WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

WAITING FOR ANYA
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ben Cookson
Screenwriter: Ben Cookson, Michael Morpurgo, Toby Torlesse adapting Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Sadi Frost, Jean Reno, Nicolas Rowe, Thomas Kretschmann, Frederick Schmidt, Gilles Marini, Tómas Lemarquis, Elsa Zylberstein, Joséphine de la Baume
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/23/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

Jean Reno, Sadie Frost, Anjelica Huston, Thomas Kretschmann, Urs Rechn, Nicholas Rowe, Elsa Zylberstein, William Abadie, Tómas Lemarquis, Gilles Marini, Joséphine de La Baume, Phin Glynn, Frederick Schmidt, Raj Awasti, Noah Schnapp, and Lukas Sauer in Waiting for Anya (2020)

Geography is destiny. If you’re born in America or Canada you have less chance of starving to death than if you come from Burkina Faso or Eritrea. If you’re born in Western Europe, you are not much of a candidate for malaria or diphtheria as you would be if you your village is near Mogadishu or Djouba. And if you’ve been privileged to be baptized a Catholic in Sioux City, you are probably not going to be victim of anti-Semites.

However! If you have the distinct disadvantage of entering the world in Germany or Poland during the 1930s and remain there despite warnings, you are in deep defecation. Once the German borders closed, Jews remaining there or in any of that country’s occupations will inevitably be shot or gassed, perhaps tortured in a concentration camp and hanged. So what to do if that’s your state of affairs? You’ve got to forget about your house, your clothing, your bank account, and hightail it into a nearby more tolerant country like Albania and Bulgaria. Ben Cookson’s narrative drama “Waiting for Anya” deals with one hero who escorted a Jewish family over the Pyrenees to safety in (Fascist, ironically) Spain.

Despite how gruesome a movie on this subject looks, you probably should not worry about taking your children, even as young as eight. The movie, like the movie of the same name written by the British laureate author Michael Morpurgo, could not be described as “Holocaust 101,” because that would imply a college level course. This is more like middle school material which might be laughed at by some adults who think that this is a mature film, but clearly the dialogue serves as easily digestible for kids. (Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse” is about a horse fighting in France who longs for the return of his human companion.)

In his sophomore feature, director Ben Cooksen sets his film in the French village of Lescun during the early 1940s and filmed who-knows-where because the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are clueless about the breathtaking “Sound of Music”-style mountain range, “Waiting for Anya” centers on Jo (Noah Schnapp), a shepherd in his mid-teens, impressionable, a lad who is obviously not thinking of where can find a date for Saturday night. Why not? He is too busy risking his life to save Jews. Since he and his family—most notably his grandpere (Jean Reno) and a no-nonsense widow, Horcada (Anjelica Huston)—await the return of Jo’s dad (Gilles Marini) from a prisoner of war camp. At the same time Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jew, had escaped from a train taking his fellow Jews to a concentration camp, not before depositing his little girl Anya through a window into a bus. (Benjamin’s escape is among the less credible points in the movie, as he simply leaves the sealed train, hiding under it until it departs.) Benjamin hangs out hidden in the village, awaiting the return of Anya, who had departed in a different direction by bus.

Though the southern French village is under the Vichy regime, not directly occupied by the Nazis, a group of soldiers under a Lieutenant (Tómas Lemarguis) are guarding the frontier to prevent Jews from escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain. Jo takes time from supervising the sheep and feeding the pigs to make sure a band of Jewish survivors stay hidden in a cave, all means for death (including Jo) if discovered.

Aside from the sheep and pigs, “Waiting for Anya” features a dog, perhaps a Border Collie which is the breed best suited for herding sheep; and a bear, which threatens the life of Jo in one scene. Though the whole town are in on protecting the Jews, there is also one good German, a corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) who may the only one from his country who knows where the Jews are hiding but says nothing. He endears himself to Jo, acting as an unusual mentor to the boy.

A lively performance from Noah Schnapp who is 15 in real life and can be seen on the Netflix series “Stranger Things” should captivate the youngsters in the movie audience with his audacity, his desire to learn (even if it’s from one of the Bosch), and his high ethical conduct. Think of similar Holocaust adventures marketed to kids as well as adults such as “Life is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (which makes you think that the young son of a concentration camp commandant chats amiably with an inmate on the other side of barbed wire). Don’t guffaw at the simple dialogue and the sentiment projected herein, now that you know that Morpugo’s novel is recommended for kids, its scary cover noting that “they only have one chance to escape.”

As Holocaust survivors die off and as teens are riveted to the dumb-phones, many young people have no idea what the word “Holocaust” means. This movie serves as a decent primer. (Hey! It’s not just kids who are uninformed. Even some adults today think that Trump is being impeached for cutting a devil’s bargain with Czechoslovakia.)

Everybody speaking English.

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

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

THE ASSISTANT – movie reveiw

THE ASSISTANT
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kitty Green
Screenwriter: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner, Matathew Madfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 12/12/19
Opens: January 31, 2020

The Assistant Movie Poster

“Bombshell” this is not. If you like movies that deal with what you find in this year’s tabloids right up to exposés in the NYTimes, go with “Bombshell.” If on the other hand you prefer your ripped-from-the-headlines movies to shown in small indies, “The Assistant” with “The Assistant.” The title figure Jane (Julia Garner) is the kind of person that could graduate to be a whistleblower casting her net on the corruption in the Trump Government. As an assistant to a New York movie entertainment center where scripts are looked at and wanna-be actresses are vetted, Jane, who will try to expose the hanky-panky indulged by the boss, is clearly channeling Harvey Weinstein among the big fish who were caught cuddling with candidates for showy jobs. Weinstein represents the pinnacle of people brought down by victimizing women who need to come across sexually in order to get or keep jobs, with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News acting as a distant second in notoriety.

If “The Assistant” aims to root out corruption in an industry that, like politics, has high representation in our country, it succeeds in presenting a particular situation but does so bearing such a low-key profile that the film becomes an exercise in dullness. Kitty Green appears to want to take the glitz out of the sordid sexual motives of people who are the key to jobs in the industry by giving us a story that allows us to fill in the blanks. But movies are not TV nor are they stage plays. They are for the big screen and deserve more pizzazz than the writer-director evokes here.

Julia Garner does good work as an assistant who arrives to her downscale New York entertainment office as a woman who may believe in the Japanese proverb that the tall grass gets mowed first. Why, then, would she butt in to what she imagines is going on in the Mark Hotel—yes, or course we know what’s going on but there is no smoking gun—and attempt to file a complaint with Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), the human resources director of the firm? Is she aware that the complaint will go nowhere, since Human Resources will threaten her with the loss of her job if she goes through with the action? Maybe not.

Sienna (Kristin Forseth), one of the actress candidates, looks like jail bait. She is set up in the office with a bigger desk that the other low-level employees have, and does not know even that you can get an outside like by dialing 9. Yet she may be willing to go along with the sexual predation in store for her and may not want any whistle to be blown. The big boss is “away from his desk” most of the time, infuriating some Japanese execs who had an appointment with him. Nor can his wife (Stéphanye Dussud) reach him by phone no matter what time of day she tries. The male assistants (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) are woke enough to know what’s going on. They realize that Jane, having worked at her desk for a month, would probably be gone given that—as the Human Resources director states—that she is not the boss’ type.

Take this script to an off-Broadway stage like New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. It is too minimalist to belong on the big screen.

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

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

THE LAST FULL MEASURE – movie review

THE LAST FULL MEASURE
Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Robinson
Screenwriter: Todd Robinson
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/18/20
Opens: Opens January 24, 2020

Todd Robinson, whose “Lonely Hearts” dramatized the true story of a hunt by two homicide detectives for the pair of “lonely hearts” killers who seduced victims through the personals, might not surprise you for the war movie he directed over a decade later. Yet “The Last Full Measure,” a title whose expression means “death,” is likewise based on a true story which, though not involving city detectives, instead concentrates on battlefield heroism. Its hero is not only the soldier, William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine)but also Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan ) in particular who gave up a promising career promotion to unfold a thirty-year-old story of an airman denied the well-deserved Medal of Honor by members of Congress covering up an exposure of bad battlefield decisions. Also involved but also of the folks who held out hope for a three decades that a wrong would be righted. That hope came to life as Huffman interviews Tully (William Hurt), a bosom buddy of the Vietnam war hero and also of Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), who witnessed Pitsenbarger’s bravery during a battle taking place 56 kilometers outside of Saigon, William Pitsenbarger (Christopher Plummer) and Alice Pitsenberger (Diane Ladd) as the parents of the airman, and two other on the spot witnesses Jimmy Burr (Peter Fonda) and Mott (Ed Harris).

“The Last Measure” takes place in two time periods, one involving the bombs and bullets ducked in 1966 by a pinned-down group of soldiers whose commanders had apparently made bad decisions, and in 1998, involving scenes taking place in the Pentagon and on the territories of witnesses and lobbyists for the heroic William Pitsenberger. The film will recall similar heroism by Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) in “Hacksaw Ridge,” looked at with contempt by officers for his stand as a conscientious objector refusing to pick up a rifle, but who nonetheless saved the lives of some 75 men in World War II.

The principal role in “The Last Full Measure,” though, is that of Sebastian Stan, whose Pentagon careerist Scott Huffman determines to dig up new evidence about why Pitsenbarger, though originally considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor (the highest award given to combat soldiers), was downgraded to an Air Force cross. Those who knew Pitsenbarger had been sitting on the case year after year, never giving up hope that the medal would be upgraded, though such a review rarely recommends such an action.

Among those testifying to Huffman, perhaps the most interesting is Sam Jackson’sTakoda, a salt-of-the-earth gent who in one point grabs the recorder out of the interviewer’s hand and tosses it into the river. As the story unfolds, we learn that 20 infantrymen remained alive though hit but a burst of enemy fire, some coming from snipers in nearby trees near Vietnam’s Cam My. Helicopters are sent in to rush the wounded out of the area. When young Pitsenberger is offered a ride by the last chopper out, giving him a chance to depart the scene, he refused, dedicated to helping the wounded and comforting them with his words.

With battle scenes photographed in typical war-movie style DP Byron Werner in Thailand and with tense scenes accentuated by Philip Klein’s sometimes intrusive music, “The Last Full Measure” cannot avoid sometimes descending into soap-opera inspired dialogue. Nevertheless the subject is well served by this narrative drama, giving many in the film audience too young to have followed the Vietnam War a hint of the action, particularly of the guerrilla warfare engaged in by the enemy, some of whom serving in regular jobs during the day and as fighters by night.

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

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

CITIZEN K – movie review

CITIZEN K
Greenwich Entertainment/Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cast: Mikkhail Khodorkovsky, NYMikhail Gorvachev, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Petukhov, Leonid Nevzlin,
Screened at: Critics’ link, 12/17/19
Opens: January 15, 2020

Citizen K (2019) picture s_id875062.jpg

I would like to have been in Moscow to observe the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin on the day that “Citizen K” was released. You can be assured that he would be turning over in whatever receptacle is holding his bearded frame, because somehow the gods might have allowed Lenin to watch this movie and weep for what happened to his country, to his fondest dream. Instead of a paradise for workers and peasants, the former Soviet Union, having lost its satellite empire and given up communism, did not replace it with the kind of capitalism that Milton Friedman or Michael Bloomberg or New York Times economist columnist Paul Krugman would cherish. Russia is now under the influence of a wild-west kind of capitalism that some of us here in the U.S. can understand, given that in our country one percent of the citizens owns some twenty-five percent of the wealth. Inequality is even worse over there: at one point the oligarchs, the seven richest men in Russian, controlled fifty percent of the economy. Maybe Putin’s interest in gobbling up parts of Ukraine and feasting his eyes as well on the former satellite countries is his desire to distract the Russian people for what is being done to them.

“Citizen K” Alex Gibney, whose 2005 doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” lays out the case for a corruption that led to the company’s demise, now concentrates on two factors in the Russian economic and political goings-on. One subject is Putin, now the head of his country for eighteen years. The other is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs and perhaps the richest man in Russian, whose fall for criticizing Putin led to the state’s seizure of his asserts and his imprisonment in Siberia for ten years. Gibney’s camera switches from president to oligarch, the former winning a series of fake elections while the latter, exiled in London and still holding on to hundreds of millions of dollars stashed safely in countries like Ireland, directs his venom toward the current Russian system.

Gibney has a way of making documentaries into thrillers as he did with Enron, though in this case he relies too much on a hugely intrusively score to give the impression that he is filming not a doc to enlighten us so much as a thriller to capture our emotions. Zipping through a series of historical events that pave the way to the present Russia, Gibney, ignoring Lenin and completely and showing a quick, archived film with Stalin’s picture, points us past Gorbachev’s glasnost era (Gorby is still considered by many in Russia to have single-handedly caused the Soviet Union’s end), through Boris Yeltsin’s turn at bat. With the government about to collapse once again leading perhaps to a return to Communism, Yeltsin bargained with the oligarchs. The state would borrow money from them knowing that they could not be paid back. And the oligarchs would own Russia’s leading assets, including oil.

During that time Khodorkovsky—whom we see as a young man and then as a figure aged largely by his stay in Siberia—by himself created the country’s first commercial bank while at the same time picking up Yukos, a number of Siberian oil fields, at pennies on the dollar. Khodorkovsky is later blamed for the murder of a Siberian oil town mayor who had claimed that Khodorkovsky evaded taxes, and guess who would be the leading suspect, given that it even happened on the oligarch’s birthday! Putin, moving rapidly up the political ladder, determined to go against Khodorkovsky at a time that the rich man exposed state corruption. K was arrested on fake charges and sent on a seven day’s journey to a Siberian prison. One must wonder why Putin did not simply have the man poisoned or shot, as he has been charged of doing for several other opponents.

Behind the lenses, Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov give us the long view of Russia’s seat of government while switching to a one-on-one series of interviews with a seated Khodorkovsky. This may not be a Michael Moore type of doc, loaded with wit and humor, but with its quick pacing and a script that allows us in the audience to understand at least a little of what our adversaries in Moscow are doing, it serves as entertainment and enlightenment equally.

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

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

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

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

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

ADVOCATE – movie review

ADVOCATE

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Screenwriter: Rachel Leah Jones
Cast: Lea Tsemel, Michel Warschawski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/19
Opens: January 3, 2020 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Advocate (2019)

Some of us in the U.S. are proud to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but Palestinians and ordinary people in large parts of the world may disagree. It’s true that Israel has a working parliament, the Knesset, with real powers (if the multiple parties could ever agree on anything), but Israel continues to occupy land around surrounding it in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. And while the court system really works, it functions better for some (the Israelis) than for others (the Palestinians). One Palestinian a while back sums up: “Israel has democracy for the Jews, dictatorship for the Palestinians).

Where else, though, can you find an occupier which has lawyers within its borders defending the occupied? Berkeley-born Rachel Leah Jones, who majored in Race, Class and Gender Studies with a graduate degree in Documentary Media Studies, and Parisian Philippe Bellaïche, who has been honored by several awards for his films, focus on Lea Tsemel, that rare Jewish attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians, has been regularly attacked by her own people who presumably never heard of the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. How does she have the chutzpah to take on cases involving suicide bombers and terrorists? Somebody has to do it. If Palestinians do not put forth a lawyer who can compare with Tsemel in the court, she’s the one to do it. (Aside: Even Eichmann had a trial, but with a German attorney.)

No doubt about it. Documentarians Jones and Bellaïche love Lea Tsemel, who is in virtually every scene, someone whom Americans of a certain age might compare to New York’s late great Bella Abzug. Though she has defended Palestinians for decades, the focus is on two cases. One involves a 13-year-old boy who is arrested for taking part in what the prosecution calls attempted murder. He was an accomplice to the kid who actually stabbed two Israelis of about the same age. He too held a knife and that is what dooms him to face either a few years in a juvenile center or, if he went to trial a considerably longer stretch in an adult prison. Tsemel appears to have convinced the family to take their chances on a trial, given that he did not actually commit the stabbing.

Another case involves a woman who is arrested for terrorism when her car, laden with explosives and apparently meant to cause several killings, blew up accidentally, injuring her. You might think that given the injuries she sustained, the judges might not come down as harshly on her as they would had she succeeded.

As for why Tsemel does what she does though by her own admission she is bound to lose most of her cases, she explains that this is the right thing to do. “After fifty years of occupation” becomes almost her logo. Her long-term husband, Michel Warschawski, also a demonstrator for Palestinian rights, was once given the option: either give up all political relationships with Palestinians and be freed immediately, or suffer years in jail. He chose the latter, largely because of prompting from his wife.

Tsemel believes by implication that were there a two-state solution and the Palestinians had their own country, there would be peace. End of terrorism. Whether she is correct is anybody’s guess, but I’d imagine the typical viewer of this documentary who is pro-Israel even while objecting to the Netanyahu right-wing government would be skeptical.

From time to time the screen is bisected with animation to protect the identities of the advocate’s clients. This is a distraction. One wonders why faces could not be clouded over as they are in American movies. Of course there is an imbalance of power. Has any society in history occupying another ever given equal rights to the conquered?

Lea Tsemel turns out not only to be a fine lawyer (despite losing most of her cases) but an excellent actress, who dominates
proceedings and rivets attention. The film played at a couple of dozen festivals and is scheduled to open January 3, 2020
at NewYork’s Quad Cinema. In Hebrew, Arabic and English.

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

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

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

THE SONG OF NAMES
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/29/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

The Song of Names (2019)

It’s not all that unusual for people to disappear. Men run away from their marriages. Women from small towns bolt, fed up with kinder, küche and kirche. Not long ago Deborah Feldman ran away from her Hasidic Jewish family which she considered to be stifling, disappearing into Greenwich Village, washing her laundry in her memoir “Unorthodox.” “The Song of Names” is likewise about a person who disappears, but this fellow runs not away from the rigidities of religion but more deeply into it. The overriding concept is this: why would a person vanish for thirty-five years, abandoning the foster brother who grew to love him and the foster father who financed and encouraged him and who lost so much money because of the young man’s evaporation?

Through Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a novel by Norman Lebrecht by the same name, director François Girard constructs a movie about music and betrayal, building on his own love of music as shown through his “Thirty Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which are vignettes about the pianist’s life, ‘The Red Violin” about the passion created by the instrument over centuries, and the TV episode “Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.” While “The Song of Names” is clearly about music, Girard is more interested in the emotional bond between two young men who had grown to love each other, and the search by one to find his foster brother who had ruined the life and finances of a British music publisher who had invited him into his home, bought a 284-year-old violin, and died two months after the disastrous disappearance.

This is one of those films that come forth as convoluted given the editor’s frequent changes of eras. The betrayer, Dovid, is played by Luke Doyle aged 9, by Gerran Howell ages 17-21, and thirty-five years later by Clive Owen acting out of his comfort zone as a middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jew. His foster brother Martin is played by Misha Handley aged 9, by Jonah Hauer-King ages 17-23, and thirty-five years later by Tim Roth. The opening scenes are the most realistic and credible before the story heads off into a not-easily-believed fantasy zone.

Dovid’s father sent his violin prodigy to London to live with a family that includes Martin, who is about the same age and is envious of his new foster-brother’s gifts. Though Martin and Martin’s dad are Christian, the British household honors all Jewish traditions for their new guest, even abandoning their love of breakfast bacon. After a bout of sibling rivalry, the two youths become great friends. When Martin’s father invests in a concert expected to start Dovid’s career as a musician, Dovid disappears completely, leaving the audience at the refund booth and the underwriter heavily in debt. When Martin, now in his mid-fifties, finally tracks Dovid down, he finds out for the first time what happened to his friend. He discovers—as do we in the audience—wholly dubious circumstances of the vanishing act.

In the midst of the credulity-straining tale are some moving scenes. During the German bombing of London, as Dovid takes refuse in the neighborhood air-raid shelter (impressively decked out with scores of sandbags), Dovid pulls out his violin, setting up a competition with a slightly older violinist as though executing a theme and a fugue. On an even more emotional level, the middle-aged Dovid discovers what happened to his parents who had stayed in Poland too late to avoid the Holocaust. A rabbi (Kamil Lemieszewski), doubling as a cantor, sings a song of names whereby the melody makes it easier for him to recall the names of victims who died at Treblinka. Nor can the film be faulted for pulling at the tear ducts at a sight in Treblinka death camp, where the principals walk past stones that memorialize the murdered Jews.

Should we forgive Dovid for bankrupting Martin’s family given his rare talent with the strings, or do we find that difficult given also that Martin has spent his a lifetime fretting about Dovid’s disappearance, heading off from London, traipsing around Poland and New York to solve the puzzle? The movie suffers from the frequent editing to cover the three stages of life and could be served better by a chronological approach. Montréal and Budpest stand in for New York and Warsaw.

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

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