THE ARTIST’S WIFE – movie review

THE ARTIST’S WIFE
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tom Dolby
Screenwriter: Nicole Brending, Tom Dolby, Abdi Nazemian
Cast: Lena Olin, Bruce Dern
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/28/20
Opens: April 3, 2020

The Artist's Wife (2019)

Memo to women asked to give up promising careers to support their husband’s rise to prominence: think twice before doing this. No, don’t even think about it. You have a responsibility to develop your own talents. If you want to give some time to aiding the man in your life, fine. (Of course you want to be reasonably sure that you have the talent to get your own fifteen minutes of fame.)

The principal character, Joan Castleman, is like the title woman in Björn Runge’s 2017 movie the wife—that’s the woman who wrote the books credited to her husband who won the Nobel that she should have picked up. Claire Smythson (Lena Olin) gave up her potential in order to support the career of her world-famous painter husband Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). This is the kind of story that is up the alley of director Tom Dolby, whose sophomore movie recalls his work on “Last Weekend,” whose Celia Green (Patricia Clarkson), a wealthy matriarch, is forced to reevaluate her role in the family. In both cases, it’s better late than never.

In “The Artist’s Wife,” Richard is as narcissistic as Jonathan Pryce’s character, Joe Castleman in “The Wife.” They live in a luxurious, modern California house, one large room devoted to the large canvasses that absorb the dramatic colors of Richard’s contemporary paintings. Not all is well. For one thing, Richard has never “been there” for his estranged daughter, Angela Smythson (Juliet Rylance), nor does his six-year-old grandson Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) have memories of the celebrity artist. Angela’s stepmother, Claire, has triple duty. She has spent much of her life supporting her famous husband’s career; she is trying to bring Angela back into the family fold; and now she must cope with her husband’s progressing dementia. For his part, the Alzheimer’s-sufferer is acting off-the-wall, delivering profanities to his class of young painters, even smashing the work of one of the young men in the group. In one scene he has trashed his own living room, leaving Claire to pick up the pieces just as she is trying to deal with the new challenges of her aging husband.

Tom Dolby, using a script that he co-wrote with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian, could have tured this into a soap, particularly given the sometimes obtrusive piano pounding on the soundtrack, but instead lifts the material into art in a way similar to that exercised by Eugene O’Neill in his classic family drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In a triumphant conclusion Claire may be on the way to giving herself some of the fame that her husband might never have enjoyed save for the loving support of his wife. And with a sensitive, nuanced performance by the classically trained, Stockholm-born Lena Olin in a drama that opens as a chamber piece, then brings in other members of the extended family, “The Artist’s Wife” is likely to be compared favorably to the award-winning “The Wife.”

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

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

I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY – movie review

I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Arthur
Screenwriter: Michael Arthur
Cast: Niko Alm, Mathé Coolen, Mienke De Wilde, Daniel C. Dennett, Pedro L. Irigonegaray, Edward J. Larson, Bruder Spaghettus, Derk Venema, Bobby Henderson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/2/20
Opens: July 7, 2020

Poster

What makes a book sacred? Is there anything intrinsically sacred about the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, the New Testament? For example, if members of the Guajajara indigenous tribe in Marantao state in Eastern Brazil saw a copy of one of these books, studied it, put a spear into it, would they find anything holy? Not likely. Is “The Art of the Deal” sacred? It is, if at least one American says it is, and you’ll probably find one patriot claiming that it is so. Books and the religious orders they teach are sacred only because people say they are. If you realize that much, you can go into a screening of “I, Pastafari” with an open mind.

Niko Alm (I) in I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story (2019)

When you inspect the title of this movie, which would be better called simply “Pastafari,” you will guess that it has something to do with spaghetti and its cousins like ziti, macaroni, and linguini. Are the Pastafarians a joke? Yes and no. Though the documentary does not support the premise that the Pastafarians are just some jokers on spring break, we discover that they take themselves seriously when they insist that theirs is a religion like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Mormonism and the like. In fact they make frequent journeys to courtrooms in their home countries, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, to prove that they meet the criteria of real religions, because they’re serious. Worshippers of the flying spaghetti monster, the deity that should be put into capital letters as with other faiths The Flying Spaghetti Monster, love their logo featuring two eyes atop a mound of pasta with two meatballs. They even show off a painting of mankind reaching out, naked to the right, to receive the gift of life from a bowl of noodles.

Still of Bruder Spaghettus in I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story (2019)

Still, this is no “Animal House,” but features instead a multi-national group of some young people and some with long white beards who wear colanders on their head. They refuse to remove their respectful metal attire when told that they could not get drivers’ licenses unless they wear the headgear for religious reasons, so they pounce on that loophole and win the right, at least in the ultra-liberal Netherlands, to take their pictures, so long as their faces are clearly shown.

In archival films, we see the Pastafarians with somber faces defending their right to be considered a religion just like the older ones that have established themselves, winning a few court decisions, losing most. Those of us viewing the picture get the point that they are really atheists who piggyback the idea posited by proponents of the theory of intelligent design, that if you cannot prove that it’s wrong, it should be upheld as a legitimate point of view. Some archival shots of the so-called Monkey Trial involving Scopes, a high school teacher who lets himself be arrested when he taught the Theory of Evolution and whose lawyer, Clarence Darrow, trashed the state’s attorney William Jennings Bryan in an eight-hour interrogation (which was the subject of the enormously entertaining play “Inherit the Wind”).

Yes, Virginia, there really are Pastafarians in the world, who, instead of lecturing people, use the arguments of religious people to show the arbitrary nature of a faith in supernatural beings. In fact Franklin Foer did an article in the Atlantic magazine of November 2016 about Flying Spaghetti Monster acolytes across the Continent who are a genuine organized movement “founded in large part to critique organized religion…[with] the trapping and some of the social functions of a real religion.” He notes that their Sabbath is on a “Friday, because our god was faster than the other gods, and he finished with the creation of the Earth earlier.” New Zealand became the first country to legally recognize marriages.

Leave it to the U.S., a generally more religious country than much of Europe, to deny a Nebraska prisoner’s request to practice the Pastafarian faith, ruling FSM a parody and not a religion. The Netherlands went the other way granting the group official status. “If you are not satisfied,” notes 24-year-old Bobby Henderson, “Your old religion will likely take you back.”

“I, Pastafari” is a broadly humorous movie with a consequential metaphysical philosophy, marred only by an insistence on intrusive music in the soundtrack, as though director Michael Arthur in his freshman offering does not trust the theater audience to know when the Pastafarians are messing with our mind. And hey, it’s only 56 minutes long, so what can you lose (except your faith)? R’amen.

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

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

HAMILTON – movie review

HAMILTON
Disney+
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Thomas Kail
Book Music, Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s biography by Ron Chernow
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onadowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillips Soo, Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana DeBose, Hope Easterbrook, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Elizabeth Judd, Jon Rua, Austin Smith, Seth Stewart, Ephraim Sykes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/2/20
Opens: July 3, 2020

hamilton posters

As one opponent of Alexander Hamilton states in the musical “Hamilton,” “He’s a threat as long as he holds a pen.” Would this insight be a dated one, or would it apply to the resident of the Oval Office today? History repeats itself. Every person in power has enemies, every ideology has its suggested modifications. After the American Revolution, opposition did not end but continues to this day. Everybody is unique and therefore everyone has a point of view.

Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, had opposition early on in both the political and the personal all creatively evoked in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical, which played to full houses in the Richard Rodgers Theater beginning August 6, 2015. Seats are filled by people who paid upward of $1,000 (to brokers) for tickets. Now, after almost five years since its opening, it hits the big screen, or rather, it opened on July 3, 2020 streaming only, for a while depriving the lush, glorious musical of venues where it would best be enjoyed.

There is an advantage to the film version, which is that we get to see the original cast with particular focus on an absolute genius, Lin-Manual Miranda, who composed the book, the music and the lyrics and plays the title character. He has a powerful singing voice, a presence that illuminates the room whether you’re watching from your computer or, perhaps later, in the multiplex. Though many movies deal with World War II, only a handful, like this one, are inspired by the American Revolution and the people in the colonies.

In our current year, the persecution of Black people seems finally to hit home even with people who think Obama’s election meant that racism was over. By contrast, what a representation of Blacks and Hispanics in “Hamilton,” a majority of the performers! The play was filmed in situ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016 with cameras that are not simply anchored to the floor but moving with the performers under Declan Quinn lenses, all under the direction of Thomas Kail in his big-screen freshman narrative movie. Dolly shots, closeups, and overhead filming adds to the wide scenes of bodies in motion, capturing the stillness of the intimate songs and the bouncing rhythms of jazz, rap and rhythm and blues.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes portray the Redcoats in their uniformed glory, while the colonists planning revolution don their colorful, but by contrast muted, colors. David Lorins’ scenic design emphasizing wooden scaffolds avoids the usual Broadway custom of being wheeled out and replaced depending on the action. Andy Blankenbuehler’s super-charged choreography evokes dancing that is anything but the sort popularized by the 18th century Puritans. Though some songs display moments of intimacy such as “Wait for it” sung by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), the general tone is bouncy and loud. The opening, Alexander Hamilton,” brings down the house in short order. Jasmine Cephas Jones captivates as both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, though every scene involving King George (Jonathan Groff), who shows up on stage usually alone to warn the colonists not to come back crawling to him, is the musical’s comic highlight. Think of the insight Groff belts out “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Know any current government officials who think that way, also without irony.

Theater fans who mourn that so many Broadway shows are retreads of the oldies; “South Pacific,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Music Man,” will cheer that “Hamilton” is thoroughly original. There is nothing quite like it in Broadway’s history, with top audience seats prohibitively expensive. Now you can stream it with a Disney + accouint while you wait for the virus to calm down allowing it to make history at the multiplex.

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

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

THE TOBACCONIST – movie review

THE TOBACCONIST (Der trafikant)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nickolaus Leytner
Screenwriters: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, based on Robert Seethaler’s novel
Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/29/20
Opens: July10, 2020

Tobacconist-US-Poster-sm.jpg

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That is probably the best-known quote attributed to Dr. Sigmund Freud, meaning that you don’t have to look deeply into everything to understand; that a cigar is not always a symbol of what’s hiding inside every man’s pants. Now immerse yourself into the world of fiction. Think of a 17-year-old boy who confides to Freud that he simply does not understand love. “You don’t have to understand water. Just jump in,” replies the good doctor in Nickolaus Leytner’s period piece taking place in Vienna during the year 1938. Nickolaus Leytner, whose résumé is chock full of TV movies like “Die Stille danach” (how does a family live when its son has murdered five people and himself?), now directs “The Tobacconist,” from the Man Booker Prize-finalist novel of the same name by Robert Seethaler.

The movie is co-written by Klaus Richter, who wrote the screenplay about the rise and fall of actor Ferdinand Marian (who played the title character in the anti-Semitic “The Jew Suss”). “The Tobacconist” is both a coming of age story and a description of Vienna just before and during its occupation by Germany in 1938. While most Austrians after the war protested that they were victims of the occupation, the historical record (and this movie) indicates that many the German-speaking country welcomed the Nazi presence wholeheartedly.

In the film Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a 17-year-old boy, is forced by his promiscuous mother Margarete (Regina Fritsch) to leave their village after the middle-aged woman’s lover is electrocuted while swimming during a storm. (The opening scene is a gem.) Arriving there, he is employed by Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), the owner of a small tobacco shop and probably one of Margarete’s former lovers. Otto is an ardent anti-Nazi who has philosophic views about his main product. As he tells the easily impressed young apprentice, “A bad cigar is like horseshit… and a great cigar is the world.” (Given the state of the world today and in 1930s Europe, I would probably choose the bad cigar.) Otto welcomes Communists and Jews to the dismay of his neighbor the butcher, who, if he had the chance, would probably turn in both the vendor and Dr. Freud (Bruno Ganz in his last role) to the occupation.

The heart of the movie is the unlikely friendship of the young man with Dr. Freud. Though the father of psychoanalysis treats patients who can afford him, he freely gives advice to Franz, in love with an assertive Czech music hall dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova). Freud’s family urges him to leave Vienna for London, believing rightly that his life would be in danger if he remained.

The personal story involves a young man who might have remained naïve had he stayed in the village of Attersee and how his boss, who lost a leg in World War I, coached him on tobacco and life. The personal alternates with the political as a drama of a city that appears proudly to hang large Nazi flags on a government building turned into a Gestapo headquarters. Among the treasures of the film is a series of Franz’s dreams, all surreal as dreams tend to be, and exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer, filming in Germany, Austria and Italy. Aside from the filming, the highlight would have to be the strong performances by Johannes Krisch as the older tobacconist, a humanist who once rejected the business of a man who asked to buy a National Socialist newspaper; of the late Bruno Ganz, unrecognizable as the famous shrink who is both a fount of wisdom and fearful of his future under Nazism; and Simon Morzé as the young title figure, who learns to stand up to the Nazis like the neighboring butcher and to let go of a woman who would be anything but loyal to one mana.

In German with English subtitles.

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

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

HOMEWRECKER – movie review

HOMEWRECKER
Dark Star Pictures/ Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Zach Gayne
Screenwriter: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe, Zach Gayne
Cast: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe, Tony Mathews, Kris Siddiqi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/20
Opens: July 3, 2020

A strange thing about “Homewrecker,” mostly a two-hander theatrical piece that could do well on an off-broadway stage, is that despite some clunky dialogue and obviously fake fights, it dies gave a hold on an audience. This could be in part because at 76 minutes it does not outlast its welcome and because young people, especially, women in the their twenties who may consider having babies will want to think over whether their husbands are the right people to team up with. We get the impression that though sisterhood may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, a liberated woman would do well to choose the right person to be your “sister.” Sometimes a friendly person who believes she has rapport with a potential friend is wrong. The other young woman may be just not into the budding friendship and should not be afraid to tell this individual that discussing husbands and boyfriends is off limits.

In the case of “Homewrecker” Michelle (Alex Essoe), an interior designer working on a laptop in a public space tells Linda (Precious Chong) she appreciates the atmosphere because it’s quiet. But Linda fails to take the hint. Even worse, Michelle, who is so introverted that she can barely construct a sentence without several ums is too nice to tell an aggressive person to buzz off. When Linda asks Michelle take a look at her house and offer suggestions on decorating it, Michelle, who has work to do and should know better, agrees.

Now once a psycho has you inside her quarters, there’s no getting out, unless the house has a door that can be opened from the inside and windows that are not too small and too tightly bound to the wall make that impossible. When Linda shows that she is so desperately lonely that she has gone past the limits of borderline psychosis, the horror begins. Michelle is locked in, willing to take Linda up on the latter’s suggestion to play a board game called Party Hunks. The subtext of the game is that players will reveal things about themselves that they would not consider saying, especially to someone they had just met.

The film goes from horror to temporary truce, back to horror, until Linda makes a move with a hammer on the wall that will make you think of Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Shining.” Summing up, Linda is psychotic and Michelle is neurotic, which is not a good combination for friendship.

The movie is written by the two principal actors plus the director, Zach Gayne in his freshman entry. Gayne also directed “F*ckdrive” which is only seven minutes long, and is likely to be back with something less sophomoric than “Homewrecker.”

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

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

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA – movie review

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA

HBO Documentary FilmsReviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: David France
Writers: David France, Tyler H. Walk,inspired by the New Yorker article “Forbidden Lives: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” by Masha Gessen
Cast: Olga Baranova, David Isteev, Maxim Lapunov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/15/20
Opens: June 30, 2020

Welcome to Chechnya.jpeg

On June 15, 2020 the U.S. Supreme issued a decision that gays people are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited discrimination on account of gender. It should be obvious that gays and lesbians are covered. Yet three justices disagreed and look what Trump said: “This is a landmark decision that should be praised throughout the land.” Oops. He did not say that. He said that he would live with the decision. Awfully sporting of him, but of course he has to cater to his base, many of whom might be happier living in Tehran or Kabul or Sanaa. Now we learn that it’s not only in the heart of the Muslim world that gays are not tolerated by their governments but also in Valdimir Putin’s Russia. Putin is no friend of the LGBTQ community but folks who are closeted in Moscow and St. Petersburg have a fighting chance of experiencing love without state interference. Still, in the “Republic” of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim entity whose officials have made peace with Moscow after attempts to secede, the big enemy is…people who are sexually involved with members of their own gender.

To learn more about this, we need only watch HBO’s bold, fly-on-the-wall coverage of the way homosexuals are intimidated in Grozny and outskirts. No, not intimidated. Killed in some cases. By whom? Maybe by police, but also by their own mothers, fathers, brothers and cousins. It’s a free-for-all where stone-cold bigots claim that their “honor” has been shamed by their kin who are not altogether like them, to such an extent that family members can kill them and authorities will do nothing to punish the killers or torturers.

Director David France, whose “How to Survive a Plague” deals with ACT UP’s successful battle to get needed drugs to people afflicted with AIDS, takes on the political battle of gays in Chechnya to avoid such treatment in police stations as having their fingers entwined with cords to deliver electric shocks should the hapless victims not come up with names of others in the gay community. One person gives up ten, the ten give up another ten, and soon the folks with authority in Chechnya will create a republic whose residents have, “pure blood.”

Obviously this will remind you of the treatment of Jews in Germany, of Rohingyas in Myanmar, of Indians in America, of Tutsis in Rwanda, or Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, to cite a few cases, you’re ready to understand the abnormal psychology of people who cannot tolerate those who are not quite like them. Never mind that all of these people are minding their own business, not rebelling against their governments.

The inspiration for this powerful doc is Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker magazine on July 3, 2017 which features prose like “They pushed my head down so I wouldn’t see where we were going,” Ali, who is around thirty years old, told me. “Soon, the car pulled up to an unmarked building. Ali saw two men he knew standing in front, their faces swollen from beatings.” The article names Ramzan Kadyrov who runs Chechnya as though it were his own country (he’s backed by Putin), and who claims that his aim is to cleans the country of gay men. At the same time he makes the absurd comment that “We don’t have any gays.”

The heroes of France’s documentary, which is mostly in Russian with easy-to-read English subtitles, are David Isteev and Olga Baranova. They run a shelter in Moscow that might make you think of Harriet Tubman’s havens for runaway slaves, transporting them to Canada which, by the way, is the country to which many of Chechnya’s gays want to go given that Canada is fairly liberal in granting asylum. One such person is Grisha who went to Chechnya to conduct business there as an event planner when he was picked up and tortured, ultimately heading to Moscow. His troubles were not over since his entire family became the target of threats. All had to be transported out.

Lesbians are not exempt from the reactionary rules of the Chechnya’s government. Anya, just twenty-one years old, has her sexual orientation discovered by her uncle. He threatens to tell her high-ranking father, but wait! He is good enough to allow her to go free if she would have sex with him. Isn’t it great to have pure morals? She complains to her rescue people of claustrophobia, staying in her room for three months and told not to go out even to dump her trash. She bolts, and nobody knows her whereabouts today.

As with his previous films including “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” about that gay rights activist’s mysterious death, David France highlights the heroism of radicals who risk life and limb to move victimized people to locations where they can carry on with their lives without the abhorrent notions of government and family. The heroic guys and gals in this emotionally raw picture have special praise for Canada, which has granted scores of humanitarian visas to people hounded despite minding their own business.

Bulletin: Trump has not authorized a single visa for these victims. Surprise!
106 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE LAST TREE – movie review

THE LAST TREE
ArtMattan Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shola Amoo
Screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/23/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

The Last Tree (2019) - IMDb

Distributed by Artmattan Films which boasts” films about the human experience of people of color,” “The Last Tree” is a coming of age story that focuses on the changes that form the boyhood and teen years of a British man with Nigerian roots. The drama is the second feature of Shola Amoo whose “A Moving Image,” about gentrification in Brixton, England, blurs the line between reality and fiction by incorporating real people affected by gentrification and who consider a young artist to be a symbol of a revitalization that excludes them.

In this latest project, the writer-director gives approximately equal time to Femi as a child (Tai Golding) and to him as a teen (Sam Adewunmi), hinting that we in the audience might take sides as to which incarnation is the more enjoyable. You can’t help noting that the young Femi is the more adorable fellow, his charm arising largely from the happy childhood he enjoys in a bucolic British suburb with Mary (Denise Black), a white foster parent. Femi fits in just fine with white friends his own age. We never find out why Yinka (Gbemisola Ilumel), his biological mother, could not take care of him, but unlike the foster children we hear about on the 6.30 news who had been taken in by exploitative women out for the money, this lad has clearly lucked out.

Too bad, like so many things, his halcyon home life takes a bad turn when his real mother, coming to see him for what is promised to be merely a visit, wants him back. You’ll think that Yinka lacks the stability to keep him for long, the boy remains in the less promising atmosphere of a London slum (“Careful—there’s pee,” warns his mother). After the passage of ten years, Femi, who spent years in what so many children can only dream about, has become sullen. He no longer has white friends, and Mace (Demmy Lapido), presumably a drug seller, has taken a shine to him, coaxing teen however reluctantly into joining a small gang.

Femi treats his mother like an enemy, not only for taking him away from a loving foster parent in a pleasant suburb, but also because she beats him if he does not take care of the house while she is away working as a cleaning woman. While he tries to avoid Mace—a rotund man with a ready smile—he alienates a few other locals by rescuing Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), bullied because of her dyed-blue braids and her studiousness. While his dedicated teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) takes time out to visit Femi at home, suspecting that he is ignoring his studies and is likely to drop out, the teacher is a good role model, telling the boy that he was not always a preppie and an old, boring teacher, but was once headed in the bad direction of his student.

Stil Williams sharply photographs the bucolic neighborhood, comparing it to the near slum of an inner city, and Segun Akinola’s music may swell at times but is not intrusive. In what amounts to a long coda that changes the tone of the picture, we find Femi and his mother abruptly in Lagos, Nigeria, where he meets his biological father. Though dad is a pastor, he is living in a house that bears comparison to New York’s Trump Tower with his golden staircase, polished marble floor, and enough space to take in a dozen foster children should he so desire. These final scenes are such a precipitous break, the story cries out for some explanation but never finds it.

It’s easy for us in the audience to relish Femi’s good luck as a child with a ready smile, we may find it difficult to empathize with the dour teen. Nonetheless, we leave the theater optimistic that Femi will soon “find” himself. Once that’s achieved, we need not worry about him.

English subtitles on the link that I used are superlative, clear, bold and easy to read, an important feature when those of so many movies and cheap and difficult to read.

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

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

THE AUDITION – movie review

THE AUDITION (Das vorspiel)
Strand Releasing
Reviewed by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Director:  Ina Weisse
Screenwriter:  Ina Weisse, Daphne Charizani
Cast:  Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mishiev
Running Time:  99 minutes
Reviewed on:  5/19/20
Opening Date: June 26, 2020
The Audition Poster
Just as psychoanalysts go through their own years on the couch to make them realize the effects that their own concerns could negatively affect their therapy of others, so mothers should go to analysts themselves to help prevent them from foisting their own childhood flaws and neuroses on their families and others.   If anyone should have spent as much time on the couch as Woody Allen that would be Anna.  We in the audience don’t know this at least until midpoint, because Anna Brodsky (Nina Hoss) is as controlled and disciplined as she expects her students to be.
Ina Weisse, who acted in some fifty films, now contributes her sophomore feature as director, having been the filmmaker for “The Architect,” about a fellow who returns to a village he had not seen in twenty years and stuns his children about his double life.  Using a script that Weisse co-wrote with Daphne Charizani,  she explores a middle-class family in Germany as they spend their weeks alternating from concern with their ten-year-old boy Jason (Serafin Mishiev) and one of her violin students, Alexander (Ilja Monti).
She might be excused for some neuroticism shown here when she and her husband Phillipe (Simon Abkarian) dine in a bistro.  As Phillipe could have predicted, she regrets that she ordered a pasta dish, sampling and preferring her husband’s steak and potatoes.  The good-natured Phillipe calmly exchanges dishes with her—after first agreeing to her demand to move to another table.
While her restaurant behavior is too trivial to portend a tragic event during the concluding moments, Weisse and Charizani concentrate on the way Anna treats her ten-year-old, who is more himself when in the hockey ring than he is when forced to practice his violin. A scene that finds Jonas finally kicking up a storm, rebelling by refusing to play, will be reflected in a more crucial encounter after a violin lesson that Anna gives to Alexander, for whom she had stood up when he performed in an audition at a Berlin conservatory that can be compared to our Juilliard.
Anna pays enough attention to Alexander, whom she is tutoring for an upcoming audition, to engage the envy of her own son, suffering emotional reactions to the apparently loving care she fosters on the young man who is now practicing four hours a day for the audition.  Alexander is technically competent but he is unable to meet the challenges of his teacher, who in one scene yells at him because he keeps raising his shoulder and because he appears unable to let the music into his body.
The scenes Anna has with Christian (Jens Albinus), a cellist in a chamber group with whom she carries on an affair, and the view of her during a visit to her aging parents, might well have been excised.  Nina Hoss’s performance is as flawless as her character’s perfectionism, a German actress who in her private life lobbies against African genital mutilation and the destruction of Brazil’s rain forest. In “The Audition” she can register emotions from the happiness she feels when the two adult men in her life shower her with attention to the rage and depression as she regrets not becoming a concert violinist.
The picture is in German and a little French with English subtitles.  The music, mostly by Bach including his “Presto,” is wondrous.
© Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online
Story: B
Acting:  B+
Technical:  B
Overall:  B

MADAGASIKARA MOVIE REVIEW

MADAGASIKARA
Global Digital
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cam Cowan
Screenwriter: Cam Cowan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

Madagasikara Poster

Though Republican politicians in the U.S. don’t know or don’t care, the largest economic problem here is the inequality of income. So let’s look for places that have little inequality. Try Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world with sandy beaches and the pure waters of the Indian Ocean. If there is little inequality there perhaps it’s because 98% of the country live on less than $2 a day! And boy do they have children! Maybe those earning $2 a day are envied by those making $1.50, but it’s probably unlikely that the 2% who make money are gobbling up almost all the wealth of the island.

So how do you live on two bucks a day, supporting children, paying rent, eating mostly white rice? Not too well, and yet there are smiling faces that we see in Cam Cowan’s documentary. This is Cowan’s freshman entry, though his next feature, “Opeka” to be released in 2020, deals with a similar subject: how an Argentine priest is teaching people who live in a Madagascar landfill to build a functional city.

In this mostly Catholic island that practices traditional religions as well, Pedro Opeka, a priest with a large white beard and shocks of snow-white hair complains that when he arrived to the island in 1970, the poverty rate was thirty percent, then became worse: in 2009 the rate hit ninety percent and by now it’s even worse. So much for calling this part of the world a “developing nation.”

The name of the movie, “Madagasikara,” sound like something Disney would call it if that company were to set up a Disneyland of sorts, but instead it is simply the name that the local people of the island call their nation. Though there have been protests with populations marching on the capital city, there has been no civil war, no foreign expeditions of conquest, and no natural disasters.

Then again, maybe a Trump-like poltician is responsible for some of the starvation there as one half of the children are malnourished, affecting their growth and intellectual potential. A rich guy who assumed the office of president despite losing an election (apparently the military supported him) aimed to sell off half of the good land to South Korean businesses. President Obama hit the land with sanctions, perhaps not realizing that Madagascar desperately needs foreign aid.

However most of the film focuses on a few women, one of whom named Lin is busy raising seven children and one grandchild on, yes, under $2/day. She takes in nine batches of laundry to earn the equivalent of 28 cents, which is 1,066 MGA or Malagasy Ariary. That gets her 2 cups of white rice, hardly enough to put meat on the bones of the kids and worth virtually nothing nutritionally.

Deborah, another woman who once had to resort to sex work beginning at age 12, complains that some of the men do not even pay her and some even beat her up. And don’t forget the wives of these “men,” instead of beating the crap out of their husbands, took out their venom on the poor woman. She had determined to stay in school to become a lawyer, though I can barely think of what people would have the money to hire attorneys but had to drop out, now hoping that some of her offspring could do what she had been unable to. Not likely, though we do see one school with kids crammed on makeshift desks watching teacher put mathematical formulas on the board.

A vocation that attracts some is breaking big rocks into small ones to make gravel, a task that looks similar to what U.S. prisoners on chain gangs had to do. The folks do not even wear gloves to protect their hands, nor can they presumably even afford them.

The production team encourages people to make the long journey to what is called one of the most beautiful islands on earth, but at present there are few if any international hotels, though prices are incredibly low. The Anjiamaranco is $29 a night with free breakfast, the Sakamanga is $20. The most expensive hotel is about $350 a night. Now none of this is mentioned since the focus is on the lives of some women living without running water and presumably no toilets. Still the doc, in addition to enlightening us, may encourage us to look up most facts about this island in Wikipedia and to price hotels via Trip Advisor and Trivago. I also discovered, though not particularly dealt with, that the country provides the world with 80% of its vanilla and a majority of its cloves, while having coffee, lychees, shrimp and providing one half of the world’s sapphires plus some titanium, chromite, coal, iron cobalt, copper and nickel.

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

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

DISCLOSURE – movie review

DISCLOSURE
Breaking Glass Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Bentham
Screenwriter: Michael Bentham
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Lucy McMurray
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/3/20
Opens: June 30, 2020

Disclosure Poster

To paraphrase Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Lord, what children these adults be!” In a narrative involving four middle-aged adults in Australia (filmed by Mark Carey in Victoria), a conversation begins in a civil way but breaks down into a melodramatic conclusion. The movie “Disclosure,” is written and directed by Michael Bentham in his freshman full-length narrative film. Bentham, who was born in Switzerland, lived much his life in the UK and now resides in Melbourne, is an accomplished viola player and a writer-director who does a smashing job in building tension in this entry. By implication he indicts not only the foursome in “Disclosure” but shows us without mentioning any American government officials that politicians as high up as president can sometimes act like kids. Correct that: can always act like kids. That may go over at a wedding, but politics should demand more mature representatives than we in the U.S. must suffer with now.

“Disclosure” can be compared most closely to Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which finds two couples meeting cordially to discuss what to do about their children who had been engaged in a fight, ending up shouting and threatening in an increasingly childish manner. Like sons, like adults. Though the performers in “Disclosure” may be little known here in the States, certainly not people with the reputations of Polanski’s Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster, they do a fine job arguing back and forth about their children’s behavior, attempting to compromise, and showing what could happen when the chance to settle a six-week’s-old event ends in physical violence.

Emily Bowman (Matilda Ridgway) is a documentary filmmaker living with her journalist husband Danny Bowman (Mark Leonard Winter). They are concerned that their four-year-old daughter Natasha has advised them that Ethan, a nine-year-old, did some bad things to her, presumably of a sexual nature. Ethan is the son of Bek Chalmers (Geraldine Hakewill) and her politician husband Joel Chalmers (Tom Wren), a member of Parliament being considered for a high position. It helps to know that though the four individuals are neighbors and friends, both with enough money to own spacious homes with kidney-shaped pools in their backyards, there is a difference in social class not related to money. The politician is straight-as-an-arrow as you might expect a person to be when he needs the votes of a community, while Emily and Danny are hip. In fact the movie begins with an extended period showing the latter two photographing themselves while having sex, blurting out language that would make a sailor blush.

The four exchange pleasantries at first, their conversations becoming steadily more assertive and aggressive. Emily (but not so much her husband) wants to report the alleged behavior of the two children to child protection, which could ruin Joel’s chances to get ahead in his field. (Australian politics is different from that in America. Here a man holding the highest office in the land can grab women in any parts of their bodies and tell strings of obvious lies, thereby actually increasing his popularity with some voters.)

Did Natasha make the story up? Can’t be, insists Emily. Her daughter does not lie. What about Ethan? He doesn’t lie either, say his folks. Somebody’s lying and we cannot be sure which one, but the conflict becomes red hot when events turn up that, allow each couple to blackmail the other.

Though some of the threats and counterthreats are repetitious, the film at 85 minutes does not overstate its time. It features compact editing, colorful cinematography, and a quartet of citizens downunder who recall the antics of George and Martha’s baiting Nick and Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” A good, entertaining and credible show.

Can’t Australians just get along like us here in the States?

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

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

CORPUS CHRISTI – movie review

CORPUS CHRISTI
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jan Komasa
Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Kurzaj, Leszek Lichota
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/13/20
Opens: June 23, 2020

Corpus Christi Poster

You may leave this film, a rigorous drama embellished with Catholic ritual, with a thought.

When Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is about to leave juvenile detention in a small Polish community, he tells the institution’s priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlatl), that he wants to work in a seminary. Daniel might be considered teacher’s pet by his youthful fellow convicts who spend their time training to work in a sawmill. He is the one called upon by the priest to add to the devotionals, sings the 23rd Psalm without a trace of self-consciousness or embarrassment, and thinks rightly that he could minister to a small town congregation. But Tomasz cautions that with his record, no seminary would take him on. What’s puzzling is: why is it so difficult for an ex-convict, anywhere, any country, to be trusted with a responsible job, even one that is not known for having cash around?

Daniel eschews working in a sawmill and takes a bus to a distant community where he becomes a fake priest. He convinces the vicar (Zdzislaw Wardejn) that he has been recently ordained in Warsaw, whips out a clerical collar with which he absconded, and is asked by the vicar to take his place for a while as he goes off to take care of health problems.

The dark, intense, absorbing and surprisingly credible tale of revenge and redemption is directed by Jan Komasa, whose “Warsaw 44” is a tale of the uprising against the Nazis, with a story line that features love, friendly and adventure. “Corpus Christi” is a more intimate story which benefits greatly from Bielenia’s stunning performance as twenty-year-old who may be faking his credentials but is the real thing otherwise; a fellow whose ministrations to his small-town flock leads to record numbers at services including absolute trust in him as parishioners go to confession.

Aside from the principal action in which we in the audience may suspect that a reckoning, there is a secondary plot. A middle-aged man had crashed his car into a vehicle holding six youths, killing all. The vicar, with the support of the community including the sacristy caretaker Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), refuses to bury the man. Daniel goes against the opinion of everyone except the widow (Barbara Kurzaj) of the “murderer” and the caretaker’s daughter, Marta (Elilza Rycembel), who is sexually attracted to the priest. He bucks even the town mayor and leading employer (Leszek Lichota) who wants the planned burial to just go away, Daniel must face a crossroads when inevitably, people back at “juvie” discover the fraud.

If this were a documentary or a “Christian” feature, the moral would be: give former convicts a chance a redemption. As a drama, the same noble message would come across, but more importantly, “Corpus Christi,” with its powerful performance by a 28-year-old with a passionate gaze, will serve as a dramatized sermon that few actual religious leaders can regularly match.

The movie is in Polish with English subtitles and benefits hugely by the absence of music in the soundtrack. “Corpus Christi” was the Polish entry for the 2020 Academy Awards for International Feature.

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

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

PICTURE OF HIS LIFE – movie review

PICTURE OF HIS LIFE (תמונה של חייו)
Oded Horowitz/Panorama Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dani Menkin, Yonatan Nir
Screenwriter:  Dani Menkin, Yonatan Nir
Cast: Amos Nachoum and colleagues
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/19/20
Opens: June 19, 2020
Running Time: 71 minutes. 
People who go to foreign lands during their vacations, stay in good hotels, dine in fine restaurants, do some sightseeing and attend to some group trips are tourists, not travelers.  Perhaps one step higher on the ladder  would be those who go to Portillo in August to ski or to Botswana to take picture of animals in the wild.  At the highest level, literally, would be those challenged to climb Mt. Everest, but that’s been done.  Here’s something that has not been done until now, something you probably all dream of doing at least once in your life: that’s photographing polar bears while swimming alongside them, trying not to be eaten at least until you’ve given them your best shot and have the folks in the boat scoop up your camera.
Now comes a movie that shows just what it’s like, particularly if your trips to Canada have been only to film festivals in Montreal and Toronto or to see some actual filming in Vancouver.  “Picture of His Life,” which has archival film of Israel during the 1973 war and some shots of Tel Aviv, spends most of its brief running time in the Canadian Arctic, home of Inuits, some of whom consider theirs a dying culture as their children move to the cities.  An ensemble of travelers fall under Yonatan Nir and Adam Ravetch’s lenses, all of which is directed by Nir and Dani Menkin.  You know the last two for their documentary “The Dolphin Boy,” about a lad who, having been traumatized by a violent attack, is taken by his father to be treated by …dolphins.  What better candidates to do this movie than these?
Though he could not have taken pictures of polar bears under water without the help of Joe the Inuit and a few others, there is probably not a single narcissistic bone in Amos Nachoum’s body.  When Narcissus looked at a body of water, he saw his reflection and fell in love.  When Amos does the same, he sees large animals and is head over heels in love, not with himself but with bears, sharks, whales and the like.  Merely to get to the Canadian Arctic where most of the story takes place required Amos to take five flights from Tel Aviv, stopping among other places at San Francisco, Vancouver, and Winnipeg  and finally with a small wind-shaken plane that had a difficult time finding a place to land in one of the most remote places on earth.
Having photographed seals, whales, sharks, marlins and alligators, he is obsessed with capturing polar bears,  not like Disney but alongside these huge, sometimes aggressively hungry mammals that can outswim humans with even with rubber fins twice over.   The directors want us to realize that Amos, having served in the 1973 Yom Kippur war which resulted in 20,000 deaths on both sides, may have received increased motivation to take on this risky project because of the scars caused by the violence.  He is shown as a younger man and now, at an age that puts some people in rocking chairs, Amos, sporting a full mop of graying hair, heads into the water believing that “without learning, there is no reason to be here,” which sounds something like Socrates’ advice that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Amos wants to be relevant at his age, when much of the world has little use for older people calling them, not without condescension, senior citizens.
In the action scenes, Amos dives backward with so much equipment that you wonder how all five of his planes did not crash.  In one climactic moment, he confronts a bear, tries for a shot, and fails, barely escaping with his life.   We wonder: is that all there is?  Tune in when the movie opens June 19 to find out whether he gets an iconic shot of a rare event: a mother bear swimming with her two cubs.  Did I mention that now he is the founder of a travel business called Big Animals, that takes people who think they can duplicate Amos’s adventure?
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+
© Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY – movie review

CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rauzar Alexander
Screenwriter: Rauzar Alexander
Cast: Moni Yakim, Laura Linney, Michael Urie, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Mackie, Alex Sharp, Kevin Kline, Mina Yakim, Charles E. Gerber, Peter Jacobson, Michael Stuhlbarg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/20
Opens: June 19, 2020

Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy

When I taught a drama class in an urban high school, I won a grant that would enable students interested in acting to be graced by a few lessons from teachers at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. The lessons would take place in the school auditorium with twenty students participating, no audience in the 800 seats. Each time I observed the classes, I noted that the instructors put emphasis on body movements, in the service of loosening the emotions of the performers and enabling them to express their inner selves not through words but through movement. The movements of these seventeen-year-olds, as lithe and full of energy as teens could be, would not duplicate what goes on in the Juilliard School’s drama division. In this brief documentary, director Rauzar Alexander in his freshman project gives us a rare look at some of the classes that took place in the school’s four-year drama program. The aim is to look in awe at the talent of Moni Yakim, a founding member of the school since the 1970s, with some insight into why the students love him. And you can see that affection daily as they laugh at his mild jokes (in on introductory class he asks for the students’ names because “I forgot them,” then adding “You all know my first name, but I forgot it. -Laughter)

Moni Yakim, who was born in Jerusalem, got a start not as a teacher but as a performer himself, taking part in classics like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” but this background did not become a major part of the film, though some interesting archival film of Jerusalem especially at the time of Israeli independence in 1948 makes an impression.

Moni’s heroes are Étienne Decroux, who created mime, and Stella Adler, who believed that actors must master techniques beyond their own knowledge and experience in order to portray a variety of characters. Moni gives over much of his teaching time to having his gifted young actors imitate mime, but spends most of the class time in getting them to twist their bodies every which way—the gymnastics forming the main interest of the movie. In one class he has the students yell gibberish, in another to crawl on the floor like commandoes on D-Day. “The more you free the body, the freer the imagination is to go wherever it needs to go,” he insists.

The doc does not make clear whether the students go to another studio in the school to learn to project their voices and to do other verbal work that actors are required to perform, so the impression is that Moni puts 90% of his energy into the physical work. He takes students beginning in their second year, his wife Mina dealing with the lucky freshmen. Not mentioned is that the Juilliard acting division goes through at least 1800 applicants yearly, takes 40 or 50 who try out, and selects only eighteen. Take that, Harvard and MIT with their generous 4% selection rate.

Interviews with proud alumni include Jessica Chastain, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie. Watch particularly former student Alex Sharp who went on to win a best actor Tony for his lead role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time.” We documentary-loving viewers saw the lad when he was working in Moni’s class.

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

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

7500 – movie review

7500
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Patrick Vollrath
Screenwriter: Patrick Vollrath, Senad Halibasic
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Ayilin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/20
Opens: June 18, 2020

7500 Poster

Movies that respect the 3 Greek unities, taking place within a day in the same place with a single action are rare, something you will find in some Greek tragedies but considered too theatrical for the big screen. “7500” is this year’s Aristotelian drama, all photographed not only in the same plane but in the cockpit, with some screen time given to the havoc in the passenger seats. This is the kind of nail-biter that will have the audience yelling “No, no, no, that’s your girlfriend and mother of your child being threatened with death unless you open the door, but don’t do it!” “7500” exploits the danger that some of feel every time we fly that the aircraft will be highjacked, a feeling more likely after 9/11 when movies like “Gaganam” (2011), “Snakes on a Plane” (2006), “Kandahar” (2010) and “Nonstop” (2014) came out. To stand out from the others, new movies on that theme try to be different in some way. “7500” does this by taking place in a claustrophobic place that has room under normal conditions for just a pilot and first officer.

The opening scene is strictly preparation for a flight from Berlin to Paris, just 530 air miles, seemingly too short for would-be terrorists to do what they have to do, though that may depend on just what the bad guys want. Do they want to hijack the aircraft to Kabul? To Teheran? To Sanaa? At first we don’t know, but as things turn out neither does one of the three extremist Islamic, at least one and probably all of Turkish ethnicity living in Germany.

A number of air criminals who commandeered planes on that dark day in 9/11 may not have realized that the plan of the leaders was to crash and die. Similarly Vedat (Omid Memar), one of the three desperadoes, has no idea that taking the plane down and killing the crew and all passengers is the motive for avenging the deaths of Muslims in the hands of Westerners. The Captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlingler) and his first officer Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) run through the usual flight prep just after Tobias gets to kiss his flight attendant girlfriend Gökce (Ayilin Tezel). No sooner does the German plane reach cruising altitude then Kinan (Murathan Muslu), taking advantage of the momentary opening of the cockpit door, lands inside brandishing a knife made of glass.

Director Patrick Vollrath, veteran of eight shorts including “Ketchup Kid” (an eleven-year-old outsider makes a friend), takes off with his first narrative feature film, one which shows that the German born fellow is destined to be in the director’s chair for a number of thrillers to come. He makes the smart move of eschewing music in the soundtrack, preventing us from being distracted by anything but the noise of the bad guys outside the cockpit pounding on the door, making us in the audience wonder whether this is the way they will get inside.

What happens during Tobias’s tête-à-tête with eighteen-year-old Vedat (Omid Memar) need not be revealed here, but suffice it to say that Tobias, without agreeing in the slightest with the Islamist argument that revenge is necessary because the West has made war on Islamic radicals, develops Stockholm Syndrome. He hopes first to get out alive, then to make sure that his new “buddy” will be treated well if he decides to surrender to the German police.

At just 39, Gordon-Levitt has been busy, with 84 acting credits. He can do what he does in “7500” in his sleep. To see what the actor can really do, you’ll want to take in his role as the title character in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” Because of the fierce acting by Memar and Gordon-Levitt, the latter fluctuating between grabbing a glass knife to kill or injure Memar and making sure that Memar is treated fairly, “7500” (the code name for a hijacked flight) is better than the typical B movie. But it is still a B movie.

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

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

THE DEPARTURE – movie review

THE DEPARTURE
Merland Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Merland Hoxha
Screenwriter: Merland Hoxha
Cast: Jon Briddell, Kendall Chappell, Olivia Lemmon, Austin Lauer, Grant Wright Gunderson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

The Departure Poster

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” So said Sir Walter Scott in 1806 in a historical romance novel. Nobody really thinks times have changed. Scott was writing about events in the 16th century and now Merland Hoxha directs his update on the theme using three major players in a piece that you could easily stream on your small screen now that theaters are closed. In his freshman job as writer-director Hoxha, who may or may not be a relation of Enver, hones in on a modern romance which has moments of comedy but is as serious as you can hope to get with twenty-somethings who will interrupt almost any live conversation to pick up a text message or answer a call. Immaturity abounds in “The Departure,” a cute, theatrical piece involving three major characters, one young woman who quickly leaves the screen, and the boss of a company that sells environmentally-friendly equipment.

People lie all the time, white lies to save people’s feelings and the other kind to advance our objectives. This production highlights the machinations of two best friends Nate (Grand Wright Gunderson) and John (Austin Lauer) and the way they and one young woman, Jessica (Kendall Chappell) manipulate one another. The result of the game may turn out to be other than what each had hoped, but perhaps they had fun playing with one another’s feelings, though not without the guilt that should cloud the emotions of anyone but a sociopath.

For all we know, Hoxha may have been inspired by Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” which in a filmed version finds Jeanne Moreau coercing her husband Gerard Philippe into ruining the reputation of pious Annette Vadim. Philippe spoils the nasty plan by falling in love with his intended victim. The ultimate punishment in both the classic study and this lighter version is painful.

Nate is assigned by his grateful boss Bruce (Jon Briddell) to go from the West Coast to New York for six months to shape up a team whose manager is inept. Wouldn’t you know that the plum job that could mean a career advancement for Nate occurs just about the time that he asks his steady gal Jessica to move in with him. Wondering whether Jessica would stay loyal to him during the six months’ separation, he asks John to try to seduce her. At first John is dumbfounded but agrees. For a while he is quite pleased the way things are turning out. The wheels turn, the game moves forward, and tensions erupt that threaten to send the entire troupe into soul-searching depression.

The tale is well acted by the threesome; by Kendall Chappell, whose theater major at the University of Michigan is paying off; by Austin Lauer who studied acting at the University of Evansville in Indiana, and by Grant Gunderson who previously appeared in a short about people planning to enter Trump’s private house to steal a billion bucks (though the president may have more experience in that profession).

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

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

EXIT PLAN – movie review

EXIT PLAN (Selvmordsturisten)
Screen Media
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Screenwriter: Rasmus Birch
Cast: Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Ashfield, Jan Bïjvoet, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/30/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Exit Plan Poster

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comment about the Soviet Union, “Exit Plan” is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Just when you think you’ve figured it out—is it a dream? A tumor-inspired hallucination? A strange, horrifying reality? Anything is possible in this Danish movie with English subtitles and some spoken English (Scandinavians are famous for fluency in English) but by the time the film is over, you’re not sure what happened. To its credit, this is a horror movie without the slashing, a psychological thriller without car chases or explosions. “Exit Plan” is a virtually a chamber piece whose focus is fixed on the principal character, who by his expressions tries to tell us in the audience what he’s thinking and feeling. He takes off his glasses and leans his head on the table. He stares at a loved on as if afraid to tell her what he’s feeling. He even smiles sometimes, which is not easy if you have a terminal, growing brain tumor that, as one knowledgeable person notes, might make you mistake your wife for a dog–not an entirely bad idea since you’ll probably give her some affection for a change.

This is a star vehicle for Nikolai Coster-Waldau, who you’ll remember in the role of Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” He is directed in a sophomore feature by Jonas Alexander Arnby, whose previous movie, “When Animals Dream” finds 16-year old Marie living on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father. When suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body. You’ll see that the Copenhagen-born director is right in his métiér with this one.

Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) learns that he has terminal brain cancer. To avoid a painful demise, he opts to travel by car and small plane to the frosty north (could be Denmark, Norway, Finland or Sweden), registering with the Hotel Aurora. The management therein provides assisted suicide fantasies allowing guests to have dream suicides, choosing the landscape, the method, the whole shebang. The trouble is that the Aurora is like the Roach Motel. You go in, but you can’t come out. Yep. Once you sign the register, you are not allowed to leave. In fact bolting is more difficult than breaking an apartment lease in New York.

While clad in pajamas, Max waits out the few days till his demise, chatting with one woman who will try to escape, but each time he has a talk back home with his wife Lærke (Tuva Novotny) he does not know how to raise the topic. Most of the time, director Arnby, using a script by Rasmus Birch, whose “Brotherhood” deals with Danish servicemen thrown together in a neo-Nazi group, tries to penetrate Max’s mind, his expertise being able to let us in the audience know what it’s like to be in an extreme existential crisis.

The pace is slow, picking up during the final fifteen minutes when Max decides whether he wants to go through with the plan or has cold feet. (When in one scene he falls through the ice, his extremities are literally freezing.) A good indie for a patient audience.

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

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

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

Take the word “mope.” 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+

THE LAST VERMEER – movie review

THE LAST VERMEER
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dan Friedkin
Screenwriter: James McGee, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez
Cast: Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 3/19/20
Opens: May 22, 2020

It’s about time that the film industry has come around to portraying a first class melodrama of one of the great forgeries in art history, one of many that allowed Hans van Meegeren to amass enough of a fortune to buy 52 properties and 15 country homes throughout Europe. Van Meegeren’s story has is covered in an elaborate Wikipedia essay, a fellow well known to the residents of the Netherlands but until now unfamiliar to the average American. “The Last Vermeer” is adapted from a book by Jonathan Lopez, “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” available on Amazon, now brought to life before cinematographer Rami Adefarasin lenses with all the splendor of Fort Widley in Portsmouth, England and Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

The film should cast Dan Friedkin in the limelight as a first-time director with a potential future in uncovering the lives of people as colorful as Van Meegeren, who thanks to this picture will allow us in the U.S. to dig further into aspects of the Third Reich rarely illuminated before. This film is graced by a stunning performance from Guy Pearce in the role of the forger who must have been thankful that he did not make the cut as a grade-A painter, but who amassed a fortune of thirty million dollars (that’s in 1943) by swindling the number 2 man in Hitler’s stable, art lover Hermann Göring. Implied in the tale is the certainty that if Göring knew he was taken advantage of, he would have had Van Meegeren shot. Then again, some of Van Meegeren’s countrymen might have done the deed given that Dutchmen who collaborated with the Nazis were tied behind a pole in a central square and shot before a mass of citizens screaming epithets.

The two central characters are Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) and Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang). The movie, like the book, emphasizes the captain’s Jewish background given his disgust with the Nazis for stealing hundreds of masterworks in the art world when Jews escaping the Nazis in the Netherlands as in most of the rest of Europe had to sell their collections for bargain basement prices. Presumably van Meegeren acquired these paintings partly for his collection, but always conspiring to sell them and accumulate vast riches. What Göring did not know was that the painting of “Christ and the Adulteress” that he bought from van Meegeren was not an original Vermeer and that in fact Vermeer had not been credited with the work at all. One must wonder—though the film does not—why Göring could not check on the complete list of the works of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) where he would discover that no such title exists.

The film is bogged down by a large number of characters, most if not all might be unfamiliar to American viewers. Otherwise the story involves throughout with several melodramatic touches, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene presided over the three judges, with the Dutch people gathered outside seemingly favorable to van Meegeren as they credit him with swindling the Nazis. On the other hand the judges and the prosecutor are adamant about prosecuting the forger and giving him a death sentence, as they consider him a fellow who enriched himself by collaborating with Nazi bigwigs.

The women in the story get short exposure, lost in the maze of personages, including the forger’s ex-wife and his mistress, while Piller, a handsome Dutch fellow with a clear, penetrating voice, has his own bedmates. Yet Guy Pearce, well known to American audiences for roles in “Mary Queen of Scots,” “The Catcher Was a Spy” and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Genius” takes a role in which he is almost unrecognizable, giving support to Claes Bang, recently seen in the wonderful “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which also deals with the world of painting.

An epilogue that tries to imitate some of the novels of John Grisham—wherein a winning case unravels in the final pages—is unconvincing, dealing with a suggestion that the Dutch painter indeed collaborated with Hitler himself.

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

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

THEY CALL ME DR. MIAMI – movie review

THEY CALL ME DR. MIAMI
Cargo Film & Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jean-Simon Chartier
Cast: Michael Salzhauer as Dr. Miami
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/1/20
Opens: May 14, 2020

Let’s say you walk into a medical arts building to take care of an infected wound on your hand. You pass by a group of medical offices and on the way you can’t help noticing that one office housing a surgeon has a large colorful sign “Make Butts not War.” Would you make a run for it, thinking the entire building may be loco? Would you whip out your i-phone to call the authorities? You’re thinking: maybe there’s a reason for the sign, so to assure yourself you open the door and find a few young women laughing and photographing the surgeon with material that will appear on Snapchat. You’re convinced. Something’s going on here.

But wait. Is there any chance that you, a resident of South Florida, had not even heard of Dr. Salzhauer? No chance. You recall the name and feel more at ease. But you’re not the only person who thought something was wrong. There are important people who even now might like to shut down the doctor’s practice, and Jean-Simon Chartier gives some Salzhauer negative reactions. Never mind that he is already world famous, as big a name even in Antigua—where women unhappy about their appearance travel to South Florida to get a procedure—as Dr. Oz is in our own country.

Do you think it’s right for a surgeon to create rap videos, culturally appropriating part of African-American culture to advertise his name and practice, and to clown around with various audiences including his own assistants and other young women who crowd around him in his office as though he were a rock star? The ethical implications—that perhaps a man of medicine should not be doing rap and sending videos through Snapchat—are given short shrift, with just one physician given time to testify his concern to the camera, but maybe he should be written off as an envious fellow with a short sense of humor.

I would tell him what Salzhauer himself states in this intriguing, entertaining documentary, one which breaks new ground on the subject of plastic surgery, that is: it makes no difference what a person does for entertainment provided that he or she is competent in the profession. (Think of Trump: he clowns around too, but is he competent)?

Salzhauer is one of the men who would be loved by the Lubavitcher folks here in Brooklyn who go around asking people on the street “Are you Jewish?, invite them into a van called a Mitzvah tank, and try to upgrade their religion from secular to Orthodox. Indeed we see several clips of the plastic surgeon laying Tefillen, clothing himself with a Tallit, and davening in fluent Hebrew. He had upgraded himself from Reform or Conservative or even secular and is married with kids to an Orthodox wife. His home life is as enviable as his office politics, his spacious home serving to give us a short piano recital from one of his accomplished kids, even allowing us to witness a brit on an 8-day old baby.

If you like entertainment but recoil at seeing close-up images of tummy-tucks, breast augmentation, and particularly butt enhancement, you will get that too, but the short 76 minutes are taken up mostly with an exploration of the doc’s personality. By the way, I understand how women may want breast augmentation, but here they seem to want bigger butt. Shouldn’t it be the opposite, with women requesting butt-tucks?

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

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

THE TRAITOR – movie review

THE TRAITOR
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Marco Bellochio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela, Francesco Piccolo
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Fabrizio Ferracane, Nicola Calì
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/8/20
Opens: May 12, 2020

What is most impressive about “The Traitor” is that this film perhaps more than any other presents the true story of the Cosa Nostra. Marco Bellochio, whose “Sweet Dreams” focuses on a child whose idyllic childhood is crushed by the death of his mother, paints on a broader canvas in directing and co-writing “The Traitor.” “Il Traditore,” the original Italian name of his current offering, hones in on one person, Tommasco Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), who is responsible more than any other informant for destroying the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, not because he is a saint but because he did not approve of the mob’s increasingly violent manner. For him, cigarette smuggling appears sufficient enough, but when the organization moves into heroin pushing and members of his own family are targeted by cold blooded bosses like Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane) and Totò Riina (Nicola Calì), Buscetta turns informer.

All names are actual in this biopic of the title traitor, including that of Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who took Buscetta’s testimony and, like others on the side of the law, treated the informer well. Buscetta’s testimony brought other would-be informers out of the woodwork to turn state’s evidence in a trial that lasted 1986-1992. As you might expect, since Bellocchio and his co-writers Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela and Francesco Piccolo are dealing with biography, the movie is not as commercial as “The Godfather Part I,” meaning that there are no horse’s heads under the bedcovers and only a minimum of gunplay and explosions.

The hostility between the old mafia (which includes Buscetta) and the Corleone faction led by Totò Riina is almost as intense as that between our current Democratic and Republican Parties, but unlike our own political chaos, the Italians find a way to call a truce. Meanwhile Buscetta moves with his family to Rio, but the plot thickens when he learns that his boys, now in their twenties, are missing.

Truces do not last long. When warfare continues between the two mafia organizations, Buscetta, still in Rio, is arrested by a Swat team of the Italian army, who are then unable to coax a confession out of him even when they dangle his third wife from a chopper. Instead he is extradited to Italy to face Judge Falcone and is treated like a rock star, perceived as the kingpin not to push drugs but to rat on the Cosa Nostra. When the big shots are arrested, they are put behind a cage in a large Italian courtroom, which houses the defendants in a cage, all of whom taunt the traitor particularly with what the Sicilians consider the ultimate insult, “cuckold.” Ultimately Buscetta rats out a prominent Italian politician, and he is given witness protection in the U.S. where he must look over his shoulder even when shopping for food.

The acting all around is appropriately scary, the audience probably feeling the paranoia during the closing scenes when Buscetta notes that he doesn’t give a crap any more if he is taken out by the remnants of the Italian mafia. Great use of operatic music when appropriate, and at two and one-half hours the picture never loses its puls ating momentum.

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

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

HOPE GAP – movie reviews

HOPE GAP
Roadside Attractions/Screen Gems
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: William Nicholson
Screenwriter: William Nicholson based on his play “The Retreat from Moscow”
Cast: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/5/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

In one scene Grace (Annette Bening) sighs that after a while, unhappiness ceases to be interesting. This may be true but “Hope Gap,” filled with unhappiness and meditative poetry, remains interesting throughout. Perhaps the major reason for this is the near-miraculous performance of the kind that Annette Bening gives. Or maybe because the film written by directed by Williams Nicholson in his sophomore contribution (his play “The Retreat from Moscow” compares the costly withdrawal of Napoleon’s forces from Moscow to the end of a three decades’ long marriage), pairs two thesps who work so well together that they convince of their inability to get along. The story is based on the marriage dissolution of the writer-director.

As you watch Grace and her long-term husband Edward (Bill Nighy) argue, you might be tempted to side with Edward, who has been worn down by his more outgoing wife’s insistence that he talk, even fight. In fact her nagging gives the appearance that she is a shrew who wants to make her man not what he really is, and in fact Edward states that she has been in love with her fantasy of a husband. Then again, you’d want to consider that she may have a good point. Women generally like to talk while men like to act, or so Esquire Magazine sometimes tells us, and Edward, who is a high-school teacher who discusses poetry as though he were declaiming to college majors in English literature, is clearly introspective.

Though Edward is actually in love with one Angela (Sally Rogers), the mother of one of the pupils, he has waited to tell Grace of his unhappiness and his wish to change gears somewhat past middle age. He wonders, as do we in the audience, whether he has been unhappy during the entire length of the marriage. He uses his own son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) as a sounding board, is advised by the twenty-something lad who lives alone and so far as we see has no girlfriend or love life, to keep the bond with his wife. When Edward tells Grace “I’m no good for you,” he uses the standard self-deprecation that both sexes have employed in efforts to mitigate their guilt.

Like Jamie, who is given a considerable role to show his personality when he is with two friends his own age, Jess (Aiysha Hart) and Gary (Nicholas Burns), Nicholson does not take sides, allowing us in the audience to spend the evening with our own friends discussing who is more at fault. Edward’s guilt aside, what is most fascinating is watching how Annette Bening, the only one in the cast who is not British, takes on the king’s English in registering a wide range of emotions, particularly the rage that is covering up the intense feeling of abandonment and lack of agency in negotiating with the person she has lived with for twenty-nine years. Yet she has only a vague inkling that they may have been a mismatch from the start.

There is an extra dose of disappointment to see that Seaford is a spot perfect for a romance of people during their mature years. Anna Valdez Hanks films on location in the south of England which looks over the English Channel from its white cliffs. Some may argue that we do not know enough about the couple, something that may give us insight into the one-sidedness of their split, but we see enough to fill in the backstory with our imagination.

The film will be appreciated by a prospective audience in middle age or beyond, though it’s a pity that dramas focusing on the mature are rarely attended by the callow.

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

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

ON A MAGICAL NIGHT – movie review

ON A MAGICAL NIGHT
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christophe Honoré
Screenwriter: Christophe Honoré
Cast: Chiara Mastoianni, Benjamin Biolay, Vincent Lacoste, Kolia Abiteboul, Camille Cottin, Carole Bouquet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/4/20
Opens: May 8, 2020

“The French don’t care what they do, actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.” So says Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and if Higgins were present at the Cannes Film Festival watching “On a Magical Night,” he would be doubly assured. Under the direction of Christophe Honoré, a busy man whose “Les chansons d’amour” deals with a threesome evoking the mysteries and fragilities of love, is in his métier with “On a Magical Night.” When one character says “When should we die: in our 30’s, our 40’s?” we know we are dealing thematically with people who regret the passing years but who had used those periods to accumulate multiple partners. Maria Mortemart (Chiara Mastroianni) and Richard Warrimer (Benjamin Biolay) have been married for twenty-five years, affording Maria a bounty of male lovers, none gay even if the writer-director’s previous picture, “Sorry Angel” finds one Jacques in love with Arthur. Since Richard claims never to have cheated on Maria, he resents her infidelity.

The movie is theatrical, most action taking place in Room 212 (the original title is “Chambre 212”) and across the street in a hotel. Bringing to mind the Beatles’ “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64,” Honoré considers a question that has must have been asked by anyone with a pulse, “Would I have done anything different if I could reconsider my choice for a life’s partner?” The question is not resolved, but Honoré uses magical realism to examine the fantasies of Maria when, after an argument with Richard she moves to a hotel across the street and considers all the men she slept with during her marriage and the two principal women in her life as well.

So this time the cheater is not the man. Maria, a glamorous law professor, looks through the hotel window at Richard who, by now, is kicking up a storm, and spends the night receiving “visits” by Richard’s piano teacher Irène Haffner (Carole Bouquet at 60 years and Camille Cottin at 40), by her dead mother (Marie-Christine Adam), and by a succession of past lovers including one present one, Asdrubal Electorat (Harrison Arevalo). The men include Richard as a young adult (Vincent Lacoste) and as her teen student(Kolia Abiteboul). Stéphane Roger performs as La Volonté, a one-man Greek chorus singing like Charles Aznavour.

Much of the time she ponders her bedding Richard decades ago, which might have the audience wonder whether this technicality means that she is not really committing infidelity. Since this is a French movie, there’s lots of talk, largely of regrets, the veritable platoon of men and women taking up the space of the hotel room but giving Maria the freedom to conduct most of her truth-seeking chats with the piano teacher.

Light and fluffy like a French farce but played on a more somber and less over-the-top performances of Feydeau’s plays, “Chambre 212” might be just the thing we need since our globe went viral. The conclusion, a dance to forget your troubles to the bouncy tunes of Barry Manilow, may have been planned to have us in the audience forget for a while the seriousness of love and sex and life. For those of us curious to soak in trivia, you probably guessed that Chiara Mastroianni is the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni’s and Catherine Deneuve and that the two principals, Mastroianni and Biolay were once romantic partners.

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

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

DEERSKIN – movie review

DEERSKIN (Le daim)
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Quentin Dupieux
Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux
Cast: Jean Duojardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Laurent Nicolas, Marie Bunel, Pierre Gommé
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/14/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Melbourne International Film Festival 2019 Review – Deerskin

Near the opening of “Deerskin,” Georges (Jean Dujardin) checks into a cheap motel in a one-horse town asking to stay for one month because he wants to be alone. But Georges may have been alone before the check-in but he is not a single person any more. He had purchased a deerskin jacket, willing to buy it with a dated movie camera thrown in, because he considers it the most beautiful jacket in France. In fact to prove he is not alone, when he is in the motel room, he talks to the jacket, and lo, the jacket talks back in Georges’s own voice. So this is not a film so bizarre that the writer-director wants you to think that the jacket is really alive, but it’s bizarre enough. And no wonder. Its regisseur, Quentin Dupieux, is credited with “Réalité,” about a director who wants to hire a person who can deliver a groan worthy of an Oscar. Even more off the beaten track, literally, his “Rubber” follows the exploits of a homicidal tire obsessed with a mysterious woman in the desert.

For his part Jean Dujardin, whom you may remember from the boldly original silent film “The Artist” in which he takes second billing to a Jack Russell Terrier, is virtually unrecognizable under his thick beard and some weight he either put on since “The Artist” or had the make-up person bulk him up artificially. His character Georges is convinced by his deerskin jacket that the article of clothing should be the only one in existence; meaning, not just the only deerskin in existence but the only jacket. To fulfill the jacket’s plan he sets out to film a movie with his newly bought camera, offering euros to several people if they would remove their jackets and put them into his car trunk. When they do so, he takes off. Later it becomes difficult to con people into the donations, and that’s where the film turns to dark comedy.

The principal attraction of “Deerskin” is the relationship between Georges and Denise (Adèle Haenel)—whom movie buffs will quickly recall for her startling lesbian role in “Portrait of a Woman on Fire.” Denise serves in a bar with only one or two customers but her passion is to edit movies. (That’s a new one: not a desire to act or direct!) Georges picks up on this, hires her as an editor, gets her to cough up money which she withdraws from an ATM. She proceeds to put his spontaneous film takes into an editing machine, and before you know it, her obsession with cutting film matches Georges’ preoccupation with his jacket.

Dupieux knows not to overstay his welcome as the film has barely enough material for a short. Denise congratulates herself with an interpretation of the jacket as “we all hide behind a shell,” which Dupieux may have thrown in to satirize the predilection of serious moviegoers to find meaning where symbolism does not exist. Look, the guy is simply obsessed with a deerskin jacket which, Georges thinks, feels anger that other jackets exist in France. This is a kooky picture, but not difficult or “artsy.” It exists largely to have us feast on the talents of the always imposing Dujardin.

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

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

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING – movie review

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING
Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for Shockya.com &BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amy Jo Johnson
Screenwriter: Joanne Sarazen
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson, Lauren Holly
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/15/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Sometimes when a little kid cries apparently for no reason, her mother will say, “You ought to be an actress—you cry so easily.” In a story written by Joanne Sarazen in her freshman feature and directed by Amy Jo Johnson, also her first full length narrative film, “Tammy’s Always Dying” finds a the title character’s only daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) able to cry in front of a TV audience so successfully that she receives a new Toyota Camry. For many of us, anything below a Mercedes of a Beamer would be considered chump change, but to Catherine it’s a bigger prize than she had ever seen. Not that her mother Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is better off. Both mother and daughter are sad sacks, losers, the kinds of people who, if American not Canadian, might vote for Trump not realizing that nobody, not even a slick-talking pseudo-populist, could help such deadbeats.

From beginning to end, Tammy and Catherine MacDonald (strangely, in real life mother and daughter are only ten years apart) we can predict that the two are going nowhere in life, having missed any opportunity at the right time to advance a career or even consider such an unusual thing to strive for.

So we’re left with wondering: is there anything about these two women to make us care about them? Do we know anything about why mom is depressed to the point of regularly considering jumping from a bridge, or daughter so easily manipulated by her mother that she has little pleasurable to think about save a quicky against the wall with married Reggie (Aaron Ashmore)? At least she has one person who shows he cares about her, her gay boss in a seedy bar, Doug (Clark Johnson) who treats her occasionally to dinner and doesn’t mind when she sleeps past her alarm and shows up late.

We know nothing about them. No backstory to give clues to why chain-smoking Tammy is always depressed, why she confesses to Catherine that she always loved her but could never show it, and how Catherine winds up like the rotten apple that does not fall far from the tree.

When Dr. Miller (Ayesha Mansur Gonzalves), a poised, confident woman who is the exact opposite of the two women, diagnoses Tammy with Stage 4 cancer, Catherine moves in with her. Yet the younger woman nonetheless on why day shouts “Why don’t you die, already?” With that in mind, she asks to be a guest on a TV show featuring women who cry about their tragic lives, wins a place and is coached by its producer Ilana (Lauren Holly). She invents a tale that her mother had committed suicide, a death wish that could apply to Catherine as well as to Tammy.

From the opening scene, this movie looks like little more than a vanity format for Felicity Huffman, perhaps able to scrounge up an audience based on her recent conviction of trying to buy her daughter a place as a freshman in USC. Otherwise the two people who must carry the film are so empty, so irritating, that the project is difficult to sit through.

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

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

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY – movie review

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Justin Pemberton
Screenwriter: Adapted by Matthew Metcalfe, Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty, based on Thomas Piketty’s book
Cast: Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett, Kate Williams, Gabriel Zucman, Ian Bremmer, Rana Foroohar, Francis Fukuyama
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/5/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2019)

People with any rational perspective in our country are fighting mad. Never mind that Fox News tells us that we have the lowest rate of unemployment in decades, or that what’s good for Wall Street (the booming stock market) is good for Main Street. The trouble is that instead of focusing on the real problem, which is the rising rate of economic inequality, too many people are instead distracting themselves by blaming immigrants, by blaming Muslims, by dispelling their anger is ways that are not only dangerous but ineffective. This brings us to Justin Pemberton’s bold, incisive, riveting documentary, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” based on the dense book by Parisian Thomas Piketty, who gets a considerable platform in this striking new documentary.

Pemberton, whose previous docs run the gamut including “Chasing Great” about a black rugby player, “The Golden Hour” about New Zealand Olympians, and “Is She or Isn’t She” about a hairy woman with a penis, now takes on what is arguably the major economic hazard of our time, which is the inequality of wealth. Piketty, who holds gigs at the London School of Economics among other prestigious institutions, believes that the rate of capital return in the developed countries is greater than rate of economic growth, and that is what is causing inequality. President Reagan offered the view that tax decreases will pay for themselves and afford everyone a slice of a bigger pie. Instead Piketty advocates a global tax on wealth, which would bring about the necessary redistribution of income. After all, it’s not always hard work that thickens your wallet; in fact it’s possession of capital largely brought about through inheritance.

In his book, Piketty goes further than what we see in this movie, heads and tails above what Bernie Sanders bases his campaign on. He wants a schedule of taxation on income and wealth that reaches ninety percent and the elimination of nation-states in favor of a vast transnational democracy securing a universal right to education and the abolition of borders. Among other reforms, this would prevent capital from moving to havens to avoid taxation like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and even the tiny national state of Vanuatu.

Economics writing can be intimidating, but Pemberton transcends the difficulty of the printed word by supplying a staggering series of archival films, forming the historical background of income inequality. The idea that one percent of the population makes as much money annually as the bottom three hundred eighty billion folks has roots beginning at least as far back as the Eighteenth Century. If you’re a buff of movies like “Downton Abbey,” “The Favourite,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Reign,” “The Medici” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” and you marvel at the costumes and the breathtaking splendor of the land, the minuets, the sumptuous feasts, you are too distracted to get your blood boiling with the knowledge that the aristocracy is only one percent of the Europeans on display while the masses outside are suffering.

You will, however, be impressed with the scenes in this movie about royalty, including a splendid few moments of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Les Miserables,” but your excitement plummets when you watch the black-and-white shots of poverty in times past and, much more recently as the way capital has led us to the near depression of 2008 when banks gave out mortgages to people who shouldn’t have received them, and through the shuffling of paper sold those mortgages to other financial institutions through a mind-boggling template of Wall Street intrigue. Other historic celluloid on display looks into sections of “The Grapes of Wrath,” featuring a farmer telling a dude with a convertible that “Nobody is going to take away my land.”

I love what Amazon does for me, but given Piketty’s focus on redistribution, Jeff Bezos would have to fork over $409,000,000,000 (that’s four hundred nine billion dollars) in year one of the plan. If big corporations continue to take the lion’s share of money, they will be able to continue exerting monumental power. What better example than that of Trump’s getting his Republican congress to lower the corporate tax rate from thirty-five percent to twenty-two percent, one of the major disasters that our great-great grandchildren will pay for as the deficit continues past the stratosphere.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” then, serves as one of the best documentaries in recent years. There is scarcely a dull moment given the fast editing provided by Sandie Bompar and the deft selection of historic clips that Pemberton uses to nail down his points. Economics is oft considered a dismal science, perhaps much of it is. With the excitement generated by this doc, punctuating the talking heads with dramatic cinematics, you might expect thousands of students to select Economics as their major and adults long past college to inspire vivid discussions around the table about where America is headed. What’s in your wallet?

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

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

STRAY DOLLS – movie review

STRAY DOLLS
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sonejuhi Sinha
Screenwriter: Sonejuhi Sinha, Charlotte Rabate
Cast: Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Aramayo, Samrat Chakrabarti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/20
Opens: April 27, 2020

Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) is an immigrant whom Trump would like to put in the gallery during his delivery of the State of the Union message, not as his hero (Rush Limbaugh is more his type) but representing the threat that immigrants supposedly pose to our country. Riz, a petty thief who runs out of her native India before she becomes a hardened criminal, comes to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. Though wanting to follow the rules at first, she realizes that a newcomer to our shores has to do a lot more than serve as a chambermaid in the Poughkeepsie, New York motel owned by Una (Cynthia Nixon). Though she starts out an immigrant that the American people with good, progressive souls insist are a treasure, she falls into felonious violence after meeting Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), the sleazy roommate that Una makes her share her room as though she would ever have a “no vacancy” sign on the grounds outside.

The story’s setup is intriguing. Put two people together who appear with opposite personalities—Dallas, a blond who works on narcotic sales partnered with Una’s son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo—who could play Dr. Oz should a doc be considered; and Riz, a dark-haired woman about the same age who Dallas at first thinks is “a Mexican or something,”a relatively quiet gal learning the ropes from someone with considerable knowledge of the drug trade and with a sexual partner.

Strangely it is Riz, not Dallas, who takes the initiative early on by stealing a brick of coke from motel guest Sal Samrat Chakrabarti), though not until Sal offers her compatriot money if she would let him see herself “with a towel around her.” He accuses Una, though everyone knows that the first person who gets accusations is the room’s maid. When he rightly suspects Riz and Dallas he launches a spiral of violence that will motivate the two to leave town fast.

Everyone in the movie is flawed. Una, an immigrant herself, shreds Riz’s passport as though she were running a den of prostitution, though she had insisted that her new maid forget about making money with sex. Riz, who calls home from a public phone, lies about how she is enjoying America, swimming and anticipating sending money back to her folks in India, though she will never be able to do so without criminal activities. Dallas, the fast-talking maid, is tough as nails and taking no crap from her boyfriend, comes around to planning an escape from Poughkeepsie.

This is director Sonejuhi Sinha’s first feature narrative, though her shorts could be looked as a almost prequels to this work. Her “Miles of Sand” is about a single mother in India determined to repay her debts, while “Love Comes Later” focuses on an undocumented motel employee. In her notes Sinha advises that motels are a hotbed of crime and that crimes committed by women have gone up ten times over in the 1990s. If you want to take her “Stray Dolls” (the title presumably comparing the marginal characters to pathetic, scruffy and unwanted stray dogs) to be about female empowerment, that would not be unreasonable, though these are not the kinds of people who would be models that a feminist politician like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez would embrace. Still, they do what they think they have to do, when following the law would guarantee them the equivalent of a life spent in Poughkeepsie. Should we root for them?

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

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

UNTIL THE BIRDS RETURN – movie review

UNTIL THE BIRDS RETURN (En attendant les hirondelles)
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Moussaoui
Screenwriter: Karim Moussaoui, Maud Ameline
Cast: Mohamed Djourhi, Sonia Mekkiou, Mehdi Ramdani, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/20/20
Opens: April 28, 2020

Until The Birds Return (2017) Movie Review from Eye for Film

An intriguing first feature by Karim Moussaoui filmed in Algeria is an eye-opener, not the least because it gives us in the West a picture of a country that some of us believe to be merely developing. Instead, by opening up parts of the country via a road trip, we can see well-built highways albeit with a lack of traffic that could make Angelenos turning green with envy. The three stories are only slightly connected, an Altmanesque format is not used, but through a look at three generations of Algerians, we get a picture of a place that few of us here in the U.S. have visited (Morocco gets the lion’s share of the Mahreb’s tourism). In fact much of what we see indulges scenes that I thought would be censored by the Algerian government, showing the cavorting of men and women, the latter taking off their hijabs and shaking up their hair and their hips, which would be obviously condemned by any Saudi official. The freedom exhibited here is mighty refreshing.

The middle story is easily the most interesting, as Moussaoui and his co-writer Maud Ameline appear merely to be warming us up for the delicious tale to come. But first: Mourad (Mohamed Djourhri) is a builder whose problems are not so much with his professional life but with family hassles. His ex-wife Lila (Sonie Mekkious), whom he visits in order to see his son, pressures him to motivate their son to become a doctor, but the lad cannot be budged. At the same time his second wife (Aure Atika) is fed up with Algeria and wants to return to France. In addition, on the road Mourad gets a flat tire and, in a dark, remote area he witnesses a man being beaten “to a pulp,” as he puts it to Lila, who criticizes him for not reporting the action to the police—even when he is safely home.

Better luck comes to Djali (Mehdi Ramdani), Mourad’s employee, who gets a few days off to drive a neighbor to a wedding, though he and Aïcha (Hania Amar), had been secret lovers. Aïcha is in no mood to celebrate the upcoming nuptials to “a good man,” so when her father takes ill and must be hospitalized overnight, he entrusts Djali to drive his daughter to place to spend the night, paying him to get separate rooms at a hotel for the night. Taking a break from the driving, Djali walks behind her and is repelled as though dealing with a woman playing hard to get, but lust will out. When they enter an empty bar, the musicians strike up a vigorous tune. A seductive Aïcha asks Djali to dance, and while waiting for him to make up his mind, she proceeds to shed inhibitions in the film’s most exciting part. Like a Greek chorus, a large group of dancers and musicians follow the two back to their car.

Shades of Harvey Weinstein in the final episode, as Dahman (Hassan Kachach), a neurologist intent on a promotion to a hospital directorship, is caught up in an accusation. The woman (Nadia Kaci) has spent months looking for the physician whom she is accusing of rape during a time that a group of terrorists during the Algeria’s sectarian war of the 1990s subjected her to gang rape. He threatens her, but she sits, confidently crosses her legs, and insists that he is guilty. What’s more she has an autistic son in the rickety house. The doctor is charged not with taking part in the rape but in doing nothing to stop the men. (This is a possible reference to the incident with Mourad in the opener who refuses to call the police upon witnessing a beating.)

Among the happier moments in a generally somber tale the doctor, who is marrying a much younger woman, takes part in a wedding dance to the accompaniment of a large group of enthusiastic guests. Among the good qualities of the movie is that aside from the time that music is actually needed as part of the action, “Until the Birds Return” avoids Hollywood movies’ often intrusive music in the soundtrack.

In Arabic and French with English subtitles.

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

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

ASIA – movie review

ASIA
Tribeca International Film Festival 2020
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ruthy Pribar
Screenwriter: Ruthy Pribar
Cast: Alena Yiv, Shira Haas, Tamir Mulla, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/17/20
Opens: TBD

Asia (2020)

Israel has been academy-award nominated more times than any other country in the Middle East, not surprising given that the Jewish state is considered the freest in that area of the world. Among the Israeli films this year is “Asia,” Ruthy Pribar’s freshman offering, not a political film. Pribar does not cover the tensions between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic, nor the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However among its attributes is its implicit signaling that while Israeli Jews are Jewish by religion, they are a diverse lot depending on their places of birth. Those who are not sabras, i.e. born in Israel, have made alyiah from many corners of the world. In this case, Pribar, whose 22-minutes short “Last Calls” finds a Russian-born woman dialing the mobile phone of her sister who died six months earlier to put together a sense of her last day. Similiarly, Pribar focuses on the last weeks of a teenager whose mother, just fifteen years her senior, faces her daughter’s rebellious search for independence. Yet her daughter’s desire to lose her virginity is turning out difficult given her fear in one case when she tells a boyfriend to stop, and in a latter case because she is dying too quickly and too soon from a neurological disease.

Largely a two-hander, theatrical enough to find a place on an off-Broadway stage, “Asia” deals principally with the relationship of the title character (Alena Yiv), so young that you might confuse her with her daughter Vika (Shira Haas), thinking that they are sisters. While Asia, a single mother and a nurse, leads a life largely for her own pleasure—going to bars and indulging an affair with Shas (Gera Sandler), a doctor in the West Jerusalem hospital—she has a sudden change of priorities when her daughter is diagnosed with a neurological disease. Gaining the support of Gabi (Tamir Mula), a high-school dropout who serves on the staff of the hospital and agrees to babysit on his free time with homebound Vika, she dedicates herself to being there for Vika, whose adolescent moodiness allows her ultimately to appreciate her love for her mom.

The film is tragic with none of the Hollywood glitz of a similar downers like “Love Story,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “What Dreams May Come,” introducing a film director who bears watching. Tender without being sloppily sentimental, “Asia” is a realistic look at a mother who must experience the most difficult episode in her life, the approaching loss of her daughter.

The film is in Hebrew and Russian and has been selected for the Tribeca Festival of 2020.

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

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

NINA WU – movie review

NINA WU
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Midi Z
Screenwriters: Ke-Xi Wu, MidiZ
Cast: Ke-Xi Wu, Yu-Hua Sung, Yu-Chiao Hsia, Ming-Shuai Shih
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/10/20
Opens: TBD

Could it be that even in faraway Taiwan, the people who make films are inspired by the justice meted out to Harvey Weinstein? If only it were true that the former Miramax producer is the only man to take advantage of his power in assigning roles to women, but we suspect that some men, not all, I’m told, will use whatever authority they have to ease or frustrate the ambitions of women whose careers and even their very lives rest in the hands of manipulative people with power. In the Weinstein case, the jury had little reason to doubt the testimony of women he is accused of exploiting sexually, though some have waited two decades to come forward, since Weinstein would allegedly threaten to blackball any woman who resisted his advances so they will never work in Hollywood again.

Now comes Midi Z, the Myanmar-born director, whose “The Road to Mandalay” about two Burmese who flee from a government with a succession of authoritarian political leaders to find new opportunities in Thailand, shows him eager to enlighten the public about class struggle. Morever Ke-Xi Wu, who appears in almost every scene, also co-wrote the drama, indicating that for her this is likely a personal film. The woman she portrays projects her depression, her very post-traumatic stress after a single event that changed her life and pushed her down the road to terrible fantasies and paranoid notions. She handles the role with so much fervor and such authenticity that we cannot help thinking that she is portraying actual events in her own life or outright delusions.

Having played on the stage in her rural town, Nina Wu seeks to advance her career by moving to Taipei. She has to settle for bit parts. She is getting older and yet hesitates when her manager suggests the chance she has for a big role in a 60’s thriller provided that (he is diplomatic about this) she is willing to play sex scenes with full frontal nudity. Wu, who spends a good part of the movie projecting psychological conflict and neurosis, gives it some thought and goes for the gold. She is not aware that playing a part like this is the least of her problems. She suspects that the producer of the film is either not too right in his head or simply taking advantage by lining up six actresses, humiliating them by asking them to play dogs and drink wine while they are doing this. All six go along until the competition comes down to two, just like the current Democratic candidates rivalry. One woman, her chief opponent, remains on all fours, looks up at the producer, and states that she would do anything. Does Wu have a chance against that?

The scenes involving Wu’s sick mother and financially unwise father, are really unnecessary. They do not further the plot except to make us wonder whether Wu inherited some of her dad’s recklessness. The story does not progress in chronological order, handing us the key scene near the end, the one that makes us realize what turns Wu’s paranoia over the top. Some of the action is Wu’s fantasies acted out, or are they? What about the one in which the person giving her a beauty treatment threatens her, accusing her of getting the role despite being not as meritorious an actress as she? How about the fantasy of the nurse who climbs into her mother’s bed and begins to strangle her?

We can assume that Midi Z gives his principal performer much latitude in this feminist tale about one of the world’s industrially advanced nation that like America has no problem putting men and women on the screen in suggestive poses. Some men who have seen the film say that they felt pain in having to watch what women have to go through. This is one of those stories that could find men with dates hiding under the theater chairs, ashamed of what people of their gender do to the fair sex. Outside of the extraneous scenes mentioned here, “Nina Wu” has the feel of a psychological thriller, all actions both physical and emotional bearing the soul of the actress-screenwriter.

Behind the lens, Florian Zinke throws in a good look at the city of Taipei and one of its neighboring villages. The picture is in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

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

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