NON-FICTION – movie review

NON-FICTION
Sundance Selects
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Theret, Nora Hamzawi
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/23/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, and Christa Théret in Doubles vies (2018)

In Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins, acting as a speech therapist, notes, “The French don’t care what they do actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.” This seems apropos to Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” whose original title is “Doubles Vies” since it deals with people who have double lives. The talk is literary. One can call this movie not so much plot- centered or character-centered as dialogue-centered given the heaviness of what these people have to say. As for the second part of the quotes, yes, these French don’t care what they do, given their attitude toward secret affairs that their significant others can only suspect.

Assayas, well known here as in France especially for his mysterious “Clouds of Sils Maria” (about a film star who is shown a reflection of herself in the latest drama she’s in), again employs the transcendent talents of Juliette Binoche, this time in the role of Selena (Juliette Binoche), who performs in the role of an actress, shown here in the movie’s only action segment. In a film that more than touches on the latest ideas in our ways of communicating through books, Assayas puts together Alain (Guillaume Canet) with his wife Selena, but more on a professional level with Léonard, the writer who has been regularly published by Alain. This time things are different. Alain suspects that Léonard is having an affair with Selena, so to get revenge without specifically accusing the writer, he takes Léonard to lunch only to tell him at the conclusion of the entrecôte and terrine that he will not publish his latest novel.

He has good reason for his suspicions since Léonard puts the people in his circle into the novels—which he correctly calls auto-fiction (novels that are thinly disguised plots involving his actual doings). One of the women in the book acts suspiciously like Selena. At the same time Léonard enjoys a long term relationship with Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) a political consultant, who likewise suspects that the writer is having an affair but is certain that the liaisons are with someone else.

On the one hand, “Non-Fiction” throws around a lot of ideas dealing with the present, digitalized world, in which people may or may not read literature on their Kindles. Regardless of the popularity of e-writing, books are not selling as they had been in the past. More prominently, though, Assayas is interested in the sexual round-a-lay that involves his witty and sly characters—the magnificent Juliette Binoche shining forth as you’d expect—giving the film its appeal as a sex comedy with commentary, highlighting Léonard as the anti-materialistic technophobe contrasted with the editor, who is more than willing to swim along with the current tide to stay in business.

French films are known to be talk-a-thons, and in this case, that’s mostly what you get. Consider editor, writer and their love interests sitting around Alain’s villa holding their barbecued meat on their laps rather than on tables; the same people seen separately as couples in their own homes, and the writer’s having to defend himself against a critical audience during a book talk insisting that Léonard is writing autobiography rather than fiction.

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

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

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE – movie review

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Lears
Screenwriter: Rachel Lears, Robin Blotnick
Cast: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Paul Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush
Screened at: Bryant Park Screening Room, NYC, 4/18/19
Opens: May 1, 2019

Candidates meeting in Washington DC

 

 

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is my kind of congresswoman. She favors extending the federal minimum wage to film critics. She opposes the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but nobody’s perfect. And in six years she will be 35, eligible to run for president, intent on challenging Mr. Trump when our leader refuses to withdraw from the Oval Office after his term is up. In praise of Ocasio-Cortez and three other women running for Congress in 2018, Rachel Lears, who wrote, directs and photographs the documentary “Knock Down the House” may not be the female Michael Moore. Her straightforward doc is heartwarming (unless you voted for Crowley), and her script has none of the hilarity that you can find in every Michael Moore movie. She feels bad that three of the women she follows were defeated. From the way the four candidates are described, you get the impression that they support Democratic Party ideals to the left of the Democratic establishment—such as Medicare for All, federal government jobs guarantee, and free tuition in public colleges. And you’re welcome to boo that Senator Joe Manchin easily won his primary in West Virginia, a man who is chastised for accepting support from the coal mining companies who seem not to care that their industry has led to far more cases of cancer than we find across the country.

In deciding what to edit out of a film and what to include, a director obviously cannot give her audience the kind of information about a candidate that a book or even an article in the New Yorker can address. But there are glaring omissions in Lears’s coverage of Ocasio-Cortez, who gets the major part of Lears’s time, given the candidates charisma and the mere fact of her victory. This should have been included: that contrary to what voters might think—that Ocasio-Cortez won because Hispanics finally turned out for a woman who is ethnically Puerto Rican in numbers to defeat the 20-year incumbent. The truth is that only thirteen percent of registered Democrats showed up at the booths in June for the primary, which in the Bronx determines the winner in November as well—and more important, her stunning win of 57.5% to Crowley’s 42.5% was caused thanks primarily to well-to-do young voters who are gentrifying neighborhoods in her partly Queens district of Woodside and Astoria.

The other three women who ran in the Democratic primary in 2018 have their hearts on the sleeves but none can compare with Ocasio-Cortez as electrifying speakers. The three are also progressives running to the left of establishment Democrats, favoring Medicare for All and a better deal for working people, whose wages have not risen (adjusted for inflation) since the 1970s. And they refuse to accept corporate money, which seems self-defeating, if noble. Can you really get enough money for future campaigns from nickel-and-dime contributions from ordinary folks?

Paul Jean Swearengin of West Virginia is able to knock out one gem of a quote, stating that many Americans think that her congressional district in Appalachia is inhabited by people with “no teeth, no shoes, no brains.” She drives around her area pointing out how many people in and around Coal City, West Virginia died of cancer, presumably from the pollution caused by the coal industry. Yet she does not suggest ways that her constituents can make a living if the mines were closed down in favor of renewable sources of energy. This is perhaps why Joe Manchin, a Republican in Democratic clothing, is able to use money from the coal industry to sail to victory.

In her Missouri district, Cori Bush, denied a fair shake of Lears’s time, projects her anger at the murder by police of eighteen-year-old African-American Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. We see the famous arc, clueing us immediately that we’re in St. Louis. Meanwhile out west, Amy Vilela fights a primary against the machine politician, awash in campaign money from lobbyists. Her own daughter died when a hospital refused to treat her because she had no insurance. That’s just the kind of thing that would prompt any of us to run for political office.

Lears, with four other docs in her résumé including “The Hand That Feeds,” which finds a sandwich maker in a New York restaurant uniting undocumented co-workers to fight against abusive restaurant conditions. Lears, obviously a progressive who would not see all that much to admire among establishment Democrats, is in her métier, probably glowing about the number of women, especially of color, who have captured seats in the House of Representatives to make the 2018 legislative body the most representative of the American people. That’s not saying much, though. Shouldn’t fifty percent of the House be made up of women, rather than the present twenty-three percent? In any case, Congress now has its first Native-American woman, two Muslim women, and (back to the ubiquitous Ocasio-Cortez), at 29, the youngest woman House member in history.

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

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

THE WHITE CROW – movie review

THE WHITE CROW
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter: David Hare
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raophel Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergie Polunin, Dalypso Valois
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 3/20/19
Opens: April 26, 2019

Rudolph Nureyev would likely be famous even if he remained with dance troupes in Moscow, but became an icon when he defected to France. Why would anyone want to defect from Mother Russia? Possibly the same reason people risked their lives in the bad old days, most notably when East Germans tried to flee to the West. Communism, in the opinion of many, is an example of social engineering gone wrong. It asks people to conform to an economic way of life that is unnatural. Therefore those governments who call themselves communist—whether they follow orthodox Marxism or not—have to keep control on its residents lest they evacuate en masse from this unnatural environment and make new homes in countries that simply do not need this kind of control.

But what of people who have done well in communist states like the former Soviet Union? Creative people who have become well known, have been educated by the state, and whose vocations are subsidized by the government? Think of Rudolph Nureyev, ascending to the potential of the Bolshoi Ballet, considered good enough to join a group going to Paris to dance as representatives of their proud state. Why would he want to leave everything behind? Strangely enough, we simply do not know even while we are riveted by Ralph Fiennes’ “The White Crow,” flexing his directing muscles for the third time. Sure. Nureyev liked the glitter of Paris, as did his fellow dancers who looked at the Champs Elysees goo-goo eyed. Maybe not all of them were too pleased when the bureaucrats assigned to keep an eye on the troupe gather all passports as they descend from the bus to spend a few days wowing the French. What country in West would think of collecting passports, handing them back only as they are returning to Moscow from the airport?

Then again, “The White Crow” is entertaining enough so we go home not disappointed without the insight that drove us to watch this movie. It’s fragmented, going from Nureyev’s birth on a train of the trans-Siberian railroad, and who was prepared from an early age for a career as a dancer. We watch as he develops an ego, strong enough to refuse to be trained by a teacher who he thinks does not like him, then taking up with Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes). The principal role is played by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer in his debut as an actor, a handsome fellow playing a man who rejects the communist view that the good of the state is paramount over the desires of the individual.

In Paris Nureyev flirts with Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who is on the rebound after the death of her boyfriend, a woman of some influence given her relationship with the son of André Malraux, who is France’s minister of cultural affairs. While he is staying out late enjoying the entertainments that Paris offers, he causes his handlers anxiety, suspecting that he could become a great embarrassment for the Soviet Union is he decides to defect. He continues his training with Pushkin, played by director Ralph Fiennes with such meekness that we wonder how such a person could inspire a ballet troupe. The poor man’s wimpy personality appears to push Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) into seducing Nureyev, though the bisexual performer nurses a craving for his roommate Yuri Soloview (Sergei Polunin).

Nureyev shows his temperament, not always held in check, when he feels patronized by a Russian waiter who may suspect that though he and Clara are dining together, the woman has class but the man is from peasant stock. His connection with Clara, a meeting of opposites, could result from her pleasant surprise to be with a man whose style is direct rather than wishy-washy.

The film jumps from the Soviet Union to Paris, with regular intervals shown in desaturated colors of his life as a small boy, who even then demonstrates a passion for dancing. I would have wished for more time spent on Nureyev’s theater performances, as Oleg Ivenko demonstrates everything on stage from adagio to allegro, from grande jeté to pirouette. Still, the scene of greatest drama, actual edge-of-the-seat minutes that you can find on police dramas, occurs when at the airport on the final day in Paris he asks for asylum. The KGB handlers, aware that this could happen, jump into the fray, fighting with the French airport police who with great patriotic fervor announce “This is France!”

Flashbacks do not detract from the continuity of the story, in fact we’re happy to see Maksimilian Grigoriyev depicting an enthusiastic Nureyev at the age of eight. This is a movie with great charm, glorious dancing and high drama, concluding with our excitement to watch a man thumbing his nose, or rather extending the middle finger, to the duplicitous agents of the big, bad Soviet Union.

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

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

GRASS – movie review

GRASS
Cinema Guild
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Ki Joo-bong, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Sae-byuk, Ahn Jae-hong
Screened at: Metrograph theater, NYC, 4/10/19
Opens: April 19, 2019 at New York’s Metrograph Theater

Martin Scorsese once said that Hong Sang-soo’s movies begin in an unassuming way—(which makes some liken the writer-director to Woody Allen)—but then the unpeeling begins. There’s no way of knowing, then, when a simple conversation between two people, will turn into something both capricious and daunting, as though a given person chatting with others might be as banal as a weather report, but then, a tsunami of rising emotions turn the talk into a fierce dressing down of a partner.

Such is the case with “Grass” whose title, obviously metaphorical and perhaps applying to some shoots growing outside a coffee shop, is mysterious. In fact a better title would be “Soju,” after a Korean alcoholic drink, that loosens people’s tongues and make them utter statements that they may wish they had no said. (Think of emails you’ve sent, regretting your harsh tone two seconds after sending, which you will be unable to retrieve.)

“Grass” has its store of people who are narcissistic and needy, but whose conversations are likely to turn off the people who must listen to the words of these flawed people. Filmed in black and white by Kim Hyung-yu, “Grass,” which embraces the three classical unities of time, plot and space, eavesdrops on four conversations. The chats are followed at a nearby table by Areum (Kim Min-hee), a writer who scratches the conversations out on her Apple laptop. Or perhaps the scenarios are actually created by Areum, who stands in for Hong Sang-soo, who writes as well as directs the film.

At first, two people coming across as either shy or afraid to bring up repressed emotions, are asking “how are you?” questions, avoiding eye contact, until the real subject emerges. The girl (Gong Min-jung) seated across a table from a boy (Ahn Jae-hong), begins yelling, accusing the gent of responsibility for the suicide of a mutual friend. He thinks she’s gone nuts and says so, but in a brief minute or so she calms down, conversing as though the outburst never took place. Similarly,in a chat between two others, a middle-aged actor (Jung Jin-young) seeks a partnership with a younger woman (Kim Sae-byuk), urging her to join him in writing a screenplay. Not exactly Lerner and Lowe or Rodgers and Hammerstein, the girl nixes the suggestion.

An out-of-work actor and would-be writer, the same Kyung-soo (Jung Jin-young), begins a conversation with the writer Areum, hitting on her in an outrageous way by asking her to allow him to observe her at her home for ten days as a model for a future screenplay. Around the room again we find a middle-aged woman, Sung-hwa, (Seo Young-hwa) fending off a proposal of a friend (Ki Joo-bong), who is desperate for a place to live and asks her permission to move into her digs. Obviously that has a much chance to fly as the would-be courtship between Kyung-soo and Kim Sae-byuk).

The film’s supremely catty scene involves Areum’s lunch with her brother Jinho (Shin Seo-kho). She criticizes him in the presence of his older girlfriend Yeonju (Ahn Sun-young). “Why are you thinking of marrying? You don’t even know each other!”

You could predict the writer-director’s trajectory simply by noting the title of his first directorial project, “The Day a Pig Fell into a Well.” You might think that Hong does not have a script prepared well in advance. You would be right: he knocks out a tentative script hours before filming, making changes as he sees fit. His stories generally takes place on peaceful streets far outside Seoul’s business district, in coffee shops and in lobbies of apartment houses. This quaint, charming dramedy played last year at New York’s Film Festival and should be seen by those who take pleasure in scenes of domestic realism.

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

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

FAST COLOR – movie review

FAST COLOR
Code Black
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, David Strathairn, Christopher Denham
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 3/27/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Fast Color Movie Poster

Are movies in 2019 heading for the metaphoric and the allegorical? You’d think so after seeing Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which throws symbols at us so fast that we’re glad the film is not in 3D. Where his “Get Out!” was about racism and the white liberals’ hypocrisy, “Us” is about the whole America, which Peele divides into the rich and powerful and the underclass that serves it. “Fast Color” is at base a sci-fi thriller with a few mild aspects of horror, its domestic scene serving largely to make us more aware of the need for men to crush feminism, but it is also about a helicopter parent who smothers her daughter to such an extent that she becomes rebellious and moves away for a long time. Still, it can be enjoyed even by folks who don’t give much of a fig (to coin a metaphor) for symbols, since it shows domestic scenes to which some of us can relate. And for those who like computer graphics/visual effects, director Julia Hart has her abundant visual effects team throw in some bright color, albeit not of the fast kind.

Julia Hart, whose “Miss Stevens” tracks a teacher who shepherds a group to a drama competition (to which I can relate since I arranged similar activities for my high school students), and the upcoming “Stargirl,” about a homeschooled teen who shakes this up in an Arizona high school, may not be dealing with high-school kids in “Fast Color” but her interest remains with young women. The primary focus, and that of her real-life husband Jordan Horowitz who serves as co-writer, is on Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a confused woman in her early thirties who is on the run. Formerly a drug addict, she for the past eight years of so has left her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) in the care of Ruth’s mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint).

Without the help of her mother, she is on the run from the government in a dystopian America that has not seen rain for a long time, conjuring up John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” if you will. She has a special power that makes a pursuing government out to haul her in to study her since when she has a seizure, the earth shakes and pictures fall from the wall of her solitary New Mexico town where Bo and Bo’s granddaughter are living. In particular Bill (Christopher Denham), a scientist who will advise Ruth to stop running because she is “hurting people,” has been trying to track her down.

This power has been handed down through the generations, though Bo, who does not get seizures, has a hobby of breaking up objects into molecules and putting them together, shown as she whips her cigarette into its toxic parts and puts it together. Much of the action is like the CGI; on a low key until the final minutes when the sky bursts into colors, the family’s principal trick consisting of taking the sky apart and putting it together into its current, bland blue color. Ultimately Sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn) hopes to track the runaway down, while we in the audience get the story’s principal twist. Yes, there’s something about this fellow that makes him more than just the enforcer of laws, a guy who has no intention of locking up his prey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has entertained audiences in “A Wrinkle in Time,” another imaginative tale involving a father’s disappearance in space and the team sent to find him, but you’re probably wondering about her name. Her father, Patrick Mbatha is a Black South African doctor, and her mother Anne Raw, a Caucasian English nurse. The British-born actress delivers nicely, whether causing earthquakes all around her during her seizures, breaking free of the ropes that bind her, or checking into a fleabag motel that charges as much for a huge jug of water as it does for the room, though despite her special powers she is vulnerable almost throughout.

The problem with “Fast Color” is that the story is not solid enough to convince the audience that it serves the transcendent purpose of seeing it as a feminist allegory of three women (yes, even young Lila can make a bowl rise from the table and disappear into a collage of colorful dots) being chased by men who, if they could, deprive the trio of their powers. Nor are we convinced that the behavior of Ruth’s mother, Bo, caused Ruth to disappear from a forlorn home and desert her own daughter for eight years. In short, the tale could have used more flashes of melodrama.

“Fast Color” was filmed by Michael Fimognari exclusively in New Mexico.

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

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

RED JOAN – movie review

RED JOAN
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Trevor Nunn
Screenwriter: Lindsay Shapero based on Jennie Rooney’s novel
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbrova
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 3/13/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Red Joan Movie Poster

Tom Lehrer sang this ironic song in 1965 which goes in part…

First we got the bomb and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s O.K.,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way!

The idea that it’s fine with us in the West that Russia got the bomb becomes literally true in Trevor Nunn’s film “Red Joan.” The title character, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), who is the fictional stand-in for the actual civil servant Melita Norwood, confesses after her arrest in 2000 that she was always a good British citizen though she handed nuclear secrets to Stalin. How so? Disgusted that the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she believed that the best way to avoid future nuclear holocausts is to make sure that the two super powers would live together in relative peace. And they would live together in relative peace knowing that it would be self-destructive to drop atomic weapons on each other. And maybe she had a point since, mirabile dictu, throughout the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union dared to attack each other head-on.

Most of “Red Joan” finds the great Judi Dench in the background, brought back to the limelight now and then but spending most of the story illustrating the way that her youthful self (Sophie Cookson) is recruited by the KGB to transmit nuclear secrets from the labs of Great Britain into the hands of the Soviets. The story involves considerable romantic interludes, first between Joan and Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), a communist firebrand who in a rousing speech notes that as a Jew, he made the mistake of leaving the Soviet Union and going to Germany. Aware of Hitler’s atrocities, he is orating full speed in favor of the Russians. During his affair with Joan Stanley, the latter awed of her new boyfriend’s ability to agitate a crowd, we in the movie audience wonder to what extent he is really in love with Joan and to what extent he is simply using her to transmit documents from her job in a physics lab to Britain’s ally, the Soviet Union.

Still a virgin in 1938, Joan is befriended by Sonia (Tereza Srbova), like Leo a KGB agent, who encourages Joan to pursue her romance with Sonia’s cousin Leo. In that lab, she is an assistant to professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) and becomes his lover though he is married to a woman who refuses to give him a divorce. The movie’s opening in the year 2000 finds Joan arrested by MI5, Britain’s CIA equivalent, defended by her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles). Though a lawyer’s job is to defend clients, Joan’s own son is furious: “How could you do this?” he insists, while reluctantly taking on her case.

“Red Joan” as a spy story is more in line with the brainy types of heroes and villains you’d find in John Le Carre’s novels, books like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “A Legacy of Spies,” and “The Guardian,” weaving past and present. An example involves Peter Guillam, a disciple of George Smiley, now living out his retirement on the south coast of Brittany, then called to account by the British Secret Service about his role in the Cold War. There is nothing James Bond-ish in this film, much as we might secretly wish for explosions more damaging than those between Joan and her attorney son Nick. There is no need even to wonder about Judi Dench’s performance. She is perhaps among greatest actress of her generation, and surprisingly, young Sophie Cookson rises to the occasion with a stunning, understated role as the idealistic 20-year-old who may not have thought of giving secrets to Stalin to provide a balance of power, but because she had become a dedicated communist under Leo’s vivid encouragement.

The king’s English is spoken throughout, so no subtitles are needed for us Americans. Charlotte Walker’s costumes are spot on as is Cristina Crisali’s set design, both eliciting the vibes of the two time periods. Zac Nicholson films all in Cambridgeshire, England. This is a well-cast story, unshowy, that will lead to consider Joan’s quote “I was fighting for the living, I loved my country!” and making up your mind about whether she believed this in spite of being a spy for the Soviet Union for some fifty years. Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name is available at Amazon for $14.38.

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

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

HAIL SATAN? – movie review

HAIL SATAN?
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Penny Lane
Cast: Lucien Greaves
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/14/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

If you go to the movies even rarely you’ll probably encounter a comical scene that finds a man and a woman in bed. The husband comes home early, and the guy in bed says, “It’s not what you think it is.” In a similar vein, “Hail Satan?” is “not what you think it is.” You’re thinking that this is one of the kooky cults that literally worship the devil. Instead you’ll find members of the Hail Satan? Fellowship to be a diverse mixture of humanity, some with tattoos and nose rings and ornate jewelry on their chests, others who are as straight as I am, notably a founder and leader of the cult, Lucien Greaves—a Harvard graduate who inspired groups in thirteen American states, in Canada, and in several European countries. If these people do not worship Lucifer, then what’s the point of giving this name to the organization? There is a point, but it’s not a good one. These good folks could have made their mark by “worshipping” a goat (actually they pretend to do just this), an elephant (Ganesh anyone?), the North Star, the pagan Pan, or anyone but Satan himself (or herself).

You may not believe in the way the Hail Satan? People go about their parodies and metaphors but from my point of view (feel free to disagree) there should be a separation of church. Yes, the First Amendment implies just that, yet beginning in 1864 when religious zeal was at a new height, “In God We Trust” began appearing on American money, and later, in 1956, President Eisenhower had us change our motto from “E Pluribus Unum” to (you guessed it) “In God We Trust.”

Now this is the kind of coinage that the Satanists should oppose, yet I suppose they’d given up on trying to abolish the mention of the Deity on money and in government buildings. The Satanic Temple does not believe the Ten Commandments belongs on government land, and courts have for the most part agreed. Yet if the State of Arkansas insists on putting the plague by the capital building, then the Satanists do counter with their own statue, one of Baphomet, a half-man/half-goat follower of Satan. Founder Greaves set the group’s monument up only to have to cart it away when the festivities were over.

Here they see an opportunity to turn a pro-religion law into their own beliefs. When governor Rick Scott pushed through a bill to permit prayer in Florida schools, the Satanists welcomed this by affirming that students could worship Satan with as much freedom as they would give to God. If you have not realized by now, members of the group are atheists, but people who believe that atheism is either boring or not comprehensive in that this tells you what they do not believe rather than what they do accept. Their tenets include acting with compassion to all creatures, continuing to struggle for justice, asserting the inviolability of our bodies (which makes them pro-choice), respecting the freedom of others including the freedom to offend, using science to test beliefs, acting to rectify mistakes, embracing wisdom and justice over all written and spoken words.

Christian groups have turned up, it seems, whenever Greaves’ acolytes garner media attention, some shouting that “you’re all going to hell”—to which one Satanists responds, in effect,” I look forward to that with excitement.” In fact the presence of Christian groups gives more publicity to the Satanists than they otherwise could have wished. The documentary plays up the interaction between two competitive groups—one believing in the First Amendment, the other believing that the U.S. is a Christian country. (The U.S. is probably 90%+ Christian but that does not nor should not make us a Christian country.)

This is a fun film with serious messaging, the humor and wit of the atheist group making it more than watchable. Director Penny Lane is in her métier since she had made films like “Nuts!” about the mostly true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire with his goat-testicle impotence cure; and “The Pain of Others,” a documentary about Morgellons, a mysterious illness whose sufferers say they have parasites under the skin, long colored fibers emerging from lesions,

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

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