MARRIAGE STORY – movie review

MARRIAGE STORY
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Larua Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 11/13/19
Opens: November 6, 2019  Streaming December 6, 2019

Marriage Story Movie Poster

Divorce is a traumatic event for many, and considering that fifty percent of marriages end up that way, many of us in the U.S. have undergone its agony. These are the people who can immerse themselves in “Marriage Story” and be particularly caught up in the emotions on display. What’s more, since it is based on what the writer has experienced—specifically Noah Baumbach’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh—the exposure becomes even more arresting.

While some get divorced because their partners commit adultery (surprisingly, in a liberal state like New York, adultery was once the only allowable argument for a split), others get bored with their partners, maybe some more have changed emotionally and intellectually, growing apart from their spouses. In the case of “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach—whose “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005 finds two boys in Brooklyn trying to cope with their parents’ separation—the split is not desired mutually. The woman, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) seeks divorce from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver). Neither of them is a typical nine to five worker. Both are directors, though Nicole is primarily an actress. Nicole feels slighted for having obeyed Charlie’s insistence that she remain with him in New York City where he is an up-and-coming director of off-Broadway plays, while she has repeatedly had to turn down offers for movie roles in Hollywood.

The divorce could have been amicable, or as amicable as you sometimes think when you read about celebrities who say they “remains friends.” But a child is involved, and children complicate lives. Disputes over custody of eight-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson) turns what could have been as close to “let’s be friends” to matches of yelling and screaming, in one case their raised voices and just a threat of physical violence puts you on notice that they will rehash the histrionics of “The War of the Roses,” when Michael Douglas’s Oliver Rose and Kathleen Turner’s Barbara Rose virtually reenacting the American Civil War in their fight to determine who moves out of the house.

In what could be regarded as playing the feminist card, Nora (Laura Dern), serving as Nicole’s aggressive lawyer, notes that fathers get away with near murder. The society expects women, says Nora, to be like the Virgin Mary, perfect, while men can get away with doing as little as possible, that the world expects men to be screw-ups. For his part Charlie hires Bert Spitz to be his lawyer, a laid-back fellow with some old-fashioned jokes at $450 an hour, but Charlies fires him for the more aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta), $950 an hour with $25,000 retainer. Since Charlie insists on continuing his job directing plays in Brooklyn while Nicole is determined to remain in L.A. to continue her career with films, the battle is fought out in court, the sparring of the counselors, particularly Nora, scoring points for those of us in the audience who sympathize with her.

We may be manipulated into sympathizing with her from the beginning, but as the story goes on, Charlie, and especially Nicole,go through emotional changes, sometimes showing vulnerability, other times a rugged determination to win custody of the boy. With a terrific performances all around. Special kudos to young Azhy Robertson as a boy who wants to remain in L.A. and appears to lean toward siding with his mom.

“Marriage Story” is far from a downer, but is instead mixed with comic moments at some times hilarious, and other times examples of pure entertainment. Julie Hagerty turns on an eccentric performance as Nicole’s mom who, rather than having the traditionally suspect relationship with her son-in-law loves the poor guy and appears almost ready to marry him as soon as the divorce becomes final. Score one for a male director’s empathy for feminism, ready and able to sign on to the idea that in marriage as in the corporate sphere, women are getting shafted.

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

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

I LOST MY BODY – movie review

I LOST MY BODY (J’ai perdu mon corps)
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jérémy Clapin
Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant, adapted from Laurant’s novel “Happy Hand”
Cast: Voices of Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick D’Assumcao
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 10/30/19
Opens: November 15, 2019

Poster

You’ve got to hand it to Jérémy Clapin, who co-wrote and directed this remarkable movie in an adaptation from Guillaume Laurant’s novel “Happy Hand.” His handsome, animated feature could become a hands-down favorite of the Academy along with the many guilds and critics’ groups. The movie idea was presumably exploited by Clapin from the book—which has not yet been translated from the French and whose plot can be summarized by “Naoufel -dit Nafnaf-est un jeune Marocain, né de parents professeurs de littérature française, lui ayant enseigné un français de salon, un rien désuet. Lorsqu’il arrive en France, vers 12 ans…” The movie, confusing enough at first since it does not roll chronologically, becomes clear at about the mid-point.

In fact a little spoiler can’t hurt since it could clear up the film right from the beginning. So…the whole story is told from the point of view of a hand, the first original idea. Not even the 1946 pic “The Beast with Five Fingers” about a wheelchair-bound one-handed pianist’s murder, is quite like this. Naoufel (Hakim Faris), whose childhood happiness in North Africa is upended when a car crash kills his parents. Traumatized, the orphan boy tries for nothing more ambitious than being a pizza delivery guy, who is always late and who agrees with his boss that he is, more or less, a loser. But delivery boys meet lots of pizza-loving people. Naoufel lucks out, flirted with by Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), a resident in an apartment house, who sets him up with her uncle (Patrick D’Assumcao) in a carpentry job through which he has an accident severing his hand.

The plot is of secondary importance. The principal virtue of this French movie, complete with the artistry of a skilled animator (director Clapin), is its originality. There has been nothing quite like this one, which helped the picture win top prize in “Critics’ Week”and to become the first animated film ever to win the Nespresso Award at Cannes. You’ll wonder why the principal character is so focused on catching flies, a most difficult job according to the lad’s father (I concur), but the common housefly has a major role, in fact perhaps the most important role a fly has had in a movie since David Cronenberg’s 1986 horror tale entitled, of course, “The Fly.” The hand goes through a series of adventures, using its wisdom to play piano, riding atop a pigeon and rewarding it by snapping its neck, saving his (its?) life from a group of hand-eating rats, and exploiting the talents of a seeing-eye dog.

Losers can be winners, which makes this a feel-good picture, using the metaphor of a hand’s seeking its body to make it whole, just as the lovely Gabrielle may become the part that will complete young Naoufel. Indie films generally feature more thoughtful sounds and sights than blockbuster commercial items, but even among the indies out there this year or any other, “I Lost My Body” is a pioneer.

81 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Onli

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

BY THE GRACE OF GOD – movie review

BY THE GRACE OF GOD
Music Box Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Ozon, Anais Duran
Screenwriter: François Ozon
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, François Marthouret
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

By the Grace of God  movie poster 12x18  32x48 inch image 0

If I’m correct, the Catholic Church is the only religious institution that forbids the entire hierarchy of anointed officials from getting married, from having sexual relationships, from masturbation. Presumably the Church allows for nocturnal emissions, provided, of course that the officials are asleep during those times. Is it possible that this is the cause of so many charges of priestly molestations? That while there is no legal or ethical excuse for a member of the clergy to take sexual advantage of children, this can serve as a partial defense? This particular issue seems never to be discussed in media reports on pedophiles, nor to my memory have any priests charged with sexual offenses used this plea to lessen the severity of their crimes. (I use the term “his” because the Church does not allow women to be priests This is based on canon law passed by the clergy in 1024, requiring the excommunication of any woman ordained to be a priest together with the bishop who ordains her.)

Nor do my concerns find celluloid in “By the Grace of God,” a film which is not entirely an unusual departure for François Ozon, as his “Double Lover” focuses on a fragile woman’s relationship with her psychoanalyst, the latter acting beyond ethical norms like the priest who is front and center in Ozon’s latest contribution.

Like so many other French movies, “By the Grace of God” is talky. There is little melodrama, though there is considerable tension in a film that takes down Bernard Praynat (Bernard Verley), a priest, and his boss, Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin (Bernard Marthouret). If you’re looking for anything but a token display of Ozon-ite humor, you’re going to the wrong place. Looking like a docudrama though it is fully a narrative film, “By the Grace of God” is a heavy, long drama, its denouement known to people who follow such doings.

The acting is so believable that you might think events are running in real time rather than by thoroughly professional actors. Stories by the three alleged victims of abuse come together smoothly, though Ozon gives each man time to argue his case separately and to show how the abuse by the same priest affects their lives today. You are likely to consider the principal character, Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), the most anchored, a bank executive with a spacious house in Lyon who never has doubt about pressing charges against Praynat. He has five children with the kind of family that the Church would favor, and states that he is not looking for revenge, only for justice and the opportunity to prevent abuses from going on. He is also a role model for his children, stating that they should never be afraid to speak out.

And speaking out is something that all three victims had refused to do for twenty years and more, the French statute of limitations making it difficult to find Praynat guilty of a felony—though he certainly may be defrocked. Though Alexandre’s wife (Aurelia Petit) wants her man to “go for it,” his mother advises him to stop “stirring up shit” against an old man. And she may be right! At least that’s the impression I get, my own sympathies being that if Praynat was not properly accused at the times of the molestations (“It’s our secret,” he says), maybe this should be water under the bridge.

Surprisingly, Praynat has not denied Alexandre’s accusations, even agreeing to meet with him in the presence of another church official, Regine Maire (Martine Erhel), admitting that he has an attraction to young boys. But strangely, he does not ask for forgiveness, which might have mollified Alexandre. That’s not all. Even though Alexandre speaks with Cardinal Barbarin, who could have defrocked the priest, this archbishop of Lyon had not stopped the priest from being with children and appears to minimize the offenses.

Alexandre’s woes are confirmed by François (Denis Menochet), a husky gent who calls himself an atheist and who is furious as well, even going to the press and arranging for a website “Lift the Burden of Silence” designed to rally other victims to the cause. Finally Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), whose girlfriend accuses him of grandstanding and will take a break from their relationship due to her man’s hostility and aggressiveness, finds that her boyfriend is a “zebra,” a label to designate people with IQ’s over 140. He blames his own intelligence for an inability to adapt to the world, an unemployed guy who believes he has no future. In the film’s only real burst of melodrama, François’ brother goes ballistic, accusing François of loving his status as the center of the family’s attention.

What might turn off potential viewers is that sparseness of flashbacks to dramatize the predicaments of the three men, and even those look simply at a younger Prayat’s beckoning his favorite scout to leave the group for a while “to pray.” Nothing there to warrant anything but a PG-13 rating for the movie. Notwithstanding, for the appropriate audience, the film is thoroughly absorbing, though it’s not likely to raise the blood pressure of anyone in the audience.

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

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

TELL ME WHO I AM – movie review

TELL ME WHO I AM
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ed Perkins
Cast: Alex Lewis, Marcus Lewis
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/2/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

Poster

When Cain asked God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he may have meant the question to be rhetorical and, indeed, he got no response. This is a question that many families around the world ask, with different answers offered depending on whether siblings are close or distant. There’s no doubt that Ed Perkins’ film “Tell Me Who I Am,” to be streamed on Netflix as of Oct. 18, provides an answer for one English family, one with an apparent aristocratic background, living in a spacious country house in one of the Home Counties (those areas that surround London such as Berkshire, Essex and Surrey).

The story written by twin brothers Alex Lewis and Marcus Lewis has been published in 2013, available on Amazon for under $11, doubtless giving the readers more answers and details than can be found in this too-brief documentary. While Alex and Marcus are the same age, we in the audience can believe that Marcus has been the dominant one, his brother’s keeper. And this is all the more so since Alex suffered a traumatic motorcycle accident when he was eighteen, leading to full-scale amnesia. His life is really starting over. His memories are gone, though Marcus has been game to briefing him about their lives together. Yet for over three decades, there is one series of incidents that Marcus had repressed and has been unwilling to tell Alex all these years. A series incidents changed Marcus’s life, made him refuse to forgive his father on the old man’s deathbed while Alex was perfectly willing to do. It’s as though Alex would say to Marcus, “He’ll be dead in days or hours: what’s the problem?” In most cases that’s the least a son can do. Apparently, though, dad has been an enabler in a series of horrendous acts of perversity, and Marcus (correctly, I think) had been reluctant to bringing those childhood events back into Marcus’s mind. Until now.

It would be unfair, a spoiler, for a review to reveal just what happened to cause severe family dysfunction, as if Agatha Christie revealed the name of the murderer on the front page of “And Then There Were None.” Suffice it to say that “Tell Me Who I Am” is not a study of amnesia, but rather than it uses Alex’s amnesia as a catalyst to tell a story. The problem I have, perhaps a minor one, is that this tale of repression would find a better home on the stage. Even the movie divides the 85 minutes into three acts. Ed Perkins, whose short TV documentaries include “Bare Knuckles Fight Club” (Brits competing without boxing gloves), “Comic Store Heroes” (about the largest comic book store in the U.S.) and “If I Die on Mars” (looking into why people would volunteer on a suicide mission), evokes solid performances from Alex and Marcus.

The brothers, who do almost everything together (including some strange activities ending when they were 14), run a successful business. Specifically they are among the founders of Fundu Lagoon in Pemba, Zanzibar, a hotel known throughout Africa. Now if you want to open up “Tell Me Who I Am” into a two-hour action story, you’d do well to follow the lives of the twins from debutante balls in the 1950s to raves on a remote Pacific island in the 1990s right up to the creation of this magnificent hotel on a multi-cultural African island built in part by locals who had never seen a white person before.

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

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

#FEMALE PLEASURE – movie review

#FEMALE PLEASURE

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barbara Miller
Screenwriter: Barbara Miller
Cast: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Yithika Yadav
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

#Female Pleasure (2018)

During the Age of Aquarius in America, Joan Baez would sing “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ She’s always controlled, she’s always confined/ Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife/ A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.” You might not think that in free America—as compared, for example with Saudi Arabia—that women have it so bad, but of course there’s room even in our country before we can declare the two sexes absolutely equal. Things are worse, then, in some parts of the world, and Barbara Miller, who wrote and directs “#Female Pleasure,” takes us around the globe from Brooklyn to Japan to India and to the UK and to Italy, where women activists are challenging the rules enforced upon them by religion or by culture. You come away with the impression that Karl Marx was right in saying that religion was invented by men to keep women down–though he could add repressive cultures in general.

The Swiss director hones in on five women, capturing their legitimate beefs through both the interview format and through observing them living their lives. In one case she indicts entire societies in discussing the evil practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation, in which babies, really, five-year-old girls, are held down and have their clitoris cut out so that they cannot feel sexual pleasure. Strangely, though, the women do not explain why this is done. Presumably this is to prevent women from straying from their husbands. In other cases, religion, which of course is part of a culture, is indicted, interpreted by men to pronounce themselves superior to women and to exploit them for their own satisfaction.

The woman whose story meant the most for me was Deborah Feldman, as I had read her book “Unorthodox,” there describing her view of the Hasidic religious sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was one of the few who actually left, taking off on her own, living in Greenwich Village, her book describing her dismal view of the highly Orthodox people who do not allow women to choose their mates. (I think she did a disservice on those pages in which she tells all, describing the sexual practices of her ex-husband which must have humiliated him.) Feldman is seen driving her son inside the Hasidic community, asking him whether she should return to the fold and getting the obvious answer from the young man, “Let’s get out.” And that’s a male talking! We see films of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, where the residents post large signs about respecting the local culture. Women are told to dress modestly—long sleeve shirts, skirts down about her ankles, though what Feldman could have added is that tourists who walk through the community with outfits that the residents consider immodest are spat upon, the women addressed as whores.

At least nobody in the Hasidic culture favors FGM. The bizarre custom of cutting a woman’s genitals when she is but a small child occurs largely in North Africa—Egypt, Somalia, for example, but also in Kenya. We hear from Leyla Hussein, who had the procedure forced on her. Like Feldman, she ultimately escaped the repressiveness by moving to the UK. At the very least she has convinced women in the expate Somali community to the anti-FGM cause, and when she visited the Masai in Kenya, learning that these women too had been mutilated, she gets their pledge not to do the same to their own daughters. As for the view that, hey, men, too are mutilated by some cultures by having their foreskins removed, she counters that the equivalent would be to have their entire penises removed.

Rokudenashiko, the nickname of manga artist Megumi Igarashi which means “good for nothing,” put vaginas in her cartoons for which she was arrested, tried, and acquitted of that charge, but she was convicted for making 3D images of the vagina, creating necklaces, iPhone cases and even a kayak using her own vulva as the design.

Miller also gives time to Doris Wagner, a German nun who claims that she was raped more than once by a priest, though we wonder why she would remain in the convent after a single instance, particularly since her charge was not taken seriously. She had written to Pope Francis, receiving no response, and is now a free woman who loves pop songs which, unlike what she heard in the convent deals with real human emotions.

Vithika Yadav, a feminist activist in India, makes us aware that the government in India appears not to take rape seriously, thinking, perhaps, that “Boys will be boys.” A street demonstration cast with men sympathetic to her cause reenacts the humiliation that women go through.

Some might say that the film is “all over the place,” since it deals with a variety of themes from genital mutilation to arranged marriage, but all falls under the umbrella of ways that women are not valued as much as are men, looked upon—except by me and you—as nothing more than baby-making machines whose pleasure is considered unimportant by men. If you are “woke,” i.e. socially aware, you know and rejects the attitude of male supremacy unearthed by this fascinating trip around the globe. Even so, you will be attentive to the sharp visuals in Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart and Anne Misselwitz’s photography.

The film garnered awards and nominations at film festivals in Locarno, Leipzig, Austria and Thessalonika.

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

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

PAIN AND GLORY – movie review

PAIN AND GLORY (Dolor y Gloria)
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Penélope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, Susi Sánchez, Raúl Arévalo, Pedro Casablanc, Julián López
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 9/12/19
Opens: October 4, 2019

Image result for pain and glory movie poster

Dedicated Almodóvar fans may be disappointed with his latest venture, a thinly disguised biopic of his own life or, as the woman performing as his mother complains, afraid that auto-fiction will reveal too much. The director is known for pictures as daring as the titles such as his dark comedy “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (a woman seeks to discover the reason her lover left her); the romantic comedy “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (a former mental patient kidnaps a porn star hoping to convince her to marry him); and the psychological thriller “The Skin I Live In” (a plastic surgeon experiments on a skin he develops to withstand damage). Now in his sixties Salvador (Antonio Banderas), standing in for Almodóvar, is wracked by ailments; by migraines, tinnitus, back pain after spinal surgery, and near the conclusion a potential tumor causing him to choke on food and drink. Aside from his physical pain, he feels isolated. His health prevents him from making movies, work which keeps him going and which, when halted, leaves him feeling isolated (as he shows early on immersed in water) and depressed. His life is not as interesting as his movies, but then again how could it be, considering that the director himself is A-list, one of the great living filmmakers of our time.

Nonetheless Almodóvar believes that a selective memoir could involve an audience. We see Salvador’s life divided into three periods: the 1960s as a nine-year-old boy; the 1980s, which is given the least amount of celluloid, where he has had an affair with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia); and the current year when the suffering filmmaker depends on the care of his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas). The narrative is not chronological. The man in the current year lives in a large house, cabinet painted bright red, filled with paintings that made one of his visitors think he was in a museum. Salvador frequently drifts off dreaming of what he may consider the idyllic time of his life, when though poor and living in a cave, he is excited by reading and gets his first sexual fantasy that is so strong that it knocks him off his feet.

This early segment is the most interesting unless you have been going to a series of doctors yourself trying to get a diagnosis that nobody can give you, and you relate strongly to the pain that Salva feels. The nine-year-old future filmmaker (Asier Flores) living with his patient mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) in a cave—not considered bad digs by the people of the village—is obviously a prodigy, playing piano, lead singer in the church choir where comic touches feature a few boys with atrocious voices, and teaching an illiterate painter Eduardo (César Vicente) to read. When Eduardo washes himself, barely covered by a towel, Salva faints with the intensity of the feeling and, yes folks, your nine-year-old has sexual feelings as well. His mother senses the attraction and hides a sensual painting that Eduardo does of her son.

Two men capture Salvador’s attention in the present years. Federico, with whom Salva had a love affair in the eighties, visits the ailing filmmaker after decades of separation. In an emotional scene they reminisce about those good years and part with a long kiss. And Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor who visits, having appeared in a Salvador’s eighties picture and has not spoken with his director after being insulted by him thirty-two years back. He introduces Salvador to heroin—which for the movie audience supplies the beauty of Salva’s dreams of his childhood. Having not acted in years and feeling as useless as Salvador, Alberto finds purpose in delivering a monologue on the stage, witnessed by Salvador’s former lover Federico.

Though this is arty theater, there is nothing difficult to follow in case you happen upon the film and as a lover of commercial movies may never have heard of Almodóvar. It approaching the stereotypical French style by being talky, and it’s good talk, much delivered with hallucinatory images in Salvador’s mind. As in all of the director’s films, we are treated to his basic themes of desire, passion, family and identity all against bright, colorful backgrounds. If you’re over 60, you have likely been exposed to the vicissitudes of life: the pain that tags along with the glory. If a teen, you recall the desires of a young person often unfulfilled because of innocence. And parts of the film may reflect the melodrama that accompanies you during the most exciting, yet anxiety-producing moments.

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

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

AMÉRICA – movie review

AMÉRICA
Lifelike Docs
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll
Screenwriter: Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll
Cast: América, Diego, Bruno, Rodrigo, Luis
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/3/19
Opens: September 13, 2019 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image

América

In “The Seven Ages of Man” found in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It,” the Bard concludes:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

In other words though it may be better than the alternative (only sometimes), old age is a pitiful part of life, even worse if the elderly spend it alone or adrift in a terrible nursing home. But sans everything? Not so, say directors Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll in their documentary “América.” This is Erick Stoll’s freshman full-length movie though you might figure his politics if you see “Good White People,” his short doc about gentrification. For his part Chase Whiteside unfolds his first full-length doc, though figuring his politics from his short feature “Lifelike,” about a taxidermist, doesn’t sound political, but who knows? Documentary shorts are not easy to find even in New York.

While Americans are known to put their elderly and fragile oldsters into nursing homes, it’s a cliché that Chinese would never elect to do this but rather to care for the parents, who gave them so much, at home. Now it turns out that some Mexicans are doing the same for their grandmother, América, who is 93 years old at the movie’s opening and, though suffering from dementia, she can recognize the terrific grandchildren who are caring for her. “América” is filmed over three years first in Puerto Vallarta where Diego can be found riding a unicycle through a crowd and later demonstrating at least amateur level acrobatics with his brothers Bruno and Rodrigo.

The brothers’ grandmother América lives in the state of Colima, a woman who may no longer be a vibrant human being but who lucks out by having grandsons to take care of her. Diego is the most committed. He bathes her, talks to her, kisses her while straightening her hair, and forces her to exercise when all she wants to do is return to her bed. In one scene he demonstrates tough love by insisting that she stand up straight, though América wants at least to hold his hand.

Ironically, when she suffers a fall, her son Luis is blamed and sent to prison for eight months though he is quite innocent of bad intent, and it falls to the brothers, already submerged in América’s care, to get their father released. How they pay for a lawyer, and how they deal with a judge’s offer to release the man for 25,000 pesos ($1400) is not clear though the three argue, but finances and commitment to América are debated among the three, in one case leading to a physical fight. The good thing about the whole affair is at least the three threesome are together again. At times they come across like philosophers in conversation, though we have no idea how much education they’ve had.

We learn something about the Mexican social care system, a country that is awash with drug murders but still funds social workers who seem genuinely to care for their clients—at least while director Stoll’s camera is on them. (The directors share stunning fluency in their editing while Stoll doubles as director of photography.) At fifty-two minutes in length viewers will gain insights into extreme old age, grandchildren, and the social and legal systems of our friends to the south.

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

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

MOONLIGHT SONATA – Deafness in Three Movements – movie review

MOONLIGHT SONATA: Deafness in Three Movements
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Cast: Jonas Brodsky, Sally Taylor, Paul Taylor, Irene Taylor Brodsky,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/25/19
Opens: September 13, 2019

Poster

Ludwig Van Beethoven would be mighty proud if he could see “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” He would be thrilled even more if he received a cochlear implant and actually heard the world’s most famous sonata thanks to the inventive genius of André Djourno and Charles Eyriès who contributed the original cochlear implant in 1957. What’s more Ludwig Van would be amazed to note that the device is covered by Medicare, which makes the composer eligible for free surgery now that he’s 249. The film is directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky who in 2007 gave us a prequel “Hear and Now” about her deaf parents, which puts this film squarely in her métier. Nor is there anything particularly political on the subject as is Josh Aronson’s “Sound and Fury.”

 

There are abundant both animated shorts and archival films of the director’s parents and of the star, Jonas Brodsky. “Moonlight Sonata” shows that handicaps can be overcome given the kind of motivation possessed by the principal character or, when necessary as with Jonas’s grandfather, given up with dignity as grandpa Paul Taylor was urged to do when early onset dementia made driving safely no longer guaranteed.

Jonas stars as a strikingly handsome lad shown mostly when he is thirteen or fourteen years of age, with clear skin and a thick mop of light brown hair, often relating to his 78-year-old grandfather Paul whom he obviously loves, the feeling fiercely reciprocated. He is fond of his piano teacher, who is not the type to robotically boost the lad’s ego like so many school teachers today but who insists on long practice. She tells him when his playing rates a 2 out of 6. Strict teachers who demand much of their students wind up either causing the young ‘uns to drop out or to shine with the satisfaction of accomplishment—a feeling you get only when you have worked diligently toward perfection.

Jonas’ folks are obviously upper-middle class given their spacious, split level home nicely furnished and providing warmth for its residents—who include the filmmaker, her husband, Jonas, and the boy’s two brothers. It’s not clear whether Ms. Brodsky’s parents live within but they surely spend considerable time with the Brodskys and talk a lot with the kind of speech that is intelligible but challenging. Their cochlear implants may have given them the gift of sound, but as that they would born deaf cannot allow them the clear speech that most of us take for granted.

Jonas may be a musical prodigy albeit one whose piano playing does not match that of the child Mozart, but he is always a kid who acts his age, having fun through puppyish discussions with his piano teacher, sometimes shaking his head as would a dog when splashing off rain. Still, he takes music seriously enough to be frustrated at every mistake and tries to interpret his teacher’s meaning when she insists that her pupil is technically proficient but falling short of expressing Beethoven’s sadness in becoming deaf.

An exhilarating moment arrives at the conclusion as Jonas wows the crowd at a concert organized by his teacher, who has given joy to a group of young people through their experience with music. The HBO documentary released by Abramorama a must-see for those who want more insight into the disability of deafness and folks who enjoy watching coming-of-age docs that are brimming with emotion without syrupy melodrama. “Moonlight Sonata” is filmed in beautiful Portland, Oregon by the director and Nick Midwig.

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

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

PROMISE AT DAWN – movie review

PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema

La promesse de l'aube (2017)

In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.

And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.

You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”

The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.

During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.

I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.

In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.

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

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

READY OR NOT – movie review

READY OR NOT
Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

Jokes are often made about marriages of Hollywood actors. They have elaborate ceremonies, their receptions are written up in People, interviewers ask all sorts of personal questions such as “How many kids to you plan to have?” Then two years later, four years later, “in sickness and in health” becomes the big lie. Divorces are common after short periods. If you really want to see an extreme version of this as though satirizing the concept, look into “Ready or Not,” featuring a marriage that lasts all of twelve hours. Blame it on the in-laws. Though “Ready or Not” is fiction, some viewers may think that it’s a send-up of the one percent, the belief that any family that is rich enough to be in that bracket must have gained their wealth through stealth, even murder somewhere along the line. Still, that would be a difficult thesis to prove, nor do Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who share directing credits as well for “Devil’s Due,” about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon facing an earlier than expected pregnancy.

Unlike “Devil’s Due” the couple may or not have an unexpected pregnancy, but they have one hell of a bad honeymoon. Nor is the bride favored by in-laws, an eccentric group of people living in a mansion with rooms that may be larger than the cubic feet of an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. (The pic is filmed by Brett Jutkiewicz in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto, considered the safest place in the area where kids can play at night—but tell that to the people in this film.)

Samara Weaving anchors the activities as Grace, whose history as a foster child compels her to want a family. She lucks out, or so she thinks, in meeting Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) not realizing that she is being set up like Chris Washington by Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s superior film “Get Out.” After an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the estate, she returns with Alex to meet the family—one which could be compared, except in appearance, to the folks in Charles Addams’ cartoons. These are people bound by tradition, as shown in an opening scene thirty years earlier. A satanic pact has been made with the ancestors, agreed to by the family to pay back the man who originally made the money by creating and selling games.

Told that she must pick a card, any card from a deck featuring games, Grace selects Hide and Seek, the worst choice she could have made. As the family counts to 100, she is delighted to run away, hide in the dumbwaiter, and then think of a less cozy place. Soon enough she sees that if she cannot escape from the mansion by dawn, she will die at their hands, nor can she count fully on her husband Alex, who loves her but is conflicted by the pact of which he too is a part. Soon she is hunted down by Alex’s brother Daniel Le Domas (Adam Brody with Etienne Kellici as the young Daniel), Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell with Kate Ziegler as young Becky), Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun) who needs help in using a crossbow), Tony Le Domas, the majordomo of the outfit (Henry Czerny) and Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the aunt who most resembles a Charles Addams character.

As is customary in horror pictures, people get picked off, one by one, in this case by crossbow, weights smashed on their heads, strangulation, gunshots, and ultimately by a Götterdammerung of a conclusion that comes off more like a deus ex machina than a scene that you might expect. While some critics believe that Adam Brody comes off tops in his role as the bride’s brother-in-law, also with conflicted feelings, I have high regard for Henry Czerny, who is the epitome, or perhaps society’s stereotype, of a chief executive. Czerny, who delivered a powerful performance as a pederast in John N Smith’s 1992 “The Boys of St. Vincent,” has a lesser role here but his depiction of the family’s leader is compelling. Best of all, Samara Weaving, whom we have seen in Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” about a virus that causes white collar office workers to act out their worst impulses, is perfect for the role. She starts out in her bridal dress, a long white gown, innocent in the ways of people whose riches she could only imagine. She reflects the tension that all feel, with a terrific depiction of fear, shaking, breathing hard, tearing her dress to allow her to run, then becomes an angel of vengeance.

The visuals are great. An estate with wall paintings of ancestors becomes symbolic of the home of the super-rich, though weighed down by a pact with which only some are enthusiastic with others conflicted. The music, which includes sections of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, is perfect. There is one serious weakness, found in Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s freshman feature screenplay. The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight which has served as the highbrow companion of 20th Century Fox, has the visual quality of its traditional art-house fare. But the dialogue, with its incessant use of the f-word and the s-word, is vulgar, not warranted except to draw in those moviegoers who never get tired of the profanity used well beyond its function in the movies. Screenplays are important: some consider writers, not directors, to be the most important elements of a movie. The juvenile language amid the paintings of the masters and a soundtrack that includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is incompatible.

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

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

AMERICAN FACTORY – movie review

AMERICAN FACTORY
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar
Screenwriter: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar
Cast: American and Chinese workers and supervisors in Dayton, Ohio
Screened at: Dolb24, NYC, 7/30/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

American Factory Movie Poster

I once destroyed a fellow in a moderated debate. He said he would never buy a foreign car, thinking that if he did he would be throwing American workers under the bus (or car). I hit back by citing foreign autos which are made in the U.S., e.g. Mercedes and BMW in South Carolina, Infinity QX60 in Tennessee, Honda Accord and Acura in Ohio, all providing thousands of jobs for factory workers. We are living in a globalized world where products made by foreign companies use American workers, but sometimes management from China, or Germany, or Sweden come here to oversee the work. Think of Tom Hanks’ role as Chuck Nolan in “Cast Away,” traveling to the Soviet Union to represent management of a FedEx plant that opened there. He found the workers lazy and even wide-eyed at the suggestion that they should work since, after all, this was the socialist paradise where laborers pretended to work and bosses pretended to pay them.

A similar situation occurs in “American Factory,” but the shoe is on the other foot. Now American workers are accused of being lazy while Chinese at the same task are workaholics. The case involves Chinese investment in a factory that produces glass for automobiles. When the General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, closed,leaving well-paid factory employees jobless, the Chinese were welcomed as heroes. Flush with incentives from the Ohio state government, Cao Dewang the founder of Fuyao, the glass manufacturing plant built on the husk of the GM plant, hired some 2000 Americans while bringing in 200 potential supervisors from China. Though the American workers are paid only fifty percent of what they had been getting from GM, averaging about $25 an hour with the opportunity to earn more for overtime, these native Ohio workers are happy to have jobs at all. Never mind that they’re getting $14 an hour, which is less than the minimum wage that a clerk in a New York CVS earns. For this pay they risk injury, even death, from machines that emit heat past 200 degree Fahrenheit. They can be crushed by heavy machinery. The Chinese are not so careful about safety precautions, for as one American states, when he worked for GM he never witnessed a serious workplace injury. Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who direct this documentary, focuses the camera on one woman with a bandaged thumb and another with orthopedic boots and crutches.

Here come the inevitable culture clashes, and they are not about how Chinese eat with chopsticks and Americans partake of food with forks and their hands. The clash is over the length of the working day. While Chinese are accustomed to putting in 12 hours on a shift, comparable to what American nurses must slog through, Americans insist on the eight-hour day, five days a week. “They won’t come in on Saturday,” complains a Chinese supervisor. The Tom Hanks individual in “Cast Away” is now Chairman Cao, who doesn’t like the way Americans talk too much and lack the Chinese work ethic. Despite the alleged cushiness of their eight-hour day, Americans begin to talk union, with activists—who, predictably enough get fired—holding up signs urging an election on whether to join the United Auto Workers. Chinese management pays $1 million to a firm that hold sessions with the Americans, stating that the workers should vote the way they want but clearly pushing for a big “no” vote. When Cao bloviates that he will close the factory should the union get representation, you might predict how the vote will turn out.

On a note of lesser cultural importance, Americans are astonished that the Chinese TV screen, using costumed women and children, flash pictures of singers and dancers singing about the joys of work—not unlike the old Soviet propaganda pics with such titles as “How I settled down and loved a tractor.” Here is an example of socialist realism for a country that is communist in name only. When Chinese management announces that ten workers who turn out the most product will be given free trips to Shanghai, the audience look at the speaker as though he were talking in Swahili. These Americans on the plant floor are not world travelers looking at Safari ads or commercials. for Viking cruises.

Ultimately it’s not the unions or the American work ethic or even the Chinese 12-hour shift people that will determine the future of a factory that has been making a profit since 2018, but automation. We see a band of Chinese gleefully conversing on how machines can do the jobs of people and how they can cut two workers here, four there, and so on.

If you watched the Democratic candidates’ debate on 7/30/19 you could not help noting that some candidates praise China for being in the forefront of industries like the manufacture of solar panels and other technologies that promise to reduce the carbon footprint, and this at a time that our president is doing nothing to encourage such progress nor does he even admit that the climate is changing. “American Factories” is an eye-opener that will depress viewers who had been hoping that Chinese investment in our country will save the day. Then again, promises have a way of sounding at first like poetry but ultimately fading as prose.

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

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

EDIE – movie review

EDIE
Music Box Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Hunter
Screenwriter: Simon Hunter, Edward Lyden-Bell, Elizabeth O’Halloran
Cast: Sheila Hancock, Kevin Guthrie, Paul Brannigan, Amy Manson, Wendy Morgan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/10/19
Opens: September 6, 2019

Edie Movie Poster

The Pennsylvania Dutch have an expression, “Ve get too soon oldt undt too late schmart.” Keep this in mind when you view this small movie which is sentimental but not saccharine and which may offer insight into people that millennials in America consider to be irrelevant oldsters. People like Edie (Sheila Hancock) are never seen in commercials because folks in their seventies and eighties are not considered cool, and in fact if you look at commercials from Macy’s, our country’s largest retail store, you get the idea that everyone over thirty has gone the way of Logan’s Run.

Edie has become old. She spent the last thirty years caring for her husband who, resulting from a stroke, had not spoken or walked. Nor did she love him, as she explains to her daughter Nancy (Wendy Morgan), and now that he’s dead, she feels a sense of relief—nothing like what the psychoanalysts say is the most stressful event that an happen to a surviving spouse. She is fed up with Nancy’s insistence that she enters a nursing home, an absurd idea since she can obviously take care of herself. She proves this with points to spare in Hunter’s movie.

Hunter has apparently been inactive in the cinema community, having last directed “Mutant Chronicles” in 2009 about a 28th century soldier fighting an army of underworld mutants. Such a film does not prepare you for “Edie,” which, though featuring a woman battling nature as Major Mitch Hunter battled mutants is well rooted in the modern day. You might come away from this picture figuring, “Hey, this Simon Hunter knows not only how to direct women but is a man who with the help of co-writers Edward Lynden-Bell and Elizabeth O’Halloran getd right into the mind of an octagenarian.

Looking at an old picture postcard featuring a scene from Scotland’s Mount Suilven, she sets her mind on climbing it, though tour guides recommend allowing ten daylight hours to do the 2400 feet. Nor would most guides suggest that someone like Edie try the climb particularly given the arrival of nighttime and the pouring rain for which Scotland is known. Happily, she meets and bonds with Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), who plans to open Scotland’s largest camping store, a young man who at first thinks like Edie’s daughter Nancy but ultimately assists her in reaching the peak.

Sheila Hancock in the title role is a wonderful British actress who in this movie knows how to play the cantankerous biddy when she mistrusts someone but who can open up when a young man pays attention to her as does Jonny’s friend McLaughlin (Paul Brannigan). It’s important to note that contrary to our present time when women have proven themselves capable of running corporations and joining the bid to become president of the U.S., those who came of age during the 1950s like Edie were indoctrinated with their role of cooking, cleaning, and living for their husbands, children and grandchildren.

Cinematographer August Jakobsson photographs the landscape in tourist brochure mode, somehow finding the entire area almost free of other climbers and campers, which is exactly what Edie had hoped. The friendship between an 84-year-old woman and a lad over fifty years younger is convincing and heartwarming in a project that should make women (especially) to realize that they need not wait until their final segment of life to get off the couch, put down the iPhone, go outdoors, and welcome the thrill of nature.

102 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

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

ALTERNATE ENDINGS: SIX NEW WAYS TO DIE IN AMERICA – movie review

ALTERNATE ENDINGS: SIX NEW WAYS TO DIE IN AMERICA
HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Screenwriter: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Cast: Leila Johnson, Guadalupe Cuevas, Barbara Jean, Sara Snider Green, Dick Shannon, Emily and Ryan Matthias
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/19
Opens: August 14, 2019

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who ironically died before the age of forty, is best known for a poem that begins like this:

“Do not go gentle into that good night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

One might presume that the majority of people want to live as long as they can, some terminal patients demanding that hospitals do everything they can regardless of their pain. Most tragic are people with ALS virtually paralyzed and looking toward an end by suffocation but barely considering a voluntary ending their own lives. All of these people rage against the dying of the light. The six families highlighted in Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill’s stunning HBO documentary shed tears for the people they are about to miss and who, of course, are destined to miss them as well. Yet all had original ways of dealing with mortality.

Although in 2018 cremations are now more common in the U.S. than burials, notwithstanding the opposition of the Catholic Church and Jewish rabbis, there is nothing common about the way families of six people dealt the end. On my terms” is the theme of each whether five years old or eighty, and this is to the good. Right now only six states and DC have legislation on the books that allow people, usually with six months or fewer to live, to end their own lives with mixtures set up in the regulations—regulation which are strange when you consider how many people have OD’d from opiates which they were able to get on their own. So let’s see what so unusual about the people here, all of whom are now passed away in a film that must have taken years to make.

Leila Johnson allowed her departed father to contribute to nature, to life, really, by placing his cremains in a coral reef. According to officials at the Memorial Reef International, corals are dying, and this kind of burial can create new environments for life. An understanding of this is beyond my pay grade so I connected with Wikipedia and found this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_issues_with_coral_reefs
Now I see the reasons for the demise of corals but not exactly how burying cremains, which Leila mixes with cement, can create new structures for ocean life.

Texan Guadalupe Cuevas give their beloved father, ill with terminal cancer and renal failure, a wake, but Guadalupe is still alive. He and his large family are entertained by a mariachi band and the whole family enjoy the music with the food, which suits Guadalupe just fine.

Afflicted with pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the dread disease, Barbara Jean does not want to be pushing up daisies while six feet under. Instead she heads to Eloise Woods Back to Nature Burials, selects a plot, and plans for a shallow burial. She even gets a promise from her best friend to wash her body after death. When she dies her body is wrapped in a cloth and laid to rest in a shallow grave next to a tree which her friends plant.

Sara Snider Green has the most unusual burial—in space—which must have cost a pretty penny but led to great joy by a boatload of friends and family. “Tuna,” who loved space travel as much as Leila Johnson’s dad cherished the ocean, had his cremains sent into space which NASA graciously allowed as a secondary payload for its latest ventures into the beyond.

Dick Shannon, afflicted with terminal cancer, his lungs failing, speaks to the camera about his venture with MAID (medical aid in dying). His doctor gives Dick a lethal drug cocktail, four bottles that require mixing, with the injunction that while others can help with the mix, he must drink the cocktail himself. He has a last supper, so to speak, with his family, calmly announcing that he will drink the lethal dose the next morning. We watch him down the liquid, lie on the couch, and within minutes snore and cease breathing.

In the least developed scenario, Emily and Ryan Matthias, who have the terrible misfortune of dealing with a five-year-old’s terminal cancer, explain to the boy about death to the extent that such a child can understand. He does realize what it’s all about when he asks for a party in lieu of a funeral, so his parents, determined to honor their promise, hold a celebration of life, a blast filled with kids eating snow cones, having a ball, and even Batman, the boy’s hero, is in attendance.

The locations include Van Meter, Iowa; Sierra County, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; San Antonio, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico. The film honors the wishes of those about to depart from the living, and while some viewers might be dismayed by all the talk about death and have nightmares about it, the more likely scenario is that we will appreciate the New Age idea that death is merely a part of life and nothing to fear.

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

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

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN – movie review

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Garth Stein
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Gary Cole, Kathy Baker, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Martin Donovan, voice of Kevin Costner
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 8/1/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

[ ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN POSTER ]

The novel’s first line is “I knew I was different from other dogs,” which may be true but I doubt it. Enzo, a Labrador retriever picked up by race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), is smart but not necessarily brainier than other dogs. We simply do not know how our best friend thinks, what any pup knows, what he is capable to learn about life. We do know, however, that we learn a lot from our dogs, perhaps justifying the bumper sticker I saw once on a humble Kia “The more I know people, the more I love dogs.”

One of Denny’s friends wonders how he can be there for the dog when he’s out of the house zooming down the track at Daytona or some of the lesser locales, a point which comes up painfully past the half point of this film when he stands to lose custody of his daughter, but we’ll get to that. Following the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, Simon Curtis, who directs this adaptation, is in his métier, his last movie being “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” which deals not with a writer’s inspiration to create a dog movie but close: the writer’s relationship with his son evokes the creation of an anthropomorphic teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.

As with the novel, Denny picks up this dog, names him Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and later of the marque Ferrari. Enzo (the dog) knows that life is not simply one day after another like Groundhog day but something that moves forward like a racing car and eventually sputters out. To this dog, death is not a problem since he is believes in the Mongolian legend that a dog who is “prepared” will be reincarnated in his next life as a human. (One wonders what a really really good dog can become instead.) Enzo is committed to his human since he is not often left alone in Denny’s modest quarters but is taken with him in the racing car, looking out the window, and loving everything about life.

His days as an “only son” are limited as Denny meets, courts, and marries Eve (Amanda Seyfried), they have a beautiful daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), though Denny is considered a poor match by Eve’s parents, Trish Swift (Kathy Baker) and especially her dad Maxwell Swift (Martin Donovan). Maxwell believes that race car driving is dangerous, that his son-in-law could be injured or killed on the track, all of which makes it ironic that Eve is the one who develops a serious illness (the word “cancer” is never mentioned), looks really bad after chemo treatments (if you believe that Amanda Seyfried could ever look bad), and will die.

After Eve’s death, a lawsuit is pursued by Zoe’s grandfather asking custody of the girl since he is rich and could give the girl the kind of life she presumably deserves. Though Denny’s lawyer suggests that his client compromise and accept part custody, Denny has learned a lesson that he picked up through his racing career. Don’t panic. Never Quit. Life has its ups and downs just as drivers can win some and lose some. By the time that Enzo is fifteen years old, the dog has learned more about the human condition from observing his human beings who love him that most people ever do.

The result is a comedy drama which may or may not be suitable for children. It has a PG rating, presumably because there’s no sex or violence, but you can judge whether your small fry is up to seeing a mighty pale Amanda Seyfried and observe an old dog just lying around, ball-chasing days over, close to death. The tale is based on the true experiences of Garth Stein, who was inspired to write after watching the 1998 Mongolian documentary “State of Dogs,” then hearing poet Billy Collins give a reading of “The Revenant” told from a dog’s point of view. Stein was himself a race car driver who left the field after crashing while racing in the rain, and director Simon Curtis, using a script by Mark Bomback that pays due respect to the best-seller, turns out a sentimental, two-hanky movie with several comic turns, but one which might tempt the child who accompanies you to the multiplex to cry until you get him a dog.

The narration throughout by Kevin Costner emphasizes dog as philosopher in a film that does not condescend but rather one that has ample entertainments even for arrogant humans who think they are smarter than Enzo.

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

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

LUCE – movie review

LUCE
Neon/Topic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/29/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Luce Movie Poster

Every time I think that the high schools in which I taught are pretty OK, not great but certainly not blackboard jungles, I get a wake-up call that says, “Your schools are OK: but compared to what?” Then I come across this high school in Arlington, Virginia which looks nice and clean with grounds to match and students that really pay attention in class and one teacher who has given the teens fifteen years of her life, sees parents after class, and discusses education with the principal. So I think, “I wish I could have been assigned to this Arlington city High School.” Then my envy of the place gives way when I find out that this school may be in prosperous Arlington but it could in no way deserve real estate in Shangri-La. Things are happening therein that would threaten a parent’s trust of her son, a teacher’s dedication to her students, and would start warfare enveloping teacher vs. principal, mother vs. father, student vs. teacher, and would involve questions of race and class. That Julius Onah, who adapted the movie from a play by JC Lee featured in New York’s Lincoln Center leaves ambiguity not only in the ending but throughout the proceedings is a good thing. In fact without the ambiguity’s causing us in the audience to pause and think deeply about the film, we would be shut off from any thought of discussion save for “Where should we go now for our frappuccino?”

“Luce,” which is the name of the principal character played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., means “light” and light indeed brightens the upper-middle-class home of Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and her husband Peter (Tim Roth). Unable to have children of their own, they seek out a potential adoptee from the most troubled place imaginable, a seven-year-old who has already been tormented more than almost any American adult by growing up in war-torn Eritrea. With a back-story that involves years of psychological help and any other form a rescue that his adoptive parents have tried, Luce attends a school that gives his room to develop and express his natural talents and is lucky—or maybe not–to have as his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who pushes those in her charge so strictly that she has been called a bitch. For reasons that a movie audience will find ambiguous, she snoops into Luce’s locker, finding illegal fireworks among the notebooks, confiscates them, and, instead of telling Prinicpal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) calls in Luce’s parents. To add to her suspicions, Harriet has graded the student’s essay on the subject, name a historical figure and write a paper on how you would act in his place. Luce uses the example of Frantz Fanon, whose “Wretched of the Earth” advises violence to get overthrow colonialists. Luce is virtually labeled a terrorist, and when in addition, Harriet hears a rumor that Luce is involved in the rape of Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), the stage is set for verbal, and later physical warfare, involving students, teacher, principal and parents.

What motivates Harriet to go after this one student, a young fellow who excels in debate, track, and can hold an audience of parents in thrall when addressing them in the auditorium? We in the audience are left with an unspoken motif that Harriet, who is on the one hand demanding outstanding work especially for marginalized teenagers, is envious of Luce’s parents, who appear to be upper middle class, who presumably did not have the stresses affecting Harriet, who has lived with her emotionally disturbed sister Rosemarie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). In fact in the film’s most energetic scene the entire school must cope with Rosemarie’s psychotic break as she goes ballistic, removes all of her clothes, and is carted away by the police.

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play parents who must have had to cope with the frustrations and joys of bringing up a child with a damaged psyche, their most compelling scene involving an argument about how to deal with accusations that their young man has committed an act of minor terrorism. Should he be exposed for what he may be—the emphasis on may be—or should they lie and give him an alibi that would counter charges against him? Still, the film belongs to Harrison, who has appeared in films and TV since his minor role in 2013 in “12 Years a Slave,” but who, at the actual age of twenty-five is too old to convince us that he is a student in high school rather than going for a graduate degree.

Nigerian-born director Jonah Onah, whose “The Cloverfield Paradox” finds scientists testing a device to solve the energy crisis, moves ahead with this intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping tale with metaphoric possibilities that feed into the current sophomoric racism of our president, who does not have a racist bone in his body.

This is an emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying meditation on racism, parental pressures, and teachers’ expectations.

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

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

SKIN – movie review

SKIN
A24 & Direct TV
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Guy Nattiv
Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv
Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Louisa Krause, Zoe Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett, Mike Colter, Vera Farmiga
Screened at: Tribeca Screening Room, NYC, 7/17/19
Opens: July 26, 2019

Skin Movie Poster

White supremacy and neo-Nazism evoke ugly memories as depicted in several movies about its ideology in addition to a wealth of articles in journals. In the 2001 film “The Believer,” Frank Collin is a Jewish Nazi. In “Keep Quiet,” the founder of a Hungarian Nazi party, Csanad Szegedi discovers that his maternal grandparents were Jewish. He embraces the religion during a three-year study with a rabbi. The other day, an online UK journal cites the case of a white supremacist who takes a DNA test and discovers that he’s not pure Caucasion. Some of his colleagues want to throw him out of the party. But another, who is sympathetic and tries to comfort him, states “You know who controls the DNA companies,” obviously meaning Jews, “And they want nothing more than to render the entire population diversified.”

Now with “Skin,” a white power member from the Midwest has second thoughts about his ideology. As played with the intensity that could merit an Oscar nomination, Jamie Bell inhabits the skin and soul of Bryon “Pitbull” Widner in a film based on a true story (the real-life people are shown in the end-credits). Byron is a member of the so-called Vindlanders Social Club stationed in Indiana, though when we first see him we notice that he is not entirely comfortable with either the ideology or the methods of the group. Its leader, Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp), defines himself in a pep rally, calling on his followers to fight against Blacks, Muslims and Jews, though the terms he uses are not the polite ones. His goals are to organize pogroms against groups he hates and to recruit young, rootless, stupid people to the cause. To bring in new members he relies on his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga), a den mother of sorts who looks more like a middle-aged girl-next-door than an Ilsa Koch, using her feminine wiles to offer attention and affection to prospective recruits.

When Bryon is disgusted by the one of the group’s activities—to burn four Muslims alive—he has had it, his flight from the organization evoking a chase by the Vinlanders to find a “traitor,” though at that point he had not turned himself in to the Southern Poverty Law Center or to the FBI. The group’s harassment leads him to confess to a spokesman for the SPLC, Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter). His decision to “turn” is motivated largely by the love of a woman, his relationship with Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), who has three children from a previous marriage. Julie shares her man’s conflict with the group—not the best kinds of men and women to influence her adorable young ones.

Flashbacks provide us with another example of violence, of a kind that is self-inflicted by Bryon. A plastic surgeon, subsidized with money from a private donor, uses a laser to wipe away the tattoos through an excruciating process. This is not the kind of laser you may be familiar with when you are getting a tooth filled. As photographed by Arnaud Potier in close-up, it resembles two cylinders, each spewing sparks like a cigarette lighter than tries to light but cannot. Even a tough guy like Bryon cannot help crying in agony, a message that should be spread to members of the general public who are following the unfortunate custom of painting their entire bodies with permanent images—and who may seriously regret doing so when tattooing falls out of fashion.

Bell’s performance lifts a simplistic narrative that follows a predictable curve. This is a tale of falling into a far-right organization, having regrets and conflicts, and getting out ahead of the people who are determined to kill traitor like him. His role can be compared to that of Edward Norton in “American History X,” an examination of the roots of racial hatred in America. Guy Nattiv, an Israeli now living in California, won an Oscar for the best live action short of 2018 with the title “Skin,” which takes flight when a black man in a supermarket smiles at a ten-year-old boy across the checkout lines. Whatever the Academy thinks of the current picture, you can expect that Jamie Bell’s name will come up in the nominations this year.

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

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

THE LION KING – movie review

THE LION KING
Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, story by Brenda Chapman, characters from Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Cast: Voices of John Kani, Seth Rogen, Donald Glover, Keegan-Michael Key, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Early Jones, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, Alfre Woodard, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Eric André, John Oliver, JD McCrary, Florence Kasumba
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/10/19
Opens: July 19, 2019

Lion King Movie Poster (2019)

John Badham’s “Point of No Return” is a carbon copy of Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” but there are qualitative differences between the two that should be obvious to people who have acquired a taste in film. Similarly Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” is a copy of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 film of the same name, and here again, the quality of the current version is obvious. Favreau’s version is blessed by a quantum advance in animation technology known as photorealistic computer animation which takes away the illusion of artifice in favor of rendering the subjects quite life-like. You may be able to tell the difference between animals photographed at Serengeti and the same beings in which no real animals are used (or harmed), but the eight-year-old who takes you to “The Lion King” will be stunned by the naturalness of all that the child can see. One wonders whether in the future live actors will be automated out of jobs just as are the movie personnel who sell you tickets at the multiplex will have to look for some job that has not already been deleted by machines.

Even without the new technology, Disney could continue the reign as the animation king of blockbuster films. “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, is a familiar enough tale, yet when you watch it again you may find it to be fresh. In the same way though the songs used in the current “Lion King” may be familiar enough—think of “Hakuna Mattata” (what a wonderful phrase…ain’t no passing craze”) and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” ah weemoway”). When sung by a variety of creatures of the jungle it’s as though you’re hearing the songs for the first time.

Whether you think that Disney’s trope of creating animals that talk and sing like human beings is no problem, a hakuna mattata, or whether you believe that this way of conveying animal behavior is overdone, is a matter of opinion. The way that the lions, the hyenas, the warthogs, a variety of birds speak our language does take away from their individuality since, after all, giraffes are not zebras, but such is not likely to be a problem for the small fry.

As in the 1994 version, “The Lion King” is about family and the importance of home, but those of us in the U.S. now having to put up with a circus of campaigning for top gun a year and one-half in advance cannot help thinking that we have a president and we have a number of people who would like to unseat him. Similarly, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the respected monarch of the Pride Lands, particularly as he believes (unlike a few of our politicians) that what makes a king is not what he takes but what he gives. Yet among the Pride Lands, his own brother wants him killed so that he can ascend the throne—which makes this a kind of Shakespearean theater. Mufasa’s son Simba (Donald Glover as an adult and JD McCrary as the cub) has been readied by the king of beasts to take over when his time comes, and this is where the Circle of Life comes in, but Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is determined not to let this happen as he has monarchial ambitions. Scar’s allies are a group of nasty hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key) who realize that Simba must be lured into a forbidden part of the kingdom so he can be killed and eaten.

The villains are ugly. Scar is easily recognized despite having the mane of his brother because he has been grayed out, the typical bold color of lions is desaturated. The hyenas, whose dialogue is fast and idiotic, are as ugly as animals can be. Comic relief is supplied by Pumbaa, a warthog (Seth Rogen) who adopts Simba when the future king has run away from home, and is never seen without the company of a Meerkat who pops on and off Pumbaa’s head. Beyoncé’s voice serve as Nala, Simba’s childhood sweetheart who insists that she could never marry Simba while Alfre Woodard is the voice of Sarabi, the Queen, and Simba’s mother.

Unlike the 1994 version which is rated G for general audiences, this one features an MPAA rating of PG given the realism of the violence (animals falling from cliffs into fire, for example) and perhaps more disturbing for the young ‘un in the audience, there is talk of death which could be even scarier than watching scenes of violence and death, such as the statement that life is not a circle but a straight line. When you come to the end of the line, that’s it.

As you can probably guess the visuals are splendiferous. Favreau takes a story that so many of us know about from the original and from the stage version where it is still holding court at the Minskoff, and with photorealistic animation can make you think you’re on a prohibitively expensive safari—yet paying no more than $20 a ticket.

Music is composed by Hans Zimmer, with songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice.

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

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

THE FAREWELL – movie review

THE FAREWELL
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lulu Wang
Screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 6/19/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

[ FAREWELL POSTER ]

A childhood friend of mine had a father who was dying of cancer though he seemed fine to us. He attended a wedding of his niece. He danced. He gave a lovely speech about his new son-in-law. He had three weeks to live, but didn’t know it, and since all this took place in the early 1960s, he was kept in the dark. “What’s the point of telling him? That will only ruin his last days.” This aspect of American culture seemed to make sense, though nowadays, things are different. We believe that a patient has the right to know what’s going on with his own body.

Chinese families enjoy a culture that in many ways is similar to ours. When writer-director Lulu Wang’s characters in “The Farewell,” were told that their beloved matriarch had Stage IV lung cancer, all are sworn to keep that the secret despite the opinion of Billi (Awkwafina), a granddaughter—as one who left China from an early age and lived in New York. She believed that a lie is a lie. There is no such thing as a good life, a white lie.

In this fictional drama based on “a lie experience,” Billi, a young single woman working in New York, is invited to return to Changchun, China, to celebrate a family wedding whose date may have been pushed ahead so that Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) could attend the festivities. A controlling person, grandma Nai Nai handled all the planning, complaining that the menu mentioned that crab would be the highlight, and not the lobster that she had proposed.

During this time Billi is disturbed that nobody else in the family is willing to tell Nai Nai the truth, but she keeps to the bargain, in one case speaking to the doctor who is treating Nai Nai, knowing that her granny does not know a word of English. Like any American nanna, Nai Nai is ready to fix her granddaughter up with the doctor. Our cultures are not that far apart in many ways.

Filmed by Anna Franquesta Solano on location in Changchun, the largest city and capital of Jilin province with a population of over seven million, “The Farewell” has comic touches particularly in exploring the relationship of the dim marriage couple, Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara)—who had started dating just three months earlier and seem unable to speak to each other in a common language. Writer-director Lulu Wang in her sophomore feature evokes solid work from the entire ensemble, anchoring the story with Awkwafina, who, you may recall, took on the role of Peik Lin Goh in the more commercial movie “Crazy Rich Asians.” Awkwafina presents the granddaughter with all the nuances needed as a woman who reluctantly plays along with the charade. Does she finally break down and tell all or does she remain as shut down as Stormy Daniels in the recent American posturing? What would you recommend?

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

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

PAVAROTTI – movie review

PAVAROTTI
CBS Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Cassidy Hartmann, Mark Monroe
Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Griminelli, Nicolette Mantovani, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Angela Gheorghiu, Carol Vaness, Vittorio Grigolo
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 6/4/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

Pavarotti Movie Poster

I had what passes for a discussion with a fellow who is fifty years younger than I am. Though a fan of movies like “Avenger” and “Terminator,” he wondered why people went to Broadway musicals. “It’s not real, I mean, people in ‘Oklahoma’ in its days as a territory did not start singing every twenty minutes. And where does the music come from? Are there orchestras wandering around the place waiting to be cued by a singing couple?” “Would you say the same about opera?” I queried. He thought for a minute and said that he heard the word “opera” spoken but had little idea of its meaning. “I countered: “In the 19th century in Italy, even coal miners went to opera. In fact the singers were the rock stars of the day, though it helped that in those days Puccini and Verdi were better known than Springsteen.”

If this sounds like fantasy, as though high-school kids can’t be that ignorant, ask twenty pupils from a typical public school to identify Luciano Pavarotti. Don’t be surprised if you get zero responses, though in the technologically primitive days of the 20th century you couldn’t miss his name, whether or not you heard him in concert or bought one of the one hundred million albums that he sold. Now Ron Howard brings forth a documentary with a boatload of archival film, the most precious being those involving snippets from favorite arias, combined with prescient interviews and sightings with folks like his manager, his producer, his two wives, and critics. “Pavarotti” fills us with momentous music including some of the singer’s high C’s (a pun for high seas), which orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta tells us could make our ears vibrate.

Luciano Pavarotti comes across through Paul Crowder’s virtuoso editing highlighting his zips and zaps of photos of the great man with and without a beard, with an expansive belly and not, singing to the point of tears as the clown in “I Pagliacci” and showing his teeth (quite often) when meeting such attention-getting people as Princess Diana—who in one scene is shown with hair completely disheveled when a large outdoor crowd at a concert closed their umbrellas during a pouring rain so better to see.

All you want to know about the facts of one of the most celebrated figures of the last century can be found in Wikipedia, which I recommend you peruse to prepare you for the rush of interviews, as the movie charges ahead at a rapid pace from concert hall to concert hall, opening up not in a large metropolis with an opera house in Modena, New York, or London but in the Brazilian Amazon where the singer is enjoying the boat ride which takes him and his entourage to a concert hall “in the middle of nowhere.”

All who know Pavarotti are aware that he was a tenor, along with potential revivals like Placido Domingo and José Carreras—both of whom have something to say and both of whom join Pavarotti in concert embracing their title as The Three Tenors. Because the film is largely hagiographic, it trips likely over his flaws, principally, of course, his relationships with women (whom he adored), but why not? After all he did raise big bucks for charities, graphically shown by his cause for the children of war-torn Bosnia—which gives director Ron Howard a single scene of bombs falling on Sarajevo. Pavarotti loves everybody and they love him back: his daughters Lorenza, Giuliania and Cristina and also his wife Adua Veroni, among millions of others. Director Howard exudes his affection for the man and is well qualified to direct this film, given his feelings for “The Beatles” (2016), the astronauts in “Apollo 13” (1995), and interviewer David Frost, enjoying a takedown of President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

Whether or not you care for the typical format of documentaries, namely interviews–of which you get plenty here– you can’t fail to embrace the incredible music that captures the Great Man at the top of his game.

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

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

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO – movie review

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Joe Talbot
Screenwriter: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, story by Jonathan Majors, Joe Talbot
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen, Jamal Truvole
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/3/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco Movie Poster

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” one of the many movies taking place in San Francisco, Gavin Elster complains to retired police detective Scottie Ferguson, that the city is not what it used to be. This becomes the theme of Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an ode to one of America’s most touristic metropolises, one of our few cities that do not require residents to get about by car. Nostalgia-minded people might well lament that its history of being sanctuaries for African-Americans who left the oppressive South and immigrants who fled from political and economic countries has become an ultra-expensive playground for the rich and upcoming tech executives settling into its gentrified homes. In his debut feature, fifth-generation San Franciscan Joe Talbot makes use of his long-term friendship with Jimmie Fails to create a heart-rending film of marginalized people, cast aside by the “progressive” changes in residential quarters, but who have never forgotten their cherished childhoods in the Bay area. The pic is all the more remarkable not only as Talbot’s first shot at a feature but in the range of emotions explored by its chief characters, played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will likely be one of this year’s few movies that are gloriously theatrical, reminding serious theatergoers of themes toyed with by the late August Wilson—whose Pittsburgh cycle of ten plays each hone in on a different decade, comic and tragic, of 20th century African-Americans. Talbot’s tale deals with the all-encompassing themes of community, friendship, and the magic of home, treating home as the refuge from an often dangerous and anarchic world, a childhood domicile which many of us today try to reclaim.

Patience is required, as that virtue often is, when a story does not immediately congeal but takes its time, skipping from place to place and character to character, making more sense only as it goes along until we in the audience realize, “Aha!” Its anchor is the friendship of Montgomery, or Mont (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright and illustrator, and Jimmie Fails (Jimmy Fails), who sells fish by day even despite warnings from a well-dressed orator who opens the movie with a denunciation of the toxic waters that have changed the environment for the hapless creatures that will wind up in Monty’s retail department. Jimmie’s memories of better times decades back take on tangible form as he rides about the area on a colorful skateboard which will eventually—both metaphorically and physically—be smashed in anger. Jimmie had once lived with his father (Rob Morgan) in a Victorian house which his dad had lost because of a drug problem. He becomes obsessed with the place notwithstanding its occupancy by an elderly couple, shown dramatically when he undergoes repairs, painting the outside as though he were still living there (not unlike Charlie Peck in Deon Taylor’s “The Intruder”). Rob Richert’s script, co-written with the director and with a story created in part by actor Jonathan Majors, tells briefly over its occupancy by Japanese who were expelled during World War 2 and sent infamously to camps.

When an elderly couple move out, Jimmie moves in as a squatter and is joined by his friend Mont, who has been taking care of his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Among the humorous experiences is their sighting of a tour group on Segways whose tour guide (Jello Biafra) tells his patrons that the house was built in 1856, that idea disputed (as it is several times during the story) by Jimmie, who insists that his grandfather built it in 1946. Being theatrical, the film brings in a Greek chorus, if you will, of local, thuggish people who razz Jimmie and Mont mercilessly but are not people who will expect to carry out violence.

Jimmie’s “Abbott” plays vividly against his foil Mont’s “Costello,” so to speak, and together with hearty doses of humor at unexpected turns keep the movie moving through its solid two hours with nary a moment of listlessness. It helps greatly that the solid ensemble acting is punctuated by Emile Mosseri’s score, photographed by Adam Newport-Berra in a San Francisco neighborhood that would be familiar only to its residents. Like Jimmie, many of us crave a feeling of continuity with our childhoods. Given his rich friendship with Mont and his strong determination to recover a sense of belonging, Jimmie Fails gives us in the audience a resonant feeling of sympathy with his character and by extension with the ensemble of African-Americans who have become marginalized by a technocratic order.

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

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

MA – movie review

MA

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: May 31, 2019

Related image

 

When people are asked how they enjoyed their years in high school, their answers might make you think of movie critics. With us reviewers, there is often little agreement, some saying that such-and-such movie is “a triumph, an instant classic,” while others call the same film a “Turkey,” a “Lemon,” or a “Dog.” What accounts for similar differences of opinion about high school? Probably those who say the years were “the worst of their lives” while others say “I’d give anything to go back and relive those years,” has to do not so much with their grades or their teachers, but how they were accepted by their peers. Those who were bullied “hated high school” while those treated as though they were captains of the football team “loved it.” Along comes a killer thriller called “Ma,” which Melania Trump ought to see when she’s not watching her husband in the ring with sumo wrestlers. The first lady took upon herself the task of stopping all bullying among the young. Her motto: “Be kind to each other” which has as much effect as Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” Director Tate Taylor, whose “The Help” won a Best Actress academy award for Olivia Spencer, wants to show that even if bullying ends on the day of high school graduation, its effects are far reaching, at least for some victims who are hell-bent on revenge.

In the first horror movie led by an African American female, Olivia Spencer anchors the proceedings as Sue Ann, the title “Ma.” Through flashbacks edited smoothly by Lucy Donovan and Jin Lee, we get enough of Sue Ann’s backstory to make us believe in the vengeance she seeks. She is out for blood just like Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” in Brian De Palma’s shocker; however Sue Ann was humiliated not just at her senior prom like Carrie but throughout her years in high school. Now, some time later as an adult, she will get back for that, not only against sixteen-year-olds who had nothing do to with Sue Ann’s high school days but also some who directly made her life miserable.

Filming by Christina Voros in the director’s Mississippi birthplace (though in the city of Natchez), Taylor, using a script by Scott Landes in Landes’ first feature film screenplay, “Ma” finds Sue Ann pleaded with by a rowdy group of underage folks who ask her to buy liquor for them, needed for a party. At first she demurs, probably playing hard-to-get, then gives in, not only getting the sauce but inviting the lot of ‘em to her house. She hosts them in her basement, warning them never to go upstairs (where they would find African objets d’art thereby emphasizing a racial component in the movie), which makes us in the audience certain that they would use her private bathroom and, in a switch from the situation in “The Help” would be punished far more than Tate Taylor’s Minny Jackson in that film.

Soon the house is wall-to-wall kids, having a ball until two of their parents, the mother (Juliette Lewis) of adolescent Maggie (Dana Silvers) and Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans), the father of Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), catch on to the danger faced by their children. But before that happens, director Taylor treats us to rousing parties, where an innocent Maggie is pressured to vape, smoke a joint, drink, and even kiss. It turns out mama Erica was once young (Skyler Joy) as was Ben Hawkins (Andrew Matthew Welch), the two guilty as hell in bullying and humiliating young Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson).

Though there are racial implications in the picture, don’t expect “Ma” to be another “Get Out.” Given a powerhouse performance by Octavia Spencer, whose facial expressions give away every emotion, and fine ensemble acting particularly by Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers, “Ma” delivers its chills in a runaway climactic scene as the body count mounts. Allison Janney does a cameo as the veterinarian, Dr. Brown, who makes the mistake of hassling Sue Ann, her assistant, and none other than Taylor Tate shows up as Officer Grainger.

High school bullies should be required to see this movie. If they can think past the coming Saturday night’s party, say, ten or twenty years later, they may be warned sufficiently to “be kind to each other.”

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

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

ALL IS TRUE – movie review

ALL IS TRUE
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Ben Elton
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 4/11/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Shakespeare has been mutilating college students’ GPA for decades, maybe centuries, as English majors, perfectly fine at interpreting Byron, Shelley and Keats, are at a loss in parsing the Bard’s 17th century English. Still, the scholars do remember “to be or not to be” but what they would enjoy more is one of the quotes in Kenneth Branagh’s film “All is True.” When a radical Puritan (these were the Christian right types in England) razzes Shakespeare, condemning one of his daughters for alleged pre-marital pregnancy and his wife for illiteracy, he replies, “There is more wisdom in Anne’s shit than in your entire body.”

Branagh, who directs and takes on the principal role in “All is True,” is more acquainted with Shakespeare than any other actor, given especially his ability to memorize all the lines of the title characters in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” playing the key role Iago in “Othello,” Berowne in “Love’s Labour Lost,” and Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing” among other treasures, and is the ideal person for this speculative treatment of Shakespeare’s final three years. As written by Ben Elton, known for TV episodes like “The Thin Blue Line” and “Upstart Crow,” William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagah) is demoralized when the Globe Theatre burns to the ground, the result of a misplaced cannon shot. Having spent most of his adult life in London, leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and his young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) to fend for themselves, he now returns to Stratford-upon-Avon as a retired man with no ambition to write further.

Not a lot is known about Shakespeare the man much less how he spent his final three years, but we do get writer Ben Elton’s insights based on what we know of the customs and culture of England at the time. Shakespeare cannot understand why his allegedly beautiful daughter Judith is hanging around, a spinster, and pressures her to find a guy and get out of the house—which, by the way, is a spacious mansion, testament to the fact that Will did not have to wait for his own death to be a financial success. Most of all, though, he mourns Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven, and while Shakespeare is doing some gardening to provide his lost son with a respectable piece of land around his grave, he questions whether Hamnet died of the plague as his wife Anne repeatedly assures him. Yet there is some mystery surrounding the death. Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is aware that all is not what it seems, ultimately revealing the truth of the boy’s demise.

In the movie’s most memorable volley of talk, Shakespeare plays host to the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who looks foppish with long blond hair, as the two recount with more than a hint that there may be truth about Shakespeare’s sonnets: that they were written not to a woman or to women in general but to the playwright’s male lover. McKellen is in his element quoting his favorite lines from the sonnets.

There is more than a hint of feminism in this take of the writer’s final years. Daughter Judith, who finally does tie the knot, loses self-control, accusing her father of favoring the boy Hamnet, elaborating on the jealousy she feels, thinking that if one of the two children msut die, her father would prefer that it be Judith. Further, though Shakespeare proclaims that he’d had no problem if women played their parts in his plays, but the society would not condone such women’s liberation.

There are fine performances all around as you’d expect from Shakespearean actors like McKellen and Branagh, with interesting photography that takes advantage of the fact that electricity had not been harnessed. Zac Nicholson photographs indoor scenes in natural light from the fireplace, which makes you realize how difficult it must have been for the masses of people—those without Shakespeare’s financial as well as critical success—to function. This is art-house fare as you would expect from a studio with the integrity of Sony Pictures Classics, with little of the fireworks of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 “Julius Caesar” or Baz Luhrman’s modernized 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.”

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

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

THE DOG DOC – movie review

THE DOG DOC
Cedar Creek Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cindy Meehl
Screenwriter: Cindy Meehl
Cast: Dr. Martin Goldstein, Waffles, Scooby, Mulligan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

If you don’t believe that Dr. Marty Goldstein should be Time magazine person of the year, maybe you just don’t like dogs. Dr. Marty presides over dogs and their human companions in Westchester County, New York, in the Hamlet of North Salem, with a population of under 10,000 people and maybe one thousand dogs or more. (Fifty percent of homes in the U.S. have at least one dog.) The town is populated by well-heeled folks with a median household income of $154,000, so these are not the kinds of people who would euthanize their dogs and cats if their pets needed veterinary care beyond the usual check-ups. Here in New York City, dog lovers flock to the Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side, a wonderful facility with a staff able to treat every kind of illness, but it’s a large place, confusing to people entering the first time with a sick animal. On the other hand, Dr. Marty’s facility looks from the outside like a large ranch house, but inside, the place is teeming with dogs and cats and their humans, and with a considerable staff of licensed veterinary technicians.

Dr. Marty does not dress in the traditional white coat that has been known to raise dogs’ blood pressure, but come across as somewhat hippie-ish with colorful garb, an adult version of his student days at Cornell, with a class picture showing him as one of the few classmates with a thick hair and lush beard.

So what’s the deal with this animal doctor that makes him not exactly sui generis, but at least among a minority of people in the profession who believe in alternative medicine as adjunctive to conventional treatments? He takes blood, and based on each dog’s size and weight and age, he recommends treatments, whether the animals are afflicted with jaw bone cancer, arthritis, or a terrible response to a vaccination. If you read about his veterinary clinic, your first thought would be that the doc could be a quack. He is suspicious of vaccines but is not against the procedure unless the dog stepping up for the needle is already afflicted with disease. Why give unhealthy dogs more bacteria?

In short, he believes in letting the dogs’ immune systems help them naturally, and to boost the immune system, he may prescribe nutritional supplements, acupuncture, and homeopathic injections. If a dog has bone cancer, like Petey, he demonstrates liquid nitrogen to freeze the cancerous tissue, thereby saving Petey’s natural jaw formation. If a dog has blastomycosis like Waffles, a white dog of mixed breed whose energy is close to zero, you emphathize with his human mom, who saved him when he was dumped on the road. She is determined to do everything she can. “I don’t want to lose him,” she says, with tears in her eyes. Count her as a huge supporter of Dr. Marty and Dr. Ruskin, who administered Vitamin C to support Waffles’ immune system.

He does not promise miracles for dogs who have metastatic cancer, but he can help by extending their lives. In one case a dog given five months to live is still around three years later thanks to alternative treatments.

Like some of the celebrated nutritionists advising people on how to boost their immune systems with vitamins and minerals, he thinks little of the corporate-sponsored dog foods, whose products, loaded with chemicals, may lead off with corn and wheat. He counters with “Since when do dogs go to bakeries for their food?”

Dr. Marty is a personable fellow, the kind you would want to trust immediately. He listens. He asks about each patient’s history. In a lecture at Cornell, he holds a class of veterinary students in his alma mater in the palm of his hand, pushing his philosophy of using alternative medicine in addition to conventional treatments, and sometimes abandoning traditional medicine altogether depending on the patient.

The best dog movies are sentimental dramas, with “Lassie Come Home” as my personal favorite. But in this case, Marty shows that a documentary can be as charming, enlightening, even sentimental, as the best of the narratives. Director Cindy Meehl, who founded Cedar Creek Productions, is in her métier, having directed an earlier film “Buck,” about Buck Brannaman, who suffered abuse as a child and went on to become a famous horse whisperer.

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

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

ASHES IN THE SNOW – movie review

ASHES IN THE SNOW
Vertical
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marius Markevicius
Screenwriter: Ben York Jones, based on Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray”
Cast: Bel Powley, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Martin Wallstrom, Sam Hazeldine, Peter Franzen, Sophie Cookson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/3/19
Opens: January 11, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

When Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray” came out, it made a hit with some middle school and high school educators and was relegated in some public libraries to the YA sections, meant primarily for youths. Some parents inevitably complained that the book was so bleak, the action so violent, that it was robbing their precious children of their innocence. Innocence: in the 21st Century when kids are likely to witness torture and killing on a mammoth scale on the screen? Maybe. In any case the film’s dialogue, a product of Ben York Jones’s screenplay adaptation of the novel, is simplistic, as though meant for a target audience who barely know that the U.S. fought Germany and not the Soviet Union in the 1940s and could expect to make a chore of several minutes when ordered to find Lithuania on a map of Europe.

Marius Markevicius, who directs his sophomore feature, is in his métier, having presided over the documentary “The Other Dream Team,” about Lithuania’s basketball squad, struggling under Soviet rule, making the hoop sportsmen a symbol of the Baltic country’s independence.

Markevicius assembled actors from the U.K. Norway and Sweden, even one from Finland, and shot the movie almost entirely on location, using a topography as bleak as the story line, with miles of miles of snow that make you want to race from the theater at the conclusion and head for Punta Cana. If this film came out in 1950, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were no longer pals, you’d think it had CIA funding, once again stressing the simplicity of the plot and the dialogue to make clear to all common denominators in the audience that we were the good guys and not those people speaking with strange accents. Though Uncle Joe Stalin is not seen except in a photo on the wall, he is responsible for sending millions to the gulags in Siberia, including a few score folks right now in this movie.

While the Soviets are battling the Nazis in 1942, they have time to dispatch people from occupied Lithuania to the far north for, what exactly? For digging up potatoes? Really? The exploited workers seem to have conditions as bad as inmates in Hitler’s concentration camps, doing penance for crimes that the idiot Nazis considered to be crimes. A whole family are accused of treason, and hauled out of their flats, which gives director Markevicius—who is of Lithuanian heritage—the opportunity to focus on one actress with whom the principal expected audience would identify. That would be English actress Bel Powley, a 26-year-old in the role of one who is but sixteen, and whose agonized face is seen throughout. Hoping to be an artist, she is the pride and joy of her mother, Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli who is Norwegian). Martin Sallstrom as Nicolai Kretzsky, is a bad guy but not entirely. To one prisoner, he admits that he does not want to be where he is either. Would he prefer to be transferred to the Russian front?

Aside from the acting talents particularly of Wallstrom and Kongsli, a fine job comes from Ramunas Greicius behind the lenses. The makeup team does splendid work in changing the appearance of the happy Lithuanian family to a chorus that could march off the set to the second job in Les Misérables.

Though many a film has Germans speaking English and Scandinavians imitating just about anybody else with their multi-lingual capabilities, the authentic scenes are the ones in which the Russians speak Russian, the Lithuanians speak a language which has roots in Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek. The English language, which takes over the majority of the 100 minutes, could have used subtitles given the forced accents put on by Powley and others.

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

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

COMMUNION (Komunia) – movie review

COMMUNION (Komunia)
HBO Europe
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Anna Zamecka
Screenwriter: Anna Zamecka
Cast: Ola Kaczanowski, Nikodem Kaczanowski, Marek Kaczanowski, Magdalena Kaczanowski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/2/19
Opens: January 4, 2019

Komunia (2016)

In his book “Bowling Alone” author Robert D. Putnam laments the loss of American community using the sport of bowling as metaphor. In former times we used to have bowling leagues. Now those who attend alleys increasingly see men and women bowling by themselves, perhaps because they cannot find people to join them or maybe they prefer being away from the stress of bonding with others. A more serious situation occurs when children cannot even enjoy the stability that a two-parent family should be able to provide. This is true not only in America but in Poland as well. Anna Zamecka, in her debut as director, writer, editor and producer, knocks out quite an opener using a non-traditional documentary format, a fly-on-the-wall method to capture the tensions within a working class Polish household.

“Working class” would be a promotion in the Kaczanowska household. The father, Marek is lethargic, a layabout on the dole, a chain-smoker with a love of the bottle. It does not help that his wife Magdalena left him a few years back and now has a baby with an abusive spouse. Nikodem (was he named for the patch you wear on your shoulder to quit smoking?) is autistic, makes animal imitations and sounds. He moves his body about spastically. He is being prepped for communion at the age of thirteen, the local priest being too strict to accept the boy’s apparent deficiencies of memory. The star of the movie, though, is Ola, a fourteen-year-old who has friends her own age but is called upon at her tender years to be the majordomo of the family: to sweep, to prepare her brother for the upcoming service, to coax her dad away from the bottle. In other words she is being put upon to act the adult and naturally would like her mother to come back to the fold and restore stability to the dysfunctional family. The boy’s communion provides the opportunity for the get-together, and while the father is optimistic, Ola, more realistically, knows that the get-together will be but brief.

Given the lack of family functions the world-over, “Communion,” which as a narrative focus is about a specific religious event, is more broadly the effort to get four people to commune together, to stop bowling alone, so to speak. Dad, daughter and son are of course aware that the camera is on them, a feature that could serve, if anything, to increase the stress, which is all to the good. We are aware of the fragilities of family life, we are told that family is the one place to which we can escape the pressures of the outside world. But what happens when life within offers no respite to the life outside in the cold, cruel world? As the Kaczanowskis’ lives unfold, we wonder what will happen when mom flies the coop once again. We can ponder that no miracles will happen with them and, by extension, with so many of the folks in Poland, in the U.S., in Wherever. Ola turns in an authentic, semi-scripted performance but for pure entertainment, we cannot fail to focus our eyes on the hyperactive thirteen-year-old who, though his spasms reflect a sad condition of autism, his clownish behavior serves for us a laugh that gets caught short in our throats.

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

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

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – movie review

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
 
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josie Rourke
Screenwriter:  Beau Willimon, adapting from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart
Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Martin Compston, Gemma Chan, Guy Pearce
Screened at: Crosby Hotel, NYC, 11/19/18
Opens: December 7, 2018
Mary Queen Of Scots Movie Poster 18'' x 28 FINESTPRINT88
With due respect to Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major, none of them could hold a candle to Mary Queen of Scots.  They cannot be the focus of an adventure movie like this one, even while wearing their cool, white, parliamentary wigs.  Benjamin Disraeli and William Pitt, maybe. In fact, yes, William Pitt the Younger (movie: 1942) doing battle with France and Napoleon.  OK I’d grant that.  Or could it be just that history itself grants majesty to the people conveyed therein?

There is ample majesty in Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots.”  Two majesties in fact, though one wanted to expand her power, and like many leaders, authoritarian and otherwise, met their downfall because they overreached.  If Mary remained content to be the Scottish monarch, all would be kosher, but she provoked her cousin Elizabeth who felt threatened—as anyone in her position would.  Mary believed she was rightfully queen of Scotland, England and Ireland: think of it as office politics with jewelry and makeup.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan—rhymes with “inertia”) became, in her country in her time, what we in the United States would require a chief exec to be at least 35.  She ascended the throne of France at 16, widowed at 18, returning to Scotland where she finds that Scotland and England are being ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  In Josie Rourke’s version, love becomes as important a theme as power.  Conspiracies abound (Conspiracies: those are the things that American politics today have nothing to do with.)  One branch of Scottish nobles are with Mary.  They’re all for putting her on the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Another faction in Scotland is opposed and favors recognition of Elizabeth.  Naturally the English encourage the faction that wants to quell the competition so that all can live in peace.  But this is not to be, lucky for us, as we can watch a beautifully costumed, made-up, jewel-wearing rival monarchs, though for beauty, Mary has it all.  Elizabeth, afflicted with smallpox as of Oct. 10, 1562, must cover her pock-marked face with increasing layers of white powder—which, by the way, made her ill and caused her hair to fall out.

If you’re a cinephile having absorbed previous attempts to bring Mary to life, you’ve seen Katharine Hepburn in “Mary of Scotland” and Vanessa Redgrave as “Mary, Queen of Scots,” Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton squaring off in “Elizabeth:  The Golden Age,” and a lesser known “Mary Queen of Scots” in 2013 with Camille Rutherford.  This time directing honors go to Josie Rourke in his freshman movie, but whose qualifications come from his being director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater company.

Rourke’s version brings the episodes into modern times, portraying at least two men of color among the conspiring nobility, with much warmongering going on among people who might fit well into today’s Tea Party and would be most welcome by Bible-thumpers with political ambitions.  Difficult as it might seem today when all religions in America are living in peace and harmony (granted with some exceptions played up bigly in the media),  Catholics and Protestants are at one another’s throats as they were in recent times in Northern Ireland, with the fanatics playing up the fact that Mary is Catholic and is accused of wanting to smuggle the pope over the border to rule with her.

Forget about the complexities of accession.  Suffice it to say that Mary became Catholic Queen of France and Scotland, Elizabeth the Protestant Queen of England.  Mary comes across as more aggressive in the movie than she may have been in life.  She might have settled at first for the dual monarchy but those Bible thumpers orated against Mary for being not religious enough or at least not caring whether her people worshipped as Protestant or Catholics. (In America today the word is that our great people might not oppose a President who is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, even Muslim: as long as he or she is not an atheist.)

If the monarchy were to be decided on mere looks, Mary would be accepted unanimously.  Saoirse Ronan is stunning, carrying herself as regal as a woman can be, stretching her terrific acting chops as a woman whose judgment in men is not always on the money. Elizabeth is made difficult to look at once had face is covered with the boils of smallpox, then has her face whitened to cover the scars, and, were it not for the elaborate red rug that she is entitled to wear could scare your children with the impact of that dread disease.  Much of director’s time is taken up with the conspiracies of the males since aside from the two monarchs, the only other women are ladies-in-waiting who at one point stand fretfully at the door of the royal bedroom while Mary tries with her insufficiently excited man to conceive an heir.

This is a picturesque look at the scepter’d isle in the Sixteenth Century, an authentic one so far as anyone but a historian might see, a multi-cultural, feminist drama with the occasional battle scene as two rival Scottish factions wave their swords at each other, though for what purpose one would want to risk his life is beyond the ken of the film.

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

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

BECOMING ASTRID – movie reveiw

BECOMING ASTRID (Unga Astrid)
 
Music Box Films
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Pernille Fischer Christensen,
Screenwriterd:  Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen
Cast:  Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm, Henrik Rafaelsen, Magnus Krepper, Björn Gustafsson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/14/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Unga Astrid Movie Poster
Pippi Långstrump, Pippi Longstocking as we know her here in America, is the principal character in a series of books translated into eighty-five languages.  The little girl is a red-head, unconventional, strong enough to lift and carry a horse with one arm.  She has contempt for adults for their pomposity and condescension (kutchi-koo, presumably, and “you look like your mother”).  Her sense of morality is as strong as her muscular arm, as she cannot tolerate a man’s beating his horse.  All this comes from being the daughter of a buccaneer captain, who provides her with a solid role model or inner and outer strength, the ability to tackle just about anything, including dedicating hours daily to cleaning a house and cooking.  It’s no wonder that the book series itself provides a terrific model for the readers the world over.  In fact, I would opine that if you find high-school students today who can barely read, who have no idea of emotions behind the words in a book, those youngsters probably did not have moms and dads to read stories as they tucked them into bed.  (I know this from personal experience with hundreds of such high-school boys and girls.)
Yet the words “Pippi Longstocking” gets nary a mention in a movie loosely based on the author’s early life.  Co-writer and director Pernille Fischer Christensen bookends her charmer of a movie with the author, now an elderly woman receiving sacks upon sacks of mail from youngsters everywhere, many of whom ask the key question, “How do you write so well about childhood when you’re are not yourself a child?  How can you write about PippI, monkey, horse, Tommy and Annika?  What comes across in “Becoming Astrid” is that by the time the movie wraps up, you have a good idea of the experiences she has from age 16 to about age 23, the hardships faced, all fueling her vivid imagination. Her books enjoy the popularity of those written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. She’s a Dr. Seuss on the loose. 

Ms. Christensen may be best known for “A Soap,” hardly as conventional a movie as her latest, as the 2006 film deals with the relationship of the owner of a beauty clinic and a transgender woman.  Now she takes a break and goes conventional, tackling her subject in strict chronological order from ages sixteen to about twenty-three.  That should appear to a wider audience rather than the small arthouse crowd that indies often have to accept.  Not that this is a sentimental, Hallmark-type film, considering what happens to the principal subject, Astrid Lindgren (Alba August), despite spending her youthful days with religious parents Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and listening to Sunday sermons of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Under Erik Molberg Hansen’s lensing, we get the feel of the life in a small farming village in the Sweden of the twenties where Astrid begins to display the unconventional behavior of her favorite character Pippi.  Bored with the Saturday night dancing and from the exhausting work on the small farm, she is discovered by Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor who has read some of her essays and hires her to intern on the paper.  Instead of settling for routine, she branches out with articles of her own and falls under the influence of fashion magazines.  She has the barber cut her braids and becomes a thoroughly modern Astrid.

The editor becomes more than a boss, falling in love with her despite an age difference of some twenty years, and gets her pregnant despite his promise to be careful.  Abortion in freewheeling Sweden did not become legal until 1938, leaving the young woman without quite the dilemma.  To avoid the censure of her whole family by the locals, she goes to Copenhagen by train where she lucks out by finding one Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who takes care of the babies of women like Astrid.  Though Astrid could take the easy way out by accepting the father’s marriage proposal, she refuses his entreaties and develops the strength that even nowadays could label her a liberated woman.

It’s not that anyone who makes strong choices is able to write children’s books.  The problems faced by Astrid might appear resolved, as she had the option of leaving Lasse, the child—played by Sigrid af Ekström at three weeks of age, Ludvig V Görensson at six months, and an already accomplished performer, Marius Damslev, at three years.  None of these experiences really explain how the woman who would become Astrid Lindberg became such a popular writer, so maybe we should forget about Pippi Longstocking and not worry about the fictional changes the director and writers make.  This is an involving enough tale brought nicely up to date as in 1987, Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) makes room in her home for the sacks of mail from appreciative kids whose missives are in plain envelopes and in sturdy wrappings alike.  Those of us born before the digital revolution might wonder whether such hero worship of a writer of children’s books could ever come to pass in 2018.  But take a look at any Barnes and Noble store, go to the children’s section, and you’ll find young mothers sitting on the carpet with their small fry as though they are monitor-hating intellectuals who keep reading and books alive in the marvelous sci-fi picture “Fahrenheit 451.”  In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

NEVER LOOK AWAY – movie review

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Werk ohne Autor)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Cai Cohrs, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Rainer Bock, Johanna Gastdorf, Jeanette Hain, Hinnerk Schönemann, Florian Bartholomäi,Hans-Uwe Bauer, Jörg Schüttauf, Ben Becker, Lars Eidinger
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 11/12/18
Opens: November 30, 2018

When a mother names her newborn baby Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that kid better do something in his life that justifies the fancy moniker. In this particular fellow’s case he more than meets his family’s expectations. In his Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” von Donnersmarck looks at a Stasi official in the 1984’s East Berlin who surveiles a writer and his lover, becoming absorbed in their goings-on, a stunning look at the repressive forces in East Germany. Germans who saw the film were said to be amazed at the authenticity of their lives back then, including the idea that the government was suppressing the elevated number of suicides plaguing the state. And that was just von Donnersmarck’s debut! Now he has done it again, with a film which, to date, should be considered not only for awards in the best foreign language category but, what the heck, the best movie of the year. Period. So far. “Never Look Away,” whose German title “Werk ohne Autor” (Work Without Author) is too bland considering the subject matter, has a better English title, one which is based upon one character’s telling her young nephew to look at life in all aspects with enough curiosity to make informed decisions.

Werk ohne Autor (2018)

If the three and one-quarter hours of running time makes you hesitate to check this film out, ignore indecision. This film is so riveting, so absorbing a story about art and love and politics and finding your identity, that I dare you to look away even once. That’s how brilliant this modern masterpiece is.

Though based loosely on the life of Gerhard Richter, a popular German painter who in this fictional form takes on the name of Dresden citizen Kurt Barnert, “Never Look Away” is an epic work encompassing some almost decades of German civilization from 1937 through the early 1960s. If you did spend a week play hooky from your history class for a week or so, you’ll know that that Central European nation had undergone years of tragedy, as extremist ideas take a role first as a country under National Socialism, then, after the war, shifting gears wholly as the Eastern sector is dominated by pro-Soviet governments. Specifically, von Donnersmarck, using his own script, gifts us by portraying an artist who at first is pressured to conform to Nazi ideology in painting canvasses that eschew so-called degenerate art, later pushed by communists to knock out works of socialist realism (the “boy loves tractor” idea crafted to uplift the people by glorifying workers and farmers).

Nor does it hurt that the writer-director enjoys the talents of Sebastian Koch, Germany’s greatest contemporary actor, here playing an evil s.o.b. that will condemn one young woman to be asphyxiated with carbon monoxide and another, during a different political climate, to have an abortion which may cause her to be unable to produce the children she so resolutely desires.

Prepared to be nailed to your theater seat right from the beginning as in 1937, the Nazi government invites people to visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, the guide (Lars Eidinger) delivering a snarky but captivating lecture to a tour group about the alleged evils of what we today would call contemporary or avant-garde painting. Young Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) will never forget the experience as his favorite Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) introduces him to a museum that will likely be avoided by people his age who might prefer to play soccer with his pals. Elizabeth, a beautiful young woman with flowing blond hair, may well be the kind of Auntie Mame type we all wanted, a woman who is anything but conventional and whose idea of educating a young boy includes appearing before him in full, frontal, naked beauty. Older relatives catch her the raw, and turn to gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) to send her away to an institution which must decide whether to eliminate her (returning soldiers need more beds) or simply sterilize the poor woman.

When little Kurt, now a young man (Tom Schilling) is admitted to an art academy, he finds that the new Communist regime in East Germany allows socialist realism as the only acceptable art form, warning him that the country does not need more Picassos. The best is to come when Kurt flirts with and eventually marries fashion student Ellie Seeband (Paul Beer), not realizing that her father is the notorious professor who sent his beloved aunt away. The hateful professor continues to spew venom, arguing that Kurt is not good enough for his daughter in part because he considers the handsome young man unemployable. Kurt’s favorable future is virtually assured, however,when he is taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf by Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci), a man who covers his deformed head by a hat and who relives his rescue by Tartars when his plane was shot down over Crimea. Now without restrictions—he and Elizabeth had fled to the West—Kurt survives the humiliation of scrubbing hospital floors to pay for his schooling and to go on to find his true identity in his art.

The great changes that befall Germany during a thirty-year period are dealt with flawlessly. You might think the Communists and the Nazis have much in common, at least as their viewpoint on art coincide. It’s almost predictable that a movie with art as a subject would conjure the idea that a great artist must have suffered trauma or be emotionally disturbed. “At Eternity’s Gate,” Julian Schnabel’s new picture about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, is the latest entry into the subject, though when considering off-center neurotics and psychotics like the professor and Aunt Elisabeth, Kurt is the model of stability and maturity.

The movie soars cinematically under Caleb Duschanel’s lensing. Outdoor scene are of brilliant sunlight of the kind that fought to keep Vincent Van Gogh from going completely bonkers. The historical background is illuminating without being reductive, the passages from Nazism to Communism to democracy seamless and pristine. The mostly large paintings, notably the ones we see when Kurt’s coming into his own, look as though they might be in a museum rather than mediated by the screen in a film that’s in German with English subtitles and photographed in Berlin, Dresden, Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and the Czech Republic.

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

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

TO KID OR NOT TO KID – movie review

TO KID OR NOT TO KID

Helpman Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Maxine Trump
Screenwriter:  Maxine Trump
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/1/18
Opens: November 15, 2019


Being married and childless or even being single and having no spawn may be more acceptable today at least in New York or Austin or Hollywood, but it hasn’t yet really caught on with the broad swath of Americana or the whole rest of the world.  Maxine Trump comes to the rescue with “To Kid or Not to Kid,” a 75-minute documentary that does not try to give both sides equal treatment. Yet even film-maker, writer, editor Trump is not entirely sure she made the right decision.

Turkish PM Erdogan says women are not complete without kids.  Denmark, which needs population, put up billboards saying in effect that people have more sex on vacation.  “Take a trip and nine months later you will have a baby.”  Pope Francis notes that people who choose to have no kids are selfish.  Is that why officials in his church are not allow to marry?  The idea that it’s selfish to be childless, or as proponents say, child-free, is absurd since, in fact, having kids is the selfish decision.  Why do people have kids?  Because they want to add people to the banquet of life and to refuse to do so is depriving someone unborn, someone completely without the motivation to be brought to life?  On the contrary.  We have kids because we want someone to love us.  We want to give love to someone.  We want to turn to children when in a crisis.  We want our name to live on forever and forever.   This sounds a lot like selfishness to me and to the proponents of To Not Kid.

Maxine Trump, or if you prefer Maxine Tr*mp,  is a documentary filmmaker who shoots films around the world.  She’s free as a bird.  No mess no fuss. In this chick-flick that she made—a chick flick because men have as much exposure here as they have in the movie “The Favourite,” about British Queen Anne and her two female lovers.

She films the action at a Cleveland No-Kids summit where an African-American woman says in the microphone that in her decision to have no kids feels to her like she’s letting Martin Luther King Jr. down.  While the film is not balanced—and documentaries have no obligation to be neutral—there are some expressions of conflict bordering on regret.  Right now one out of five American women will never have children, so this potential regret is causing a lot of sleepless nights.

Even I, as a member of the male persuasion, have heard these arguments over and over, so there’s nothing new here, though you’re not likely to see a plethora of documentaries or dramas about the no-kid decision.  You are more likely to see more films like the 2006 dystopian drama “Children of Men,” wherein a global loss of fertility could be the death-knell of civilization.  One man has the power to save the earth.

The film had a world premiere at a DOC NYC festival November 11th at 2.15 at the IFC Center on 323  6th Avenue.

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

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

BOY ERASED – movie review

BOY ERASED

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Joel Edgerton
Screenwriter:  Joel Edgerton, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir
Cast:  Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/2/18
Opens: November 2, 2018
Boy Erased - Poster Gallery
When you live in New York, the most progressive large city in America, you may not realize what’s going on in broad swaths of our country.  Look at a map and you’ll find that blue states are largely in coastal areas while broad reaches of the South and Mid-West are red.  And since New Yorkers live in a state where parents have been noted to demonstrate with signs saying “I am proud of my gay son,” we are unaware that millions of parents of gay children are either in denial or coerce their gay kids into pursuing change.  These guardians, perhaps because they want to be grandparents or they believe erroneously that they are guilty of “making” their children homosexual, may opt to enroll their young ‘uns in gay conversion therapy.  Never mind that this technique has been proven worthless and that few if any graduates change their sexual orientation.

Thanks to the writings of Garrard Conley, whose memoir “Boy Erased: A Memoir” recounts his weeks in an Arkansas center claiming to reverse the sexual orientation of their charges, we now have a movie adapting his book.  “Boy Erased” could be called a biopic, though the names of the characters have been changed.  Though Joel Edgerton, the director who plays a major role of a counselor, is known principally as an actor. “Boy Erased” is his sophomore entry in filmmaking.

You might expect a writer or director to come out forcefully and with brutal satirical edges in describing what goes on in gay conversion centers, but Edgerton’s character are appropriately nuanced.  The head counselor at an Arkansas center, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), is not the sort of person you might want to have a beer with since he does carry on with a project that endorses some sadism.  Though he seems to have no professional qualifications for the job, he treats the mostly young class of gays with tough love, breaking into some brutal treatment about midway into the story.

The nonlinear story is loaded with flashbacks which seem to me entirely unnecessary, as a straightforward chronological approach would have been less confusing.  We are introduced to Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the father of Jaren Eamons (Lucas Hedges) and husband of Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman).  Since Marshall is a Baptist pastor who wants his son to marry his girlfriend and make him a grandfather, he sees his chances fading when the 18-year-old confesses to being homosexual.  With the support of his religious wife, he enrolls the boy in a 23-weeks’ indoctrination program that pledges to bring the men and women back into the Lord’s fold.  The principal problem with the program is its worthlessness, not the brutality, which is shown in two scenes involving beating a boy on the back with the Bible.  Mostly the folks are treated with compassion.

Jared goes along with everything, sucking up his antipathy for the class, releasing his anger toward the movie’s conclusion, in effect dropping out while he still has some feelings of independence.  Hedges, whom you may have seen in “Manchester by the Sea,” conveys his mixed emotions exquisitely, filling almost every scene with his presence, and is particularly watchable when bouncing his emotions off his mother, who ultimately accepts her son’s homosexuality; his father, who refuses to keep the lad under his roof unless he changes; and especially against the counselor. Given today’s efforts by Judge Kavanaugh to defend himself against charges of involvement in a near rape, we are particularly horrified to watch Jared’s being raped by his college roommate, reinforcing the idea that he has been too passive for much of his life and needs to break out or be emotionally crushed for decades.

One hopes that in states that still allow conversion therapy of minors—that’s all but a handful—people will go to screenings, which might inspire them to do their own research.  A dispassionate look at the many reports that indicate that conversion therapy is not only cruel but worthless if the aim is to convert gays into hetero might convince some people but will likely be dismissed by Trump supporters who care little about science and more about mythology.

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

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

BORDER – movie reveiw

BORDER (Gräns)

Neon
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+

LIZZIE – movie review

LIZZIE

Roadside Attractions/ Saban Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Craig William Macneill
Screenwriter:  Bryce Kass
Cast:  Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Jeff Perry
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/11/18
Opens: September 14, 2018

“Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died…”

Considering the low status of women in America during the late 19th century, it’s surprising that the jury took only 90 minutes to find Lizzie Borden not guilty of murdering her father and stepmother.  Didn’t they see that she had a strong motive to do the deed?  And didn’t they have respect for her father, perhaps the richest man in Fall River (his fortune would be worth $8 million today)?  Nor was there any sign, at least in this film, that the man was disliked by the community.

In this version of the Lizzie Borden story, one which has been told and retold in books, TV episodes and movies, the occurrences in Fall River, Massachusetts that made the title character one of the classic cases of multiple murder, Lizzie is played by Chloë Sevigny as a stiff, somewhat repressed woman, an old maid though in her early thirties, as folks called spinsters in 1892.

“Some folks say she didn’t do it/And others say of course she did
But they all agree, Miss Lizzie B/ Was a problem kinda kid”

Nowadays we don’t consider lesbians to be a problem, at least not in blue states, but then, as her father, Andrew Borden (Jamie Sheridan), states, when he witnessed her daughter making whoopee with Bridget the maid (Kristen Stewart), her retorts “You’re an abomination,” to which the daughter comes back in a second with “So are you.”

“Lizzie kinda rearranged him/With a hatchet so they say/ Then she got her mother/In that same old fashioned way.”

Let’s see, now.  What might motivate Lizzie to murder her father AND her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw)?  Could it be that she wanted her hands on that fortune which, after killing Abby (first—before dad, that’s important), she and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), would get it all?  If she killed dad first and stepmom second, the money would got to stepmom’s children from another marriage.  That would make the lyrics of the nursery rhyme inaccurate, since of course she killed stepmom an hour or so before rearranging her dad.

“No, you can’t chop your Papa up in Massachusetts/ You know how neighbors love to criticize.”

There’s plenty of reason besides money that would motivate the murder, as her dad was so concerned about what the neighbors thought that she refused to allow Lizzie to go on her own to a concert, then relented, demanding that she be home by midnight..

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/And then blame all the damage on the mice.”

There were no mice in the Borden household but there were caged pigeons, Lizzie’s pets.  She kept them in cages until her father decided he’d had enough, that the pigeons would draw the curious hoi polloi to the house, and used the axe to prepare them for dinner.  Lizzie cries.

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/ That sort of thing just isn’t very nice.”

The lyrics to the nursery rhyme as you guessed are a terrific example of understatement.  I use the poem teaching English classes to demonstrate the power of both understatement and overstatement as literary devices.

As director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass note, this Andrew Borden is something like the way J. Paul Getty is described in “All the Money in the World.”  The latter, a billionaire, would wash his own clothes in a hotel.  Borden did without electricity and without indoor plumbing, stating the advantages of frugality.  If such skinflint tactics helped him gain a fortune, so be it.  But what did he do to enjoy the money, except to terrorize his daughter and repeatedly rape the maid?  His wife knows what was going on, but she serve as enabler, hoping to get the money eventually—which gives both her and the maid a motive.

The film brings out the tenderness and sexual feeling that Lizzie has for the maid, and she helped the unlettered lass along by teaching her to read.  Two lonely women find each other.  It helps that Bridget could serve as an alibi for Lizzie.  See nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.

The film does not seek to educate the viewers about the WHAT but more about the WHY, serving admirably to point out four people who might be motivated to murder (the fourth being the old man’s brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare), who called Lizzie some awful names and could have served to back up Andrew Borden’s desire to send both Lizzie and her sister Emma to a lunatic asylum.  Such are the conditions of women long before #MeToo that men in black uniforms would, upon petition of the pater familias, cart women off for life.

A well acted story, nice and slow moving with only a modicum of horror.  This is not “Hostel 2.”

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/ She gave her mother 40 whacks/ And when she saw what she had done/ She gave her father 41.”

Nope.  Count ‘em.  18 for mom, 19 for dad.

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

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

WHERE HANDS TOUCH – movie review

WHERE HANDS TOUCH

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Sweet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/18
Opens: September 9, 2018 at Toronto Film Festival

Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

Once you get past the absurdity of Germans’ speaking only English in a film that has a little French spoken in the final scene, you realize that this Holocaust story is one that to my knowledge had never before been explored. “Where Hands Touch” examines the life of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who comes of age by having her first sexual experience with an “Aryan” member of the Hitler Youth. To the young woman’s discredit, she does not have a problem with her liaison with Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who does not try to get off the hook by pretending that every kid had to accommodate himself to the Nazi program and join the organization. He is so loyal to the Nazi regime that time and again states that he might even try to be assigned to the Russian front, and who is protected by his father (Christopher Eccleston) who assigns him to work in a concentration camp.

For her part, Leyna is protected from persecution, at least for a time, by her mother (Abbie Cornish), an “Aryan” German who had had a relationship with an African, thereby producing a mixed-race child.

Amma Asante, a London-based actor, screenwriter, and director who was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Film, is known by her fans largely for her 2004 film “A Way of Life.” That story is about a 17-year-old girl who is paranoid that a Turkish neighbor is plotting to take away her 6-months’ old baby. Asante, therefore, is in her métier by this lataest story requires no paranoia to realize that Leyna is really in serious trouble. Her mother is sensible, as mothers often are when dealing with their daughters’ passions, doing her best to have her daughter fade into invisibility. That she is having an affair with a die-hard Nazi troubles her, while her daughter, passion trumping rationality, plunges headline into danger.

So much is known about the Nazi persecution of Jews that we overlook the fact that Afro-German professionals found it almost impossible to work in Germany under Hitler. They were forbidden to have sexual relations and marriage to Aryans, they were called “Rhineland bastards,” and were subjected to undergo forced sterilization. Yet they were better off than Jews and Romani, segregated with a plan to make them disappear by having the 25,000 women of color disappear after the present generation.

“Where Hands Touch” does give us insight into the Holocaust as it applies to women who are not Jews but whose papers were somehow not in order. In the situation here, Leyland’s mother is taken away for producing a mixed race child while her daughter is confined to a concentration camp located not far from a neighboring facility where Jews are murdered and sent up in smoke.

The film bills itself not particularly as a coming-of-age story, though Leyland’s virginity is lost and the girl is made pregnant by her Nazi lover. Instead, I believe the writer-director wants us to look at the work as principally a romance, albeit a love affair dominated by the political and social order of 1944-1945. The film has received some backlash, including a screed by Tara Nafisa, a Nigerian critic who is incensed that we are “expected to develop a special bond with a mixed-race girl who sees past the blood in his hands, the emblems on his uniforms, and the philosophy of the association he represent.” However let’s face facts. Leyland, who is the principal character, is not meant to be a shining example of a caring, compassionate woman, but is rather limited by her tender age, driven by passions that her mother fears. In the same sense, her young man, despite his love of Germany, partially to overlook his ideology, which would make similar people avoid and even denigrate women of mixed race. He is willing to risk his standing with the society of his day and become alienated from his father. There are no saints in this story with the possible exception of the girl’s mother, but rather a basket of flawed personalities, some, like the boy’s father, who would fit easily into a basket of deplorables. The same could, of course, be said of the extras, the Nazi officers who bark orders, demand right and left that citizens produce papers, shooting some in the back as easily as they could put a hook on a fish.

Ultimately the picture is flawed by a script that is both saccharine and simplistic, the British actors delivering their lines in a stilted manner. The dialogue between Leyland’s mom and the girl, and between the Aryan and her father could remind us of the long-winded advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius gives to Laertes, but there is nothing in the conversations that transcends the banal.
So give Ms. Asante the credit for exposing us to a segment of the Holocaust not before treated in a film that, despite being based on a true story, does not come across as credible. Remi Adefarasin films in Belgium, moments of melodrama aided by Ann Chmelewsky’s music.

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

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

SKATE KITCHEN – movie review

SKATE KITCHEN

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Crystal Moselle
Screenwriter: Aslihan Unaldi, Crystal Moselle, Jennifer Silverman. Story by Crystal Moselle
Cast:  Rachel Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Kabrina Adams
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/18/18
Opens: August 10, 2018
Skate Kitchen Movie Poster
If you’re accustomed to hanging out with middle-class people who send their kids to pre-school and buy them Harvard sweatshirts when they’re five, you and your kids are missing a view of an urban subculture of teenagers who are likely having more fun skateboarding on the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown than you had when you were a kid.   The youngsters who are the focus of Crystal Moselle’s largely improvised, full of street-smarts, and energetic cast have a lot to say to one another, thanks largely to their refusal to spend all their time starting at the small screens that Samsung makes, i-phones that you might swear are designed to sweep away the natural spontaneity of childhood.

Director Moselle, whose “The Wolfpack” deals with a group of brothers who are locked away from society in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment whose pastime is re-enacting scenes from films, again focuses on what for a better term are called “urban”people—generally meaning African-American and Hispanic youths living on mean city streets.  With a screenplay by the director together with Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Silverman, “Skate Kitchen” is similar to “The Wolfpack” in that its principal character is also locked away from society at least metaphorically.  Eighteen-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), living with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez), is too distant from the hip streets of New York’s Chinatown.  She is still a virgin who has to ask “How do you know when you like a boy?” and “How do you know that a boy likes you?”  She had been a tomboy, bonded with her father until the age of eleven when she switched loyalty to her mom as she wanted to learn the joys of womanhood.

With her skateboard, she travels to Chinatown, meets members of a group called Skate Kitchen about whom she learned on her i-phone.  She is shy and must take her time before she is accepted by an assertive group of skateboarders who admire the risks she takes in the playground—that seems built primarily to allow skateboarders to practice their hobby amid elevations and hurdles.  She takes the Long Island Railroad regularly—it’s summer—and soon fits in just fine, whether hitching to the back of a bus, rolling through city streets and never-mind-the-traffic, or enjoying herself in the playground.  She becomes interested in Devon (Jaden Smith), a young man who works with her in a supermarket, spends one-on-one time with him, and is ejected from the group for horning in on the boyfriend of Janay (Delia Lovelace).

Some of the skateboarding techniques are a joy to watch.  Obviously these kids have been on the boards long before the director ever met them.  And given their patter, including a professional rendition by one rapper, they are comfortable enough to improvise in front of the camera and to provide the audience with a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like to be “urban” in our liberated twenty-first century.  As the principal character, Rachelle Vinberg, in her acting debut (this is the director’s non-documentary feature film debut as well), is perfect for the role.  Introverted at first as a kid unfortunate enough to be shut away from real life in a suburb, she emerges pretty quickly, coming of age, as they say, when she—and we in the audience—emotionally understand the importance of fitting in, finding your own groove.

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

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+

Overall – B+

PATH OF BLOOD – movie review

PATH OF BLOOD

Paladin
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Hacker
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hacker adapted from the book by Hacker and Thomas Small
Cast: Samuel West, narrator. Tom Hollander as voices of the Jihad. Various members of Al-Qaeda plus government and security forces in Riyadh and environs
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/18
Opens: July 13, 2018

 

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This documentary is so real, its dialogue so tense, its speeches by leaders and member of Al-Qaeda so emotional, that you’d swear that “Path of Blood” is either a work of dramatic fiction or a mockumentary. But it is neither. This doc carries some of the most authentic information about the work of security forces in oil-rich Saudi Arabia against what they must consider the forces of darkness that it rivals even the excitement of fictional narratives like “The Hurt Locker.” The only distraction is a constant interruption of blank, black screens with “snow” to separate the chapters or even to show that Hacker is switching from the Al-Qaeda people to those in the Saudi government.

This is Jonathan Hacker’s first full-length feature, his other work dealing with TV shorts such as “Blackboards and Bullies,” which explores the roots of violent incidents in America’s school systems and tangible ways for communities to improve child safety. Recent school shootings make this sort of filmmaking essential, though with “Path of Blood,” Hacker investigates ideologically-driven madmen who have inflicted far worse punishments on their enemies than anyone has done so far in American schools.

“Path of Blood” consists of three categories of films, edited by Peter Haddon, Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward, all known mostly for their work on TV documentaries. One set consists of home movies taken by operatives in Al-Qaeda documenting the planning and training–meant only for their own people but captured by government forces after successful raids on what are called the organization’s safe houses. The second set is also filmed by Al-Qaeda, but these are fairly professional propaganda pieces meant to be seen by the “Crusaders,” who are their mortal enemies; the Crusaders being now only westerners but Saudi government forces who, the spokesmen say, should be fighting the Americans and not the terrorists. The third films were taken by Saudi officials to document their actions, showing the bodies of the fallen, catching the shooting even during the height of the battles. Most impressive.

There is, of course, some repetition as Hacker transcribes one action after another by security and the same by the terrorists. But we come away ultimately with these words of wisdom:

First, as admitted by Al-Qaeda reps themselves, a huge percentage of recruits are young, ignorant people, easy to motivate, especially when each has 72 virgins awaiting him after martyrdom. They are not only ignorant: they are stupid. In the opening scene, one that should grab the audience immediately, one “Ali,” almost clean shaven, his face unmasked, is getting intellectual training. Not an exact quote, but: “Ali, What do you say if you hear that what we are doing is a sin against Islam?” Answer: “I don’t understand the question. Keep it simple.” We never do find out whether he considers killing fellow Muslim is a sin, or even if the fellow knows the meaning of the word “sin.” In the same video, the men are horsing around, laughing it up, perhaps telling crude jokes, just like American adolescents. Recruits are assured that when they blow themselves, they will not feel a thing. Take it from someone who knows.

Second: Throughout, the men are told about the bad guys, the pro-West Crusaders: “Expel them! Rip them apart! Destroy them until they either die or convert to the true religion!” At least one of the Al-Qaeda people has been on missions in Bosnia, Yemen, and Afghanistan as well as in Saudi Arabia. In one instance they capture a western man, Paul Johnson, question him about his work, tell him that he is lying, wrap a gag around his mouth to accompany the blindfold, and presumably behead him. Instead of seeing the execution, Hacker provides us once again with that distracting, snow-covered black screen.

And so it goes: the terrorists plan attacks by car bombs. Some succeed, others do not. In the end, the Al-Qaeda reps who are captured, many actually turning themselves in because they are the few who do not “love death,” are sorted into the extremists and the moderate ideologues. The latter group are given re-education, not North Korean style, but a real re-education program in classrooms to bring them back into society. We don’t see what happens to the extremists. Cue the black screen.

Saudi Arabia is not known as a state with Swedish-style human rights, but there are good reasons for our alliance with them. They have money up the wazoo and buy things from us. They are fighting terrorists just as we are, and here in the U.S. we don’t yet have a Swedish-style government either—or at least the public’s stereotypical view of what goes on in Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, and other Shangri-las. The film is adapted from Jonathan Hacker and Thomas Small’s 480-page book which sells for over $30 at Amazon—which despite the upcoming movie has only one copy on hand right now. The film is in Arabic with English subtitles except for the English narration.

Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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