SAINT JUDY – movie review

Blue Fox Entertainment
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sean Hanish
Screenwriter: Dmitry Portnoy
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Common, Peter Krause
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 3/1/19
Opens: March 1, 2019


If you’re a Trump supporter you are likely to be outraged by “Saint Judy.” If you consider yourself a soul buddy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you will cheer. However if you are not fond of movies that ooze sentimentality, that have predictable conclusions in which even those who prosecute cases against asylum seekers for ICE move to the left, you will be disappointed, pardon my cynicism. Director Sean Hanish demonstrated his interest in movies that tug the heartstrings in ”Return to Zero,” covering a couples doubts about pregnancy.

“Saint Judy” has its heart on its sleeve, based on a true case fought by Judith Wood (whom we see in the final scene). However it’s difficult to believe that an asylum seeker from Afghanistan can speak perfect English, and with an American accent rather than the British one from which non-English speaking people in the Middle East get instruction. Of course she is beautiful and confident. It is also difficult to accept the court process by which this asylum seeker gets the full attention for two days of a federal judge and then the opportunity to take her battle to an appeals proceeding followed by a large audience of spectators.

Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), the title figure, has spent ten years as a public defender, a woman with a zeal and knowledge of the law willing to give up the big bucks that she could probably get in private law assisting people with money. She moves from New Mexico to California opening a clinic to handle clients who do not have much of a voice. Her prior boss (Alfred Molina) is burned out, once a firebrand known for helping people like ones Judy is dealing with but now having faced the reality of putting his two kids in college. Judy visits Asefa (Leem Lubany) in a detention center, finding her disheveled and unresponsive, drugged into a near comatose condition. When Asefa is ready to talk she tells the story of how she was attacked in her native village by men because she is teaching female children to read. In jail she is raped repeatedly. She now claims asylum, insisting that if she is deported, she will be killed by her family for “dishonoring” them. She has the chutzpah to be raped and is considered a fallen woman. Flashbacks to Afghanistan show Asefa marching boldly to school with a group of girls only to be pelted with stones.

Discouraged by her boss who thinks the case is a loser, Judy presses on, setting up a two-days’ trial in front of Judge Benton (Alfre Woodard with the government side handled by Benjamin Adebayo (Common). Adding to the glitz and commercialism of the film she has to deal with her ex-husband Matthew (Peter Krause) who accuses her of spending all her time on her clients, neglecting domestic bliss. He gives her name of Saint Judy as a pejorative.

We’re in Erin Brockovich country, highlighting an idealistic woman who fights so card for her clients (actually she has only one client) that she can’t pay any of her bills nor can she keep the electricity on in her office. Monaghan shows her pluck, but the idealism, jacked up by James T. Sale’s pop music in the soundtrack, turns what could have been a more powerful, authentic film into slick commercialism.

Filmed in Santa Clarita, California.

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

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

THE WEDDING GUEST – movie review

IFC Films
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 2/27/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

The Wedding Guest Movie Poster

“I’ve got a confession to make,” says kidnapper Jay (Dev Patel) to his kidnapee, Samira (Radhika Apte). “I can’t swim.” “No matter,” replies Samira, “I’ll teach you.” This is about the level of dialogue to expect throughout “The Wedding Guest,” a movie that does not do credit to its writer-director, Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom, whose superb fare includes “24 Hour Party People,” (which brings Manchester’s music to the world), “Welcome to Sarajevo” (during the Bosnian war a journalist takes a kid from an orphanage back to England), and “Code 46” (a romance is doomed by genetic incompatibility), now is at the helm of a thriller with banal dialogue throughout. Actors have not much to do, and a pair of leads’ slow-burning romance never catches fire. What’s more there is little backstory to the Jay and Samira. We know nothing about how British citizen Deepesh (Jim Sarbh) found out that he could hire Jay to kidnap his girlfriend from Pakistan, where she is about to be wed against her will in an arranged marriage. If you know about Pakistani culture, you realize that a woman cannot refuse to marry her parents’ choice lest she be killed, as a refusal would dishonor the family.

This is why when Samira is kidnapped in the dead of night by Jay, she is both frightened and elated. At the same time that she is bound, gagged, and hooded by the abductor, she knows that she has been saved from what would probably be a frightful life, though when thrown into the trunk of his car, she has other thoughts about trusting the kidnapper.

Jay may or may not be a professional criminal with a major in abduction, but he’s in it strictly for the money that has been promised by Deepesh. Yet when a hunk like Jay gets to spend time with Samira, who slowly gets to trust him, you expect a hot romance to follow before she is turned over to the boyfriend. The first flirtatious steps are taken—by her—but despite her beauty, Jay seems reluctant to deal with her other than as his ticket to a fat payment. For her part, Samira’s feelings for Deepesh are not on the up-and-up. She, who at one point is called a “snake” by the guy who dished out thousands of dollars to rescue her, may have been correct about the lass. After some twists and turns in the script, we see that nobody is what he or she seems and everybody is out for something below the surface.

Given the absence of chemistry throughout, we wonder what the picture has to offer. Look then to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens to provide some awards-worthy photography in various locations in India, ranging from a look at fleabag hotels right up to Delhi’s majestic Taj Mahal digs. Filmed in Delhi, Goa, Jaipur and most impressively Amritsar where we get a shot of the temples that jut out in the holy city of the Sikh people, we have a view of both tourist India and what our president calls a sh*hole—the endless traffic of bikes and cars, the honking that fills the air, the shady dealers in forged passports, and one establishment jewelry store that cannot buy a diamond because it would not find a buyer for the $100,000 stone. When the Oscar ceremony takes place Feb. 2, 2020 and the 5,000 or so voters remember “The Wedding Guest,” be ready this picture to go to the top of the class in cinematography. Yet the movie fails to deliver passion or wit or thrills.

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

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

PROSECUTING EVIL – movie review

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barry Avrich
Screenwriter: Barry Avrich
Cast: Benjamin Ferencz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/24/19
Opens: February 22, 2019

The best kinds of documentaries feature fly-in-the-wall eavesdropping. After that, you could get a good story about people facing the interviewer, whereas the worst kind of non-fiction movie-making finds has one character simply talking to the camera, with some archival shots thrown in. “Prosecuting Evil” is an exception. Most of the film finds Benjamin Ferencz simply talking to the lenses with perhaps little need for fancy direction. Yet this fellow is so riveting in his testament that his articulate chat is even more interesting than the black-and-white archival shots taken during the Nazi Holocaust.

Remarkably short, Ben was the lead prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the 1946 Nuremberg trials. You would not expect this since he did not do undergraduate work at Harvard but instead this Transylvania-born attorney who grew up in Brooklyn attended City College, which at the time was free, catering largely to men and women who could not afford private universities. He then headed to Harvard Law on a full scholarship, after which he was called upon by Telford Taylor who was prepping up for the Nuremberg trials.

Plunging into research he found the needed journals which, thanks to the meticulous recording of just about everything under the sun by Germans, saw entries on the mass killing by death squads during the early forties. He discovered that the people on trial had all received copies and therefore could not state in defense that they had no idea what was going on during the mass shootings and concentration camp exterminations.

Nuremberg was the scene of history’s most notorious murder trials. Director Barry Avrich, whose “Romeo and Juliet” film shows a similar theme of rivalry between two houses leading to tragic ends for the heroes, had to stand on a stack of books behind the lectern, and he, with an assortment of the most evil defendants you might ever see, laid out his case to the judges. None of the defendants claimed “I was just following orders,” or at least we heard nothing of this trite excuse in the doc, but not a single man showed remorse for killing 10,000 Jews and more in cold blood. Most were sentenced to death by hanging and we’re told that each one faced eight minutes of strangulation.

After the trials, Ferencz advocated for an international court to try war criminals, his dream coming true when the International Criminal Court at the Hague was formed. Though President Bill Clinton signed on for the U.S. at the last minute, President George W. Bush, fearful that American sovereignty would be lost by the court’s judgements, scrapped the treaty.

In the final shots we see Ferencz swimming, keeping up his stamina at his current age of 99, warning that though this is not his world any more, it’s up to the politicians to do what they can to prefer the rule of law rather than force.

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

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

APOLLO 11 – movie review

Neon and CNN Films
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldren, Richard Nixon
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 2/14/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

If Frank Sinatra were an astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, he would make these lyrics popular:

It’s very nice to go traveling,
With Houston control to the moon,
It’s oh so nice to go traveling,
But let’s hope we get to home soon.

Why did we have to wait fifty years to watch scenes never before released to the world? The big plus in Todd Douglas Miller’s heavily researched and competently edited documentary is that after a half century, there are archival clips that we’re seeing for the first time giving viewers a more comprehensive, even a rah rah, look at a buddy road movie to make others of the sub-genre seem so provincial. After all we’re talking about sending three men on a mission more risky, more likely to crash and burn, than would face a guy and his gal fortified with a liter of Dewar’s, setting out without head gear on a hundred-miles-an-hour jaunt through the California coast.

America’s trip to the moon in 1969, which might seem to today’s millennials as a time hopelessly backward in technology, is a key moment in history when the American people and, in fact, the five hundred million people worldwide who tuned in to the drama, feel a togetherness never sent since in quite the same way. Still, outside of the minutes in which the space ship is prepared for takeoff with just minutes to go before ignition—and ultimately the blastoff that illuminates the heavens—there is not much here to lead Americans in the chant USA! USA! USA! Most of the film conveys technical details, showing how many scores, perhaps hundreds of engineers sit at their desks, short-sleeve white shirts and ties setting of their closely cropped hair, each fulfilling one specific function needed to make the trip a rousing success.

Thankfully there are no talking heads here, no people sitting in chairs across from the subjects filling their heads with questions that everyone knows are coming and which garner predictable enough replies. Instead, Walter Cronkite, the journalist most trusted by Americans, conveys the excitement of the people who have napped on Florida beaches waiting for perhaps the most dramatic single moment in U.S. history.

The backstories of the three buddies, tossed in while Commander Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are suiting up, display wedding pictures, kids, other tidbits to show that the three are not robots but vulnerable human beings with families, some members of whom may or may not have encouraged their heroes to take part in a mission. Remember that any hitch in the engineering would mean that their children would never see their fathers again.

Scenes taken right from the space ship are of the highest value, particularly the moments that the ship is about to land on the crater-filled surface of the moon and setting down in such a hitch-free style that they trio appear to be gliding to earth on a slow-moving helicopter. President Nixon’s message to the astronauts conveys the Oval office occupant’s bursting pride, and much earlier, President Kennedy delivers a speech in 1962 introducing the project that would reach fruition in July of 1969. The entire film serves to punctuate the banality of our politics today, our country irreparably divided into political viewpoints so far apart that compromise no longer appears possible; the unity that existed at least for a short time, on that propitious July day.

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

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

CLIMAX – movie review

Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Gaspar Noë
Screenwriter: Gaspar Noë
Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 2/13/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

Climax Movie Poster

When the most mature person in an ensemble of some fifteen adults is a 7-year-old kid, you know that you’re in for a cynical view of civilization. And cynical this is, as you might expect from writer-director Gaspar Noë, whose “Love” deals with an American in Paris with an unstable girlfriend who invites a pretty neighbor into their bed. Now he pulls out all the stops in a movie that could be called for want of a more specific title than this, “Lord of the Flies 2: Fifteen Years Later.” Except that the adults are the ones who need chaperoning while the young lad, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), the only sober fellow on the screen, gets locked in a room, unable to rescue the adults who are out of control.

Some of the film is fantastic. A later segment, though, is a downer that goes on for too long, some dancers becoming violent, others declaring their love. Opening on a scene in the snow, a look at a woman stretching all body parts therein, Benoît Debie, who is behind the lens somewhere in France listens in. The dancers, all in their twenties, gush about their profession, one saying that dance is everything and that she has no idea what she would do if she were not favored by Terpsichore.

The action takes place in the mid-nineties, far enough past the lifetime of Tchaikovsky who, if he is listening from the grave which accommodated him at age 53, might actually approve. He would realize that Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, however many times they are repeated (that’s what classics are), would give way to body work that would express their own time.

The racially diverse cast put on quite a show, with enough energy to light up a small town that would otherwise be too dependent on coal. And there’s lots and lots of foot work, arm work, and chit-chats about dick work. Characters during a break discuss how many women they’ve balled, whom they would like to ball, and who would be most responsive to their infinite charm.

As for the music, the techno is terrific, with a drumbeat that would drive the mice and bugs screaming from your apartment. The cast rivets. However, Noë should have quit while he was ahead. The word from Cannes is the audience thought that when the movie went on for less than an hour, they figured that it was over. Not so. Someone laced the sangria with LSD, and the results are not pretty. Nobody becomes enlightened. Sorry, Timothy Leary, your theory of the benefits of the hallucinatory drug does not stand up. As the drugged dancers bounce around, this time in slower motion than when they were sober, violence erupts. The young folks are not at all happy that someone dropped the drug into the punch. Accusations are made. Did the guy who does not drink do it? How about the woman who says that she is pregnant and therefore cannot touch the stuff? More flirtations take place, including Valentine-type “you are everything to me” line, while almost everyone is in pain.

At one time we human beings are in paradise. We were chased out, and while we have our moments of bliss, we are a fallen people. This does not mean that we are bound to be intensely involved in the overlong period when the thin veneer of civilization falls away. Given the excitement of the first half, you would do well to see this film.

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

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

SOMETHING – movie review

Subspin Productions
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Stephen Portland
Screenwriter:  Stephen Portland
Cast: Michael Gazin, Jane Rowen, Joel Clark Ackerman, Eric Roberts
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/19
Opens: March 1, 2019


If you want to make a horror film to catch on with the typical fans—teens, maybe 20-somethings—you may need name actors and an expense account to hire a crew of animators, set designers, costumers and the like.  In his debut feature, though, Stephen Portland goes with a true, low-budget movie, though it’s clearly not the kind of picture you could make at home behind your iPhone as director, writer, editor and cinematographer.  In his “Something” everything takes place inside a spacious ranch house with just a shot or two of the land outside.  The focus is on just two people, one named Man (Michael Gazin) and the other, his wife Woman (Jane Rowen).  Later, Portland, who wrote the script as well, will bring in a couple of cops, one named Cop (Joel Clark Ackerman) and the other named Rookie (Evan Carter); then finally, Eric Roberts, wearing a frightful rug, takes a role with a job that should not be revealed in a review to avoid giving away a surprise.

Actually “Something,” while remaining in the horror genre, is really a mood piece.  If you’re a mature moviegoer who realizes that nothing made after William Friedkin’s 1973 movie “The Exorcist” has been able to hold a candle to that classic in the horror genre, you will be pleased watching this movie.  This is the kind of pic that people like us can identify with, whether you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s like Man and Woman or whether you have ever lived in a house or apartment with another person.  (Michael Gazin in his sophomore feature film role is 34 while Jane Rowen looks about the same age.)

If you pay close attention, you will notice a couple of hints early on that will allow you to guess the surprise ending.  Most of the story is a dialogue between Man and Woman, the type of talk that could take place in any household with a new baby, with a mother who may love her little man but is also frustrated with latter’s crying.  Both are sleepy: he, possibly a freelancer, is about to take a business trip out of the country to the dismay of woman, who is frightened.  He finds a knife in the baby’s crib.  He chews her out, wondering how she could do such a thing.  Twice, the door to the nursery is locked requiring Man to force the lock.  He blames her for that as well.  He finds his passport in the trash, and he naturally blames her since she had a strong motive to sabotage his trip.  When the baby carriage is outside during the night in the cold, she again states that she doesn’t know what she’s doing lately.  That could have just about broken up their marriage.

As if their marriage bonds have not been frayed enough, a ghostly presence appears several times inside the house, disappearing without having to open and close the windows and the screens.  She sees it.  He sees it.  At least one other person is going to spot the creature as well.

Have you guessed the identity of the intruder?  I did not because I probably was not paying close enough attention to the unfolding of the story.  There is reasonable chemistry between Man and Woman, though three nights straight they both go to bed in their street clothes, wishing each other a good night.  The dialogue is naturalistic; the sorts of subjects that married people who are not cast in a Shakespearean tragedy say to each other.  As a whole this modest picture, notwithstanding the lack of conspicuous cleverness in the writing or bells and whistles is an enjoyable enough experience.

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

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

TRANSIT – movie review

Music Box Films
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/15/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

The first lesson that a teacher gives in introducing the story of humankind’s past is that “History repeats itself.” Throughout the course, whether U.S. history, European, Asian, African or what-have-you, this slogan, if you will, will pop up in quite a few lessons. And why not? People are from different countries, with various cultures, but wherever you may be, what is happening to you right now has occurred to people last year a decade ago, and centuries past. Conquests take place, occupation soldiers solidify their rule. Economics goes boom and go bust. The cycle of life assures us that whatever Mr. Trump does now has been done by presidents in the past. OK maybe that’s an exception. Now Christian Petzold gives us a film that has us visualize such a cycle. He has stated that he could have made a movie set in Europe in 1942 but chooses to make the occupation, the anxieties of the people trying to escape, the brutality of the conquering regime, all the stuff that took place with a vengeance in the early forties in Europe is occurring today. Does ISIS ring a bell? The Syrian Civil War that has caused hundreds of thousands to flee to refuges willing to accept them?

The characters are in good hands with Christian Petzold in the director’s chair, since in 2014 his film “Phoenix,” about a disfigured Holocaust survivor, a Jewish woman eager to discover whether her husband betrayed her hiding place during the German occupation, gets vengeance in the final two or three minutes. Those moments are a gem, a classic, inflicting harm on the weasel without having even to touch him. Now, as in “Phoenix,” Petzold deals with life, with death, and with the ghosts that flow between these two extremes. Petzold, then, takes the chaos in Europe during the early forties, transposes it to the near future, and shows how the Nazi “cleansing” then is leading to a similar fate now, as many in population are desperate to escape to Mexico, to Spain, to the U.S. and anywhere else that is far away from the front. It’s a doozy of a picture.

Petzold’s central character, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is a German refugee fleeing from the ongoing troops occupying one French city after another. He has no papers but as luck would have it he has picked up the identity of a novelist, Weidel, who has committed suicide in his fleebag hotel, leaving the bathtub flooded with his blood. He uses the papers to negotiate with the Mexican consul in Marseilles, where only those who can prove that they’re on their way out of the country are allowed to stay in the hotels. He—in transit, so to speak, between the old world and the current one–seeks what else? A transit visa. Then, complications. The wife of the novelist feels guilty that she left him and is now taken with refugee Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor. In fact every refugee has a story to tell, slim parts of which Georg hears while waiting on line in a consulate. Further complicating the plot, Georg becomes fond of a boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) with whom he plays a quick pickup game of soccer.

Getting back to our theme of history’s repeating itself, the looks of Marseilles are such that had we not known when the action takes place, we would not be able to figure the year. Presumably if a Burger King appeared in the set, takes would wind up on the floor. “Transit” is adapted from the novel by Anna Seghers (1900-1983) published in 1942 and now reprinted in English. The book is from the hands of a woman born into an upper-class Jewish family in Mainz, Germany, who fled (surprise!) from Marseilles to Mexico to escape the Nazis. Director Petzold, who notes that the Nazis destroyed German culture with its propaganda, herein uses the character of Georg to assert the fate of the refugee, always moving around, rootless and lonely until he meets the woman he loves since with the novelist’s identity he has become as centered as one can be in his situation.

The film, which is in German and French with English subtitles, is one of those works that reward viewers who have the patience to allow the different fragments of the story to become solidified. Did I say reward? Yes I did.

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

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