BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS – movie review

BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS

A24 & Directv
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Per Fly
Screenwriter:  Per Fly, Daniel Pyne
Cast:  Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Jacqueline Bisset, Belçim Bilgin, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/14/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

In 1958 Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, was forced to resign.  He accepted a vicuña coat and an oriental rug from a textile manufacturer doing business with the federal government.  In 1923 President Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior Bernard Fall leased oil petroleum reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to a private company without competitive bidding.  He received a bribe in return and was went to prison.  These are two of the major examples of thievery in government that high school students had at one time been expected to know.

As America got bigger and voters got more deplorable, incidents like these skyrocketed, as anyone except high school students, who do not follow the news, are aware.  Even the U.N. is involved, in one particular case feeding off the billions in money that the Security Council granted to the so-called Oil-for-Food program in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam’s forces in Kuwait.

Danish director Per Fly’s film is a compromise between a search for real truths about the U.N. program and his need to make a thriller out of the scandal, as a documentary without the chills might be too turgid for any but a wonkish audience.  It does pay to know something of the program because the film is not entirely clear about how it worked.

Oil-for-Food began in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell enough oil to pay for food for its population, now suffering because of sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War.   At least 65% of the money did indeed go to the hungry, but that 35% balance can hardly be ascribed to administrative fees.  Saddam himself profited, pocketing $1.7 billion through kickbacks and inflated invoices, and another $10.9 billion through illegal oil smuggling.  Half of the participating companies gave away kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts.

The film, though fictionalized, serves the cause of emotional truths, centering on a 24-year-old, Michael Sullivan (Theo James).  His father was a diplomat, which led him to seek a career in the foreign service.  Michael tells Pasha (Ben Kingsley), who interviewed him for the job of his assistant, that he wants to help people.  He did help people, but he also helped himself, by giving a false report to the U.N. Security Council, acknowledging that the program was working well, and winning a new grant for 180 days.  This the kind of ambiguity that Per Fly seeks: most of the principals are not good guys or bad guys.  They’re like many of us: they have a good side and a bad side.  Even Pasha, aware of the corruption and an agent for implementing it, tells Michael “…never to lie.  But to choose our facts…with the utmost care.”  He also rationalizes to Michael: “What you call corruption is the growing pains of a new democracy.”

Pasha, who is ethnically a Cypriot, is fond of saying “Fack!” whenever things get hot.  And Christine Du Pre (Jacqueline Bisset), an officer of the program who comes to no good end, seems the only one around who is totally incensed by the corruption.  At the same time regional politics makes its mark as Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who survived Saddam’s deadly campaigned against the Kurds of Northern Iraq (whose movement for independence and a Kurdistan which would include her people from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria), becomes romantically involved with Michael. Some director and co-writer Per Fly sees the need for one sex scene, however unlikely or unnecessary.

Easily the most important relationship, one that plays up the ambiguity that makes “Backstabbing for Beginners” come across as authentic, is between Michael and Pasha, neither being entirely evil or in any way saintly.  This is a quality work that digs into the emotional truths of a U.N. program, one that could stand in for many such regimens, pointing out that when almost everybody is digging into the corrupt trough, there’s nobody left to blow the whistle—not that any such angelic folks would be able to survive to die in bed.

The Danish name of the mostly English-language film is “Dobbeltspil” which means “Double Game.”  The Middle East scenes were shot in Jordan and Morocco.

Rated R.  108 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DISOBEDIENCE – movie reveiw

DISOBEDIENCE

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenwriter: Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 4/17/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

Sociologists like Robert Putnam’s whose book “Bowling Alone” deals with the deterioration of community life in America have their theories seconded just this month of April by Jonah Goldberg of National Review magazine and David Brooks of the New York Times. They assert that our society has become atomized: that with the proliferation of TV channels, the indulging of hundreds of Facebook friends whom you may never even see and speak with in person, leave us lonely and depressed. During the hippie days of the late sixties and early seventies some people tried a different way of live in communes as did the utopian communities in the 19th century. If you want to see genuine community life today, however, as a contrast to current theories, you could find it among Hasidic Jews and in many cases ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live in insular societies, teach fellow Jews or serve as merchants to their own religious folks, and rarely mix in the outside world. If this sounds claustrophobic to you, remember that these spiritual and highly religious people have with few exceptions maintained their insularity and so far as what outside societies can see they are happy. They are not atomized.

But what about the few renegades who cannot abide by such restricted lives? Think of Deborah Feldman whose book “Unorthodox: the Scandalous Rejection of Hasidic Roots,” led to an enraged response among the people she left when she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Now the Orthodox community we find in Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s film probably seems to us in the audience to be not only closely knit but pretty pleased with the way they live. One clue to their well being is that only one woman chooses to break out of the London neighborhood and move to New York to pursue a career as a hip photographer . She’s still Jewish, but she’s not about ever to return to her roots where she would be expected to marry whether the relationship is loveless or not and to have sex every Friday night among other rituals, whether she was in the mood of not.

In “Disobedience,” we are given a close examination of three people who grew up as friends but whose lives are changed probably forever when one woman leaves the nest and is shunned by others in the congregations. As a bonus, we also see services in the synagogue, listening to the harmonic tones of a choir and the wisdom of two sermons. As a special treat we are in the presence of
three special performers, also directed with a crescendo of power that takes us from quie t talks around the Sabbath table to a verbal explosion that show how the repressions built up for months and years are sudden let out.

After Rav Kruschka, the rabbi of a London ultra-Orthodox congregation drops dead while giving a sermon about our fundamental choice to live like the angels or like the beasts, his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who had left the congregation and her immediate family some time back to pursue a secular career in New York, returns for the funeral. Some, like her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) are not pleased to see her and greet her with a mechanical “I hope you have a long life.” On the other hand, Dovid’s wife Esti (Rachel McAdams) is overjoyed. During the time that Ronit stays in the home of Dovid and Esti, the sexual attraction between her and Esti is revived, hinting that Ronit may have been pressured out of the community when some kissing between the two women was discovered. Since you can’t easily defeat nature, the two carry on but are caught kissing once again by neighbors (imagine if they witnessed an entire, graphic lovemaking scene between the two women)! By contrast Esti, whose sexual scene with her husband involves no foreplay, the two covered by a blanket. Esti must choose to remain in her marriage, and in effect whether to remain at all with the greater family of religious men and women.

The film is shown without flashbacks but rather with a conventional style that belies the unconventional manner of the two women. As a retired teacher, I was particularly impressed with the lovely classes taught by both Esti in a religious school and Dovit, around a table where sections of the bible are interpreted.

The conclusion is both heartbreaking and wonderful, a testament to the solid performances of all three principals, with scenes from the choir at the religious service so enchanting that Gentiles in the audience may wish to convert.

With this film, director Lelio’s place among the great Latin-American directors is assured, a man whose “A Fantastic Woman,” dealing with a transgender waitress who works as a night-club singer, confirms his predilection for films with renegades.

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

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

BYE BYE GERMANY – movie review

BYE BYE GERMANY (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriter:  Michel Bergmann, Sam Garbarski, based on Michel Bergmann’s “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes
Cast:  Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyfi, Mark Ivanir, Anatole Taubman, Hans Low, Pal Macsai, Vaclav Jakoubek
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Bye Bye Germany poster
Here are some of the words that turn up in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany.”  Schlemiel, L’Chaim, Tsuris, Shiksa, Schmuck, Tuchis, Meshuga, Mazel.  Do you know what these words mean?  Each is the basis for a little gag in a movie that is loaded with jokes.  If you are not familiar with any of these Yiddish and Hebrew terms, no matter.  You will understand them in context.  Jokey though the film may be, it has serious intentions.  The humor is often dark and ironic, the greatest irony being that 4,000 Jews including the principal character in “Bye Bye Germany” remained in Germany after the war, while most, after a stay in a Displaced Persons camp, took off for America and Palestine (later Israel).

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), who holds his own throughout the movie as its anchor and hero, is one Jew camps survivor who in 1946 chooses to make a good living selling linens to Germans in Frankfurt.  He is questioned by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), who seems suspicious of any Jew who survived internment, and in this case she wants to find out whether Bermann should be punished as a collaborator with the Nazis.  Remember that some Jews were able to live longer than expected in horrific concentration camps like Auschwitz by playing musical numbers to make the condemned think they are going to the shower room and not the gas chambers.  Others, called kapos, were the Jewish police assigned by the Nazis to keep order, and some of them did so with the same brutality as the German officers on duty.  They are considered the lowest form of humanity among the prisoners.  Another way to survive was to entertain the SS, which is the way that Bermann, always ready with a quip to get the commandant (Christian Kmiotek)  in stitches, is valued by the Obersturmbanführer, “even though a Jew.”  This film is Bermann’s story to the special agent, who is skeptical of his claims.  And we in the audience are treated to his backstory, some of which involve embellishments, and some punctuating the way that Bermann, who raises a group of fellow survivors, manages to con some of the non-Jews of Frankfurt into buying his linens.

The story is adapted from the first two books by the German-Swiss novelist Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy, about a group of Jewish traveling salesmen.

Like the three-legged dog that appears now and then, hobbling along as though scarcely knowing that he is handicapped, Bermann makes the best of his precarious situation together with his partner Holzmann (Mark Ivanir).  In one scam David, who is the son of people who sold linens in a high-end store in Frankfurt until it was burned down, uses the old trick of pretending that a dead soldier had given an order and that his widow would naturally want to accept the linens and pay.  This is not only a way of raising money but also getting revenge on the Germans.  However the most significant vengeance is taken when one salesman, Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek), discovers that a man who sells newspapers is the very person who burned down a synagogue, killing Krautberg’s parents. Similarly special agent Sara gets her revenge by interrogating Nazis, a woman who had survived by escaping to American when escape was still a possibility.

Filmed in Luxembourg and Germany by cinematographer Virginia Saint-Martin, “Bye Bye Germany unfolds in a stunningrecreation of 1946 featuring cars with the split front windows that were the best that technology could offer at the same. Given Moritz Bleibtreu’s convincing, humorous, and poignant performance, a man whose roles in works like Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” a super-fast paced movie about a woman who has to raise a large sum of money within 20 minutes), is pitch perfect.

In German with English subtitles.

Unrated.  101 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE GUARDIANS (Les Gardiennes)

Music Box Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriter:  Xavier Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille, based on the novel by Ernest Pérochon
Cast:  Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry, Cyril Descours, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Giraud
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/18
Opens: May 4, 2018
The Guardians Poster
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm/ After they’ve seen Paree!

The World War I song (1918) does not represent the women doing the farming in France after their men take off for the war.  They’re as likely go on a world tour with Maupintour as go to Paris.  How ya gonna keep ‘em on the farm?  Simple: without their work the land goes kaput, and that’s the last thing these women—call them Rosies the Riverters based on the land rather than in factories—and subtracting a couple of decades.

Xavier Beauvois directs this epic style picture (when he is not performing in an array of other pictures), a man known for his “Of Gods and Men” about Trappist monks in Algeria who must decide whether to stay or leave when that country is threatened by terrorists.  By contrast the women in “The Guardians” have no place to go as they must keep up the acreage they own when their men are off to war.  “The Guardians” is a women-centric work done in a classical style, lots of long takes so that we in the audience can register the emotions of women who worry daily that their men may not return and who take out their anxieties in part by some awfully hard farm work.

Under the supervision of Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the women get around on horse-drawn wagons when they are not leading oxen to harvest the land.  They feed and milk the cows, grind the wheat, and are unable to take advantage of much in the way of modern harvesting machinery—though in one scene an older man demonstrates a coffee-making machine to a group of Americans assigned to the farm while awaiting orders to fight.

As the family matriarch, Hortense is desperate for help but where are the men when you need them?  Instead she hires a twenty-year-old pretty orphan, Francine (Iris Bry), discovers that she’s as good as any man in the field, and retains her beyond the harvest season with a one-year contract at forty francs a month.  Everything was just fine with this working relationship—though perhaps Francine would be on borrowed time when Hortense begins using tractors and other modern gear—until Francine meets Hortense’s handsome and caring son George (Cyril Descours) who is on leave and pursues her around the farm and later with correspondence.  (Early on, Georges tells Francine that he is leaving for the front tomorrow and may never return, which in some American movies serves as a “line” to get some action at home.)

Now and then, women are told that their husbands or sons will never return, the news spread by a man wearing a suit and tie as opposed to the current method here of being greeted by two Marines knocking on the door.  The bad news arrives for Hortense who need not see a man in military uniform to know that one of her sons is dead, while later, another woman using Francine’s services is given the same awful message.

A major change occurs when Francine is fired, despite being the best worker that 40 francs a month can buy, a traumatic event for Francine that occurs during the time that Americans, treated here as stereotypical wise guys, are introduced.

This is a film by a male actor-director who apparently knows how to assure us that women are as good as men, the script adapted from Ernest Perochon’s 1924 novel “Les gardiennes frenchz,” which surprisingly is unavailable at Amazon despite the potential tie-in with the film.  I can’t say, therefore, that the book is better than the film or vice versa, but given the vistas captured by Caroline Champetier in widescreen lensing, we get at least as good an idea what of farm like was like in Europe during the early part of the 20th Century.  At the same time, the long takes gives us in the audience time to concentrate on the emotions of the women on the farm as shown subtly in their expressions.  Iris Bry makes her successful debut as a woman troubled by her status as an orphan while Nathalie Baye in the principal role clues us in to the hard life of an older woman with demanding physical work, who must at the same time suffer emotionally when dealing with sons that appear to have P.T.S.D.

Iris Bry  performs Alexandre Trébitsch and Harry Fragson’s 1899 song “Les amour fragile” to wrap up the story, looking at first sadly at the plight of young lovers whose passion does not last while at the same time showing us that she has emerged as a strong woman.  Give the song a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvFpY34BHig

Rated R.  138 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AVA – movie review

AVA

Grasshopper Film
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sadaf Foroughi
Screenwriter:  Sadaf Foroughi
Cast:  Mahour Jabbari, Bahar Nouhian, Leili Rashidi, Vahid Aghapour, Shayeste Sajadi, Sarah Alimardani, Houman Hoursan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/20/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Ava Movie Poster
Watching this mother-from-hell berate her daughter reminds me of verses by the British poet and Oxford University graduate Philip Larkin (1922-1985):

“They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had/  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f***d up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Never mind that the mother (Bahar Noohian) in this case is Iranian and that the setting in a conservative society helps provoke the woman to extremes.  Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is the sixteen-year-old whose own kids years later will likely be as screwed up as she.  Most important, what is happening to her could happen to teens anywhere in the world and quite often does.  There is some truth that many adolescents, despite being in the best physical condition in their lives, are a troubled mess.

Sadaf Foroughi, in her freshman job at directing and writing, has made an auspicious beginning, one which quite often in the field of filmmaking leads to even more mature works to come.  This is the kind of story that could be semi-autographical, so strong and unrelieved are the tensions created in Ava that we suspect that Foroughi has endured this pain herself.

The title character, Ava, comes from a solid middle-class home, a well-appointed house with clean, tiled bathroom and granite countertops.  She attends a school where the students appear likewise well off and studious.  She’s a normal girl who may be shoved under a metaphoric bus thanks to her mother, a doctor, whose overreaction starts a spiral that her father (Vahid Aghapoor) may not ameliorate given that he’s an architect and often not home.  The trouble begins when Ava’s mom finds out that she has spent an hour in the park with Nima (Housman Hoursan), a young man who it unwittingly the target of a bet that Ava makes with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi) that he will ask her out.  Her mother is frantic.  Alone with a boy for an hour!  She takes the girl to a gynecologist to confirm whether her daughter is a virgin.

Again: are there reasons for this overreaction?  It turns out that 17 years back, dad got mom pregnant. They married and apparently were not too pleased to have a child this early in their lives.  Mother is convinced that she has spooked her girl into acting like her, and this dovetails with the background of a conservative Muslim society.  It doesn’t take long for teacher-parent conferences with the school principal-from hell, Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi), who wears white gloves perhaps to symbolize her expectation that her charges will be virgins—and not doing crazy things like seeing a boy in the park for an hour without supervision.

The girls in the school all wear black veils albeit with the front of their hair showing while the boys are like teen boys everywhere, in this case wearing red sneakers. As in the U.S. the girls curse as much as the boys.  The focus is on Ava, an intense young woman with a growing anxiety and rebellion that prompts her to cut her hand (and this is the hand of a violinist) and deliver a monologue to counter her mother’s own monologue in the film’s most melodramatic scene.  American teens watching this film will identify—that is, if they don’t mind reading the English subtitles while the performers speak Farsi.  (In English class, the girls throw spitballs at each other when the teacher’s back is turned, which is not likely a reflection of hostility toward the English-speaking world.)

Quite an interesting first film by Foughi and likewise a suitably intense performance by Jabbari, on whom lenser Sina Kermanizadeh concentrates sometimes in sharp close-up and other times in soft focus.  Tehran is the location.  In Farsi, English subtitles.

Unrated.  103 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEYOND THE CLOUDS – movie review

BEYOND THE CLOUDS

Zee Studios International
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriter:  Majid Mafiji, Mehran Kashani
Cast:  Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Monanan, Gautam Ghose, GV Sharada, Dhwani Rajesh, Amruta Santosh Thakur, Shivan Puj
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 20, 2018
Beyond The Clouds Poster
Celebrated Iranian director Majid Majidi invites us to a tale that could serve as a fable, pitting good against evil, redemption against corruption, light against darkness, ultimately the glow of the moon against limitless darkness. Majidi, whose “Barat” focuses on a girl who like an Iranian Yentl disguises herself as a man in a Tehran construction site and “Children of Heaven” about a boy who loses his sister’s shoes and ventures to find a pair, this time tells an epic, Dickensian story in a Mumbai slum.  This is hardly the place that rich tourists seek out while preparing to move on to Agra and the Taj.  At its center, Amir (Ishaan Katter), a spirited young man who serves as a drug courier cycling around the neighborhood to deliver the goods, will soon find that he endures a series of events that will both make use of his restless energy and at the same time allow him to struggle against the hardships that are the fate of many of his neighbors in a typical shantytown.

Just as he finds himself heading deeper into trouble, his sister Tara (Malavika Monanan), defends herself against her boss Akshi (Goutam Ghose) who, having advanced money to Tara to allow her a nice apartment now thinks he owns her.  Struggling to avoid being raped by Akshi, Tara clubs him on the head with a stone and is imprisoned.  Her fate rests on whether Akshi, now immobile in a hospital, lives or dies.  If he dies, Tara faces life imprisonment without a trial, and the jail shown here is not designed as a copy of any penitentiary in Norway.  Because of his sister’s situation, Amir must care for the man he hates, hoping that Akshi will survive.  During his stay at the hospital, he meets the man’s mother and his two lovely grandchildren.  When Amir is not caught up with getting the man medicine, even sleeping under his bed to be on the site should a crisis occur, he is frantically trying to get his sister released from prison, even thinking of selling the man’s ten-year-old daughter into prostitution.

Melodramatic runs break up the dialogue, as the curly-haired Amir bolts in an opening scene through a Mumbai market to escape the two police who are making a drug bust, and later bounding forth to escape a couple of goons ordered by a brothel keeper to rough him up.

There’s little question that Amir is quite the performer, seemingly doing his own stunts, as in one episode he is not only beaten but pushed into a landscape of mud just off the Indian Ocean.  While Amir is redeeming himself by caring for Akshi and his two young daughters, Tara is bent on reforming herself by caring for a small boy whose mother is dying in the prison.

We’ve got to wonder whether the Tourist Board of India welcomes such a film, since it shows not only the hardscrabble life of people who have nothing but also the dramatic color of the marketplace including the saris sold on the street that are quite a contrast with the suits-and-ties uniforms of the West.  This is a well-acted piece of cinema backed up by A.R. Rahman’s score and will remind cinephiles not of the typical, light Indian pieces that end with dancing but of more serious films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” centered on a teen’s reflections of his life in a Mumbai shantytown.

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

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

LOVE & BANANAS: An Elephant Story – movie review

LOVE & BANANAS: An Elephant Story

Abramorama
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ashley Bell
Screenwriters:  Ashley Bell, John Michael McCarthy, Fernanda Rossi
Cast:  Ashley Bell, Lek Chailert, Noi Na
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/18/18
Opens: April 22, 2018 in select theaters for Earth Day.  April 27, 2018 Wide.
Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story
Ninety-nine percent of us use animal products for food.  While it’s not necessary to do so, we can offer at least a limp excuse.  We have to live and despite what vegans will tell us, we don’t think we can get adequate nutrition or taste satisfaction strictly from plants.   But to use animals for entertainment?  I don’t mean dog shows or dog agility trials but rather the way some train animals for the circus, or slaughter them for ivory, or beat them the way some undercover Chinese videos illustrate how dogs are clubbed to death.  (Go to PETA.com and watch these horrific films.)   By contrast “Love & Bananas” depicts people doing their saintly best to provide shelter and love for abused elephants, especially the doc’s big star Noi Na. Noi Na was part of a herd treated miserably, even sadistically, in Thailand.  The elephant is partially blind thanks to an idiot “trainer” who gouged out an eye with a bull hook. As the film’s human star, Lek Chailert, informs us in her delightful English, the trouble is largely the lack of education.  Many people to this day still do not believe that animals have emotions or language capability despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

If “Love & Bananas” has one theme that stands out from the others, it’s that love is better than pain and that elephants, like dogs and cats, seek the affection of others of their ilk and also from the human beings with whom they come into contact.  Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, holds court through this adorable nature film.  The fifty-seven year old woman, who was born in the village of Baan Lao two hours north of Chiang Mai Thailand, had a great upbringing from her grandfather, a traditional healer who would sometimes be shown an injured animal for him to help.  The animal rights activist, who today can be found at Elephant Nature Park in touristic Chiang Mai, Thailand, hosts actor-filmmaker Ashley Bell, known to many of us for a lead performance as Nell Sweetzer in Daniel Stamm’s “The Last Exorcism,” falls in love with elephants, but her heart belongs to Noi Na, the lead four-legged performer.

The two women set out on a life-threatening mission to rescue Noi Na, who had been used for trekking, or from what I gather means taking tourists for rides in Thailand.  Other elephants are used for logging, which is the loading of logs onto trucks, while others are trained to perform for circus acts requiring Thai workers to “break” the noble creatures as though they are stallions.  These elephants are put into Pajans, or crush boxes, and for 24 hours are beaten, in some cases with these sharp bull hooks, sometimes cutting away parts of their ears, leaving them bloodied and covered with horrendous scars that serve as a history lesson of torment.  These unfortunate creatures may actually be envious of elephants who are slaughtered for their ivory.

While filmmaker Ashley Bell, using her script co-written by John Michael McCarthy and Fernanda Rossi, wisely focuses on one elephant to bring the picture down to a human, er animal level.  For forty-eight hours, Bell and Lek traveled 480 miles through Thailand after Noi Na’s owner agreed to free the elephant.  Arriving at the sanctuary, Noi Na is at first anxious as the trekking elephant spent the last seventy years in captivity.  After a short while, the herd at the park accepts Noi Na, who shows joy by tail-wagging and flipping sand from her trunk across her back.

Many owners of abusive trekking camps have agreed to take jobs as caretakers in the animal sanctuary, which provides them with even better pay and maybe even clues them in that what they had been doing for years is immoral.  We in the audience are advised to shun circuses and animal shows in general (happily Ringling Bros. got the message and closed down its circus) and to donate to the sanctuary.  For further information, go to LoveAndBananas.com.

Unrated.  77 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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