BEFORE WE VANISH – movie review

BEFORE WE VANISH (Sanpo suru shinryakusha)

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Yuri Tsunematsu, Mahiro Takasugi, Masahiro Higashide
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/18
Opens: February 2, 2018

If you’re looking for the suspense and melodrama of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you won’t find it here except in such rare moments that you’ll welcome the mayhem. If, however, you seek a philosophic understand of the concept of love and the dire necessity of it in a world that sometimes seems on the fast track to hell, you may get some satisfaction from “Before We Vanish.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has enough of a reputation to encourage attendance by cinephiles, is best known for films like “Cure,” wherein a detective investigates a series of gruesome murders by people who have no recollection of what they have done. Here the famous Japanese director continues on that theme, soon noting that Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), the daughter of a victim, may be guilty of murdering her family. When Sakurai (Hiroki Hawegawa), a journalist with a weekly magazine, is following the story when he wanders into a more original and involving tale: Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), an alien, asks the journalist to be his guide. One wonders why Sakurai would involve himself at all given that Amano speaks of an imminent invasion of Earth by his fellow aliens. Grudgingly, Sakurai acts as a guide, informing the young man, a fish out of water, of the general culture of his fellow earthlings.

The principal story, however, is a romantic one, one of the redemptive power of love. Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is having a difficult time getting along with her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has become like an empty vessel. He has no memory of his life and, resembling an autistic man of about 30, has no knowledge of social graces. When Narumi, an illustrator whose boss is not satisfied with her designs for a festival, finds that Shinji interferes with her work by following her into her office, Shinji, with the touch of a finger, transports the rigid employer into a fun-loving fellow who throws papers around the office and acts like a fellow who’d rather not wait until the Christmas party to act child-like. In other words, sometimes changing people by taking from them their concept of work may not be an altogether bad thing.

Expect people to act odd, whether they are aliens with little knowledge of the culture of earthlings or human beings who have been inhabited by them, but the moments of violence are doled out as though with the annoyance of a director who would rather remain on a philosophic plane. With a Japanese title of Sanpo suru shinryakusha, or “Strolling Invaders,” we can understand that Kurosawa is in no hurry to rush into physical actions.

At 130 minutes with scattershot attempts to discuss the meaning of life, “Before We Vanish” is highbrow sci-fi that could have made its points with a metaphoric red pencil. The film played at the prestigious New York Film Festival in 2017. There are bound to be journalists who consider this the best sci-fi movie of the year, but for me, a more intense and focused narrative would have better served the entry.

Unrated. 130 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

PICK OF THE LITTER – movie review

PICK OF THE LITTER

KTF Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Don Hardy, Dana Nachman
Screenwriter:  Dana Nachman
Cast:  Ron, Janet: Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Poppet, Primrose
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/16/18
Opens: June 12, 2018 at Slamdance

The United States gets along with many countries, though admittedly fewer now than before January 2017.  But if there’s one aspect of American culture that puts us squarely against most nations of the Middle East and a few in the Far East, it’s our love of dogs.  Some societies use them for food, and others think simply that they’re dirty.  But with in estimated 40% of American homes where dogs have become parts of families, the U.S. may be statistically ahead of all others.  America first!

It’s not enough that dogs fill the hearts of the good people who share their homes with them.  They are called upon by police to search for drugs and weapons.   Perhaps most of all they serve a purpose above and beyond eliciting the love of people, and that’s to guide the blind.

Don Hardy and Dana Nachman,who spent over two years directing “Pick of the Litter,” succeed beautifully in capturing key moments; those times when Labrador Retrievers are officially handed over to people who are either totally without sight or without peripheral vision.  At the same time that these fantastic animals change hands, there is heartbreak in the homes of people who have raised them since puppyhood, understanding that they must fulfill their part of the bargain in losing them.  At the same time they feel gratification that largely as a result of the training they give to the seeing-eye dogs, the animals are going to be indispensable to up to 1100 sight-disabled people who apply annually to the organization for them.

This is not a simple procedure.  There’s a reason that the movie is called “Pick of the Litter,” because these dogs have to pass a battery of tests in order to participate in graduation ceremonies, where the humans who need them give speeches and the Retrievers, who may not know what applause is for, will content themselves with treats.

Hardy, who co-wrote the script with Dana Nachman, serves also as the film’s editor and director of photography.  His skill in choosing the right scenes to photograph and in putting the show together in an understandable order is without question superb.  Some of the shots that will evoke the “aw” factor from viewers include the only moving photo I’ve seen of a dog actually giving birth.  When the human being in charge of helping a Retriever shed, in this case, five puppies, you may get the impression that the dog is laying an egg.  That’s how small the newborns are, and their miniature size explain just how a mature dog is able to keep the litter within until the time comes to relieve herself of them.  A pup can fit in the palm of the hand.

After several months when the Retrievers are kept behind gates in spotlessly clean surroundings, they are handed out to volunteers who raise them—the folks who give of their time partly because they have a good heart  to helping the blind, and partly because they love the animals they raise and train.  Before a dog is ready for a final test, the volunteer raisers answer questions, such as whether they spotted too much lunging, whether they show fear of shyness, and whether they can heel, sit, stay, lie down.  A veterinarian will inspect the ears, eyes, and take imaging, but simply passing the physical test is a piece of dog treat compared to the obedience demands later.

Dogs must prove especially that they can ignore orders from the blind human beings when the order runs counter to the safety of the pair, such as when a car may be leaving the driveway or when there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood.

Unhappily, many dogs fail, even after retests; I believe out of the stars focused on here—Primrose, Poppet, Potomac, Phil and Patriot, only one or two make the cut.  Phil is judged to be perfect.  Those who fail are either returned to the raisers or serve in another capacity such as animals for diabetics of veterans with PTSD.

It’s a pleasure to witness ecstasy when a dog is handed over to a blind person.  Ron, for example, a man who lost sight in both his eyes from a genetic disease that skips some generations, reports having butterflies, as nervous as he would be when meeting a blind date.

I would like to know what happens to dogs when because of age, they are no longer able to service their people.  Is there a sanctuary available?  Do they go back to the building that houses them?  All in all, America’s Best Friend is given the equivalent of a 21-gun salute by this well-crafted documentary.

Unrated.  81 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MOM AND DAD- movie review

MOM & DAD

Momentum Pictures
Director:  Brian Taylor
Screenwriter:  Brian Taylor
Cast:  Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: January 19, 2018
Mom and Dad Poster #1
Home is not only where the heart is, but the refuge from the wilds and anonymity of the outside world, a place where everybody knows your name and loves you.  Except when they do not.  “Mom & Dad,” a horror pic that will be compared unfavorably even to the other movies opening during the dreaded movie month of January, is more horrendous than horror.  The film, which spends all too much time exhibiting parents running amuck with the usual rapid editing that makes the theater audience wonder what’s really happening, is twice as long as it should be despite its brief eighty-three minutes’ running time.  It should cut about eighty-three minutes from the final release.

Brian Taylor, who wrote and directs, is known for “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” in which a fellow in Eastern Europe tries to stop the devil, who is trying to take human form.  The macabre, then, is in Taylor’s DNA, but this time around his movie fails on every level.  It’s lacking narrative continuity, with editing that makes a joke out of the violence, with Nicolas Cage’s ranting and raving at a volume that could wake the dead (and indeed it seems to have done so with one of the young men he attacks); and with sudden flashbacks that pop out at inconvenient moments to give the audience a feel for what life was like for these characters in better times.

The Ryan family, which consists of Brent (Nicolas age), his wife Kendall (Selma Blair), their daughter Carly (Anne Winters), and Carly’s kid brother Joshua (Zachary Arthur), live in a sterile suburb with what Pete Seeger would call ticky-tacky housing.  Something happens to people throughout the town, though one could hardly call the violent breakout the fault of suburbia since a human tsunami breaks out throughout the land.  Parents, people who almost surely have resentments against their kids due to jealousy, and smarting at the mischief that the young ones have caused them, have become intent on killing their spawn.  There is a hint that a TV broadcast with snow on the screen has tripped the mayhem, but whether or not TV is responsible, all the parents of youngsters in high school have gathered at a gate that is locking them out, ready to comic massive homicide.

What is meant to be the source of climactic action finds the Carly and her brother in the basement hiding from their parents, as Kendall and Brent manage to see through their rage enough to decide how to get at the kids with various tools that suburban houses have almost as additional rooms in their homes.  Again the rapid-fire editing makes a jumble of the battle in a movie that lacks scares, a screenplay, and anything beyond the usual generic horror music.  A travesty that somehow managed to find a place at the Toronto International Festival.

Rated R.  83 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – F
Acting – C
Technical – C
Overall – D

THE FINAL YEAR – movie review

THE FINAL YEAR

Magnolia Pictures/HBO Documentary Films
Director: Greg Baker
Screenwriter: Greg Baker
Cast: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/4/18
Opens: January 19, 2018

The choice made by Greg Baker, who handles the direction of “The Final Year,” to end this film with the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are a Changing” is strange. Baker is clearly a fan of the Obama administration and heartbroken at the dramatic upset made by the Republicans in the last presidential election. Now what Dylan is saying is a progressive message: our country has been moving leftward since its inception. Yet the election showed an America in changing times that make Dylan’s plea ironic; fearful of progressive upticks; of strides made by minorities, women and gays in particular. This is an America heading back in time, a reactionary idea that would have us trashing the gains of Obamacare, the environment, climate research, all as though it were simply an attempt to get back at our forty-fourth president.

Sometimes the pendulum swings back before it can move forward again. As you watch Barack Obama, noting his lean build, his empathetic demeanor, his law school professorial speech, you can’t help comparing him most favorably to the current leader, who boasts and lies with all the rationality of a drunken sailor as he strides about like a colossus, his paunch leading the way. If you can’t shed a tear by the time the movie concludes—when you see Obama’s senior staff pulling down the framed certificates on the walls and filling cardboard boxes with the items they can’t bear leaving, you probably pulled the lever for Trump.

Teary emotions notwithstanding, Baker’s doc gives the viewer a look at four powerful people during their final year in Washington, listening to their views when talking to the camera or to the people whose paths they cross. You see John Kerry, a secretary of state largely responsible for a solid treaty with Iran, but we do not see him as we see Téa Leoni in the role of Madam Secretary, lovey-dovey with her important husband and her three children and walking about the neighborhood seemingly unaccompanied by the secret service. You watch Samantha Power, who served our country as U.N. ambassador but whose miles around the world make her look like a secretary of state. Ben Rhodes, then our national security adviser doubling as speechwriter, appears ironically (for a speechwriter) unable to let out a single sentence as the camera finds him in shock just after the announcement of a Trump victory. Of course President Obama, who won two terms of office and had stated that he could have beaten Trump, is the hero of any true-blooded American patriot who believes that we should strive for a world dedicated to peace, and not one who believes we should turn the clock back to 1920 or 1890 or take-a-guess, when we did not have to worry about pollution or climate change or how to pay the medical bills pre-health-sector technology that has raised the ante on costs.

Relatively little time is spent in the Oval Office by Martina Radwan and Erich Roland’s cameras. Instead we go to Cameroon, Austria, Chad, Greenland, Laos, Vietnam, Hiroshima, and Nigeria and to archival films on Syria at war. We observe an empathetic Powers console Nigerian women whose daughters have been kidnapped by the Boko Haram. We see John Kerry negotiating with a smiling counterpart in Iran. We watch as Ambassador Power takes down the Russian Federation at the U.N. for Russia’s role in Syria.

Voters for the Democratic party, 2.5 million people more than those voting for the GOP, can take heart by Power’s concluding view that “The idea that we could go gently into the night…has been vanquished.” We may have to wait twelve months for a change in Congress and twice as long to cast our ballot for a read leader in the White House as opposed to the current fake, but hope breathes eternal in the human breast.

Unrated. 89 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

A CIAMBRA – movie review

A CIAMBRA

Sundance Selects
Director: Jonas Carpignano
Screenwriter: Jonas Carpignano
Cast: Pio Amato, Koudous Seihon, Iolanda Amato, Damiano Amato
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/18
Opens: January 19, 2018

A Ciambra Movie Poster

As a sequel to Jonas Carpignano’s 2015 “Mediterranea,” depicting two people making the dangerous trip from North Africa to southern Italy, “A Ciambra” has a new center in Pio Amato, fourteen years old when the film was made. What’s most interesting about the project is that the Romani performers are not only relatively untrained but act out events in their actual lives. Most use their real names as they move ahead in fits and starts. This is a relatively unstructured piece, perhaps with some improvisations, with the story’s picking up after the midsection. The most interesting segment finds the Amato family springing to attention as Pio Amato is caught stealing from a prominent Italian family, the patriarch having sworn that he would have killed the teenager had he not known the family.

The Romanis, the African refugees from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana, and the Italians live in proximity in a town in Calabria in southern Italy. The conditions are not exactly comparable to Trump Tower as the Africans appear to live in tents and the Romanis in a soulless white structure that looks like a project that could have come out of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union.

While low-level stealing is the only way that the Amatos make a living, the film is more about the coming of age rite of passage that could be similar in all countries. In some families, exceeding in studies might be the way; taking home all A’s on the report card wins the respect of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. Not so with Pio. He is uneducated, unlettered in fact, though he has survival skills that might be the envy of Harvard graduates. He has a loving mother, Iolanda (Iolanda Amato), grandfather who is on his last legs but has one moment of clarity, a girlfriend who states that she loves him, and most of all a big brother, Cosimo (Damiano Amato), a role model that Pio believes can be pleased only by the teenager’s prowess in stealing.

He learns how to steal cars by crossing wires, but his favorite trick is to steal luggage from trains just before departures. His friendship with Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), a refugee from Burkina Faso, provides some of the sentimental touches, particularly when Ayiva takes him in when Pio is thrown out of the house by his father after a prominent Italian from whom he stole chews out the family.

The story lacks tight structure, not surprising since writer-director Jonas Carpignano seems in thrall of Italian neo-realism. Tim Curtin’s lenses follow Pio throughout, providing a sense of the Romani culture; the togetherness, the raucous dinners, the teasing. Perhaps the most comical scene occurs when Pio’s brother Cosimo excludes young Pio from a robbery. Pio takes it upon himself to provide a diversion by stealing a police car whose motor is left running, driving it off, dumping it and throwing the keys far away.

Though many bigoted people consider all gypsies to be thieves, other films rhapsodize about this ethnic group, such as Tony Gatlif’s 1993 “Latcho Drom,” which follows Romani as they travel through the Middle East and Europe. By contrast Emir Kusturica’s 1988 “Time of the Gypsies” follows a young Romani with telekinetic powers who is seduced into the world of petty crime to the ruination of his family.

The two themes of “A Ciambra” are the loving family bonds that keep Romani families together, and the petty crime that provides the way for some to survive given their lack of education or a culture that would allow them to assimilate into the greater community. The film is invaluable as a snapshot of their lives, acted by Romani people who perform via incidents they actually experienced.

Unrated. 120 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER – movie review

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER

Kino Lorber
Director:  Amos Gitai
Screenwriter:  Amos Gitai
Cinematographers:  Oded Kirma, Eitan Hai, Vladimir Truchovski
Cast: Amos Gitai, Yitzhak Rabin, Tzipi Lipni, Tzipi Hotovely, groups of Muslims and Jews
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/18
Opens: January 26 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Toward the conclusion of Amos Gitai’s documentary a carousel is spinning, but while its few inhabitants appear to be having a good time, the carousel exists here as a symbol.  Talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been going round and round, a veritable merry-go-roundelay, just like the subjects in Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Der Reigen,” also known as “La Ronde.”  Peace talks between the two sides have occasionally appeared to make progress, such as when Bill Clinton brought Yasser Arafat together with Menachim Begin—and the two adversaries actually shook hands.  In another instance, an extremist Jew was so fearful that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was on the verge of agreeing to a settlement that Rabin was killed to the cheers of other extremist Jews.  Killed by a fellow Jew!

Here we are today, the sides still apart, no talks scheduled between Abu Mazen on the Palestinian side and Bibi Netanyahu on the Israeli’s.  But not to worry: talks will resume, and a peace agreement will remain somewhere over the horizon.  “West of the Jordan River” is another talk-fest, this one initiated by Amos Gitai (Gitai is a Hebrew translation of his parents’ name Weinraub), an Israeli filmmaker with 62 credits, lots of shorts, the last one being “Rabin: The Last Day” about the aforementioned Israeli leader’s assassination.

Not that the doc will lead to peace and a joint chorus of Kumbaya, but it’s an entertaining enough film, some, but not I, would say hopeful, filled with mournful music (that I could do without) between each segment of chats with the locals. Surprisingly Gitai knows his own language, Hebrew, and also English, plus some French for having lived in voluntary exile in France.

But when he converses with Arabic-speaking people, he needs a translator.  He probably need not worry this time that his movie will inflame his fellow Israelis and force him to bolt to France as he did in 1982 after screening his doc “Field Diary,” which found Gitai chatting in Nablus and surrounding areas, making time to hear a fellow under house arrest.  His leftist credentials never wavered, and there’s an implication even with this current film that he belives Israel’s intransigence is the principal reason for instability between the two peoples.

“West of the Jordan River” is not as antagonistic.  He does not goad Israeli soldiers with his camera as he did in “Field Diary.”  And the folks with whom he chats are friendly, though some get pretty excited even though they do not curse the Israelis.  Not all the action takes place West of the Jordan, as much of the dialogue is within Israel proper and a few clips near the beginning in Gaza.  In Gaza, which the media portray as the home of the most militant faction against “Zionists,” people lean into Gitai’s van to say that they want to work in Israel; that they can build their community just as the Israelis built their land, if only they could have the freedom of their own independent nation.  One gets the impression that these Arabs are told that if they moderated their language and even sounded conciliatory, they would have the most chance of making the final cut of the film.

The trouble with everything here is that while Prime Minister Rabin is interviewed, suggesting that he is not the pacifist hippy that some made him out to be, and while a more militant deputy, Tzipi Hotoveli, is on camera with a mystical explanation of the land, most of the talk is with ordinary people. Ordinary people do not make peace or war with the exception of revolutions that succeed by winning the support of the armed forces. It’s all well and good to sit around like the members of Breaking the Silence, a left-leaning activist group that conveys information on life in the occupied territories; and with Arab and Jewish women forming a support group citing how sons on both their sides lost their lives.  But nothing will get done until those in power can carve a peace with definite borders—less likely than ever, Gitai believes, because a “very reactionary” government under Netanyahu has held power for ages with large support, the prime minister having said during a recent election campaign that he has no use for a two-state solution.

Again blaming his own people for the obstinacy, Gitai interviews a pair of settlers, people living on ground that Arabs vociferously claim as their own. We hear one settler, a young woman who was stabbed by an Arab resident living nearby, state that the land does not  belong to anybody; it belongs to God.  And in the Bible, God promised to rent all the disputed land to the Jews.  Who can argue with God?  Probably the Muslims, whose own Koran probably makes no such promise.  Gitai spends the most interesting minutes with an Arab boy of about ten who says that when he grows up, he wants to be…no, not a fireman or a cop or an astronaut, but a martyr.  Asked whether he likes life, the boy responds, yeah, but martyrdom is better.  Does this say anything about what the upcoming generation might do absent a peace?

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

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

WHAT LIES UPSTREAM – movie review

WHAT LIES UPSTREAM

Gravitas Ventures
Director:  Cullen Hoback
Screenwriter:  Cullen Hoback
Cast:  Martin Riese, Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Mona Hanna-Attisha, Cullen Hoback, Randy Huffman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/13/17
Opens: January 12, 2018 in NY at Maysles Documentary Center, & LA; January 16, 2018 VOD/DVD

America is open for business!  So sayeth Donald Trump in one of his inimitable tweets.  So, you got a problem with that?  There certainly is one, because Big Business, so nurtured by Trump and Republicans who are heading so far right that they’ll eventually fall off the earth, is destroying the cultural margins of our nation.   Government has a role to play in regulating business, since people, like you and me, may love their products (I, for example, would like to order half of Amazon’s output) but can be seriously harmed by what the big guys are producing.

That’s where Cullen Hoback’s documentary comes in.  Hoback, whose “Monster Camp” is an enactment of the game World of Warcraft, now deals not with fantasy but with deadly reality.  The reality is that the bad guys in “What Lies Upstream,” a great many lobbyists, politicians, corporations and even agencies whose job is to protect us consumers, are villains.  Hoback, a slim,youthful fellow who appears in a great many shots as he interviews a wide range of people, focuses principally on the pollution of water.  Flint, Michigan may be the best known case of dirty water nationally, its culprits indicted for corruption because perhaps that’s the residence of many poor African-Americans.  But West Virginia, whose coal mining is loved by workers but not by people drinking its water, is a notable case of political failure.

One cannot help thinking about Donald J. Trump, who is pictured in the concluding moments, the guy who has recently dismantled the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, because its bureaucrats have had the nerve to try to protect our air and water.  Hoback is polite to the people whose work he abhors thereby getting them to answer (or divert attention) from his queries, rarely walking away in the middle of a query.  The actor/director/writer sprang into action when he heard that the good people of West Virginia may love coal but they’re not too keen on their tap water, which has a strange odor.  Research showed that MCHM, a chemical used for processing coal, has been leaking from rusted pipes at a business called Freedom Industries. Though there were laws on the books designed to prevent this, somehow the people responsible for enforcing the regulations, are not doing their jobs.

The most shocking image of this film shows lobbyists, those durn people who are often recruited from the ranks of politicians when they retire, are virtually writing the laws.  They sit around in a room and appear to actually draft the legislation that conservative lawmakers vote to pass, even though the legislators may not have even read the bills.  If you’ve been keeping up with CNN and MSNBC, the good guys, you are aware that nowadays, most officials in Congress do not read the door-stopping manuscripts such as the 477-page proposed tax bill.  The majority leader in each house tells them, it seems, that the tax code will benefits principally the upper ten percent of Americans.  The ayes have it.

Hoback builds his case step by step as though defending a principle of ethical philosophy, and though we realize he is biased in favor of the people and not the corporations and politicians, we are convinced that there is something rotten not only in the water but in the state of today’s America.  You might expect that even the fish want to be caught and put out of their misery.

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

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