MOPE – movie review

MOPE
Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lucas Heyne
Screenwriter: Lucas Heyne,  story by Michael Louis Albo 
Cast: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Kelly Sry, Brian Huskey, David Arquette, Tonya Cornelisse, Annie Cruz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/20
Opens: June 16, 2020

The English language has become the world’s lingua franca not only because it is spoken in so many places globally but because it has the richest vocabulary of any tongue, able to find words that meet any nuanced situation. Not only that: English is a living language, inventing scores of words each year, mostly the slang you can look up in an urban dictionary. And it is the very slang in English, in fact in any language, that makes it so difficult for a foreigner to understand what a native speaker is saying. Take “mope” for example. You may think that it means a person with generally low spirits, and it is. But look at an urban dictionary and you get that it’s “a person with negative contribution to society.” One character in Lucas Heyne’s move is that, but he’s trying to fit in, to contribute something, but because of emotional problems he has been unable to find a talent that would allow others to hire him. There’s an additional definition that fits the two principals in the film, “a person who is a lowlife who would like to be a star in the porn industry.” Porn is profitable for those who produce the kinds of films that people want to see, but as with the acting profession in general, most people simply do not make it, their dreams of stardom defeated.

“Mope” is Lucas Heyne’s freshman direction of a full-length narrative, his previous short, “Tohm Lev: Legalize Nudity, a four-minute pro-animal-rights look at the selling of furs and other skins of animals. Now he jumps into a field that people generally do not like to admit they partake of, highlighting the sleazy people who turn hard-core sex into profit. It’s also about friendship, about two people who are virtually joined at the hip with an undying kinship, best pals who are likely to cause heartbreak if one cuts the cord. But Tom Dong (Kelly Sry), a Chinese-American, has a talent for designing websites which should have proved profitable enough, yet his real ambition is to be a porn star. His best friend, Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), is less talented but even more obsessed with being so famous that his face would be on the cover of DVDs. He is held back not only by a lack of acting talent but, as one member of the porn studio staff says, he is not “endowed” sufficiently. Even worse, he is borderline psychotic, failing to succeed in college and convicted of a crime for which he served house arrest. He does have one other interest, one in which he excels, so it’s hard to see why he had not been encouraged to use a 16th century sword and act in Japanese films about a time gone by.

The two pair up, try out in front of director Eric (Brian Huskey) who at first wants to dismiss them but allows them to remain because Tom can fix up the studio website. As their performances deepen (so to speak) with the cheap gals who do everything from one’s enjoying a gang cum that sprays all over her face to accepting sexual congress with any and all actors, with one exception. Both the girls and the director do not appreciate Steve’s smell, urge him regularly to take a shower, and become increasingly aggressive trying to get him to leave the studio while keeping Tom on the payroll. When Tom finally agrees to leave his best friend to his fate after sticking up for him in front to the director (Huskey has the most amusing role throughout), Steve’s borderline psychosis goes over the border.

This is based on a true story, a dark comedy indeed, one with an ending that earns its melodramatic finale. Performances are fine: you probably could not believe that Tom would even leave Steve to continue with the studio, but credibly enough he is ready to split to further his own ambition. A meeting of Steve in a restaurant with his father (Clayton Rohner) and stepmother (Peggy Dunne) as Steve is pitching for his dad’s investment is both comical and heartbreaking. Ultimately “Mope” opens up to what resembles a look at the sleaze of the industry but concludes with both terror and anguish. All is set forth with crackerjack performances from not only the Stewart-Jarrett and Sry but some over-the-top acting from David Arquette as director with a successful porn enterprise.

106 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AVIVA – movie review

AVIVA
Outsider Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenwriter: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Zina Zinchenko, Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips, Or Schraiber, Omri Drumlevich, Mouna Soualem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Writer-director Boaz Yakin may lead a life full of conflicts—a good thing because that is how people become creative—but his characters are certainly not lacking in bodily motion. His personal movie “Aviva” is chock-full of nudity, writhing bodies and modern dance and would have probably received an NC-17 rating rather than opting for NR, or not rated. It is not only about to be the year’s horniest film; it has the kind of dancing by veterans of Israel’s Batsheva troupe that Tschaikowsky (“Swan Lake,” Sleeping Beauty”) would not have understood. For that matter I wonder how many viewers will understand the film, given its use of masculine and feminine characterizations that serve to show us women with masculine sides and men with their feminine proclivities. Not that gender bending is unknown to the cinema, as it is expressed also by Luis Buñuel in his 1977 film “The Obscure Object of Desire,” in which a former chambermaid is played by two persons who differ physically as well as temperamentally.

In an interview, Yakin had said that his “adult creative life has been this very, very upsetting push and pull between trying to find a way to fit myself…This time I didn’t want to limit myself at all.” There it is: the background of a film seemingly without limits, one that deserves a second and third viewing to sort out the confusion as you watch a woman played in some scenes by a man and a man performing in the physical persona of a woman.

There are two principal players, the title character Aviva (Zina Zinchenko) and a man (Tyler Phillips), and then again Aviva as a man (Or Schraiber) and Eden as a woman (Bobbi Jene Smith). When Aviva moves from Paris to New York to be with Eden, the gent gets cold feet, conflicted over whether to marry her. (We are told in press notes that Aviva is based on the director’s relationship with his ex-wife Alma Har’el.) To understand this difficult, theatrical movie you must be aware that Aviva becomes a man unpredictably while Eden morphs into a woman, the idea being that they are expressing, respectively, their masculine and feminine sides.

As with any love affairs, most of the excitement is in the early stages, shown creatively enough in Eden and Aviva’s dancing through city streets—which may remind you of Gene Kelly’s resonating with an umbrella, singing in the rain. Aren’t first love and hormonal youth exhilarating? Eden and Aviva’s relationship are on and off, filled with both anticipation and heartbreak. When Eden is dabbling with his feminine side he changes from an indecisive male to a female full of hormonal tension. There are repeated scenes of sexual congress that border on hard core, with male and female frontal nudity displayed as though nakedness should be embraced (literally).

The best scenes, though, are those involving dances, particularly from a trio of thirteen-year-olds meant presumably to reflect the director’s childhood in the happiest moments, played here by Roman Maldenda. He and his two pals rap and show off terpsichorean talents in Coney Island, the iconic Wonder Wheel serving as background. Equally electrifying is a dance number in a bar as a group of denizens acting like Greek men showing their camaraderie with their footwork, burst forth with enough energy to light up the city.

The movie is overlong, though, and too intent on sexual scenes which seem thrown in to turn on a theater audience with vicarious thrills, the men, at least while they are still men, performing energetic thrusts to the gasps of the women who seem unable to get enough. Still, given the way that commercial films are equally repetitive, albeit with guns and car crashes rather than sex serving as melodrama, “Aviva” is an offering that deserves the attention of a patient audience open to its experimental nature.

116 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SHIRLEY – movie review

SHIRLEY
Neon
Review by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Screenplay by: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Cast:  Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young
Reviewed from a critics’ link on 5/15/20
Opening:  June 5, 2020
Running Time:107 minutes
What gives one person the impetus to become a psychoanalyst, another an optometrist, yet a third individual a teacher and a fourth a writer?  In these cases consider the possibility that the optometrist had early onset myopia, was prescribed coke-bottle glasses, and is determined to help others by inventing thinner lenses; the teacher had unfortunate experiences with her own pedagogues and knows she can do better; and the psychoanalyst suffered from childhood anxiety and depression, spending long, creditable hours on the couch and hoping later to sit on a padded chair rather than the sofa.  This last scenario could apply to Shirley Jackson, a prolific writer with 200 magazines articles to her credit, an impressive contribution of novels, and a home library with 25,000 volumes.  She did not become a shrink but penned psychological/horror stories to exorcise her demons.
Shirley Poster
One of her shorter novels, “The Lottery,” which became a short movie, is a hair-raising, nightmare-causing story of a bucolic region of farmers in which, to further the fertility of crops, the town holds an annual lottery of all residents.  The “winner” of the lottery is sentenced to death by stoning, presumably donating blood to the fields.  Jackson did not herself live in a farming community but rather in North Bennington, Vermont, the location in the early 1960s setting of the movie an all-girls’ college until 1969. She suffered considerable neuroses, even borderline psychosis, her anxieties, her agoraphobia that essentially sentenced her to her house for months as though a plague  infested the outdoors.  She may not have been cured of her psychological problems, but at least she could use them to create great art.  And so she did.
The film directed by Josephine Decker, an actress and who as a director gave us movies like “Madeleine’s Madeline” (a theater director’s young actress takes her performance too seriously), is adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by Sarah Gubbins, scripter for TV episodes of “I Love Dick.” The movie lifts off by Elisabeth Moss’s electrifying performance in the title role.  Not only that: take a look at Shirley Jackson’s picture on Wikipedia or on Amazon books and you’ll find quite a likeness—except that Moss does not have the weight problem of her character which, together with Jackson’ chain smoking led to the novelist’s death from cardiac arrest at the age of 48.
While Moss carries the principal focus, Decker and Gubbins provide the film with an ensemble performance—three characters given about equal time to express their disappointments, their frustrations, their happy moments, in short, their personalities.  Consider Shirley’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington where he enjoys sexual favors at the women’s college.  He is extroverted, peering at the world though thick glasses with the black frames no longer fashionable in our times.  He insists on originality, on creativity, exhibiting his persona by playing a record by jazz and folk musician Lead Belly, who died in 1949 and seems to be unknown to the bright young co-eds.  At home, he shows his dismay with his wife’s habit of staying home, often skipping dinner to work on her stories, leaving him to dine alone as she would clack away speedily on her standard typewriter.
As though there were not enough drama in the household, enter a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scenario when a young couple arrive, invited by Stanley to remain in the couple’s home.  Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is nervous and pregnant, and her classically handsome husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are soon to incur the wrath of the residents.  The young couple are regularly baited, but Fred is staying on, hoping to get Stanley to recommend him to teach English at the college.  Though Rose is naïve and trusting, she is soon to find out that her husband is following the same path of infidelity as his new mentor.  Among the barbs: Stanley has read the young man’s dissertation.  At the dinner table he announces that the paper lacks originality and is mediocre.  “Have you considered teaching at the high school level?”  If that were not enough to make Fred bolt from the dinner table, what is?
Anyone who has seen Elisabeth Moss knows that she is among the best actresses of all generation.  Her work on Margaret Atwood’s TV episodes “The Handmaid’s Tale” as June Offred Osborne, gave her the extra push to work for women’s causes and led to her telling an interviewer that it made her “a stronger woman.”  She needs no dialogue in “Shirley” to signal her every emotion.  Coiling like a snake, a fierce look at her husband and guests, she could keep you up nights if you were her guest.  Rose is eager to leave this house, virtually haunted by its occupants, but nonetheless she is drawn to Shirley, considering her a friend notwithstanding the difference in age.  It helps that she responds to Shirley’s sexual advances, their playing footsies under the dining table being one of the comic moments in the film.
And Stuhlbarg is no mere straight man to Moss’s manipulations.  His is a formidable performance whether leading a group dance at the college dean’s party, barking at his wife to leave the house, or baiting the poor young man who has been effectively relegated to teaching high school.   As for Odessa Young’s Rose, we can see how Stanley uses her to help his wife complete her latest book, which, in fact, is based on the author’s experiences with her husband and the young boarders.  Write what you know.
The film appears to toy with two endings: one which results in Rose’s suicide, the other finding her sitting in the back seat of the car driven by her Tom-cat husband.
Kudos to Tamar-Kali’s use of music, largely jazz tracks, and Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s lensing, making good use of  the house’s interiors, the lively faculty party, and the rural pleasures of a state whose slogan, “Freedom and Unity,” is, judging by this movie, surely ironic.
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B
Overall – B+
© Harvey Karten, Director, NY Film Critics Online

SCREENED OUT – movie review

SCREENED OUT
Dark Star Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Hyatt
Screenwriter: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
Cast: Jon Hyatt, Alicia Dupuis, Jim Steyer, Syd Bolton, Adam Alter, Jean Twenge, Hilarie Cash, Alex Pang, Ramsay Brown, Mihael Rich, Nir Eyal, Nicholas Kardaras
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/22/20
Opens: May 26, 2020

Screened Out (2020)

One glaring omission from Jon Hyatt’s blandly informative but virtually humorless documentary “Screened Out” is the name Donald J. Trump. CBS news the other day reported that since he took office, he has sent out 50,000 tweets. Was he stupid before computers and the internet were even invented, or did he become the way he is because of all the screen time that he indulges? But wait: his addiction to Twitter may accord with  Hyatt’s thesis that excessive time on smart [sic] phones and computers will mess with your brain, so to the president’s credit, he announced that because Twitter is now fact-checking his tweets for accuracy and truth, he will do what he can to shut the company down. You go, man. Less Twitter, more time for engaging directly with life.

While I do not even have a Twitter account, I was not born into the computer age, so I cannot fully comprehend that men and women below the age of thirty (when home computers started to takeoff) are so dependent on this technology. On Memorial Day, the folks spending six to nine hours daily “talking” to their thousand Facebook friends, retweeted a video of a woman who lost her six-figure job because her racist comments were caught. Thirty million people had seen the altercation when the video went viral (Ugh, that word again). Heaven known how much time many of these followers are spending on their devices rather than looking flesh-and-blood people in the eye and talking to them or gaining genuine wisdom about life by reading “War and Peace” instead.

Other points left out by the doc include the more concrete danger of distraction on your screens while driving your car, resulting in giving some pedestrians nasty bumps, or that of great armies of mostly young people glued to their phones and slamming into people on the sidewalk or falling from cliffs. Still, co-writer and director Hyatt knows whereof he speaks since he was (is?) himself a screen addict. Many years earlier he would play out in the yard with kids his own age, having a ball, learning how to relate directly to others while getting the sufficient amount of vitamin D that others are missing. He now spends more time reading the fiction that was crowded out because of his addiction while his wife has been unable to kick the screen habit. Imagine guys and gals in college assigned to read “Jane Eyre” but glancing every ten minutes at the phone when hearing the buzz or ring or theme song from “Gone with the Wind.” As one talking head advises, multi-tasking does not work.

Among the gems delivered from the documentary which I was watching on my computer when I could have been re-reading “Jane Eyre,” is the concept of intermittent rewards. When a pigeon gets a pellet of food each time it (or he or she) pecks at a button, the bird is rewarded. Soon, however, the pigeon gives up, winded. Everything’s too predictable. When the pigeon does not know which peck at the button will release the food (the mechanism is programmed to release the pellet intermittently), the bird retains excitement. In that regard slot machines keep people glued not because they win a fortune every time they swing the one arm—that would be boring albeit enriching—they are fascinated by wondering when or if the quarters will bounce into the slot. So is it that when people hear the ping of the phone (or the opening bars of “Twist and Shout” as sung by Ferris Bueller), they will salivate at the thought that the texter’s message may be more interesting than their Social Studies teacher’s talk on the Congress of Vienna.

The documentary barely presents another point of view, so intent is Hyatt to list and elaborate the many dangers of social media and other plagues. He might have said that video games improve cognitive function and motor skills, and that at least the youths are reading words. On the other hand, teen suicide is way up since technology allows them to compare their miserable lives with the bragging from their peers who are equally miserable. Then again there’s bullying by callow adolescents, while in my day you could just grab a kid from the street who is half your weight and show him how much better you are.

How’s this for irony. When this movie shown on your computer ends, you get to click, or not click, the button “like.” I thought and debated and meditated and clicked it.

71 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B- (near absence of animation)
Overall – B

STAGE: THE CULINARY INTERNSHIP – movie review

STAGE: THE CULINARY INTERNSHIP
Butternut Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Abby Ainsworth
Screenwriter: Abby Ainsworth
Cast: Andoni Luís Adúriz, Kim Joon, Alexandre Castelló, Pawel Poljanski, Sara Merendes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/22/20
Opens: May 29, 2020

Stage: The Culinary Internship

Technology changes, forcing people to give up some of what they learn while training for a career, but there is one thing they can’t take away from you, and that is the ability to think and feel. That is the message that oversees what goes on in God’s country in the Northeast corner of Spain, where thirty applicants are chosen out of fifteen hundred to take part in a nine-month program as unpaid interns at the Mugaritz Restaurant. In this brief documentary writer-director Abby Ainsworth gives her movie audience a look at what goes on in the kitchen of one of the world’s top fifty restaurants, as chef interns with an average age of twenty-four come together to learn technique, of course, but more importantly to put their very souls into the preparation of food.

Among the words of wisdom: “It’s better to show disgust at a dish than to feel nothing at all.” Those who persevere through the rigorous training program are letting us in the audience know that while talent is important, stick-to-ivness is mandatory. In other words, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”)

Abby Ainsworth, whose envious career immerses her in the food industry, tries to “find the beauty of a story outside its face value” as she states in production notes. While she spends a considerable time in a restaurant kitchen watching the thirty interns prepare dishes with designs that would make even top French chefs envious, she is as interested in showing us what these interns are made of, allowing them to discuss their backgrounds with one another, principally how they became passionate about cooking.

The Mugaritz Restaurant (“muga” means “border”), located in Errenteria, Guipúzcoa in Spain’s Basque country, is one of the world’s most celebrated places to chow down. Its founder and chef, Andoni Luís Adúriz, closes the restaurant four months of each year, when much of the training of interns takes place. The movie title “Stage” is a French term meaning “unpaid position.” focusing on two-star Michelin restaurant’s program of mentoring the great chefs of tomorrow.

Ainsworth concentrates on four interns. Kim Joon from South Korea has served in his country’s army and speaks fluent English but is likely under stress because he must follow instructions in Spanish. Alexandre Castelló from Spain has experience cooking in his father’s family restaurant. Pawel Poljanski is from Poland, failing three times to be accepted to the stage program, but he perseveres and, though accustomed to working on his own must acclimate to the group of twenty-nine others. Sara Merendes from Spain wonders why she majored in graphic design in college when her real métiér is cooking.

All are competing to be among a select circle to be chosen for an advanced position in the restaurant’s Research and Development program, which brings us to how this restaurant is probably unlike any for which you’ve dined. The food consists admittedly of dishes that a diner may either hate or love. The design is avant-garde given that some of the dishes include aged mole leaves and bone marrow; natto pie with palo cartado; snails in ceviche over frozen teff; pinecut kagami; and the one that impresses me the most, oyster frozen kiss. This last item, which Aduriz’s wife called “cold,” looks bizarre, but so does almost everything that these interns in their mid-twenties are preparing. (Incidentally, they do not use gloves.)

On a technical note, the music in the soundtrack is intrusive. This is not a thriller and no music at all would for me be a desideratum. English subtitles are available throughout with Spanish and English each the lingua franca of the production.

While the internship does not pay, you get room and board—and my, what board and what a view from the room!—so presumably you need to lay out only for air fare and for occasional personal needs. Feel free to make reservations at the restaurant, and take a trip to Spain’s autonomous Basque country. You can call 34-943-52-24-55, pay a 50€ deposit based on the expected cost (without drinks) of 220€. Then head to Aldura ladea 20 in Errenteria and enjoy.

78 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF – movie review

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Benjamin Ree
Cast: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/29/20
Opens: May 22, 2020

The title thief of this unusual and arresting (so to speak) documentary sometimes wears a shirt that says “Crime Pays.” Not surprisingly, it really does, because Karl-Bertil Nordland not only avoids prison when he is nailed as a thief but he gets some life-affirming lessons from the victim, Barbora Kysilkova. Emerging from Benjamin Ree’s film (the director’s sophomore feature follows his “Magnus” from four years back, a study of a Norwegian chess prodigy) is that the relationship drawn here could serve to motivate meetings between criminals and victims together, the former trying to understand the bad guy’s motivation while the crook learns that the person he harmed has actual feelings.

Largely a two-hander though Ree brings in side characters such as the painter’s girlfriends and the artist’s partner, “The Painter and the Thief, organized in a helter-skelter way (that’s a compliment in this case), focuses on the Karl-Bertil Nordland and Barbora Kysilkova’s meetings and chats together, then splitting them up to watch each acting and reacting as separate individuals, each with their own difficulties and moods.

Of course criminals are not the only people with severe problems. Barbora describes how in Berlin she was abused by her boyfriend, made to feel insignificant and unworthy of attention in the art world or anywhere else. For his part Karl-Bertil Nordland has more serious problems as a junkie who in one scenes scores heroin while on the way to rehab and had already spent eight years in jail. And speaking of jail you’ve got to admire the Norwegians, benefactors of a social democratic state (a nanny state in the words of some of our right-wing friends). The prison provides Karl with a private room and a desk, a modern phone, a nice bed, all bringing to mind Michael Moore visit to a Norwegian prison and a similar look at the country-club atmosphere from “Breaking the Cycle.”

Karl gets a sentence of an additional year not because he stole a painting but because he violated the penal code in a vehicular accident that could have paralyzed him. For her part Barbora comes across at times as emotionally paralyzed. She is three months behind in rent and could afford the produce from a supermarket only by asking the checker to remove the grapes.

Special praise for the filmmaker who evokes natural performances from the duo while keeping the appropriate distance. The film is mostly in English with considerable Norwegian, highlighting the idea that Norwegians, and perhaps most Europeans, learn English as a second language given the difficulty of understanding the world in a tongue spoken only in one country.

103 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

TOWERING TASK – movie review

A TOWERING TASK: The Story of the Peace Corps
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alana DeJoseph
Screenwriter: Shana Kelly
Cast: Annette Bening
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/30/20
Opens: May 22, 2020

A Towering Task

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “If you are in your twenties and you are not idealistic, you have no heart. If you are in your forties and are idealistic, you have no brains.” The idealism in me began when I, a 22-year-old political lefty, cheered JFK’s founding of the Peace Corps. (Also volunteers doing Peace Corps work were in most cases not threatened with the draft to Vietnam.) I voted for JFK not only for his generally progressive views (forget about Castro) but particularly for his plan to found the Peace Corps. Even now as a “senior” who should know better, I confess to having no brains.

After passing several look-sees into my qualities, I was accepted and went with my then wife to Georgetown University to get preparation to teach English to college students in Bogota. Despite being chosen to spend time in a big city, I got more shots from the nurses than Bonnie and Clyde as though they were preparing us to hit the shanties of Sierra Leone. After aceing the classes in Spanish and U.S. history, we found out in the middle of training that the budget was drastically cut. We were sent home, older but scarcely wiser people.

The Peace Corps still exists despite our turn to faux-populist nationalism, and in fact has passed muster with chief executives as far right as Ronald Reagan, Dick Nixon and George Bush. Why should our pals on the far right support a hippie organization? They noted that the Peace Corps was not only an outlet for idealism but a smart geopolitical move. If mostly young Americans are sent to 60+ countries that requested our help—teaching English, scientific farming, building schools—everyone would love us and we would no longer be subjects covered by Lederer and Burdick’s 1958 book “The Ugly American.”

Now, Alana DeJoseph, employing Shana Kelly’s script, has a new documentary to comment on a program that everyone knew about during the JFK administration but is scarcely publicized today. In this documentary, one that does not match the humor of a Michael Moore or a Morgan Spurlock but makes up for the deficiency with heartfelt anecdotes by talking heads. They include veterans of the two-year stint in places that include even Moscow, and former directors of the Peace Corps like my friend and former head of the New York City Council Carol Bellamy. This is DeJoseph’s her freshman direction of a documentary that allows cinematographer Vanessa Carr to splash pictures across the screen exploring places that have benefitted by America’s idealistic people. Archival films as well, of course.

In one African country where people from the slums never got mail because their streets and addresses had no names, the Peace Corps on premises fixed what should have been a simple problem handled by the local government. In another area, a woman who majored in music gives help to a fellow who has been farming for eighty years. Some denizens of areas like Thailand and Cuba had suspicions that some corps people were CIA, but even Fidel Castro, who licked his chops hoping to uncover plots, had to admit that he did not find a single CIA henchman.

The pictures that we see are all positive, and maybe we should not expect a cinema team enthusiastic about the agency to be critical. As you might expect, local people, for example in Africa, crowd around U.S. volunteers in shows of friendship and trust. Even during the Vietnam War, some locals may have been surprised that the American volunteers were neutral, though most probably leaned against our government’s misguided war policies. In one Central American country volunteers witnessed the outbreak of a Communist revolution, yet even the rebels respected and did not harm the Americans.

Among the talking heads are past directors of the Peace Corps and writers of books about the agency. Given its successes, not even Trump threatened to slash the funding. After the movie was made, the coronavirus broke out everywhere and for the first time in history almost all volunteers were called home. There are currently 7800 Peace Corps volunteers in 140 countries. “A Towering Task” is the first doc to cover the institution. It does the job well.

107 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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