DAMSEL – movie review

DAMSEL

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Screenwriter:  Nathan Zellner, David Zellnew
Cast:  Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Forster, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Joseph Biligiere
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/30/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Damselfilmposter.jpg
If you’re a big movie fan, you are likely to be disappointed by same ‘ol same ‘ol.  Revenge stories?  He done me wrong, I made him pay.  Romances? Boy chases girl, girl chase boy, marriage.  Old Westerns?  Cowboys surrounded by Indians, Cavalry comes to the rescue.  Children may like to hear the same story twenty times, but mature adults want change.  And “Damsel” is one picture that offers a change. Quite a change.  But being different, being a maverick film maker like the Zeller brothers, does not necessarily result in entertaining fare.  “Damsel” is an example of a tiresome look at a post-modern picture that may make you crave another look at “High Noon” and “Shane” and “Unforgiven.”

The Zellners’ “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunger” about a Japanese woman who thinks a VHS of “Fargo” is a treasure map leading to a pot of money, is as conventional as “Leave It To Beaver” by comparison with “Damsel.” A few scenes stand out, but then again even “Showgirls” is not a dud throughout its entire running time.

The prologue, for example, focuses on a dialogue, more like a monologue, between a young man and an older preacher, the latter played by the Robert Forster, one of the greats of the business but a performer who has always been seriously underutilized.  The old preacher has had it with trying to convert Indians to Christianity, but they “just ain’t interested,” and probably “there are enough Christians already.” The young fella takes on the identity of the preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner) and heads out to find love, his quest about to become less remote when he takes a job from Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattison), who pays him to perform a hoped-for wedding between him and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), a damsel he seeks to rescue from kidnappers.

As the two move westward, leading Butterscotch (Daisy) who is to be Samuel’s wedding gift to his bride, they run into odd characters, ultimately discovering that all their expectations—the parson’s for love, Samuels’ for marriage, and Penelope for happiness– are difficult to meet.

It’s too bad, because the convincing commentary up front from the old preacher, a downright high stepping hoedown between the characters you’ve come to expect from the old Westerns, just about the cutest pony you’re likely to see in other movies, and a look at a broken-down saloon managed by a hostile bartender with a foot-long beard, are not enough to take this parody into high ground.

The photography featuring the standard red rocks that announce The West (taken in the beginning in Utah’s Goblin Valley and later in parts of Oregon) and the music by The Octopus Project are spot-on.  But with a parson who is more irritating than anyone should have to take, a one-note performance by a pretty woman, and the images of a handsome, nattily dressed easterner on the way to rescue his damsel, do not serve to help the story at all.

Unrated.  113 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DAMSEL – movie reveiw

DAMSEL

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Screenwriter:  Nathan Zellner, David Zellnew
Cast:  Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Forster, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Joseph Biligiere
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/30/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Damsel Movie Poster
If you’re a big movie fan, you are likely to be disappointed by same ‘ol same ‘ol.  Revenge stories?  He done me wrong, I made him pay.  Romances? Boy chases girl, girl chase boy, marriage.  Old Westerns?  Cowboys surrounded by Indians, Cavalry comes to the rescue.  Children may like to hear the same story twenty times, but mature adults want change.  And “Damsel” is one picture that offers a change. Quite a change.  But being different, being a maverick film maker like the Zeller brothers, does not necessarily result in entertaining fare.  “Damsel” is an example of a tiresome look at a post-modern picture that may make you crave another look at “High Noon” and “Shane” and “Unforgiven.”

The Zellners’ “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunger” about a Japanese woman who thinks a VHS of “Fargo” is a treasure map leading to a pot of money, is as conventional as “Leave It To Beaver” by comparison with “Damsel.” A few scenes stand out, but then again even “Showgirls” is not a dud throughout its entire running time.

The prologue, for example, focuses on a dialogue, more like a monologue, between a young man and an older preacher, the latter played by the Robert Forster, one of the greats of the business but a performer who has always been seriously underutilized.  The old preacher has had it with trying to convert Indians to Christianity, but they “just ain’t interested,” and probably “there are enough Christians already.” The young fella takes on the identity of the preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner) and heads out to find love, his quest about to become less remote when he takes a job from Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattison), who pays him to perform a hoped-for wedding between him and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), a damsel he seeks to rescue from kidnappers.

As the two move westward, leading Butterscotch (Daisy) who is to be Samuel’s wedding gift to his bride, they run into odd characters, ultimately discovering that all their expectations—the parson’s for love, Samuels’ for marriage, and Penelope for happiness– are difficult to meet.

It’s too bad, because the convincing commentary up front from the old preacher, a downright high stepping hoedown between the characters you’ve come to expect from the old Westerns, just about the cutest pony you’re likely to see in other movies, and a look at a broken-down saloon managed by a hostile bartender with a foot-long beard, are not enough to take this parody into high ground.

The photography featuring the standard red rocks that announce The West (taken in the beginning in Utah’s Goblin Valley and later in parts of Oregon) and the music by The Octopus Project are spot-on.  But with a parson who is more irritating than anyone should have to take, a one-note performance by a pretty woman, and the images of a handsome, nattily dressed easterner on the way to rescue his damsel, do not serve to help the story at all.

Unrated.  113 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

 

BOUNDARIES – movie review

BOUNDARIES

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shana Feste
Screenwriter:  Shana Feste
Cast:  Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, Lewis McDougall, Bobby Cannavale, Kristen Schaal, Dolly Wells, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 6/6/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Boundaries
The characters in Shana Feste’s “Boundaries” give you the feeling that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to not fit in.  This applies to a Henry (Lewis MacDougall), who is expelled from high school for drawing nude picture, particularly one of his principal; to Laura Jaconi (Vera Farmiga), a single mother who cannot adapt to her father’s behavior or to her ex-husband’s; to Jack Jaconi (Christopher Plummer), who is too creative and independent and even criminal-minded to fit in with his nursing home and has been expelled from there.  (Why would he need a nursing home, anyway)? The three people go on a road trip not necessarily with the goal of becoming buddies, but wouldn’t you know that’s exactly what happens?  This means that “Boundaries” is not an original, but is rather a conventional family tale, but what performances!  Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer have the spotlight, though what they have to say to each other per Shana Feste’s script, is not extraordinary, but it’s how they say it that makes “Boundaries” a movie that should be seen.

Jack, then, is not a typical father or grandpa.  He is released from his nursing home after several infractions and at the age of 85 (Plummer is 88 making him the oldest actor to get an Oscar nomination), and after trying to call his daughter Laura without success shows up at Laura’s home.  Though he was too selfish to stay around to get to know his grandson Henry, he is such a charmer that Laura cannot resist driving him to a future home.  Grandson and daughter discover that he is a drug dealer with a marijuana stash worth $200,000.  He accompanies his family on a drive from Portland to L.A. with a plan to drop Jack at the home of his other daughter JoJo (Kriste Schaal), and on the way do what people do in road-and-buddy movies.  They see people, all goofy individuals, including Laura’s ex-husband Leonard (Bobby Cannavale), Jack’s buddies Stanley (Christopher Lloyd) and Joey (Peter Fonda), the latter being Jack’s rich buyer of weed.

Writer-director Shana Feste is in her métier, having made films like “The Greatest” (a troubled teen girl) and “Endless Love” (parents try to break up a love between their privileged daughter and her new boyfriend). For his part, Christopher Plummer, fresh from his role as J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” as a billionaire too selfish to pay a ransom for his grandson, modifies that narcissism here by being simply a guy who did not hang around to see to his daughter’s upbringing.

A bunch of neurotics, one and all, make “Boundaries” a film that would probably be too unconventional to be labeled a sit-com and of value especially to a potential audience that is unaware of just how terrific Vera Farmiga can be. Sara Mishara shot the film in scenic British Columbia.

Rated R.  104 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ARABY – movie review

ARABY (Arábia)

Grasshopper Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Screenwriter:  João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Cast:  Aristedes de Sousa, Murilo Caliari, Renata Cabral, Glaucia Vandeveld
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Arábia (2017)
João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, who wrote and direct “Araby,” focus on the type of person who is ignored by politicians whether in Brazil or here in the U.S.  While candidates for office regularly talk about how they are for the middle class (never mind how they are really for the upper 10% or 0.1% with Bernie Sanders as an exception), none are for the poor.  The poor don’t vote.  The homeless certainly do not vote.  So why bother?  With “Araby,” though, we are launched into an episodic struggle of those in Brazil who are uneducated, only partially literate, and having little or no knowledge of how politics makes the world go ‘round—except for them.

But if the world cannot go round for Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the principal character can himself go round albeit not worldwide or even Brazil-wide but throughout that wonderful country’s southern state of Minas Gerais.  The province is treated unsympathetically, with Cristiano an allegorical figure representing the difficulty of making even a basic living for someone who is brought up in a small town and probably thinks that Rio is on the other side of the world. In a twenty-minute introduction, one which could be cut without losing the epic quality of the movie, Andre (Murilo Caliari) is a teen lad taking care of his kid brother—who believes in the Devil but not in God because look at all the “shootings and killings.” His life is full of dull routines, but when he finds a memoir written in a notebook and perhaps imagines some of what he reads, he unfolds the tale of the wandering Cristiano.

Cristiano has a sense of adventure.  After all, life looks dreary and mean for a man who stays in a small town and who thinks he can achieve a better living on the road and doubtless could meet people from various backgrounds, each stranger-becoming-friend adding to his memories.  As he says, what do we have except what we remember?  He takes on factory jobs and farm labor, in one case picking tangerines but finding after his hard work that the boss has no money to pay him.  But the foreman allows Cristiano to fill up a bag with tangerines and sell them on the road, which he does, and being without money spends a day or so eating nothing but the fruit.  When he runs into a person who had once become a “troublemaker,” organizing a union of 200 farm laborers, he managed to pull off a strike which left the tangerines about to rot until the owner gives in and pays a living wage.  Cristiano becomes political.

Even this trip, rich in human contacts but pathetic income, beats the year that he had spent in jail after a car theft gone wrong.  The one person who gives him hope is Ana (Renata Cabral), a 35-year-old bookkeeper.  They develop a relationship, she has a miscarriage, he thinks that the woman is not for him–until he reads a love letter from her.  Ultimately, though, he notes that “we sow so much, but reap so little.”

The film is filled with songs particularly absorbing because they are in the lyrical Portuguese language, albeit Brazilian style. The most involving one is Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” (available free on youtube, go check it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjGOxo0KDMs.

While some of us will leave the theater wondering whether Cristiano would have been better off staying put, given the crashing of his view that anything can happen, others will conclude that poverty aside, at least he has gained more insight into life than he could not have had without his travels, the trips having the auto-didactic quality of making him realize more about himself and about his world.  This film is for those who do not need flash or pomp but for theatergoers who are patient, appreciative an in-depth view of a single person who is impacted by what he sees and hears.

The title comes from a joke about an Arab–by a worker to his lunch pals. In Portuguese, English subtitles.

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

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

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY – movie review

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE, CECIL – movie review

LOVE, CECIL

Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Screenwriter:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Cast:  Rupert Everett, (narrator). Cecil Beaton, Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, David Hockney, Isaac Mizrahi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NY, 6/15/18
Opens: June 29, 2018
Love, Cecil Poster
“I’m an ordinary man,” explains Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” to his best friend Col. Pickering, “Who desires nothing more than just an ordinary chance to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants. An average man am I, of no eccentric whim, who likes to live his life free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him. Just an ordinary man.”  Of course Higgins was not what he claimed.  Now imagine a person who really does fit the bill as “an ordinary man.” You would be imagining the very opposite of Cecil Beaton, who won Oscars in both production design and costume design for “My Fair Lady” helping to make that musical one of the Broadway icons of the last century.

In Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s love letter to Cecil Beaton, she affords us a look at the career and inner life of an extraordinary man, a man who has created color, imagination, and fantasy; in short a vivid look at all that is beautiful about life.  A Renaissance person who could not sit still and focus on a single career, Beaton was above all a photographer, but exceptional as well as a theatre set designer, a creator of costumes, a lighting designer, and even an actor who appeared in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermeer’s Fan.”  Not mentioned by this film which, after all, limits itself to a mere 99 minutes, he designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Vreeland, in her métier as a person who made documentaries on Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim, is obviously a great supporter of the artist, who died in 1980.  She might be accused of being in love with Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE, though she does point out an unfortunate incident in which Beaton, who published six volumes of diaries, used the word “kike” on one page of Vogue magazine, perhaps the most obscene term used by anti-Semites to describe the Jewish people.  Beaton tells the camera that he has no idea why he wrote this, that he is not anti-Jewish (never mind that a good segment of the British upper classes at the time were indeed), and that he regrets that Vogue had to shred thousands of copies and fire him.

We become privy to vast array of Beaton’s portraits in black-and-white and color and to a few segments of the colorful “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”  In the former musical, the song “Ascot Gavotte,” which portraits the British upper class at a racetrack saying how positively ecstatic they are when the horses are running, though with the stiffness and lack of emotion that have become stereotypies of the upper orders.

Of his loves, he cites Greta Garbo, who surprised Beaton by allowing him to photograph the woman who “vant[s] to be left alone.” As the official photographer of the Queen mother,  he is overcome with emotion as he is invited to photograph Queen Elizabeth II in a series of shots that went way over the time limit he is granted.  He left behind photographs of his two male lovers, and cautiously tells us that he did not get along with George Cukor, who directed “My Fair Lady,” and for some reason hated Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

See this on the big screen where you can best revel in the gorgeous costumes, vivid set designs, dramatic sketches and portraits, and snippets from two of the all-time great Broadway musicals.

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

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

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+