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?

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

HAIL SATAN? – movie review

HAIL SATAN?
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Penny Lane
Cast: Lucien Greaves
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/14/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

If you go to the movies even rarely you’ll probably encounter a comical scene that finds a man and a woman in bed. The husband comes home early, and the guy in bed says, “It’s not what you think it is.” In a similar vein, “Hail Satan?” is “not what you think it is.” You’re thinking that this is one of the kooky cults that literally worship the devil. Instead you’ll find members of the Hail Satan? Fellowship to be a diverse mixture of humanity, some with tattoos and nose rings and ornate jewelry on their chests, others who are as straight as I am, notably a founder and leader of the cult, Lucien Greaves—a Harvard graduate who inspired groups in thirteen American states, in Canada, and in several European countries. If these people do not worship Lucifer, then what’s the point of giving this name to the organization? There is a point, but it’s not a good one. These good folks could have made their mark by “worshipping” a goat (actually they pretend to do just this), an elephant (Ganesh anyone?), the North Star, the pagan Pan, or anyone but Satan himself (or herself).

You may not believe in the way the Hail Satan? People go about their parodies and metaphors but from my point of view (feel free to disagree) there should be a separation of church. Yes, the First Amendment implies just that, yet beginning in 1864 when religious zeal was at a new height, “In God We Trust” began appearing on American money, and later, in 1956, President Eisenhower had us change our motto from “E Pluribus Unum” to (you guessed it) “In God We Trust.”

Now this is the kind of coinage that the Satanists should oppose, yet I suppose they’d given up on trying to abolish the mention of the Deity on money and in government buildings. The Satanic Temple does not believe the Ten Commandments belongs on government land, and courts have for the most part agreed. Yet if the State of Arkansas insists on putting the plague by the capital building, then the Satanists do counter with their own statue, one of Baphomet, a half-man/half-goat follower of Satan. Founder Greaves set the group’s monument up only to have to cart it away when the festivities were over.

Here they see an opportunity to turn a pro-religion law into their own beliefs. When governor Rick Scott pushed through a bill to permit prayer in Florida schools, the Satanists welcomed this by affirming that students could worship Satan with as much freedom as they would give to God. If you have not realized by now, members of the group are atheists, but people who believe that atheism is either boring or not comprehensive in that this tells you what they do not believe rather than what they do accept. Their tenets include acting with compassion to all creatures, continuing to struggle for justice, asserting the inviolability of our bodies (which makes them pro-choice), respecting the freedom of others including the freedom to offend, using science to test beliefs, acting to rectify mistakes, embracing wisdom and justice over all written and spoken words.

Christian groups have turned up, it seems, whenever Greaves’ acolytes garner media attention, some shouting that “you’re all going to hell”—to which one Satanists responds, in effect,” I look forward to that with excitement.” In fact the presence of Christian groups gives more publicity to the Satanists than they otherwise could have wished. The documentary plays up the interaction between two competitive groups—one believing in the First Amendment, the other believing that the U.S. is a Christian country. (The U.S. is probably 90%+ Christian but that does not nor should not make us a Christian country.)

This is a fun film with serious messaging, the humor and wit of the atheist group making it more than watchable. Director Penny Lane is in her métier since she had made films like “Nuts!” about the mostly true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire with his goat-testicle impotence cure; and “The Pain of Others,” a documentary about Morgellons, a mysterious illness whose sufferers say they have parasites under the skin, long colored fibers emerging from lesions,

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

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

STOCKHOLM – movie review

STOCKHOLM
SGM and Dark Star
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Robert Budreau
Screenwriter: Robert Budreau, inspired by a 1974 New Yorker magazine article “The Bank Drama”
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Ethan Hawke, Mark Strong, Christopher Heyerdahl, Bea Santos, Thorbjørn Harr
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 3/15/19
Opens: April 12, 2019

Stockholm Movie Poster

If you’re American, you may have thought that the Patty Hearst case was the first time the concept of Stockholm Syndrome was used.
The most famous case of Stockholm Syndrome in America occurred in 1974 when Patricia Campbell Hearst was kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which took her hostage to gain the release of some imprisoned members of the group. She bonded with her captors, called her granddad, William Randolph Hearst, a fascist, took up a machine gun and robbed businesses and made explosive devices, all allegedly in voluntary service to the SLA. However the first time the concept was used was in 1973 involving a hostage situation in the main bank of Stockholm, Sweden.

Budreau, whose “Born to Be Blue” about the reimagining of Chet Baker’s jazz comeback in the sixties, now departs wholly from that biographical subgenre to tackle what is unlikely the first case in which a hostage bonds with her captor, but is the first time that the “Syndrome” term was used. Ethan Hawke departs from his restrained performance as a minister grappling with despair in “First Reformed” to go over the top, and Noomi Rapace shucks her over the top performance as the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to play a meek bank clerk. “Stockholm” is off and running when Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) adjusts his fake, hippie-style hair, combs his mustache, strolls into Stockholm’s central bank, removes a machine gun from his duffel, fires a few shots at the ceiling, and give every impression that he’s out for money. He does ask for a million, but his real goal is to get the cops under chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) to free his bank robbing pal Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail.

As the two criminals settle in for what will be five days and the police occupy the second floor of the bank, Lars both terrorizes and comforts his two hostages, Claire (Bea Santos) and Bianca Lind (Noomi Rapace). As a wife and mother, Bianca would not seem the type of person who would be taken in by Lars, except that Lars is the kind of person that women say they’d like to have fun with but not marry, while Bianca’s husband Christopher Lind (Thorbjørn Harr) is the groomed, steady type, the marriageable kind, taking care of the two kids during the hostage crisis. In the film’s most absurd moment, when Christopher shows up at the bank to see what his wife is up to, Bianca patiently gives him a fish recipe so he can return home and feed himself and the little ones.

This is the kind of movie that may disappoint thrill seekers who think it will be another “Dog Day Afternoon,” but will encourage a potential audience interested in human psychology, particularly in the surprising ways that people can react when in a situation that should inspire nothing but terror. Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace play off each other, convincing us in the audience that in spite of all logic, they get to do some smooching as the crisis proceeds day by day.

Almost all action takes place inside the bank, which could allow for some playwright in the future to consider the plot for the legitimate stage. The inspiration for the movie came from a New Yorker magazine article called The Bank Drama published Nov. 25, 1974 about Jan-Erik Olsson’s takeover of Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, where the hostage-taker and an accomplice held 4 hostages for 6 days in Aug. 1973.

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

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

 

DOGMAN – movie review

DOGMAN
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenwriter: Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Raucci, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Alida Baldari Calabria, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 4/2/19
Opens: April 12, 2019

Dogman Movie Poster

“Dogman” is the movie that won the “Palm Dog Best Canine Cast” during the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2018. If that’s not a reason to run to the theater I don’t know what is. Maybe I do: the picture also gave Marcello Fonte the Best Actor award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year and the aforementioned Cannes Festival as well. If you’re still not convinced, consider whether you’d like the films made by Matteo Garrone. The director’s well-named “Gomorrah” a few years back deals with the Napolitano mafia, is full of violence (obviously), and has the additional scare for audiences when the title “Gomorrah” shows up on covering the entire screen.

You’re still with me? You have no problem with extreme violence? And maybe you like dogs enough to watch canines of all sizes getting groomed? But you’re queasy when one chihuahua is tossed into a freezer praying to be rescued and defrosted, especially if his savior could be the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor? You’re set for an interesting time at the movies.

The tale focuses primarily on Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a milquetoast, an easily bullied fellow, who makes a living grooming dogs in a godforsaken shop called Dogman in a sh*thole of a town outside Naples. He has a daughter of about nine years, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), who is the most mature character in the movie, regularly promised by her dad to take her on a trip to the Red Sea but settling for scuba-diving in a nearby watering hole. He wants to fulfill this dream and is lured into selling cocaine to make the needed money, and he is also more or less forced into more criminal activity by the town bully, ex-boxer Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a bruiser of a guy that some in the community would like to kill. This Simoncino is such a brute—I hesitate to use the term “animal” unless you compare him to the pit bull that opens the movie ready to tear into Marcello’s throat—that in one scene he virtually kills his mother, (Nunzia Schiano) with an outrageous bear hug. Still, she deserves the treatment for tossing her dear boy’s cocaine into the air (though Marcello is forced to sweep it up).

When Simone insists that wimpy Marcello take part in robbing Marcello’s friend Franco (Adamo Dionisi) who runs a gold-buying service next door to Dogman, the stage is set for a disaster that will bring Marcello down and lead to an act of vengeance that has unintentional consequences.

Nicolaj Brüel’s lenses capture the action in Caserta, Campania, Lazio and Rome, though the principal location probably had its last batch of tourists during the time of the Caesars. There is an indication that metaphoric use is made of the town since it’s almost inconceivable that anyone in the culture-rich nation of Italy would live there—and maybe (metaphor alert) nobody does. “Dogman” was Italy’s Oscar candidate for movies opening in 2018, though the rich assortment of imports made it impossible for the pic to get a nomination. Subtitles are clear, as the only words of English are spoken to a dog as in “sit” and “stay,” though those are about the last words you’d use in the presence of Simone.

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

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

SUNSET – movie review

SUNSET (Napszállta)
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lázló Nemes
Screenwriter: Lázsló Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Molnr, Julia Jakubowska
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/31/19
Opens: TBD

Poster

The 1950s in America may be looked upon as perhaps the dullest decade of the 20th century but it was also the most prosperous. Politics then were relatively stable. In fact the biggest complaint about the two major political parties is that they were so much alike you could not tell them apart:like tweedeledum and tweedledee. How we wish that were true nowadays when not only the U.S. is divided (Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote), but also Europe with its Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism, the politics of hate. With “Sunset,” Lázló Nemes unfolds an epic tale about even worse divisions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, placing the drama in 1913 when the world’s first all-encompassing war was brewing. While the tale, told exclusively through the eyes of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), tunes us into both the active and brewing violence in Budapest, we in the audience cannot be blamed for being confused as to the motives of the gun-wielding participants. At first we figure that the mayhem is based on class warfare: the masses of have-nots resenting the upper-bourgeois merchants whose products cater to the tastes of the aristocracy in the Austrian capital of Vienna. However, given that director Nemes’ previous offering, “Son of Saul,” opened through the point of view of inmate Saul, an Auschwitz prisoner made to bury the bodies of the murdered Jews, we can surmise that there is a Jewish theme in “Sunset” as well.

Here’s why. The backstory of “Sunset,” or “Napszállta in the original Hungarian, is that a high-class milliner’s store is burned to the ground, its two owners perishing in the flames. This looks like a foreshadowing of the Kristallnacht, when in 1938 Nazi thugs broke windows of Jewish-owned businesses, torched synagogues, raided Jewish homes and killed one hundred German-Jewish citizens. You may, of course, have a different interpretation: Nemes, not one to spoon feed the audience, will never tell.

Because of the director’s regard for the intelligence of his audiences, he gives us but an outline of the activities and bursts of anarchy in Budapest on the eve of war. At the same time, given that the film is 144 minutes long, coupled with that deliberate lack of clarity as to motivations of the warring groups, some prospective filmgoers will be exasperated. And others, like me, will be absorbed throughout.

As Leiter (a predominantly Jewish name), Jakab performs as a woman alone traveling from Trieste to Budapest in search of employment in her parents’ store but also following up a rumor that her brother Kálmán (also a Yiddish given name shortened from the Greco-Jewish name Kalonymos, or קלונימוס) can be located there. She never smiles but wears a fierce, determined look as anyone would while negotiating through the personalities of several men, in one instance almost the victim of gang rape. She seeks employment in the millenery establishment that had been owned by her parents but is now under the proprietorship of Oszkár Brill (the Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov). Though Brill does not hire her, he takes her under his wing as the city faces raids by outlaws, though most of the beatings and shootings take place off the set. (Correction: the action does not take place in a set as the director, fearing the loss of individuality and even a humane-ness in our digital world, refuses to use such a convention favored by current filmmakers.) Each time she mentions the name of her brother, it’s as though she has uttered an obscenity worthy of 50 lashes.

Though warned to stay close to the shop, she wanders off, crashing into what we today would call chaotic neighborhoods, including a look at Countess Redey’s (Julia Jakubowska) palace. The countess was allegedly driven mad by her husband, whose had implanted her back with evidence of severe whippings. Continuing to wander about she runs into more parlous situations, hopping a tram now and then, not deterred even after she is almost raped. At this point we surmise that the director, using a script from Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier and himself, is using Írisz as an Everyman—the suffix “man” applicable to her given her androgynous look and our vision of her in a concluding scene surrounding by men in trenches.

Györgyi Szakács’s costumes are a high point. Women wear hats that could be used by discus throwers given the size of the head coverings, just as American men in the 50’s all wore Fedoras. Mátyás Erdély films in Hungary, specifically in Budapest and Iszkaszentgyorgy, the dust in the air rarely settling as though the town is a pre-war Beijing. Pay close attention, as though you were Írisz Leiter herself, looking in astonishment at a civilization in decay, preparing for a war that will break up the Austrian Empire, a prelude to the last strains of civilization.

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

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

THE LAST – movie review

THE LAST
Plainview Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeff Lipsky
Screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky
Cast: Rebecca Schull, Jill Durso, AJ Cedeño, Reed Birney
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/16/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

The Last (2019)

Prospective viewers take note. “The Last” features a story that would play better on the stage than on the big screen. Writer-director Jeff Lipsky, whose “Mad Women” features a mother of three daughters who commits a crime of conscience and becomes radicalized in prison, segues into a new movie about one woman who is mad-insane (arguably, at one time), another two who are mad (angry as hell and rightly so), and two men whose views about where to put the great grandma are radically different. Since “The Last” is rich in dialogue, including a stunning forty-five minute monologue by the 90-year-old actress Rebecca Schull as the 92-year-old Claire, could easily fit on an off-Broadway stage with a little sand to represent a beach.

Here is yet another take on the Holocaust, the greatest crime of all time. “The Last” is not likely to be the last look at the atrocity, nor should it be. Lipsky puts an elderly woman on the front burner, rare enough in the movies these days, a character who is quite different from the person her many-generation family thinks she is. The film’s advertising notes that she will reveal some details of her life three-score and ten years ago that has a sobering effect on her family. However, no film critic should destroy the suspense by revealing the coup d’ètat, nor should readers who suspect the revelation to be a shattering read any commentary on the film that exposes this key feature.

With a stunning performance from nonagenarian Rebecca Schull, perhaps best known for her role in the TV comedy “Wings” about two brothers trying to run an airline from Nantucket, “The Last” opens on the kind of Rosh HaShanah service in which Josh (AJ Cedeño), wearing kippah and identifying as Modern Orthodox, challenges the group by revealing that he does not really believe in God. Yes, there may have been a burning bush, but not one that was lit up by a Divine Bic. Yes, the Red Sea may have seemed to part, but perhaps the good guys escaped from Pharaoh’s army by walking on the rocks. Despite Josh’s skepticism, his wife Olivia (Jill Durso), has undergone a conversion to Judaism, not without feeling embarrassed by her nudity after dunking in the purifying Mikveh baths.

A Mikveh would have been better suited for Claire, who is the least pure family relic, and who in the film’s key middle delivers one of the longest monologues ever to appear on celluloid rather than its more appropriate place on the legit stage. Claire’s tale is of her escape from Germany during the rise of Hitler and her attainment of U.S. citizenship thanks to a marriage of convenience with one Moishe. Her granddaughter Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), married to would-be graphic novelist Harry (Reed Birney), can identify strongly with Claire, given that Melody lost both of her parents in the war.

When Claire reveals that she is terminally ill and has booked passage to Oregon for a gentle end to her active life, the stage (or rather, the screen), is set for yet another surprise that leads Olivia into a convulsive tantrum, wracked with psychic pain.

While you might expect “The Last” to be targeted to a Jewish audience—it did, in fact, play at a Jewish center prior to its March 29th opening this year—there is every reason for an audience of all faiths or none to find universality in the plot. Despite the low level of histrionics in favor of some carefully written dialogue, “The Last” is a daring film that can be appreciated by a select, sophisticated audience.

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

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

WORKING WOMAN – movie review

WORKING WOMAN (Isha Ovedet)
Zeitgeist Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michal Aviad
Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad
Cast: Liron Ben Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/16/19
Opens: March 27, 2019

Isha Ovedet (2018)

It should not be difficult to discourage men who harass women (or other men) for sex, stalking, wheedling, begging, demanding, and the like. But when the men (assuming 90-95% of the guilty are men) have something over you, things get complicated. We know from recent exposés by the #MeToo movement and journalists in general how easy it must have been for Harvey Weinstein to get what he wanted from women. As the leading producer of films in the U.S., he could make or break careers. This explains why so many women waited for years before getting the courage to testify against him.

But Harvey Weinstein is only one guy. There are local schlemiels who are able to get away with harassment simply because they employ women. It’s not so easy to fight off an employer when you need his recommendation for a new job. This is why dominant males do not always need to use a great deal of force to touch, even rape women who are, so to speak, under them. Nor is sexual harassment found only in the U.S. and Europe, as Michal Aviad points out forcefully enough with “Working Woman,” or “Isha Ovedet” in the original Israeli title. Aviad, in her sophomore dramatic feature (in addition to documentaries she is known for “Invisible,” dealing with two women who discover that their rapists are in common), illustrates the way that Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) is drawn into the sordidi network of her boss, Benny (Menashe Noy). She is such a valuable employee that one may wonder why she needs him more than he needs her.

As a marketer of real estate property, she has gone beyond her boss’ skills. In the case on view here, she is able to sell apartments in the Israeli city of Rishon La Zion using tactics that Benny would not have thought of. Things get hairy when Benny at first asks her to wear her hair long, then tries to kiss her. Like so many other predators, he apologizes “It won’t happen again.” It does, culminating in a situation in which Benny tries to rape her in a Paris hotel, though Orna, at first trying to fight him off, gives in—only partly because he outweighs her by a hundred pounds. She is probably thinking that since the new restaurant business started by her husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) may go belly-up, nobody will be around to support her family of five.

That’s the situation, one that must be repeated thousands, maybe millions of time by the male of the species, those who are in controlling situations. And since most business is owned by men, these predators must be having a field day, using their dominance to get what they want.

With a stunning principal performance by Liron Ben Shlush and with a direction by feminist Michal Aviad that refuses to degenerate into noisy melodrama, “Working Woman” is able to get the message across in an entertaining format with a direct, narrative style—no animation, flashbacks and the like. The film is in Hebrew and some French with English subtitles.

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

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

THE BRINK – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOBIBOR – movie review

SOBIBÓR
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Konstantin Khabenskiy
Screenwriter: Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein, Ilya Vasiliev, based on the book by Ilya Vasiliev: “Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough to Immortality”
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

If you travel to Poland, you will do well to take the day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, certainly not because there is entertainment to be found there but because the most notorious death camp and its promotion by Germany is part of what is now called grief tourism. The German government has been surprisingly transparent in its vast campaign of owning up what the Nazi government did to the Jews they arrested, most of whom either died in the camps or were summarily shot on location. If the camp at Sobibór is not among the most visited camps today ,it is because unlike with Auschwitz, the Nazis government tore down the camp in 1943 after a dramatic escape by prisoners, making it part of the adjoining forest.

Konstantin Khabenskiy, who directs and stars in “Sobibór” takes on the role of the actual hero, Alexander Pechersky, who led one of the only two successful escapes from concentration camps, standing in as one answer to naïve accusations such as “Why didn’t the Jews do more to fight against the enemy?” Obviously given the way that the guards at the camps crushed not only the spirit of the inmates but did their best to work them to death, Jews were generally in no condition to put up a fight. Given this situation, you can’t blame Russia for commemorating the heroic uprising led by Pechersky, though under an anti-Semitic Stalin, information was kept quiet only because the rebellion was led by Jews. Happily things are different now as we witness the box office success of Khabenskiy’s film, which has among the most gory, bloody scenes of chaos month after month involving German officers living on Cognac and laughing at the humiliations they visit upon the poor prisoners.

Ramunus Greicius films entirely in Vilnius County, Lithuania, standing in for the Polish city of Sobibór which lies southeast of both Warsaw and Treblinka, hugging the border with Ukraine. With a cast including scores of Lithuanian extras, Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya’s Vasiliev screenplay based on the book “Alexander Pechersky” by Ilya Vasiliev takes us first to the railway where Jews being resettled have allegedly been treated fairly well on the transport to cover up the goal of the Germans. As they depart, they are told “Welcome to your new life,” but instead, most of the women are forced to strip naked and march into the “showers” only to be gassed with carbon monoxide. The men and women who are kept alive are made busy with sewing and chopping, their hard work met with strange rewards including one attempted rape, nonstop floggings, setting Jews up as horses to run the officers around.

As a result of one attempted escape early on, the officers order one inmate of every group of ten to be shot, to discourage further escapes and to demand that the Jews tell the Nazis of any future plan. Among the prisoners is one kapo who is crueler to his fellow Jews than any German, calling them “kikes,” and bringing clear definition to the term “self-hating Jew.” The camp commandant, Karl Frenzel (Christiopher Lambert) does little to discipline the men, even encouraging them to shoot Jews for sport and, in one instance, to allow Berg (Mindaugas Papinigis) to pour alcohol on one prisoner and set him on fire.

Most of the story deals with life in the camps, which the officers find to their liking being the sadists that they are, nobody forcing restraint while the Jews are beaten so regularly that we wonder how they are able to kill eleven officers, duping them by saying that they have beautiful Parisian leather jackets to show them in their quarters and then stabbing or shooting them. It is only during the final twenty minutes that the actual escape takes place, as prisoners take the pistols and rifles that they capture and make their way into the forest. Slow-motion photography adds drama to the narrative. Regrettably, of the six hundred taking part in the mad dash to freedom, most perished, either killed by guards or exploded in the mine fields surrounding the camp. Only 58 are known to have survived, while some are killed by locals and some by Ukrainian guards.

Because the film so boldly displays the misery dished out to the Jews, who never know whether they would survive the day, it stands as a great tribute to Alexander Pechersky without whose leadership all might have been either killed or too petrified even to attempt escape. English subtitles provided for languages spoken: Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Yiddish

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

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

US – movie review

US
Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 3/19/19
Opens: March 22, 2019

With the rise in antisemitism and racism that we’re seeing not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, you will get the allegorical point of “Us.” There’s “us” and there’s “them.” “Them” are the people that “us” perceives as enemies, perhaps too smart, or even too uneducated. Hillary had the idea when she spoke of the “basket of deplorables” that expected to vote for Trump, a speech that helped to seal her fate. Now, it’s not as though “us” and “them” are in two separate worlds, never to see one another, never to work with one another. The “them” are “tethered” to the “us,” serving us resenting us, and yet the “us” are too wrapped up in ourselves, too sure that we are actually helping “them,” serving as their saviors, that “us” are completely unprepared for what’s in store. Maybe the “them” could even outvote “us” and elect the politicians that allegedly speak for “them”? Nah.

Us Movie Poster

This commentary is all in the service of understanding what may be going on in Jordan Peele’s mind during the couple of hours that he entertains us. We’ve been looking forward to his first sequel since, after all, didn’t he write and direct “Get Out,” one of the great horror pics of contemporary times? Truth to tell, while “Us” has a lot going for it in the way of film-making, it falls way short in the way of story-telling. Yet our disappointment is tempered by the idea that this is effective as horror; it’s entertaining, in parts it’s funny. And it’s remarkable how the four principal performers play both roles, both “us” and “them,” and as the story unfolds we see that Peele does not depend on the cheap tropes of standard horror films. He doesn’t have the false starts, the McGuffins. And his major foursome are well up to the task of providing fun and games for our stomachs and allegory for our brains.

It takes quite a bit of time for the movie to get into the terror groove, but that’s all in the way of allowing the audience to get to know the personas. Adelaide is a girl of about eight at the beach with her family during the summer of 1986. She strays from them to explore, goes into a haunted house like the kind you still find in Coney Island, and gets the shock of her life as she is confronted by her double. Wide-eyed, she is segued into the present day where Lupita Nyong’o takes over the role. She is a young mother, married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and has two kids, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason Wilson (Evan Alex). Though Gabe is eager to take the family to their summer beach home in Santa Cruz, Adelaide is at first opposed, given the shock she received thirty-three years back. But soon enough Gabe, Adelaide, Zora and Jason are on the way, where they join their neighbors Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker). Gabe supplies the story’s humor, but Adelaide is Peele’s focus.

They are confronted by a foursome standing still outside their home, refusing to move despite Gabe’s warnings. Soon they are under attack by… their doubles! The most impressive is Adelaide’s double, with make-up like the rest of the invaders to look like the normal folks only scarier. Near the conclusion, Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger delivers a raspy lecture that explains the action of the invaders, noting that “It’s our time now.”

Could Trump’s election and the rise of large proportions of forgotten Americans be on Jordan Peele’s mind in composing the script? I would like to believe this, but then again, this would give our current situation in America too limited a perspective. Peele posits two classes, as stated above, the have’s and the have not’s, the latter overthrowing the smug, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, bland, middle-class types, taking on the prejudices of the “overlords” that they have served but now abandoning their peaceful demeanors.

“Us” represents filmmaking that is more active and frantic than in “Get Out,” but then, Peele’s debut is one of the miracles of the 2017 film year. Peele is probably aware that his public expects another stunner, perhaps surpassing a debut, but may realize that he has given himself too high a hurdle to leap. Look for some agitated cinematography from Mike Gioulakis, some masterful editing from Nicholas Monsour, and trust that Michael Abels’ score will help keep you on the edge of your seat.

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

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

THE MUSTANG – movie review

THE MUSTANG

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

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

The Mustang Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALL – movie review

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

Wall (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASH IS PUREST WHITE – movie review

ASH IS PUREST WHTIE (Jiang hue er nü)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jia Zhang-Ke
Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feeng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

When I visited China in 1985 as part of a study tour, I found a country that had been wracked by a Cultural Revolution that ended a few years earlier. What I saw was as backward as you might expect for a state that had not experienced a global outlook. All felt provincial, with Beijing’s airport looking more primitive than even our own LaGuardia terminal and Shanghai’s equivalent of our Fifth Avenue coming across like a major road in Milwaukee. Even the best hotels were second-rate given that the big international chains were afraid to invest in a poor, Communist country. Today things have changed dramatically, though at the cost of making Beijing and Shanghai among the most polluted cities on earth. Instead of the quiet pace that found the older generation enjoying the camaraderie of the bathhouses, you now have ambitious young men more likely to bathe their Beemers or their Mercedes. The forty-eight year old Jia Zhang-Ke, easily China’s most celebrated filmmaker today and in the opinion of an NPR critic perhaps the best filmmaker at work in the world takes a look at how the changes affect a particular group of people. In 2001 they look like a bunch of small-time gangster nobodies socializing in a decrepit shack but calling one another “brothers” as a sign of undying loyalty. Seventeen years later life had caught up with them, the reversals symbolized in the characters of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan).

Bin is the honcho of the underground society taking for granted the deference given to him by his brothers. Qiao is in love with him, a woman who is one of the boys, giving love punches in the back to two men and taking a bite from the shoulder of her paramour, Bin. The entire group must feel that their loyalty will be unchallenged for life while Qiao seems assured that her love for Bin and his for her will last forever as well.

Though Qiao considers ballroom dancing “too Western,” but the entire company dance to a rhythm that would be familiar here in the U.S. When Bin is attacked by young people from a rival gang, Qiao saves his life by firing a gun into the air. Since China is not Texas, she spends five years in jail for mere gun possession. It’s now 2006. Qiao is out of prison sailing the Yangtze. noting villages along the way that are going to disappear—not from climate change but from the building of a dam to give electric power to the community. There’s one change. From the narrative’s point of view comes another change. Bin has moved on to another girlfriend and refuses to see her, leaving her adrift and forced to use her prison-acquired scamming skills to get meals and money. (Telling some wedding guests that she is a friend of the bride and those of the groom is a technique sometimes used even here.) By 2018 Bin has become a different man entirely, sidelined by a serious stroke, wheeled around by Qiao who tells him that their love is gone. Yet Qiao is in no mood for schadenfreude despite being dumped by Bin while she is in jail.

The conclusion is one of great sentiment but not at all like the cheap kind you’d find in commercial Hollywood movies. Though Jia does not afford us in the audience the spectacular scenery found in epic films like Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, supplies some panoramic shots around the Yantze and through the windows of a train—the latter being the backdrop of a humorous scene involving a passenger’s line that he is conducting research on a UFO project and would like Qiao to join him, offering her a job.

The film’s highlight is Jia’s expertise in the director’s chair but most of all from a shattering, albeit subdued (compared to what Hollywood would do to her) performance. “The years pass just like that” (snaps fingers) notes Gloria’s mother in Sebastián Leilio’s marvelous movie “Gloria Bell.” With those years, in China, there arrive momentous economic and social changes which, at the same time, make their mark against loyalties that had been expected to continue forever. Those wedding bells in our town may be breaking up that old gang of mine, but the simple passing of years does irreparable damage to familial ties in China. “Ash is Purest White” casts its eye on an exuberant but ultimately mournful setting in a particular spot involving two particular people, but its theme can stand in by extension for us all.

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

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

GLORIA BELL- movie review

GLORIA BELL
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenwriter: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Caren Pistoruys, Brad Garrett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Holland Taylor
Screened at: Dolby 88, NYC, 3/5/19
Opens: March 8, 2019

There is wisdom in old age, so when the title character’s mother (Holland Taylor) tells Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) that “life goes by just like that” (snaps her finger), you realize that Sebastián Lelio’s film is about the complications of growing middle age and beyond. Those are not necessarily the physical ones, as when Gloria, now in her fifties, finds out that she needs to use eye drops twice daily to counteract a malady that probably does not affect youths. More to the point are the complications of relationships . There are children, there are divorces, and yet there is a desire to find a mate at any age, and to dance to tunes like the 1982 “Gloria” with its phenomenal beat, a sound which brought disco music back to life when everyone was pronouncing it dead.

Writer-director Lelio now re-imagines his 2013 film by the same name with Los Angeles as home base taking the place of Santiago, Chile, and he could not have found a better person for the leading role than Julianne Moore—a free-spirited divorcée who, like Tony Manero in the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” works a mundane day job but lives for the dance floor at night.

There is something Woody-Allen-ish in “Gloria Bell,” taking place amid a group of middle-aged, reasonably well-off white people in Los Angeles, where taking off for a weekend in Vegas is easier than even jumping from New York to Miami for a long weekend in the sun. Gloria who works an insurance job by day—and who gets a chance to comfort Melinda (Barbara Sukowa) who has just been fired shortly before she’d would be eligible for a generous retirement allowance. Gloria’s days are complicated only in part from a psychologically unstable neighbor whose cat appears to prefer the more stable environment offered by Gloria. For her part she is concerned about a pregnant daughter who is about to go to Sweden to join up with her boyfriend. At the same time Gloria’s son Peter (Michael Cera) has a messed up relationship with his wife, who left for the desert to “find” herself, leaving him to care for their baby.

At the heart of the movie is Gloria’s relationship with Arnold (John Turturro) whom she meets at a bar patronized by middle-aged people. They appear fascinated with each other, beginning an affair. The fireworks start when Arnold, though professing to think of her all the time “I can’t get you out of my head,” has a co-dependency relationship with his two grown daughters who call him daily. Instead of throwing away his mobile, he answers every call, frustrating Gloria. That’s not his only hangup. Twice, he leaves suddenly without so much as a goodbye; once when he feels ignored by her family at a gathering, a second time after she drops his mobile into his soup.

The music is terrific, and not only the aforementioned “Gloria,” to which Gloria sings and dances joyfully as though to drop all her cares on the dance floor. There’s a favorite of mine, Bach’s Prelude in D minor performed by Gloria’s son Peter on a harpsichord, and also pop hits like “No More Lonely Nights.” The movie would have been just OK with any other lead performer, but with Julianne Moore, whose solid performance, ranging emotionally from ecstatic abandon to soulful tearing up, Lelio’s project comes across as an authentic look at middle age life among people when they are away from their desks.

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

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

CARGA – movie review

CARGA
Breaking Glass Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Bruno Gascon
Screenwriter:  Bruno Gascon
Cast: Michalina Olszanska, Vítor Norte, Rita Blanco, Sara Sampaio, Miguel Borges, Dmitry Bogomolov, ana Cirstina de Oliveira
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/1/19
Opens: TBD
image.png

You can tell the bad guys by their smoking.  And boy, does Viktor (Dmitri Bogomolov) smoke.  With cigarettes costing a half a buck each in the U.S., Viktor can easily afford this and get the best brand since, after all, he drives a Maserati.  Does he ever think of the moral consequences of heading a ring that traffics in human slavery?  That allows kidnapped girls to be raped up to eight times a day by what one of the women says will be by big, smelly guys?  Judging by what happens to Viktor in the final third of the story, there’s a hint that he did finally realize that he’s the bad guy; that in his youth, he probably rooted for James Bond over Le Chiffre, Hugo Drax, Rosa Klebb and Dr. Julius No.  But now he likes money and for most of the film he is bereft of most things that make a person ethical.

As for Viktoriya (Michalina Olszanska), she gets into trouble because she wants a better life.  She doesn’t smoke, so that’s not in her budget, but she probably would not mind having a Maserati. In fact she does get to drive that very car at one point though not with the permission of the owner.  To seek that better life she signs up with António (Vitor Norte), a fellow with a thick white beard and a shock of white hair and a look on his face throughout that shows he’s not too happy with his side job.  If he were in Central America he would be called a coyote, but here in Portugal, he makes extra bucks carrying illegal immigrants on the back of his truck from Eastern Europe to the Portuguese countryside, working for Viktor and the Russian fellow’s almost equally obnoxious sister Yulia (Kim Grygierzee).

Serving as Viktoriya’s mentor, Sveta (Ana Cristina Oliveira) asks her if she’s a virgin and instructs her how to do her job; how to pretend she likes the smelly men lest she get killed by Viktor—who already demonstrated his lack of scruples about killing by shooting a man accompanying Viktoriya on the truck without allowing him to reconsider when he refuses to hand over his passport.

With  lots of shots of violence—shooting, raping, saying hostile things to the victims, writer-director Bruno Gascon, in his freshman full-length feature (his twenty-minute short “Emptiness” notes that 340 million people in the world are depressed give or take a hundred million), ends his sordid tale as though it were a docudrama.  He warns in an epilogue that “this could be you,” as though such counsel will make us sympathize with those victims who are not “us” when we might otherwise not care.

“Carga” was filmed by JP Caldeano in six locations in Portugal, at once a thriller, psychological study, and a warning to all of us of the horror of world-wide sexual slavery, and perhaps even a subtle admonition not to smoke or you could morph into a bad guy—but on the other hand a bad guy who can afford a Maserati.

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

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


3 FACES – movie review

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

Jafar Panahi in Se rokh (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAINT JUDY – movie review

SAINT JUDY
Blue Fox Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sean Hanish
Screenwriter: Dmitry Portnoy
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Common, Peter Krause
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 3/1/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

Poster

If you’re a Trump supporter you are likely to be outraged by “Saint Judy.” If you consider yourself a soul buddy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you will cheer. However if you are not fond of movies that ooze sentimentality, that have predictable conclusions in which even those who prosecute cases against asylum seekers for ICE move to the left, you will be disappointed, pardon my cynicism. Director Sean Hanish demonstrated his interest in movies that tug the heartstrings in ”Return to Zero,” covering a couples doubts about pregnancy.

“Saint Judy” has its heart on its sleeve, based on a true case fought by Judith Wood (whom we see in the final scene). However it’s difficult to believe that an asylum seeker from Afghanistan can speak perfect English, and with an American accent rather than the British one from which non-English speaking people in the Middle East get instruction. Of course she is beautiful and confident. It is also difficult to accept the court process by which this asylum seeker gets the full attention for two days of a federal judge and then the opportunity to take her battle to an appeals proceeding followed by a large audience of spectators.

Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), the title figure, has spent ten years as a public defender, a woman with a zeal and knowledge of the law willing to give up the big bucks that she could probably get in private law assisting people with money. She moves from New Mexico to California opening a clinic to handle clients who do not have much of a voice. Her prior boss (Alfred Molina) is burned out, once a firebrand known for helping people like ones Judy is dealing with but now having faced the reality of putting his two kids in college. Judy visits Asefa (Leem Lubany) in a detention center, finding her disheveled and unresponsive, drugged into a near comatose condition. When Asefa is ready to talk she tells the story of how she was attacked in her native village by men because she is teaching female children to read. In jail she is raped repeatedly. She now claims asylum, insisting that if she is deported, she will be killed by her family for “dishonoring” them. She has the chutzpah to be raped and is considered a fallen woman. Flashbacks to Afghanistan show Asefa marching boldly to school with a group of girls only to be pelted with stones.

Discouraged by her boss who thinks the case is a loser, Judy presses on, setting up a two-days’ trial in front of Judge Benton (Alfre Woodard with the government side handled by Benjamin Adebayo (Common). Adding to the glitz and commercialism of the film she has to deal with her ex-husband Matthew (Peter Krause) who accuses her of spending all her time on her clients, neglecting domestic bliss. He gives her name of Saint Judy as a pejorative.

We’re in Erin Brockovich country, highlighting an idealistic woman who fights so card for her clients (actually she has only one client) that she can’t pay any of her bills nor can she keep the electricity on in her office. Monaghan shows her pluck, but the idealism, jacked up by James T. Sale’s pop music in the soundtrack, turns what could have been a more powerful, authentic film into slick commercialism.

Filmed in Santa Clarita, California.

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

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

APOLLO 11 – movie review

APOLLO 11
Neon and CNN Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldren, Richard Nixon
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 2/14/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

If Frank Sinatra were an astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, he would make these lyrics popular:

It’s very nice to go traveling,
With Houston control to the moon,
It’s oh so nice to go traveling,
But let’s hope we get to home soon.

Why did we have to wait fifty years to watch scenes never before released to the world? The big plus in Todd Douglas Miller’s heavily researched and competently edited documentary is that after a half century, there are archival clips that we’re seeing for the first time giving viewers a more comprehensive, even a rah rah, look at a buddy road movie to make others of the sub-genre seem so provincial. After all we’re talking about sending three men on a mission more risky, more likely to crash and burn, than would face a guy and his gal fortified with a liter of Dewar’s, setting out without head gear on a hundred-miles-an-hour jaunt through the California coast.

America’s trip to the moon in 1969, which might seem to today’s millennials as a time hopelessly backward in technology, is a key moment in history when the American people and, in fact, the five hundred million people worldwide who tuned in to the drama, feel a togetherness never sent since in quite the same way. Still, outside of the minutes in which the space ship is prepared for takeoff with just minutes to go before ignition—and ultimately the blastoff that illuminates the heavens—there is not much here to lead Americans in the chant USA! USA! USA! Most of the film conveys technical details, showing how many scores, perhaps hundreds of engineers sit at their desks, short-sleeve white shirts and ties setting of their closely cropped hair, each fulfilling one specific function needed to make the trip a rousing success.

Thankfully there are no talking heads here, no people sitting in chairs across from the subjects filling their heads with questions that everyone knows are coming and which garner predictable enough replies. Instead, Walter Cronkite, the journalist most trusted by Americans, conveys the excitement of the people who have napped on Florida beaches waiting for perhaps the most dramatic single moment in U.S. history.

The backstories of the three buddies, tossed in while Commander Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are suiting up, display wedding pictures, kids, other tidbits to show that the three are not robots but vulnerable human beings with families, some members of whom may or may not have encouraged their heroes to take part in a mission. Remember that any hitch in the engineering would mean that their children would never see their fathers again.

Scenes taken right from the space ship are of the highest value, particularly the moments that the ship is about to land on the crater-filled surface of the moon and setting down in such a hitch-free style that they trio appear to be gliding to earth on a slow-moving helicopter. President Nixon’s message to the astronauts conveys the Oval office occupant’s bursting pride, and much earlier, President Kennedy delivers a speech in 1962 introducing the project that would reach fruition in July of 1969. The entire film serves to punctuate the banality of our politics today, our country irreparably divided into political viewpoints so far apart that compromise no longer appears possible; the unity that existed at least for a short time, on that propitious July day.

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

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