SHIVA BABY – movie review

SHIVA BABY
Utopia
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Emma Seligman
Writer: Emma Seligman
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Diana Agron, Danny Deferrari, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/19/21
Opens: April 2, 2021

Image result for shiva baby poster

If you want to know what it’s like to sit shiva, think of an Irish wake minus the drinking and multiply the eating. Different religions and ethnic groups have distinct customs for grieving the dead, but given the importance of the family in the Jewish tradition, the shiva can be a festive occasion marked with bagels and lox and maybe a little Manischewitz. The first day of the commemoration brings together folks from an extended family, who engage in conversation, looking at pictures of grandchildren, some hoping to find an excuse to leave early without insulting the hosts.

The title character, who is uncredited, is an eighteen-months’-old infant whose idea of conversation is crying his heart out and, with some luck, catching up on sleep. Emma Seligman, who wrote and directs her freshman offering, is in Woody Allen territory, putting together a group of people of all different ages who, as stereotypes have it, wonder, “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” “You’re skin and bones; you’re not eating!” “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Aside from the usual catching-up by people who may not have been together for years, Seligman focuses on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), seeing all activity from her point of view, as she tries to satisfy everyone’s nosy queries about her plans.

Danielle, or Dani as her mother Debbie (Polly Draper) calls her, is a bisexual college senior whose mom is wise to some of her sexual inclinations. “No funny business with Maya” (Molly Gordon), she warns, realizing that her daughter and Maya had been an item in the recent past whose embers may be kindled after their meeting at the shiva. Though Maya is about to enter law school, Danielle appears without insight into what she might be doing, which may have something to do with her less-than-jobs-worthy major of gender studies. (Think of Bill Murray’s character, Phil, in “Groundhog Day,” who upon learning that a woman majored in 19th century French literature responds, “What a waste of time!”)

Maybe Danielle’s gender studies curriculum considers women who sleep around for money to be perfectly legitimate sex workers, in fact that is what Danielle does for cash. She meets now and then in Max’s (Danny Deferrari) bachelor apartment, faking an orgasm and gaining an expensive bracelet and some cash. And wouldn’t you know that Max would show up at the shiva with whom guests would call a shicksa wife, Kim (Dianna Agron). One guest suggests “I hear her father is Jewish” to which another responds “That doesn’t count.”

Rachel Sennott communicates her anxiety in this claustrophic setting to such an extent that we in the audience are bound to recall events in our own lives that have made us blush, cry, wish-we-had-done-something-differently, all the while laughing nervously at this recognition. Though “Shiva Baby” recalls a tradition that is central in Judaism, it aims for universality as do many of Woody Allen’s movies. We may come away figuring things will work out for Danielle—who is on the way up, just like the film’s writer-director whose next satirical contribution we eagerly await.

77 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ATOMIC COVER-UP – movie review

ATOMIC COVER-UP
Exposed Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greg Mitchell
Cast: Greg Mitchell, Daniel McGovern, Herbert Sussan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: March 20, 2021 through March 30, 2021 at Cinequest in San Jose, California and streaming.

Atomic Cover-up (2021) - IMDb

Bumper stickers on the backs of cars provide sound bites of their drivers’ political views. You may think you can avoid getting parking tickets from traffic cops with the sticker, “Support your local police.” If you do not like U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, you sport the saying, “We’re creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.” Shortly after World War 2 (as I recall) and even in recent years, there is the bumper sticker “No Pearl Harbor, then no Hiroshima,” which some people today would assume is the motto of fellows on the political right. However, left-leaning folks today would find a major flaw in that last motto: the bombing of Pearl Harbor killed mostly sailors, military people, a total of some 2500. The American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000, at least 80% civilians; that includes old men, women and children. In fact the Hiroshima bombing was directed toward the center of the city and not to the military base.

Nowadays we have so many issues to think about that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings fade into obscurity. But thanks to the people who filmed “Atomic Cover-Up,” which includes grainy black-and-white celluloid taken by Japanese journalists shortly after the bombing in addition to color shots by the U.S., we get to see not only the devastation to buildings (just a few remain almost intact) but more poignantly to the people who fell victims to the heat and radiation. One poor guy lying in his stomach had a back as raw as a skinless-and-boneless salmon. Red from neck to waist. He was in agony and begged to be put out of his misery, but the doctors and nurses who heroically treated victims of the bombs were determined to treat him. He survived and is now married with kids.

Despite the intrusive music in the soundtrack, there is much praise due to the showing of this film at the Cinequest Festival in California’s San Jose, and further, that the film was declared top secret by the U.S. for decades gives it the resonance of a forbidden fruit. Shots taken immediately post-war portray and apocalyptic vision of a Hiroshima virtually leveled, and remember that this hear 1945 bomb is a pup compared to what nine countries possess today. As one commentator notes, the next nuclear war will be “the end of everything.”

The irony of it all is that a military man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the bombing unnecessary as Japan was already defeated, thereby attacking arguments by some that the atomic bomb saved tens of thousands of American lives, soldiers who would have to stage a land invasion of the Japanese archipelago in order to end the war.

After being declassified the film aired in 1970 on PBS and is available now as a streaming. Moreover film-maker Greg Mitchell had written a book on the history of the footage, now available on Amazon, though the small number of reviews there indicate that not that many prospective readers consider it a hot political issue today. Its 52 minutes’ length and its selection of only a small amount of devastating human suffering makes John Hersey’s classic “Hiroshima” the more heartbreaking.

52 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE GOOD TRAITOR – movie review

THE GOOD TRAITOR (Vores mand i Amerika)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christina Rosendahl
Writers: Kristian Bang Foss, Danja Gry Jensen, Christina Rosendahl
Cast: Ulrich Thomsen, Burn Gorman, Ross McCall, Zoë Tapper, Denise Gough, Pixie Davies, Henry Goodman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Nicholas Blane
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/25/21
Opens: March 26, 2021

Poster for The Good Traitor

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, capital city of a country that heroically ferried its Jewish population of 7200 to safety in neutral Sweden, thereby saving their lives from Nazi onslaught. Denmark, which is now among the most progressive countries in the world embracing what may be called Medicare for All, generous parental leave, long time off in the summer, has a problem in its twentieth century history. There was, I fear, something rotten in the state of Denmark, because when Hitler invaded the small country, the Danish government offered virtually no resistance, negotiating with the Hun almost immediately. The cowardly action gained more opprobrium when its king and prime minister fired its ambassador to the U.S., an action resisted by the person holding that office, which called its outpost in Washington the official government of Denmark in exile.

“The Good Traitor” is a biopic, well not exactly since it is “inspired” by the tale of Henrik Louis Hans von Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen), focuses almost equally on domestic melodrama as on political gamesmanship. The title character is considered a hero if you look backward from the present year but considered by the Danish government during World War II a traitor. Ordinarily a fellow who may represent only a small country but whose bravery catapults him to modern heroism would be too busy giving the middle finger to King Christian X to have time for a 51-year-old’s hanky-panky. But Kauffmann, married to Charlotte MacDougall (Denise Gough), is in love with Charlotte’s sister Zilla Sears (Zoë Tapper). The affair had been going on for years, leading to a melodramatic confrontation when Charlotte discovers the two kissing in the ample grounds of the Danish embassy in Washington.

Charlotte, however, has an important role to play, being an American, the daughter of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William Dugald MacDougall, giving her a special “in” with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Henry Goodman)– played with laid-back, aw-shucks behavior. While the war in Europe is raging, Henrik uses Charlotte’s influence with POTUS to help push a reluctant America into the war, noting that Hitler is not going to stop his conquests at the water’s edge. He wins the gold. Literally. He names himself the legal government rep of Denmark when he is merely its fired ambassador, which allows him to unlock the gold bars in New York’s Federal Reserve Bank to finance liberation activities in at least ten other Danish embassies including those in Iran and Egypt. He also has the chutzpah to sign away part of Denmark’s colony of Greenland to the U.S. for air force bases in perpetuity. It’s no wonder that the cowardly government in Copenhagen and a surprising number of pro-Nazi Danes consider Kauffmann an enemy of the state. History now judges the man a good traitor.

The film includes a meeting of FDR and Churchill (the latter looking more bloated than our previous U.S. president) in the presence of the Danish ambassador, who simply acts as though his firing never took place It reaches toward soap opera whenever Kauffmann, who has juice with the President for Pete’s sake, cannot get his wife to excuse his peccadilloes with her own sister. In defense of his extra-curricular recreation with Zilla, he reminds his wife that he loves Zilla’s… eyes. Who could resist? Who is so hardhearted not to excuse him, for the flesh is weak?

The movie makes no attempt to build up to a surprise conclusion that could be copied in a future horror movie by Dario Argento or Wes Craven or Eli Roth, giving us much of the final scene in the opening moments. This is a respectful projection of the crucial war years involving Kauffmann, and old-fashioned biopic complete with the beautiful ballads of the thirties and forties in America on the soundtrack. Jo Stafford’s “The Things We Did Last Summer” would have been most appropriate. Danish-born Christine Rosendahl, whose “The Idealist” deals with a nuclear disaster during the Cold War, is in the director’s seat.

The film is in English and in Danish with English subtitles.

115 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SIX HOURS TO MIDNIGHT – movie review

SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andy Goddard
Writer: Andy Goddard, Eddie Izzard, Celyn Jones
Cast: Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Carla Juri, Kevin Eldon, David Schofield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/21
Opens: March 26, 2021

Poster

Just when you think you’ve seen movies on every political aspect of Europe on the brink of World War 2, along comes an original film of international intrigue, a spy story with the usual basket of twists, leading up to a series of exciting chase scenes for which director Andy Goddard prepared us for quite well. Goddard, who has an impressive résumé of made-for-TV movies and TV episodes (including many for the great “Downton Abbey”), now tackles his sophomore full-length feature. That “Six Minutes of Midnight” is based on the true story of incidents surrounding Augusta-Victorian college, a finishing school for girls on England’s south coast, might make us wonder just how many original cusp-of-war stories must be available for writers and filmmakers.

You can tell that this is a finishing school rather than a real college as you watch the girls walking about, each with a book on her head, casting fierce glances at the one pupil whose book drops noisily to the floor. There’s an even better example. When Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), who had been hired by headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judy Dench) after the suspicious death of his predecessor, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay, playing a flawless death body washed up on the beach), asks what book the girls had been reading, they reply “no book.” They insist that Wheatley told them stories. To conform to the culture of the school, Miller does likewise and is well liked by the young people and by the headmistress as well.

This is no “Room 222,” however. Miller is a British agent, the girls are German, sent via the Anglo-German Fellowship to represent the best of Nazi youth. As September 1, 1939 approaches, which will signal the opening of World War 2 in Europe, Hitler’s plan is to evacuate the girls suddenly. At the same time Whitehall wants to hold them hostage—though the UK’s motives are not entirely clear.

The major segment of the film takes place within the school. We see that headmistress Rocholl considers her charges to be “her girls” despite their nationality, and is highly motivated to do the best job in teaching them notwithstanding their being daughters of members of the Nazi high command. By contrast Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), a young, pretty teacher, is a dedicated Nazi who makes sure that the girls listen to propaganda on the radio and is soon to become more than a mere, quiet cog in the German war machine. In fact Ilse’s murderous action outside the school will lead to the dramatic chase scenes, the arrest of Thomas Miller who is now considered by authorities to be a British traitor, and a series of twists that turn the movie into a real thriller.

Judi Dench can do no wrong and is ideally suited to be the dedicated head of the school, a woman who would likely protect her girls even as war with Germany begins. But the picture belongs to Eddie Izzard, known to British audiences as a stand-up comedian. He convinces us of his ability to play a teacher who must conform to the culture of a finishing school and yet act as a prized spy for Britain, infiltrating the soon-to-be-defunct Anglo-German Fellowship.

102 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

QUO VADIS, AIDA? – movie review

QUO VADIS, AIDA?

Neon Super Ltd.

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Writer: Jasmila Zbanic
Cast: Jasna Djricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Isakovic, Johan Heldenberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/16/21
Opens: March 5, 2021 at Angelica Theatre in NY. VOD March 15, 2021

Quo Vadis, Aida?

I recall in my high-school days the units on World War 1 and World Was II that emphasized that all wars are caused by four general conditions. They are: Imperialism, Nationalism, Alliances, and the fourth is given the fancy term “international anarchy.” That last item means nothing more than there were no effective peacekeeping forces able to intercede against the warring parties to force them into peace. We do have the United Nations now, the UN does send well-armed peacekeeping forces to war zones, but that international organization has been criticized for its impotence against aggression.

Among the best examples of this deficiency is the genocide conducted particularly in 1995 during a war between Bosnian Serbs who are Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims, sometimes called Bosniaks, who inhabit the same country—itself an offshoot of the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo-born Jamila Zbanic, who dealt with the Serbian rapes of Muslim women in“Grbavica: the Land of Our Dreams,” brings to vivid life the barbaric killings by members of the Serbian army together with paramilitary units of innocent Bosnian Muslims in the village of Srebrenica. Under the command of the brutal Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), the soldiers emptied out the village, sending up to 8,000 civilians of all ages to the death by machine guns while escorting the women away. (Zbanic does not go into what happened to the women, implying that they may have been given safe conduct though the reality is that they were raped and possibly killed.)

Everything is seen through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), the energetic Bosniak interpreter who had been a teacher in the town, called upon now to translate the Bosnian into English for the benefit of the Dutch UN forces. The UN under Colonel Thom Karremans (Johann Heldenbergh) is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you are cynical enough) inept, unable to prevent the Serbs from doing whatever they felt like doing, notwithstanding that Srebrenica was called a safe town under UN protection. Given the incompetence of UN peacekeepers, Serb army units did not fear threats to call in air strikes if necessary, which may remind you of how former President Obama threatened Bashir Assad’s Syrian government with military action should the Assad unleash gas during the civil war there, then did nothing when provoked.

Aida acts heroically, negotiating with the Serbs but is furious at the UN for allowing only 5,000 people to remain within a gated area while others are stuck outside. (This is an expensive production as the company has obviously hired hundreds of extras to take the roles of the oppressed Muslims.) But she is human as well, giving special attention to saving her husband and her two boys from being gunned down on the spot.

In the role of Aida, we may find it curious that Jasna Djuricic is Serbian, while one would think that nobody from that ethnic group would be willing to take part in a film that is anti-Serb. The scenes are horrific, the only sentimentalism coming from a woman who gives birth on the grounds. It is impossible to look away, so vividly is the toxic toying by the Serb general of the populace dependent for the lives on his orders.

As for the puzzling title “Quo Vadis, Aida,” the term means “Where are you going,” referring to a legend that Peter comes to a crossroads where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina, which he means the risen Jesus. The reply: “Romam vado iterum crucifigi” or “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” It’s anybody’s guess how the title applies, but perhaps it means that after the peace, the teacher remains in the town to conduct classes. To be oppressed again?

The film is a co-production of twelve production companies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.It is the Bosnian entry for best international film in the 93rd Academy Awards competition, and has been deservedly shortlisted into the top fifteen.

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

GOLDEN GLOBES WINNERS MOTION PICTURES 2021

Movies

See the Exclusive First Look at Tina Fey & Amy Poehler's Golden Globes  Billboards

Best Motion Picture, Drama
“Nomadland”

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Best Director, Motion Picture
Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Rosamund Pike, “I Care a Lot”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Jodie Foster, “The Mauritanian”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture
Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Best Original Score, Motion Picture
Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste, “Soul”

Best Original Song, Motion Picture
“Io Sì (Seen),” “The Life Ahead”

Best Motion Picture, Animated
“Soul”

Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language
“Minari”

 

ADAM – movie review

ADAM
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Maryam Touzani
Writer: Maryam Touzani in association with Nabil Ayouch
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Nisrin Erradi, Douae Belkhaouda, Aziz Hattab, Hasnaa Tamtaoui
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/11/21
Opens: March 5, 2021

Adam (2019)

You don’t want to know what happens in some Muslim societies to women without husbands who become pregnant. Happily for the characters in “Adam,” Morocco is not what of the ultra-conservative countries but is in fact wide open to Western film-makers who want to take advantage of its fascinating cities (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes particularly) and desert landscapes. “Adam”, is a Moroccan-made film by a Tangier-born director, Mayam Touzani, who is known for co-writing “Razzia,” five stories that come together in Casablanca. “Adam” is her first feature film, though you would think it’s a work by a director with an extensive résumé. It’s a woman’s story whose only men other then as customers of a woman’s snack food is a suitor, Slimani (Aziz Hattab) and the title character (uncredited) in his debut performance. (Adam shows his acting chops, able to cry on cue and dissolve into pure pleasure in the presence of a woman.)

Lubna Azabal in the role of Abla and Nisrin Erradi performing as Samia have about equal time in front of Adil Ayoub and Virginie Surdej’s lenses. Both are living in Casablanca in a section that’s considered poor but which American visitors would label quaint, with its narrow sidewalks and a plethora of vendors. Abla, a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter Warda (Douae Belkhaouida), sells pancake-like snack foods like rziza and msemmen right from her modest home but so far appears to have only a moderate clientele. That will change when Simia, in her eighth month of pregnancy and homeless, asks for work, any kind, and receive a tentative welcome from the dour Abla. Taking homeless people into your residence is not a popular pastime in the U.S. but Abla, feeling sorry for Samia who is sleeping outside, takes her in for one night. The invitation is extended when the adorable Warda takes an immediate liking to the new guest and when Samia proves to be an excellent chef, turning out better rziza and msemmen because when she kneads the dough, she feels it.

Not much happens during the first hour or so. Abla loses patience with Samia, kicks her out, then races through the Casablanca streets to find her and coax her back. In the film’s most poignant scene, Abla, who continues to grieve for her dead husband, is forced by Samia to listen to Abla’s favorite music on the radio, one that might be considered in the American culture to be a couple’s wedding song. Approaching that point, Samia takes charge of her hostess and boss, forcing her to listen carefully, to close her eyes and sway, and loosen up on her wicked witch act. For comic relief, now and then Abla’s suitor Slimani (Aziz Hattab) has marriage on his mind, asking Samia to tell her boss that his father had always had hair and that Slimani’s receding hairline constitutes the most locks that he will ever lose.

Maybe in the U.S. and Sweden, where one born out of wedlock is called a love child, at least by progressives. In Morocco, such a baby is dirt, although as Samia advises us, the baby himself is wholly without sin. Because of this, Samia seems determined to give Adam up to a good family despite Abla’s suggestion that she keep the infant. The women—Abla, Samia, and the precocious Warda, are fleshed-out human beings who have emotional ups and downs and happily, their relationship has changed them for the better. As the uneducated country girl with an eight-month unborn child, Nisrin Erradi stands out, a woman who has had to go from house to house asking for work and ending up with an inadequate resolution to her dilemma but able to turn her uptight hostess into a more caring person.

You may not want to live in Casablanca’s old Medina, but for Abla, the neighborhood provides work without a commute and for little Warda the chance to make something of herself by taking her studies seriously under her mother’s watch. A charming, low-key adventure well worth your custom.

98 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

ALLEN v. FARROW – movie review

ALLEN V. FARROW
HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Writers: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dylan O’Sullivan Farrow, Ronan Farrow, Carly Simon, Frank Maco
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/24/21
Opens: February 21, 2021 on 4 Sunday nights at 9p for one approximately hour each

Poster

Who do you believe? Woody Allen was accused of sexually molesting his partner’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven. That was twenty-eight years ago. Woody Allen’s defense is that Mia Farrow, who is Dylan’s adoptive mother and Allen’s girlfriend, manipulated the child to accuse her stepdad. Why? According to Allen, Mia Farrow is a vengeful woman not all-that-right in the head. Allen was never found guilty in a court of law because Frank Maco, the prosecutor, believed the little girl “too fragile” to be put on the stand. HBO Documentary Films now presents four episodes to examine the case, each about an hour beginning February 21, 2021.

Never mind that Allen was never convicted. During the past year or two, various people who starred in his movies, Timothée Chalamet, Griffin Newman, Rebecca Hall among others (but not Diane Keaton who remains a big fan) are donating their salaries from those films, some to anti-abuse organizations. Amazon, its distributor, refused to air “A Rainy Day in New York” in any U.S. theaters, but folks in Poland somehow were exempt from the boycott. “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred in their bones.” [Marc Anthony].

Some critics have complained that writer-directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, whose “The Bleeding Edge” indicts some modern medical technology, are biased. They must be convinced that Allen’s calling his partner not right in the head sounds overblown. Also, that child reported that her father took her into the attic on one day and touched her in the butt and the vagina, an accusation that she has upheld consistently since the incident, sounds spot-on. They add that this was not a one-time, twenty-minutes’ molestation, showing pictures of Allen and Dylan in awfully tight hugs and improper looks. That Allen married Mia Farrow’s stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn in 1997 despite an age difference of thirty-five years, becomes part of the heap of “evidence” that Allen likes ‘em young.

Needless to say, Mia Farrow, who thoroughly believes her child, broke up with Allen, saying she wishes he had never entered her life, and proves this in a flurry of taped phone conversations. The filmmakers more than imply that Woody Allen is a hero to New Yorkers given the major works filmed in the Big Apple and his view that he feels stifled in the countryside.

This is a well-paced doc, giving us a breather after every hour, presumably showing us all the evidence we need to know. Detractors include Ronan Farrow, a journalist who wrote a scathing anti-Allen article in the New Yorker, and who titillates readers of “People” magazine and the like suggesting that he is the son of Frank Sinatra. Allen defends himself rather well not only in press conferences but in his memoir “Apropos of Nothing,” which makes Allen wish that he never met Mia Farrow. So feelings are reciprocal.

Believe it or not stepfathers and even biological daddies rape their young charges, whether in the statutory form or via outright violence. But if you are a celeb like Woody Allen or like Roman Polanski (who had statutory relations with a thirteen-year-old and is unable to set foot in the U.S. lest he go to jail), you get the book thrown at you. Though IndieWire’s critic states that “after this documentary, no one should want to hear from Allen for a very long, long time, how about reserving judgment? I recognize the writer-directors’ one-sided treatment. I believe one is innocent until proven guilty. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby went to jail but only after being found guilty of sexual misconduct in courts of law. Making charges against people without clear evidence, unproven in a fair trial, may have worked during the Spanish Inquisition, but some of us like to think we are (after a four-years’ respite) a democracy.

© 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

‘TIL KINGDOM COME – movie review

‘TIL KINGDOM COME
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Maya Zinlshtein
Writer: Mark Monroe
Cast: Pat Robertson, Paula White Boyd Bingham IV, Yael Eckstein
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/3/21
Opens: February 25, 2021

Image result for 'til kingdom come posters movie

It’s a well-known fact that many Christians believe that Jesus, “Our Savior,” The Messiah, will return to earth: the Second Coming, as they call it. Less known is that many Orthodox Jews also that a savior is coming as well, but they would call the event the First Coming. “We want Mossiach Now!” is the rallying cry. Christians and Jews both look forward to the event, or events, because they believe the savior will do just what saviors are meant to do: usher in a world of peace. Orthodox Jews do not see something tragic occurring before the event of the Mossiach. Evangelical Christians see the return of the Messiah will come only after Armageddon, the end of the world, ushering in the Rapture: the rise of heaven of all who accept Jesus as Lord. As for what will happen to people who do not accept Jesus as savior, there is some controversy. Some think Jews in particular who do not convert to Christianity will suffer “tribulation.” Whether that means an eternity in hell or something less pleasant is…who knows? Hey: I went to college and even I don’t know. Why should anyone else?

Image result for 'til kingdom come posters movie

Then there are those who say that both sides are cuckoo. Don’t look at me: I’m only the messenger. Segue into “’Till Kingdom Come,” a documentary praising the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has donated over a billion dollars to Israel, given that Christians think that the Return and the Rapture will come only when Israeli Jews have a homeland. There is already a Jewish homeland in Israel, but the Messiah, or the Mossiach, maybe both, are patient. Stay tuned.

If you are Jewish, the chances are that if you know you are Jewish, you will be pro-Israel. That does not necessarily mean supporting every policy of the present government under Bibi Netanyahu or the past governments beginning with David Ben-Gurion. But Israel is likely to be in your heart even as you are a patriotic American or Brit or French or whatever. If that’s the case, then you’ll be ever so excited to see Evangelical Christians (25% of Americans, or so they say) and Jews (2% of our country’s folks), come together, all lovey-dovey. Some say (maybe I, maybe not) that Trump showed his pro-Israel stance by being the first President to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That is among the policies that got Trump the votes of some 80% of Evangelical Christians. Could it be that Trump is not really excited about Israel even though his daughter is an Orthodox Jew? Something to think about.

The current Israeli government under Bibi loves Trump, the most pro-Israel President of the U.S. ever. They love the contributions coming in from Evangelical Christians by the millions. They welcome the tens of thousands of Christians who visit Israel annually, getting bussed around, looking at holy sites such as the location of Jesus’ birth and of the crucifixion, and maybe even sending written prayers at the Western Wall. Back to the movie: a pastor in Kentucky from a town that once provided jobs in the mines preaches to poverty-stricken people. No matter how poor they are, many contribute specifically to a foreign country, meaning that they are spiritually uplifted as the pastor tells them they would be. When pastors are not preaching, Sondra Oster Baraz, founder of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities and a settler in Israel’s West Bank, speaks her love of the Evangelical Christians; never mind that the latter appear to overlook the fact that the Jewish settlers are living on Arab land.

The big question, though, is virtually ignored by the movie. What’s not to love about these Christians? For one thing, two thousand years of persecution of Jews may not be erased so easily. Many still accuse Jews of crucifying Jesus, not just then, but now; even if you’ve lived in Brooklyn and never went to the Holy Land. Since 80% of Evangelicals voted for Trump, maybe Trump’s (hypocritical) anti reproductive rights stance swayed them, but still, huge numbers appear to believe every one of the ex-president’s 20,000 to 30,000 lies. Call it an irony, a paradox, or something else: pro-Israel but anti-Semitic? What do they think will happen when the Rapture comes? Bluntly: the reason Israel and Jews are so important and deserving of support is because of the belief that Christians won’t get raptured in the end times unless Jews and Israel fulfill their part of the prophecy including being slaughtered into becoming Christians.

Still ‘n’ all, you can’t win ‘em all: take what you can get. And did I mention that some believe that both sides are cuckoo?

76 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES – movie review

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Blank
Writer: Jonathan Blank
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: February 26, 2021 on PBS

“Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” really is about sex, drugs and bicycles with the implication throughout the documentary that the more you have of each, the happier you will be.

Considering the high taxes of countries with Holland’s social welfare programs and policies, you might be surprised to find out that in their lust for life, the Netherlands joins the equally social democratic countries of Scandinavia. This might seem surprising to people here in the U.S., often called the world’s richest country (as though that leads to happiness as does the night the day), but the view of our Republican politicians and the moderate Democrats who sometimes resemble them is that socialism is the monster you found under your bed when you were six years old.

Directed, written, edited and whatever by Jonathan Blank, whose sense of humor is most like that of Michael Moore, this doc moves forward like a stiff dose of amphetamines with a love for Holland that might make you think that Blank is high on Ecstasy. As for the multiple organisms and the ease of finding partners to achieve same, who’s got the time to worry about the headaches of owning cars when bicycles are the favored mode of travel and the most serious crime that Blank finds in his favorite nation-state is that the two-wheelers often get stolen. Since there are more bikes than people—which means there are more than seventeen million of ‘em—who has the need to add another to their stable?

With snappy and often hilarious animation where Blank morphs into Rembrandt, “Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” lauds, among other things, the four+ weeks of holiday that the Dutch are required to take, even getting paid for their extra month off. And unfortunately for us cinephiles, director Blank seems to have taken far more time off than that. His previous picture, “Anarchy TV,” which features teens doing nude television on the station that they capture, was released twenty-two years ago. It’s therefore not at all puzzling that Blank includes an annual naked bicycling day as one of the great things going for the Dutch.

And how can they pay attention to the windmills, which are the most notable symbol of the Netherlands, when there’s so much sex to concentrate on? Every traveler knows about the sex shops where sex workers, fully legal and licensed, get to parade their wares on storefronts in the tourist-heavy neighborhood that is the main attraction. Not only that. Kids get sex education beginning in primary school, and perhaps as a result, the Dutch abortion rate is much lower than that in our country.

As for medical care, it’s not free but it’s mandatory. Basic coverage is required and 99% are insured. Insurance is sold by private companies, and you can kick in extra cash to get more than the usual services. Even in the land of windmills, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Marijuana can be sold in legal neighborhood coffee shops, such as the one on display named “Smokes.” Teens also take drugs on TV, though Blank briefly mentions that Holland had a problem with legalize hard drugs and pushed back somewhat against it.

Bernie Sanders might be considered a “moderate” by Holland’s standards. Does Bernie believe that transgender surgery should be covered by the government health plan as do the Nederlanders? How about sex workers making the disabled happy? Holland is in the forefront of LGBTQ equality, so there’s none of the fanfare such as here when Barack Obama had to say that he’s “evolved” on his position regarding gay marriage and LGBTQ protections.

Blank takes little time reviewing what’s bad, though he does point out that the liberal policy on accepting Muslim refugees has brought right-wing politicians out of the woodwork. The press notes state “Is having month-long double-paid vacations, no fear of homelessness and universal healthcare the nightmare we’ve been warned about?” More a wet dream than a nightmare, though Holland has an increasing problem of homelessness. According to the Wikipedia article “Netherlands and Homelessness,” in 2018 there were 39,000 without roofs over their heads, afflicting mostly Muslim refugees.

As you might expect, Holland’s seventeen million people would be lost if traveling outside their borders if Dutch were their only language. Everybody interviewed in this doc spoke perfect English. So…if you’re a Michael Moore fan and you had not heard of Jonathan Blank before (as stated, he had no released a film for twenty-two years), you are likely to enjoy this movie’s eight-five minutes and get depressed when you realize that the U.S. ranks so low in the developed world in education, affordable health care (though Medicare is fantastic making it great to be old), and harbors a puritanical fear of recreational drugs.

85 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN – movie review

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN (L’homme qui vendu sa peau)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/21
Tunisia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards

Image result for the man who sold his skin poster

Sylvia Sims sang the classic song that opens: “You’d never think they go together/ But they certainly do/ The combination of English muffins/ And Irish Stew.” Top chefs know how to mix quite a number of things that would not have been attempted years ago. In the same way, stories combine groups from different classes, nationalities, and religions. Suprisingly, sometimes they find common ground. One example is found in female director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, which is the official entry of Tunisia into the 93rd Academy Awards competition. She mixes Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) a poor, uneducated Syrian, one who has been arrested for comically inciting rebellion on a train, with Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a world-renowned contemporary artist. They find that they can do business together profitably, but in signing a contract that represents a document that binds Faust together with Mephistopheles, the oppressed Arab sells his soul and is ultimately disgraced. Or is he? Ben Hania, whose first film, “Beauty and the Dogs,” tracks a college student brutally assaulted by police officers, turns now to a topic of more international resonance, bringing Syria, Lebanon and Belgium into the bargain.

“L’homme qui vendu sa peau,” the original title which translates directly into the English, begins smashingly on a rail car filled with people who break into cheers when Sam announces that he is in love with his seatmate, Abeer (Dea Liane). His love is requited, and in his moment of ecstasy, he calls for freedom for Syria and is arrested. The plot turns, in fact, on whether Sam himself is a free man or one who in later moments has lost all dignity, shaming his country as well. As our President would say, here’s the deal: When Sam breaks out of jail and meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his elegant assistant Saroya (Monica Bellucci) in Lebanon, he is offered unusual work. The artist will tattoo a huge Schengen visa on Sam’s back. Sam will be at Jeffrey and Soraya’s beck-and-call to show up in museums and galleries, his back exposed, his head down in a pose of humiliation. In return Sam will be able to travel throughout Europe and receive a sizable commission when the artwork is sold to a collector. Here’s quite a new form of slavery, one that leads an organization that opposes the exploitation of Syrian refugees to sue against mortification of any of its citizens.

Today’s so-called political far-left calls capitalism nothing more than the turning of human beings in commodities, possibly using this film to advance its case. Yet Sam may be able to stay in five-star hotels, “bought off and sold out” as some would say, while Sam enjoys room service caviar, but in the end he is expected (by the movie audience) to regret his agreement to the Faustian deal. Look: Sam becomes a celebrity, able to meet up in Brussels with Soroya—who had entered into her own Faustian bargain by marrying Ziad (Saad Lostan), a rich diplomatic official at the embassy in Brussels.

Concluding moments come off like an exhibition of sedate fireworks that had turned into a thunderous climax. The film’s underlying dark humor comes to the fore, leading to a satisfying conclusion. This is a bold, original work, full of twists, enjoying an ensemble of superb performances especially by Mahayni in only his second full narrative performance.

In Arabic, French, Flemish and English with English subtitles (displayed even when English is spoken!)

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

TEST PATTERN – movie review

TEST PATTERN
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shatara Michelle Ford
Writer: Shatara Michelle Ford
Cast: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/6/21
Opens: February 19, 2021

Poster

Although “Test Pattern” is reasonably entertaining given the sympatico of the principal couple, the movie comes off more as a didactic fable, perhaps targeted to high-school seniors and college freshman. “Watch what you do” is the message, “Because you never really know what kind of person is showing interest in you.” The plot focuses on Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a Black woman, and Evan (Will Brill), a White male, who meet at a party in Austin, Texas. Given the general nature of two events, one an outdoor get-together, the other a young people’s bar, you get the idea that we are indeed a post-racial culture, and this in Texas (although Austin, a college town, is known as a place that culturally could be Boston or Minneapolis or L.A.).

When Evan approaches a group of young women and asks Renesha for her phone number, the twenty-something women at her table giggle like a gaggle of high school kids, as though the request came from Brad Pitt or Robert Pattinson. In fact Evan is a tattoo artist who appears to make enough of a living to be independent with an SUV and appears to be outclassed by Renesha, who is more educated and living in a spacious, well-appointed flat. Social class notwithstanding, they click immediately, proceeding happily to the bedroom in what may me their first or second date.

Some time later, Renesha insists that she has a boyfriend at what was supposed to be a girls’ night out. She is chatted up by Mike (Drew Fuller) while Mike’s friend Chris (Ben Levin) displays her charm to Renesha’s friend Amber. (Once again, an indication of a post-racial society.) After being given a drink and a suspicious gummy bear, Renesha is hustled off to a hotel where she is unable to offer physical resistance to what essential is non-consensual sex, i.e. rape. Hearing about the disastrous evening, boyfriend Evan does not break up with her but instead drives her around to hospitals trying to get a rape kit, which she succeeds in receiving after being turned away at two medical centers. Will the rape kit indicate forcible sexual activity? More important, how is a young woman supposed to prove that she was sexually assaulted when she accompanied Mike to a hotel, seemingly penetrated without physical violence? If DNA inspected at police headquarters links to the guy, so what? Indications are consensual sex.

The film is sympathetically acted by Hall and Brill, who do not really look like a pair, as she dresses with classical taste while he dons a fashionably (?) torn white T-shirt. The film is billed as part psychological thriller, but that part is microscopically small. Save it for the sex-ed classrooms.

82 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

MAFIA INC. movie review

MAFIA INC
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Grou
Writer: André Cédilot, Sylvain Guy, André Noël  Mafia Inc: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada’s Sicilian Clan by journalists André Cédilot and André Noël,
Cast: Sergio Castellitto, Marc-André Grondin, Gilbert Sicotte, Mylèlen Mackay, Donny Falsetti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/7/21
Opens: January 29, 2021

Mafia Inc Large Poster

Names of countries and provinces are flying here as though the actors are playing a game of geography. Lugano, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Lichtenstein, Venezuela, Quebec, Canada, Montreal, Cayman Islands. All of these areas (even Venezuela in better times) accommodate people who want to launder money, to hide deposits from the authorities. It’s a wonder that mafia members ever get caught, but Daniel Grou’s “Mafia Inc” shows what many of us in the audience know. Fallings out within gangster families in addition to wars between rival gangs lead to actions, reactions, and these guys don’t fool around. They get revenge when somebody squeals to the cops, when others are found to wear wires to lessen their sentences, and in the case of this movie, when one commits a crime so horrible that even his fellow members ostracize him.

The Quebecois director Daniel Grou, whose “Miraculum” is an ensemble work about people exploring their passions, deals now with people at least equally passionate, though a subplot around a controversial romance is thrown in to complicate a story that, like “Miraculum” is an ensemble piece. There are many characters with so many conflicting emotions and desires that a second showing may be needed to assemble the puzzle.

The two principals are Frank Paternò (Sergio Castellitto), the godfather of an ethnically Italian clan living in Montreal, and Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), a young member committed to violent actions meant not only to earn great sums of money (by hiding drugs inside corpses with removed organs and smuggling them through customers), but also to impress Frank. The film is based on a true story uncovered by Canada’s Woodward and Bernstein-like journalists André Cédilot and André Noël. The action takes place in Montreal in 1994 with flashbacks to 1980 to show the lives of upcoming mafioso Vince.

The godfather is played by a smartly-dressed, articulate, person who you might think is the CEO of Italian airlines and whose idea of making money is not by Bonnie-and-Clyde bank heists but by getting involved in a proposed bridge between Sicily and Italian mainland. You would not be surprised to see that the smooth-talker is proud of his anticipated construction as he frequently refers to his roots in the “motherland.” What will eventually take down the scheme is that Frank’s son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) is the man he wants as his successor, and ambitions of rival Vince, who is the son of a tailor (Gilbert Sicotte) known for custom-dressing the Paternò clan.

These are not a pleasant ensemble of people but Vince, a firebrand on his way up, believes more than the others that the end justifies the means. His is the idea of crashing a school bus in Venezuela sacrificing children to pick up bodies to transport drugs through customs. The romance between Giaco’s brother Pat (Michaela Ricci) and Vince’s sister Sofie (Mylène) adds complexity to the story, which features large groups of people in ornate houses and reception halls, a concrete sign of the millions sent by the families to banks around the world.

As in “The Godfather,” which is probably the best known classic film on the subject atop a slew of others like “Once Upon a Time in America,” (an almost four-hour look at a Jewish prohibition gangster coming to terms with his life), “Eastern Promises” (a Russian crime family), and “Scarface” (a Cuban immigrant in Miami takes over a drug cartel). If we are to believe the two journalists who covered the Quebec-based mob, their story involves everything you expect in an action drama, including the blowing up a custom men’s wear shop with a pipe bomb, shootouts that make “High Noon” appear like a child’s game of tiddle-de-winks, dancing by ornately dressed couples in the most gaudy reception rooms, and the like.

What is different here is that the gangsters easily adapt their perfectly accented speech among Quebec French, English and Italian. The film also shows what’s left of the mafioso humanity: they may cry when family members wind up dead and they are sentimental about budding romances among the clan. “Sicko,” one of Michael Moore’s documentaries, purports to show how civilized Canada is when compared to the U.S. Some of us here in America have fantasies that the Canadians, with their seeming cooperation among political parties and normal prime ministers, must be an idyllic place to live. “Mafia Inc” however points out the flaws within the boundaries of our neighbors to the north and does a more than adequate job albeit with some confusion.

In French (or should we say “French”), Italian, and English with English subtitles where necessary.

134 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEGINNING MOVIE REVIEW

BEGINNING
Mubi
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili
Writer: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/4/21
Opens: January 29, 2021

 

Beginning (film).jpg

One of the long gags about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. is that when you hear your doorbell ring on Sunday morning, you pretend you’re not home. This is because the religious sect, intent on awakening religious awareness and hopefully finding new members for the church are so assertive, so confident in their morality that they can barely believe that others might not find them so. If you invite them in for tea, and by “them” we mean that there is always a pair of missionaries, you might find them to be utterly pleasant people who could win you over despite yourself. But how much do we know about their culture?

You won’t find all that much about the general ethics of the religion in “Beginning,” set in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio that symbolically imprisons the viewer in the story. But you will find a woman, the principal character who is in most frames, to be so oppressed by the small town, by the feeling that she is invisible with no effect on anyone but her pre-pubescent child, and most of all so ignored by her husband who is the leader of a small congregation. This is not the year or the decade of the woman everywhere. If we can stretch a point made in Georgia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards competition, women are still controlled by their environment, by the overriding culture, and most of all by their husbands.

Not that David (Rati Oneli) is an evil man. In fact he is the pastor of the congregation, preparing the youths for baptism, questioning even the adults who meet in the church about the meaning of the sacrifice that Abraham is about to make of his son Isaac to God. When in one of the film’s rare, melodramatic scenes the church is firebombed by extremists during a service, the domestic terrorists caught by the surveillance cameras, the police are unwilling to bring charges against the perpetrators. The attack prompts Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) to feel even more invisible: not only does she stay with her husband who refuses to get a transfer out of the suffocating town near Georgia’s capital, but he refuses to allow her agency if her wishes go against his career moves. Insisting that she accompany him to a meeting with the elders, she refuses. “I want to be alone,” she insists, mimicking the famous quote of Greta Garbo in “Mata Hari.”

A former actress (“you were a terrible actress” notes her husband who ironically claims that he rescued her from the depths of despair), she puts up with ill treatment by her man, even criticized by her mother who advises her that she too put up with hers. When a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) shows up, asking her to use her charm to convince David to withdraw her complaint about the destruction of his meeting hall, he segues into a discussion of Yana’s most personal activities, asking her whether she lies when her husband makes love (not his exact word) to her. He asks her to sit next to him on the couch, proceeding to advance sexually, behavior that should horrify feminists but appears to “turn on” Yana, who has been living with a passionless marriage.

This is Dea Kulumbegashvili’s freshman feature film, from a director who was raised in Georgia and studied film direction in New York at Columbia University and the New School. She has her D.P., Arseni Khachaturan, hold his camera still, barely moving the lenses during the tracking shots, and keeping himself at a distance particularly in a scene of violent rape. The film’s most famous scene, a long, seven-minute take with a stationary camera finding Yana with eyes closed, the sun caressing her face, signals one attempt by the frustrated former actress, mother, and obedient wife to meditate on her life’s renewal. The scene gives way, the beauty of the landscape belying the desolation of her life.

“Beginning” looks at first like an ironic title, a bad joke when the woman is doomed to live as each twenty-four hours are like Groundhog Day. Still, a horrifying twist in the final scene could signal the start of a new chapter in her life, one that is anything but encouraging. This is not for those who want Hollywood endings or who can’t imagine watching a woman motionless on the grass for seven minutes. “Beginning,” which happily does not cater to the Hollywood audience with music in the soundtrack, existsfor folks who are fond of learning about human nature in all of its aspects.

In Georgian with English subtitles.

125 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

FALLING – movie review

FALLING
Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Viggo Mortensen
Writer: Viggo Mortensen
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Terry Chen, Sverrir Gudnason, Hannah Gross
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/23/21
Opens: February 5, 2021

Poster

This is one of those rare movies that have their writers sitting in the director’s chair as well, taking a major role, even playing some chords on the piano to punctuate the difficulty of his life. In other words, “Falling” has more than a touch of autobiography: Mortensen imaging and re-imaging his life under the rule of his father who, having looked at the baby he helped create greeting him not with “say dadda” but “I’m sorry I brought you into this world. To die.” We can only wonder how the little one was able not only to survive his daddy’s acerbic personality but why this baby, later on in life, would cater to almost every whim of the dad whose temper could burst forth at any time and whose progressive dementia would turn him into a fierce, cantankerous fool who not only brought a baby into the word to die but would regularly describe his two ex-wives as whores.

Though Mortensen has one of the two lead roles, the film belongs to Lance Henriksen, with a résumé of some 260 roles (including seven that would come out at about the same time as “Falling” and a stack of others continuing the career). Though Henricksen has performed mostly as a character actor, ranging from roles as a clean-cut FBI agent, a vampire or two, a psychotic motorcycle gang leader, his performance in “Falling” may be his meatiest, one that finds the actor who has now passed his eightieth year in full command of his craft.

Half the film’s time takes place forty years earlier with young Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) giving hints of a growing misanthropy and the other half featuring Willis (Lance Henriksen) at his present age of eighty. “Falling” is a film about family dysfunction that shows Willis’s middle-aged son John Peterson (Viggo Mortensen) selflessly taking care of the crotchety old man despite the latter’s insistence that “this is my house and if you don’t like it you can leave.”

Perhaps the most humorous scene, albeit one that you would hardly find funny if you were a passenger in the same plane, old Willis is being escorted from his upstate New York farm to California, ostensibly to find a place to live as he is now unable to take care of his farm. With behavior that makes you wonder when the airline crew would pitch Willis from the emergency exit, the old man believes the passenger cabin to be nothing more than his upstate New York farmhouse, his wife patiently awaiting him upstairs. This leads him into the kind of loud, vulgar emissions, his son John obviously embarrassed but assuring the crew that he will be OK.

The less conflicted part of the film, or at least the scenes with forty-year-old Willis doting like his wife Gwen (Hannah Gross) on their four-year-old son John (Grady McKenzie). Even at that age, a macho Willis takes the lad hunting; when little John shoots and kills a duck, Willis is happy to let him keep the dead bird, bathe it, sleep with it, until they allow Gwen to pluck the feathers and cook it.

But those salad days are now gone. Old Will is not only dismissive of the two wives he chased away, but has all the grotesque features of our last White House resident. He is disgusted that his son is gay, married to Eric (Terry Chen), the latter understanding that Willis’s dementia is talking. Yet John has no problem escorting his dad to a museum where Willis, gazing at a Picasso, tells his granddaughter Monica that “You can draw that.” If you look for nuance on this raging gaffer, you will find it only in his behavior toward young Monica.

How to explain John’s tolerance of his dad? He may think of the time his dad back took him hunting, let him play with the duck he shot, and ultimately, when John at 16 (William Healy) simply could not shoot the deer in his telescopic sights, was comforted with a pat on the shoulder and the statement, “It’s OK.”

We are told that Viggo Mortensen acted in the film he wrote and directed only to win financing. But this Renaissance man, an accomplished pianist, fluent in many languages having lived in Denmark, Spain and Argentina and able to speak English like a lifelong Californian, does the incomparable job of making the audience understand and accept his ability to tolerate behavior that would send most of us running.

112 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

SONGS OF SOLOMON – movie review

SONGS OF SOLOMON
Cloudburst Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Arman Nshanian
Writer: Audrey Gevorkian, Sylvia Kavoikjian
Cast: Samvel Tadevosian, Arman Nshanian, Sos Janibekyan, Arevik Gevorgyan, Tatev Hovakimyan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/21
Opens:

Poster

Every year that I taught high school history, someone in the class would ask why Jews have been oppressed by so many different cultures in so many different centuries. There are many reasons, all of them irrational, but the principal reason today is that during periods of extreme nationalism, the folks who are in the minority of a country’s ethnic or racial minority are in danger of being considered “the other.” They are different from the majority, and may be in a minority so small that they can easily be persecuted. They are scapegoated for society’s problems, though they had nothing to do with those dilemmas. In fact it was not until the founding of the state of Israel that Jews could live in a country where they are the majority and therefore free from being marginalized.

Similarly, the Armenians in the Ottoman (Turkish-dominated) Empire, were also in a minority. They are Christians; the Turks are Muslims. When the Ottomans found themselves in World War One, they used Armenians as scapegoats, “blaming” them for their contributions to architecture, music, cultural life in general, and acumen for business. In fact they were called by some the Jews of Turkey. In 1915, the Turks exterminated 1.5 million Armenians, though less is known about the pogrom against these Christian in 1894 when 300,000 were murdered. When Nazi government officials in the 1930s and 1940s were concerned that the world might condemn them for their genocidal pogroms against Jews, Hitler said: “Who remembers the massacre of Armenians?”

Well, then, movies like this one will certainly help to remind non-Armenians as well about the oppression, but don’t count your breath. A poll indicated that 40% of Americans never heard even of the Nazi Holocaust. In any case, “Songs of Solomon” is a worthy addition to the celluloid literature of the subject of genocide, joining others like “Nahapet,” ‘Mayrig,” “Ararat,” “The Cut,” “The Lark Farm,” “Dzori Miro,” “Map of Salvation,” “1915,” “Aram,” and “Do Not Tell Me the Boy was Mad.” The actors use exaggerated facial expressions as though in a silent movie, but I suspect the reason director Arman Nshanian evoked such exaggerated emotions is that he wants the film to appeal to a youthful audience.

Nshanian, in his freshman full-length film narrative (he is primarily an actor who takes a principal role here) leads us from the murders in 1894 to the more horrific ones in 1915, going back and forth in a film that in my opinion would have been better if told chronologically. This is a biographical look at Komitas Vardabet aka Solomon, credited with saving Armenian music, singing songs with an exquisite voice. The story opens before the dreaded year of 1894 when Solomon, an Armenian Christian who is a frail, gentle orphan with a blind grandmother, becomes best friends with two girls his own age. One is Sevil who is Turkish. She is friends with Sono, an Armenian. When Solomon sings to them, an Armenian archbishop believes that Solomon’s voice is a gift from God, and puts him into a seminary, which may have been responsible for saving his life.

When Sevil is married thirteen years later, her Turkish husband (played by the director) wants her not to associate with Armenians because “something bad is going to happen to them.” What follows appears to imitate the trajectory of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany, as Nazi thugs break windows of Jewish stores, bully Jews on the street, and make them wear patches to signal their Jewishness. A Turkish colonel, played with glee, becomes the chief villain, always speaking softly, smiling with contempt, playing with his Armenian victors before letting his goons beat them to death. The most riveting scene, in fact, occurs when this colonel taunts the family harboring the Armenian woman Sono, reminding cinephiles of similar doings when in “Inglourious Basterds,” Col. Hans Lada played by Christoph Waltz, toys with a French farmer who is hiding a family of Jews.

Though “Songs of Solomon” has an excellent group of Armenian extras, it has a budget smaller than that of movies like “1915,” and that’s just fine. We in the audience have the privilege of knowing more than today’s Turks seem to know about the genocides (Turks who made their truer opinions known about the genocide are subject to arrest). It’s pitiful that though Germans today freely acknowledge the role of Nazis in their history, the Turks continue to hide facts about these tragic events. This film thereby joins the others in bringing the truth to light.

“Songs of Solomon” is the Armenian entry competing in our 93rd Academy Awards, though it has tough competition from “Minari,” which I think will be chosen. Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein filmed in Armenia. The film is in Armenian with English subtitles.

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DEAR COMRADES – movie review

DEAR COMRADES (Дораги товарищи)

Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writer: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Andrei Guseve, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish, Vlaislav Komarov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/28/21
Opens: January 29, 2021 in virtual cinema. February 5, 2021 streaming

Poster

Not only political candidates, but whole countries embarking on a new system of government promise the world in poetry and then govern in prose. In the U.S., a middle-class revolution beginning in 1776 seemed to guarantee that our nation would be the shining city on the hill, but slavery, the Civil War, and countless brutal and unnecessary wars of our various administrations in Washington belie those ideals. So it was with the Soviet Union.

Smarting under the tsarist monarchies that gave wealth and power to a small elite, the Russians fought through two revolutions that took the country out of World War One in violation of a treaty, soon winning a war between the Reds and the Whites. The Whites wanted moderate reforms, the Reds total overthow of the old system. The aim? A paradise of workers and farmers as symbolized by the hammer and sickle. Though Stalin built up a country that emerged from feudalism to win a war against Hitler, on the domestic side, no administration there gave the workers and farmers anything resembling a paradise. Instead, the Soviet Union forbade strikes, even gunning down workers with justifiable grievances though they might be unarmed, simply letting off steam about price increases on food and cuts in salaries.

“Dear Comrades” takes hold of this concept and through narrative film rather than documentary gives the moviegoing public a view in black and white to emulate the times in 1962. You might think the Soviet government would cover up a tragedy in which scores of people were gunned down for striking and others were compelled to keep the matter secret lest they suffer torture and execution. And cover up they did, except that now, in our year, Andrei Konchalovsky was given the freedom to expose the oppression of the workers 68 years ago, an unusual work for the man whose previous film, “Sin,” is about the life of the Italian artist Michelangelo. More up his alley is his “Paradise,” a World War 2 drama involving a Russian member of the French resistance, a French collaborator, and a high-ranking German officer.

Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya)anchors “Dear Comrades” in the city of Novocherkassk in the story of an actual event. A thousand workers walked out at a Soviet factory, which would make the local members of the Communist party look bad and lose their cushy jobs, so the city council, as it were, moved to blame the higher-ups; perhaps the KGB, maybe the army. Their jobs were on the line, as tensions escalated as both the Red Army and the KGB (secret police) fired live bullets at the demonstrators.

Lyudmila gets special favors as a party member (some are more equal than others) such as passing by a crowd of people trying to fill up their food baskets the normal way while Lyudmila heads into the back room for salami and the like. She is a Stalinist, believes Khrushchev is likely to cozy up to the Soviet Union’s adversaries. In fact she is more than happy to see the strikers shot dead, though her liberal daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) wants to demonstrate with the strikers. Lyudmila is horrified that her daughter might be among the scores of people killed by snipers from the army and the KGB. She searches the morgue and when bodies disappear from there presumably driven to the countryside, she is all but certain that her daughter has been buried. She has the good luck of being befriended by a KGB man sympathetic to her cause.

Throughout the film we watch as the local people are made to sign statements of confidentiality: the shootings never happened and neither did the strike. This is a deadly serious drama: The closest thing to humor in the movie is the sight of Lyudmila’s grandfather who proudly puts on the army costume he used when he defended the tsar.

The big plus for the film is the sight of hundreds of extras hired by the movie company rather than having the studio resort to using archival shots. Here in the U.S. we continue to face a diminishing number of strikes given the economy and the purported easy of replacing recalcitrant workers. Yet more to the moment we cannot help thinking that the alt-right characters who invaded the Capitol on January 6th might have suffered a similar fate if our previous President gave the word, but given that the white supremacists are in bed with their billionaire leader, such could hardly befall them.

120 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME – movie review

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME (Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre)
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lili Horvát
Writer: Lili Horvát
Cast: Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodó, Benett Vilmányi, Zsolt Nagy, Péter Tóth
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/7/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

Film Poster

We’ve all heard this. “Let’s do lunch some time.” “We’ve really got to get together.” “My wife and I want to have you over for dinner soon.” “Stay in touch.” People who take invitations like these seriously are likely to be called rubes by those of us who have enough experience in life to distrust them. What do you think would happen if you took the speaker up on such fake invites? Humiliation, probably, so we shrug off the come-on just as does the inviter. This reminds me of the New Yorker magazine cartoon showing an executive behind the desk on the phone, saying “How about never? Is never good for you?” But you’re not likely to hear that from polite folks.

Now here’s a film that shows what happens to a woman who takes a man’s invitation seriously. She’s a neurosurgeon no less, who in Jersey meets a man in the same field. János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) is from Budapest at an American medical conference. The woman is ethnically Hungarian too. We don’t see what happens in New Jersey but apparently they agree to meet in Budapest in one month by the Liberty Bridge (and you’d better make sure of which bridge because Budapest has seventeen).

A month later, Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) flies to Budapest to meet him, and later to take up a new job in one of the city’s hospitals. She has been stood up, and here comes a scene that should land this foreign language gem an award for Best Male Fantasy. There is nobody to greet her, so she faints dead away. The scene comes from the pen of director Lili Horvát, whose coming-of-age tale “The Wednesday Child” was her freshman, full-length film. Now she has a fleshed-out narrative that labels her a feminist, a female director with a female lead, notwithstanding the principal character’s anxieties when unable to connect to the first person (at age 40) who makes her feel “like this.”

Building on male fantasy, Márta, about to fly back to New Jersey but determined to connect with János, runs from the airport and takes a job at the hospital at which János does surgery. Never mind that János had later told her that he never laid eyes on her, which takes the film from frustrated romance into psychological mystery. What’s the truth? Did she imagine everything? Because if she did, the story is a cop-out, given that you can excuse all sorts of strange occurrences on a dream. But no, there is an explanation. Wait a while.

Now isn’t it just like a neurologist to think she has a brain ailment, leading her to have a few sessions with a psychiatrist. Is she impaired? She could always hang out with a fourth-year medical student who lusts after her, thankful that she successfully treated his father, but she’s not that desperate. We’ve got a mystery here, one destined to keep us glued to the end to get some answers. Will this mature film be tainted with a happy, Hollywood ending? Will Márta become institutionalized? Is her brief affair with him in her bare, shoddy apartment, imagination or one-night stand?

If we were not wallowing in this one-year-old pandemic, “Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time” could conceivably open in any theater that has room in its marquee to fit the title. Though this is marketed here for those Americans who have no problem reading subtitles, it could draw a larger audience. The plot moves along at a good clip, highlights the impressive talents of Natasa Stork as the blue-eyed, classy but lonely protagonist, has some good shots on Budapest streets by cinematographer Robert Mály, and serves well as this year’s answer to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” In other words, this is not artsy-fartsy: hey, it’s not brain surgery.

95 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

DARA OF JASENOVAC – movie review

DARA OF JASENOVAC
101 Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Predrag Antonijevic
Writer: Natasa Drakulic
Cast: Bilijana Cekic, Vuk Kostic, Nikolina Jelivasac, Igor Djordjevic, Natasa Ninkovic, Petar Zekavica
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/17/21
Opens: February 5, 2021

Movie detail page | Fairfax, VA | DARA OF JASENOVAC

Some astute filmgoers might dismiss “Dara of Jasenovac” as a course in Holocaust 101, a film that might have been designed primarily for the forty percent of Americans who never heard of the Holocaust and a few others who might be admirers of the Nazi extermination camps as shown in the attempted coup at our national capitol. However, Predrag Antonijevic’s film is unique in its coverage of the concentration camps of the independent state of Croatia, a country created by the ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-Serb Ustashe.
Director Antonijevic, born in Nis, Serbia, Yugoslavia in 1959, whose “Breaking at the Edge” is a horror film about a woman whose unborn child could be killed were she not to avenge a supernatural entity, now takes on a far greater horror rather than one affecting just a single person. And this one is based however sadly on true events. In doing so, he personalizes the story by focusing partly on Dara (Bilijana Cekic) in her debut performance as a ten-year-old, determined not only to survive the terror of a concentration camp but to stick by her infant brother Bude Ilic come hell or high water.

And hell could hardly be more horrific than the large concentration camp of Jasenovac, the only camp set up independent of German control during the war, though a German adviser or two may visit the premises to advise the Ustashe commanders. When one German wonders why the Ustashe do not concentrate on “just Jews and Roma,” he is told that the others are imprisoned there simply because “they are Serbs.” So these Ustashe s.o.b’s are into all the accoutrements of Nazi ideology, in this case that the purity of Croatian blood must be preserved against the alleged manipulations of others who supposedly run the gamut from having exclusive control of the media to being sub-humans sucking the pure blood of the Croatian people.

One may well imagine that Natasa Drakulic, who scripted the story, aims to show that the Jasenovic camp was even more brutal than Auschwitz since the inmates were not only worked to death but killed gleefully by the commanders—who include women who are no less sadistic than the men. Examples abound. During a game of musicals chairs, to which the Serb inmate musicians are directed to knock out a Serb folk song, the commandant would raise his hands to stop the music. The prisoner who is left without a chair is killed. Then two chairs are taken away—fun and games. The two unfortunate people are stabbed in the neck as well. Finally, all the “winners” become losers, gunned down as though the Croatian officers are playing a video game.

Another method of killing involves shooting anyone who tries to escape, running toward a river that would take a prisoner to safety. A bunch of children are taken to a basement while the Croatian hurls a can of poisonous gas. Kapos help out, just as they did in the German-led camps, keeping lists of names and turning select people over.
While this is going on, the ten-year-old Dara must learn to be strong. She is as determined to protect her young brother as she is to stay alive, prepared to give her own life is needed to ensure the safety of the boy.

The activities by the prisoners in running the camp like a farm by grinding the corn, feeding the pigs, looks more like make-work before the killings, the entire film hitting you with the dangers of ultra-nationalism, the kind of ideology that enjoyed a bit of a run of the previous administration and featured the invasion of our nation’s capitol, with the ensuing risk to the lawmakers of being taken hostage or killed. Credit must be given to the cast of non-professional actors from whom director Peter “Gaga” Antonijevic evokes skillful performances. “Dara of Jasenovac is filmed by Milos Kodemo in the villages of Kolut and Bela Crkva, Serbia.

In Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles.

130 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

TRUE MOTHERS (Asa g Kuru) – movie review

TRUE MOTHERS (Asa g Kuru)
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Naomi Kawase
Writer: Naomi Kawase, Izumi Takahashi, based on the novel by Mizuki Tsujimura
Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Reo Sato, Hiroko Nakamima, Tetsu Hriahara, Ren Komai, Taketo Tanaka
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/20/21
Opens: January 29, 2021

‎True Mothers (2020) directed by Naomi Kawase • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Well known for her film “Hikari,” about a film writer for the visually impaired who meets a photographer who is losing his eyesight, director Naomi Kawase continues on a similar lyrical vein with “True Mothers.” This drama, which relies largely on displays of the emotions of its characters, is framed throughout by a setting in Japan that gives the area an idyllic look. Those who consider Japan to be a nation of ultra-polite people, the angle of whose bows reflecting the differences between the people they are greeting, will not be disarmed. There is a sense of order throughout. Even the wrenching features on the principal characters never get overblown as they might be, were this am American melodrama or soap opera. Instead, “True Mothers” is a lovely take on the subject of motherhood that could feel just right no matter where you live. The care and focus of women on their children is universal.

Editors Tina Baz and Yôichi Shibuya’s mixture of time, flashing back and leaping forward to display meetings of people and then explaining how they got there, can be confusing. There should have been no problem dealing with the story in chronological order. This deliberately paced dramatization is predictable at first, but has its share of twists which ultimately leaves the two woman in principal focus trying to work out their problems.

The tension develops when Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) tells his wife Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) that he is unable to have a baby because his semen does not carry the requisite amount of sperm. The surgery he is offered—to undergo a painful extraction of sperm directly from his testicles—could be a setup for an American broad comedy, but is here taken as just another of life’s sad situations. After refusing her husband’s suggestion that they file for divorce, they visit “Baby Baton,” an organization founded by Mrs. Asami (Miyoko Asada), which pairs birth mothers who cannot raise their babies with couples who are ready to adopt. Through that group they become adoptive parents of Asato (Reo Sato), who we see when he is preparing to enter kindergarten.

You can imagine Satoko and Kiyokazu’s surprise when Hikari (Aju Makita), the teen-aged birth mother turns up, demanding the return of her boy, although money instead would be fine. As for why money is so important, Kawase switches us to Hikari’s story, which takes on the more interesting half of the film. When the fourteen-year-old is approached by her classmate Takumi (Taketo Tanaka), who asks whether she would go out with him, her response, “What does ‘go out’ mean”? turns out to be more than his reply “to go to movies.” The two are quickly infatuated, nature takes its course, and Hikari finds herself pregnant. (She did not have a clue since at her age she had not developed menarche.) Takumi takes off, and Hikari’s family send her off to the home for unwed mothers as her pregnancy, being over 24 weeks, is too late for an abortion.

Hikari gains some maturity through her relationship with her roommate, Tomoka, a sex worker, who takes away some of Hikari’s innocence with a facial makeup—which makes her unrecognizable to the young boy’s step-parents who believe that she is not the biological mother but a scammer. By the final frame, we in the audience come away with a sense that there are two heroes in the story: the self-sacrificing Satoko and the teen Hikari; and some villains, namely Hikari’s prejudicial parents and the spineless father of Hikari’s baby. Call this a women-empowerment movie if you wish, but most of all, this is a soulful treatment of a situation into which many an altogether-too-young woman has a baby that she lacks the time and maturity to care for but who rise deliberately to the occasion.

“True Mothers” is Japan’s submission to the 93rd Academy Awards. In Japanese with English subtitles.

140 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

SPOOR – movie review

SPOOR (Pokot)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Olga Tokarczuk, Agnieszka Holland, adapted from Olga Takorczuk’s novel
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Gierszal, Patricia Volny, Tomasz Kot
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

Poster

The difference between a B-movie crime story/TV episode like NCIS and an art movie that deserves greater concentration, is that the crimes, be they murder, robbery, rape, kidnap, and arson, should be entertaining thrillers, while the more intellectual dramas use the crimes as stepping-stones to the development of characters. “Spoor”is a good example of the latter. The title refers to the scent, droppings, even the trails trodden by animals. Animals, specifically dogs, boars, and antelopes, each have their brief starring roles, quite necessary to the development of plot. Since this is a film by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, you would expect the story to be similar to that of her other contributions, such as her 2011 film “In Darkness” about one man’s rescue of Jews in the German-occupied city of Lvov. “Spoor” is more about the intended rescue of animals which are shot for fun, each month a different creature made legal to kill, in a small, southwest Polish town near the Czech border.

Holland, who studied filmmaking in Prague, focuses primary attention on Duszejko, an elderly woman who is the town’s only, animals rights advocate. Her personality might convince some diners that vegetarians and spokespersons for the four-legged are eccentric at least, crazy at most. Duszejko (Agnieska Mandat), a woman who objects vigorously to being called Janina though we do not find out why, is a part-time teacher in the local school whose 8-year-old kids love her, even hugging as you’d expect a dog to hug its human partner. She has studied astrology for years—not in itself eccentric, since even former first lady Nancy Reagan was a fan of the pseudoscience as well. When she protests against town laws that allow hunting, she undercuts her points with the police by screaming. The police have other concerns on their minds when bloodied bodies turn up in the snow, the film audience presuming that the wolf-hugger is the perp.

Though photographers Jolanta Dylewskh and Rafal Paradowski’s lenses are on Duszejko throughout, there are an abundance of secondary characters ranging from the wolves, boars, deer, foxes and even insects to people who enter in and exit from the scenes regularly. Among the folks introduced in this hayseed village are the priest, a man she should not have bothered to confide in, given that he considers equating dogs with people (my dogs are my daughters, insists Duszejko) with blasphemy since God gave us dominion over them and besides, animals do not have souls and therefore cannot be candidate for salvation. She has a brief affair with Boros (Miroslav Krobot), a wandering professor of her own age, an entomologist who advises her about how dead bodies can attract certain types of beetles.

Of the side roles, the most meaty, so to speak, is that of young Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal) who works for the police setting up and instructing them in how computers can help and who fears that he will lose his job because he has seizures. He will obviously team up with Dobra Nowina (Patricia Volny),the only twenty-something female in town.

Some of the material is rambling that would not be hurt by more attention from Pavel Hrdlika, its editor, but supplemented by more activity form the forest creatures that sometimes run quickly through the snow, and other times, as with deer that come over across the Czech border, and stand still, too dumb to be unafraid of humans.

Don’t expect too much blood, though one animal, apparently really gunned down by a hunter, is hugged and prayed over by Duszeklo. The principal reason for seeing this movie is the performance of Kraków-born Mandat, 64-years old when this was filmed, well known in her own country for roles in a host of TV dramas. Otherwise there are too many moments of tedium in this overlong, 128-minute offering, but enlivened by many of the secondary characters coming across not as salt-of-the-earth just-folks but mostly as fierce adversaries of animals, from the priest to the types you probably found climbing the walls of the capitol to protest a fair U.S. election.

In Polish with English subtitles.

128 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

IN & OF ITSELF – movie review

IN & OF ITSELF
Hulu
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Frank Oz
Writer: Derek DelGaudio
Cast: Derek DelGaudio
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/13/21
Opens: January 22, 2021

DEREK DELGAUDIO’S IN & OF ITSELF Key Art Poster

There are two kinds of audiences for live shows in New York. One is represented by the tourist, perhaps not fluent in English, who would go to a Broadway musical: “Chicago,” “South Pacific,” “Guys and Dolls,” presentations that are a lot of fun. Others are a more intellectual set that would patronize off-Broadway, even off-Broadway; likely to be in a serious vein, knowledge of English indispensable. There is third type of live presentation; the kind that would challenge people who think they know everything and like to brag about going to esoterica. What they see is likely to be a mix of entertainment and a delving into our minds and souls. Such a show played at the Daryl Roth Theatre, off-Broadway in New York in 2017, called “In & Of Itself,” considered to be a one-man exhibition but depending upon enough people in the audience to volunteer to stand up, even to come up on stage.

“In and Of Itself” as presented by Hulu and executive produced by the likes of my favorite TV comic Stephen Colbert, is a filmed play and then some; meaning that the presentation puts together a collage of audiences and evenings, melding some of the stunning 552 displays that ran before an audience of one hundred diverse souls. As directed by Frank Oz (both the stage show and the movie) with generous filming of a diverse audience including African-Americans and Asian-Americans, young, middle-aged and elderly, “In & Of Itself” may require multiple viewings to allow DelGaudio’s message to sink in: that we are not necessarily what we do for a living, even what goes on within our families. Each of us is a multiple, some of our character easily comprehended by others, while the rest of is below the surface, even hidden from ourselves.

In the opening scene, he asks members of the audience to come up before a large board filled with cards, each bearing the title of an occupation: nurse, ophthalmologist, dentist, and the like. Each is an “I am.” Some of the audience members will be called up to the stage, and as we watch the unfolding drama, we may wonder whether some of the folks are shills for the company who make sure that enough volunteers are called up each time. As a whole, nobody seems shy in the audience(s) that we see.

DelGaudio is a gifted man who knows his lines cold, a fellow of medium height, a close haircut, a trace of a beard. He wears a tie but that’s soon to come off to put across his eyes for one of his tricks. He is a master storyteller, segueing from a tale about a man who plays Russian roulette—the image of the person on one of the six diaramas on the wall. The deal is that he has 5 chances out of 6 to win, to save his life, and if he comes out ahead, he is rich. His troubles are over. But then again, as DelGaudio notes, if he loses, his troubles are also over (which brings the first laugh from the audience). This guy raises the ante, putting two bullets into the gun the next night, three the following, until he points the gun with six bullets at his head. How he manages to come out ahead? Find out by seeing the film.

The most dazzling part finds DelGaudio doing card tricks that are absolutely amazing. Ricky Jay is probably envious. If you see how he manipulates the deck to do everything he wants it to do, setting out the spades in order like a super royal flush, you might consider that he is a sorcerer. In the Middle Ages, the peasants would know what to do with him, and it’s not pretty.

Later he will present volunteers from the audience with letters allegedly written by members of their families, letters that bring some of them to tears. What these letters contain are writings that could easily have come from the participants’ mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. That’s how well DelGaudio seems to know his audience.

Then just as you wonder whether these audience members are the sorcerer’s apprentices, he dazzles by getting half of the hundred to stand up in the every-seat-taken theater, looking at the folks, telling each what he or she is: an introvert, a vegan, an optimist, a lover. The audience at no point looks at a cell phone, a watch, his navel, but all eyes are concentrating on the majordomo.

What does it all mean? Paradoxically, we are all many things, and we are all alike. Forget about Superman, Batman, even Wonder Woman. This showman can see into our souls, as you can believe as you watch the audience members, one by one, feeling the magic.

Yep: he is an enchanter.

90 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE MAURITANIAN – movie review

THE MAURITANIAN
STX Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary”
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jody Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/12/21
Opens: February 19, 2021

Andrew - The mauritanian poster

If you are following the events of the days just preceding the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President, you will see a division into two camps. One group, believing that the election was rigged, might well say that the violence of the far-right extremists who took over the Capitol was justified, given their disgust with what they consider fraud. The other folks, hopefully the greater number, were horrified watching the only attempted coup of the citadel of democracy since the British set fire to the building in 1814. This latter group, the more educated Americans, might well think: “With enemies like these domestic terrorists, who needs enemies?”

And when you consider the way that the American armed forces have acted for years in our country’s prison at Guantánamo, Cuba (itself an example of U.S. imperialism), torturing prisoners by blasting them with music, waterboarding (which gives the hapless victims the feeling of drowning), humiliating them in at least one case by dragging a man around on a leash, putting them into stress positions, i.e. bent over, for hours, you may say as well: If this is American democracy, who needs enemies from authoritarian regimes abroad?

As pointed out in the epilogue of “The Mauritanian,” Kevin Macdonald’s new, exciting, bold and horrifying film, one prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi had been held for seven years without evidence and with just one hearing in a D.C. federal court where he was judged not guilty. And would you believe that the Obama administration appealed, leading the poor man to be kept a total of 14 years before being released to his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania? Filming in Mauritania and South Africa among other locations, Glaswegian director Macdonald, known mostly for his “The Last King of Scotland” about events surrounding the Uganda administration of Idi Amin, offers us an indictment of an infuriated America uninterested in due process. On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center was attacked by two planes leading to 3,000 deaths. As a result, those charged with terrorism and held at our facility in Cuba would be denied a hearing, much less a fair trial. Seven hundred seventy-nine prisoners had been guests of the facility since 9/11. A mere handful were found not guilty and released.

The most interesting detainee would be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, principally because he wrote a book, actually four books, about his experiences there, adapted for Macdonald’s pulsating drama. The plot is unfolded with its center, Tahar Rahim, a gifted French performer of Algerian descent adept in French, Arabic, English, Scottish Gaelic and Corsican (he used his skills in the dynamic movie “The Prophet” about a prison holding people Corsicans mobsters and Muslims).

It doubtless took a man of exceptional intelligence to compose these tell-all books, and Slahi was exceptional enough to have received a scholarship in 1988 to study in Germany for a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, fighting against the Soviet occupation, a war in which the mujaheddin was backed by the U.S. So far so good. He trained with al Qaeda, one of the mujaheddin groups fighting a civil war, but instead of joining the fight he returned to Germany. His cousin al-Walid and other Qaeda members wrote to bin Laden opposing the planned 9/11 attacks. Slahi allegedly lodged three suspects for one night at his home in Germany in 1999. Not so good.

From what we gather in this film, the government had virtually no case, no evidence that Slahi was the prime mover of the 9/11 attacks or took part at all. Habeas corpus, the concept by which an arrested person must be advised of the evidence that causes him to be charged? Forget about it. The fury of President Bush from the first enemy attack in America since Pearl Harbor was joined by the American people, who seemed in no mood for giving those held at Gitmo the time of day. Hence the many years served in that prison camp by people held without charges.

You could not likely pick a better actor for the Slahi role than Rahim, who, judging by his multi-lingual skills comes across believable in his knowledge of English, learned largely from the guards, able to project his case to the movie audience. Serving as defense counsel, Jodie Foster takes the role of Nancy Hollander, determined to force the United States to live by the Constitution. She, together with an associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who would serve as a translator from French (not needed given the prisoner’s fluency in English), take their time gaining the man’s trust, persuading him to sign documents that would give her the rights of counsel, insisting that there is an attorney-client privilege. Only later did it come out that Slahi confessed, insisting to his counsel that the confession was beaten out of him, to which Hollander replies that the confession could therefore be thrown out. Opposing them for prosecution is Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch)—a British actor who does quite a job with a southern American accent. He seems less than convinced at any point that the defendant is guilty, and will ultimately do the right thing. When he demonstrates his uneasiness, he gets the same kind of hell from the military that Hollander receives from the USA-USA crowd, which cannot believe that an American can plead a case for a man who obviously (they think) had a big role in 9/11.

Director Macdonald occasionally breaks chronology, going back to the accused man’s happy life in Mauritania, the praise he receives from others for getting that scholarship to Germany, the plan opposed by his mother who believes she will lose him. A dramatic scene during the opening shows a cultural festival in a country that most Americans probably never realized could house some of the bad guys, terrorists found largely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Surreal tension break out during the final one-third of the film as we watch close-ups of the brutality of the military, sometimes playing good cop but in the end hitting Slahi with the most diabolical series of brutalities—the stress postures, the loud music, the sleep deprivation, even an episode with an army woman costumed in a cat mask humiliating him by sitting astride the man and “talking dirty.”

Jodie Foster may be the name that brings an audience to the theaters, but this is Tahar Rahmin’s movie. He is superb whether showing an ironic sense of humor, straining against his captors’ brutality, serving to convince us if we are not already believing, that some, and probably most of the current detainees in our wretched prison camp abroad are not guilty of the crimes with which they are…not even charged!

129 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

SACRED COW – movie review

SACRED COW: The Nutritional, Environmental and Ethical Case for Better Meat

Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Diana Rodgers
Writer: Diana Rodgers
Cast: Nick Offerman, Narrator
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/9/20
Opens: January 5, 2021

Before tackling the points made by this new doc “Sacred Cow,” let’s look at the concept of veganism, a philosophy that would not be in accord with the ideology of this film…

Sacred Cow: The Nutritional, Environmental and Ethical Case for Better Meat Poster

It seems not so long ago that most of us thought that meat was born in plastic wrap, that vegetarians were communists, fascists, or just plain weird, and that if you are not poverty-stricken, why would you ever want to give up meat? Suddenly Hollywood celebs embrace not only vegetarianism (no meat or fish) to veganism (no meat, fish, dairy and eggs). Joaquin Phoenix, Alicia Silverstone, Alec Baldwin among others. Even President Clinton was on the wagon, turning his nose up against flesh and enjoying the cooking of a top vegan chef), but now he’s playing the omnivore card.

There are reasons that people abstain from anything that has a mother. They may do this for aesthetic reasons (decaying animal corpses are gross), taste (you don’t like steak or sausage), environmental (you don’t want to be standing next to a cow when it endangers the atmosphere), health (saturated fat raises bodily cholesterol), economics (the high price of meat and fish), conservationist (rain forests are disappearing to make room for cattle grazing and growing animal feed),and best of all ethical (animals are born, live lives in an earthly hell, and are slaughtered without last rites, on their deathbeds with none of their family present and you don’t want on your conscience that you in effect, hired a hit team to take out a cow or a horse, a lamb or a bat).

Diana Rodgers’ movie, however, might give meat-eaters a further excuse to continue their habit and possibly to justify it if debating vegans. What horrifies some vegetarians and vegans so much is not the actual slaughter of cows and sheep and chickens, but the idea that the animals live horrible lives in huge factory farms. This smart film takes a middle ground, showing that cows and sheep can live happy lives, are slaughtered humanely, and what’s more, they benefit us in ways that factory farms cannot. There is considerable information that can be best absorbed by people who study regenerative agriculture such as in colleges that have that subject as a major. City folks would do well to supplement the considerable factual content of the film with readings, and in fact, you can do just that by entering this address in your URL: SacredCow.info.

Unlike factory farms, which in America supply 95% or more of meat, regenerative farms practice sustainable agriculture, not by fighting nature with chemical pesticides and growing corn or soy in a separate area from grazing animals. They grow crops simultaneously with cattle, allowing the animals to fertilize the soil naturally and making marginal soil more arable.

Diana Rodgers, who directs, takes us first to a farm in Monon, Indiana, then spreads out across the land where we here enthusiastic farmers praise how they are raising cattle and sheep. What’s more their animals feeding on plants not damaged by chemical bring more nutrition to our plates.

In a sense, without mentioning keto diets, the folks covered by Rodgers’s doc note that Americans have become increasingly obese at the same time that they ironically had given up considerable meat eating. One subject states even that the high starches with the extra salt and sugar used to preserve and give a bolder taste to processed foods, have added to this massive weight gain.

According to some of the friendly folks who inform us that eating meat is both nutritious and ethical, people who abjure flesh may not grow sufficiently and can suffer degenerative diseases as well. Perhaps, one states, that it’s not the meat that causes increases in weight and blood pressure and blood sugar, but that people who eat lots of meat are also likely to smoke and avoid exercise.

There is much here to consider, particularly if you, like me (a member of PETA), believe that being vegan is not only good for animals who get to live, but is the most healthful of all possible dietary choices.

If this film whets your appetite for more knowledge, particularly if you would like to counter its arguments, you can check out these other movies which may be available on Amazon Prime, including “Eating You Alive,” “The Invisible Vegan,” “Food Choices,” “The End of Meat,” “From the Ground Up,” “Death on a Factory Farm,” among others. The filmmakers of these items would likely take issue with the ideas raised in “Sacred Cow,” considering them to be a gutless compromise solution.

The music is intrusive. What for? Would it be boring to watch a well-produced film like this without such distraction?

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

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – C+ (intrusive music)
Overall – B+

 

PIECES OF A WOMAN – MOVIE REVIEW

PIECES OF A WOMAN
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kornél Mundruczós
Writer: Kata Wéber
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Ellen Burstyn, Jimmie Fails
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/26/20
Opens: December 30, 2020

Pieces of a Woman (2020) - IMDb

Most of us who have lived at least for thirty years have known the grief that accompanies a loss. But only a woman who loses a just-born baby can attest to the emptiness she feels when she has set aside a room for the newcomer, crib and toys, goes through nine months of pregnancy and feels the baby kicking only to suffer a miscarriage when the newcomer is only minutes old. As the anguished woman who barely dreamed that such a tragedy would occur, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) fills the screen not only throughout but particularly during the initial half hour of the story when the Hungarian-born director, Kornél Mundruczós, watches her in a real-time unbroken take, one of the most wrenching minutes you’re likely to see this year.

In his first feature in English, Mundruczós is known for his “White God,” a tale of a thirteen-year-old girl out to save her dog Hagen when her father releases the animal to the streets. This time he focuses not only on the aborted birth and courtroom aftermath of a botched operation by a midwife but is throwing subtle hints of social class dynamics, including the dramatic turn by Elizabeth (Ellen Burlstyn),an upper-middle-class older woman. She attempts to undo the marriage of her daughter Martha (Vanessa Kirby) to Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker intending to have his daughter cut the ribbon and be the first to walk through a bridge he is helping to build in Boston’s Charles River. (The filming by Dávid Jancsó takes place in Canada and Norway).

With her white hair neatly glued to her head evoking her wealth, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) makes her dislike of his rough-hewn, energetic son-in-law clear from the beginning. We in the audience might hold our breath with Elizabeth’s bold, straightforward comment to Sean, “I do not like you…it’s not because you’re poor but because you are not intellectual.” More mannered than Elizabeth and Sean, Martha displays her inability to come to grips with the death of her newborn, exploding only occasionally as when she is disgusted by her mother’s insistence on burying the tiny body and declaring in a huff that she will donate the deceased to a university for research.

Determined to prosecute the case against Eva (Molly Parker), the midwife, in both criminal court and in the civil department, she engages her attorney cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) to move the case forward, and during the next seven months, periods designated on the screen, we watch as Sean, staying sober for months, goes back on the bottle as the family begins to disintegrate.

A long take exposes a roundabout involving Martha’s sister Anita (Iliza Shlesinger) and Anita’s car salesman husband Chris (Benny Safdie), discussing the case, during which Elizabeth bursts forth with a speech noting that she was a baby in Europe who survived the Holocaust. LaBeouf is cast as Kirby’s partner for his rage, his general physicality, his temper, still leaving Kirby as the film’s center; a woman who is not all that eager to incriminate her midwife, though she had used her as substitute for the regular person she had chosen, but is swept away by an otherwise unanimous opinion by the extended family to go to court.

If any is up for end-year awards, or for acting in films running up to the Oscar season in late April, that would be Vanessa Kirby. You can see her bottled rage, her hesitancies, her grief with every gesture, her gaze at an apple whose seeds serve as metaphor for rebirth, making “Pieces of a Woman” a must-see for an audience that values such an authentic recreation of instant post-partum depression.

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

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

 

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley based on his play “Outside Mulligar”
Cast: Jamie Dorman, Emily Blunt,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/27/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Wild Mountain Thyme Movie Poster

John Patrick Shanley, who directs and wrote both the movie and the four-character play on which it’s based, must have French-kissed the Blarney Stone for inspiration once again. His delightfully stereotyped look at an Irish family that is not as traditionally-oriented as it appears is not unlike his equally stereotypical look at an widowed Italian-American woman in “Moonstruck,” who falls for her fiancés’ energetic brother. The movie opens with a drone shot of rural land in Ireland (is there any other?) that could have been made by the Irish Tourist board and has a musical soundtrack that leads the viewer into a mood of enchantment. “Wild Mountain Thyme” considers a 75-year-old man’s decision to leave the land he owns with its sheep and adorable dog to his American relative rather to his local grandson, who deals with the passion of his neighbor whose romantic entreaties he ignores.

In traditional rom-com mode, the young pair remain apart though they are meant for each other, and surely, though we may think we want a non-traditional conclusion to upend a Hollywood ending, we hope that Anthony (Jamie Dorman) will end up with his soul-mate, the pipe-smoking Rosemary (Emily Blunt), who had the hots for Anthony since she was a little girl.

Jamie Dorman, in a role as far apart from that of a veritable sex counselor in “Fifty Shades of Gray,” hangs out regularly with Rosemarie, and given that women are more assertive nowadays than they were when they had the excuse of Sadie Hawkins day to become the pursuers, we can accept her fevered attempts to get Anthony to propose to her. After all she has loved him for the past quarter-century, as we find out when she looks with frustration at the boy’s attraction to another.

Believing that he will be embraced with first dibs on the farm he wants to buy from Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken), Adam (Jon Hamm) takes off from New York where he has a successful career in finance to try his luck as a farmer. Adam would be Anthony’s opposite, asserting his charm to capture Rosemary’s heart, but his city-slicker mentality does not work on Rosemary. Though she meets him in New York for a ballet and dinner, hers is a one-day stand; that is, she has a return ticket to Ireland the following day! “How yer gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? Just watch Rosemary who has seen enough of the big city for the next ten years.

The movie is so charming, not in spite of, but because of its kitsch, and did I imply that Emily Blunt is hot?

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

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

MY LITTLE SISTER – movie review

MY LITTLE SISTER (Schwesterlein)
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Directors: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Writers: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Cast: Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/22/20
Opens: January 5, 2021

Poster

The song that Joan Baez made famous goes “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ we’re always controlled, we’re always confined,/ And when we get married to end all our strife/ We’re slaves to our husbands for the rest of our lives.” Such is the focus of “My Little Sister,” directed and written by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, whose “The Little Bedroom” focuses on an older man who accepts the help of a woman, leading to a bond. They are not so far off thematically with their current offering, which finds Lisa (Nina Hoss) pausing her career as a playwright to care for her cancer-stricken twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) while at the same time furious that her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) decides unilaterally to remain in Switzerland as a teacher in a posh Swiss school despite their previous agreement to return together to Berlin.

Martin is arrogant in tearing up his agreement with Lisa in order to sign a five-year contract that would keep him where they are in Switzerland. But you can’t fault her brother Sven who suffers from cancer, whose stem-cell transfer was rejected, and who needs his sister to remain with him. At the same time, she is eager to remain in Berlin with her two kids (Linne-Lu Lungershausen and Noah Tscharland) and her mother Kathy (Marthe Keller), who beams with the successes on stage of her famous actor son while thinking little of her daughter’s interest in writing plays with more originality than “Hamlet.”

Though you can see what is going to happen miles away, “My Little Sister” should resonate with an audience familiar with Nina Hoss’s acting smarts. Hoss has entertained her fans in “The Audition,” which sees her imposing her will at a conservatory to admit a student against the wishes of others, and “Return to Montauk” where she meets in New York with a man she had not seen in seventeen years. One particular scene that illustrates her talent involves her breaking down in a hospital, when dialogue is unnecessary since verbal silence enables us to admire her ability to capture a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The ensemble performances are all first-rate. Lars Eidinger performs as Sven, a man eager to return to the theater to play “Hamlet” for almost the four hundredth time, dejected when David (Thomas Ostermeier), the theater director scraps the plan, concerned that his sick actor may not last for fifteen minutes on the stage. Not long after the director’s wise decision, Sven is vomiting into the toilet, sweating and frightened with pain “all over,” giving up plans to try options at the hospital in favor of returning home to die.

Filip Zimbrunn trains his lenses on several Swiss locations, with a remarkable action shot of Sven’s gliding amid the Alps, running as fast as he can, then taking off like an eagle. What you may take away from the film is a view of Switzerland that makes you realize how the Swiss people, with no wars to worry about for hundreds of years and with scenery to die for, can make you envious of the lucky people who are citizens therein and who might laugh at Lisa’s eagerness to remain in Berlin.

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

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

 

NEWS OF THE WORLD – movie review

NEWS OF THE WORLD

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Greenglass
Writer: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon, Marc Winnigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/17/20
Opens: December 25, 2020

News of the World film poster.png

When I was a kid, say 9 years old, I couldn’t get enough of Westerns on TV and in the movies, though in a recent interview Tom Hanks said “they don’t make Westerns any more.” My favorite heroes were Gabby Hayes, who played a toothless, bearded gent for comic relief; Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. Every story of the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian scout Tonto, ended with “Hi Yo Silver. Away!” Its only classic notion was the theme music from the overture to the opera William Tell, which I always use first to introduce high school kids to classical music.

Occasionally a Western had real class, with “High Noon” standing so far above the rest that it stayed in my mind as the Greatest of the genre. Westerns today are so rare that “News of the World” can be welcomed indeed. It may or may not have resonance with twelve-year-olds today, though there’s a good chance that one of the two principal actresses, Berlin-born is Helena Zengel, a 12-year-old playing a Johanna Leonberger, may connect with them. Kids today may marvel that she can speak English, German and Kiowa—that last word taken from an Indian tribe that originated in Western Montana and whose name means “principal people.”

We’ve come a long way from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and any of that genre that portrayed Indians as the bad guys, whooping it up on battle and taking white scalps to show their courage. In these older westerns the U.S. cavalry were the good guys who arrived in the nick of time to save a family, announcing their courageous entry with blasts of the bugle.

In this drama, Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in the year 1870 in northern Texas, now makes a living reading newspapers in towns where the people either had no newsstands and were probably illiterate. They were interested in news of their area, though later in the story they would find not only amusement but incitement when Captain Kidd, suddenly turning Marxist, reads to the people of Pennsylvania miners who fought back against their bosses, who were not particularly concerned about the yearly deaths of these employees.

The story turns on the relationship between the Captain and the blond child, the latter having lost her parents via an Indian raid, was adopted by the tribe where she learned the Kiowa language, and has only a rudimentary understanding of German. In fact when Kidd, who finds her and dedicates himself to taking her to her aunt and uncle (whom she hated), refuses to identify herself as Johanna, instead taking her Kiowa name, Cicada.

The road movie involves the growing bond between a man in his sixties and an anxious girl over three-score years his junior. As they ride toward the relatives, they run into problems. The first involves a trio of bad guys with rifles who try to buy the girl from the captain for fifty dollars, set on making money by pimping her out. When he refuses, they chase him. In the story’s best action sequence, the captain has to take out all three, which he does using advanced military strategy of its time—with the help of the girl who in a later action scene saves him again.

The movie has resonance today as the solitary captain, wandering from town to town to deliver the news, finds a tree where a Black man has been lynched, a note on the body inscribed “Texas says no. This is White man’s Country.” When the captain and his young charge ride through a no-man’s land, they find a town seemingly owned by Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who brags about how he lorded over the Indians, Mexicans, and Blacks. (Guess who would play Farley most realistically today!) Buffalo bodies are strewn across the land. (Remember them? There must be a few remaining).

Paul Greenglass, who directs and co-wrote, may be best known today for films of greater action such as “Jason Bourne” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” here settling down to concentrate on the bonding experience of man and girl. We all know that Tom Hanks can do no wrong, but we take surprise in the energy cast by young Zengel, who is both vulnerable and fierce, resisting the adult at first based on her memories of older people, and of course yielding to the love that she feels for her new adopted dad.

Here the actions scenes might be considered a temporary relief from the quiet seriousness, but both action and sentiment are conveyed with authenticity as is the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski in the proud blue state of New Mexico.

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

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

THE LAST SERMON – movie review

THE LAST SERMON
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jack Baxter
Writer: Jack Baxter
Cast: Abdullaziz Ali Abobker, Acram Said Ahmad, Aeham Ahmad, Iyad Al-Dajani, Susan Alamo, Tony Alamo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/10/20
Opens: December 20, 2020

The Last Sermon_new poster.jpg

You can call this film director Jack Baxter’s vanity project if you like, but in any case “The Last Sermon” mirrors the kind of odyssey that will make you cheer on its filmmaker and hope that he will gain the insights he seeks. Baxter is a New York resident who was injured in the terrorist bombing of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv in April 2003. Three people were killed and many were injured. Baxter walks around now with a cane, partially paralyzed from the suicide bombing which left piece of shrapnel in his body.

Baxter, a slim fellow standing six feet two inches who has a thick mess of curly white hair and a Bernie Sanders accent, wants to know why radicalized Islamists have actually gone against the teachings of the Koran. Just as one of the principal beliefs of Judaism is “treat others as you want to be treated yourself,” in other words we are all equal, the prophet Mohammad preached in the year 632 his last sermon before a multitude of followers. He said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white. Do not do injustice to others, therefore do not do injustice to yourselves.”

Yet the world has suffered through a plethora of attacks by Muslims who apparently did not read or did not agree with the prophet, our own case here in the U.S. highlighted by 9/11, when almost 3,000 Americans were murdered when three separate aircraft aimed themselves at New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol building.

The doc starts in Jerusalem, introducing Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem outside Mike’s Place. From there the crew traveled to Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Germany the Czech Republic, France, and England. Playing the harmonica to get the attention of refugee communities in countries that have allowed Syrians and Afghans safe harbor, he discusses his quest with Muslims and others whom he meets on the way, most sympathizing with his point of view that Islam is a religion of peace. As one fellow tells him, jihadists are little more than murderers, clothing their actions with the material of religion. That in one sentence should satisfy Baxter, an insight that even I could have told him had he interviewed me. One of the refugee areas had a large sign with a picture of President Trump, a circle and a diagonal line drawn through him as though to call him their enemy—which he is.

The only lip he gets is from a far right presidential candidate in Prague, who insists that there is no way the Islamic culture could find a home in her country, that she does not mind a handful of refugees already there nor does she draw back against doing business with Islamic countries. But it is quite clear that she has no use for them in her Eastern Europe domain. In that she reflects the view of the current far-right president of Hungary, one of several authoritarian rulers that our own president admires.

The film picks up near the conclusion when in London, Baxter, unsuccessfully trying to contact the relatives of one of the Tel Aviv bombers, gets literally up on a soapbox in Hyde Park to denounce terrorism before a handful of people, curious about a New Yorker in suit and tie who expresses a point of view with which nobody there can find fault. Then, in a tense meeting with a politician who appears not to take a strong stand against jihadism, Baxter cries out, “They’re murderers! Murderers!” as he at first steps away from the man as though to protect both of them from a potential fight, then returns a few paces to cry “They’re murderers!”

This doc, in its cinema verité style, is not unlike Jack Baxter’s previous “Blues by the Beach,” about a live music blues bar by the beach in Tel Aviv called Mike’s Place. The aim is to show there is more to the Middle East than seemingly endless war and terrorism. Ironically enough, that is the very place that became the scene of a suicide bombing.

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

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

DA 5 BLOODS – movie review

DA 5 BLOODS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/14/20
Opens: June 13, 2020

Da 5 Bloods Film Poster

Spike Lee’s testosterone picture is no mere action-adventure film. The war scenes play out to evoke Lee’s overriding message: African-Americans have fought for our country in the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and assorted skirmishes, but the promise of America has not been kept. Police racism, Presidential bigotry, and general all-purpose fear and hatred have been part of our DNA’s since the first slave ship arrived in 1619. In fact Trump’s popularity is engendered in large part by his put-downs of Black and brown people, whether curtailing immigration from countries with people or color or advising us that militias like the Proud Boys are filled with good people. Lee throws in archival films not only of scenes from the Vietnam War but also of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and others, all hinting that the promise to African-Americans has not been fulfilled.

“Da 5 Bloods” enjoys a script from the minds of Kevin Willmott, who co-wrote “BlacKkKlansman” with a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo.

Vietnam, where the five title African-Americans had served, illustrates the bond that the quintet had formed since their service in what Vietnam calls “The American War.” They had made the long journey from the United States to bring back the body of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), one of their fighters, killed in action some five decades earlier. The discovery of gold bars which the American forces had left behind after a military aircraft was wrecked, leads them into battles with Vietnamese, who claim the riches as theirs, resulting in the deaths of some of the “bloods” by adversaries that include a French fortune hunter and a group of near-crazed locals.

As Paul, Delroy Lindo, best known to TV viewers for his role as a partner in a law firm in “The Good Fight” often
considered the best show on the tube, has suffered from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his soldier days in the Vietnam War.

Using identifying handshakes and lots of excited talk, Paul (Delroy Lindo) Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) meet up in Saigon, sharing their dismal treatment by Americans who called them baby killers (never mind that they were drafted and that the real killer was sitting in the Oval Office). Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as their guide, though some of the bloods believe that he is ideologically “in” with the Viet Cong communists. During their adventure, Otis visits his lover from the war days, finding out that she has a kid and that Otis is the dad. Among the real heroes, Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) shows up, announcing that she has repudiated her family’s fortune and is now altruistically with a group dedicated to removing old land mines.

Naturally the African-American adventurers do not always agree with one another. Otis does not entirely trust Paul, and David (Jonathan Majors), who turns up with the group, has had difficulties connecting with his father, largely because of the latter’s PTSD. Though “Da 5 Bloods” is an ensemble piece and will compete for end-year awards as such, each character has his own identity, from the hotblooded Paul to the generally calmer Melvin. Cameos include a re-creation of a Tokyo-Rose type of newscaster who, during the war, broadcasts to the Americans that racism exists at home, implying that the Vietnamese communists are not their real enemy. She notes that eleven percent of America is African-American, yet they comprise thirty-two percent of soldiers in the war.

Action scenes, archival films, evocations of racism in America down to this day make “Da 5 Bloods” my choice for Best Ensemble, allowing me to vote for the picture when New York Film Critics Online considers the best in fifteen categories.

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

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

 

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – movie review

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/5/20
Opens: December 25, 2020

Promising Young Woman

If your cable TV viewing is restricted to the output of the NFL you may not see how Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” should remind moviegoers of a real-life drama involving Mr. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, sworn into the highest judicial office in the land despite some credible evidence accusing him of immoral behavior. Just over two years ago, Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, accused Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Allegedly, a 15-year-old woman was physically restrained by the 17-year-old Kavanaugh, who tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth with his hand when she tried to scream. She escaped. During the Senate hearings, Republicans criticized Blasey Ford for bringing up the accusation so many years later. She may have been secretly believed by some of Kavanaugh’s supporters, who may also have been thinking “boys will be boys,” and “they were just kids in high school.” He was confirmed in a divided Senate vote.

In “Promising Young Woman,” the stakes are similar, but different in that the plot revolves around not boys who will be boys but grown men in medical school. Nina, a med student, was assaulted sexually by male students in the school, most notably by one future doctor now living large, the primary offender. Nina, who is not shown in this film, dropped out of school, hopelessly distraught, while her best friend, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), dropped out as well to take care of her. This is not the only aspect of the script that challenges credibility, but given the riveting nature of the entire production, we can overlook a certain absence of pure logic.

Cassie, now thirty years old, still living with her parents (they gifted her on her birthday with a suitcase as a hint), because she cannot make enough money as a lowly barista to be on her own. Of course she has never forgotten her friend Nina, whose victimhood still affects her life eight years later. And she is determined to get revenge on everyone involved in Nina’s sexual assault, including Dean Walker (Connie Britton), director of admissions at the school who covered up for the young man guilty of the rape. During the hearing, Jordan (Alfred Molina) the man’s lawyer, has apparently been covering up for several defendants, but is off the hook with Cassie because he now has remorse. She is to get retribution confronting the guilty men, but on a more global scale, by entrapping bar-hopping gents in general by pretending to be drunk, agreeing to follow them to their apartments and homes, and suddenly “sobering up,” confronting them with their amorality in taking advantage of a drunk. What the plot does not explain is how she believes the men would all back off at this point, retreating in their shame and allowing her to escape unmolested from their domains.

Along with such lapses of logic and dismissals by Cassie of the harm into which she places herself is a police investigation in the concluding scenes, solving a crime as though they were psychics. But let even that pass since the film is embraced by a terrific script from writer-director Emerald Fennell in her freshman narrative feature. (Her short, “Careful How You Go,” is about malevolent women, as though giving balance to the current tale of dirty young men.) Anchoring all most famously is Carey Mulligan in the title role, an actress who can scracely do wrong, whether in the role of the headstrong Victorian woman Bathsheba Everdene in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” or Jennie Mellor as a woman coming of age in “An Education.” The London-born marvel has no problem with an American accent.

I know a lot of men who would shrink under their theater seats while watching this with their girlfriends, but lucky enough the film is being streamed, so they can disappear under their desks. This is Christmas fare for all those who would prefer their Hallmark love stories to turn out as dark comedy.

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

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

 

I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS – movie review

I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman, Iain Reid, based on Iain Reid’s book of the same title.
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Hadley Robinson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/9/20
Opens: September 4, 2020

A surreal film associated with Charlie Kaufman’s wild imagination comes from a director whose “Anomalisa” hones in on a man who cannot continue tolerating his mundane life, whose “Synecdoche New York” find a man’s creating a life-size warehouse of New York City, and whose script for “Being John Malkovich” lauds a puppeteer who finds a portal leading into the head of the title actor. All are works of a fervent imagination, but perhaps no other film of his has issued such a large amount of moviegoer puzzlement than “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

With that as the case, here is a disclaimer. This is my interpretation, one that may be attacked by critics and normal people as too easy; that Kaufman must be traveling a larger road.

Here is a way to think about the picture. Many say that folks on their deathbeds asked for their regrets will never say “I wish I had more time to spend in the office.” Real regrets are far more serious, as illustrated by this film. Here, an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd), a man who is surprisingly well read for someone in his low-skilled trade, may be facing his mortality. He puts down the mop, casts aside the pail, and, being the only character in the hallway of a large high school, he has the time to reflect.

Some of his regrets may be strictly a segment of his imagination. I believe that, allowing for some embellishment, his thoughts run to actual events in his life, something like those of Guido Anselme in Federico’s 1963 classic “8 ½” who retreats into his memories and fantasies. In his younger days he probably dated a number of women, all of whom congeal into the shape of Lucy (Jessie Buckley), or Lucia, or Young Woman. To prove that she is a composite, she is introduced as a painter, a poet, a physicist. The janitor, now in the guise of young Jake (Jesse Plemons), is driving his girlfriend Lucy to the farmhouse of his parents, Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis). It’s a long drive, it’s snowing heavily, the wind is biting. It’s the kind of night that may be part of Jake’s imagination, because what woman is willing to take her chances in such inclement weather when the trip could have been set for another day? What’s more, this may be the last time Lucy sees Jake, her boyfriend for only a few weeks, though he is a man who is mostly self-educated as shown by the books and movies in his childhood room. He is able to discuss Wordsworth and analyze any 19th century poem.

She is smart and well educated, able to respond to him. You might think, then, that they would wind up marrying but though Lucy sees Jake properly as an intelligent person, a nice guy, he is stiff, a bore, a man who probably could not see himself laughing out loud at a joke or telling one himself. Furthermore Jake’s folks are a bizarre couple. Mother laughs too loud and too long. Lucy reports that “Jake told me a lot about you.” She replies, “And you’re willing to come anyway Ha ha ha ha!” Father takes a lesser role in the conversations but like Mother, he disappears into old age and back again, while Mother in one scene is on her bed, wrinkled, taking her last breaths or already dead.

Since much of the movie is a road trip filled with both high-level and vapid conversation, we get to meet three women tending an ice cream bar, two bimbos and one who advises Lucy to “go forward.” In a scene near the conclusion, Jake is thanking everyone in a theater audience for being part of his life, including Lucy, above all, who now appears decades older, and even the bimbos from the ice cream shop are in attendance.

Some moviegoers might say, if this is a dream, I can tell you a weird one I had myself last night. But though fantasies hover around the truths, these are actual people in his life, important ones, also those he conversed with for only minutes. However, what makes “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on a quality level of classics like “8 1/2” aside from the script, the prescient editing, the spot-on direction, is the performance of Jessie Buckley, who dazzles throughout. She has wowed the movie audience playing Queen Victoria with authenticity in Stephen Gaghan’s “Doolittle,” a troubled woman controlled by her family while at the same time fascinated by a man who could be a killer in Michael Pearce’s “Beast,” and a major role in Rupert Goold’s “Judy.” Her dynamic range includes song, as shown in Tom Harper’s “Wild Rose,” as a Glaswegian dreaming of becoming a country music star in Nashville.

With such talent all around, it’s no wonder that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is my choice, so far, as best movie of the year, with Buckley as best actress.

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

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

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH – movie review

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari)
Tokyo Theatres Co./ Loaded Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Tokio Emoto, Ryô Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Shôta Sometani
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/18/20
Opens: December 11, 2020 at New York’s Metrograph Theater. December18, 2020 streaming nationally.

Atsuko Maeda, a 29-year-old Japanese pop star, once appeared in a horror film, “The Complex” ( Kuroyuri danchi). She goes home to find an empty apartment, becomes hysterical, and finds out later that her family had died in a bus accident. Ms. Maeda is also hysterical at times in her current piece, “To the Ends of the Earth,” but this is far from being a horror film. It’s the latest from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose “Cure” in 1997 is about a series of gruesome murders by people who have no idea what they had done, and the more recent “Tokyo Sonata” about a family that disintegrates after its patriarch loses his job.

As Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the principal character is coming of age, not so much because she has just graduated from college or found a new boyfriend, but because she, like most of us, works at a job that she’s “too good for” (she’s an actress being filmed in a travelogue for Japanese TV). She wants to be singer. She gets an audition in front of us, her movie audience, by twice singing “If You Loved Me (Really Loved Me)” but with invented Japanese lyrics. In the Japanese version which, like the American, notes that all you need is love, she gently and to an invisible orchestra pledges that for her man, she would give up her job, dump all her friends and family, sell out her country. In fact she would go “to the ends of the earth” to be with this lucky guy.

The film is part travelogue and part an exploration of a vulnerable woman traveling with a small film crew including one chap who is fluent in both Uzbek and Japanese. The crew are regularly worried that the views of Tashkent and the outside of Uzbekistan are not what interests their viewers, so there are lots of cuts. Easily the most unfortunate of these cuts shows Yoko riding a two-bit machine that almost as tacky as what you’d find in Coney Island, one that spins her around, knocks her upside down, and results in her throwing up into a plastic bag. And she does this three times! She probably would not mind going back to the beginning of the story and pretend that she likes a dish of uncooked rice offered by a woman and has to lie about how delicious it is.

She goes off on her own at one point to check out Tashkent’s nooks and crannies, and all eyes are on her. The men stare as though they had never seen anyone but an Uzbeki. Everyone on the bus stares. The police stare and even arrest her because she is using a camera to photograph an off-limits area.

She inhabits the feeling of many a person who is not a tourist but a traveler, going off without a group or a guide or an interpreter, speaking not a word of the local language, though with halting English. She rides a bus and has no idea where to get off. The two tourist places she inhabits after looking into the grime and back alleys in the fringe areas of the capital are the humongous Hotel Uzbekistan ($75 a room in May and you get over 10,000 soms for your US. Dollar), and the nearby Navoi Opera House. In that last destination she fantasies herself as a singer, with a full orchestra, letting us know once again that she would sell out her country, family and friends if she found the right guy. It’s a beautiful song, not belted out as would Brenda Lee, Maura O Connell or Jeff Buckley but with the grace and charm of a singer who takes the words genuinely to heart. These are the most effective moments, designed to bring a joyful tear or two to the eyes of a sensitive audience member like me.

Kurosawa punctuates the mixed feelings of global tourism. On the one hand there’s the experience of being in a country in which you don’t know the language and can tear your hair out in frustration with the loneliness of an innocent abroad. On the other hand there is the exhilaration of a new experience, a breaking away from the nine to five job, the TV channel-surfing, the dependence on the i-phone, the same ‘ol same ‘ol. Ultimately this is a lovely movie highlighting the adorability and acting chops of a petite, slim, Japanese woman who has apparently captured the affection of an endeared Japanese public.

In Japanese and Uzbeki with English subtitles.

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

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

 

YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS – movie review

YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Massoud Bakhshi
Writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Babak Karimi, Faghiheh Soltani, Arman Darvish
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/6/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Yalda, a Night for Forgivness Poster

If you think that the United States has gone through bizarre times during the last four years—which it has—wait till you see what’s going on in Iran. I don’t mean the general way that religious fanatics have taken over, determined to lash out at = the U.S. The Great Satan, pointing their fingers at us for our promiscuity, our consumerism, our spending more money on the military than the next ten nations, and breaking solid treaties not only with the Islamic Republic but as well with scientific bodies. Consider their system of allowing the families of murder victims to forgive the perpetrators of crime thereby saving them from a hanging, which to their culture involves both following the religious precept “an eye for an eye,” and allowing the felon to give “blood money” to the families of the deceased instead of paying for the crimes with their lives.

This concept of forgiveness is on trial in “Yalda, A Night for Foregiveness,” which (and this is really what’s bizarre) bringing the immediate family of the victim face to face with the felon on a TV reality show, by which the audience of millions at home, at the conclusion of the give and take between victimized and felon, can text their idea of a just verdict to the show’s producer and decide whether to allow the TV station itself to pay the blood money to the family. The ultimate decision, though, is in the hands of the victim’s immediate relative, though there appears to be a conflict of interest. The relative can refuse to forgive and send the offender to the gallows, then windiung up with nothing but satisfaction. Instead, the family can forgive and add quite of number of rials to their account at the Bank of Iran.

As written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi—whose “A Respectable Family” deals with a professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad—Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) has been convicted of killing her husband, a man several decades older, the alleged motive being that she is after his money. But then, here’s even more bizarro. Iran may not be as bound to puritanical religious ideology as you may think. For reasons that include the fact that many young Iranians have put off marriage for financial and other reasons but still have sexual needs, the country’s law allow for temporary marriages. This might be considered to us a form of legalized prostitution, but it’s a way that the Muslim state puts the cloak of legitimacy on a union—something like what we in the U.S. consider a partnership but with the right of inheritance.

Did she kill her husband for his money, as his daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) believes, or was it an accident as Maryam insists? The two are brought face to face in a reality show moderated by Omid (Arman Darvish), after an opening of the story with a stunning view of the Milad Tower in Tehran. The producer is Ayat (Babak Karimi), and, coaching her daughter, her mother (Feresteh Sadre Orafaly) advises her to show humility, to apologize, virtually to kiss Mona’s butt. The daughter, who is about 17 years of age and not yet imbued with the need to compromise, holds that the killing was an accident, so why apologize? Nonetheless, at the appropriate time, she begs Mona to spare her life while Mona, despite being a woman with class and education, is conflicted between wanting the blood money and wanting revenge in the name of her dad.

Everyone but Mona hopes for forgiveness. Even the prosecutor urges Mona to relent, to commute the sentence to no more than six years, provided that enough viewers sympathize with the teen and vote thumbs up through their cell phones.

Though at times you could swear that the whole business is a parody of our own reality shows, junk productions like “The Assistant,” you could forgiven if you are drawn into the emotions of the program, wanting to talk to the screen and tell Mona to spare a life, take the money and run. A further complication centers on Maryam’s mother’s manipulation involving a baby, adding to the melodrama that were it not developed with honesty and authenticity could have landed “Yalda” into soapy territory.

The title of the movie involves a night of celebration (something like our own glorious November 7th, 2020), during the winter solstice when families and friends get together to drink and to eat pomegranates and nuts, a holdover from the ancient Zoroastrian religion. This film won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury prize, doubtless considering the performances of the two female leads—Sadaf Asgari, tight-lipped, confused, virtually shuddering with fear of imminent death, and Behnaz Jafari as a woman of a higher class who had gotten Maryam a job with her father and now regrets ever laying her eyes on her. Up to the final minutes, you will be convinced that she will pardon the offender, but no, maybe she would not, given her contempt for the person of a lowly class who allegedly seduced Mona’s dad but is told that the opposite is true: that the victim, already married, begged the young woman to agree to a temporary marriage provided that no pregnancy take place.

In Farsi with English subtitles.

89 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

 

ASSASSINS – movie review

ASSASSINS
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ryan White
Writer: Ryan White, based on Doug Bock Clark’s 2017 GQ article “The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination” https://www.gq.com/story/kim-jong-nam-accidental-assassination
Cast: Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, Siti Aisyah, Doan Thi Huong
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/9/20
Opens: December 11, 2020 in theaters. PVOD January 15, 2021

Assassins Poster

The GQ article which Ryan White adapts for his film (see link above) is exciting enough to make anyone think: “A film version. That would be terrific.” Here’s an excerpt: “Already, the liquid that the women had applied was seeping into Jong-nam, rapidly jamming his muscles’ receptors in the ‘on’ position, causing his muscles to constantly contract as if struck by endless cramps. The liquid was VX, a chemical weapon that the CDC calls the most potent of all nerve agents and that the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction. He absorbed a lethal dose, which could have been as small as a drop.

“Jong-nam started toward the bathroom—and then lost his only chance to wash off the poison and survive when he rerouted to a nearby information desk. There, he moaned in English, “Very painful, very painful, I was sprayed liquid.”

You would never think that two young women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, would be implicated in an international cause celebre, but youths are often tempted to do nutty things when under the illusion that they can become famous and enjoy careers as actresses. Their painful coming of age began when they were told that they could make money doing prank videos. Inspired by the movie “Jackass,” Siti and Doan, who became “like sisters,” are asked to sneak up behind Kim Jong-nam, not told that he was the half brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. When Jong-nam was booking a ticket at the Kuala Lumpur airport, they would successively sneak behind him and run what they thought was simply hand lotion into his face, around the eyes. In truth, their hands were covered with VX, the most potent nerve agent known, which would cause death in fifteen minutes one hour.

As you can guess from the excerpt of the magazine story, Jong-un died painfully, the perps running away, washing their hands, unimpaired thanks to the natural fat in the hands. The North Korean agents took off, and Malaysia, worrying about its global prestige, had to find a scapegoat. The two young women are jailed, tried over a period of some fifty days, facing automatic hanging if found guilty of murder.

Two parts of this film are terrific. One is Helen Kearns’s editing, involving the taking of the airport’s surveillance film, giving it narrative shape, even highlighting the crime under a bright light with imaginative arrows pointing to perps and victim. The other is the suspense. You will wonder about the results of the long trial, the young women obviously scared out of their wits, eager to go home and concerned that they were being railroaded. Politics rears its head when first the ambassador of Indonesia arrives to try to affect the judge’s verdict, then an approach from the Vietnamese ambassador to Malaysia, who for reasons given is not as confident that he can succeed in getting his citizen off.

Director Ryan White made his political interest felt with his film “The Case Against 8,” the attempt to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Here he keeps the tension going as though he were filming a mafia action, with the all-powerful Kim Jong-un (that’s the guy who Trump considers one of his best friends), who must have taken a cue from Putin’s skill in poisoning opponents’ beverages and upping that to VX.

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

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