FOR THE BIRDS – movie review

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

Kathy Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

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

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RED COW – movie review

RED COW
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Screenwriter: Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Cast: Avigayil Koevary, Gal Toren, Moran Rosenblatt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at the JCC in New York

Image result for red cow movie posters

The five books of the Hebrew Bible contain information about Jewish customs in ancient times, and specifically, in the fourth book, Numbers 19:2 there appears this item. “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” In other words a sacrificial cow must be a redhead, must never have worked, and must be without flaws. Does anybody today put this ancient ritual to use? Surprisingly, one fellow in Jerusalem-born Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s feature length directing debut actually raises a red heifer as a calf preparing to do just that, despite the affection that this fellow’s teen daughter has for the shy and lonely animal kept outside their home. Specifically Yehoshua (Gal Toren), a politically extreme Orthodox Jew believes that the sacrifice will bring about an age in which Jews would no longer be banned from walking on the sacred Temple Mount in the holy city.

His daughter Benni (Avigayil Koevary), who chafes under her dad’s helicopter upbringing, is confused about religion, politics, and especially sexuality. She hears her father’s lectures to like-minded right-wingers who protest a possible evacuation from their illegal East Jerusalem settlement, but she cannot for the life of her understand what’s happening to her country politically. (The action takes place before the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a Jewish zealot opposed to his leader’s willingness to give up territory to Palestinians.) And though she is awakened by her father regularly and forced to put on Tefillin with him (the Tefillin contains parchments from the Bible), she has no particular feel for religion.

Most important, when Benni meets Yael (Moran Rosenblatt), more or less the same age but more mature, she is drawn to her. Their mutual feeling results in a lesbian relationship, which is trouble, because Judaism does not condone homosexuality. Dad senses what’s going on between the two girls but restrains himself for the sake of his daughter, though similar leniency may not be in store for Yael. (The scene where the two young women “get it on” is filmed tastefully. Sorry.)

“Red Cow” has universal resonance given that Yehoshua mourns the death of his wife in childbirth, and at the time of the film’s action is sitting Shiva for his own mom, Benni’s grandmother. Yehoshua is so wrapped up in religion and politics that he hasn’t much of a clue on how to deal with his girl’s sexual coming of age, nor can Benni “come out” given that she cannot confess her feelings to another adult notwithstanding her attendance in a class in sexual education. Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov behind the lens makes good use of close-ups, allowing us in the audience to read Benni’s emotions, as she gives in to her rising sexual needs both with and without her young partner.

Extremist politics is woven seamlessly into an intimate family drama, the three principal performers doing their jobs with authenticity. Leaving the film, I felt that Benni will manage to make accommodation with her community but her dad is destined to drive his daughter completely away. Still, I felt bad particularly for the fate of that cute red calf and disgusted by people who feel a need to conform literally to the Bible, not only for the silliness of animal sacrifice but for the prohibition against homosexuality..

“Red Cow” was selected for the Israel Film Festival and will open in New York at the JCC on June 4.

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

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

BOOKSMART – movie review

BOOKSMART
Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriters: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Victoria Ruesga
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 5/20/19
Opens: May 24, 2019

 

The typical high school movie notes that kids sit in the lunchroom according to their personalities. You have the jocks, the nerds, the goths, with further divisions that are unfortunately along racial lines. We never see the students (with the word used loosely) in the cafeteria, but we see a helluva lot of them at parties, in the hall, in the home and in their cars in “Booksmart.” The picture is all the more of interest given that this is actress Olivia Wilde’s (“Life Itself”) freshman contribution to the celluloid pile, and since it’s written by four women—avoiding the usual problem of having script-by-committee emerge as something that none of the scripters want—it looks as though it comes from the pen of a single writer. Whereas as the greatest of the high-school movies, John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” gets its speed-up from a climactic rally led by the title character, “Booksmart” almost never lets up its pace, bounding along at a furious clip save for its obligatory sentimental ending.

While the entire ensemble plays the tale without flaws—though some of the “high-school students” look like they might be doing graduate studies for their MBA’s—the picture is carried by the friendship of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein). Though Molly is class president despite here lack of popularity with her peers, the two nerdie girls regret that they spent their four pre-college years hitting the books when they could have been partying non-stop like their classmates. The reason? They are determined to get into elite colleges, looking down on the others for seeming not to care about their education, but are hit hard psychologically when they discover that the fun-loving seventeen-year-olds have been accepted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. Even one (Molly Gordon) girl who brags about her skill with hand jobs which she refers to as roadside pleasures is headed off to the Ivies. The only notion that adolescents are sexual creatures occurs when Amy notes that she “came out” as a lesbian in tenth grade and has waited until just before high school graduation to get it on.

With just hours to go before commencement exercises, which will star Molly in a valedictory speech, they decide to make up for four years of grinding the books instead of doing same with all the others during their final school night. Of course they are not invited to Nick’s party and have to spend some times locating the address—which leads them into a cab driven by principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) of all people and by hitching with a pizza delivery guy (Michael Patrick O’Brien). At the party Molly plays up to Nick (Mason Gooding), having entertained a crush the past year, and her best pal hides underwater. While a few hours of treating the guys who at first they consider nobodies but ultimately respect cannot make up for wasting four years of fun that only teens can imagine, the two bond with their classmates and draw even closer to each other.

Wilde uses a soundtrack designed to deafen those in the audience not already hearing disabled from rock bands and rappers, including songs from Salt-N-Pepa and Alanis Morissette. The director hits us with a look at secondary education in America that might frighten some of the fuddy-duddies in the audience who still think that children should be seen but not heard. For the young and young-in-heart, “Booksmart”—which at the time of this writing boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes out of sixty reviews—will appeal to a broad market but may dismay some of us who wonder why their own educations were so dull and predictable.

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

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

THE TOMORROW MAN – movie review

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

The Tomorrow Man Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTOGRAPH – movie review

PHOTOGRAPH
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqi, Sanya Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Virendra Saxena, Farrukh Jaffar
Screened at: Soho House, NYC, 5/1/19
Opens: May 17, 2019

Photograph Movie Poster

If you’re disgusted by the present status of male-female relationships in the U.S., notably the custom of college students nowadays to abandon the practice of dating in favor of hooking up, and of every young person’s compulsion to text even when in the company of their friends and lovers, you’ll be delighted to see a throwback to the old days in looking at the relationship of two people in Mumbai. If you’re old enough in America, you’ll remember that dating was never casual in the 1950s but marked by curfews of women in college and a dress code that featured more formal attire that is customary today. This is not to say that we should adapt the matchmaking and dating practices in India and so much of the world outside the West, but take a look at what goes on in Ritesh Batra’s “Photograph.” You’ll go to this movie with high expectations if you loved Batra’s film “The Lunchbox”—which emerged from the custom of delivering lunch boxes to workers at mid-day, the drama coming from a misdirected lunch which leads to a correspondence between a widower and an unhappily married woman.

“Photograph,” which juggles differences of caste, religion, class, and age but nonetheless does not try to uproot the custom of matchmaking in India, is a delightful look at an unusual dating scene. A man approaching middle age, seemingly a confirmed bachelor, meets cute a younger woman of a higher, more educated class. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqi), who barely scrapes by taking pictures with a Nikon at Mumbai’s famous Gateway of India, lives in a cramped, communal setting with other low-level workers. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), an introverted young woman who never laughs, only occasionally smiles, is lightly pressured by her solidly middle-class family to match up with guys. She is perfectly willing to do so to please her folks, but one day, as she is strolling around the famous Gateway of India, she agrees to be photographed by Rafi. Summoned elsewhere, she runs off without paying him leaving him with her picture. It so happens that gossip is spreading among Rafi’s pals that Rafi’s grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), upset that she may never become a great grandmother, has stopped taking her meds. He jumps at the bait, invites the elderly woman to meet him in Mumbai, noting that he would like to introduce her to his fiancé. Fiancé? No such luck. Rafi asks Miloni to play the part, changing her name to Noorie for the role, and she surprisingly agrees, perhaps from a sense of adventure which she does not get from her classes in accounting.

Your heart knows things that your mind can’t explain, the only possible reason for the growing attraction between a shy, introverted girl and a confirmed bachelor. They go on a few dates, not touching each other until Dadi, taking a picture, asks him stand closer to her and to put his arm around her, asking her for good measure to smile. The grandmother may be getting wise to the scam, warning Rafi that she is not the girl for him. “She is not our religion,” having heard a made-up story by Miloni that her parents both died when the walls of a mosque caved in on them.

To illustrate class differences most graphically, director Batra shows Miloni jumping from her seat during a movie date, while her Rafi calms her that “it’s only a rat that crossed by your seat.” Batra takes what could have embraced screwball comedy, transcending the genre in laying out an ultimately sad, but meaningful slice of Mumbai life. In Gujarati and Hindi with the usual faded-white subtitles that are difficult to read against light contrasts.

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

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

 

THE THIRD WIFE – movie review

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

a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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