on a train of the trans-Siberian railroad, and who was prepared from an early age for a career as a dancer. We watch as he develops an ego, strong enough to refuse to be trained by a teacher who he thinks does not like him, then taking up with Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes). The principal role is played by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer in his debut as an actor, a handsome fellow playing a man who rejects the communist view that the good of the state is paramount over the desires of the individual.

In Paris Nureyev flirts with Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who is on the rebound after the death of her boyfriend, a woman of some influence given her relationship with the son of André Malraux, who is France’s minister of cultural affairs. While he is staying out late enjoying the entertainments that Paris offers, he causes his handlers anxiety, suspecting that he could become a great embarrassment for the Soviet Union is he decides to defect. He continues his training with Pushkin, played by director Ralph Fiennes with such meekness that we wonder how such a person could inspire a ballet troupe. The poor man’s wimpy personality appears to push Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) into seducing Nureyev, though the bisexual performer nurses a craving for his roommate Yuri Soloview (Sergei Polunin).

Nureyev shows his temperament, not always held in check, when he feels patronized by a Russian waiter who may suspect that though he and Clara are dining together, the woman has class but the man is from peasant stock. His connection with Clara, a meeting of opposites, could result from her pleasant surprise to be with a man whose style is direct rather than wishy-washy.

The film jumps from the Soviet Union to Paris, with regular intervals shown in desaturated colors of his life as a small boy, who even then demonstrates a passion for dancing. I would have wished for more time spent on Nureyev’s theater performances, as Oleg Ivenko demonstrates everything on stage from adagio to allegro, from grande jeté to pirouette. Still, the scene of greatest drama, actual edge-of-the-seat minutes that you can find on police dramas, occurs when at the airport on the final day in Paris he asks for asylum. The KGB handlers, aware that this could happen, jump into the fray, fighting with the French airport police who with great patriotic fervor announce “This is France!”

Flashbacks do not detract from the continuity of the story, in fact we’re happy to see Maksimilian Grigoriyev depicting an enthusiastic Nureyev at the age of eight. This is a movie with great charm, glorious dancing and high drama, concluding with our excitement to watch a man thumbing his nose, or rather extending the middle finger, to the duplicitous agents of the big, bad Soviet Union.

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

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

GRASS – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RED JOAN – movie review

RED JOAN
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Trevor Nunn
Screenwriter: Lindsay Shapero based on Jennie Rooney’s novel
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbrova
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 3/13/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Red Joan Movie Poster

Tom Lehrer sang this ironic song in 1965 which goes in part…

First we got the bomb and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s O.K.,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way!

The idea that it’s fine with us in the West that Russia got the bomb becomes literally true in Trevor Nunn’s film “Red Joan.” The title character, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), who is the fictional stand-in for the actual civil servant Melita Norwood, confesses after her arrest in 2000 that she was always a good British citizen though she handed nuclear secrets to Stalin. How so? Disgusted that the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she believed that the best way to avoid future nuclear holocausts is to make sure that the two super powers would live together in relative peace. And they would live together in relative peace knowing that it would be self-destructive to drop atomic weapons on each other. And maybe she had a point since, mirabile dictu, throughout the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union dared to attack each other head-on.

Most of “Red Joan” finds the great Judi Dench in the background, brought back to the limelight now and then but spending most of the story illustrating the way that her youthful self (Sophie Cookson) is recruited by the KGB to transmit nuclear secrets from the labs of Great Britain into the hands of the Soviets. The story involves considerable romantic interludes, first between Joan and Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), a communist firebrand who in a rousing speech notes that as a Jew, he made the mistake of leaving the Soviet Union and going to Germany. Aware of Hitler’s atrocities, he is orating full speed in favor of the Russians. During his affair with Joan Stanley, the latter awed of her new boyfriend’s ability to agitate a crowd, we in the movie audience wonder to what extent he is really in love with Joan and to what extent he is simply using her to transmit documents from her job in a physics lab to Britain’s ally, the Soviet Union.

Still a virgin in 1938, Joan is befriended by Sonia (Tereza Srbova), like Leo a KGB agent, who encourages Joan to pursue her romance with Sonia’s cousin Leo. In that lab, she is an assistant to professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) and becomes his lover though he is married to a woman who refuses to give him a divorce. The movie’s opening in the year 2000 finds Joan arrested by MI5, Britain’s CIA equivalent, defended by her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles). Though a lawyer’s job is to defend clients, Joan’s own son is furious: “How could you do this?” he insists, while reluctantly taking on her case.

“Red Joan” as a spy story is more in line with the brainy types of heroes and villains you’d find in John Le Carre’s novels, books like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “A Legacy of Spies,” and “The Guardian,” weaving past and present. An example involves Peter Guillam, a disciple of George Smiley, now living out his retirement on the south coast of Brittany, then called to account by the British Secret Service about his role in the Cold War. There is nothing James Bond-ish in this film, much as we might secretly wish for explosions more damaging than those between Joan and her attorney son Nick. There is no need even to wonder about Judi Dench’s performance. She is perhaps among greatest actress of her generation, and surprisingly, young Sophie Cookson rises to the occasion with a stunning, understated role as the idealistic 20-year-old who may not have thought of giving secrets to Stalin to provide a balance of power, but because she had become a dedicated communist under Leo’s vivid encouragement.

The king’s English is spoken throughout, so no subtitles are needed for us Americans. Charlotte Walker’s costumes are spot on as is Cristina Crisali’s set design, both eliciting the vibes of the two time periods. Zac Nicholson films all in Cambridgeshire, England. This is a well-cast story, unshowy, that will lead to consider Joan’s quote “I was fighting for the living, I loved my country!” and making up your mind about whether she believed this in spite of being a spy for the Soviet Union for some fifty years. Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name is available at Amazon for $14.38.

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

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