SLAY THE DRAGON – movie review

SLAY THE DRAGON
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance
Screenwriter: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance
Cast: Ari Berman, David Daley, Margaret Dickson, Anita Earls, Katie Fahey, Ruth Greenwood, Chris Jankowski, Justin Levitt, Vann Newkirk
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/12/20
Opens: April 3, 2020

Poster

 

The United States is not only a democratic country; it is a Democrat nation. This means that theoretically if every eligible adult voted, the Democrats would regularly take a majority of seats in Congress and in state legislatures. The Democratic Party has grown because of immigration and through the ability of formerly minority groups to increase their numbers. Minorities like Hispanics and African-Americans tend to vote Demoratic. Then how did it happen that Republicans captured majorities in so many state legislative houses and Congressional elections? Some say it’s because the poor are less likely to vote than the middle class and the rich. Others say it’s because some states are now requiring photo id’s at the voting booths, which the poor are somehow less likely to acquire. According to Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance who direct “Slay the Dragon”—a logo on the T-shirt of a successful young activist—the reason is the corrupt practice of gerrymandering.

Every ten years a census is carried out. Each state legislature is allowed to redistrict the territory since some districts lose so much population that their representatives are out of their jobs while others gain population and may be able to elect more legislative reps and members of Congress. However, wanting to hold on to their jobs and their power, states’ partisan commissions have gerrymandered, which means they have carved up districts not like boxes and rectangles but in such a way that their opponents are tossed away into a just a few districts where they can elect whom they wish, giving most other areas majorities that they would not have had if the opponents remained where they were. The new district had weird shapes: some look like salamanders, others like bats. Many other strange designs make clear that corrupt political considerations have gone through the map to keep more of their own party in power. (For more detail on the process of gerrymandering, check out the Wikipedia article.) For purposes of this left-leaning documentary, we are led to believe that the Republicans do this more than the Democrats, because, as stated above this is a Democratic (capital D) country which would have captured more seats if the districts were drawn fairly.

Why do Goodman and Durrance blame the Republicans? Because only recently they have embarked on a major plan to overturn the natural Democratic majorities in this country by their corrupt redistricting plans. Is gerrymandering just an abstract idea that should not worry us? No. Look at what happened to Flint, after the GOP had redrawn the map of the Michigan to allow Republican districts to predominate. The party hired finance managers allegedly to manage Michigan’s financial woes. These people turned the Flint River into the city’s water supply. Thus the brown water coming from the faucets such that, as one person states, “Even my dog would not drink that.”

Since state legislatures do the gerrymandering, Republicans hit on the super-rich like the Koch Brothers to finance campaigns in the individual states, outspending the Democrats and carrying districts that they ordinarily would not have had a chance to do. The principal character in the doc, a young woman, Katie Fahey who peppers her lively sentences with “like” and “awesome,” shows how she carried out a massive job in getting the required 350,000 signatures of Michigan citizens to get a proposition on the ballot. Her group, called Voters Not Politicians, is able to win the cause: that henceforth independent groups would do the redistricting rather than the politicians. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, similar grass roots movements got a case up to Supreme Court, also determined to end political gerrymandering. Ultimately, than to Kavanaugh’s rising to the Supreme Court when Anthony Kennedy resigned, the Wisconsin activists did not succeed

It’s now easy to see that just as the Electoral College, designed by rich white men, thwarted the elections of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, most state legislatures are dominated by Republicans despite the fact that in a recent election, tabulating all the votes of all the states, Democrats took 60% of the vote. We’re not a banana republic quite yet, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. to become an ideal democracy.

The doc is forceful, correctly partisan, and the smell of corruption should enrage right-thinking people.

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

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

ABOUT A TEACHER – movie review

ABOUT A TEACHER
Hanan Harchol Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hanan Harchol
Screenwriter: Hanan Harchol
Cast: Leslie Hendrix, Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Aurora Leonard, Kate Eastman, Yan Xi, Hanan Harchol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/26/20
Opens: April 7, 2020

About a Teacher

As a guy who spent a 32-year career in the high school classroom, I sometimes wondered why there are far more movies about police than about teachers. Think of “Training Day,” “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Untouchables,” and the best of all, “Serpico.” After all only a small fraction of us have had careers in law enforcement and most of us were never in real trouble, but we’ve all been in classrooms and we should we fascinated by stories about teachers, comparing the movie pedagogues with our own. Wait. On second thought, there are at least one hundred movies about classrooms that are considered among the best, including “Election,” “Chalk,” “The English Teacher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “School of Rock,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” So maybe our own experience in classrooms is mirrored by quite a number of shows about our favorite mentors and our worst nightmares.

Now comes what the marketing people might call a feel good movie. It’s “About a Teacher,” and though happily not a documentary, it follows the experience of an award-winning instructor who felt like quitting during his first year in an inner-city school. Since his favorite word is “perseverance,” he struggled through the first two years, was almost fired before beginning even a second semester, and went on to guide students into using the imparted knowledge to win many thousands of dollars in awards from festivals and the like.

Writer-director Hanan Harchol also has a bit role of “Mr. Caldwell,” an assistant principal who in real life is the great man who helped create careers of his rambunctious students in a tough school. The title character is played by Dov Tiefenbach, known to his students as Mr. Harchol, or just Mister, or Mr. H. At the same time Harchol’s fellow teachers call each other Mr. or Ms., rarely by first names, which in my experience might have been the case before the mid-1960s when we had to wear jackets and ties but now just first names and a t-shirt are de rigueur. The current dress code is good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was good enough for me—and for Hanan.

You would think that Hanan Harchol would have no problem even from the first day since, after all, he is not teaching algebra, which might be of little interest to teens in almost any high school, but instructs them in film making. Here the kids have something to do with their hands. They don’t sit still facing the front of the room listening to long lectures or trying to participate in subjects they can’t really get their minds into. Instead, Harchol faces the indifference so dismaying in “Precious,” in which that title character, sitting in a history class where students are simply talking to each other and ignoring the instructor, bops a kid on the head with a notebook, demanding that the whole class pay attention.

Because of the discipline problems facing Harchol during his first year, he gets into frequent tiffs with Ms. Murray (Leslie Hendrix), the department chair, who could easily fit into a role as Ilsa Koch, the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald concentration camp. She will turn out to have a heart of gold, though, which makes us recall that people wear masks to cover their real feelings and attitudes.

So the kids are a problem. When one of them refuses to turn off his computer, Harchol moves to turn it off himself. The youngster grabs him by the wrist, inflaming the educator who yells “Get out,” notwithstanding that at a previous time, several of his pupils are roaming around the hall leading to an admonishing by an administrator for sending someone out of the classroom without supervision—which could make him lose his license. Seeking a mentor (not realizing that Ms. Murray has been just that all along), he consults a young, attractive Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard) whose algebra class quietly works at their desks, seeking to learn what she does to get such attention. After receiving feedback from her, he is startled to hear her ask him a key question: “Do you like the kids?” Aha. A genuine affection for your charges will be felt by them, and you’ve won half the battle.

I related strongly to the discussions in the faculty lounge, which features the burnt-out Mr. McKenna (Tyler Hollinger), whom Ana Martinez calls an a**hole. There is considerable grousing when the department chair conducts a meeting, telling the men and women about the demands of the state: lesson plan every day, suitable for inspection. Call each parent of every failing student. Keep the pace: do not fall behind, spending too much time on one project.

Inevitably Harchol cannot avoid taking his problems home, where his sometimes bored wife has to listen to her husband’s tales of woe when all she wants to do is to get some sleep. But when they clash on whether to start a family, you might think the marriage can go belly-up just as Harchol may get fired from his job. Harchol notes several times that he received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools, which makes one wonder why he did not opt to get a gig at least in a community college. It’s not as though he carried with him a liking for teens, so what’s the deal? Since the story is based closely on real life, I would like to know the answer, especially since hell, the maximum pay right now in New York City public schools, one of the highest paying municipalities in the country, is $119,000, but you have to work 25 years and have a Master’s plus 60 credits to get there. A lawyer getting a fairly decent job right out of law school can make that at age twenty-four. So can a pharmacist. So can a lot of people.

Harchol deals with individual problems of some of his charges, including one girl who had been “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend from the age of five to the age of nine, and another who sleeps in class because he has two jobs after school and has to look after a child, though he is only seventeen. In the end comes a Hallmark statement by Ms. Murry, who notes (decades before the coronavirus business), that we have little control over many things, but that “the only thing we have is the ability to give away.”

If you do not expect the movie to be as lively as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or chaotic and violent like “To Sir With Love,” or as wacky as “Teachers” (an escaped mental patient serves a day as a substitute), or as horrific as “Never Let Me Go,” you should have a good time enjoying the inevitable rise of Harchol from a miserable failure to brilliant educator. No, that’s not a spoiler: you already know the trajectory. It’s quite well played by Dov Tiefenbach, though at the age of 38 he seems long in tooth to perform as a beginning teacher. He has particularly interesting conversations in a coffee shop with his dad (Tibor Feldman), who makes fun of his son’s gig entertaining restaurant guests with his guitar but is proud of the lad’s choice to be a teacher.

The students, who may be improving much of the dialogue, were actual pupils of Harchol who came back to play themselves at age seventeen. As their teacher said to them many time, “good job.” This is Hanan Harchol’s freshman film, though he may be known to some at the helm of the short, animated TV episodes of “Jewish Food for Thought.”We look forward to his next venture.

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

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

SOUTH MOUNTAIN – movie review

SOUTH MOUNTAIN
Breaking Glass Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hilary Brougher
Screenwriter: Hilary Brougher
Cast: Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Violet Rea, Michael Oberholtzer, Macaulee Ruosnak Cassaday
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/9/20
Opens: April 3, 2020

South Mountain (2019)

New York State’s Catskill Mountains, where the events of “South Mountain” take place, was once in its glory as a locale for a slew of large hotels catering in part to singles who came up from the city, each to find the man or woman of the single person’s dreams. Since jet planes had been taking college kids and other youths to Europe and beyond—not right now with the coronavirus as our president has banned a considerable amount of travel between us and the continent—the grand hotels like the Concord and Grossingers are gone. Instead the former borscht belt now serves as summer homes largely for middle-aged people who drive up the mountain with their kids, giving us in the movie audience a chance to look away from the masses who used to go there on spring break and delve into the relationship of one family whose marriage is in trouble.

Benefitting the film is the idea that this is one of a growing number of celluloids from female directors, in this case starring the immensely talented Talia Balsam in the role of Lila, who discovers that her husband Edgar, played by Scott Cohen, is leading two lives. When he makes trips away from his family allegedly to meet producers to peddle his scripts, he has a girlfriend in Brooklyn. Every time he says he has to take a phone call from his producers, he is actually talking to his significant other, giving us in the audience a chance to see an actual birth on his I-phone. When Lila discovers all, the marriage may be destined to go south, but in this case there’s a chance for a friendship to remain and for the new baby to be introduced to Lila and to Lila’s daughters. Vacationing with Lila and Edgar is Lila (Andrus Nichols), a good friend going through chemotherapy. Divorce as a finale to a couple’s nuptials? Not so simple.

The entire project might be compared to Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” though that would be trivializing the Swedish giant. Yet “South Mountain” is delightful in its own terms, dealing with scenes leading to a divorce of a middle-aged couple with teen kids, though principally the story takes second billing to the performers. Clearly character trumps plot, not a bad idea considering how terrific Balsam is in the role of a woman who, in one startling scene, tries to poison her husband but realizes the monstrosity of the crime and takes action to reverse the damage.

Hilary Brougher, whose “Innocence” is based on a dark secret threatening a Manhattan prep school and “Stephanie Daley” about a 16-year-old suspected of concealing her pregnancy and murdering her infant, may be committed to movies on women’s issues, works we need a lot more of. This mature, quiet study of a vacationing family with a brief affair between Lila and Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer) , who is a friend of the couple’s daughters and who reads Kant for fun, is thrown in to reveal additional complexity, all wrapped up in a neat package about splits among the 50-somethings.

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

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

VIVARIUM – movie review

VIVARIUM
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwike, Jonathan Aris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: March 27, 2020

One of the most explosive and controversial books in recent times, David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament,” takes the view that giving birth is bad. Benatar is an anti-natalist not so much because of the usual reasons—too many people in the world leads to disastrous climate change and food shortages—but because, he believes, you are inflicting pain on your children. The happiness our children feel will is subordinate to their pain. Citing Benatar’s example, would you be willing to accept an hour of pain in return for getting an hour of pleasure? Hardly anyone would say yes. Which brings us to “Vivarium,” the word meaning a structure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation and experimentation.

Director Lorcan Finnegan, whose “Without Name” follows a land surveyor’s measuring an ancient forest, who loses his reason under supernatural conditions, is in his métier with “Vivarium,” a intriguing puzzle of a movie that will evoke several interpretations. The easy one is that the film is a satire on suburban living, which it is, not unlike “Suburbican,,” “The Burbs,” “Pleasantville,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out.” However, think of the movie on deeper terms and you may agree that Garret Shanley’s screenplay is in its way a promulgation of Benatar’s book as the images on the screen for most of its 98 minutes show a young couple whose initial happiness gives way to months of continuing pain.

How so? Watch the progress, or regress, of a young couple on the cusp of life; Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They’re looking for a dream house, white picket fence and spacious rooms, of course, because that’s what America is about. Gemma, an elementary school teacher, is good with her class, putting them through an exercise that has them identify with winged creatures. Just after dismissal she runs into one of her pupils who discovers two dead birds who have fallen out of their nest shortly after birth, a time that finds the young birds with open mouths tasting their first pangs of hunger. Perhaps they have just bird brains or maybe they can tell already that life is a vallis lacrimarum.

When Gemma and Tom consult Martin (Jonathan Aris), a real estate agent whose oddball behavior should have them running for the hills, they are escorted by him to a development called “Yonder,” where they behold a labyrinth of ticky-tacky houses, all painted puke-green. (Great set design by Julia Devin-power.) Impressed by the spaciousness inside number 9, they are surprised to note that the agent has disappeared. Set to go home, they wind up driving in a circular fashion, always landing back on number 9. Life is a circle, isn’t it? They take in a baby deposited in a box outside, a brat who grows daily, who imitates the actions of his, or its, foster parents, screams like the devil, and speaks in a voice not like Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist,” but like a grown man. Tom is ready to kill. Gemma has not reached that stage but hates the kid’s calling her “mother.” “I’m not your f******mother!”

Already the suburban dream has been smashed. The desire to have a child? Gone. The boxed-in togetherness of the trio drives both off the wall, the child being the only one who, despite screams, is looking to learn. Benatar’s prescription is swallowed with a vengeance, as relative moments of happiness are dissolved into hellish suffering. Like many other psychological thrillers, “Vivarium” begins with a light touch, moments of humor, dissipating in the second half, just as weird as the opening but loaded with misery.

This is a low-key sci-fi adventure with almost bloodless smidgens of horror which, with the crackerjack acting especially of Imogene Poots with Jesse Eisenberg in almost a supporting role is entertaining and enlightening. A fine performance from child actor Senan Jennins, who looks and acts something like CBS’s Young Sheldon, delivering the goods. Think before you marry or before you trust that a long-term relationship is heaven on earth. Think before you have children. Think before you believe suburban life is a cure-all or protective cocoon for life’s misfortunes. The universe is indifferent to you and so is your real estate agent.

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

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

BLOW THE MAN DOWN – movie review

BLOW THE MAN DOWN
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Screenwriter: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Cast: Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Marceline Hugot, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/20/20
Opens: March 20, 2020

Early on we see a sign in one house “Bed and Breakfast,” which coyly hides the term “Bordello,” which would have completed the alliteration. The real problem is that if the Bed and Breakfast place were really open for innocent enough tourists, where would they get the business? The small town in Maine is utterly provincial, and to top it off the area is regularly snowed in with damp weather that might make London seek like a climatic dream. This is a bad location for tourism but a good one for mystery. Bodies turn up including one of a hooker, but the real interest of writer-directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole is the dark secret that involves not just the madam but a trio of elderly women who appear ready for redemption.

“Blow the Man Down” is a sea shanty sung in the opening scene with delightful harmony by a group of grizzled fishermen, and another shanty will serve to bookmark this movie, which was awarded best screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. The script is an original, nicely combining a detective story with a look at an ambiance of a part of America not often seen in the movies.

Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) do not look like sisters and what’s more, despite their kinship they exhibit different personalities. When their mother dies, the sisters are determined to continue the fish business, though Mary Beth, unlike her sister, talks often of wanting to bolt from the town. They have occasional chats with their mother’s pals Susie (June Squibb), Gail (Annette O’Toole), and Doreen (Marceline Hugot).

Mary Beth, always the adventurer, picks up a guy at the bar, becoming anxious when she sees a gun in the glove compartment and a trunk filled with blood. He calls her “cute,” touches her leg, finally attacking her, resulting in his being harpooned in the neck and as dead as a punctured lobster. You and I would probably plead self defense, but the defender instead informs her sister who help in burying the body in the deep.

The person of major audience interest is Margo Martindale as the town madam, Enid, longtime friend of the trio of elderly ladies, any one of whom could serve as the lead in Joseph Kesselring’s play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Nobody will mess with Enid until somebody does, when her three pals, after hearing that one of her hookers has been shot in the head. Gayle Rankin performs as a character who is one of Enid’s workers, and Will Brittain pounds the beat as Justin, a young police officer who has a liking for Priscilla and, in one scene as you think that he will collar the two sisters, he instead follows up his undeaclared courtship by accepting an invitation to the sisters’ fish dinner.

At our time, when women are increasingly empowering themselves, “Blow the Man Down” serves as another example of how the sisterhood look out for one another. The film does not try to satirize small-town living or houses of ill repute but accepts the flaws of this remote coastal village of Easter Cove without judging.

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

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

YOU GO TO MY HEAD – movie review

YOU GO TO MY HEAD
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dimitri de Clercq
Screenwriter: Dimitri de Clercq, Pierre Bourdy, Rosemary Ricchio
Cast: Delfine Bafort, Svetozar Cvetkovic, Arend Pinoy, Omar Sarnane, Laurence Trémolet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

 

“You Go to My Head,” the title taken from the 1938 song by J. Fred Coots, is about the nature of identity, with the specific exploration of what happens to a woman who has lost her memory and whose life is taken over by a lonely architect who convinces her that he is her husband. As we watch the two performers,Kitty (Delfine Bafort) and Jake (Svetozar Cvetkovic) engaging in a slow burn, appearing together in most of the film’s nearly two hours, we are likely to wonder what will happen when Kitty, whose real name is Dafne, recovers her memory. Will her new insight lead her to embrace her life, which despite its inauthenticity involves a sizzling romance, or will she abandon the man who saved her life, disgusted by the perverted game he is playing and sending him back to the loneliness he has endured for years?

Jake is an architect living in the Sahara—actually filmed in a house that must have once been featured in Architectural Digest magazine. When he discovers that a slim, beautiful, blond woman has been the victim of a car accident killing the man who had driven the car, he carries her back to his home, nurses her back to health, and pretends to be her husband. Though Kitty, the fictitious name he had given her, is eager to recall events in her life, she is slowly falling in love with her “husband,” exhilarated by the life she shares with him under the clear desert skies. Convincing Kitty has been easy as he has given her the clothing of the woman who had once shared his domain, even putting a wedding band on her finger while she is asleep under a doctor’s sedation.

The cracks developing in his swimming pool—into which she indulges displaying full-frontal nudity—serve as metaphor for the crumbling of the woman’s amnesia. All takes place within the dreamy landscape of Southern Morocco exquisitely filmed by Stijn Grupping with elements of fantasy embellished by Hacène Larbi’s music with startling, climactic notes ninety-three minutes into the drama.

This is a winning job all around, co-written and directed by Dimitri de Clercq in his freshman feature—following up his 1995 film “The Blue Villa,” about a ghostly return of a man into bordello of a Mediterranean island. At the time of this review we learn that the movie has already won Best Picture in film festivals in Bogota, Houston and Orlando with nominations for cinematography, score and acting among thirty-six wins and one hundred sixteen nominations.

In English and a little French spoken by the Yugoslav-born actor and his Belgian-born partner.

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

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

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS – movie review

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliza Hittman
Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/18/20
Opens: March 13, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

In her third feature movie, writer-diector Eliza Hittman continues to explore people who are vulnerable, youths who are missing the proper guidance in life and who are put into positions that they would not have found themselves if they had the proper direction. In the director’s “It Felt Like Love,” a young woman dreams of emulating the sexual exploits of a more experience person, putting herself into a dangerous situation. In “Beach Rats” a teen “experiments” with drugs and looks to meet older men. Now with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hitmann focuses on “Autumn” (Sidney Flanigan), a seventeen-year-old girl who must deal with a pregnancy that she never wanted but with the good luck to have a friend like Skylar (Talia Ryder), who acts more like Autumn’s older
sister willing to go the distance with Autumn during a difficult time in the younger girl’s life.

After Trump was elected president largely with the support of rural Americans, voters in small towns and farms complained that city people consider them racists, sexists, homophobic and the like. We would like to think that this is true, yet as Hitmann portrays small-town Pennsylvania, at least through the eyes of people on the cusp of mature adulthood, a large number of these Americans are what they say they are not. For example, when Autumn is performing in a talent show, one guy yells out “slut” in the middle of her song, and the attendees including even Autumn’s young parents, appear to think nothing of it.

Autumn, who appears not to realize that she is pregnant until eighteen weeks have passed since her last menstrual period, tries to self-abort the fetus by taking a slew of Vitamin C pills, then punches her belly without much result save for some large bruises. Stealing some money from the supermarket with the help of her cousin, she takes a bus to New York, not even considering that she would need to get a round-trip ticket, that she lacks money for a hotel, that she would have to stay in New York two nights. On the bus Skylar is hit on by a young passenger (Théodore Pellerin), who will try to encourage Skylar to go with him “downtown” and who the girls will later exploit for money.

In this slice-of-life drama, Hittman takes us first to a rural clinic, the agent explaining that there are alternatives to abortion, that there are people who would gladly adopt the future child. Since it’s too late for Autumn to get an abortion in her area, she and Skylar take two buses toward New York’s Port Authority Terminal, going to Planned Parenthood on 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and back up to a Manhattan facility which would be able to conduct the procedure.

Autumn has no particular support from her parents, and in fact by showing us the youthful age of the father and mother in the audience of the talent show, Hitmann may be making the point that they too had babies while they were teens. Hélène Louvart films all in 16mm, from the broken-down areas of rural Pennsylvania to the chaos of New York.

Here is an ideal slice of life drama. No melodrama, no frantic behavior, with Autumn’s emotions showing only when she began to cry during a social worker’s interview. At that meeting, she is asked a series of questions such as “Were you ever forced to have sex when you did not want to” for which she needed to answer “Never, rarely, sometimes or always.” In Hitmann’s hands, the two young performers, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder relate to each other as though they knew each other for a decade. But even to her cousin and best friend, Autumn never opens up. She does not tell her even that she’s pregnant, just that she has “cramps.” These are inarticulate people, the sort that just might vote for politicians who do not necessary offer much but who are grand showmen who can entertain and who do not evoke articulate responses from their audience.

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

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

THE MISOGYNISTS – movie review

THE MISOGYNISTS
Oscilloscope Laboratories/Factory 25
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Onur Tukel
Screenwriter: Onur Tukel
Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/2/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

In just 85 minutes writer-director Onur Tukel compresses three years of seemingly endless political discussion into a stagy tale spotlighting Dylan Baker, whose somber performance as a Russian spy in “The Americans,” goes against type as Cameron in “The Misogynists.” This hilarious tale, one that sends up Cameron who stands in for a type of Trump supporter that Hillary once called “deplorables,” deliberately portrays Cameron as a one-dimensional racist, homophobic, prejudiced, misogynistic citizen and voter, standing in as a the kind of person who may not express his bigoted ideas at the workplace or at home but is free to let loose in locker talk with his best male friend.

Cheering as he probably had done many times in his life, this wealthy businessman, separated for four months from his wife and living in a luxury hotel in Manhattan, is over the moon when on election night in 2016 the media calls Donald J. Trump the winner of the presidential election. His pal Baxter (Lou Jay Taylor) is a more nuanced gent, possibly a liberal at heart but seemingly able to be convinced under the right circumstances, with the right shots of Vodka and lines of coke, to find common ground with his boorish compatriot.

The Misogynists (2017)

For the most part what Cameron likes about Trump is only partly the commander-in-chief elect’s plan to build a fortress America on our southern border but mostly because this victory will symbolize man as ruler, leaving woman to cook steaks in the kitchen. Cameron cannot credibly be called the voice of the Christian Right, the Evangelicals, who may have held their noses when they voted for the developer, but more akin to the white nationalists, the anti-elitists, the know-nothings, really, like the folks in that political party who in the 1840s bonded with like-minded Protestants who feared a conspiracy to undermine their religious and political values.

Playing the part of Cameron’s straight-man, Taylor evokes the impression of a klutz who is likely in conflict with all sorts of things in his life, including his ties to his wife Alice (Christine M. Campbell), who calls him on her cell demanding that he come home, the controlling woman who is often the target of Cameron’s wrath. His own political beliefs in conflict, Baxter would like to fit in with the views of Cameron, the dominant male, but he is neither a Hillary voter nor a Trump supporter. Given the curfews that Alice appears to set down, Baxter could readily go whole-hog over to Cameron’s position that men should rule.

Some of the sharpest dialogue occurs between the hotel guests and a Mexican-American busboy (Rudy de la Ctuz), inviting the lad to extend his break and do some lines. While you might expect the busboy to be anti-Trump, he, like some of friends, simply did not vote. He cares not a whit what the resident in the Oval Office has in store for people like him. Best of all is the exchange of obscenities between Cameron and the two hookers, Sasha (Ivana Milicevic) and Amber (Triests Kelly Dunn), who for their part get thrown out of the cab by the driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma) for insulting Muslim men.

Dylan Baker turns in a spot-on performance, emerging from his previous, quieter roles in “The Good Fight” on TV and “Anchorman 2.” Almost all the action takes place in a single room, the TV performing as a separate character turning itself on and off and showing clips in reverse order.

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

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

ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA – movie review

ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA
Entertainment One
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Francis Annan
Screenwriter: Francis Annan, L.H. Adams, Karol Griffiths, from Tim Jenkin’s book “Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison”
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webster
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/4/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

Whenever I need to have a key made I go to Bruno’s hardware down the block. Half the time the keys do not work. I twist and I turn and practically break the fragile metal. What this country needs is not more MBA’s but some good, reliable locksmiths. Now Tim Jenkin can make keys for me any time. He’s a real live character played by Daniel Radcliffe in the prison thriller “Escape from Pretoria.” He is not only a crackerjack locksmith but an author, having written the book by a similar name in 2005. I cannot tell whether Francis Annan’s movie is based closely on the contents of the book or simply inspired by the heroic plot—especially since on Amazon, the book costs $899.99. And that’s the paperback! Perhaps an upcoming movie about rare books “The Booksellers” would tell us why.

The film which is virtually bereft of women focuses on the leadership of Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe), who together with Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) gets into trouble with white-dominated regime in South Africa when apartheid was the norm. Fifteen percent of the popular were white but dominated the 85% of people with color. The grip on the country was resisted by the African National Congress, under which Nelson Mandela eventually got elected president and now stands as one of history’s great heroes.

Some folks might be surprised to note that the ANC was a movement that enjoyed the membership of several white people, considered by the apartheid government to be traitors to their race. For example: when Jenkin and Lee set off an unusual string of “bombs” in Pretoria that liberate not explosives but reams of paper announcing the manifesto of the congress, they are caught and receive stiff sentences in a jail that was not quite as comfortable as the prisons in Norway. Jenkin gets 12 years as the leader, and his pal Lee receives eight. Inside the jail the two meet up with other whites involved in wresting the South African government away from the white leaders. These are people who from the moment they were beaten were determined to escape, notwithstanding the prospect of a sentence of another twenty-five years plus the potential to be tortured.

Theirs was a unique method. Jenkin, apparently graced with spatial skills, drew blueprints for not just one key but a successive battery of them that would lead them to the street and freedom. They keys were made of wood. As the plot thickens, the initial attempts to fit these keys into the doors would fail. Sometimes a piece of evidence would fall to the floor outside Jenkin’s reach, so we in the audience sit and hold out breaths as does Jenkin to hide the evidence from the regularly scheduled checks by the guards.

Guards were awfully mean, and not just the warden (Paul Harvey) who must be addressed as “Captain” by the inmates. They appear to hold a special animosity to whites who help the blacks.

All action takes place in 1979, but if the prisoners only had the patience to wait until 1994 when apartheid fell apart, Mandela would have freed all, a welcome break especially for Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart) who was serving four life sentences. Behind his large aviator type glasses fashionable at the time, Daniel Radcliffe is able to free himself without needing the magic he embraced at the Hogwarts School. He exudes a tension that should resonate with the movie audience in a film that’s not much on dialogue but which, guaranteed, will have you keyed up.

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

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

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY – movie review

THE BURNT ORANGE HERSY
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Giuseppe Capotondi
Screenwriter: Scott B. Smith based on a novel by Charles Willeford
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

There are more ways to commit high crimes and misdemeanors than those we’ve seen recently at a trial in the United States Congress. Typical are large ones like bank robberies, smaller ones like street muggings. Fascinating movies have been made about the former like “Bonnie and Clyde” and the latter by the 2004 movie “Mugged.” Now “The Burnt Picture Hersey embraces an unusual crime, its execution exquisitely planned and carried out by a people with an intimate knowledge of the art world. It helps mightily that Giuseppe Capotondi, whose “La dopia Ora,” about an ex-cop and a chambermaid who meet at a speed dating event, indulges a witty, fast-talking script by Scott B. Smith and a pair of actors who are adept at the verbal sparring that is so much a feature of Charles Willeford’s noir novels.

Like Capotondi’s “La dopia ora,” (“The Double Hour”), the first part of the film features dialogue you might expect at a classy and prestigious off-Broadway theater like The Promenade and The Cherry Lane. There is not a wasted word in the repartee enjoyed by Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) and Claes Bang (James Figueras). (Bang is Danish while Debicki’s roots are Polish and Irish.) During an extended date at Italy’s Lake Como, the American and the European delight in sparring like the candidates in the Democratic Party debates. Just when the theater audience believe that they are in for an evening of a simple romantic fling before the couple go to their separate homes, the plot spins delightfully out of control. If you are familiar with Charles Willeford’s fiction, you can see why that author’s 1971 novel from which the movie is adapted is considered by critics to be his best work.

The opening scene features art critic James Figueras in the midst of wowing an American audience in Milan, explaining a surreal painting on the wall. The painting may not look like much, yet Figueras calls it virtually a masterpiece—wrapping up his spiel with an acutely comic finale. This is where he meets Minnesotan tourist Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), who comes on to him and is invited on a trip to the Lake Como estate of art collector and gallery owner Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), who has invited Figueras to use him for a job that will leave Cassidy with clean hands.

Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a recluse who is living on the estate, shows up, allowing himself to be interviewed by Figueras, the two guests charmed by the world-famous painter. At the same time Figueras figures that he can further his languishing career. He increases his creds as a critic, but far more important for him is a chance to make millions, and therein lies the thriller.
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What does director Capotondi want us to take away from the story aside from providing us with some breathtaking chills and thrills? Probably the idea that we do not really know each other whether from simple meetings like a weekend date or even after years of thinking that we can see beneath the surface of our friends and associates. Scott B. Smith’s script is largely responsible for the wit and razzle-dazzle of the conversations, and the quartet of Sutherland, Debicki, Bang and Jagger provide the human touch that do justice to the words.

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

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

BURDEN – movie review

BURDEN
101 Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrew Heckler
Screenwriter: Andrew Heckler
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough, Tess Harper, Crystal Fox, Usher
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/24/20
Opens: February 28, 2020

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/ You’ve got to be taught from year to year
Its got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

We learn from these lyrics from “South Pacific” that we are not born with hate. Hate is evoked by the environment, not the genes. The negative emotion may be given birth by your parents, later by your friends and what you see on TV and in the movies. This does not mean that we should not hate Hitler and Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. That hatred is rational. To feel this animosity to an entire people because of their skin color or religion is irrational.

Andrew Heckler, who directs and wrote “Burden,” has been heretofore known mostly for his acting. However he contributes an incisive portrait of hatred based closely on a true story (we see some of the actual characters in the epilogue). In this case the focus is on the Ku Klux Klan which, surprisingly, was alive and well as recently as 1996, albeit in one small South Carolina town. Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the head of the sheeted warriors, had the brilliant idea to invigorate a dump of a one-screen cinema house by converting it into a museum of the Klan, with Confederate flags prominently displayed. One woman involved in the structure might be called a moderate in that she announces that Blacks are welcome as well as Whites because “Blacks also fought and died for the Confederacy.” A shrine to the KKK would seem bad enough but the place is used for headquarters of an actual Klan group, one of its members, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), serving as grand dragon.

Not much is told about Burden’s youth aside from his statement that he once coaxed a deer to come right up to him fearlessly (the animal senses the boy’s friendliness) only to be shot by Burden’s father. Burden is poor, badly educated, orphaned, seeking a family as do so many young gang members, though he finds familial warmth from Tom Griffin, who assures him that he treats the young man as his own son. In fact he is so enamored of Mike that he hands over the deed to the Klan museum, giving title to him upon his death.

Two forces counteract the racist group. One is Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mom, who is instrumental in turning around the emotionally unstable Mike. The other is David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), the local reverend, who active not only in his fire-and-brimstone sermons on Sunday but throughout the week gathering crowds of other Black people including a few Whites, demanding that the Klan museum be destroyed.

Much of the movie is taken up with the gentle and sometimes fiery relationship between Judy, who is actively anti-Klan, and Mike Burden, who treats her as lovingly as he treats the local Black people with contempt and with his fists. In one scene he targets the reverend for assassination with a high-powered rifle, but on further consideration he puts down the weapon (he “lays the burden down” as we hear from a song on the soundtrack) and reconsiders his fury at the African-Americans.

Many of the scenes come across as if the movie were endorsed by the church, given the loving attention that Reverend Kennedy gives to the repenting Klan member, affection that means a lot to Burden after he quits the Klan and is targeted for beatings at Tom Griffin’s order. The reverend’s “chasing hate with love” is not popular with his own family, which recalls the many beatings that the gang members gave to the African-Americans.

Garrett Hedlund’s terrific performance anchors the story, turning the individual into a thoroughly credible action to redeem himself. Many of the scenes, however, are not modulated, the physical actions and obscenity-laced words appearing one after the other. We in the audience are coaxed to consider whether we should treat our enemies with love, as “brothers in Christ” as the reverend notes, or to feel emboldened temporarily by taking vengeance against those who have wronged us.

Save the for cursing, you might almost take this film as a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode, one that could be appreciated by a wide audience as a supplement to a Sunday sermon.

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

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

BLOOD ON HER NAME – movie review

BLOOD ON HER NAME
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matthew Pope
Screenwriter: Don M. Thompson, Matthew Pope
Cast: Bethany Anne Lind, Will Patton, Jimmy Gonzales, Jared Ivers, Jack Andrews
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/29/20
Opens: February 28, 2020

Blood on Her Name Large Poster

When you see Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) with blood on her hands and cuts on her face, looking over a dead body surrounding by a puddle of blood, you may think for a second that the title is “Blood on Her Hands.” However among the wise choices made by director Matthew Pope in his debut feature (one previous 15-minutes short, “The Echo Construct,” is about a technological breakthrough to help solve crimes), is to evoke the view that Leigh is doomed perhaps from the time she was born.

Pope’s principal character who is in virtually every scene and delivers a compelling performance, would be better served by a good screenplay. As the situation stands now, the genre movie, a slow burn for the most part until an explosive conclusion, would not in my opinion be well served on the big screen, more likely the type of picture that should do better on cable TV. Pope shows rural America—perhaps the American South given some dialogue about iced tea—as a pit of depravity, the type of place which in this case is home for a group of deplorables.

Save for two guys, Leigh’s helper Rey (Jimmy Gonzales) and a parole officer (Tony Vaughn), the characters are all compromised. Leigh’s husband is in jail. Her father, Richard Tiller (Will Patton) is a corrupt sheriff who is estranged from his daughter. Her son Ryan Tiller (Jared Ivers) is on parole, and the dead body, about whom we know little, though we find out that he had a girlfriend Dani Wilson (Elisabeth Röhm), winds up in his unhappy state for reasons not made clear.

Notwithstanding the misery of Leigh’s life, she has the decency not to dump the body into the lake, but instead return it to the ground close to the scene—which could prove to be her downfall. In flashbacks, we see Leigh with a drug habit, we know that because of her failing business she could not made court-ordered restitution to the family of a victim beaten and blinded in one eye by Leigh’s son. In the depths of her desperations she offers to take her son on a two-weeks’ vacation (he wants to do white water rafting), an impossible dream for someone with blood on her name.

Are these the kinds of people who vote for Trump? Do they vote at all? Have they ever heard of Trump? If you’re a bit city dweller, you’ll get a picture of how many millions of Americans live, people who are employed like Leigh but who are unable to make ends meet—never mind the full employment of which the Republicans are proud.

Bethany Anne Lind has great promise, with an acting résumé full of TV movies, now cast in a film that should have been on Cable TV.

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

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

GREED – movie review

GREED
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Sarah Solemani, Shirley Henderson, Isla Fisher
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 2/11/20
Opens: February 28, 2020

Greed - Poster Gallery

Jeff Bezos, founding director of Amazon, is the richest man in the world, with assets of $120 billion, at least that’s before his recent divorce. I’m puzzled, though. He recently was praised by Senator Bernie Sanders for setting a minimum wage for his packers at $15 an hour. This is arguably a decent wage for starting a career, but let’s consider why Bezos insists on playing the capitalist game like a small merchant, determined to make some profit just to keep a business afloat. If he raised the minimum wage to $20, what would happen? He would not likely grow broke notwithstanding the thousands of packers that work for the company, nor might even his accountant notice the difference. “It’s not a charity,” say some. True, but if you’ve got the money, why no flaunt it by really paying the workers for their hours of backbreaking work timed on a machine that acts like a stopwatch? Let’s go further. Instead of doling out the money through his foundation which now goes to young people training for executive positions, couldn’t he cut loose with twenty billion immediately to aid worthy charities particularly serving the poverty-stricken in the developing world?

That’s where Michael Witnerbottom’s movie “Greed” cuts in. Winterbottom, who is not as far left politically as Ken Loach, nonetheless opens up an indictment of capitalism, but one filled with so many episodes and such rapid, non-chronological editing, that he is more interested in a general entertainment before he gets down and dirty to expose a British billionaire. By extension the principal character, Sir Richard McCreadle (Steve Coogan), acts as a metaphor for the industrialized capitalist countries that prey not only on their own countrymen but more on draining the very lives of tens of millions of people who make the clothing that we consume. We can go even further and say that each of us who scores a pair of jeans for twenty-five bucks or a T-shirt for $2.99 are profiting from the exploitation from big corporations, perhaps without a thought about what they are doing. (We have long ago done away with the once-strong International Garment Workers Union supporting American workers in the rag trade, as competition from China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and others virtually destroyed this American empire.)

For those of us concerned purely with the entertainment value of “Greed,” the folks who do not go to the movies to hear mainly political manifestos played out, there is considerable fun in watching Steve Coogan portray a guy whose nickname might well be Greed. Planning to give a lavish party on the Greek island of Mykonos for his sixtieth birthday, the billionaire garment king is treated by Winterbottom to a dramatized biographical sketch. When the planned party has a hitch, Richard tries to shoo away a group of Syrian refugees that have camped out on the public Mykonos beach, but exploits even them by manipulating them to put on uniforms for the big toga party to come.

Many years earlier he proves his determination to get the capital goods that he wants at the lowest possible price, sometimes dealing with a wholesaler who stubbornly refuses to come down with his offering price by pretending to walk out and buy nothing. Nonetheless as he predicts, he is called back into the room to carry on negotiations that will allow him to walk away with huge bargains.

Since the apple does not fall far from the tree, his teen son, Finn McCreadie (Asa Butterfield) follows in his dad’s footsteps, determined to take over the corporation sooner rather than later. He resents his father though eager to win over the hot women who are on loving terms with Sir Richard.

For me, the comic entertainments take second billing to the anti-capitalist thrust, though Winterbottom, using his own script, shows us the poverty-stricken garment workers who are filmed by Giles Nutgens on site in Greece, India, Sri Lanka, London and Monaco. This is a big, expensive production also highlighting Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a young, pretty Sinhalese-British woman who has a major role at the party, who is not at all impressed by Richard’s wealth and power, and who returns to England as a still exploited garment worker.

Everything is seen through the eyes of Nick (David Mitchell), a shlubby journalist who is writing Richard’s biography.

The combination of political message and lavish entertainment makes “Greed” a welcome addition to the cinema scene despite a paucity of real jokes

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

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

THE CALL OF THE WILD – movie review

THE CALL OF THE WILD
20th Century Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chris Sanders
Screenwriter: Michael Green, book by Jack London
Cast: Karen Gillan, Harrison Ford, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Jean Louisa Kelly, Wes Brown, Omar Sy
Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 2/13/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD MOVIE POSTER 2 Sided ORIGINAL 27x40 HARRISON FORD

Dogs have been bred by us sapiens for ten thousand years, and through that brief period of evolution have emerged as both a help and a best friend. They have been used by the British aristocracy for fox hunting, by lesser Brits for catching rats, by some for pulling sleds up north, and now in America for sniffing out drugs and explosives. What happens to Buck, the principal character in the current version of Jack London’s most famous, short novel “The Call of the Wild” should not happen to a dog. The St. Bernard, Scotch, Collie mix goes through a lifetime of experiences, not all bad by any means, but how he comes of age makes for an appealing adventure, especially for kids. As for the nature of the animals in Chris Sanders’s dog opera, there’s much to be said for substituting animation for the real four-legged creatures. Not only would Lassie, Snoopy, Toto, Marley, Beethoven, Skip, Hachiko and Benji resist some of the scenes in this “Wild.” You would not want even Cujo to be whipped by the cruel masters, forced to pull sleds with some passengers as obnoxious as you would find on the NY subways. Falling through ice while trying to save a drowning woman despite the way some human beings had treated him proves that dogs will give unconditional love to people unless pushed to even further limits.

Jack London has published the novel at first by a series in the Saturday Evening Post, a work considered cinematic enough to warrant the productions of movies in 1923 (where he opens as a puppy and never barks), in1935 (where the romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young has priority over dog doings); also in 1972, 1976, 1996, 2009, and now. Some, like this one, are loosely adapted from the London novel.

With stunning mountain views and scenes set in Wild West studios, the story opens on the 140 pound (mostly) St. Bernard (actually mostly an animatronic animal) living in Santa Clara, California toward the end of the 19th century. The dog is a handful, in one scene knocking over a large table set for a banquet and eating enough to allow a month’s hibernation. Kidnapped by a bad man seeking money, Buck is sold, trained as a sled dog, and driven through ice and snow delivering mail to miners prospecting for gold. Ownership is taken by a rich woman and her evil brother Hal (Dan Stevens), who has no problem using a club on the growling Buck. They ignore advice from a grizzled prospector John Thornton (Harrison Ford) to wait until the spring melt. The dog attaches himself to Thornton, who talks to Buck about his desire to return home. Later adventures pit Buck and Thornton against Hal with climactic results.

If your kids were not told that the dogs were not real, only the most astute would recognize that Buck and an assortment of dogs, wolves, rabbits, and birds are not flesh and blood. This is a dandy adventure for the small fry and should be tolerated well enough by the adults. Some of the more sensitive youngsters might be started by a few scenes of violence, but in this adaptation the directors have cut around the most egregious cases of mayhem such as the falling of a team of men and dogs together with the sleds into the river to drown.

At an hour and forty minutes, the movie does not outlast its welcome and might even encourage your little ones later to put down their phones and read some of Jack London’s adventure tales. All is told in chronological order in a story that ultimately and perversely goes against the idea that dogs prefer people more than their own kind.

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

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

BALLOON – movie review

BALLOON
Distrib Films US
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Herbig
Screenwriter: Kit Hopkins, Thilo Röscheisen, Michael Herbig
Cast: Freidrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg, Thomas Kretschmann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/6/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

Poster

The Jews in Germany had a real problem during the 1930’s, the situation escalating rapidly right up to the extreme dangers they faced in the forties. By contrast, the people of East Germany, mainly Christian, could hardly consider themselves similarly persecuted by the Communist regime. I fear that Director Michael Herbig, best known in the German comedy scene by performing and directing works like the parody “Bullyparade: The Film,” does not get across with his feel-good thriller “Balloon,” why families are so eager to escape from the Communist sector into the Western area that they would risk their lives. Still, since this is based on a true story, two heroic families go through a lifetime of anxiety in just a few weeks to get out of the land where everyone is under surveillance by the Stasi (police). We see that people seek a new life in the West where they would lose their furniture, their money, and visits with grandparents, in order to go to another part of their own country.

The families on exhibited here are not outliers. A large number of East German citizens tried to escape to the West, some from East Berlin where the distance to a new life is almost as close as that between North Korea and South in the DMZ. But under the leadership of Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke), a not-so-merry band of travelers need to go from their village across to Bavaria. They plan to do this in an almost unique way, however, by building a balloon just as you and I would build a kite and float above the clouds, descending slowly into the forest across its informal border. Since “Balloon” is a thriller, and since the Strelzyks and another family actually make the trip, we visualize that the heroic people would meet with so many failures that you can see them spending their lives in a Stasi jail—though they would be free when the country became unified.

Peter and his wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) live in town of Possneck where Peter makes a living as an electrician—not the best training for building a balloon. Yet they have a car, a TV, and through their friendship with the people next door whose household head (Ronald Kukulies) happens to be Stasi, they are able to take a vacation at an East Berlin hotel. At the same time their oldest child is being “hit on” by the Stasi official’s daughter, the whole setup reminding Amazon Prime customers of the friendship between an FBI agent and a Soviet spy in the wonderful series “The Americans.”

Together with their friends Petra (Alicia von Rittberg) and Günter (David Kross), who at first were unwilling to take the risk, they build the balloon, somehow unnoticed by the local Stasi head Lieutenant Colonel Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann). As if the perils of the balloon trip were not enough, Doris accidentally drops her bottle of thyroid medication in the woods, recovered by the police who begin a search of the three pharmacies that may have filled it.

If you saw “The Aeronauts,” about pilots launching a historic balloon flight in 1862 for scientific purposes, you would be privy to all the things that might go wrong. But that picture lacks the excitement of “Balloon,” which could be appreciated not only by people who are political wonks but by those who don’t know Berlin from Ouagadougou. The thriller aspect reaches its climax when it appears that the entire East German military are in the chase, using helicopters and cars and communicating with frantic phone calls. You’d think that these were important nuclear scientists carrying their secrets into unchartered territory. You might wonder: if these people got away with their scheme—as they did—would the entire Communist system collapse (as it actually did after the collapse of the Berlin wall, built in 1961 allegedly to prevent Western “fascists” from entering the East to destroy the socialist system)?

Whether that frantic pursuit of these humble people took place as we see on the screen or not, this is not a documentary but a well-made narrative dramatizing a heartwarming tribute to the men and women who shed their property and risked their very lives simply to go from one part of the country to another.

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

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

THE NIGHT CLERK – movie review

THE NIGHT CLERK
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Cristofer
Screenwriter: Michael Cristofer
Cast: Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, Tye Sheridan, John Leguizamo, Johnathan Schaech, Jacque Gray
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

You might expect Michael Cristofer’s “The Night Clerk” to be in tune with his directing interests, given that his previous film, “Original Sin,” unravels a scheme by a woman and her lover wherein the woman is to marry a rich man and run off with his money. The plot fails when Angelina Jolie’s character, Julia Russell, falls in love with the guy she marries. (We won’t talk about the reviews.) This time Cristofer is at the helm of a crime story that focuses on Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan), a 23-year-old fellow with Asperger’s syndrome, who runs the night shift at a small hotel. Because of his impairment, he is unable to make eye contact with others, and speaks formally with too much detail, which is a symptom of high intelligence. Nor can he pick up on social cues.

Bart Bromely, the title character played by Tye Sheridan, is afflicted with this neurobiological condition. Nevertheless he has a job as a hotel night clerk because, the manager says, the company has a policy of hiring people with impairments. In order to learn how to speak informally, Bart, who is a wiz at camera technology, sets up hidden cameras in the rooms not because he is a perv voyeur but because he uses the guests to instruct him in how to speak. This provides some of the movie’s comedy, as when the beautiful Andrea (Ana de Armas) is checking in, getting an earful from robotic Bart on the amenities the hotel provides.

“The Night Clerk” moves into crime territory when Bart’s camera captures a struggle between a man, Nick (Johnathon Schaech) and a woman, Karen (Jacque Gray), an argument that results in the woman’s murder—all picked up by Bart. He interferes with the body, gets blood on himself, and is considered by police detective Johnny Espada (John Leguizamo) to be the prime suspect. At this point the movie breaks away from a crime genre to explore a relationship showing Andrea, a new guest who is charmed by Bart’s awkwardness, particularly when Bart discusses like a walking Wikipedia how love is an addiction, like cocaine, releasing a flood of endorphins, and how heartbreak occurs when the love (like cocaine) is withdrawn.

Helen Hunt appears from time to time as Ethan Bromley, Bart’s mother, who tries to defend her “fragile” boy from the detective’s interrogation. Here and there, Cristofer’s script establishes comic points, as when Bart, who like Jim Carrey’s Fletcher Reede in “Liar Liar,” not only cannot lie but insists on proactively telling people truths they don’t want to hear. A used car salesman (D.L. Walker), hears from Bart not only that the dealer is obese but that obesity can cause cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Nor is a clothing salesman (Walter Platz) off the hook, informed by Bart that he would never wear slacks recommended by the dealer because the dealer is “old.”

Activities surrounding the murder of a blond woman in a hotel room pop up now and then during Espada’s interrogation, but this is primarily a film about a tender but unconsummated affection between Andrea and Bart, though there is some reason to believe that Andrea is using the night clerk, setting him up along with her boyfriend Nick, to take the blame for the killing.

Tye Sheridan, whose performance might be compared to that of Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” and Tom Hanks’ title performance in “Forrest Gump,” is solid and delivers visual understanding of a condition that affects one person in every five hundred. Sheridan is perhaps best known as Ellis in Jeff Nichols’’Mud,” about two boys who help a fugitive to avoid capture by vigilantes. His job this time is so good that you in your theater seat might feel like getting up, frustrated by the projection of his autism, to shout, “What’s the big deal? Just look him in the eye and stop talking!”

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

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

ORDINARY LOVE – movie review

ORDINARY LOVE
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Lyburn
Screenwriter:  Owen McCafferty
Cast: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson, David Wilmot, Amit Shah
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/10/20                                                                                
Opens: February 14, 2020

Liam Neeson & Lesley Manville in First UK Trailer for ...

People go to movies because they like to laugh, but they also like to cry.  In the classic downer, Arthur Hiller’s 1970 movie “Love Story,” a young couple fall in love.  Death strikes, especially tragic since the couple have their whole lives ahead of them.  You would expect the primary audience to be people of about the same age, 20-somethings.  On Valentine’s day comes a new weepie, “Ordinary Love,” which deals with people in the sixties, now retired.  You might expect an audience to be older than the ones that attended the Hiller film, but that’s just a guess.  Though neither of the principal characters passes away, the story is filled with the ways that the two cope with a diagnosis that confirms that the lump that Joan (Lesley Manville) feels in her breast while in the shower is cancer.  Though her hopes were up at first when the doctors were not sure, they were dashed after the final test.  Since Joan has a partner, her husband Tom (Liam Neeson), is drawn into the drama.  Tom has the time free to escort his wife to and from the hospital, though whatever physical difficulties are involved in transporting from a Belfast suburb to the big city hospital is nothing compared to the emotional torment that such a situation provokes.

Some psychoanalysts tell us that when two married people, even those who have lived together for decades, encounter a serious illness, the sick person, who faces surgery, mastectomy, reconstruction of the breast, all followed up by a course in chemotherapy, is not the only individual who suffers. A serious sickness could threaten a marriage, no matter how fond the husband is of his wife. Petty arguments notwithstanding. Tom sometimes baits Joan with comments that he considers witty but which are taken in a negative way by Joan.  Now, however, the normal, quiet household of an average couple is strained to such an extent that when Tom lets slip a thoughtless comment—“We’re in this together” as though they share a burden equally—you can sympathize with Joan’s fury.

The directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Lyburn, who worked together in 2012 on the film “Good Vibrations,” may be stepping out of their comfort zone by morphing from a duo about a story of a man who developed Belfast’s punk-rock scene into tackling one of a generally stay-at-home couple giving each other ordinary love.

Since Owen McCafferty, whose script for “Mikybo and Me”—about two young pals obsessed with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who run away to Australia–contributes ordinary dialogue for this ordinary couple, the principal joy of “Ordinary Love” is in the acting.  Giving themselves over this a slice of life, Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville come across so bonded with each other that you might swear they were actually married.  They take us from their suburb of Belfast into the big city medical system (filmed on location by Piers McGrail), allowing us to see UK’s health coverage up close and personal.   The sadness mounts when we are introduced to Peter (David Wilmot), whom the couple run into at the hospital, where they learn that Peter has terminal cancer.  Peter had once taught Joan and Tom’s daughter.  Oh, and young Debbie, perhaps the only child of the marriage, had died a decade ago.

This, then, is a story well told, one that expects a mature audience as drawn into the ordinary lives of these people as youngsters might be riveted by “Lord of the Rings.”

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

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

YOU GO TO MY HEAD – movie review

YOU GO TO MY HEAD
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dimitri de Clercq
Screenwriter: Dimitri de Clercq, Pierre Bourdy
Cast: Delfine Bafort, Svetozar Cvetkovic, Arend Pinoy, Omar Sarnane, Laurence Trémolet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

 

“You Go to My Head,” the title taken from the 1938 song by J. Fred Coots, is about the nature of identity, with the specific exploration of what happens to a woman who has lost her memory and whose life is taken over by a lonely architect who convinces her that he is her husband. As we watch the two performers,Kitty (Delfine Bafort) and Jake (Svetozar Cvetkovic) engaging in a slow burn, appearing together in most of the film’s nearly two hours, we are likely to wonder what will happen when Kitty, whose real name is Dafne, recovers her memory. Will her new insight lead her to embrace her life, which despite its inauthenticity involves a sizzling romance, or will she abandon the man who saved her life, disgusted by the perverted game he is playing and sending him back to the loneliness he has endured for years?

Jake is an architect living in the Sahara—actually filmed in a house that must have once been featured in Architectural Digest magazine. When he discovers that a slim, beautiful, blond woman has been the victim of a car accident killing the man who had driven the car, he carries her back to his home, nurses her back to health, and pretends to be her husband. Though Kitty, the fictitious name he had given her, is eager to recall events in her life, she is slowly falling in love with her “husband,” exhilarated by the life she shares with him under the clear desert skies. Convincing Kitty has been easy as he has given her the clothing of the woman who had once shared his domain, even putting a wedding band on her finger while she is asleep under a doctor’s sedation.

The cracks developing in his swimming pool—into which she indulges displaying full-frontal nudity—serve as metaphor for the crumbling of the woman’s amnesia. All takes place within the dreamy landscape of Southern Morocco exquisitely filmed by Stijn Grupping with elements of fantasy embellished by Hacène Larby’s music with startling, climactic notes ninety-three minutes into the drama.

This is a winning job all around, co-written and directed by Dimitri de Clercq in his sophomore feature—following up his 1995 film “The Blue Villa,” about a ghostly return of a man into bordello of a Mediterranean island. At the time of this review we learn that the movie has already won Best Picture in film festivals in Bogota, Houston and Orlando with nominations for cinematography, score and acting among thirty-six wins and one hundred sixteen nominations.

In English and a little French spoken by the Yugoslav-born actor and his Belgian-born partner.

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

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

OLYMPIC DREAMS – movie review

OLYMPIC DREAMS
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeremy Teicher
Screenwriter: Alexi Pappas, Jeremy Teicher, Nick Kroll
Cast: Alexi Pappas, Nick Kroll, Gus Kenworthy, Morgan Schild
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/3/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

Nick Kroll and Alexi Pappas in Olympic Dreams (2019)

Jeremy Teicher’s movie is about a rom-com about competing in the Olympics, but it is also competing in a crowded fields of other romantic tales opening on Valentine’s Day. Think of “The Photograph,” “Ordinary Love,” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even the horror pick “Fantasy Island,” all February 14th fare. There is just one horror in “Olympic Dreams,” one evoked by the soundtrack. Annie Hart and Jay Wadley’s often pounding music does its best to drown out even the soft dialogue of the two would-be lovers as though director Jeremy Teicher is as uncertain about the pillow talk as his two characters are about their goals.

Other than that, this is the kind of fare often distributed during the Sundance Festivals, too gentle to attract the kind of audience that goes for bit commercial love stories. The two actors, Alexi Pappas as Penelope and Nick Kroll as Ezra are both involved in the script writing along with the director (who in real life is Pappas’ husband).

“Olympic Dreams” may feature Penelope and Ezra’s warm but neurotically repressed conversations but you can’t say that it’s the kind of movie that could or should find a spot even on a Broadway stage. To its credit this is the first film green lighted by the Olympic Committee to shoot on location at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, giving even people who don’t typically go for rom-coms to see what goes on both on the slopes and behind the scenes at the Athlete Village cafeteria, the active game room, and the parties.

It’s also where too lonely people meet. Penelope competes in cross-country skiing (in real life Pappas is a long distance runner most adept in 10 km runs) while Ezra is a volunteer dentist who at the age of thirty-seven (41 in real life) is understandably unhappy with his position in a New Jersey dental clinic. We don’t really find out why he never used his clinical experience to branch out into private practice, but maybe it’s because at his age he sprinkles the word “like” into his conversations as though he were still a teen or 20-something. But he does have a good dental-chair manner, chatting up the athletes and getting them to talk about themselves before they open their mouths wide.

For her part Alexi is the assertive member of the duo, in effect asking him out on dates, but as we in the audience wonder when (not whether) they will ever “get it on,” we might leave the theater with the impression that fairly severe neuroticism is at work as he rebuffs the advances of the woman fifteen years his junior. Still, you’re not going to get the spoiler here on how everything turns out. That’s all part of the dramatic tension evoked by the twosome.

Here are two people, both the sorts who never make the headlines, though Penelope is an Olympian and that’s something, and Ezra has made it through dental school but is held back to such an extent that in their first argument, Penelope verbally shakes him up, implying that he “snap out of it,” to “just do it.”

Intrusive music aside, Pappas and Kroll are an interesting couple to watch, to empathize with. You will believe that Pappas is an athlete, which she is, and I that Kroll is a Woody-Allen-like stand-up comedian, which he is.

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

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

 

THE LODGE – movie review

THE LODGE
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Veronik Franz, Severin Fiala
Screenwriter: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/5/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

 

The Lodge

A flagrant male fantasy appears during the opening moments of this film: that a woman would kill herself rather than accept being dumped by a fellow. The first quarter hour of “The Lodge,” from Austrian directors Veronnik Franz and Severin Fiala, is the most illuminating in terms of atmospheric brightness. It’s too bad that the fast pace with normal conversations will slow down to a crawl and end the movie with repetitiveness and far-away looks sustained by the close-up camera, that might lead some in the audience unable to repress their laughter.

Of course scenes of activity in cabins in the woods are a favorite of horror-meisters, the best in my opinion being Eli Roth’s 2007 “Hostel II,” which follows three American female art students in Rome who are directed to a Slovak village where they are kidnapped and taken to a facility in which rich clients pay to torture and kill people. The only torture in this entry is psychological with an occurrence in at least one scene that is simply inexplicable.

The film may recall the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in which a cult leader demands that hundreds of his followers drink poisoned Kool-Aid because “God is waiting for you.” “The Lodge” focuses first on Richard (Richard Armitage), who urges his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) to speed up their divorce to allow him to marry Grace (Riley Keogh). Aside: Anyone who would toss out a woman that looks like Alicia Silverstone for anybody else might be more nuts any other character in this movie.

Dad wants his two sons, teen Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and younger sis Mia (Lia McHugh) to bond with Grace, his new squeeze, allowing the family to settle peacefully into new surroundings. To hasten the peace plan, he invites Grace to his rustic cabin during the dead of winter, then leaves her with the kids to finish up some business in the city. Truth, though, often comes out of the mouths of babes, as when Aiden rhetorically asks his dad “Why do you want to marry that psychopath?”

There is much evidence that things are not right in Grace’s mind. She is the sole survivor of a cult massacre ordered by the leader, depending on prescription tablets to keep what’s left of her sanity. But when things disappear in the cabin—food is gone from the frig, the adorable Maltese dog has gotten out in the blustery weather, and most important Grace is missing her pills—the stage is set for horror.

But the real horror is not  long in coming, though it was best presented in the opening scene. From that time onward the movie bogs down in long stares, cold shoulders, and a single event that indicates a possible sexual attraction by the older boy for the new woman. Melodramatic incidents such as the family unit’s falling through the ice (was that planned or was it an accident?) and visions by Grace of people from her past (hallucinations or real ghosts?) make way for the dramatic conclusion, which leaves questions unanswered.

No complaints about the acting. Richard Armitage is fine as the male adult unable to see what his teen boy intuits, and Riley Keough is spot-on as a woman who seems normal at first but who steadily loses her emotional bearing.

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

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

WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody speaking English.

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

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

THE ASSISTANT – movie reveiw

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

The Assistant Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LAST FULL MEASURE – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITIZEN K – movie review

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

Citizen K (2019) picture s_id875062.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

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

Les misérables (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADVOCATE – movie review

ADVOCATE

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

Advocate (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

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

The Song of Names (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INVISIBLE LIFE – movie review

INVISIBLE LIFE (A visa invisível)
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenwriter: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz based on a novel y Martha Batalha
Cast: Carol Duarte, Juilia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavis Gusmao
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/9/19
Opens: December 20, 2019

Invisible Life

Sisterhood is powerful. That’s a good slogan for our own time but had a different meaning in the 1950s. With “Invisible Life,” director Karim Aïnouz follows up on his “Praia do Futuro” about a doomed relationship to reveal the long story of two sisters who cannot get enough of each other but who are separated in Brazil’s famed city of Rio never to meet again. An American watching the picture can’t help thinking that the fifties, which despite prosperity marked a dull, conventional era in the U.S., has its reflection in the manners of a family in Brazil.

The film feature two women whose bond is obvious in the opening scenes when sisters Guida (Julia Stockler), now twenty years old and Euridice (Carol Duarte) now eighteen, making it all the more tragic that they are fated to be separated by Manuel (Antonio Fonseca)a mean-spirited father whose tyranny, supported by a patriarchal society, is unchecked by man’s passive wife Ana (Flavai Gusmao).

In one fateful night, Guida sneaks out of the house to attend a dance club with Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a Greek sailer. Euridice, a classical pianist, looks forward to traveling to Vienna to audition for a conservatory, an ambitious plan especially considering the need to travel by ship to a far-off city. Believing that she will marry her Greek boyfriend, Guida discovers that Yorgos (Nikoas Antunes), after making her pregnant, is off to find more sexual conquests. Guida returns home to a father who, seeing her daughter with child, disowns her and throws her out of the house. What’s more her conservative dad lies, telling her that Euridice had gone to Vienna. Little do the two young women realize that they may never cross paths again.

Guida, having no skills and no home, becomes a sex worker, mentored by an older hooker Filomena (Barbara Santos), who becomes her lifeline given the absence of her own family, while Euridice fares just a little better, having married a brute of a man via arranged marriage from her father, who sees that the young man has money and can treat her well. While Guida does marginally well, her sister, refusing the numb life of church, children and home, has a barrier put in the way of her feminist ambitions.

A Hollywood movie would doubtless have the two women find each other, surely by the close of two years or more. In one clever twist, the desire of the two sisters to meet is thwarted by a creative ploy, leading Euridice, now in her seventies or eighties, ultimately understanding why she is unable to meet up with her long lost sister. Yet director Aïnouz and her co-writers Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, adapt the novel by Martha Batalha to show the resilience of the two women, a trait that might make you think of how #Me Too people have spoken up, leading to the firing of major celebrities. A musical score that include Chopin and Liszt, and cinematography that brings out the period nature of the piece, help to make this film the obvious choice of the film people in Brazil to set up this candidate for end-year awards.

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

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

BOMBSHELL – movie review

BOMBSHELL

Lionsgate
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Cast: Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Morrison, Nicole Kidman
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 11/10/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

In “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Megyn Kelly, a larger-than-life lawyer best remembered for her aggressive questioning of candidate Donald Trump who replied when she cited Trump for calling women dogs, pigs and bimbos, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” This is the kind of programming, perhaps, that made Fox the number one cable news program in America. The picture as whole, though, is directed in a pedestrian way by Jay Roach, whose “Trumbo” was a devastating look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who in 1947 was blacklisted for his leftist political beliefs. Except for a documentary-style run showing events during past years, “Bombshell” follows a chronological trajectory, the style used by documentary filmmakers, but Michael Moore could probably make a doc with more biting satire and a boatload of humor that is largely missing from this film.

Roach uses a screenplay by Charles Randolph, whose “The Life of David Gale” is generally considered a flub but whose “The Big Short” is a dynamic piece of muckraking exposing financers on Wall Street who actually hoped that their clients would be unable to pay their mortgages. The current movie is anchored by three women, all blondes with fine figures, which Fox demands of its frontline news people. Charlize Theron serves as first among equals in the role of Megyn Kelly, who turned to journalism after a career as a corporate defense attorney and was included in the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people. Her career town a sharp turn downward following her accusation that Roger Ailes, here played by John Lithgow complete with the jowels and triple chin of the news boss from the second floor and who is so large that he needed a walker to get around. Kelly accuses the late Roger Ailes of trying to kiss her on the lips, noting that Ailes freely told her that she has to play ball with him behind locked doors if she wants to unlock her career with Fox.

As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman portrays the journalist and author, also called by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. Like Kelly, she accuses Ailes of harassment, shown here almost desperate in her goal of attracting the testimonies of other women who had been approached by the news boss in similar unsavory ways. She is perhaps the person most able to show that her testimony is not simply lies in order to collect a fat paycheck, suing Roger Ailes directly rather than Fox News, and signing up some twenty additional women with similar tales of sordid behavior.

For her part Kalya Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is stunned when called into Ailes’ second-floor office, eager to move up to “the front of the line” in news broadcasting, only to be commanded to life her skirt higher, and “no, higher,” “higher,” by Ailes, sitting comfortably behind his large desk, his breath seeming to come in greater spurts as Kayla, with considerable ambivalence, does what she is told.

The performers are made up to look quite like their real-live counterparts in much that Saturday Night Live has been able to disguise Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon (also appearing here as a closeted lesbian) as KellyAnne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton among others. Malcolm McDowell gets a small but important role as Rupert Murdoch, the boss of bosses stationed on the eighth floor of the Fox building (filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Los Angeles). Though a big supporter of Ailes, even he turns against the man, refusing even to appear with him to announced Aiels’s dismissal from Fox, though he did hand over a handsome severance check, sending him off on a lavish party.

Fox News, with the slogan “Fair and balanced,” is clearly within the Republican-conservative view of politics, favoring free trade, an anti-abortion platform, and strong family bonds. Hypocrisy abounds, however, beyond the purview of this film, as accusations mounted up against Fox News Latino vice president Francisco Cortes who tried to coerce Tamara N. Holder into performing oral sex, Bill O’Reilly, whose show sporting combative, right-wing propaganda, is canned with the network’s settling with Juliet Huddy, including the firing of Fox sports president Jamie Horowitz.

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

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

 

A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

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

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

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – movie review

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en fej)
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noemi Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/4/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Now that Céline Sciamma’s film has been tapped by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Cinematography, you may be even more curious to find out just how good the movie is. Be assured: it is excellent in every way, from the unusually authentic acting, to the Pinteresque pauses that define the two principal characters’ dialogue; from the composition of the scenes, each one serving as a potential painting in itself; to the remarkable isolation of the scenery shot on location in the French province of Brittany. Sciamma follows up on her previous film “Tomboy” about a ten-year-old girl who presents herself to other children as a boy named Mikhael with her current entry, about two women who are not tomboys but who broaden their concept of sexuality in similar ways.

The title of the film is also that of a painting executed by Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and depicts the sexual awakening of a previously closeted woman who had spent her early years in a monastery. The action, which takes place in 1760, opens as a number of men row Marianne out to the island, complete with her painting gear—which she recovers when it had left the boat and is floating in the water by jumping right in and taking it back. Except for an additional segment of the film that shows bewigged men looking at paintings in a museum, there is no sign of masculinity to be found. This is strictly a study of women, focusing on the way that a liberated Marianne and an isolated woman about her age are ablaze with desire, though spending a fair amount of time before throwing off resistance to action.

How did this lesbian relationship begin? Marianne, who makes her living by receiving commissions from rich and titled women for portraits, shows up at the home of a countess (Valeria Golino), observing a portrait of her sponsor painted by Marianne’s father years back when the countess was a young woman. Yet the countess’ daughter Hèloise, having refused to sit for her own portrait, is reacting to the suicide of her sister who had been pledged by her mother to a rich Milanese man. To ease the way for Hèloise’s eventual surrender to the proposed painting, Marianne has been told to pretend she is merely a walking companion, during which time she understands that Hèloise is enraged by the thought of marriage to a man she had not met.

In a subplot, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the housekeeper who does embroidery, is pregnant, desperate enough to abort the fetus to go to an abortionist who uses an undisclosed poison to separate the unborn from its mother.

Gratefully the soundtrack is almost bereft of music, the kind of distraction that ruins so many Hollywood movies whose directors do not trust their audience to know when to cry and when to feel joy. As the two women go about walks on the beach, heading back to the quarters to work on the portrait, they are filled with desire. Hèloise begins to ask Marianne whether she had ever “known love,” asks how it feels, and yes, succumbs to the mutual urges of the two women. Their tsunami of forbidden emotions is palpable, the two offering a shower of sparks to display their mutual love. At one point Hèloise even allows her dress to catch afire, taking her good time to put it out.

“Portrait” received not only a best cinematography award from the prestigious NY Film Critics Circle but has been blessed by a best screenplay citation at a Cannes Festival. Photography and screenplay and direction aside, nothing would have come of this film were it not for the passion of the two actresses evoking forbidden love at a time that might surprise moviegoers who believed that lesbianism was created in the 20th century.

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

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

MAKING WAVES – movie review

MAKING WAVES: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Cinetic Media
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Midge Costin
Screenwriter: Bobette Buster
Cast: Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Murray Spivak, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, Ryan Coogler
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: October 25, 2019

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019)

I’ll bet you thought that when the two sides clashing in Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart,” or the sound of jet fighters blasting away in the sky came from, well, the two sides clashing and the sound of jet fighters blasting. This may have been the case in 1927 when Al Jolson starred, singing away in “The Jazz Singer,” a microphone either attached to his jacket or held aloft a couple of feet over his head. But now sound, which the folks in “Making Waves” indicates, counts for fifty percent of the emotional content of a movie. We hear often that movies are a visual medium, but that axiom appears to ignore that without sound, we’d be back in the days of silent movies, which depended almost exclusively on visuals including those squiggly words we relied on. How could you get excitement from a movie dealing with World War I, made in 1917, when you don’t hear the rat-tat-tat of the trenches?

Take a look at some of the blockbuster movies of the last ten years, no even father back, and you’ll notice the names of a few principal actors, some performers with secondary roles, and then a slew of names of the crew that sometimes goes well over one hundred. Sound and sound editors, Foley, these are people behind the scenes who are recognized only at awards time. When you hear their names mentioned during Oscar celebrations, you probably think they constitute nothing but filler until the hosts get with the real awards. Without their fifteen minutes of fame on the stage, nobody outside the profession had ever heard of them, yet directors depend on them to follow their instructions. They are indispensable, having far more technical knowhow about sound than those in the director’s seat.

This brings us to “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” which is not only an education but quite an entertaining one. Don’t worry: there will not be a quiz on the technical details you see, unless you are taking courses in Film, a major that is growing in popularity these days.

Probably most of us had never seen a silent movie which is not really silent but whose sound comes from actual orchestras inside the theaters, even sound effects that are made to order right on the premises and which, after the run of the movie is over, disappear into the next film. To record dialogue from such characters as King Kong, the sound people did not record ape sounds but synthesized the vocals by recording an assortment of zoo animals. “Star Wars” has awesome sound, no matter whether films like these are within your own taste in movies. Ben Burtt got tapped for the sound job because the master, Walter Murch, was unavailable. Stereo sound is what helped to make the movie “The Beatles” as great as it is.

“Apocalypse Now” emerges as the film whose sound easily accounts for fifty percent of the excitement. Guns, planes, soldiers marching, all get their sound not from themselves but from the volume created by the sound people. Summing: this film is combines entertainment with enlightenment so well that one hopes that people from other branches of the industry will share their expertise with us. Maybe we will finally find out what the Best Boy and the Gaffer really do.

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

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

DARK WATERS – movie review

DARK WATERS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the NY Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Dark Waters - Poster Gallery

The state of West Virginia is politically as red as a hooker’s lipstick. Even its Democratic senator Joe Manchin votes with Trump sixty-one percent of the time. In one sense you can’t blame the folks who live there. They are in a state that immediately brings to mind the term “coal miners.” People who have served in that dangerous job for generations are running out of options now that coal has been displaced by other energy sources, and they think that Trump will bring back their jobs. The small farmers as well, a generally conservative segment of society, are mostly Republicans, though they have been thrown under the boss by Trump who is fighting a losing trade war with China, the largest customer of their soybeans. Small farmers and others in the state were awakened when the lies and evil deeds of one corporation, DuPont, caused havoc with their land, their cows, and with the very health of the God-fearing human beings who live there. Like the cigarette companies who have known for decades that their product causes cancer, DuPont, a chemical giant, dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste in landfills surrounding the farms knowing that the stuff is carcinogenic. Todd Haynes, whose “Safe” takes on the plight of a housewife who develops an extreme sensitivity to chemicals, is in his métier, dealing now with an entire people afflicted with the carcinogenic sludge thrown at them by DuPont.

How does a corporate attorney whose white shoe firm defends big corporations manage to dedicate seventeen years of his life to fighting a giant industry? We’re not exactly sure but we do see that Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is incensed by what is being doe to the little guy beginning when a farmer in Parkersburg, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), barges into the Cincinnati law office requesting, or rather demanding, that Rob take the case. At first Rob is aghast that this fellow seeks out him of all people, but Wilbur has been referred to Rob by the lawyer’s grandmother. That’s a good enough start. For the rest of the story, Rob’s firm, particularly its managing partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), is at first hesitant, then going whole hog to support him. Later on as the case drags on for seventeen years, Tom is not so sure, but he does cut Rob’s pay four times because clients are no longer willing to work with him.

Supported by his pious wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) who later regrets what her husband is doing—ruining his health, losing money that keeps the increasing brood of children happy—she becomes almost ballistic as she sees her compulsive partner’s health deteriorating. DuPont does what big corporations do when sued. Though they sometimes settle, this times DuPont fights with its team of corporate lawyers against the farmers. The rest of the movie deals with the year-by-year accumulations of road blocks that the chemical giant puts in the way of the plaintiff. In one instance, responding to a discovery motion, DuPont sends some fifty large boxes of document to the law office.

The culmination of the story should not be a surprise, because this narrative film is based on actual events in which DuPont agrees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the people whose health has deteriorated because of the carcinogenic chemical PFOA, which since 2013 is no longer being used to manufacture Teflon. If there is an element of John Grisham in the story—that best-selling author often finishing up with ironic endings (e.g. an insurance company that has lost a case files bankruptcy, shafting the plaintiffs), it is that many of the plaintiffs have died from exposure to PFOA.

Mark Ruffalo’s performance is spot on. The make-up department has increased his weight as the story moves on, Ruffalo’s puffy face brought on perhaps by the way his determination to dedicate half of his life to the case upends his need for physical activity. In the tradition of Norma Rae, Matewan, and Silkwood, “Dark Waters” is a strong, sober inclusion in the David-and-Goliath category of fights against the evils of companies that have known that they are wrong and have refused to admit their guilt.

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

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

LITTLE JOE – movie review

LITTLE JOE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

 

Take a ride on the New York subway. Look around at the people surrounding you while pretending you’re looking at your smartphone. Do they seem particularly happy? If not, do they seem really depressed? Not usually. Would you be surprised to find out that a large number of your fellow New Yorkers are taking anti-depressants? In other words, people who take Prozac or the older medications like Elavil are acting relatively normal in public. They are not “different” people zombied out by their medication from the way they were before swallowing the pills, but Jessica Hausner, who directs and co-wrote “Little Joe” appears to warn us that Big Pharma is out to get our money and willing to take away our personalities as well. Then again we don’t really know what her point is since nothing in the story takes a firm stand.

The people in this film who have become affected by a feel-good flower have not particularly changed their character. They are not pod people. Nor are they carrying on as though they have just downed a couple of ecstasy pills at an all-night party. The changes that they undergo are subtle, which makes Hausner’s treatment a lot more nuanced than that taking place in your typical horror movie. By contrast think of how different they become in Jordan Peele’s excellent “Get Out.”

In one sense, this is good. “Little Joe” does not go over the top with horror tropes but rather makes the changes in personality almost too subtle to notice. On the other hand, since the people do not change much, what’s the big deal? Is this enough of a warning that we are too dependent on happiness pills? Not by my reckoning.
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Vienna-born director Hausner, whose terrific “Lourdes” in 2009 focuses on a wheelchair-bound woman attaining a miracle by going to Lourdes, films in Krems an de Donau, Vienna and Liverpool putting Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) front and center. The pixie-ish redhead is dedicated to her work in Planthouse Biotechnologies currently experimenting on a flower whose aroma can make people happy, provided that they are affectionate with the plant and water it regularly. In fact the hundreds of flowers laid out in the opening of the film do appear to respond well to human beings, opening their petals as though they were Venus flytraps that have just digested a scrumptious meal of caterpillars.

However the plant has not yet been approved by the necessary government agencies leading Karl, the boss (David Wilmot) to warn his crew about excess optimism. In violation of the rules, Alice takes a plant home, one of a species that she has named Little Joe in honor of her 13-year-old son Joe (Kit Connor). She becomes alarmed when Kit, who has never expressed a wish to live with his father who is Alice’s ex-husband, falls under the influence of Little Joe and suddenly wants to move out and live with his dad. Is he changing because he is going through puberty, or because of the influence of the petals?

For her part Alice is being pursued romantically by her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), rejecting one of his advance but reconsidering later. Is that change of heart an effect of the Little Joe? We in the audience need to interpret that and several other aspects of the movie. As we can see, the biotech workers who have been in contact with the flowers have not changed, although they may, like those of us who take antidepressants, be trying to act their regular selves. If Géraldine Bajard, who co-wrote the script with the director, wants us to see noticeable transformations, why be so subtle as though shrugging off all the melodramas inherent in other sci-fi movies?

One character, Bella (Kerry Fox), had returned to work in the lab having been on leave after a suicide attempt. She has a nice sheepdog which she brings to the lab, a sweet, obedient fella who had suddenly turned vicious, ignoring Bella’s commands and threatening to bite her. She decides: “This is not my dog.” Is the dog acting strange because he senses that Bella is not the same woman? And why isn’t Bella, despite her mental illness, made as happy and content as the others?

These questions may be to the credit of the writers and director, or on the other hand may be so inconsistent and vague to warrant audience confusion and frustration. Finally is it supposed to be terrible that depressed people change their personalities for the better under the influence of Big Pharma? At least one person is happy even without the use of Little Joe, and that would be Emily Beecham who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.

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

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

MIDNIGHT FAMILY – movie review

MIDNIGHT FAMILY
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen
Cast: Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Josué Ochoa, Manuel Hernández
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Midnight Family Movie Poster

Question: When is an ambulance chaser not a hungry lawyer? Answer: When it is another ambulance. In Mexico City where the population is a hefty nine million, there are only forty-five certified, government vehicles to transport people to hospitals during emergencies. What’s more, the government hospitals are not as equipped as the private ones. So what happens to a victim of a car crash? What is a baby falls from a window and lands four stories later with a concussion? How do Mexicans pay for their rides in an ambulance, much less have money left over for a private hospital? In some respects “Midnight Family” takes the side of capitalism. Government is limited. Enter the private sphere where ambitious drivers chase accident victims and often try to outrun competing ambulances.

Watch this documentary, for which Stanford graduate Luke Lorentzen, an Art History and Film major spent six months riding in the back of an ambulance. He observed the Ochoa family during that time to gain just eighty minutes of prime footage. By the time you complete the visit, you might move politically to left (put more pesos into the public sector so that Mexicans, like Scandinavians, Germans, French and British are not bankrupted by the health care industry), or you might move to the right (leave it to the private market and you will find enough people motivated by money to take up the slack). But politics aside, this is an exciting picture that does not overstate its welcome, a documentary that eschews the old tried-and-boring interview process, showing, rather than telling, about how Mexico City handles its patients in emergencies.

Before you begin to think about the ethics of the Ochoa family, the most mature being seventeen-year-old Juan, put yourself in the back seat of a private ambulance, at the spot where sits the pudgy, chips-eating small fry who might be of the next generation of ambulance chasers. You pick up a guy with a bullet in his foot, fully conscious, and complaining that the ropes keeping him in place are too tight: “My foot! I can’t take it any more!” Feel awfully sad when the mother of an infant who has fallen from the fourth story in the pleasant residential area that the Ochoas cover worries that her child will not survive. Most interesting is the case of a high-school student whose boyfriend socked her one and broke her nose, an incident that might have active moviegoers compare the scene to one in the film “Waves,” wherein an eighteen-year-old receives a life sentence for killing his girlfriend with a single punch to the head. The young woman, who sits up, worries that the trip will be expensive. She also asks for a hug to “calm me.”

If you can take your attention away from the awe-inspiring mileage tracked by the ambulance, nicely photographed by the director, you may consider some ethical issues. It seems clear that while the Ochoas are performing an important service that the government lacks the political will to handle, and that they often come out broke when their passengers have no money and no health insurance, they may be crossing some legal lines. For example, we don’t know whether the Ochoas are in a vehicle that is fully registered with the proper license plates on the back that could ensure the respect of the populace. We are not sure that they have all the legally required equipment, though Juan does put the car through a check.

Are they always driving their patients to the nearest hospital, or do they sometimes take them to a more distant building which can pay them more pesos? And is the money they receive from one private hospital a legal fee to which they are entitled, or is it a kickback? Is it right for the Ochoas to chase other private ambulances to such an extent that they risk mowing down pedestrians to cut off their rival paramedics and be first at the scene? Given that there really is no alternative to private ambulances that may skirt legal issues and that the family may often be transporting money-challenged accident victims that cannot pay for their services, the Ochoas are heroes. One way or another, you are urged to go along for the ride. And look both ways when you cross the street.

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

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