AFTER AUSCHWITZ – movie review

AFTER AUSCHWITZ

Bala Cynwyd Productions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Kean
Screenwriter: Jon Kean
Cast: Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, Linda Sherman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/28/18
Opens: April 20, 2018

After Auschwitz Poster

Only those inmates who entered the Nazi concentration camps at a youthful age are still alive today. Very young boys and girls were generally gassed as useless to the German war machine. The six brave women who populate Jon Kean documentary were about 18-23 years old when they entered Auschwitz. Some died since the making of this film and, as they say, time is running out. We cannot learn first-hand about the experiences of survivors for much longer, though thanks to the magic of celluloid, their testimonies will be with us forever.

Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman were mostly from Eastern Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. One was from Holland. They discuss in part their experiences in 1945 after the British or the Russians liberated them, but most of the doc deals with their lives in the West, particularly the USA. Still it bears mentioning that the country that is supposed to be a haven for people who are yearning to breathe free was not too eager to issue visas given the anti-Semitism allegedly present in our own State Department.

The one theme that runs through the experiences of the six women is that after they were freed from the camps, they could not return to their homes in Eastern Europe. Their property had been taken over by the locals and in some cases fellow Czechs dragged survivors through the streets, blaming Jews for the black market and yelling that they will never again see their living quarters.

After a stay in Displaced Persons camps, many went on to New York and California, though the film is not clear how they dug up the money for flights, which were more expensive then than they are now. These women, bless them, might be able to sustain an 83 minute film by talking to the cameras, but thankfully archival clips take over about half of the running time, shifting back to the camps during the week of liberation where bodies, thousands of them, are piled up unburied. Destruction in Germany as we see here was so immense that Hitler’s order to destroy Berlin did not have to be carried out. That was presumably one command that the generals ignored from the madman.

The women traveled around by train, and terrific archival shots show people riding on the top and on the sides of the carriers as though hoboes during the Depression or perhaps the way some in India travel third-class or even lower.

All the new residents of the USA are pleased with the culture here, except for one who was urged to try Coca-Cola. She drank a glass, and that was the last time for her. Others went to the wider spaces of California. They married, had kids and grandkids. Some gave talks to classes in Hebrew school to youngsters kept in the dark by their parents, though despite the need the women have to teach others so that “it will happen never again,” they do not want to be obsessed with the bad times of the past. What shocks them most is that we haven’t learned. Just mention Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Armenia. And as nations fall to right wing authoritarians today, we are bound to be faced by similar tragedies—to say nothing of the possibility of the extinction of humanity in a nuclear war.

Jon Kean wrote and directs, a man whose “Swimming in Auschwitz” featured six women who kept their spirits and their faith alive during their months in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His “Kill the Man” describes the adventures of men who try to keep their company afloat while being stressed by the competition and by a visit from a thug.

Unrated. 83 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BEIRUT – movie review

BEIRUT

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriter:  Tony Gilroy
Cast:  Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Larry Pine, Shea Whigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/13/18
Opens: April 11, 2018
Beirut Movie Poster
Jon Hamm is a painfully handsome middle-aged actor who was perfectly cast in “Mad Men.”  He fits in handily as a Madison Avenue executive and was born to smoke and drink while selling expensive advertising to major clients. He should be considered to be the next 007 provided that he can imitate the king’s English.  He is well cast in “Beirut.”  He still drinks and smokes, occasionally raises his voice.  He is a negotiator as he was in the brilliant TV episodes, so adept that even the bad guys in the Middle East insisted that they would talk only to him to arrange an exchange of prisoners.  Tony Gilroy’s story for this new release is as confusing as Brad Anderson’s direction.  From time to time a bomb goes off in Lebanon’s capital, and occasionally there is the rapid fire of AK-47 as bad guys in the usual headgear and mouth coverings do what they do for reasons that are not always clear to Americans—who think that the only reason that people take risks is for money.

As Mason Skiles, Jon Hamm is shown in Beirut in 1982 with flashbacks to his time in Lebanon’s capital ten years earlier.   In 1972 things were looking up for Skiles, then a diplomat.  He enjoys the company of his lovely wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti).  The couple even adopted Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a Palestinian refugee who is now a cute kid of 13.  But Karim has a secret: his brother Abu (Hicham Ouraqa) was a bad guy responsible for the murder of Jews during the Munich Olympics. Just as Karim and Skiles are having a nice chat, a deadly terrorist attack during a diplomatic party leaves Nadia dead.  Skiles, now in no mood ever to return to the middle east, takes on a job at home as a labor negotiator but is called back in 1982 because Cal Riley (MarkPellegrino), a good friend, is being held prisioner.  The terrorists want to trade him for Abu Rajal.

It’s no wonder that they want only Skiles.  His adopted son Karim (Idir Chender) is now grown up, a fighter for the Palestinian cause, and feels certain he can trust his stepdad to pull of the trade, but the sinister U.S. diplomats are divided in motives leaving only Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) to support the negotiations.

What could have been a film to break new ground as did the filmmakers for the superb “Mad Men” series instead create a same ol’ retread of spy stories, which in itself would not be so bad if the story did not plod along with boatloads of banter which do nothing more than confuse the viewer further.  This is a surprise coming from the screenwriter, Gilroy, whose “Argo” in 2012 presented an ingenious ruse to get six people who had escaped from Iranian clutches out of the country by setting up a fake Canadian film company. “Argo” was not confusing, was full of original ideas, and with excitement that flowed organically from the plot.  This one’s a dud.

Rated R.  109 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – B
Technical –  B
Overall – C

LOU ANDREAS-SALOME – The Audacity to be Free – movie reveiw

LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ: The Audacity to be Free

Cinema Libre Studio
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cordula Kablitz-Post
Screenwriter:  Cordula Kablitz-Post, Susanne Hertel
Cast:  Katharina Lorenz, Nicole Heesters, Liv Lisa Fries, Merab Ninidze, Katharina Schüttler, Alexander Scheer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/11/18
Opens: April 20, 2018 in New York’s Village East Cinema and April 27, 2018 at LA’s Laemmle’s Royal Theater

The only thing about this film that lacks imagination is the title “Lou Andreas-Salomé.”  If you were creating a biopic, would you title it simply with the name of the principal person (albeit with a subtitle “The Audacity to be Free”)?  A more appropriate heading would be “Apollo vs. Dionysus: The Life and Times of Lou Andreas-Salomé.  This intriguing encounter that we in our theater seats have been graciously afforded, is of a person who may be fairly unknown here in the States.  Yet given her intelligence, she could hold her own with Freud and Nietzsche, that intellect propelled by her inner conflict between the Apollonian (rationalism, logic) and the Dionysian (emotions, chaos).  Because she was an early feminist who drew women from her own upper class to her readings, she faced the anger of her mother, particularly as the older woman, a nice Protestant mom, wanted grandchildren, and the little ones would “keep you well occupied.”  And hopefully the little ones would not challenge a pastor in church who said “God is everywhere,” getting the retort “Is God in Hell also?”

While the first psychoanalyst is the biblical Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Andreas-Salomé, some years later, is the first female psychoanalyst, gaining insight into her own conflicts through explorations of her psyche as required of people in her field.  She is also a poet, a novelist, an essayist and a biographer as cited in a Wikipedia article, though thankfully director Cordula Kablitz-Post, using her own screenplay with co-writer Susanne Hertel, does not list her accomplishments in that vein like a laundry list.  Instead, the film tracks key points in her life, with brief attention to her childhood (Helena Pieske), her teens (Liv Lisa Fries), her middle years (Katharina Lorenz), and her older and still wiser self (Nicole Heesters).

Filmed by Matthias Schllenberg in Germany (Lower Saxony, Ludwigsburg, Potsdam) , Vienna, Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy), and from time to time with a striking  visual effect revealing scenery with characters walking through what looks like a trompe l’oeil, “Lou Andreas-Salomé” is thematically consistent throughout.  We see a woman who at first with no problem struggling through a conflict despite the oppressive conventions of her time.  She is determined never to marry, never to be intimate, never to be subjected to the will of any man.  She believes, as well, that intimacy comes with a price: erotic closeness would curtain her intellectual development.  It takes time for her to reconsider, giving herself to a man first in her early thirties.  And her marriage to Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze), a scholar without much personality, remains unconsummated as she demands.  It seems that men could not get enough of her, despite her requiring Platonic relationships, with no less than Friedrich Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer with a bushier mustache than John Bolton), and Paul Rée (Philipp Haus) who competes with Nietzsche for her attentions.  Still they agree to hang out as a threesome.

Her world turns around when she meets Rainer Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier).  Passion is unleashed.  As we watch her ecstasy during their lovemaking and the smile she sports throughout the next day with her hair down, we simply know that she will be carrying on affairs with many others, including a young doctor Pineles (Daniel Sträser) and possibly even Dr. Sigmund Freud (Harald Schrott), who wonders whether she is a classic narcissist.

The flawless acting does credit to its central character, and the men in her life exude various degrees of emotion while trying their best to repress their sexual needs.  What the film evokes ultimately is that you can be a feminist, an intellectual, a writer, even a hard-to-get player, and still maintain around you an array of men who would do anything—bring her flowers, cut their wrists, divorce their wives, write over-the-top poetry—just to revel in the aura she exudes.

Unrated.  118 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD – movie reveiw

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD

Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rüdiger Suchsland
Screenwriter:  Rüdiger Suchsland
Cast:  Hans Albert, Heinz Rühmann, Zarah Leander, Adolf Hitler, Ilse Werner, Joseph Goebbels, Marianne Hoppe, Gustaf Gründgens, Hermann Göring, Leni Riefenstahl, Wilhelm Fürtwangler, Leni Riefenstahl
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/2/18
Opens: April 11 at New York’s Film Forum, 209 Houston St.

In the film’s sharpest quote, documentary director Rüdiger Suchsland reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s pithy bon mot that “What convinces the masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but the consistency of the illusion.”  Remarkable, isn’t it, how this could be applied to our own U.S. government, whose commander-in-chief dismisses science as fake. Then, through the repetition of the Big Lie, he tries to influence our thinking about the comically absurd notion that Russia did not collude in the 2016 presidential election, that the New York Times is failing, that America is becoming great again.  And when he as recently as April 2018 announced “Who will pay for the wall?” receives the reflexive cheer “Mexico.” He seems to have succeeded in convincing large groups of its absurdity simply by being consistent.  Some of us have illusions.

And illusion was the name of the game in Germany between the accession of Hitler in 1933 and his downfall in 1945.  Understanding that to infuse the German nation with courage, with joy, with the belief that the thousand-year Third Reich would make Germany great again after its defeat in World War I, he entrusted Joseph Goebbels with the job of propaganda chief.  Goebbels would control the media.  After the shutting down of all independent and private film companies, Goebbels took on the task of censoring, encouraging, discouraging and pretty much directing German cinema behind the scenes during that barbaric period in his country’s history.

“Hitler’s Hollywood” unfolds all manners of German filmmaking with scores of shots from that country’s productive celluloid mills. Two themes emerge: A) Germans are joyful; and B) Germans yearn for death in the service of the Fatherland.  If the latter notion brings the jihadists to mind, you’ve been paying attention.

Some one thousand movies produced by Germany from 1933-1945.  Some are lavish like our own musicals of their golden age here in the U.S. (think of “The Music Man,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel”) while evoking as well “Chiquita Banana” with its kitschy Latin beat, bursting forth with a song that would become the banana brand’s commercial theme. Of the 1,000 productions, director Rüdiger Suchsland—whose “From Calgari to Hitler” focused on the collective cinema spirit of the Weimar Republic—500 were comedies, 300 were melodramas thematically about dying for the Fatherland, most of the rest included war movies and costume dramas.  Films promoting anti-Semitism seem surprisingly few, perhaps because the propaganda ministry did not want the public to face its reality.  Among the exceptions was one in which the idea of euthanasia is pronounced, specifically for the old and infirm.

Rather than give a laundry list of the most kitschy, the most evil, the most lavish of the films, you are encouraged to check the complete list on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_German_films_of_1933%E2%80%9345.  There you may figure out which of the final movies of that government challenged the big money of Hollywood and Bollywood with its cast of 100,000 largely uniformed extras and ten thousand cannons.

Director Suchsland has noted in an interview that “the final months of the Third Reich saw a wave of suicides, hypothesizing that people looked on their system as a film (Ronald Reagan anyone?), one with no happy ending.  “People did not want to leave the cinema.”

Unrated.  105 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BORG VS. McENROE – movie review

BORG vs. McEnroe

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Janus Metz
Screenwriter: Ronnie Sandahl
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny, Björn Granath, David Bamber
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/3/18
Opens: April 13, 2018

Borg vs McEnroe

Concussions result from body contact in boxing and football. Those who abhor such contact sports and who don’t care to know the difference between and a field goal and a first down may make an exception for tennis. The fans in the stands at Wimbledon are as genteel as the audience at the Pope’s coronation, and would be aghast watching youtube features of football fans breaking heads at the Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta. Tennis, like polo, is the sport of gentlemen, and as an activity for individuals, whether a player wins or loses he has only himself to blame. With fancy scores that baffle Americans who prefer their sports nice and simple, tennis is a game that only sometimes raises tension in the stands and high emotions in the players. Janus Metz, who directs “Borg vs. McEnroe” from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl will likely succeed admirably in getting hearts pounding given the excitement that took place on a single day in 1980 as two equally adept players struggle down to the wire in a match with several overtimes. The winner can claim the title of numero uno while the loser must settle for number two. Given the personality of John McEnroe who was out to topple Björn Borg from his place as the world’s greatest player, we can easily see that the American considered his match at Wimbledon against the reigning champ as a do-or-die fight. For Borg, this was his match to lose. The Swedish sportsman was the favorite even of Americans, given our disgust with the antics of McEnroe, a childish man given over to tantrums against the umpires and line officials, a temperament more suited to throwing opponents out of the ring in professional wrestling than of swinging the catgut in his racquet.

Interestingly the part of McEnroe is played by Shia La Boeuf, not exactly unknown to police. Arrested for yelling at New York’s Studio 54 on July 20, 2014 and refusing to leave the theater, then again charged on July 8, 2017 with public drunkenness, La Boeuf—who got his French name from his Cajun father—is perfectly type-cast as the villain. In fact he was bestowed by the sports announcements as the SuperBrat while his Stockholm-born opponent was nicknamed IceBorg.

As we see from their behavior on the grass court at Wimbledon, London, Borg, playing as a 25-year-old by Sverrir Gudnason, is considered a gentleman. In truth he shares a temperament with his opponent, the difference between that he represses his emotions and is torn by self-doubt. He is encouraged by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), to think “one point at a time.” By focusing all his fears and doubts within, Borg would seem to have the temperament for a winner.

With regular flashbacks to Borg’s childhood days (played by Leo Borg, who is the real-life son of the champ , then by Marcus Mossberg), the young Borg practices frequently by hitting the ball against a wall. His neuroses show up later. When the press asks the mature Borg to hit the ball against the same wall, he refuses because he does not remember which specific wall he had used years earlier.

The private moments are nothing special. The audience does well to wait for real melodrama when scenes from the big Wimbledon match come, and since you don’t know who will win (though fans familiar with the game already know and critics may reveal spoilers), you will root for your man. Chances are you’ll pick the Swede, but for me as an American who rooted for my home team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, simply because of the hometown location of Ebbets Field, I put my money on McEnroe. The action shots should have concentrated more on showing the whole court where body doubles filled in for the actors. Who cares what each player looks like in close-up when you all you see in those moments is the smack of the ball on the racquet?

The rivalry does not have the comic theme we enjoyed when watching Steve Carell and Emma Stone performing in the roles of Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes,” but the intensity of the McEnroe-Boggs game helps to make up for that.

Unrated. 107 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE RIDER – movie review

AMERICAN CIRCUMCISION – movie review

AMERICAN CIRCUMCISION

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brendon Marotta
Screenwriter: Brendon Marotta
Cast: Georgeanne Chapin, Jonathon Conte, Dean Edell, Andrew Freedman, John Geisheker, Leonard B. Glick, Ronald Goldman, Ryan McAllister, Marilyn Milos, Soraya Mire, Brian Morris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/6/18
Opens: March 30 – April 28 in 15 markets. VOD release: July 3, 2018

“It won’t be long now,” said the surgeon as he circumcised the little boy.

“A rabbi and a minister bought a car together. The minister went to the carwash because in his religion it is customary to welcome a new member with the rite of baptism. The next day, the minister discovered the rabbi cutting the end of the exhaust pipe.”

The penis is a major subject of locker room talk. Jokes about circumcision—the removal of the foreskin of the penis—probably abound. A film about circumcision would then be a perfect topic for Michael Moore, maybe not the most thorough and convincing documentarian but clearly the funniest. But “American Circumcision,” a freshman feature project of director Brendon Marotta (who at 6’5” is probably asked about measurements), is no joking matter. The subject is as deadly serious as political divisions brought about by gun laws, abortion, and transgender rights. After all, when 120 million American men have circumcised penises, they are likely to be disturbed, even enraged, by a film that challenges their judgment or the judgment of their parents. In fact America, often considered the exception in our world, is the only country in the developed world to indulge in a procedure whose opponents consider it barbaric, unnecessary, a ignoring of choice, yet in the same respect a twenty-minute operation that promotes hygiene, cosmetic concerns, even, ironically, an opening to greater sexual pleasures than should be expected by an uncircumcised male.

The documentary does present both sides of the issue, though it is in no way balanced, any more than are Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” “Where to Invade Next,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Clearly Mr. Marotta considers himself on the side of angels, capturing dynamic footage of demonstrations in front of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, even an attempt in California to provide a law by referendum that would outlaw the practice just as sure as female genital mutilation has been illegal here since 1996.

Talking heads expressed similar views, some of these heads breaking down in tears, when they expressed anger at both the society and their parents for allowing the surgery when they were infants. Of course small children cannot make certain decisions by themselves and parents have the right to step in to do what’s best. But in this case the decision to have a surgeon, or for a Jewish infant a mohel, remove a section on the head of the penile shaft is a choice that should be left until the infant is 18 years of age.

On the pro-cutting side, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as recently as 2012 expressed their view that the benefits outweigh the risks, a decision that should come from the parents or from a mature man himself. From where I sit, their argument is a wishy-washy, mealy one. To insist that cutting part of the body, the part responsible for quite a share in creating the world’s population, is hygienic sounds absurd. Where is the proof that circumcised people are cleaner in any way? More important as one activist states to an appreciative audience while wearing a T-shirt expressing his politics, the uncircumcised penis is capable of multiple orgasms, a feat heretofore considered the possession of only the fair sex.

It was going to be obvious that some Jews and presumably Muslims, whose faith also commands circumcision, would consider the opponents of the country’s most popular surgery to be anti-Semitic, but again, where I’m sitting, that’s like saying criticism of kosher slaughter as more painful than routine killing of food animals must be the work of people who don’t like Jews.

Social change happens quickly in America, even when reactionaries are in charge of all three branches of the federal government. Obama “evolved” and turned in favor of gay marriage. His generals even promoted the right of transgender people to join the military. Ultimately America will continue to move forward progressively despite the unfortunate shifts of the pendulum back to the bad old days right now. And soon we can expect this surgery, both because it is barbaric (take a look at those torture-chamber-like clamps used to shut of the blood of foreskins) and because it is inflicted on infants who should have the right some eighteen years later, to opt out.

This is a splendid documentary which may be criticized by a boatload of people who have already crossed the Rubicon, cut the Gordian knot, or whatever metaphor you prefer, and who feel the obligation to defend what was already done. Even there, thankfully, there is a procedure to emulate the foreskin, but the length of time needed to do so and the painful process required would make that a choice of only a determined few.

To contribute or learn more click https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1813087158/american-circumcision-release.

Unrated. 101 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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