GLORIA BELL- movie review

Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenwriter: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Caren Pistoruys, Brad Garrett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Holland Taylor
Screened at: Dolby 88, NYC, 3/5/19
Opens: March 8, 2019

There is wisdom in old age, so when the title character’s mother (Holland Taylor) tells Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) that “life goes by just like that” (snaps her finger), you realize that Sebastián Lelio’s film is about the complications of growing middle age and beyond. Those are not necessarily the physical ones, as when Gloria, now in her fifties, finds out that she needs to use eye drops twice daily to counteract a malady that probably does not affect youths. More to the point are the complications of relationships . There are children, there are divorces, and yet there is a desire to find a mate at any age, and to dance to tunes like the 1982 “Gloria” with its phenomenal beat, a sound which brought disco music back to life when everyone was pronouncing it dead.

Writer-director Lelio now re-imagines his 2013 film by the same name with Los Angeles as home base taking the place of Santiago, Chile, and he could not have found a better person for the leading role than Julianne Moore—a free-spirited divorcée who, like Tony Manero in the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” works a mundane day job but lives for the dance floor at night.

There is something Woody-Allen-ish in “Gloria Bell,” taking place amid a group of middle-aged, reasonably well-off white people in Los Angeles, where taking off for a weekend in Vegas is easier than even jumping from New York to Miami for a long weekend in the sun. Gloria who works an insurance job by day—and who gets a chance to comfort Melinda (Barbara Sukowa) who has just been fired shortly before she’d would be eligible for a generous retirement allowance. Gloria’s days are complicated only in part from a psychologically unstable neighbor whose cat appears to prefer the more stable environment offered by Gloria. For her part she is concerned about a pregnant daughter who is about to go to Sweden to join up with her boyfriend. At the same time Gloria’s son Peter (Michael Cera) has a messed up relationship with his wife, who left for the desert to “find” herself, leaving him to care for their baby.

At the heart of the movie is Gloria’s relationship with Arnold (John Turturro) whom she meets at a bar patronized by middle-aged people. They appear fascinated with each other, beginning an affair. The fireworks start when Arnold, though professing to think of her all the time “I can’t get you out of my head,” has a co-dependency relationship with his two grown daughters who call him daily. Instead of throwing away his mobile, he answers every call, frustrating Gloria. That’s not his only hangup. Twice, he leaves suddenly without so much as a goodbye; once when he feels ignored by her family at a gathering, a second time after she drops his mobile into his soup.

The music is terrific, and not only the aforementioned “Gloria,” to which Gloria sings and dances joyfully as though to drop all her cares on the dance floor. There’s a favorite of mine, Bach’s Prelude in D minor performed by Gloria’s son Peter on a harpsichord, and also pop hits like “No More Lonely Nights.” The movie would have been just OK with any other lead performer, but with Julianne Moore, whose solid performance, ranging emotionally from ecstatic abandon to soulful tearing up, Lelio’s project comes across as an authentic look at middle age life among people when they are away from their desks.

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

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

THE WEDDING GUEST – movie review

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

The Wedding Guest Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

WIDOWS – movie review


20th Century Fox
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Liam Neeson
Screened at: AMC 34th St., NYC, 11/5/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

Widows Movie Poster

With our own midterm elections just behind us and with discussions that will probably linger for a few more weeks with the TV pundits, politics is very much on our minds. That makes “Widows” a movie which, while not dealing with Trump or Cohen or Hannity or Huffington, might be “ripped from the headlines.” While the concentration is on the mostly African-American ward in Chicago’s South Side rather than with the nation as a whole, “Widows” could stand in for goes on among the people who should be representing us but instead, surprise! are in the business for themselves.

Director Steve McQueen, whose “12 Years a Slave” is, like “Widows,” a look into the corruption of the American empire, then as a freed man is abducted and sold back into slavery, now tackles not only politics and ethics but focuses on problems with gender bias, racist thinking, and the contradictions of capitalism. “Widows” is brilliantly acted particularly by the awesome Viola Davis, but is marred by an overly complex, confusingly edited handling of the plot written by the director and Gillian Flynn.

McQueen opens the movie in the way that so many screenwriting advisors recommend: with a bang. With quite a few bangs, in fact. Mobster Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) are kissing in bed, standing up, and pre- and post-shower. Cut to the scene so common in blockbusters. A job has gone wrong, the SWAT team lets loose with automatic firepower, and Harry is killed. Problems are just beginning for Vernoica as a crime lord, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) determines that the two million dollars of his, now up in smoke , visits the grieving woman and demands that she pay him back within one month.

When Veronica is not grieving, she’s is carrying her small West Highland Terrier in her arms as though the dog were a stuffed Teddy, which makes you wonder whether the pup is a Mac Guffin or the key to the big twist that comes some three-quarters into the 130 minute movie. Occasionally grounding the dog–surprisingly phlegmatic for a terrier—she assembles other widows in a plot to get five million dollars. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a mother with a shop that has been taken over by the gang, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a tall, blond, Polish American whose own mother (Jackie Weaver) pimps her out, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser assigned to be the getaway driver.

If that plot is not complex enough for you, much is made of the candidacy of handsome, slick Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), driven to run for alderman by his racist father Tom (Robert Duvall) to keep the power in the hands of white people. His opponent, an African-American, refuses to withdraw from the race while both seek the endorsement of the ward’s leading preacher. Yet many African-American women will vote for Mulligan because he provided them with the loans (they were refused by the banks) to open their own businesses. But there’s a catch, and that brings in serial killer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya—the great actor who shined in last year’s best movie, “Get Out”, the only performer who could begin to match Viola Davis).

Confusing, needs a second viewing to unscramble the erratic editing, great acting, good visuals.

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

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

EL ANGEL – movie review


The Orchard
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Luis Ortega
Screenwriters:  Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, Sergio Olguín
Cast:  Lorenzo Ferro, Chino Darín, Mercedes Moran, Cecilia Roth, Daniel Fanego, Luis Gnecco
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/30/18
Opens: November 9, 2018
El Ángel Movie Poster
After the murder of eleven synagogue congregants on 10/27/18 by Robert Bowers, some the grieving family contemplated his picture.  One fellow said, “He doesn’t look like the face of evil.”  Whether from comic books or movies or videogames, many of us think that killers look the part: smirking with scarred faces or showing Hitler-type mustaches, bulging eyes, maybe bad teeth and comb-over hair lines.   The reality is that criminals are likely to look like any of us: riding the subways, sitting before computers, relaxing in an easy chair.  The evil that men do lives after them, as Marc Antony said in “Julius Caesar,” but there is like to be no reflection on their faces.  Such is the case in spades when we consider Carlos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), known to friends and family as Carlitos, because the title figure, the angel, looks like what we conceive to be the face of pure innocence.  Though in real life he killed eleven people and committed robbery forty-two times, this seventeen-year-old is hardly the typical angel—except perhaps the fallen angel known as Satan.  You will not find horns growing on Carlito’s head and if he has a tail he hides it well.  What’s more, instead of a pitchfork—which we’d have hoped he’d use—he has a collection of guns, any number of which he used to carry out his killing, sometimes holding the firearms in both hands as though a figure out of the Old West.

This story based on the true events in the life of Puch—who, having served over forty-six years in jail is Argentina’s longest-serving prisoner ever—is directed by Luis Ortega with an eye for letting us contemplate the possible effect of his attraction toward young men on his crimes—though no outright homosexual act is filmed.  The thirty-eight-year-old Buenos Aires writer-director Ortega, whose “Black Box” is more of a character study involving three people than a riveting look at crime, allows Lorenzo Ferro to anchor the movie.  Ferro, in his debut as an actor, is in virtually every scene, committing his robberies and murders without much of a motive except to have some fun.  The curly-haired seventeen-year-old partners up with Ramón Peralta (Chino Darin) while both are sharing a class in a vocational high school, his choice probably based on the handsome looks of a guy a year or two older whose attention Carlos craves.  The partnership is sealed after Carlos holds a Bunsen burner close to his classmate’s back, resulting in suffering a sharp punch to Carlos’s left cheek, and from then on they are fast friends and partners in crime.

Ramón’s role model is the young man’s father, José (Daniel Fanego) an ex-convict who shoots up through his ankles, married to  Ana (Mercedes Morán) who at one point tries to seduce Carlos as though playing Mrs. Robinson to Ben Braddock in “The Graduate.” We’re convinced that this Carlitos is the polar opposite of the type of person some of us believe killers resemble.

A string of holdups include the robbery of a couple of dozen guns, some necklaces and rings, and in one case the cracking open of a safe with surprising results.  Carlos, obviously a thrill-seeker rather than a needy individual (though in an early scene he sounds like a Marxist), has had a good upbringing with honest and caring parents Héctor (Luis Gnecco) and Aurora (Cecilia).  Both look after their boy, obviously overjoyed with the good lucks for which they may take credit, but the best upbringings do not necessarily lead to favorable results.

The robberies and murders are shown as capricious rather than based on a need to do away with witnesses to crimes.  In fact they are part of the teen’s need for attention and thrills.  A stolen car, one of which leads to a head-on collision that may or may not have been
accidental, becomes part of Carlos’s carelessness, a flaw that will lead to his capture and long-term imprisonment.

The film in Spanish with clear subtitles and a terrific soundtrack of over a dozen instrumentals, is Argentina’s entry into the 91st Academy Awards competition, a worthy effort that will cement your impression that lawbreakers, even of the extreme kind, can look like you and me and Robert Bowers.

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

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

BORDER – movie reveiw

BORDER (Gräns)

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ali Abbasi
Screenwriter:  John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf, based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Cast:  Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petren, Sten Ljunggren
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/18/18
Opens: October 26, 2018
Gräns Movie Poster
People are not who they seem.  This is something most of us pick up by the time we are six years old, and is a common theme in literature, theater and movies.  There are two people, however, in Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” that are tangentially like others of their ilk, but this couple—a twosome that “found” each other–could pass for human beings.  And that’s something you can’t necessarily say about vampires (at least before they received new fans by their good looks) and zombies.  They’re not as innocent looking as the evil people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but if you ever encountered them you would be suspicious, but then you would write off your distrust by thinking that you’re guilty by some kind of “ism.”

Ali Abbasi, who directs “Border” (his sophomore full-length feature) is known by cinephiles for being at the helm of “Shelley,” about a couple who are unable to bear children but hire a Romanian maid to do the honors with unappealing results, the title baby’s clicking sounds perhaps the least unusual thing about the little one.  For his part, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story which was adapted for this film, is responsible for writing “Let the Right One In,” about a bullied fellow who finds love and a chance for revenge through a meeting with a peculiar girl.  So we know what we are in for with “Border.”  Or do we?

Let’s let Tina in.  As played by Eva Melander, she may strikes you as a woman with a face that only a mother could love.  Yet even she finds the affection she seeks while working as a customs agent in a Swedish seaside border post, a perfect career choice since she can smell both illegal goods from smugglers and moral rot from anybody.  A businessman with a suit who would be sent away with a wave of her fellow worker is stopped by Tina, who takes apart his mobile and finds incriminating stuff.  When Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes her way, a fellow who is so ugly he could be her soulmate, he is body-searched by her male colleague with embarrassing (for the agent) results.  We are well aware that the two will indeed get together, histories will be exchanged, maggots and worms will be eaten, and for the first time in her life, she will realize that she, too, is person who is not who she thought she was.

What follows is a believable story notwithstanding its genre-bending look into horror, Nordic myths, a police drama, and a film that expresses a back-to-nature thematic structure, finding Tina running barefoot through the forest that is right outside the door of her isolated cabin.  She takes steps to deal with a freeloading roommate, Roland (Jörgan Thorsson), who is more interested in TV and in showing his Rottweilers in competition than in her, a man who is rebuffed when he tries for intimacy with Tina.  Tina is more at home with the animal kingdom, possesses a nose that can tell when deer are approaching, allowing her to stop the car so they can pass unmolested.  Both Tina and Eero become involved in capturing a pedophile.  From her father (Sten Ljunggren) she ultimately learns the truth about her upbringing.

Don’t feel sorry for the actors who play Tina and Vore.  They are not that ugly.  Instead, they put up with four hours daily in the make-up studio to give them the grotesque looks, giving the movie the possibility of picking up awards for the prosthetic team.  Filmmaker Ali Abbasi holds an Iranian passport and had been unable to enter the U.S. because of the current restriction on some Muslim countries, but he was allowed to enter our country for the Telluride Festival. (Don’t let Trump know or he will fire the officials who allowed this.)

Strictly speaking, movies that feature serial killers like Freddy Kruger are not horror films.  They are slasher fare.  A true horror film must deal with supernatural aspects, like the title baby in “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the pod people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  If you are repelled by slasher movies you may find that true horror is more to your liking, which is why you should give “Border” your time.  The film was screened at Cannes, Telluride, and the Toronto festivals.  And those who do not recognize the environment in which the story takes place, it was shot by Nadim Carlsen in Kapellskär and Norrtäje, Sweden.  English subtitles are provided.

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

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

WILDLIFE – movie review


IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Paul Dano
Screenwriter:  Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 10/11/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Wildlife Movie Poster
Should parents who are having arguments stick out their marriage for the sake of the kids, or would the children be better off if their parents split, thereby ending the confrontations?  This question comes to mind when you’re watching “Wildlife,” which looks at parental conflict through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy.  Based on a novel that first appeared in Atlantic magazine in 1990 by Richard Ford and set in the town of Great Falls, Montana, “Wildlife” finds Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) staring with owlish eyes at events surrounding him that he cannot much alter.  He is caught between what actually appears to be flirtations from his own mother, Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), a woman who is only twenty years older than her son, and the affection he harbors for his dad, Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), who practices tossing the football around and encourages his son to play the game in high school.

Director Paul Dano, known to cinephiles for diverse acting roles such as in “Little Mary Sunshine” (family wants their young daughter to compete in the beauty finals) and in “Swiss Army Man” (guy stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body), now comes through with his freshman directorial debut, and it’s looks like a movie from a director who has had considerable experience in the field.

As young Joe stares at the unfolding scene in school, on a job as a photographer’s assistant, and most of all at home, he keeps his emotions to himself until cutting loose toward the tale’s conclusion.  But this is Carey Mulligan’s picture.  The wonderful British actress, playing the role of a person of her own early-thirties age, runs the gamut of emotions.  At first she supports her husband, Jerry, who has just been fired from a job as an assistant to pros on a golf course, urging him to find another lest she would have to enter the employment market herself.  When Jerry refuses to return to that job (the boss said firing him was a mistake) and not open to a gig bagging groceries (“I won’t do a teenager’s job”), Jeanette begins to lose patience.  When Jerry compounds the problem by hiring himself out to fight forest fires as a dollar a day, not great pay even in 1960, she looks for opportunities, finding one as a swimming teacher.

At the pool, she teaches Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy businessman with his own plane, who begins to court her.  Despite his unattractive demeanor—he’s portly, balding, a drinker and cigar smoker—she responds to his invitations, all to the growing dismay of the boy.  Still, Miller has a glib way of expressing himself, introducing the kid to a scene which found him 4000 feet up, watching a gaggle of honking geese, so entranced that he turned off the motor thinking that this is what it must mean to be an angel.

What’s in the Brinson family for the future?  Will Jeanette and Jerry break up, leaving the 14-year-old to an uncertain fate?  In this case we really do care about these people.  We hope that she does not team up with the divorced Warren Miller despite the financial boon for mother and son, confirming “Wildlife” as a feminist film that may have us rooting for her to find her own steady job rather than depend on her need to find a man.  It looks as though all’s well that may end well, a coming-of-age tale just as it is a feminist film, well designed for a potential audience of moviegoers who do not need much melodrama and have contempt for formulaic soap operas.

Rated PG-13.  104 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LOVE, GILDA – movie review


CNN Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa D’Apolito
Cast: Chevy Chase, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Melissa McCarthy, Lorne Michaels, Paul Shaffer, Cecily Strong, Laraine Newman, Rose Abdoo Alan Zweibel
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, Sept. 10, 2018
Opens: September 21, 2018
Love, Gilda Movie Poster
Life is easy. Comedy is hard. That’s an old saying that brings to mind many exceptions wherein comedy is easy but life is hard.  Think of Robin Williams, the funniest guy around.  Just looking at him can make an audience smile.  “Good Morning Vietnam.”  “Mrs. Doubtful.”  And no slouch at serious stuff either. Yet he hanged himself.  Now think of Anthony Bourdain.  Not a comic, though many of his episodes are humorous.  Had lunch with President Obama.  Had a job to die for, traveling the world, eating up a storm. Top rated shown on CNN.  He hanged himself as well.  What does this show?  Simply that you never go what’s going on in private lives.  Actors and comedians who are exuberant on stage are melancholic or downright depressed off, which may be why so many have been addicted to hard drugs.

Now think of Gilda Radner.  She was a charter member of Saturday Night Live.  She was as popular with the stars as she was with her audiences, dating many, until she went head over heels for Gene Wilder, the true love of her life.  Yet she had eating problems, her weight disappearing below the 100 pounds mark.  She was finally rescued by Wilder, who got her interested in again, which by extension could mean that people who starve themselves are missing something important in their lives, or rather, someone important.

Lisa D’Apolito, who appeared once as an actress in “Goodfellas” heads off into directing territory in her freshman work, “Love, Gilda” is not shy of depicting the sadness in the comic’s life, ending with Gilda Radner’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of forty-three.  Most of the doc, which features Radner in a number of funny characterizations, is a joy to watch.  We can see how Radner, one of the great funny people of a past generation brought up on the beginnings of SNL (Saturday Night Live), notes that the best way to cover up sadness is with comedy, just as a good laugh by any of us can dispel a host of demons.  She loved her audiences, whether putting on a one-woman show on Broadway (we see a full house, orchestra, balcony, second tier and above) giving her a standing ovation, one which must have gone far in giving Radner confidence given her fear that an audience on the Great White Way might be bored without a full cast.

The talking heads are folks familiar to most of us, at least to those above the age of twelve, their
commentary woven well into the story so we do not have to face the prospect of watching guys sitting in their chairs and pontificating.  The movie is loaded with clips of the title character in a variety of shows as the marionette wife of the fictitious Howdy Doody; as the bimbo-ish Roseanne
Roseannadanna; as the woman who gets fired from her job in a burger joint because customers did not  like a sample  of her abundant  hair with their fries.

Director D’Apolito finds that Rander’s lifelong melancholy may have been caused in her youth at the death of her father who died  while she was still young, the man who encouraged her pantomime without which she may have become an office worker or a nurse, catering to a relatively small group of people rather than to the tens of millions who watched her on TV and in the theaters.  Archival films show her to be a girl who refused to take life seriously, to laugh because it lightened her spirit and because she would do anything to make others laugh as well.

The film opened the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, perhaps because it was the ideal pick in which forty-six percent of the films are directed by women.

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

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

AMERICAN CHAOS – movie review


Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  James D. Stern
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 8/23/18
Opens: September 20, 2018
American Chaos Movie Poster
With an introductory remark that “you can’t know another person unless you get into his skin,” James D. Stern takes off on a road trip to what some snobs call flyover country—West Virginia and Arizona—but with stops as well in Miami and Cleveland, the latter being the site of the Republic National Convention in 2016 that certified Donald Trump as nominee for President.  He may not have literally gotten into the skin of Trump supporters, but by playing himself as neutral, he is able to elicit considerable talk from a variety of people in much the way that Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah” in 1985 allowed his subjects to say what they would otherwise keep to themselves if they thought the interviewer were biased against them.

Stern, who lives and breathes politics (his “So Goes the Nation” explored the folks in the Buckeye state before the 2004 presidential election), has an awesome array of 59 production credits, and is in his métier as a friendly but seemingly impartial interviewer.  His subjects are almost all Trump supporters though he occasionally tosses in some comments by Democrats, perhaps to give viewers the feeling that America is not all that chaotic, that there are people who, like one scientist, says that yes, we are undergoing climate change which could prove more dangerous to the earth if steps are not taken quickly.

Except for some moments in the epilogue, Stern deals only with the months before the November 2016 election when people had to get their impression of Trump from what he says rather than what he does, which makes absolutely essential a sequel to discover whether their views have changed, though we already know from the pundits that few Trump supporters have left the fold.

So, what’s wrong with Kansas?  In fact, what’s the secret of Trump’s success across most of the red midlands of our great nation?  The responses are from people who vote for the Republican party—or, if you prefer the language of ex-House speaker John Boehner, the Trump party.  Their views are not unexpected by anyone who has followed politics, whether via Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, the Washington Post and the progressive newspaper, The Arizona Republic.

One subject has an analogy: you don’t want strangers in your home, people you know nothing about, do you?  When we tolerate illegal immigration, we are faced by this dilemma, and in fact, one woman who lives 25 miles from the Mexican border notes (without even winking at the interviewer) that Mexicans sneak across, rape the women, and hang up their underwear as though claiming a victory of sorts.  Thus, she concludes, we must rigorously maintain the power of the Second Amendment—never mind that the Founding Fathers put that into the Constitution soon after colonists were involved in a long war with Britain.

Another respondent argues that previously foreigners have assimilated into the American culture, but not so much now.  They had always kept their ways, perhaps preparing arroz con pollo or imam bayeldi at home, but they will enjoy hot dogs on every Fourth of July. Yet another subject appreciates that the President says what’s on his mind: not like the big bad Democrats who keep their real feelings secretive.  As for climate change, nah: Mother Earth will take care of her own.  Coal miners in West Virginia take Trump seriously when Potus promised to bring back their jobs; never mind that other sources of energy are cleaner and that even if the mines were re-opened, automation would put most West Virginians out of work.

A few state that Trump’s billions do not alienate him from the working class: “He has billions and he can help us become successful.”  As for Hillary Clinton, while at least one subject suggests that she has committed treason “and the penalty for treason is death,” others simply hate her, believing that all she cares about are money and power (unlike Trump, presumably).

Surprisingly the issues of abortion and gay rights are not mentioned at all, giving viewers the impression that they are minor considerations that do not concern them one way or another.  However it must be pointed out that Stern does not interview many evangelicals but rather salt-of-the-earth people who worry only about jobs and immigration and resent people who are given welfare though they do not contribute to society.

Throughout, director Stern does not fade back as the invisible interviewer but appears in every scene, sometimes rolling his eyes for our benefit, sometimes seeming on the verge of tears.  He never lets on, though, that he is anything but a blank slate, a neutral observer.

Behind the lens, Kevin Ford captures sides of the American topography that are only casually known by urban dwellers, while Rose Corr and Kevin Ford at the editing machines keep the film moving at a brisk pace.  A rapid-fire introduction to the movie hones in on previous presidential campaigns, as far back at Teddy Roosevelt’s and with celluloid given to Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, JFK, Barack Obama and Trump.  Though people who follow politics may find nothing new in the commentary, James Stern allows us to get at least hints of the over-all personalities of the subjects.  Democrats in the audience might be expected to guffaw at some of (what they consider) unsophisticated, xenophobic and outlandish comments such as the bit about Hillary’s being guilty of treason.  Audience members on the right will doubtless be motivated to don their red baseball caps and continue to see that America is being made great again.  Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!

Rated R.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE BLEEDING EDGE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Kirby Dick
Screenwriter:  Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/29/18
Opens: July 27, 2018
Essure Permanent Birth Control device.jpg
Who better to expose the rampant corruption in the medical devices industry than Kirby Dick?  The muckraking documentarian has knocked out hard-hitting films like “The Hunting Ground” which covers rape and cover-ups on college campuses, “The Invisible War” about the rape of soldiers in the U.S. military (likewise covered up), and “Outrage,” about the hypocrisy of closet legislators who talk big about the need for anti-gay legislation.  I wonder what Mr. Dick and co-writer Amy Ziering—who co-wrote and acted in “The Invisible War”—would think of President Trump’s recent declaration that for every new regulation he would sign, he would shred two other regulations?  That one has an obvious answer: Trump is in the sack with Big Business just as are the presumed regulators of drug and medical devices in the Food and Drug Drug Administration who, upon leaving the FDA at the end of their terms serve as lobbyists for the industries they were regulating.  Not only that: these former government officials, now with jobs paying greater than three times more than they received from the government, tell the drug and device companies how to get around FDA regulations.  (In the same manner, of course, former employees of Internal Revenue have been known to tell the private industries they now work for how to get around, i.e. cheat, on their taxes.)

In the Netflix doc “The Bleeding Edge” Kirby Dick takes aim against four industries that use medical devices: the da Vinci robotic surgery device, materials used for hip replacements, the mesh used in gynecological surgeries, and most of all a specific company, Bayer, that manufactures Essure, which are implants for birth control.  Most of the individuals interviewed in the cast, filmed by Thaddeus Wadleigh with Jeff Beal’s music to intensify the drama, are women, none of whom give much praise to the device which had been sold to the public presumably because it’s new.  This is a metal coil claimed to be 99%+ effective at preventing pregnancy, which sounds great—until you realize that 65,000 women are parties to lawsuits against its manufacturer.  They get their chance to announce their frustrations to moviegoers, warning them of the possibility that their audience, like them, may suffer from cramps and bleeding requiring the removal of a device that is said to be for a lifetime and not removable.  They recommend the good old fashioned tried-and-true surgery to tie their tubes, a tubal ligation, which like Essure takes only minutes for a gynecologist to process and to our knowledge has not met with horrendous side effects.  To top it off, a video taken at an approval meeting, members of the government committee joke about dissenting voices. Ultimately the only thing that the FDA does to regulate Essure—forget about having them take it off the market—is to require doctors to advise patients of side effects.

We are not made to accept foreign bodies easily, though there are some proven techniques like implantation of pacemakers for heart patients that have saved lives.  Under the microscope here, though, is the vaginal mesh used to hold tissues in place.  One woman’s experience will not soon be forgotten by those watching the movie.  When the mesh became rigid—and her husband became rigid—the poor man receives a cut on the tip of his penis.  So movies like “Teeth,” a horror film that has overly aggressive men and rapists lose most of their penis from women who have implanted teeth into their vagina, creating “vagina dentate,” are not so far out.  Statics are invoked that Johnson and Johnson lost $300 million from lawsuits against earnings of $683 billion during the same period.

Robotics surgery is touted now as New! New! New! Doctors urging some patients to avoid the need for trauma as doctors are able to manipulate a million dollar machine for some procedures.  Yet because the system is new and because hospitals that have invested in the machines have a need to use them, some doctors are not fully trained.  In one horrific case we come across a woman who had three feet of her colon falling out of her body. No, this is not a film by Rob Zombie or Eli Roth or Wes Craven.

Many of us will need hip replacements at some point in our lives.  We wear out, just like computers and cars.  Some folks interviewed here have had replacements made with cobalt, and one orthopedic surgeon, himself a patient who should have known better, had tremors and memory loss because, one again, the body is not friendly to spare parts.  In his case the metal got into his bloodstream. Did that stop the use of cobalt?  Guess.

If you’re one of the exceptional people who blow the whistle, you’re likely to get fired, and in fact nine FDA officials who warned that the commission is too lax were fired.  Maybe that made an impression on current staff members.  Not a single one from the agency or, for that matter, any rep from the companies being criticized agreed to be interviewed.

By now you should realize that this is a documentary that should be seen by all, as none of us who live to a ripe old age can avoid having to make decisions on treatments.

Unrated.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical –A-

Overall – B+

IN HARMONY – movie review

IN HARMONY (En équilibre)

Icarus Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Denis Dercourt
Screenwriter: Denis Dercourt. Book by Bernard Sachsé.
Cast: Albert Dupontel, Cécile De France, Marie Bäumer, Patrick Mille, Antonin Gabrielli, Carole Franck
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/14/18
Opened: July 13, 2018 in an Icarus DVD

En équilibre Movie Poster

There are some things you’ll come away with whether or not you like the story as a whole. One is that beautiful women should never put their hair up in buns. Another is that you should not trust insurance companies, evil capitalists that they are. A third is that if you don’t feel that Liszt, in his Etude No. 12, expresses emotions that you and I are unable to put into words, you have no soul. Ultimately, “In Harmony” enjoys terrific performances from its two leads and though it deals with the truth story of a stunt rider paralyzed when he falls from a horse, it does not have the saccharine development you might expect if there were a Hollywood remake.

This makes for a welcome move by Icarus Films in making the movie available to us in the States via a DVD, a story that is warm, humorous, believable and romantic. The two leads are Albert Dupontel in the role of Marc Guermont and Belgian-born Cécile de France as Florence Kernel. Denis Dercourt wrote and directs in a film that is in his métier, as he is known for “The Page Turner,” about a young woman pianist who applies to a conservatory but is distracted and fails the exam. His “In Harmony” is likewise about a pianist, Florence Kernel, who used to practice for eight hours a day but for some reason gave up her studies and settled for being an insurance adjuster. Through her association with Marc, absorbing his dedication to dust himself off after he is paralyzed and ride again, she rethinks her life and real love for the piano and cannot help actually wishing to be fired from the company for which she works.

The story opens with pressure that Florence puts on Marc to sign a protocol for an insurance settlement, offering 250 euros, which he considers insufficient to last for a lifetime. He is advised later by an advocate, Carole Franck, to hold out and to take his chances in court for the one million euros he probably deserves, yet he wonders how he can survive even now without even the funds to continue paying for modifications on his farmhouse. Meanwhile, Florence is not the hardheaded person anyone would take her for given a hairdo that makes her look almost androgynous. Advised by an employee in the insurance company to be seductive, she puts down her blond hair, and wouldn’t you know: she develops romantic urges herself for her client!

This is based on the real life story of Bernard Sachsé whose book, Sur mes quatre jambes: Le livre qui a inspiré le film En équilibre (On My Four Legs: The Life that Inspired the Film In Harmony), available at Amazon. You can read the book in French and imagine the two characters but you can hardly do better in bringing the characters to life than Cécile de France and Albert Dupontel, the latter doing all his own stunt work. The horse named Othello is sadly uncredited in the cast but does quite a job at advanced tricks. Othello is trained by Marc and kept comfortable and happy by Marc’s helper Antoine (Antonin Gabrielli).

The film opened in France in April 2015 and in the U.S. in April 2016 but somehow passed under the radar with just a few reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s hope Icarus’ DVD will revive interest in a clear, unsentimental look at one person’s adjustment to tragedy and another’s renascence of interest in the piano.

Unrated. 90 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SKYSCRAPER – movie review


Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Kevin Rankin, Roland Mueller, Byron Mann
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 7/9/18
Opens: July 13, 2018

Here we have yet another expensive movie that fits into the template of summer spectaculars but which is at bottom soulless, without genuine imagination, interesting performances, novelty, and twists and turns. When compared with others of the blockbuster entries like the “Die Hard” series and “Mission Impossible,” “Skyscraper” does not match up, as the movie is without humor or irony of any attribute that would give it momentum beyond a seemingly endless array of stunts. There are spectacular fires on a massive scale and attention paid to the usual accoutrements of thrillers, taking advantage of all the tricks and optics of a computer generation and the skills of teams of special effects engineers. And the film serves as well as a love letter to Hong Kong, which despite being part of China is regularly cited as by the Economic Freedom index as having the freest market economy in the world, just ahead of Singapore.
Nor does it dumb down the language. The Chinese participants speak Cantonese, with a billionaire builder wholly bilingual.

San Francisco-born Rawson Marshall Thurber, its screenwriter-director, has expanded his score quote a bit since his 2004 movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” about a group of misfits in a Las Vegas tournament, and more recently “Central Intelligence,” about an accountant lured into the world of espionage. Thurber opens with a dramatic scene: Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), a decorated Marine and now an FBI agent, is in a hostage standoff with a big guy who is holding his kid in front of him to avoid surrendering or being shot by a group of agents with laser-beam rifles. The unexpected happens and Sawyer loses a leg which, ten years later, finds him married to Sarah Sawyer (Neve Campbell), a surgeon who sewed him up and fixed him with a high-tech artificial leg. Now with a wife and two kids living temporarily in the world’s tallest building (over 200 stories), he serves as principal security consultant on the edifice built by Chinese billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), using a face-identity tablet to make final checks on the structure’s security. This is where Thurber can take advantage of the usual graphics of multiple computer screens, lights that beam “open” or “closed,” and, sadly, a plot device that’s confusing. It appears that the bad guys, members of a syndicate with extortion plots around the world, seek to take a gadget from Zhao, one which exposes the locations and puts his syndicate in jeopardy.

Why they have to start a fire on a high floor is anybody’s guess, but somehow this was to lead to the capture of the gadget. Fortunately, Sawyer is not simply a guy who knows how to check a building’s security with his hand-held tablet, but given his experience in the FBI and Marines, he is able to overcome all threats to himself and especially to his family, as his wife and kids are thrust into mortal danger by the gangsters. At one point they threaten to toss one of the little guys from a high floor to the streets below, as a large crowd of onlookers gasp at every turn and appear ready to applaud mightily if their hero succeeds in outwitting the villains.

The movie audience, hopefully distracted from lame dialogue and plot confusions, will focus mostly on Dwayne Johnson’s acrobatics: he flies through the air on a rope; he clings to a window ledge by his arms, in one instance losing his grip and depending on his other muscular limb to preserve his life; and most amusingly he has to deal with a huge door that might find a place in Trump Tower by quickly detaching his metal leg, using it to prevent the door from closing—like a passenger on a New York subway who sticks a foot in the door to keep it from closing, which would force him to wait four minutes for the next train. The one relatable scene is an elevator fall that thrusts the Sawyers from over a hundred stories, plunging them into what looks like their final ride to the street. This might have been influenced by Disney World’s Tower of Terror.

The producers are hoping for big box office from China, and no wonder. This movie must have sailed through whatever government body authorizes a quota of American movies, makes Hong Kong look like a tourist destination, and gives jobs to scores of Chinese actors and extras.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

EIGHTH GRADE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter:  Bo Burnham
Cast:  Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/21/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
Eighth Grade Trailer for Bo Burnham's SXSW Hit
In the Jewish religion a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen.  Fashionably enough, particularly in an age that women demand equality with men, a girl becomes a woman at thirteen as well.  Notwithstanding assertions at Bar Mitzvahs and Bas Mitzvahs, thirteen-year-olds are hardly men and women, though perhaps in Biblical times when folks had a life expectancy of fifty (Methuselah among the exceptions), teens became adults.  Nowadays, let’s compromise and say that we start thinking of ourselves as adults at that age while still anchored in childhood.  We want to be adults but are wondering what responsibilities will bring.  Most of all, at the age of thirteen we are afraid of not fitting in.  If you go through school thinking and acting awkwardly, if you don’t have friends, you will not look back kindly at early adolescence.  That’s where Kayla (Elise Fisher) comes in.

Like some of her classmates, she has a face covered by acne—except in scenes where she doesn’t—but that’s not her concern.  She’s not bullied; more like she’s ignored, and that is a worry for anyone her age and also for their caregivers. Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is a single father who worries about her.  He tries to talk with her at the dinner table but she does not look at him, she does not hear him with those infernal ear buds in her head, and she’s irritated when he tries to converse with her.

Twenty-eight-year-old writer-director Bo Burnham’s “The Big Sick” focuses on a comedian, so we figure we’re not going to get another “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Solondz’s caustic look at an unattractive seventh grader who has good reason to feel anxiety.  “Eighth Grade” by contrast is a feel-good treatment of a thirteen-year-old middle schooler who hates when people call her “quiet,” though she herself does not agree with that label.  Trying to prove this, she knocks out a series of videos in her bedroom giving advice to others of her generation, counsel that she tries, with only limited success, to follow in her own life.

At a pool party given by one of the school’s rich kids, she spots others having great fun, shooting one another with water cannons, showing off as one boy does when fitted with goggles that fit over his nose he tries without success to do hand-stands.  The tentative conversation between him and Kayla is rich with insight into the minds of people their age, just as all the chit-chat, the addiction to smart phones, the separation of pupils in cliques are spot-on.

Try not to get irritated at the opening scene.  Kayla is giving one of her Ann Landers’style advice to fellow teens, using terms like “you know” even more than the newscasters on CNN, “like” several times in a sentence, and “OK” so many times you may want to shake her up and say “Hey, you’re not OK, at least not yet.”   She enjoys bursts of conversations from a variety of people such as Gabe (Jake Ryan), the aforementioned fellow with the hand-stands who challenges her to a breath-holding contest.  She is afraid when a high-school junior (Daniel Zolghadri) asks her to remove her shirt just as he removed his.  Though “not comfortable” in that situation as she explains, she privately looks forward to sending sexy pictures to her boyfriend, whenever she lands someone on her wave length.  She enjoys a big breakthrough just her father does, when around a campfire, she realizes how lucky she is to have a dad like Mark who struggles with bringing up a girl without help from a partner.

The picture belongs to Elsie Fisher, a fifteen-year-old who has a remarkably long résumé in the TV and films business and who you may have seen before in “McFarland USA” or heard her voice in “Despicable Me.”  This is a breakthrough performance that may well be remembered at end-year awards time and should prove a movie that can fill far more seats at the multiplex than did “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”  Andrew Wehde filmed the action in White Plains (upstate) New York.

Unrated.  94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



Columbia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Stefano Sollima
Screenwriter:  Taylor Sheridan
Cast:  Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 6/25/18
Opens: June 29, 2018

This sequel to the Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 “Sicario” is loaded with ambiguity that may confuse some theatergoers while the picture is running, but everything clears up toward about halfway through.  When a film does not label one person “good guy” and the other one “bad guy,” it’s being unrealistic.  Human beings are not all good or all bad.  Therefore Stefano Sollima’s new film respects the audience, moviegoers who want their characters to be nuanced and not artificially set up to be one extreme or the other.

It’s tempting to say that “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is ripped from today’s headlines given all the attention paid to the plight of migrants who enter the U.S. illegally and who are being punished through separation from their children and by a President who now says that these people, looking to escape gang warfare as well as to better their economic condition, should be sent back and to hell with due process.  What Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay, is saying with this movie does not relate directly to current-day politics but instead sets up a fictional situation in which the drug cartels in Mexico have are now smuggling people across the Texas-Mexico border.  According to the CIA, they are doing this because there is more money in human smuggling than in drug trafficking!

Let’s clear up some confusion right away—without giving away spoilers.  We need only to look at each of the principals to discover their motivations.

Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is under orders from James Riley (Matthew Modine), the U.S. Secretary of Defense, to drum up a drug war between two major cartels in Mexico, one of which is under the leadership of Carlos Reyes (who does not appear in this movie).  The idea is to have the two factions kill each other off, a neat, albeit extra-legal method of operation for the U.S.  (Whether this procedure has ever been followed in real life is anybody’s guess.)

Alejando Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) is an attorney whose family was killed by the Reyes cartel.  He’s out for revenge.

Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) is a teen daughter of the drug kingpin, Carlos Reyes, kidnapped by Alejando as part of the plot to fire up the anticipated drug war.

Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) is the CIA bigwig who wants nothing more than to wipe out all remnants of the cartels not excluding members who are currently helping our government.

And that’s all you need to know of the principals.

Opening scenes are full of tensions promoted by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack which comes off just dandy in the beginning but soon becomes a monotonous, mournful, repetitious, squealing long after it has made its point.

In a scene photographed with considerable craft by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski in the Mexican desert, a man blows himself up, killing enforcers on patrol.  Later sets of explosions in a large department store in Kansas City have been detonated by a terrorist who presumably was able to make it to the U.S. by way of Mexico and with the help of the cartels. Matt Graver questions a Somali militia man (Sakariya Ali), threatening to call in a drone strike against his brother if he does not talk.  But not all traffickers operate in Mexico.  We are introduced to Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who assists the smugglers of human beings as a warmup to becoming a full-fledged soldier in the Mexican cartels.

Alejandro, whose family was killed by a cartel (remember this from the first film) kidnaps Isabela in a powerful scene that finds her transported, head covered by a hood, through an upscale Mexico City location, but later pretends that he is helping her to escape—in the movie’s cleverest scene.

There is significant plotting, a few twists and turns, some cute touches such as a scene in which Alejando, looking for assistance from a poor resident in the desert, uses sign language.  The movie is shot in Albuquerque with the most dramatic scene on the posh Avenida Santa Fé in Mexico City.

Italian director Stefano Sollima is in his métier, known largely for his “Gomorrah,” involving a power struggle within the Mafia to become the next leader of a crime syndicate.  Writer Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water” involves a scheme of a family to save their West Texas ranch.

“Sicario,” which means “assassin” and “Soldado” = “soldier,” is full of explosions, machine-gun fire, wild car chases, and yet it is in no way a mere facsimile of juvenile vid games.  Loaded with surprises, well acted and nicely photographed both in the desert and in urban locations, Sollima’s movie will attract both those who like scenes of destructions and folks who like enough intrigue and surprises to get them thinking.  The film is held together by a vivid performance from Benicio Del Toro with an able assist from Josh Brolin.

Rated R.  122 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LOVE, CECIL – movie review


Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Screenwriter:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Cast:  Rupert Everett, (narrator). Cecil Beaton, Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, David Hockney, Isaac Mizrahi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NY, 6/15/18
Opens: June 29, 2018
Love, Cecil Poster
“I’m an ordinary man,” explains Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” to his best friend Col. Pickering, “Who desires nothing more than just an ordinary chance to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants. An average man am I, of no eccentric whim, who likes to live his life free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him. Just an ordinary man.”  Of course Higgins was not what he claimed.  Now imagine a person who really does fit the bill as “an ordinary man.” You would be imagining the very opposite of Cecil Beaton, who won Oscars in both production design and costume design for “My Fair Lady” helping to make that musical one of the Broadway icons of the last century.

In Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s love letter to Cecil Beaton, she affords us a look at the career and inner life of an extraordinary man, a man who has created color, imagination, and fantasy; in short a vivid look at all that is beautiful about life.  A Renaissance person who could not sit still and focus on a single career, Beaton was above all a photographer, but exceptional as well as a theatre set designer, a creator of costumes, a lighting designer, and even an actor who appeared in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermeer’s Fan.”  Not mentioned by this film which, after all, limits itself to a mere 99 minutes, he designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Vreeland, in her métier as a person who made documentaries on Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim, is obviously a great supporter of the artist, who died in 1980.  She might be accused of being in love with Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE, though she does point out an unfortunate incident in which Beaton, who published six volumes of diaries, used the word “kike” on one page of Vogue magazine, perhaps the most obscene term used by anti-Semites to describe the Jewish people.  Beaton tells the camera that he has no idea why he wrote this, that he is not anti-Jewish (never mind that a good segment of the British upper classes at the time were indeed), and that he regrets that Vogue had to shred thousands of copies and fire him.

We become privy to vast array of Beaton’s portraits in black-and-white and color and to a few segments of the colorful “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”  In the former musical, the song “Ascot Gavotte,” which portraits the British upper class at a racetrack saying how positively ecstatic they are when the horses are running, though with the stiffness and lack of emotion that have become stereotypies of the upper orders.

Of his loves, he cites Greta Garbo, who surprised Beaton by allowing him to photograph the woman who “vant[s] to be left alone.” As the official photographer of the Queen mother,  he is overcome with emotion as he is invited to photograph Queen Elizabeth II in a series of shots that went way over the time limit he is granted.  He left behind photographs of his two male lovers, and cautiously tells us that he did not get along with George Cukor, who directed “My Fair Lady,” and for some reason hated Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

See this on the big screen where you can best revel in the gorgeous costumes, vivid set designs, dramatic sketches and portraits, and snippets from two of the all-time great Broadway musicals.

Unrated.  99 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

EN EL SEPTIMO DIA – movie review

EN EL SÉPTIMO DÍA (On the Seventh Day)

Cinema Guild
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jim McKay
Screenwriter: Jim McKay
Cast: Fernando Cardona, Gilberto Jimenez Núñez, Abel Perez, Genoel Ramírez, Alfonso VelazquezScreened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/29/18


On the seventh day God rested, never worrying that a boss would tell him that he has to work on Sunday. Not the case for an ordinary mortal like José, an immigrant from Mexico working as a delivery man for a high-end restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. José is not only the best worker that restaurateur Steve (Gabriel Núñez) has on his staff. He is also captain and best player of a soccer team named for the Mexican town of Puebla. Here’s the movie’s big conflict. The Puebla team has made the semi-finals in soccer. The group will play the finals on a Sunday and without José they are sure to lose. When La Frontera restaurant schedules a birthday party on Sunday funded by a high roller, Steve needs his entire staff present. Days off are canceled. If José chooses to play in the finals, he will be fired. If he chooses work at the restaurant on what should have been his day off, his team will lose. How would you choose?

“En el Séptimo Día is under the direction of Jim McKay using his own script, a filmmaker best known for directing some TV episodes like “The Good Fight,” “Law and Order,” and “Bosch” but whose last full-length feature “Everyday People” about the closing of restaurant resulting in a loss of jobs, shows that he has the common touch. Here McKay has picked up a group of young, energetic, non-professional actors, Mexicans who live together at a place in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. They horse around, they give advice, they tease one another and are an all-around bunch of good guys. José gets conflicting counsel from the people in his circle. The more reasonable ones, knowing that he expects to bring his pregnant wife Elizabeth (Loren Garcia—seen only on Skype) up to Brooklyn to be with him, requiring him to make enough money and get good references to support her and the child she is carrying. To most of us in the movie audience, the choice is clear, particularly since he knows he can get another job in a similar capacity though he insists that he wants to work only at La Frontera.

Yet José refuses to let his team down. How he manages to solve the problem and with the help of Elmer (Gilberto Jimenez) a young man who watches the game behind the fence and roots for the Pueblas, becomes the film’s most engaging and humorous action. Cinematographer Charles Libin knows how to give the working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn a look at a place that the great borough must have appeared decades ago before gentrification, not the kind of location that would prompt many of us in audience to visit where the big attraction is the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with its spectacular nighttime view of the city skyline.

Throughout the movie José is riding his bike, pumping away vigorously even in the pouring rain when the wind blows his plastic raincoat into a balloon-like shape. He takes dangerous actions without wearing protective headgear (I say from experience that delivery people in Brooklyn simply don’t go for the prissy protection on their heads). That one of his teammates is sidelined with a knee injury received on the field does not worry him. When needed inside, he busses tables and washes dishes, trying now and then without success to convince manager Steve to give him the day off. Some of these young people may be undocumented but in New York City we fight to keep I.C.E. out of our territory. In the lead role Fernando Cardona does such a terrific job at projecting the life of a bilingual working class stiff that he can look forward to a bright future in the business. A solid entry by McKay after a fourteen-year break.

Unrated. 97 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



Roadside Attractions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Pearce
Screenwriter:  Michael Pearce
Cast:  Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Oliver Maltman, Charley Palmer Rothwell
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 5/1/18
Opens: May 11, 2018
Jersey Affair Movie Poster
If you managed to catch the 28-minute short film “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” you might have guessed what’s in store for Michael Pearce’s first full length feature film, which he both wrote and directs.  The short, which played at numerous festivals, reveals a man’s true colors when his wife is kidnapped by business associates.  Now with “Beast,” a well-developed thriller with some horror undertones, Pearce emerges as a fellow to watch, since he keeps the audience with an uneasy feeling throughout while trying to guess the identity of a serial killer and wondering whether the woman on whom he focuses so much attention is in danger of being murdered.

“Beast,” however, is not a typical, superficial treatment of the subject of serial killers but a story with enough depth that even European history becomes a player.But blink, and you’ll miss a key point, when Pascal (Johnny Flynn) informs snobbish family members at a family dinner on the British island of Jersey that they, despite their wealth and haute manners, are sitting on land that belonged to his ancestors.  (Jersey is not part of the UK but the United Kingdom is responsible for its defense.)  Pascal is the kind of young man, which, according to some sociologists, is the type who are favored by women for a good time, but not a good prospect as a potential father and husband.  He is strikingly handsome with Nordic features but is suspected of killing a number of a teenage women.  He works with his hands, carpentry and the like, and his magnetism head-on and immediately draws the lust of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a 27-year-old woman who still lives with her parents under the repressive rule of her mother, Hilary (Geraldine James).  Hilary has been home-schooling Moll since the young woman was expelled from school for having stabbed a classmate who had bullied her.  Between the bullying then and the harsh treatment she must accept from her mother, she could understandably be treated by the audience as a suspect in the serial murders.  Just watch the way she shoots a rabbit under the guidance of her new boyfriend.  When the animal is wounded and suffering and she is told that it’s cruel to leave it that way, she does not simply put a bullet in the bunny’s head but smashes it several times with her rifle.

Writer-director Pearce, who situates the story in Jersey where it is filmed, has lucked out by getting two incredibly attractive performers together as the young couple in love.  He builds the tale in graduated steps, digging deeply into the emotional handicap that guides and appears slowly to destroy Moll’s stability.  She is courted by a detective who is a friend of the family, a man who believes that Moll is covering up for her boyfriend, giving him the alibi that she was dancing with him all night at the time that a fourth body is discovered.  Moll, who feels almost repelled by a guy who is staid when the love of her own life is so adventurous, once tells him that what she remembers most about him is his smell.  The police are convinced that Pascal is the man they seek and are frustrated when Moll continues to defend him, though Moll, despite her fear that Pascal is indeed the serial killer, remains turned on by a guy who is so natural when her mother is a witch and understanding when Moll expresses her anger.

As a redhead, Moll is even physically different from the neighbors who share some terrific Irish dancing on a typical Saturday night on an island that appears to offer little for young people.  As interpreted by Jessie Buckley, who once played Miranda in Jeremy Herrin’s 2014 film “The Tempest,” she brings fire and fury into her role as a woman determined to break the chain of her snobbish and repressive mother, willing to take her bond with Pascal wherever it leads and damn the possibility that she could be one of his victims.  A terrific performer, Buckley creates a woman who should have been able to move away from her family years earlier and who is now making up for her vulnerable years with fever that’s conveyed to her movie audience.  You may not guess the surprise ending, but having seen it, you’ll say, “Of course: why didn’t I think of that?”

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

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

CLAIRE’S CAMERA – movie reveiw


Cinema Guild
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Hong Sang-soo
Screenwriter:  Hong Sang-soo
Cast:  Isabelle Huppert, Kim Minhee, Chang Mihee, Jung Jinyoung
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/5/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

You cannot think of French actors without citing the names Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert.  Huppert is as ubiquitous in French films as Gerard Depardieu once was, this time appearing in a feather-light comedy about a tourist from Paris who is, or pretends to be, a fish out of water.  As the title Claire, she runs into some others from a vastly different culture—three Koreans who are in Cannes, at least one on official business while the others are, well, you have to see how they get together and how their meetings  transforms them.  “If I take a photograph of you, you are not the same person anymore,” offers Claire.  That’s not all: if you look into Claire’s eyes, you get the same magical transformation. In these particular cases, Claire’s snapping of her Polaroid camera leads to changes in people quite a bit for the better, while at the same time writer-director Hong Sang-soo may have a subliminal message that attending the movies, particularly any of Hong’s twenty-six entries, will make you a better person.

Hong Sang-soo, whose recent film “On the Beach at Night Alone” finds an actress wandering around a seaside town thinking about her relationship with a married man, is not too different from his thematic concerns in “Claire’s Camera,” This is a multi-lingual project that clocks in at sixty-nine mostly magical minutes, the whole episode graced with performances by Ms. Huppert in the title role and Kim Min-hee, who worked with the director in three of his films, in the role of youthful Manhee.

If major purpose of traveling is to broaden yourself by introductions into different cultures, “Claire’s Camera” not only confirms this but finds a delightful intersection of the cultures of Korea and France, the visitors to Cannes using English when conversing with one another.  In an opening scene as cryptic as it is heartbreaking, Manhee’s boss Nam Yanghye (Chang Mihee) asks her loyal employee for the past five years to have coffee with her.  This is not a friendly meeting but a firing, with Nam’s frustrating her employee of five years and making the movie audience apoplectic. Nam tells Manhee that they must part ways because the employee is dishonest.  She does not back up her contention, but says simply that honesty is something you’re born with and cannot be acquired.  Huh?

In another scene, Claire, dressed like a tourist with a rakish hat, chats up film director So Wansoo (Jung Jinyoung), allowing that she is on vacation from her job as high-school teacher and hobby of poetry.  What she really hopes to do is to bewitch those whose pictures she takes like a good Samaritan, making people honest and sending them off better folks than they were before.  Soon the ensemble are to get together and we find the real reason that Manhee was fired.

French filmmakers know how to create dialogue and good talk is what you get whenever you watch fine Gallic cinema.  The discussions involving the four principals, while perhaps seeming innocuous to anyone doubling as a fly on the wall, is richly textured, delightfully humorous, and wholly satisfying.

Unrated.  69 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DOUBLE LOVER – movie review

DOUBLE LOVER (L’amant double)

Cohen Media Group
Director:  François Ozon
Screenwriter:  François Ozon, loosely based on Joyce Carol Oates’ “Lives of the Twins”
Cast:  Marine Vacth, Jéremié Renier, Jacqueline Bisset, Myriam Boyer, Dominique Reymond
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/10/18
Opens: February 14, 2018
L'amant double Movie Poster
In middle-class households, the favorite question that family friends and relatives ask of children is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  In the early years, fireman, policeman, astronaut.  Later on events occur in youthful lives that coax them into becoming neurologists (they had a history of headaches), optometrists (they wore glasses from age 5), and best of all, psychiatrists (they have a history of emotional problems).  In fact it’s sometimes said that psychoanalysts are more disturbed than their patients, and this is the likely reason.

“Double Lover,” based loosely on Joyce Carol Oats’ erotic thriller “Lives of the Twins,’ is about two such psychotherapists, twin brothers, in fact, who ply their trade with radically different ideologies.  One is the mild-mannered Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renner); the other a wacko!  Rougher, Paul’s more physically direct twin Louis Delord (Jérémie Renner again!—but forget that there’s any symbolism in the latter’s name though patients often make the mistake of thinking that their shrinks are gods.)

Paris-born writer-director François Ozon is well known among cineastes for “8 Women,” about the search by these folks for a murderer among them, an Agatha-Christie style movie quite a bit tamer than his current work.  In fact this time Ozon wants to break through his typical fare, much as the principal character of “Double Lover” seeks to punch through her obsessions and repressions.  At the same time Ozon is having fun with the cineastes, challenging them to recall movies with similar themes such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (some bizarre neighbors seem to have plans for the upcoming infant), “Dead Ringers” (twin gynecologists have run challenging women to guess who’s who), and even “50 Shades of Gray” (a co-ed gets more than she bargained for with her new boss).

Here’s the thing about “Double Love.”  It’s probably as incoherent and unrealistic as the Oates novel from which is loosely adapted. But it makes the audience work to deconstruct the plot, wondering how many of the principal character’s fantasies are real.  And it’s filled with style, style, style; and when a film succeeds in doing what movies can do best, which is to avoid telling a story in too literal a way, we’ve got to allow the director to afford the filmmaker a loose leash over the material.

Ozon’s focus is on Chloé (Marine Vacth), done with her modeling career, shown in dramatic closeup getting her locks cut and transforming her into a pixie-like beauty.  She goes to doctors complaining about stomach pains—somehow the physicians neglect to give her an ultrasound or CT-scan—and is told what all of us would-be patients hate to hear: “It’s all in your head.”  She nods, agreeing to see Dr. Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renner), a psychiatrist, the sort who frustrates patients by talking little, not even the traditional “How does it make you feel?”  When Meyer falls in love with her, he is ethical: he wants to refer her to another, ending his therapy.  With this therapy over, they discover mutual attraction: she moves with her cat Milo into his spacious Paris apartment.

The piece de résistance: she discovers an old passport with his picture but with a different name: Delord.  As a museum attendant, a hideously dull job for a pretty, educated woman, she has time to look up Louis Delord, discovering that he is Paul’s identical twin, born 15 minutes after Meyer.  She soon finds that Delord’s methodology is quite different from Meyer’s.  Whereas Meyer ethically stopped therapy because of his attraction, Delord uses the attraction to engage in rough sex with Chloé, who is at first repelled, then returning, obsessed.

Some plot details are one thing, but like reading classic comics and thinking that you know all there is to know about “War and Peace,” you may find that plot takes a backstage turn in favor of Ozon’s stylistic agenda.  With the first analyst, she sits facing him.  In the next shot, they’re inches apart as though about to kiss.  Then she looks at the two in the mirror.  At one point she is having sex with both psychoanalysts at once—or is she?  The threesome becomes a foursome, as she miraculously doubles (but you already knew that this would happen from the movie’s title).  In one of the most intimate shots you see in movies, Ozon takes a few seconds to show the ululations of the vagina in orgasm, and in stark closeup.

You’d think that Ozon prides himself in being able to write about women, one of the many male fantasies such as that skill actually possessed by Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall in James L. Brooks’ “As Good as it Gets.” Ozon also re-introduces one of his favorite motifs, the impossibility of knowing someone else no matter how intimate you may be with that person. (In fact the real problem is our inability to know much about ourselves, which drives us into psychotherapy.)

The director is more playful now than he was in his more serious, classic films like “Under the Sand,” “Frantz,” and “Criminal Lovers.”  Now in his 51st year, having used his skills and art to make forty films, he’s entitled to have fun, n’est-ce pas?

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

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

MOM AND DAD- movie review


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 LAST LAUGH – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Ferne Pearlstein
Written by: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, inspired by Kent Kirshenbaum’s “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.”
Cast: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Renee Firestone, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Larry Charles, Abraham Foxman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/13/17
Opens: April 12, 2017
The Last Laugh Movie Poster
An 87-year-old Jewish woman living in Miami Beach wins the 200 million dollar lottery.  She’s asked what she would do with the money.  “I would build a statue of Adolf Hitler!”  “Adolf Hitler!” replies the journalist?  “Sure,” she replies holding up her bare arm.  “Where do you think I got the number?”

Do you think this joke is a) unfunny and inappropriate, b) funny but inappropriate, c) funny and appropriate?  Your answer to this question could determine your response to a number of other gags on Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary, “The Last Laugh.” While most of us would probably think it’s OK to have fun with the Spanish Inquisition because of the number of centuries that have passed, others will hesitate to want to hear about an event so recent and so devastating as the Nazi Holocaust.

An array of current comedians, mostly Jewish, tackle the subject, some with object lessons in their stand-up acts, others facing the camera and answering queries about their attitudes.  The one person who is not a comedian and who is used here to act as a judge is Renee Firestone, a California-dwelling 89-year-old survivor who spends her time actively speaking to audiences such as the one in high school shown here in which the students looked riveted (you can tell because not one tried to text).  She does not hate the Nazis because, she says, hate kills and what’s more, though that six million Jews were killed over a twelve-year period 1933-1945, in just four months a million Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in Rwanda.  Never again?

There is a consensus that if you’re a Jewish comedian, you have the right to break through taboos and tell gags about the death of six million just as you’d have to be a black man to use the “n” word (we hear enough of that today, mostly from young, African-American males).  Even Lenny Bruce was dug up in the array of archival films, spouting just about every pejorative in the business, using offensive words against Jews, blacks, Irish and Hispanics, and arrested for his troubles—something that would not likely happen today in America, where bigots are not only tolerated but can even be elected president.

Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner and others stand firm for free speech, Ms. Silverman once shocking even me in a stand-up show by riffing on Jesus’ crucifixion.  Even Abraham Foxman who heads the Anti-Defamation League, gives humor about Jewish tragedies a wide berth.  The biggest caveat, one expressed by several participants, is that when comedians send up victims, actually though satirizing the oppressors rather than the down-and-out, people will go away taking them literally rather than ironically.

Half the jokes fell flat in my view seeming not to be worth the trouble to relate them, and to a Muslim, jokes about the prophet would likely lead to the throwing of a bomb in the buildings housing the jokers.  Otherwise, I doubt that free speech allowed to Jewish comics leads to anti-Semitic outbursts.  Haters of Jews need no comedians to provoke their sickness. What should be permanently out of bounds?  Some agree that child molestation can never be a laughing matter. Many believe that 9/11 should be off limits for humor.  What do you think?

Unrated.  89 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

ABACUS – movie review

ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail

PBS Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Steve James
Cast: Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Heather Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Matt Taibbi, Cyrus Vance Jr.
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/26/17
Opens: May 19, 2017

Early in April 2017, Dr. David Dao was flying home where he was needed urgently. The United Airlines flight was overbooked, and through misfeasance on the part of United, four people admitted to their seats on the airline were asked to vacate.  Only Dr. Dao refused.  He was violently dragged from the plane by police who were called by the airline and sustained injuries.  In our age of identity politics, you’ve got to ask: was it just a coincidence that an Asian-American was chosen to be the one passenger out of scores in their seats, or did the authorities think they would have an easy job with such a person, something that they’d never consider doing with an African-American passenger?  The same politics applies to a case that began years bank, during a time that the big banks and investment houses had given mortgage loans to people who could not possibly meet payments, given their financial status.  Foreclosures followed, an economic crisis loomed, and Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs and other giants were not only let off the hook but actually the recipients of a government bailout of over $700 billion.

Such was not the case with a Chinese-American bank, Abacus, a small affair in New York’s Chinatown founded by a fellow who is now eighty years old and who claims that he founded the small bank to make business easier for their clientele than would one of the big guys.  His good will notwithstanding, he and his senior staff were prosecuted by Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, on some 240 counts of felony and misdemeanor.  “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is the documentary which reimagines the case, reenacting the absurdity of the prosecution in an understandably biased way, i.e. for the most part facts favorable to the defense were utilized.

Specifically in May 2012 the Abacus bank and nineteen of its employees were prosecuted on fraud charges relating to hundreds of millions of dollars of mortgages sold to Fannie Mae between 2005 and 2010.  The D.A., who took an active role in the prosecution.  The principal defendant Thomas Sung, a lawyer born in Shanghai and known in New York for much pro bono service to Chinese-Americans, fired the one employee who, he admits, was guilty of fraud.  To further his case, Mr. Sung points out that the default rate of 0.3% was only one-tenth the national average.

Where is the evidence of  such potential felonies as selling sub-par mortgage loans to Fannie Mae with the hope of conning that body?  We can see why Steve James took the job of director of “Abacus,” given his social conscience, as he directed such movies as “At the Death House Door”—about a prison chaplain who, after presiding at Texas executions came out against capital punishment.

One of the best aspects of the film “Abacus” is that while many people speak, some excited members of the Sung family speaking over others, James avoids questioning a bunch of talking heads sitting in chairs.  Archival film, of course, is shown, principally the blocks around New York’s Chinatown with a few scenes in a restaurant seating the Sung family around a large table with an enviable supply of dark green vegetables and noodles.  A nice surprise as well are some clips from Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart in the role of George Bailey, who saves his town of New Bedford from the forces of greed.

Steve James has not made a movie to compete with Frank Capra’s, but in subtle strokes and a booming victory party, we in the audience see that rare struggle that pits David against Goliath, and it would not be much of a spoiler to say that the bank’s executive staff after some seventy days of trial and seven or so days of jury deliberations, were found not guilty.  Yet considering the heartaches, headaches, and ten million dollars that the not guilty charge entailed, this was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory.

One may wonder how many people charged with misdemeanors or felonies plead guilty rather than face weeks, maybe months of litigation with the chance that though innocent, they may not be able to convince a jury.  If only ten percent of people charged with felonies demanded jury trials, the criminal justice system would come to a halt.  Kudos to Thomas Sung for showing that Chinese-Americans are not the passive group that they are stereotypically considered to be.

Unrated   88 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

MEGAN LEAVEY – movie review

  • MEGAN LEAVEY         

    Bleecker Street

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade: B

    Director:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite

    Written by: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt

    Cast: Kate Mara, Ramón Rodríguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton, Sam Keeley, Common, Edie Falco

    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,

    Opens: June 9, 2017

    Megan Leavey Movie Poster

    When I was a kid I thought that Norman Ferguson and Tee He’s “Pinocchio” was not only the best movie I had seen but probably the best movie that will ever be made.  Seventy-six years later, when I sit in on some allegedly more mature pictures, I am likely to think back to my judgement on that cartoon with fondness for its accuracy.  I graduated from kiddie cartoons three years later when “Lassie Come Home” became my favorite picture of all time and began my admiration for the acting chops of Elizabeth Taylor.  “Lassie Come Home” features a destitute family that has to sell its faithful collie, a dog which, having bonded with its original family, escapes from its new owner and treks from Scotland to its Yorkshire home.  The term “faithful” does not begin to describe the intense feeling of a dog and its human partner.  The dog-human bond is now explored with finesse and sentimentality by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose “Megan Leavey” recounts a true story in narrative terms and focuses on Kate Mara as the title character.

    “Megan Leavey,” the story of a young woman and the dog she loves, has a PG-13 rating, which would make this a natural for the small fry, though given their limited experience in life they may assume that the only people who enter the service voluntarily do so because they have distressing home lives or cannot find a job that suits their ability.  The title character, played by Kate Mara, is fired from her job entertaining kids because, her boss says, she does not have the ability to bond with people.  At that point she has no idea that she’d be an ace bonding with a large, aggressive German Shepherd, but she finds out after enlisting in the Marines, following a serious argument with her mother Jackie Leavey (Edie Falco, who plays a different Jackie on TV) who is divorced from her father, Bob (Bradley Whitford).  Jackie is not physically abusive but is simply fed up with a daughter who loafs around the house with nothing to do.  Give Jackie credit for motivating her unfocused daughter to find herself.

    In the Marines, she is assigned after urinating in public at the base to the K9 unit, washing down the dogs’ “business,” and feeling threatened by one particularly fierce Shepherd called Rex. With her new perseverance, she persuades her superior officer Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common) to let her train Rex after the dog had inflicted a bad cut on the arm of her handler.  She, the dog, and her fellow Marines go on missions in Iraq to find weapons and explosives, and Rex handles the job with aplomb, though not even this prize dog can find weapons of mass destruction.  But when Rex is injured and retired from the force as certified “unadoptable,” Megan takes upon herself the project of getting the Marines to overturn their ruling, using the persuasive skills of her New York Senator Chuck Schumer to use his office for her benefit.

    Some action is shown, including one scene in which an Iraqi citizen, thanking the Marines for “dealing with the insurgents,” is uncovered as a terrorist with an array of guns hidden behind some carpeting.  Rex once again becomes a war hero and by extension his devoted trainer.  But this is in no way the kind of war picture like “American Sniper,” a terrific action movie also based on a true story, and perhaps the lack of more explosive action results from its direction by a woman.  (Cowperthwaite is best known for “Blackfish,” a documentary about people and whales, similarly a fine choice for parents and their kids.)

    Before seeing “Megan Leavey,” I had assumed that women in the Marines are tough-as-nails, the sort you wouldn’t want to mess with.  Given that this picture is based on the real-life hero who is petite (the real Megan Leavey is somewhat taller), with nary a smidgen of vulgarity—though she can go out and get drunk and be one of the guys.  No sexual harassment is present in this man’s Marines, and the ending, oozing with sentiment, could have you in tears of joy.  Kate Mara fill the role quite nicely, trekking with the crew to filming locations in Rome Georgia, Charleston South Carolina, and in Spain’s Cartagena, Mazarron and Zaragoza.

    Rated PG-13.  116 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member NY Film Critics Online

WAR MACHINE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film review d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  David Michȏd
Written by: David Michȏd, adapted from Michael Hastings’ book “The Operators”
Cast: Brad Pitt, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/24/17
Opens: May 26, 2017W
click for larger (if applicable)
A comic whose identity eludes me once said that General Stanley McChrystal “sleeps standing up.”  This exaggeration is based on the man’s discipline: he sleeps only five hours a night, runs seven miles in the morning before the sun comes up, and eats only one meal a day.  He has been genuinely liked by the men who serve the U.S. in Afghanistan, and if you go along with the truth of “War Machine,” you’ll note that he never has to raise his voice.  He is deadly serious about the mission, but in the obviously campy way that writer-director David Michȏd casts him, he appears to take the war as a bad joke.

Michȏd, whose “The Rover” illustrates an unusual bond by a loner who sets out to retrieve his stolen car, deals this time with a man who is no loner, but who in fact is Obama’s appointee to leads the war in Afghanistan.  McChrystal, the obvious object of the writer-director’s bitter, yet comic take on the seemingly endless war and on the general, is portrayed by Brad Pitt in the fictional role of General Glen McMahon, who is seen several times running in the dark after his brief rest.  His role, as one critic states, could have been better played by John Goodman, but really—a morbidly obese actor as a hyperactive four-star general?

Pitt does OK in his campiest role, treating victory in the war as a can-do American goal, asking the President for an additional 40,000 troops though Obama is intent on whittling down the manpower, and lobbying France and Germany for contributing proportionally as stalwart American allies.  The men under his command accept what he has to say in his pep talks, but not so the Afghan resident goatherds of a godforsaken village, who don’t care about receiving blood money from the allies and simply want the invaders to leave.

Going over the top in making Afghan President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan a buffoon, Ben Kingsley plays the fellow not as corrupt as he has been made out to be by the American media but as an inept, out-of-touch man who wants to be called “Hamid” and not “Mr. President,” a spot-on choice by Karzai considering his relative indifference to the war and his compulsion to watch TV while in bed with a cold rather than chat with the general.

The movie has too much intrusive music and too much narration by the journalist from Rolling Stone magazine whose highly critical article led President Obama to fire the general, though Obama himself becomes an object of satire for his lack of contact with McMahon.  As the Rolling Stone journalist notes, the general met with the president only once, appearing to equate Obama with Karzai for incompetence.

The overriding issue is that America’s war with Afghanistan, like its war in Vietnam, is foolhardy and humiliating, the greatest military power in the world unable to bring the Taliban to their knees after a dozen years or so.    There is some fighting toward the conclusion, an unnecessary gesture with serious overtones as one of the soldiers is responsible for killing a child.  (America gives the father compensation, of course.)

Brad Pitt fans will be delighted—or not—to see their favorite performer and movie-magazine icon as barely recognizable, with a straight military haircut, but I much prefer his role in my favorite movie of 2009 “Inglorious Basterds,” where Pitt, a commander in the war against Germany, hears a captive say he’d rather die than give in to his captors, only to have Pitt ask a subordinate, “The man wants to die for his country. Indulge him.”

Unrated.  122 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

FOOTNOTES – movie review

FOOTNOTES  (Sur quel pied danser)
Monument Releasing
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Paul Calori, Kostia Tesut
Written by: Paul Calori, Kostia Testut
Cast: Pauline Etienne, Olivier Chantreau, François Morel, Loïc Corbery
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,  7/5/17
Opens: July 14, 2017
If you live in New York or plan to visit the Apple, you’re probably going to see “Phantom of the Opera,” maybe “Chicago,” and if you’re really lucky, “Hamilton.” And I can’t blame you.  There are lines every night notwithstanding the prices. Let me suggest the film versions of the first two.  The tariff is ideal and producers, directors and actors can make the experience as pleasurable as the live shows. And you can see from any seat in the house.  Not every musical has to Big League, which is why you might be quite pleased with this delightful, French entry called “Footnotes,” or in the original French, “Sur quel pied danser,” which means literally “On which foot dancing.”  Paul Calori and Kostia Tesut, who wrote and direct this screen version, play around with politics, as when they provoke the hard-working women in a shoe factory to call a strike.  France has a progressive custom written into law that once an employee passes a probation period, she is offered a permanent contract and cannot be fired without cause.  But there is an exception: workers can be laid off when business is slow or when the bosses shift production to other parts, particularly China.
Politics aside, “Footnotes” is more of a fantasy with just a whiff or two of ho-hum reality.  Think of the American “Pajama Game,” which finds workers furious that management refuses to agree to a wage increase of seven and a half cents.  The labor friction takes a back seat to union leader Gladys Hotchkiss’s love for Sid Sorokin, the factory manager.  In “Footnotes,” the lovely Julie (Pauline Etienne) worries that she could lose her job if she joins her colleagues in a walkout, but people don’t live by bread alone.  Love is more important, and Julie is head-over-heels with Samy (Olivier Chantreau),  a free spirit who drives a truck and dreams of doing something less mundane with his life.

With a flurry of songs and dances, “Footnotes” also enjoys the expert translation from French (English subtitles), affording us in the audience with a long series of rhymed couplets, including the coupling of “rag” with “nag” and “horse” with remorse.”  As Julie, Ms. Etienne exudes conflicting traits like innocence and sophistication, signaling Olivier Chantreau’s  Samy with both come-ons and stay-aways.  In one scene she is frolicking with the macho driver, in another she spits in his face.

Similarly the bosses are playing both sides; assuring workers that an “upgrade” is temporary is does not mean layoffs, while warning them that their labor actions could result in termination.

This is a low-key musical in the tradition of Jacques Demy and Stanley Dolen, less like an expansive “The Young Girls of Rochefort” than a simpler “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”  In that sense the dancing, mostly by women who are middle-aged and beyond, would hardly challenge the slicker footwork that you’d find in American musicals like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” but the women seem to know this as they swing about the factory, gossip on the bus trip to Paris where they go to meet the big boss Xavier Laurent (Loic Corbery).  We come away not only with an appreciation for well-made products, especially the classy red shoes that as prominent here as in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.  The songs are not the showy kind that you might expect if you’ve been brought up on “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma,” and “My Fair Lady,” but several cast members each get their several minutes of fame. After all “Footnotes” is a working class story dealing with the hopes and dreams of people who have not had fancy educations but simply want to ply their craft with a modicum of security.

Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

WASTED – movie review


    Zero Point Zero Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Anna Chai, Nari Kye
    Written by: Anna Chai, Nari Kye
    Cast:  Anthony Bourdain, Dan Barber, Mario Batali, Mossimo Bottura, Danny Bowien
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/1/17
    Opens: October 13, 2017

    I was around during World War 2 when Europe was in bad shape.  My mother regularly scolded me if I left food over—spinach, broccoli, raw carrots—moralizing that masses of people in Europe would love to have the great stores of food with which Americans are gifted, and the usual reply, “Why not send this food to Europe instead of throwing it out?” was met with a confused reply.  Nowadays kids here might be told of the poor people in rural North Korea who are eating grass, and that because of them and others in “developing” nations, we should eat everything on the plate and waste nothing.

    That advice was not necessarily good: after all we have an obesity epidemic in the U.S. But what should we do if we cannot finish what’s on our plates? More important, what should the giant supermarkets and even industrial farmers do, given the fact that we are now wasting from one-third to forty percent of what we produce?

    Anthony Bourdain comes to the rescue as the narrator of “Wasted,” a master chef whose CNN program “Parts Unknown” reaches us whether Mr. Bourdain is in New York, Singapore, Laos or just about everywhere else in the world.  Firing off statistics right and left, such as “Eight hundred million people are going to bed hungry” and bringing these statistics to splendid life, writer-directors Anna Chai and Nari Kye have filmed in Milan, Tokyo, New York, Seoul, New Orleans, and other spots to show various ways we can either cut back on the waste or do something with the massive amount of food we overbuy and then toss out.

    Through interviews and graphic footage giving the impression that annually a Mount Everest of food is not consumed, the documentarians show us how we can both conserve food and turn it into use rather than throw everything into landfills—where we find out that lettuce takes a year or even far more to disintegrate.

    For example, in our schools, kids are likely to throw out much of the nutritious lunches that they get because they simply do not like anything besides chocolate milk, pizza and potato chips.  At a grade school in New Orleans, the young pupils actually grow vegetables.  It they grow it, they’ll eat it, and that’s good psychology.

    On a larger scale, though, food can be transformed into compost and fed to animals, and what’s more the grub that pigs get makes the meat that they ultimately become “the tastiest pork I’ve ever eaten,” says one interviewee.  One charitable grocer in a poor section of New York is able to get food from supermarkets that are beyond their expiration date and sell it to the folks at a heavily discounted price.  Expiration dates, we learn, are not sacrosanct: most food is perfectly good after the date that the big markets are obliged to trash it.

    You’d think that some of the great chefs of the world would use only the most expensive products to put to the fire, but instead, they tell of how they have successfully experimented with scraps to create new dishes with names that could start the saliva flowing.  Would a seafood house succeed with “junk fish” on the menu?  OK, then change the name of the parts of fish that people eschew and call it bouillabaisse and you’re in business.

    Though documentary lovers and foodies may provide a good audience for “Wasted,” they are of course a tiny segment of the world.  Yet this is a pic that many folks whose idea of a good evening at the theater consists of “Terminator” and “Star Trek” would gain significant knowledge of a concept that they rarely think about.  Do you know exactly what happens to the food that you throw into the trash?  Most go to landfills.  Landfill gas is approximately forty to sixty percent methane, with the remainder being mostly carbon dioxide. Trace amounts of other volatile organic compounds comprise the remainder (<1%). These trace gases include a large array of species, mainly simple hydrocarbons. Of so says Wikipedia.
    Landfill gases have an influence on climate change. The major components are CO2 and methane, both of which are greenhouse gas. In terms of global warming potential, methane is over 25 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the US.  Now what will you do to make your contribution to purer air?

    Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

LOVELESS – movie review

  • LOVELESS (Nelyubov)

    Sony Pictures Classics
    Director:  Andrey Zvyagintsev
    Screenwriter:  Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
    Cast:  Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasilyeva, Andrid Keishs, Alexey Fateev
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/27/17
    Opens: February 26, 2017  but  December 2017 for one week for awards consideration.
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    You’re of course familiar with the chorus of Van Morrison’s song that goes “She give me love love love love crazy love/She give me love love love love crazy love.”  You are also familiar with The Beatles “All you need is love.”  In this cynical age those songs may look sappy and unrealistic, but Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose incredible “Leviathan” finds a family fighting a corrupt mayor intent on demolishing their house, now suggests that there may be something to those songs.  He can’t prove it with his latest movie, but he is hell-bent on showing that in the absence love, only tragedy can result.

    Bookmarking “Nelyubov” (the original title of this Russian language film with English subtitles) with a wintry, somber landscape that could stand for a land without love, Zvyagintsev hones in on one family not only on the brink of dissolution but actively cursing each other with terms like “Scumbag” and worse as they seek to sell their Moscow-area house and move on to try different partners.  As though Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin) are about to face even more catastrophes while they’re fighting like Edward Albee’s George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” their introverted 12-year-old son Alexey (Matvey Novikov) eavesdrops  and is not overjoyed to hear them shout that they never wanted the kid (she was afraid to abort) while his mother adds to the dialogue “And I never loved you…I just used you to get out of my mother’s house.”

    There’s nothing particularly Russian about dysfunctional families but Oleg Negin, who co-wrote the script after co-penning “Leviathan,” appears to have it in for Russia which comes across as a vast region whose police and bureaucrats haven’t the will or energy to protect the vulnerable but must resort to drafting unpaid volunteers to help each mission.  The mission here is to find their boy, who had overheard that at least one parent never wanted him, and runs away from home.  A search team based largely on free volunteers combs the area, and in the most dramatic development enters the private home of the boy’s maternal grandmother—whose idea of love is to berate her daughter Zhenya for hitching up with Boris while making sure she know that there’s no way she would think of taking the boy in.

    When the dysfunctional couple are not looking for their boy they do not realize that their new boyfriend-girlfriend will not solve the problem but will probably lead shortly down the road to more demoralization if not hatred.  Sexual scenes involving Boris and Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) and Zhenya and her rich businessman Anton (Andris Keiss) are prolonged unnecessarily presumably because that’s what the film-maker believes would interest part of his audience.

    The only humorous scene takes place in a huge cafeteria where Boris and a colleague joke about their Bible-thumping boss who would fire anyone participating in a divorce.  One employee had to hire a family, a woman with her two children, to play wife.

    This is quite the film, ambitious and successful in making a family a microcosm to effect a parable about a country that needs more love love love.

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

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



Bleecker Street
Director:  Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriter:  Susan Coyne
Cast:  Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/11/17
Opens: November 22, 2017

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Perhaps the biggest difference between movie critics and an ordinary audience is that most people probably prefer sentimental stories, whether comedies or drama, while critics consider such emotions gooey, sticky, clinging to the teeth, saccharine.  Perhaps that’s why Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” sold far more in its time (or even at present) than “Bleak House,” “Martin Chuzzlewit” (which tanked when first released, and even “A Tale of Two Cities.”  Everybody loves Christmas, a time that people feel charitable, have tender words for those of us who are less fortunate in health or prosperity, and may enjoy a good laugh or a nice cry.  With “The Man Who Invented Christmas” one might expect critics to trash the sentimentality, but I for one could not bring myself to follow in the paths of writers with hearts of ice.  That’s not to say it’s the next “Vertigo” or my favorite 3-hanky movie “Lassie Come Home,” but it’s quite entertaining, even absorbing, though its principal performer in the title role, Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, has the periodic, wide-eyed expressions that make one think that this movie is made for children.  (One critic, formerly on TV until he like all his colleagues, was dropped, said that the principal role could be played by a cocker spaniel.  Not entirely true, even though I adore the long-eared spaniels.

We tend to think that mature writers are in their forties or fifties by the time they turn out their magnum opus, but Dickens, who died at fifty-eight, knocked out “A Christmas Carol” at the age of thirty-one—while he was working with his wife on producing ten children.  Since many novelists write what they know, or rather what they have in some way lived through, the movie makes clear that Dickens, suffering from writers’ block after his last three books tanked, was inspired by real people whom he turned into legendary figures.  Scrooge, for example, one of his villains along with Oliver Twist’s Fagin, was like a miser he knew.  Scrooge visited him in dreams and hallucinations, played by Christopher Plummer in the role of a fellow who thought only of money and believed that he could live without friends and family—at least the ones who were not painted green.  By contrast he glamorized a poor family who despite having a crippled and sick child, Tiny Tim, were happy.

Bharat Nalluri, who directs and whose “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” about a fired London governess who is catapulted into the world of celebs, adapts freely from the real life of Dickens (available in Wikipedia, or course), showing the author’s own family as a mixed bag—including his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), his ne’er-do-well dad John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce), and his servant Tara (Anna Murphy).  Scrooge’s conversion, after getting looks at three ghosts who reveal the poverty of the rich man’s life, is too sudden to be believed.

Outside of the central plot, we get a glimpse of what life in the mid-19th Century was like for intellectuals, as we see Dickens hanging with his agent John Foster (Justin Edwards) at the Garrick Club.  You can take the kiddies to this and not suffer at all watching this appealing, if saccharine film, the cruelest segments showing the young Dickens’s misadventures in a so-called workhouse (that’s the kind of place that gets orphan Oliver Twist whipped for asking for doubles in soup) and a caged crow who has hardly room to walk in his small cage but is thankfully liberated before the conclusion.

Rated PG.  104 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



    Director:  Azazel Jacobs
    Screenwriter:  Azazel Jacobs
    Cast:  Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Jessica Sula, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/11/17
    Opens: May 5, 2017
    The Lovers Movie Poster
    Nobody can slash away better at the notion of marital bliss than Ingmar Bergman, but Azazel Jacobs does it the American way with lots of comic touches and without the mystical or iconic accoutrements.  The director, whose “Momma’s Man” finds a gent who has been avoiding his wife and child, is following in the same territory here.  With the great Debra Winger in a title role of Mary (actually there are five lovers all told) and Tracy Letts as her husband Michael, the story takes off as a traditional cheating-wife, cheating-husband merry-go-roundelay, neither husband nor wife fully knowing about the lovers on the side and yet not without suspicions given the “gotta work late at the office” excuse—one that could easily be checked out by simply calling the offices.

    This is the kind of movie that would appeal mostly to middle-aged and older audiences—a shame, since youths can learn lessons by watching the antics of those decades older.  Both are working in cubicles, both “work late” at the office.  Michael has an imaginary friend called Ben with whom he “has drinks late at night” when he is not “working late at the office.”  Instead of seeing Ben, he cavorts with a professional dancer, Lucy (Melora Walters), who is apparently unmarried and feels lonely whenever she is without Michael’s company.  For his part, a youthful Robert (Aidan Gillen), also free, has attached himself to Mary despite an age difference, at one point demanding that she make up her mind and leave her husband or he’s outta there.

    There’s one great scene with which people in the movie audience can identify if they’ve ever thought of leaving their spouse or significant other.  What if the partner with whom they enjoy cheating will stay with the spouse, not just as a convenience, but because the married couple realize they really love each other?  In that scene, Mary and Michael awake one morning, still dazed, thinking that they are in bed with their outside lovers.  They kiss and suddenly the flame arises.  This is probably the kind of wet dream that a man or woman goes through, thinking that maybe they will not only stay together but like the idea.

    Complications arise when Michael and Mary’s son Joel (Tyler Ross) visits with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) for a three-day stay, expecting to see fireworks but wondering why dad and mom are so lovey-dovey.  Obviously they are role-playing for the benefit of their young guests, no?  In fact the young seems even to hope that the parents will let loose against each other rather than play a game for the sake of the visitors.

    The best part of the movie is in the final scene, when an arrangements has worked out that we didn’t see coming.  Thinking back from there, you’ve got to acknowledge that, yes, Michael and Mary have taken us on a ride wherein we wonder what will happen when the young visitors leave.  And they do something that probably surprising them even more than it does the movie audience.  A nice, mordant comedy.

    Rated R.  94 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



    SP Releasing
    Director:  Bryan Buckley
    Screenwriter:  Bryan Buckley, adapting Jay Badahur’s book “The Pirates of Somalia”
    Cast:  Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, Mohamed Barre, Mohamed Abdikadir, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/15/17
    Opens: December 8, 2017

    1. Image result for the pirates of somalia poster

    Never give up, the theme of so many optimistic movies, is the overriding concept in Bryan Buckley’s fictionalized biopic of best-selling author Jay Badahur.  Badahur, who has no experience as a journalist and no major in the subject graduates from college in 2007, a time that America and Canada are undergoing the worst depression since the more famous one of the twenties and thirties.  With the cojones of someone who realizes that the only way to get out of his parents’ basement is to do something that nobody else is willing to do, he opts to go to Somalia, do some interviews, and even get on board a German ship that is being held by pirates.  What he discovers in that East African country, with which America had no diplomatic relations for twenty years, changes the course of history and propels the Canadian author’s study onto the New York Times best-seller list.

    Naturally Jay’s parents, Kailash (Alok Tawari) and Maria (Melanie Griffith) think their boy has gone nuts and beg him to give up the fantasy.  But after working a marketing job that has him interviewing supermarket personnel to discover the best shelf to situate napkins gives the lad enough motivation to cut out and do something worthwhile.  When he meets the eccentric writer Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino) and gets the advice that only the elderly in their wondrous wisdom can give, he is determined to make the trip, which will take him first to Frankfort and then to a bevy of connecting flights to the coastal town where a German ship is being held for ransom.

    You’d think that the pirates, whom he interviews, will either kill him or hold him for ransom, but no: instead he learns that foreign imperialists destroyed a pirate group’s lobster fishing business, forcing them to go the illegal route, and further, these folks are considered Robin Hoods as they distribute their ransom wealth to the people.  Somalia, Badahur wants the world to know, is a fledgling democracy where power changed hands without a shot’s being fired even though a minority person is chosen president by eighty votes.

    To get information for his book, he befriends a number of people, some who speak surprisingly good English.  His tour guide and translator, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), whom cinephiles will quickly recognize from his role in “Captain Phillips” and “Eye in the Sky,” is on a buddy-buddy basis with the Canadian, and so are the local children who think he’s cool.  Best of all, Maryan (Sabrina Hassan Abdulle), the wife of the leader of the pirates, speaks fluent English and presumably unlike other modestly dressed women has no trouble making eye contact with Badahur, even showing up in his room. (Could that possibly be true?  The wife of a pirate?)

    Badahur makes notes in a memo book, taping some interviews, and filming here and there while occasionally facing menacing people who train their machine guns on him until the translator gets him accepted by all.  So, everyone in Somalia is friendly, the country is plagued by pirates only because foreign companies wiped out their sources of income, and Badahur returns to advice the U.S. government to pull its warships out of Somali waters.  A fine job by Evan Peters, known here for a smaller role in Brian Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” while Oscar-nominated director Bryan Buckley, who probably made a lot more money filming some 50 Super Bowl commercials, chalks up a movie that is still under the radar after its December 8, 2017 opening.

    Rated R.  117 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



First Run Features
Director:  Hava Kohav Beller
Screenwriter: Hava Kohav Beller
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/20/17
Opens:  January 5, 2018

First Run Features: In the Land of Pomegranates

Our President states that if anyone can negotiate peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s his son-in-law, but then, that was before he provoked days of rage in the Arab community by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  The conflict between the two peoples has been going on at least since 1948, since Palestinians recognize all of  Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as Arab land.

With the thought of stimulating discussion between young people in the two communities, a number of youths are invited to Germany to discuss their opinions with one another.  They are deliberately housed together, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Central European country when they are not trading viewpoints in a large room.  What’s called “Vacation from War” is thankfully just half of the 123-minute film.  The rest, easily the more arresting sights, involves an array of individuals throughout the West Bank and Israel proper.

First, though, as for the discussions.  There is no stated objective, but we might surmise that one aim is to show that all the individuals are human beings, none of whom possessing horns on his or her head.  They do that.  Another might be to project into the future that some of these youths might become high level members of government, using their knowledge to negotiate peace.  That’s a long shot.  What actually occurred is that the Palestinians and the Israelis acted like today’s Republicans and Democrats, remaining united with their own separate tribes, sticking together just as all Republicans in our own Congress voted the same on the disastrous tax bill and all the Democrats likewise stuck with one another.

As I see the conference, the two tribes did not get together, not even at the pace of an aging, sclerotic snail.  Quite the contrary, they dug in, provoking anger rather than kumbaya at every moment.  The Arabs declared that no Jews should remain in either Israel proper or the West Bank, though when asked whether they would support the existence in some way of a Jewish populace, they averted the issue.  For their part, the Jewish contingent brought up the Holocaust, maintaining that some place simply had to become a refuge for the oft-humiliated Jews, whether from the Holocaust or the pogroms of various countries and empires.  What’s the point of “Vacation from War” when one side believes that it is treated so badly by the Israeli government that their suffering is worse than what was experienced by the Jews of the Holocaust.  Have these people ever seen films about the camps?

Aside from the discussions’ being needlessly provocative, insipid and wholly without originality, the film is saved by events occurring on the outside over a wide area.  The most heartwarming sense involve a Gazan woman whose young child, Mohammed, has a serious heart defect and is given permission to cross the Erez frontier into Israel for surgery.  There, a Jewish doctor performs the delicate, complex operation to restore the flow of blood and end the suffering and anticipated early death of the cute lad.  “We don’t see people as residents of different areas,” states the heroic doctor.  (In a similar vein, Israeli hospitals are treating Syrian refugees who cross the Golan Heights for treatment.)

On a sadder note, 85-year-old director Hava Kohav Beller, whose film spans decades and who worked on it for years—even showing the heart-operated recipient four years after surgery—observes the tense battles erupting now and then via intifadas.  The Arabs throw stones, the Jews return the fire with rubber bullets.  We realize a dichotomy in the titles of the film, as “pomegranates” are a Middle-East-grown fruit associated with rebirth but is also the Hebrew word for grenade.  Summing up, in a future film, lose the pointless discussions and show more depth about both the fighting and incidents of heroism.

Unrated.  123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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