THE DEPARTURE – movie review

THE DEPARTURE
Merland Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Merland Hoxha
Screenwriter: Merland Hoxha
Cast: Jon Briddell, Kendall Chappell, Olivia Lemmon, Austin Lauer, Grant Wright Gunderson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

The Departure Poster

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” So said Sir Walter Scott in 1806 in a historical romance novel. Nobody really thinks times have changed. Scott was writing about events in the 16th century and now Merland Hoxha directs his update on the theme using three major players in a piece that you could easily stream on your small screen now that theaters are closed. In his freshman job as writer-director Hoxha, who may or may not be a relation of Enver, hones in on a modern romance which has moments of comedy but is as serious as you can hope to get with twenty-somethings who will interrupt almost any live conversation to pick up a text message or answer a call. Immaturity abounds in “The Departure,” a cute, theatrical piece involving three major characters, one young woman who quickly leaves the screen, and the boss of a company that sells environmentally-friendly equipment.

People lie all the time, white lies to save people’s feelings and the other kind to advance our objectives. This production highlights the machinations of two best friends Nate (Grand Wright Gunderson) and John (Austin Lauer) and the way they and one young woman, Jessica (Kendall Chappell) manipulate one another. The result of the game may turn out to be other than what each had hoped, but perhaps they had fun playing with one another’s feelings, though not without the guilt that should cloud the emotions of anyone but a sociopath.

For all we know, Hoxha may have been inspired by Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” which in a filmed version finds Jeanne Moreau coercing her husband Gerard Philippe into ruining the reputation of pious Annette Vadim. Philippe spoils the nasty plan by falling in love with his intended victim. The ultimate punishment in both the classic study and this lighter version is painful.

Nate is assigned by his grateful boss Bruce (Jon Briddell) to go from the West Coast to New York for six months to shape up a team whose manager is inept. Wouldn’t you know that the plum job that could mean a career advancement for Nate occurs just about the time that he asks his steady gal Jessica to move in with him. Wondering whether Jessica would stay loyal to him during the six months’ separation, he asks John to try to seduce her. At first John is dumbfounded but agrees. For a while he is quite pleased the way things are turning out. The wheels turn, the game moves forward, and tensions erupt that threaten to send the entire troupe into soul-searching depression.

The tale is well acted by the threesome; by Kendall Chappell, whose theater major at the University of Michigan is paying off; by Austin Lauer who studied acting at the University of Evansville in Indiana, and by Grant Gunderson who previously appeared in a short about people planning to enter Trump’s private house to steal a billion bucks (though the president may have more experience in that profession).

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

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

EXIT PLAN – movie review

EXIT PLAN (Selvmordsturisten)
Screen Media
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Screenwriter: Rasmus Birch
Cast: Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Ashfield, Jan Bïjvoet, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/30/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Exit Plan Poster

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comment about the Soviet Union, “Exit Plan” is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Just when you think you’ve figured it out—is it a dream? A tumor-inspired hallucination? A strange, horrifying reality? Anything is possible in this Danish movie with English subtitles and some spoken English (Scandinavians are famous for fluency in English) but by the time the film is over, you’re not sure what happened. To its credit, this is a horror movie without the slashing, a psychological thriller without car chases or explosions. “Exit Plan” is a virtually a chamber piece whose focus is fixed on the principal character, who by his expressions tries to tell us in the audience what he’s thinking and feeling. He takes off his glasses and leans his head on the table. He stares at a loved on as if afraid to tell her what he’s feeling. He even smiles sometimes, which is not easy if you have a terminal, growing brain tumor that, as one knowledgeable person notes, might make you mistake your wife for a dog–not an entirely bad idea since you’ll probably give her some affection for a change.

This is a star vehicle for Nikolai Coster-Waldau, who you’ll remember in the role of Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” He is directed in a sophomore feature by Jonas Alexander Arnby, whose previous movie, “When Animals Dream” finds 16-year old Marie living on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father. When suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body. You’ll see that the Copenhagen-born director is right in his métiér with this one.

Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) learns that he has terminal brain cancer. To avoid a painful demise, he opts to travel by car and small plane to the frosty north (could be Denmark, Norway, Finland or Sweden), registering with the Hotel Aurora. The management therein provides assisted suicide fantasies allowing guests to have dream suicides, choosing the landscape, the method, the whole shebang. The trouble is that the Aurora is like the Roach Motel. You go in, but you can’t come out. Yep. Once you sign the register, you are not allowed to leave. In fact bolting is more difficult than breaking an apartment lease in New York.

While clad in pajamas, Max waits out the few days till his demise, chatting with one woman who will try to escape, but each time he has a talk back home with his wife Lærke (Tuva Novotny) he does not know how to raise the topic. Most of the time, director Arnby, using a script by Rasmus Birch, whose “Brotherhood” deals with Danish servicemen thrown together in a neo-Nazi group, tries to penetrate Max’s mind, his expertise being able to let us in the audience know what it’s like to be in an extreme existential crisis.

The pace is slow, picking up during the final fifteen minutes when Max decides whether he wants to go through with the plan or has cold feet. (When in one scene he falls through the ice, his extremities are literally freezing.) A good indie for a patient audience.

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

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

TOWERING TASK – movie review

A TOWERING TASK: The Story of the Peace Corps
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alana DeJoseph
Screenwriter: Shana Kelly
Cast: Annette Bening
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/30/20
Opens: May 22, 2020

A Towering Task

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “If you are in your twenties and you are not idealistic, you have no heart. If you are in your forties and are idealistic, you have no brains.” The idealism in me began when I, a 22-year-old political lefty, cheered JFK’s founding of the Peace Corps. (Also volunteers doing Peace Corps work were in most cases not threatened with the draft to Vietnam.) I voted for JFK not only for his generally progressive views (forget about Castro) but particularly for his plan to found the Peace Corps. Even now as a “senior” who should know better, I confess to having no brains.

After passing several look-sees into my qualities, I was accepted and went with my then wife to Georgetown University to get preparation to teach English to college students in Bogota. Despite being chosen to spend time in a big city, I got more shots from the nurses than Bonnie and Clyde as though they were preparing us to hit the shanties of Sierra Leone. After aceing the classes in Spanish and U.S. history, we found out in the middle of training that the budget was drastically cut. We were sent home, older but scarcely wiser people.

The Peace Corps still exists despite our turn to faux-populist nationalism, and in fact has passed muster with chief executives as far right as Ronald Reagan, Dick Nixon and George Bush. Why should our pals on the far right support a hippie organization? They noted that the Peace Corps was not only an outlet for idealism but a smart geopolitical move. If mostly young Americans are sent to 60+ countries that requested our help—teaching English, scientific farming, building schools—everyone would love us and we would no longer be subjects covered by Lederer and Burdick’s 1958 book “The Ugly American.”

Now, Alana DeJoseph, employing Shana Kelly’s script, has a new documentary to comment on a program that everyone knew about during the JFK administration but is scarcely publicized today. In this documentary, one that does not match the humor of a Michael Moore or a Morgan Spurlock but makes up for the deficiency with heartfelt anecdotes by talking heads. They include veterans of the two-year stint in places that include even Moscow, and former directors of the Peace Corps like my friend and former head of the New York City Council Carol Bellamy. This is DeJoseph’s her freshman direction of a documentary that allows cinematographer Vanessa Carr to splash pictures across the screen exploring places that have benefitted by America’s idealistic people. Archival films as well, of course.

In one African country where people from the slums never got mail because their streets and addresses had no names, the Peace Corps on premises fixed what should have been a simple problem handled by the local government. In another area, a woman who majored in music gives help to a fellow who has been farming for eighty years. Some denizens of areas like Thailand and Cuba had suspicions that some corps people were CIA, but even Fidel Castro, who licked his chops hoping to uncover plots, had to admit that he did not find a single CIA henchman.

The pictures that we see are all positive, and maybe we should not expect a cinema team enthusiastic about the agency to be critical. As you might expect, local people, for example in Africa, crowd around U.S. volunteers in shows of friendship and trust. Even during the Vietnam War, some locals may have been surprised that the American volunteers were neutral, though most probably leaned against our government’s misguided war policies. In one Central American country volunteers witnessed the outbreak of a Communist revolution, yet even the rebels respected and did not harm the Americans.

Among the talking heads are past directors of the Peace Corps and writers of books about the agency. Given its successes, not even Trump threatened to slash the funding. After the movie was made, the coronavirus broke out everywhere and for the first time in history almost all volunteers were called home. There are currently 7800 Peace Corps volunteers in 140 countries. “A Towering Task” is the first doc to cover the institution. It does the job well.

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

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

ABE

ABE
Blue Fox Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade
Screenwriter: Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Salem Murphy
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/20
Opens: April 17, 2020

“Abe” opens like the CBS sitcom “Sheldon,” dealing with parents who wonder how to get their precocious nine-year-old to fit in, segues into an American version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama “Celebration” wherein dangerous hidden truths are revealed at a 60th birthday celebration, and concludes Hollywood style, the opposing sides meeting in the middle. The dramedy stars Noah Schnapp in the title role, in real life a 16-year-old inhabiting the enthusiastic soul and creative mind of a young man on the cusp of an upcoming Bar Mitzvah who has an identity crisis brought on my his feuding parents and grandparents. The movie is a delight, light and fluffy for the most part, a model of a story that like President Trump is all for motherhood and world peace, perhaps targeted to a Y/A (young adult) audience but which is in every way suitable for all ages, religions, and identities.

The story is unfolded by Fernando Grostein Andrade, a Brazilian filmmaker from São Paulo making himself quite at home shooting scenes in Brooklyn, which I would guess takes place at least in part in the fashionably youthful Dumbo neighborhood.

The film is all about fusion in food and in people, made all the more appropriate given the lush land and variety of cultures in Brazil, more specifically Bahia. Abe is the kind of person who though not fitting in with his own age group and who inevitably is (lightly) bullied and kidded by classmates, seems happy enough—though his parents and grandparents seem to take pleasure in raising the roof at the boy’s birthday party. The attention paid to him by his family is intrusive (as is some of the music in the soundtrack), not only because he is an only child but because two groups—Muslims and Jews who get together (though they shouldn’t)—are trying to influence the boy to follow their cultural traditions. We should mention as well that the kid’s dad Amir (Arian Moayed) is Muslim but identifies as atheist. In that last regard, Abe wonders at a outdoor fair whether it’s sinful to eat pork and is told by his dad, whose birth religion should eschew pig as much as that of kosher Jews, that restrictive customs like those forbidding certain foods are ridiculous. Amir is my kind of guy.

Instead of going to summer camp, Abe plays hookey, befriending Chico (Seu Jorge), a Brazilian chef, who at first shoos the kid away, then takes him on as an intern who must first wash the pots and haul out the trash, and then will be given pointers on cooking. Experimenting successfully for the most part with fusion cooking, melding popsicles with hemp seeds, he introduces and goes with the film’s great metaphor—that his parents and grandparents may be from different, even hostile religious traditions, but need to be fused, i.e. “saved,” by this young would-be messiah.

There is no way that we in the audience would believe that the arguments at the table between the Zionist side and the Palestinain proponents would be so basic and repetitive, so “Middle East 101,” given that these people must have been together for similar feasts for years. Perhaps that is part of why the movie may be targeted to young adults who spend their days and night texting banalities, leaving them no time for geopolitics. Anyway, the whole smorgasbord, or fused falafel and Manischewitz, works well. The few sentences spoken in Hebrew, Arabic and Portuguese are given nice, bright, yellow subtitles. It’s a small world after all.

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

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

ABOUT A TEACHER – movie review

ABOUT A TEACHER
Hanan Harchol Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hanan Harchol
Screenwriter: Hanan Harchol
Cast: Leslie Hendrix, Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Aurora Leonard, Kate Eastman, Yan Xi, Hanan Harchol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/26/20
Opens: April 7, 2020

About a Teacher

As a guy who spent a 32-year career in the high school classroom, I sometimes wondered why there are far more movies about police than about teachers. Think of “Training Day,” “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Untouchables,” and the best of all, “Serpico.” After all only a small fraction of us have had careers in law enforcement and most of us were never in real trouble, but we’ve all been in classrooms and we should we fascinated by stories about teachers, comparing the movie pedagogues with our own. Wait. On second thought, there are at least one hundred movies about classrooms that are considered among the best, including “Election,” “Chalk,” “The English Teacher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “School of Rock,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” So maybe our own experience in classrooms is mirrored by quite a number of shows about our favorite mentors and our worst nightmares.

Now comes what the marketing people might call a feel good movie. It’s “About a Teacher,” and though happily not a documentary, it follows the experience of an award-winning instructor who felt like quitting during his first year in an inner-city school. Since his favorite word is “perseverance,” he struggled through the first two years, was almost fired before beginning even a second semester, and went on to guide students into using the imparted knowledge to win many thousands of dollars in awards from festivals and the like.

Writer-director Hanan Harchol also has a bit role of “Mr. Caldwell,” an assistant principal who in real life is the great man who helped create careers of his rambunctious students in a tough school. The title character is played by Dov Tiefenbach, known to his students as Mr. Harchol, or just Mister, or Mr. H. At the same time Harchol’s fellow teachers call each other Mr. or Ms., rarely by first names, which in my experience might have been the case before the mid-1960s when we had to wear jackets and ties but now just first names and a t-shirt are de rigueur. The current dress code is good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was good enough for me—and for Hanan.

You would think that Hanan Harchol would have no problem even from the first day since, after all, he is not teaching algebra, which might be of little interest to teens in almost any high school, but instructs them in film making. Here the kids have something to do with their hands. They don’t sit still facing the front of the room listening to long lectures or trying to participate in subjects they can’t really get their minds into. Instead, Harchol faces the indifference so dismaying in “Precious,” in which that title character, sitting in a history class where students are simply talking to each other and ignoring the instructor, bops a kid on the head with a notebook, demanding that the whole class pay attention.

Because of the discipline problems facing Harchol during his first year, he gets into frequent tiffs with Ms. Murray (Leslie Hendrix), the department chair, who could easily fit into a role as Ilsa Koch, the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald concentration camp. She will turn out to have a heart of gold, though, which makes us recall that people wear masks to cover their real feelings and attitudes.

So the kids are a problem. When one of them refuses to turn off his computer, Harchol moves to turn it off himself. The youngster grabs him by the wrist, inflaming the educator who yells “Get out,” notwithstanding that at a previous time, several of his pupils are roaming around the hall leading to an admonishing by an administrator for sending someone out of the classroom without supervision—which could make him lose his license. Seeking a mentor (not realizing that Ms. Murray has been just that all along), he consults a young, attractive Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard) whose algebra class quietly works at their desks, seeking to learn what she does to get such attention. After receiving feedback from her, he is startled to hear her ask him a key question: “Do you like the kids?” Aha. A genuine affection for your charges will be felt by them, and you’ve won half the battle.

I related strongly to the discussions in the faculty lounge, which features the burnt-out Mr. McKenna (Tyler Hollinger), whom Ana Martinez calls an a**hole. There is considerable grousing when the department chair conducts a meeting, telling the men and women about the demands of the state: lesson plan every day, suitable for inspection. Call each parent of every failing student. Keep the pace: do not fall behind, spending too much time on one project.

Inevitably Harchol cannot avoid taking his problems home, where his sometimes bored wife has to listen to her husband’s tales of woe when all she wants to do is to get some sleep. But when they clash on whether to start a family, you might think the marriage can go belly-up just as Harchol may get fired from his job. Harchol notes several times that he received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools, which makes one wonder why he did not opt to get a gig at least in a community college. It’s not as though he carried with him a liking for teens, so what’s the deal? Since the story is based closely on real life, I would like to know the answer, especially since hell, the maximum pay right now in New York City public schools, one of the highest paying municipalities in the country, is $119,000, but you have to work 25 years and have a Master’s plus 60 credits to get there. A lawyer getting a fairly decent job right out of law school can make that at age twenty-four. So can a pharmacist. So can a lot of people.

Harchol deals with individual problems of some of his charges, including one girl who had been “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend from the age of five to the age of nine, and another who sleeps in class because he has two jobs after school and has to look after a child, though he is only seventeen. In the end comes a Hallmark statement by Ms. Murry, who notes (decades before the coronavirus business), that we have little control over many things, but that “the only thing we have is the ability to give away.”

If you do not expect the movie to be as lively as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or chaotic and violent like “To Sir With Love,” or as wacky as “Teachers” (an escaped mental patient serves a day as a substitute), or as horrific as “Never Let Me Go,” you should have a good time enjoying the inevitable rise of Harchol from a miserable failure to brilliant educator. No, that’s not a spoiler: you already know the trajectory. It’s quite well played by Dov Tiefenbach, though at the age of 38 he seems long in tooth to perform as a beginning teacher. He has particularly interesting conversations in a coffee shop with his dad (Tibor Feldman), who makes fun of his son’s gig entertaining restaurant guests with his guitar but is proud of the lad’s choice to be a teacher.

The students, who may be improving much of the dialogue, were actual pupils of Harchol who came back to play themselves at age seventeen. As their teacher said to them many time, “good job.” This is Hanan Harchol’s freshman film, though he may be known to some at the helm of the short, animated TV episodes of “Jewish Food for Thought.”We look forward to his next venture.

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

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

BLOW THE MAN DOWN – movie review

BLOW THE MAN DOWN
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Screenwriter: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Cast: Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Marceline Hugot, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/20/20
Opens: March 20, 2020

Early on we see a sign in one house “Bed and Breakfast,” which coyly hides the term “Bordello,” which would have completed the alliteration. The real problem is that if the Bed and Breakfast place were really open for innocent enough tourists, where would they get the business? The small town in Maine is utterly provincial, and to top it off the area is regularly snowed in with damp weather that might make London seek like a climatic dream. This is a bad location for tourism but a good one for mystery. Bodies turn up including one of a hooker, but the real interest of writer-directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole is the dark secret that involves not just the madam but a trio of elderly women who appear ready for redemption.

“Blow the Man Down” is a sea shanty sung in the opening scene with delightful harmony by a group of grizzled fishermen, and another shanty will serve to bookmark this movie, which was awarded best screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. The script is an original, nicely combining a detective story with a look at an ambiance of a part of America not often seen in the movies.

Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) do not look like sisters and what’s more, despite their kinship they exhibit different personalities. When their mother dies, the sisters are determined to continue the fish business, though Mary Beth, unlike her sister, talks often of wanting to bolt from the town. They have occasional chats with their mother’s pals Susie (June Squibb), Gail (Annette O’Toole), and Doreen (Marceline Hugot).

Mary Beth, always the adventurer, picks up a guy at the bar, becoming anxious when she sees a gun in the glove compartment and a trunk filled with blood. He calls her “cute,” touches her leg, finally attacking her, resulting in his being harpooned in the neck and as dead as a punctured lobster. You and I would probably plead self defense, but the defender instead informs her sister who help in burying the body in the deep.

The person of major audience interest is Margo Martindale as the town madam, Enid, longtime friend of the trio of elderly ladies, any one of whom could serve as the lead in Joseph Kesselring’s play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Nobody will mess with Enid until somebody does, when her three pals, after hearing that one of her hookers has been shot in the head. Gayle Rankin performs as a character who is one of Enid’s workers, and Will Brittain pounds the beat as Justin, a young police officer who has a liking for Priscilla and, in one scene as you think that he will collar the two sisters, he instead follows up his undeaclared courtship by accepting an invitation to the sisters’ fish dinner.

At our time, when women are increasingly empowering themselves, “Blow the Man Down” serves as another example of how the sisterhood look out for one another. The film does not try to satirize small-town living or houses of ill repute but accepts the flaws of this remote coastal village of Easter Cove without judging.

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

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

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY – movie review

THE BURNT ORANGE HERSY
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Giuseppe Capotondi
Screenwriter: Scott B. Smith based on a novel by Charles Willeford
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/20
Opens: March 6, 2020

There are more ways to commit high crimes and misdemeanors than those we’ve seen recently at a trial in the United States Congress. Typical are large ones like bank robberies, smaller ones like street muggings. Fascinating movies have been made about the former like “Bonnie and Clyde” and the latter by the 2004 movie “Mugged.” Now “The Burnt Picture Hersey embraces an unusual crime, its execution exquisitely planned and carried out by a people with an intimate knowledge of the art world. It helps mightily that Giuseppe Capotondi, whose “La dopia Ora,” about an ex-cop and a chambermaid who meet at a speed dating event, indulges a witty, fast-talking script by Scott B. Smith and a pair of actors who are adept at the verbal sparring that is so much a feature of Charles Willeford’s noir novels.

Like Capotondi’s “La dopia ora,” (“The Double Hour”), the first part of the film features dialogue you might expect at a classy and prestigious off-Broadway theater like The Promenade and The Cherry Lane. There is not a wasted word in the repartee enjoyed by Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) and Claes Bang (James Figueras). (Bang is Danish while Debicki’s roots are Polish and Irish.) During an extended date at Italy’s Lake Como, the American and the European delight in sparring like the candidates in the Democratic Party debates. Just when the theater audience believe that they are in for an evening of a simple romantic fling before the couple go to their separate homes, the plot spins delightfully out of control. If you are familiar with Charles Willeford’s fiction, you can see why that author’s 1971 novel from which the movie is adapted is considered by critics to be his best work.

The opening scene features art critic James Figueras in the midst of wowing an American audience in Milan, explaining a surreal painting on the wall. The painting may not look like much, yet Figueras calls it virtually a masterpiece—wrapping up his spiel with an acutely comic finale. This is where he meets Minnesotan tourist Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), who comes on to him and is invited on a trip to the Lake Como estate of art collector and gallery owner Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), who has invited Figueras to use him for a job that will leave Cassidy with clean hands.

Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a recluse who is living on the estate, shows up, allowing himself to be interviewed by Figueras, the two guests charmed by the world-famous painter. At the same time Figueras figures that he can further his languishing career. He increases his creds as a critic, but far more important for him is a chance to make millions, and therein lies the thriller.
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What does director Capotondi want us to take away from the story aside from providing us with some breathtaking chills and thrills? Probably the idea that we do not really know each other whether from simple meetings like a weekend date or even after years of thinking that we can see beneath the surface of our friends and associates. Scott B. Smith’s script is largely responsible for the wit and razzle-dazzle of the conversations, and the quartet of Sutherland, Debicki, Bang and Jagger provide the human touch that do justice to the words.

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

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

BURDEN – movie review

BURDEN
101 Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrew Heckler
Screenwriter: Andrew Heckler
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough, Tess Harper, Crystal Fox, Usher
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/24/20
Opens: February 28, 2020

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/ You’ve got to be taught from year to year
Its got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

We learn from these lyrics from “South Pacific” that we are not born with hate. Hate is evoked by the environment, not the genes. The negative emotion may be given birth by your parents, later by your friends and what you see on TV and in the movies. This does not mean that we should not hate Hitler and Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. That hatred is rational. To feel this animosity to an entire people because of their skin color or religion is irrational.

Andrew Heckler, who directs and wrote “Burden,” has been heretofore known mostly for his acting. However he contributes an incisive portrait of hatred based closely on a true story (we see some of the actual characters in the epilogue). In this case the focus is on the Ku Klux Klan which, surprisingly, was alive and well as recently as 1996, albeit in one small South Carolina town. Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the head of the sheeted warriors, had the brilliant idea to invigorate a dump of a one-screen cinema house by converting it into a museum of the Klan, with Confederate flags prominently displayed. One woman involved in the structure might be called a moderate in that she announces that Blacks are welcome as well as Whites because “Blacks also fought and died for the Confederacy.” A shrine to the KKK would seem bad enough but the place is used for headquarters of an actual Klan group, one of its members, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), serving as grand dragon.

Not much is told about Burden’s youth aside from his statement that he once coaxed a deer to come right up to him fearlessly (the animal senses the boy’s friendliness) only to be shot by Burden’s father. Burden is poor, badly educated, orphaned, seeking a family as do so many young gang members, though he finds familial warmth from Tom Griffin, who assures him that he treats the young man as his own son. In fact he is so enamored of Mike that he hands over the deed to the Klan museum, giving title to him upon his death.

Two forces counteract the racist group. One is Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mom, who is instrumental in turning around the emotionally unstable Mike. The other is David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), the local reverend, who active not only in his fire-and-brimstone sermons on Sunday but throughout the week gathering crowds of other Black people including a few Whites, demanding that the Klan museum be destroyed.

Much of the movie is taken up with the gentle and sometimes fiery relationship between Judy, who is actively anti-Klan, and Mike Burden, who treats her as lovingly as he treats the local Black people with contempt and with his fists. In one scene he targets the reverend for assassination with a high-powered rifle, but on further consideration he puts down the weapon (he “lays the burden down” as we hear from a song on the soundtrack) and reconsiders his fury at the African-Americans.

Many of the scenes come across as if the movie were endorsed by the church, given the loving attention that Reverend Kennedy gives to the repenting Klan member, affection that means a lot to Burden after he quits the Klan and is targeted for beatings at Tom Griffin’s order. The reverend’s “chasing hate with love” is not popular with his own family, which recalls the many beatings that the gang members gave to the African-Americans.

Garrett Hedlund’s terrific performance anchors the story, turning the individual into a thoroughly credible action to redeem himself. Many of the scenes, however, are not modulated, the physical actions and obscenity-laced words appearing one after the other. We in the audience are coaxed to consider whether we should treat our enemies with love, as “brothers in Christ” as the reverend notes, or to feel emboldened temporarily by taking vengeance against those who have wronged us.

Save the for cursing, you might almost take this film as a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode, one that could be appreciated by a wide audience as a supplement to a Sunday sermon.

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

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

GREED – movie review

GREED
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Sarah Solemani, Shirley Henderson, Isla Fisher
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 2/11/20
Opens: February 28, 2020

Greed - Poster Gallery

Jeff Bezos, founding director of Amazon, is the richest man in the world, with assets of $120 billion, at least that’s before his recent divorce. I’m puzzled, though. He recently was praised by Senator Bernie Sanders for setting a minimum wage for his packers at $15 an hour. This is arguably a decent wage for starting a career, but let’s consider why Bezos insists on playing the capitalist game like a small merchant, determined to make some profit just to keep a business afloat. If he raised the minimum wage to $20, what would happen? He would not likely grow broke notwithstanding the thousands of packers that work for the company, nor might even his accountant notice the difference. “It’s not a charity,” say some. True, but if you’ve got the money, why no flaunt it by really paying the workers for their hours of backbreaking work timed on a machine that acts like a stopwatch? Let’s go further. Instead of doling out the money through his foundation which now goes to young people training for executive positions, couldn’t he cut loose with twenty billion immediately to aid worthy charities particularly serving the poverty-stricken in the developing world?

That’s where Michael Witnerbottom’s movie “Greed” cuts in. Winterbottom, who is not as far left politically as Ken Loach, nonetheless opens up an indictment of capitalism, but one filled with so many episodes and such rapid, non-chronological editing, that he is more interested in a general entertainment before he gets down and dirty to expose a British billionaire. By extension the principal character, Sir Richard McCreadle (Steve Coogan), acts as a metaphor for the industrialized capitalist countries that prey not only on their own countrymen but more on draining the very lives of tens of millions of people who make the clothing that we consume. We can go even further and say that each of us who scores a pair of jeans for twenty-five bucks or a T-shirt for $2.99 are profiting from the exploitation from big corporations, perhaps without a thought about what they are doing. (We have long ago done away with the once-strong International Garment Workers Union supporting American workers in the rag trade, as competition from China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and others virtually destroyed this American empire.)

For those of us concerned purely with the entertainment value of “Greed,” the folks who do not go to the movies to hear mainly political manifestos played out, there is considerable fun in watching Steve Coogan portray a guy whose nickname might well be Greed. Planning to give a lavish party on the Greek island of Mykonos for his sixtieth birthday, the billionaire garment king is treated by Winterbottom to a dramatized biographical sketch. When the planned party has a hitch, Richard tries to shoo away a group of Syrian refugees that have camped out on the public Mykonos beach, but exploits even them by manipulating them to put on uniforms for the big toga party to come.

Many years earlier he proves his determination to get the capital goods that he wants at the lowest possible price, sometimes dealing with a wholesaler who stubbornly refuses to come down with his offering price by pretending to walk out and buy nothing. Nonetheless as he predicts, he is called back into the room to carry on negotiations that will allow him to walk away with huge bargains.

Since the apple does not fall far from the tree, his teen son, Finn McCreadie (Asa Butterfield) follows in his dad’s footsteps, determined to take over the corporation sooner rather than later. He resents his father though eager to win over the hot women who are on loving terms with Sir Richard.

For me, the comic entertainments take second billing to the anti-capitalist thrust, though Winterbottom, using his own script, shows us the poverty-stricken garment workers who are filmed by Giles Nutgens on site in Greece, India, Sri Lanka, London and Monaco. This is a big, expensive production also highlighting Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a young, pretty Sinhalese-British woman who has a major role at the party, who is not at all impressed by Richard’s wealth and power, and who returns to England as a still exploited garment worker.

Everything is seen through the eyes of Nick (David Mitchell), a shlubby journalist who is writing Richard’s biography.

The combination of political message and lavish entertainment makes “Greed” a welcome addition to the cinema scene despite a paucity of real jokes

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

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

THE CALL OF THE WILD – movie review

THE CALL OF THE WILD
20th Century Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chris Sanders
Screenwriter: Michael Green, book by Jack London
Cast: Karen Gillan, Harrison Ford, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Jean Louisa Kelly, Wes Brown, Omar Sy
Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 2/13/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD MOVIE POSTER 2 Sided ORIGINAL 27x40 HARRISON FORD

Dogs have been bred by us sapiens for ten thousand years, and through that brief period of evolution have emerged as both a help and a best friend. They have been used by the British aristocracy for fox hunting, by lesser Brits for catching rats, by some for pulling sleds up north, and now in America for sniffing out drugs and explosives. What happens to Buck, the principal character in the current version of Jack London’s most famous, short novel “The Call of the Wild” should not happen to a dog. The St. Bernard, Scotch, Collie mix goes through a lifetime of experiences, not all bad by any means, but how he comes of age makes for an appealing adventure, especially for kids. As for the nature of the animals in Chris Sanders’s dog opera, there’s much to be said for substituting animation for the real four-legged creatures. Not only would Lassie, Snoopy, Toto, Marley, Beethoven, Skip, Hachiko and Benji resist some of the scenes in this “Wild.” You would not want even Cujo to be whipped by the cruel masters, forced to pull sleds with some passengers as obnoxious as you would find on the NY subways. Falling through ice while trying to save a drowning woman despite the way some human beings had treated him proves that dogs will give unconditional love to people unless pushed to even further limits.

Jack London has published the novel at first by a series in the Saturday Evening Post, a work considered cinematic enough to warrant the productions of movies in 1923 (where he opens as a puppy and never barks), in1935 (where the romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young has priority over dog doings); also in 1972, 1976, 1996, 2009, and now. Some, like this one, are loosely adapted from the London novel.

With stunning mountain views and scenes set in Wild West studios, the story opens on the 140 pound (mostly) St. Bernard (actually mostly an animatronic animal) living in Santa Clara, California toward the end of the 19th century. The dog is a handful, in one scene knocking over a large table set for a banquet and eating enough to allow a month’s hibernation. Kidnapped by a bad man seeking money, Buck is sold, trained as a sled dog, and driven through ice and snow delivering mail to miners prospecting for gold. Ownership is taken by a rich woman and her evil brother Hal (Dan Stevens), who has no problem using a club on the growling Buck. They ignore advice from a grizzled prospector John Thornton (Harrison Ford) to wait until the spring melt. The dog attaches himself to Thornton, who talks to Buck about his desire to return home. Later adventures pit Buck and Thornton against Hal with climactic results.

If your kids were not told that the dogs were not real, only the most astute would recognize that Buck and an assortment of dogs, wolves, rabbits, and birds are not flesh and blood. This is a dandy adventure for the small fry and should be tolerated well enough by the adults. Some of the more sensitive youngsters might be started by a few scenes of violence, but in this adaptation the directors have cut around the most egregious cases of mayhem such as the falling of a team of men and dogs together with the sleds into the river to drown.

At an hour and forty minutes, the movie does not outlast its welcome and might even encourage your little ones later to put down their phones and read some of Jack London’s adventure tales. All is told in chronological order in a story that ultimately and perversely goes against the idea that dogs prefer people more than their own kind.

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

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

THE NIGHT CLERK – movie review

THE NIGHT CLERK
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Cristofer
Screenwriter: Michael Cristofer
Cast: Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, Tye Sheridan, John Leguizamo, Johnathan Schaech, Jacque Gray
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

You might expect Michael Cristofer’s “The Night Clerk” to be in tune with his directing interests, given that his previous film, “Original Sin,” unravels a scheme by a woman and her lover wherein the woman is to marry a rich man and run off with his money. The plot fails when Angelina Jolie’s character, Julia Russell, falls in love with the guy she marries. (We won’t talk about the reviews.) This time Cristofer is at the helm of a crime story that focuses on Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan), a 23-year-old fellow with Asperger’s syndrome, who runs the night shift at a small hotel. Because of his impairment, he is unable to make eye contact with others, and speaks formally with too much detail, which is a symptom of high intelligence. Nor can he pick up on social cues.

Bart Bromely, the title character played by Tye Sheridan, is afflicted with this neurobiological condition. Nevertheless he has a job as a hotel night clerk because, the manager says, the company has a policy of hiring people with impairments. In order to learn how to speak informally, Bart, who is a wiz at camera technology, sets up hidden cameras in the rooms not because he is a perv voyeur but because he uses the guests to instruct him in how to speak. This provides some of the movie’s comedy, as when the beautiful Andrea (Ana de Armas) is checking in, getting an earful from robotic Bart on the amenities the hotel provides.

“The Night Clerk” moves into crime territory when Bart’s camera captures a struggle between a man, Nick (Johnathon Schaech) and a woman, Karen (Jacque Gray), an argument that results in the woman’s murder—all picked up by Bart. He interferes with the body, gets blood on himself, and is considered by police detective Johnny Espada (John Leguizamo) to be the prime suspect. At this point the movie breaks away from a crime genre to explore a relationship showing Andrea, a new guest who is charmed by Bart’s awkwardness, particularly when Bart discusses like a walking Wikipedia how love is an addiction, like cocaine, releasing a flood of endorphins, and how heartbreak occurs when the love (like cocaine) is withdrawn.

Helen Hunt appears from time to time as Ethan Bromley, Bart’s mother, who tries to defend her “fragile” boy from the detective’s interrogation. Here and there, Cristofer’s script establishes comic points, as when Bart, who like Jim Carrey’s Fletcher Reede in “Liar Liar,” not only cannot lie but insists on proactively telling people truths they don’t want to hear. A used car salesman (D.L. Walker), hears from Bart not only that the dealer is obese but that obesity can cause cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Nor is a clothing salesman (Walter Platz) off the hook, informed by Bart that he would never wear slacks recommended by the dealer because the dealer is “old.”

Activities surrounding the murder of a blond woman in a hotel room pop up now and then during Espada’s interrogation, but this is primarily a film about a tender but unconsummated affection between Andrea and Bart, though there is some reason to believe that Andrea is using the night clerk, setting him up along with her boyfriend Nick, to take the blame for the killing.

Tye Sheridan, whose performance might be compared to that of Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” and Tom Hanks’ title performance in “Forrest Gump,” is solid and delivers visual understanding of a condition that affects one person in every five hundred. Sheridan is perhaps best known as Ellis in Jeff Nichols’’Mud,” about two boys who help a fugitive to avoid capture by vigilantes. His job this time is so good that you in your theater seat might feel like getting up, frustrated by the projection of his autism, to shout, “What’s the big deal? Just look him in the eye and stop talking!”

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

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

THE ASSISTANT – movie reveiw

THE ASSISTANT
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kitty Green
Screenwriter: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner, Matathew Madfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 12/12/19
Opens: January 31, 2020

The Assistant Movie Poster

“Bombshell” this is not. If you like movies that deal with what you find in this year’s tabloids right up to exposés in the NYTimes, go with “Bombshell.” If on the other hand you prefer your ripped-from-the-headlines movies to shown in small indies, “The Assistant” with “The Assistant.” The title figure Jane (Julia Garner) is the kind of person that could graduate to be a whistleblower casting her net on the corruption in the Trump Government. As an assistant to a New York movie entertainment center where scripts are looked at and wanna-be actresses are vetted, Jane, who will try to expose the hanky-panky indulged by the boss, is clearly channeling Harvey Weinstein among the big fish who were caught cuddling with candidates for showy jobs. Weinstein represents the pinnacle of people brought down by victimizing women who need to come across sexually in order to get or keep jobs, with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News acting as a distant second in notoriety.

If “The Assistant” aims to root out corruption in an industry that, like politics, has high representation in our country, it succeeds in presenting a particular situation but does so bearing such a low-key profile that the film becomes an exercise in dullness. Kitty Green appears to want to take the glitz out of the sordid sexual motives of people who are the key to jobs in the industry by giving us a story that allows us to fill in the blanks. But movies are not TV nor are they stage plays. They are for the big screen and deserve more pizzazz than the writer-director evokes here.

Julia Garner does good work as an assistant who arrives to her downscale New York entertainment office as a woman who may believe in the Japanese proverb that the tall grass gets mowed first. Why, then, would she butt in to what she imagines is going on in the Mark Hotel—yes, or course we know what’s going on but there is no smoking gun—and attempt to file a complaint with Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), the human resources director of the firm? Is she aware that the complaint will go nowhere, since Human Resources will threaten her with the loss of her job if she goes through with the action? Maybe not.

Sienna (Kristin Forseth), one of the actress candidates, looks like jail bait. She is set up in the office with a bigger desk that the other low-level employees have, and does not know even that you can get an outside like by dialing 9. Yet she may be willing to go along with the sexual predation in store for her and may not want any whistle to be blown. The big boss is “away from his desk” most of the time, infuriating some Japanese execs who had an appointment with him. Nor can his wife (Stéphanye Dussud) reach him by phone no matter what time of day she tries. The male assistants (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) are woke enough to know what’s going on. They realize that Jane, having worked at her desk for a month, would probably be gone given that—as the Human Resources director states—that she is not the boss’ type.

Take this script to an off-Broadway stage like New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. It is too minimalist to belong on the big screen.

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

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

CITIZEN K – movie review

CITIZEN K
Greenwich Entertainment/Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cast: Mikkhail Khodorkovsky, NYMikhail Gorvachev, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Petukhov, Leonid Nevzlin,
Screened at: Critics’ link, 12/17/19
Opens: January 15, 2020

Citizen K (2019) picture s_id875062.jpg

I would like to have been in Moscow to observe the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin on the day that “Citizen K” was released. You can be assured that he would be turning over in whatever receptacle is holding his bearded frame, because somehow the gods might have allowed Lenin to watch this movie and weep for what happened to his country, to his fondest dream. Instead of a paradise for workers and peasants, the former Soviet Union, having lost its satellite empire and given up communism, did not replace it with the kind of capitalism that Milton Friedman or Michael Bloomberg or New York Times economist columnist Paul Krugman would cherish. Russia is now under the influence of a wild-west kind of capitalism that some of us here in the U.S. can understand, given that in our country one percent of the citizens owns some twenty-five percent of the wealth. Inequality is even worse over there: at one point the oligarchs, the seven richest men in Russian, controlled fifty percent of the economy. Maybe Putin’s interest in gobbling up parts of Ukraine and feasting his eyes as well on the former satellite countries is his desire to distract the Russian people for what is being done to them.

“Citizen K” Alex Gibney, whose 2005 doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” lays out the case for a corruption that led to the company’s demise, now concentrates on two factors in the Russian economic and political goings-on. One subject is Putin, now the head of his country for eighteen years. The other is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs and perhaps the richest man in Russian, whose fall for criticizing Putin led to the state’s seizure of his asserts and his imprisonment in Siberia for ten years. Gibney’s camera switches from president to oligarch, the former winning a series of fake elections while the latter, exiled in London and still holding on to hundreds of millions of dollars stashed safely in countries like Ireland, directs his venom toward the current Russian system.

Gibney has a way of making documentaries into thrillers as he did with Enron, though in this case he relies too much on a hugely intrusively score to give the impression that he is filming not a doc to enlighten us so much as a thriller to capture our emotions. Zipping through a series of historical events that pave the way to the present Russia, Gibney, ignoring Lenin and completely and showing a quick, archived film with Stalin’s picture, points us past Gorbachev’s glasnost era (Gorby is still considered by many in Russia to have single-handedly caused the Soviet Union’s end), through Boris Yeltsin’s turn at bat. With the government about to collapse once again leading perhaps to a return to Communism, Yeltsin bargained with the oligarchs. The state would borrow money from them knowing that they could not be paid back. And the oligarchs would own Russia’s leading assets, including oil.

During that time Khodorkovsky—whom we see as a young man and then as a figure aged largely by his stay in Siberia—by himself created the country’s first commercial bank while at the same time picking up Yukos, a number of Siberian oil fields, at pennies on the dollar. Khodorkovsky is later blamed for the murder of a Siberian oil town mayor who had claimed that Khodorkovsky evaded taxes, and guess who would be the leading suspect, given that it even happened on the oligarch’s birthday! Putin, moving rapidly up the political ladder, determined to go against Khodorkovsky at a time that the rich man exposed state corruption. K was arrested on fake charges and sent on a seven day’s journey to a Siberian prison. One must wonder why Putin did not simply have the man poisoned or shot, as he has been charged of doing for several other opponents.

Behind the lenses, Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov give us the long view of Russia’s seat of government while switching to a one-on-one series of interviews with a seated Khodorkovsky. This may not be a Michael Moore type of doc, loaded with wit and humor, but with its quick pacing and a script that allows us in the audience to understand at least a little of what our adversaries in Moscow are doing, it serves as entertainment and enlightenment equally.

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

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

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

THE SONG OF NAMES
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/29/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

The Song of Names (2019)

It’s not all that unusual for people to disappear. Men run away from their marriages. Women from small towns bolt, fed up with kinder, küche and kirche. Not long ago Deborah Feldman ran away from her Hasidic Jewish family which she considered to be stifling, disappearing into Greenwich Village, washing her laundry in her memoir “Unorthodox.” “The Song of Names” is likewise about a person who disappears, but this fellow runs not away from the rigidities of religion but more deeply into it. The overriding concept is this: why would a person vanish for thirty-five years, abandoning the foster brother who grew to love him and the foster father who financed and encouraged him and who lost so much money because of the young man’s evaporation?

Through Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a novel by Norman Lebrecht by the same name, director François Girard constructs a movie about music and betrayal, building on his own love of music as shown through his “Thirty Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which are vignettes about the pianist’s life, ‘The Red Violin” about the passion created by the instrument over centuries, and the TV episode “Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.” While “The Song of Names” is clearly about music, Girard is more interested in the emotional bond between two young men who had grown to love each other, and the search by one to find his foster brother who had ruined the life and finances of a British music publisher who had invited him into his home, bought a 284-year-old violin, and died two months after the disastrous disappearance.

This is one of those films that come forth as convoluted given the editor’s frequent changes of eras. The betrayer, Dovid, is played by Luke Doyle aged 9, by Gerran Howell ages 17-21, and thirty-five years later by Clive Owen acting out of his comfort zone as a middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jew. His foster brother Martin is played by Misha Handley aged 9, by Jonah Hauer-King ages 17-23, and thirty-five years later by Tim Roth. The opening scenes are the most realistic and credible before the story heads off into a not-easily-believed fantasy zone.

Dovid’s father sent his violin prodigy to London to live with a family that includes Martin, who is about the same age and is envious of his new foster-brother’s gifts. Though Martin and Martin’s dad are Christian, the British household honors all Jewish traditions for their new guest, even abandoning their love of breakfast bacon. After a bout of sibling rivalry, the two youths become great friends. When Martin’s father invests in a concert expected to start Dovid’s career as a musician, Dovid disappears completely, leaving the audience at the refund booth and the underwriter heavily in debt. When Martin, now in his mid-fifties, finally tracks Dovid down, he finds out for the first time what happened to his friend. He discovers—as do we in the audience—wholly dubious circumstances of the vanishing act.

In the midst of the credulity-straining tale are some moving scenes. During the German bombing of London, as Dovid takes refuse in the neighborhood air-raid shelter (impressively decked out with scores of sandbags), Dovid pulls out his violin, setting up a competition with a slightly older violinist as though executing a theme and a fugue. On an even more emotional level, the middle-aged Dovid discovers what happened to his parents who had stayed in Poland too late to avoid the Holocaust. A rabbi (Kamil Lemieszewski), doubling as a cantor, sings a song of names whereby the melody makes it easier for him to recall the names of victims who died at Treblinka. Nor can the film be faulted for pulling at the tear ducts at a sight in Treblinka death camp, where the principals walk past stones that memorialize the murdered Jews.

Should we forgive Dovid for bankrupting Martin’s family given his rare talent with the strings, or do we find that difficult given also that Martin has spent his a lifetime fretting about Dovid’s disappearance, heading off from London, traipsing around Poland and New York to solve the puzzle? The movie suffers from the frequent editing to cover the three stages of life and could be served better by a chronological approach. Montréal and Budpest stand in for New York and Warsaw.

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

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

BOMBSHELL – movie review

BOMBSHELL

Lionsgate
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Cast: Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Morrison, Nicole Kidman
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 11/10/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

In “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Megyn Kelly, a larger-than-life lawyer best remembered for her aggressive questioning of candidate Donald Trump who replied when she cited Trump for calling women dogs, pigs and bimbos, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” This is the kind of programming, perhaps, that made Fox the number one cable news program in America. The picture as whole, though, is directed in a pedestrian way by Jay Roach, whose “Trumbo” was a devastating look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who in 1947 was blacklisted for his leftist political beliefs. Except for a documentary-style run showing events during past years, “Bombshell” follows a chronological trajectory, the style used by documentary filmmakers, but Michael Moore could probably make a doc with more biting satire and a boatload of humor that is largely missing from this film.

Roach uses a screenplay by Charles Randolph, whose “The Life of David Gale” is generally considered a flub but whose “The Big Short” is a dynamic piece of muckraking exposing financers on Wall Street who actually hoped that their clients would be unable to pay their mortgages. The current movie is anchored by three women, all blondes with fine figures, which Fox demands of its frontline news people. Charlize Theron serves as first among equals in the role of Megyn Kelly, who turned to journalism after a career as a corporate defense attorney and was included in the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people. Her career town a sharp turn downward following her accusation that Roger Ailes, here played by John Lithgow complete with the jowels and triple chin of the news boss from the second floor and who is so large that he needed a walker to get around. Kelly accuses the late Roger Ailes of trying to kiss her on the lips, noting that Ailes freely told her that she has to play ball with him behind locked doors if she wants to unlock her career with Fox.

As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman portrays the journalist and author, also called by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. Like Kelly, she accuses Ailes of harassment, shown here almost desperate in her goal of attracting the testimonies of other women who had been approached by the news boss in similar unsavory ways. She is perhaps the person most able to show that her testimony is not simply lies in order to collect a fat paycheck, suing Roger Ailes directly rather than Fox News, and signing up some twenty additional women with similar tales of sordid behavior.

For her part Kalya Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is stunned when called into Ailes’ second-floor office, eager to move up to “the front of the line” in news broadcasting, only to be commanded to life her skirt higher, and “no, higher,” “higher,” by Ailes, sitting comfortably behind his large desk, his breath seeming to come in greater spurts as Kayla, with considerable ambivalence, does what she is told.

The performers are made up to look quite like their real-live counterparts in much that Saturday Night Live has been able to disguise Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon (also appearing here as a closeted lesbian) as KellyAnne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton among others. Malcolm McDowell gets a small but important role as Rupert Murdoch, the boss of bosses stationed on the eighth floor of the Fox building (filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Los Angeles). Though a big supporter of Ailes, even he turns against the man, refusing even to appear with him to announced Aiels’s dismissal from Fox, though he did hand over a handsome severance check, sending him off on a lavish party.

Fox News, with the slogan “Fair and balanced,” is clearly within the Republican-conservative view of politics, favoring free trade, an anti-abortion platform, and strong family bonds. Hypocrisy abounds, however, beyond the purview of this film, as accusations mounted up against Fox News Latino vice president Francisco Cortes who tried to coerce Tamara N. Holder into performing oral sex, Bill O’Reilly, whose show sporting combative, right-wing propaganda, is canned with the network’s settling with Juliet Huddy, including the firing of Fox sports president Jamie Horowitz.

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

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

 

DARK WATERS – movie review

DARK WATERS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the NY Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Dark Waters - Poster Gallery

The state of West Virginia is politically as red as a hooker’s lipstick. Even its Democratic senator Joe Manchin votes with Trump sixty-one percent of the time. In one sense you can’t blame the folks who live there. They are in a state that immediately brings to mind the term “coal miners.” People who have served in that dangerous job for generations are running out of options now that coal has been displaced by other energy sources, and they think that Trump will bring back their jobs. The small farmers as well, a generally conservative segment of society, are mostly Republicans, though they have been thrown under the boss by Trump who is fighting a losing trade war with China, the largest customer of their soybeans. Small farmers and others in the state were awakened when the lies and evil deeds of one corporation, DuPont, caused havoc with their land, their cows, and with the very health of the God-fearing human beings who live there. Like the cigarette companies who have known for decades that their product causes cancer, DuPont, a chemical giant, dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste in landfills surrounding the farms knowing that the stuff is carcinogenic. Todd Haynes, whose “Safe” takes on the plight of a housewife who develops an extreme sensitivity to chemicals, is in his métier, dealing now with an entire people afflicted with the carcinogenic sludge thrown at them by DuPont.

How does a corporate attorney whose white shoe firm defends big corporations manage to dedicate seventeen years of his life to fighting a giant industry? We’re not exactly sure but we do see that Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is incensed by what is being doe to the little guy beginning when a farmer in Parkersburg, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), barges into the Cincinnati law office requesting, or rather demanding, that Rob take the case. At first Rob is aghast that this fellow seeks out him of all people, but Wilbur has been referred to Rob by the lawyer’s grandmother. That’s a good enough start. For the rest of the story, Rob’s firm, particularly its managing partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), is at first hesitant, then going whole hog to support him. Later on as the case drags on for seventeen years, Tom is not so sure, but he does cut Rob’s pay four times because clients are no longer willing to work with him.

Supported by his pious wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) who later regrets what her husband is doing—ruining his health, losing money that keeps the increasing brood of children happy—she becomes almost ballistic as she sees her compulsive partner’s health deteriorating. DuPont does what big corporations do when sued. Though they sometimes settle, this times DuPont fights with its team of corporate lawyers against the farmers. The rest of the movie deals with the year-by-year accumulations of road blocks that the chemical giant puts in the way of the plaintiff. In one instance, responding to a discovery motion, DuPont sends some fifty large boxes of document to the law office.

The culmination of the story should not be a surprise, because this narrative film is based on actual events in which DuPont agrees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the people whose health has deteriorated because of the carcinogenic chemical PFOA, which since 2013 is no longer being used to manufacture Teflon. If there is an element of John Grisham in the story—that best-selling author often finishing up with ironic endings (e.g. an insurance company that has lost a case files bankruptcy, shafting the plaintiffs), it is that many of the plaintiffs have died from exposure to PFOA.

Mark Ruffalo’s performance is spot on. The make-up department has increased his weight as the story moves on, Ruffalo’s puffy face brought on perhaps by the way his determination to dedicate half of his life to the case upends his need for physical activity. In the tradition of Norma Rae, Matewan, and Silkwood, “Dark Waters” is a strong, sober inclusion in the David-and-Goliath category of fights against the evils of companies that have known that they are wrong and have refused to admit their guilt.

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

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

MIDNIGHT FAMILY – movie review

MIDNIGHT FAMILY
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen
Cast: Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Josué Ochoa, Manuel Hernández
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Midnight Family Movie Poster

Question: When is an ambulance chaser not a hungry lawyer? Answer: When it is another ambulance. In Mexico City where the population is a hefty nine million, there are only forty-five certified, government vehicles to transport people to hospitals during emergencies. What’s more, the government hospitals are not as equipped as the private ones. So what happens to a victim of a car crash? What is a baby falls from a window and lands four stories later with a concussion? How do Mexicans pay for their rides in an ambulance, much less have money left over for a private hospital? In some respects “Midnight Family” takes the side of capitalism. Government is limited. Enter the private sphere where ambitious drivers chase accident victims and often try to outrun competing ambulances.

Watch this documentary, for which Stanford graduate Luke Lorentzen, an Art History and Film major spent six months riding in the back of an ambulance. He observed the Ochoa family during that time to gain just eighty minutes of prime footage. By the time you complete the visit, you might move politically to left (put more pesos into the public sector so that Mexicans, like Scandinavians, Germans, French and British are not bankrupted by the health care industry), or you might move to the right (leave it to the private market and you will find enough people motivated by money to take up the slack). But politics aside, this is an exciting picture that does not overstate its welcome, a documentary that eschews the old tried-and-boring interview process, showing, rather than telling, about how Mexico City handles its patients in emergencies.

Before you begin to think about the ethics of the Ochoa family, the most mature being seventeen-year-old Juan, put yourself in the back seat of a private ambulance, at the spot where sits the pudgy, chips-eating small fry who might be of the next generation of ambulance chasers. You pick up a guy with a bullet in his foot, fully conscious, and complaining that the ropes keeping him in place are too tight: “My foot! I can’t take it any more!” Feel awfully sad when the mother of an infant who has fallen from the fourth story in the pleasant residential area that the Ochoas cover worries that her child will not survive. Most interesting is the case of a high-school student whose boyfriend socked her one and broke her nose, an incident that might have active moviegoers compare the scene to one in the film “Waves,” wherein an eighteen-year-old receives a life sentence for killing his girlfriend with a single punch to the head. The young woman, who sits up, worries that the trip will be expensive. She also asks for a hug to “calm me.”

If you can take your attention away from the awe-inspiring mileage tracked by the ambulance, nicely photographed by the director, you may consider some ethical issues. It seems clear that while the Ochoas are performing an important service that the government lacks the political will to handle, and that they often come out broke when their passengers have no money and no health insurance, they may be crossing some legal lines. For example, we don’t know whether the Ochoas are in a vehicle that is fully registered with the proper license plates on the back that could ensure the respect of the populace. We are not sure that they have all the legally required equipment, though Juan does put the car through a check.

Are they always driving their patients to the nearest hospital, or do they sometimes take them to a more distant building which can pay them more pesos? And is the money they receive from one private hospital a legal fee to which they are entitled, or is it a kickback? Is it right for the Ochoas to chase other private ambulances to such an extent that they risk mowing down pedestrians to cut off their rival paramedics and be first at the scene? Given that there really is no alternative to private ambulances that may skirt legal issues and that the family may often be transporting money-challenged accident victims that cannot pay for their services, the Ochoas are heroes. One way or another, you are urged to go along for the ride. And look both ways when you cross the street.

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

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

63 UP – movie review

63 UP
BritBox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael AptedTony, Lynn, Nick, Neil, Peter
Cast: Charles Furneaux, Lynn Johnson, Nicholas Hitchon, Tony Walker, Neil Hughes, Bruce Balden, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Dewey, Symon Basterfield, John Brisby, Andrew Brackfield, Susan Sullivan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/22/19
Opens: November 27, 2019 at New York’s Film Forum

63 Up Poster

Breathes there a kid who has never been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In my day the two most popular answers were fireman and policeman. While politically correct youngsters nowadays would more likely say firefighter or police officer, the most popular ambition now is to be an astronaut. And don’t think that children would automatically adjust their thinking when they turn twenty-one and are ready to make a living. As Michael Apted repeatedly notes in his monumental, epic spot of moviemaking, “Show me the child and I’ll show you the man.” Apted give us a documentary unique in its aspirations, having begun interviewing fellow Brits when they were seven and continuing the “Seven Up” tradition now. With archival films that he uses to show us a select group of people at age 63, flashing back to 7 or 14 or 21 or 28 and beyond, he allows us to come to the conclusion that people generally turn out at least somewhat as you might expect them to be when they were 7.

Yes, it’s amazing that every seven years he has been able to go find and go back to the people he interviewed at seven. Most people might wonder whether he would even locate them over such a long life span, whether they would agree to continue with him every seven years, and mirabile dictum, there was only one death, one serious illness, and a small group who opted out.

The kids are all wonderful. They sound more articulate than the American youngsters with whom I’ve been in contact, and yet they have not all been chosen for their intellectual gifts. Only Lynn had passed away,and that from a freak accident. She was hit while playing on a park swing with her grandchildren. She was beloved in her career as a school librarian who because of government cutbacks lost her job more than once, and not ironically was an advocate of stronger government spending on social services.

The saddest story is that of Nick who had just been diagnosed at 63 with throat cancer, a gifted professor who appears shaken given that the diagnosis was given just days before the filming. Some were married more than once, and given the merit of film, we are able to see their spouses now, seven years back, then seven years back again and again. Not surprisingly they look older now having lost the gift of youth which seems to confer the adjective “adorable” on the lot of them.

When asked their opinions of Brexit, all appear to be opposed, one suggesting that 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU not because they really wanted to separate from Europe but because they were getting revenge on the whole political apparatus. In that our cousins across the Atlantic are akin to us here in the States.

Though a large number of the fourteen subjects were in occupations to envy—one a solicitor, another a professor, which might reinforce the idea that Britain is a class society that might predict what people would be in glamorous professions while others may drive a cab (and be annoyed by the competition of Uber), at least one suggests that things are different now. Now, an employer would look at the résumés and backgrounds and hire based on ability. If only that were true.

Neil is the only person who might be called a loser, and then only during certain periods of his life. He had been homeless and he had roamed the country, now and then. But even he gets elected to local political office, buys a home in France, and serves as a lay minister in churches.

Though Michael Apted gets full directing credit for the entire 55 years, a number of photographers had been on hand to capture the words, emotions and philosophies of the selected candidates. Will there be a “70 Up?” Cross your fingers. The current film is a lengthy 139 minutes but given the work that the crew and actors have put in, they certainly deserve your attention the full time. Apted himself remains in the background the entire time, posting questions in an empathetic style that is probably what is responsible for the continued appearances of his cast.

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

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

1917 – movie review

1917
Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dean-Charles Chapman, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Colin Firth
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 11/23/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

1917 - Poster Gallery

There’s a reason that for Sam Mendes, landing the slot as director of this movie about a single mission during the First World War is his most heartfelt project. “1917” is based on an actual episode in northern France taken from an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. Mendes is following up his direction of such films as “Spectre,” based on a mission executed by James Bond, and “Skyfall,” based on a threat to Britain’s MI6 that Bond must destroy. If “1917” were a James Bond vehicle, the title character would likely be called upon by his country’s military to prevent the British army from falling prey to an ambush that would have resulted in a massacre: the deaths of the entire unit of 1600 men. This war movie will doubtless remind cinemaphiles of Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli,” in which Australian troops were massacred in Turkey by following terrible orders.

The mission here to which two lower officers Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned to a perilous mission to go through German-hold territory in France and warn a division under Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch in his smallest role) to stand down from a plan to attack Germans when the enemy are allegedly on the run. The truth is that the Germans encouraged the attack given the ambush that they had in store. At the same time Schofield makes a promise to Blake, his partner in the mission, to find Blake’s brother in case Blake were to die during the run, a theme that will remind you of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” an attempt to find Ryan and send him home since his brothers had all been killed in the Second World War.

What proceeds largely as a two-hander, Schofield and Blake, becomes a one-man project as Schofield must survive a booby-trapped shack abandoned by the Germans, in which a rat crosses a trip wire that the retreating foe had left to blow up trespassers. Schofield falls into ditches, he dodges bullets with only a grenade, his primitive single shot rifle, and assorted packs on his back. He must deal with a German pilot whose plane had been downed just a few steps from where he is standing, and fight to the death, hand to hand, with a German soldier that had remained back from the front. You may wonder how the Germans (luckily) are such bad shots that they are unable to get Schofield in their metaphoric cross-hairs.

When Schofield does ultimately make contact with the division, he receives retorts from a Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) and Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbath). They refuse to accept the plea to abandon the wave, so sure are they that they could knock out an entire German division.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman perform their roles with aplomb, running, jumping, shooting, seeming to do their own stunts. In a period in which the #Me-Too movement is ascendant, only one woman, a French lass with a baby who have survived the massacre of her village by Germans.

Thomas Newman’s music on the soundtrack does much to pump up the thrills while Roger Deakins, behind the camera, films the horrors of war fought in mud and raging waters. The production design team under Dennis Gassner does indeed transport us to the year 1917, to a war that historians are still trying to discover which country was the guiltiest party. In fact, since the victors write the histories, many believe that the harsh treatment of the defeated Germans under the Versailles Treaty was the principal factor leading to the rise of the Nazi party and the next world war.

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

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

JUST MERCY – movie review

JUST MERCY
Warner Bros
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 11/2/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Just Mercy (2019)

Freeing wrongfully convicted people is an excellent theme for fiction as well as for documentaries. Think of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Guardians,” in which Quincy Miller, a black man, is convicted of a murder that has no witnesses and no apparent motive. Languishing in jail for 21 years, he has his case picked up by Collen Post of the Guardian organization, which can accept only a small percentage of cases that come to its attention. There are people who don’t want Miller freed: his lawyer’s life is in danger. In Ton Shadyac’s movie “Brian Banks,” a football star is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and is later freed thanks to Justin Brooks of the Florida Innocence Project.

In time for Christmas, a season of good feelings by people who want feel-good movies, “Just Mercy” enters the genre, a film by Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton following up his “The Glass Castle,” about a young woman brought up by unconventional parents, often living in poverty, whose folks now criticize her for marrying a financial analyst in New York thereby trashing their values. While “The Glass Castle” is not about the judicial system, its theme embraces the idea of giving up a conventional life, one that everyone expects you to pursue, in favor of helping the people who need you the most—the post, the disenfranchised, the wrongfully convicted.

The most surprising thing about Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” is that it is based closely on an actual case. As the plot rolls out, you might scarcely believe that a guy fresh out of law school, albeit Harvard, without prior experience and with a view that the impossible takes just a little longer, succeeds in winning a case full of obstacles. The principal obstacle is the desire of an Alabama town sheriff (filmed in Georgia) and young D.A. to hold on to their reputations, which depends on keeping the town safe. That’s safe for the white folks on the right side of the track, since for African-Americans there never is a feeling of safety from an oppressive local and state government and hostile townspeople.

The fall-guy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) enjoys what could have been his last day of freedom, felling a tree and being arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white girl. Though he has a strong alibi, it is backed up only by the local black community. A white felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), is promised a lighter sentence if he testifies against McMillian, who perjures himself leading to a conviction (I just corrected a typo, the more adept “confiction”). Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), out of Harvard Law School, heading from a lucrative career in Delaware but choosing instead to drive south to defend hapless people who may have been wrongfully jailed. He is lucky to get out alive, drawing hostile stares from the white community and especially its lawmen, even strip-searched before the first conference with his client. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), his white paralegal who sets him up in her home pending the rental of an office,

McMillian who at first does not trust that this young man can do anything for him but soon shakes his hand in agreement. Stevenson moves for a re-trial but is buffeted by the establishment until he winds his way through the judicial process to get just mercy.

Some of the interesting side lines include the conversations that McMillian has on death row with his neighbors, all in solitary confinement. The most stellar scene in the work finds Stevenson interviewing Ralph Myers to get an admission that he lied when he accused McMillian of standing over the body of the dead girl. Tim Blake Nelson, his bottom lip twisted to the side as though a victim of a stroke, his eyes blinking, head swiveling, turns in what in my mind should make him a candidate for best supporting role awards.

For those who have never seen this type of courtroom drama, never exposed to “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Conviction” with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” based on a Stephen King novel, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” will be particularly riveted by this intense drama. An older audience might challenge this movie’s value on the grounds that it’s a straightforward biopic in strict chronology, those people wanting more free-floating imagination in their courtroom dramas. Nevertheless, for all potential audiences, “Just Mercy,” given its fiercely motivated performances, is a delight, a Christmas feel-good drama which even at over two hours does not overstay its welcome.

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

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

SEFARAD – movie review

SEFARAD
Veranda Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luís Ismael
Script History: Research Center of the Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal
Cast: Rodrigo Santos, Pedro Galiza, Ana Vargas, Gabriela Relvas, Jorge Fernandes, Rui Spranger, Pedro Frias, José Neto
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, November 1, 2019
Opens: December 15, 2019

Sefarad (2019)

In my neighborhood, young Hasidic men and women spend much of each Friday walking around, judging whether the people they see on the street are Jewish. It’s quite common for a fourteen-year-old pair of girls to approach a woman, and for a fifteen-year-old man to close in on a man, asking “Are you Jewish?” Anyone who replies “yes” might be taken inside a “mitvah tank” to get a tefillen wrapped around his arm, get a blessing, and be sent away with the hope that yet another secular Jewish person will come back to the fold. This is a half-hour procedure the closest thing to what Christian missionaries do around the world, but there’s a difference. Judaism is not looking to convert people of other religions, only to awaken the latent Judaism in those who are members of the tribe. This is not unlike situation taking place on a grander scale in Oporto, Portugal, a city to which Jews returned in the Nineteenth Century to form a small community, the leaders of which are determined to bring the “real” Judaism to a group of so-called Marranos, or Crypto Jews, living in semi-isolated mountainous villages.

These Marranos (an offensive term that should give way to the more neutral “Crypto Jews”) were Jews who during and after the Inquisition in Spain converted to Catholicism to avoid the fate of these landsmen who were massacred in 1391. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became outwardly Christians, but the Crypto-Jews are those who practiced Judaism in secret. When beginning in 1923 Portuguese army captain Artur Barros Basto became involved in reclaiming these mountain people who did not pray in the same way as do the Jews who never had to convert. Moreover they were not even considered Jews by some, especially by one London-based financier. Barros Basto recruits a segment of these people and brings them into a classroom where he teaches them the “real” literature, culture and rituals of Judaism. He insists that they be circumcised because, he notes, nobody can be accepted into the embrace of Israel without a small, symbolic penile cut. For this latter act Barros Basto, a hero of World War I, is tossed out of the army and becomes the Portuguese Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Luís Ismael, who directs this look at specific periods in Jewish history, is known for “Balas and Bolinos” about a gang that robs a gas station, following up with additional dramas about the leader of the gang. Not quite what we would expect from this director. Now he manages an epic story that covers five centuries in ninety minutes in a movie named Sefarad for an Iberian region where Sephardic Jews originated. Inspired by a true story of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961) who is portrayed here by Rodrigo Santos, this idealistic leader determines to establish a strong Jewish community in Oporto including the construction of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in 1938, the largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

This is a story without humor, a serious drama whose director is obviously inspired by one man who performs a minor revolution by getting a synagogue financed and built and means for all Jews in Oporto, but who admits ultimately that he failed. He faces resistance from the Marranos, many of whom had no intention or desire to change their ways, leaving behind a large synagogue with too small a congregation. As a former high school teacher I found the liveliest scene to take place in a modest classroom where the teens look at each other with shock and disbelief when told that they would have to undergo the placement of a knife to the penis. Inspiring is the scene of the captain as the stereotypical man on horseback, trudging through the tiny, mountainous villages and addressing the residents as if to say “Are you Jewish?” Rodrigo Santos anchors the film, speaking in fluent Portugese and English, relying on the help of his right-hand man Menasseh Ben Dov (Pedro Galiza) who will ultimately leave Portugal for what was then called Palestine.

The actors can sometimes deliver their lines too stiffly, particularly those playing British financiers with disagreements about recognizing Crypto-Jews as Jews (with good reason as many continue to attend Catholic church services), and much of the dialogue is didactic as though it were being presented to a middle school classroom. Despite these reservations, we should welcome “Sefarad” as a look at clash between Marranos culture, as these converted Jews over the centuries may have forgotten everything about the religion or, if they retained it would practice in a different way from those who never had to convert. Interestingly Barros Basto had thought of himself as a Catholic until his dying grandfather confessed to Jewish family origins. He converted to Judaism, was circumcised in Tangier, and changed his name to Abraham Israel Ben Rosh. His own converso story was passed over too lightly in the film.

In Portuguese, English and Hebrew.

90 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-

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG – movie review

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Scheinert
Screenwriter: Billy Chew
Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler
Screened at: Technicolor, NYC, 9/3/19
Opens: September 27, 2019

The Death of Dick Long Poster

“The Death of Dick Long” was filmed on location in Alabama but you’ve got to wonder whether the production team needed to smuggle copies of the film out in the middle of the night. The characters on the screen may be the kind that Hillary once called “a basket of deplorables,” and yep, they are indeed dumb enough to vote for Trump. And to vote for him again in 2020. That may be why they make for the amusement of people in the movie audience who like to see people below themselves in intelligence. You’re not surprised to find that director Daniel Scheinert co-helmed “Swiss Army Man” about a fellow stranded on a desert who befriends a dead body, making a surreal journey to get home. “The Death of Dick Long” likewise involves a dead body, a man who thought he had two friends, but they dumped him, bloody and unconscious, on the street. They never heard that friends don’t let friends dump them at the door of a hospital and run away.

Billy Chew’s script finds Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland) and Dick Long (played by the director) practicing classical rock in Zeke’s garage. Nothing far out there. But when high as kites they cross to a barn, they do so not to continue practicing. What they now seek is something a lot weirder. We’re kept wondering what could they possibly be doing that’s more exciting to them than their music. All is revealed in a conclusion that knocks the lid off even what some of us think that people in the Alabama of broken-down shacks and trailers are up to.

All the events take place in a single day, one that they will remember for the rest of their lives—provided that they don’t go ahead to do stuff that would get them into more of a panic. Zeke and Earl do not have criminal minds, but they are akin to the types of petty culprits with arrest records as long as the arm of the law. These are people who do not have enough equipment upstairs to get away with a single misdemeanor. The main problem facing them is that clothing and blood are soaking everything around them. They cannot remove the blood in their car so they sink the entire thing—except that the vehicle refuses to sink. Detergents have little effect on clothing, so they throw the clothes away in the woods right by where they live. While Dick’s wife Jane (Jess Weixler) wonders where her husband is, she is sure that he is having an affair—which in a way he is. Instead of burning Dick’s wallet, Zeke hands it over to Sheriff Dudley (Sarah Baker), who is excited that her boss, Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) is assigning the case of her for apparently the first time. You wonder how these two female officers—one of them bringing to mind the indelible character of Marge Gunderson from the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie “Fargo—could be trusted to give a parking ticket to a vehicle left out on the road.

If the case is to be solved, the hero would be Zeke’s small daughter Cynthia Olsen (Poppy Cunningham) whose loose tongue arouses the suspicions of Zeke’s wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) and the sheriffs. Whether the movie humanizes the backwater folks or allows us to feel some compassion for their limitations depends on how you see them. At the very least, “The Death of Dick Long”—the title with an obvious double-entendre—is an indie-ish treat for the right audience. Or a downright irritating story that will make you pine for the loss of shows like “I Love Lucy.”

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

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

DOWNTON ABBEY – movie review

DOWNTON ABBEY
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Engler
Screenwriter: Julian Fellows
Cast: Joanne Froggatt, Mathew Goode, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Hugh BonnevilleLaura Carmichael, Raquel Cassidy, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Sophie McShera
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 9/18/19
Opens: September 20, 2019

2019 Downton Abbey movie poster silk art print 12x18  32x48 image 0

Rational people would assume that the folks who most want their country to continue supporting royalty would be the rich, the landed gentry, who look, think and act like kings and queens themselves. And they would think that the detractors of royalty who might favor a republic would be the poor, those who kowtow as servants to their well-to-do employers. The opposite is true. The servant class are in awe of the king and queen while the gentry treat them as scarcely meriting a bow or a curtsey. We know this because Julian Fellows who wrote the script to “Downton Abbey” and Michael Engler who directs the filmed version of the beloved TV series, show us.

When the king and queen announce that they will visit the famed Downton Abbey and spend the night, the servants are exhilarated, while the privileged keeper of the chateau including Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) keep the famed British stiff upper lip. If they’re ecstatic there’s not showing it because that’s not the way the British upper class act. The film rides on the concept of the visit of the royal family to Downton Abbey, together with their personal butlers, ladies in waiting, chef and the like. This is a concept that’s original; it’s not in the beloved TV series, so those of us who binge-watched a couple of years ago need not worry that the movie repeats an old approach.

Nonetheless, just as some books should not have been made into movies such as novels in which the thoughts of the characters are paramount, some TV series should not have been done as films. The trouble with “Downton Abbey” the film, is that newcomers who are totally unfamiliar with the characteristics of the characters, imbedded in memory from hour after hour of being engrossed on their TVs, will feel either out of it like students who did not do their homework and cannot follow class discussions the next day. More important, those who are quite familiar with the folks they have cherished on the small screen will feel that too many subplots are thrown at them in just two hours. In small TV segments, by contrast, only one of two themes are dealt with at a time, each given its proper breadth and depth.

Two years after the close of the TV episodes, The Crawleys in Downton Abbey are now facing 1927 during the week that King George V and Queen Mary are to visit. The servants, in a tizzy as mentioned above, feel insulted. They are given time off, the festivities to be handled by the royal couple’s own staff. A snobbish French chef is to cook while the king and queen’s personal waiters are to serve. But the staff at the abbey are excited and won’t have it. They will concoct a scheme that will allow them to do all the honors themselves. They are delighted that Mr. Caron (Jim Carter) is being called out of retirement to manage the crew. This scheme, which serves as considerable comedy and even suspense, anchors the show.

Among the individuals, director Michael Engler ticks off the elements of both comedy and drama. Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who would be heir to the abbey after the death of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wants to sell the estate but is convinced by her maid, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), to hold on in order to preserve the jobs of the staff. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who serves as the story’s repository of Oscar Wilde-like witticisms, battles verbally with the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), because the latter is determined to leave all to her maid). Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the designated gay servant, finds romance. Perhaps the most down-to-each and philosophic aristo Tom Branson (Allen Leech)—who rose from chauffeur to noble by virtue of marriage to an aristocrat—describes how he, an Irishman who believes in the Republican cause, has made his peace with his position in the abbey.

As photographed by Ben Smithard in England and in Highcleer Castle in Hampshire, England and embellished by John Lunn’s musical score, “Downton Abbey” is great to look at, though the dances are not unlike what we’ve seen in many a costume drama before.

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

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

SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN – movie review

SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Screenwriter: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick
Cast: Morgan Spurlock
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/14/19
Opens: September 6, 2019

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken Movie Poster Sizes 11x17" 16x24" 24x36"

When you see what goes into the chicken sold in fast food restaurants (and realize that probably the red meat industry does likewise for its burgers and fish) you may decide to go vegan. It’s not just the unhealthy ingredients and the lack of transparency in the franchises like Popeye’s, KFC, and Chick Fil-A. It’s the way that small farmers that grow the animals that wind up on your dinner plate are shafted by the five big corporations to which they sell the birds, principally Tyson. You may even go further than giving up animal flesh and think that you want nothing to do with capitalism. “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” provides not only terrific information about the chicken industry. It is so entertaining that you might decide that documentaries, often at the bottom rung of movie popularity, are as worthy of your time and money as dramas and comedies.

There’s no wonder that this movie with its terrific, rapid editing, puts Morgan Spurlock on the same plane as Michael Moore. Like Moore, Spurlock knows how to be political without making you think that “educational” films are like carrots and broccoli: healthful and filling but simply not the kinds of foods you salivate over. You will remember that Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” thirteen years ago took aim at the fast-food burger chains, particularly McDonald’s, where the documentarian took all his meals for thirty days straight at Mickey D’s and wound up feeling ill and carrying around a huge weight gain. Now, paradoxically, in order to satirize the chicken industry, he opens a chicken restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, the center of food marketing experimentation, and buys a farm in Alabama to raise the cluckers. You may wonder whether he is actually doing this, or simply imagining a script for his vivid new doc. After all, how can a filmmaker, however on the A-list of documentaries, manage in a field so different from his own?

If you’re concerned about your health—and surprisingly enough many Americans can’t give two figs for what they put into their bodies—you have probably been impressed by claims made by the food industry such as “natural,” “hormone-free,” “locally grown,” “organic,” “free range,” “sustainable.” Turns out that for the most part these words are simply marketing tools and just a bunch of B.S. Looking at a farm that raises chicken “free range” instead of caged, you find that the chicks are on the big main floor with hardly room to move—so they might as well be caged. Think of the New York City subway system on a work day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

But what if you really are not a particularly ethical person and you don’t care how the chickens are raised? You don’t mind that the vast majority of chickens are from one breed known for growing so fast that they can hardly walk, and that some will die on the floor of heart attacks and other maladies. Your health is still affected when you eat deep fried chicken, far more caloric and greasy than grilled, but for most of us, taste is the most important factor.

But maybe you care about the small farmers that, being forced to sell to one of the five giant corporations, namely Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Foods and Koch Foods. The biggies like to keep the farmers in debt, paying them less if they have complained or, in this case are giving information to Spurlock about the underside of capitalism. They supply the farmers with housing, land and equipment but make sure that the farmers pay so much for improvements such as heating units that they are like serfs under feudalism rather than workers under capitalism.

Spurlock has a gift for interviewing, peppering his questions with witticisms and employing the talents of people who explain the principles of marketing, all backed up by a bouncy musical score employing passages from Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saens and George Frideric Handel. If you’re concerned that the movie provides no solutions, that’s because are none. Eighty-eight percent of Americans will buy chicken each week.

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

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

JAWLINE – movie review

JAWLINE
Hulu
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Liza Mandelup
Cast: Mikey Barone, Bryce Hall, Jovani Jara, Julian Jara, Austyn Tester, Donovan Tester, Michael Weist
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/18/19
Opens: August 23, 2019
Jawline Movie Poster

In at least one sense, the social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—have not changed teen-aged girls. The bobby soxers screamed when Frank Sinatra performed during the 1940s and 1950s, and ditto Elvis Presley during the sixties. Their hearts skipped beats when their owners listened to the Beatles, (while their elders saved their lusty emotions for Liberace from 1936 to 1986). There is a quantum difference to teen girls’ choices, however, thanks to Instagram. People of little talent but stunning good look have been able to arouse their yelps and gasps and breathlessness, as long as the celebrities are their own age. “Jawline” takes us to this age of technophilia with “Jawline,” the implication of the title being that as long as a boy has granite features—with a thick head of hair to help and the ability to charm—he can be a celeb and not for just fifteen minutes.

Director Liza Mandelup in 2016 contributed a ten-minute short “Sundown” about the camp life of kids who are allergic to the sun and, more apropos to her current offering, the five-minute “Fangirl,” about social media celebs you never heard of but your adolescent daughter has. Now in her freshman full-length feature, she explores the excitement that young high school coeds feel when they Instagram their favorite hunk and their completely off-the-wall reactions when seeing him in person.

Austyn Tester tests his luck as the film’s anchor, a 16-year-old who lives in a rundown house in a broken-down town of Kingsport, Tennessee. He is eager, like so many millions of young people, to get out of a town where the mall is the only hangout, and to go to the big city, in this case to L.A. Though five university have satellite branches in Kingsport, none of the teens in the film show the slightest interest in attending college and, in fact, we have no idea what life is like for them in school.

Austyn, however, is home-schooled. His favorite social media platform is YouNow—which I had the curiosity to explore and lasted there for ten minutes. He talks with his fangirls as do other so-called boy broadcasters, who have fans perhaps in the millions. The young women are not listening to great songs like Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elvis’s “I’m All Shook Up,” or the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” So what exactly is holding their attention? Austyn appears to rivet them whether talking about topics of such originality as “believe in yourself,” just like Elsie Fisher in the far superior Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” But he spends most of his time shucking off self-help platitudes in favor lip-syncing a song just out or simply changing focus on his laptop from a medium sitting position to a close up that exploits his thick blond hair and chiseled jawline. His friends are good-looking as well, though only Austyn could pass for a young Brad Pitt.

He occasionally signals his following that he will appear at a local mall, giving the date and time. Sometimes a dozen girls show up, all eager to do selfies with him and most of all to hug, sometimes he gets a larger following. He lucks out, however, when taken under the wing of Michael Weist, a guy who looks about twenty-one years of age and who, as CEO of a business promoting vacuous, talent-less boys with good jawlines organizes photo shoots and takes them around L.A. treating them to massages and shopping sprees. It’s no wonder that Kingsport, Tennessee becomes even more the place to leave, as there you have no chance of ascending to the stars.

We don’t find out what kind of income Austyn is getting when he appears on stage before scores of screaming Mimis, but the entire picture challenges us to figure out who is being exploited, if anyone. If you think the girls are the victims of fake celebs, of people with no talent and probably little education, we remember what one of them said: that their Instamatic and online friends are better than the kids at school, where they are bullied. Could this explain why so many of their gender are plugged in seemingly 24-7 with their phones on their pillows all night, ignoring the crowds around them, sometimes bumping into people accidentally? Shouldn’t they be spending some more time reading books, magazines, anything that could give them a deeper perspective on life than the endless, repetitive phony entertainment provided by the small screens?

If a look at vacuity is Liza Mandelup’s theme, she has succeeded despite the repetitiveness of the action on the big screen. If she is satirizing a society that makes kids want to shut down the world and enter the small screens, she has done her job. This is not to say that the documentary is spellbinding. It can be downright work to slog through if you’re a thinking adult, laughing at or, being kinder, empathizing with the kids and wishing we could do something to break their need to conform without challenging their imperative to fit in.

99 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

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

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET – movie review

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET (Der boden unter den fuessen)
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Screenwriter: Marie Kreutzer
Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Hoerbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin, Alex Sichrovsky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/19
Opens: July 26, 2019 at New York’s IFC

Though much is made of a woman diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Austrian-born writer- director Marie Kreutzer—whose debut feature “The Fatherless” deals as does her current film with the effect on a family of the appearance of their sister—covers considerable ground. “The Ground Beneath My Feet” can be looked upon as an anti-capitalist reach, centered on the relationship of a yuppie business consultant with her lunatic half-sister. Most of all it should compel you to consider people who are always dressed to kill, walking about as an iconic image of success, looking you right in the eye with their perfect complexions and well-trained bodies, with remarkable poise, restrained emotion, and perfect grooming, as likely as not to be harboring barely repressed memories and a conflicted wish to rid themselves of some of the responsibilities dragging them down.

Such is the case with Lola (Valerie Pachner), a slim woman who at the age of thirty is already on the way up in a consulting job that may remind you of George Clooney’s profession in “Up in the Air” as a hit-man of sorts helping companies to downsize their personnel in order to show more health in the bottom line. Kreutzer, though, is not as interested as Jason Reitman in comedy, but in a carefully paced drama that might make you realize that you’ve spent too much time in the office. It helps that the film is anchored by a remarkable performance from Valerie Pachner, who was previously seen in “Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden,” about an artist who scandalized Viennese society in the early 20th century with provocative paintings.

Much is made of Lola’s status as a single woman, an orphan with nobody capable of looking after her, though she is the legal guardian of Conny (Pia Hierzegger), her forty-year-old half sister who spends most of the story hospitalized in a Vienna psychiatric institution, clinging to Lola, complaining that she is being kept against her will and is physically punished for not doing what the staff insists that she do.

Life is particularly complicated for Lola given that her work takes her from her native Vienna to the town of Rostock in North Germany, not exactly a backwater but as I recall a picture-perfect town on the Warnow River. Like other executives on the way up, she tries to keep her personal and private lives separate, inventing excuses when she is actually returning to Vienna to see her sister. That’s not all. She is having a lesbian relationship with Elise (Mavie Hoerbiger), her boss, who in one scene are graphically getting it on during a few erotic moments.

So far, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, but she may have made a mistake in telling her lover about her schizoid sister, as Elise begins to wonder whether mental illness runs in Lola’s family. Climaxes arrive in both Lola’s professional life and her family bonds, as Elise must make a decision on promotions in her staff, and Lola must bear an even greater burden when her sister is released and set up in her own flat. However, in a small scene that would be comical if it did not strike home here in the U.S., a male executive in the firm that has contracted with Lola’s not only hits on her while having steak in an upscale restaurant but tells her flat-out that many males would put their hands under the table and into her thighs but that “I am not like that.” In another small scene that appears to show her political views, when a homeless woman asks for fifty cents and is ignored by Lola, she curses Lola, calls her a “rich woman” and worse, receiving a curt answer from Lola that the woman’s poverty is her own fault.

This is quite the film, mixing business with, well, some pleasure but mostly family heartache, editor Ulrike Kofler taking us back and forth, exposing what some of us in the audience undoubtedly face: how to spread our lives around from our professional duties to our family obligations without suffering at least one nervous breakdown in our lives. The ensemble do a splendid job, some serving like a Greek chorus to serve as background to Lola while a select few, particularly Pia Hierzegger as her loony sister and Mavie Hoerbiger as her immediate superior represent Lola’s family life and business tensions respectively.

In German with English subtitles.

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

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

MIDSOMMAR – movie review

MIDSOMMAR
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Cast: Florench Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, Will Poulter
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/1/19
Opens: July 3, 2019

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When you go to Europe on vacation, what do you expect to do? Take in the sights? Enjoy fine dining? Fishing and golfing and womanizing? Scuba-diving or mountain climbing? One thing is missing: the people who live there. Don’t you want to blend in with the locals, meet and chat with them, get invited to some of their social functions? If you don’t have family in France, Germany or Iceland, you are likely to gaze at some of the natives but unlikely to have conversations with them, and that may be the wise thing to do. After all, look what happens to a band of American graduate students who are invited by one of them, a Swedish-American, to travel to a remote rural area to observe some special festivities. When Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) suggests that his friends join him on a trip that bypasses Stockholm in favor of watching a nine-days’ festival that occurs that year, they go for it especially when Josh (William Jackson Harper) is doing his thesis about midsummer rituals for his Anthropology major.

“Midsommar,” which is writer-director Ari Aster’s second feature—his “Hereditary” dealing with dark secrets when the family matriarch passes away—finds Dani (Florence Pugh) in circumstances not unlike those of Toni Collette’s Annie in that first offering. Dani, who has a neurotic dependency relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), is urged by his male friends to dump her, but instead, perhaps feeling sorry that Dani has just lost her sister and parents in a catastrophe, Christian makes the mistake that they all make in taking the trip. What they find among a large ensemble standing in for Pelle’s cousins and other relatives is an inbred community whose warm welcome of the Americans belies their intentions. Like the folks in Jordan Peele’s stunning horror picture “Get Out,” finding African-American boyfriends of young family member Rose Armitage embraced by a group of people who go overboard to show that like Joe Biden they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, actually have sinister plans for the guys to whom they are introduced.

The extended (and this must be repeated) inbred family may remind old-timers here in America of Woodstock in mid-August 1969, with its hallucinogenic drugs, its nudity, its camaraderie, its peace-in-our-time atmosphere, one difference being that there, only two people died; one was run over by a tractor and another passed away on a drug overdose. You can’t blame the Yanks for thinking that the big bear kept in a small cage is an hallucination, but it has uses for the locals in white folksy costumes to celebrate an event that happens only every ninety-nine years.

Pawel Pogorzelski photographed the macabre party in the Hungarian countryside, taking a few startling close-ups when required, otherwise using a vivid imagination as when turning the Americans’ world literally upside down as they go well past the urban Stockholm landscape for the spacious family grounds. Production values are spot-on, and Aster’s solidly directed expansive action are big plusses. A sex scene involving a score of naked women cheering on one man’s performance in one moment will draw unintentional laughter from the audience, though one might surmise that this particular moment arises from the director’s sense of humor. A playful cinematography is marred by a convoluted plot, however, the editing taking a back seat to a chronological treatment of events though the visual effects department nicely projects a drug-fueled distortion of nature. Best of all, Florence Pugh turns in a dazzling performance in the key role, anchoring the show as a woman who opens on a mournful note, overly dependent on her boyfriend Christian, yet ending up having the authority of life or death.

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

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

PHIL – movie review

PHIL
Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greg Kinnear
Screenwriter: Scott Mazur
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Emily Mortier, Luke Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/21/19
Opens: July 5, 2019

Phil Movie Poster

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Phil (Greg Kinnear) takes the philosopher at his word, deciding to examine his own life for the first time. This gets him into heaps of trouble but in the final analysis by the conclusion of the movie “Phil,” he has examined his life and finds it worth living. It was not always so. The title character opens up the movie climbing over the guard rails of a bridge (the movie was photographed by John Bailey in Vancouver, Canada, standing in for Portland, Oregon), deciding whether to end it all.

“Phil” is the directing debut of Greg Kinnear, coming across at least in the opening scenes as a vanity project as Kinnear has directed himself to be in almost every frame. The story picks up in tension, turning like so many theatrical comedies with serious overtones but with a satisfying finish.

In the story, Phil goes through the motions deliberately on auto-pilot since this is the way he suffers the emotional baggage of a depressed man. He has a dental practice and a daughter (April Cameron) who loves him, but since he is divorced he gets cannot see her as much as he would like. He has a brother, Malcolm (Jay Duplass) who cares about him. When Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford) is in his dental chair, the patient comes across as a man who has everything, yet Fisk commits suicide by hanging himself, his limp body discovered by Phil who has stalked him for several days to get a take on why he is such a happy and fulfilled man. Phil is eager to know why such a person with a well-appointed house, a lovely wife Alicia (Emily Mortimoer), and stories of fun during vacations in Greece would do such a thing, so Phil pretends to be Fisk’s buddy Spiros from decades back, embedding himself in Alicia’s home and, while he’s at it, renovating the widow’s bathroom.

This is a small movie not without considerable sentiment, the broad comedy flowing into a philosophic consideration of life, examining but without solving one of philosophy’s fundamental questions: why are some people joyful, seemingly living and loving every moment, yet plagued underneath the surface emotions to be filled with anger at ourselves—which some psychologists believe to be the principal cause of depression. (We all know people who have it all are determined to kill themselves. Think of Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt’s 23-year-old son, who commits suicide during a psychotic episode by jumping from the fourteenth floor of their Manhattan apartment.)

“Phil” maintains an appropriate balance between sentiment and seriousness coupled with broad comedy including Phil’s anxious attempts to maintain his fake identity by Greek-accenting his English, by dancing with a band of Greek-American men, and trying to answer one person, Jerome (Kurt Fuller), who asks him a question in Greek.

The writer, Stephen Mazur, is best known for scripting “Liar Liar,” a broad comedy featuring Jim Carrey in his best role, a lawyer who is unable to tell a lie (try to believe that). Emily Mortimer and Greg Kinnear enjoy their chemistry together until an unraveling of Phil’s fake identity inevitably takes place. You would have difficulty finding actors in Hollywood who radiate such nice-guy-ness as well as Greg Kinnear.

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

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

THE OTHER STORY – movie review

THE OTHER STORY
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Avi Nesher
Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer
Cast: Maayan Blum, Maya Dagan, Sasson Gabai, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Sean Mongoza
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/19
Opens: June 28, 2019

The Other Story (2018)

When Israel was born in 1948, there was much joy outside the Arab world. Jews both in Israel and around the world rejoiced, but in addition so did most governments and people in the industrialized world. “They made the desert bloom” was the watchword when Jews cultivated what was then a barren land. The kibbutz was a popular kind of work on collective farms, and democratic socialism was the norm in a society that surprisingly enough was mostly secular. Problems arose later after wars that were forced on the tiny state, and the country expanded its borders into territories formerly inhabited only by Palestinians. Let’s not forget, though, that Israelis are today not a unified people where everyone thinks alike, any more than are Americans nowadays. The ultra-religious including the Hasidic sects have grown in population and influence. As a result there is conflict between the religious Jews and the secular majority, the former imposing its will by its voting bloc in the Knesset, or parliament.

Two camps exist to this day: the ultra-religious have been able to ban public buses on the Sabbath and to run Mea Shearim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, as though it were an independent state. Their influence is considered undemocratic by the secular society. You could barely imagine that a secular Jewish woman would get together with an ultra-orthodox man in marriage, and for the most part the two groups are almost never romantically involved. In the rare cases when they are, however, the sparks fly within the families, which is good, because without sparks, there is no drama.

Now Avi Nesher, who has an impressive résumé as producer, writer, actor and director including his direction of such movies as “The Matchmaker” (teenager’s relationship with a matchmaker who survived the Holocaust) and “Turn Left at the End of the World” (a family from India moves into a desert neighborhood in southern Israel). His “The Other Story” is an involving and often riveting story featuring two plots that merge seamlessly, the principal one being the more absorbing tale while the other is more melodramatic, even off-the-wall. Both plots center on women who are rebelling against their upbringings. Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger) is your typical product of dysfunction having seen his father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), a psychologist, all too rarely since her parents divorced and he moved to the U.S. Nor is love lost between Yonatan and his successful real estate agent wife Tali (Maya Dagan). He returns to Tali after getting an urgent message: their daughter, who has thrown off her secular upbringing and is now Orthodox, is set to marry Shachar (Nathan Goshen), also a drug-addicted secular musician who introduced his fiancé to drugs and now denies that he is an addict.

At the same time, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai) is playing host to his son Yonatan. Both are psychologists. Shlomo is treating a couple on the verge of breaking up. Rami (Maayan Blum) accuses his wife Sari (Avigail Harari) of threatening the safety of their young son Izi, as a member of a feminist cult given over to worshiping idols and having occult ceremonies that recall Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” She ultimately will rely on the testimony of both Yonatan and Anat regarding both a kidnapping charge and their opinion that the occult ceremonies are not endangering her son’s safety.

“The Other Story” is the name of a song, but it refers as well to the other story of both Yonatan, who has been involved in criminal dealings in the U.S., and the situations of the two young women rebelling against the conformity their families represent and, on a greater level, the impositions of the patriarchal society. The principal conflict, though, pits young Anat against the horror that her parents feel at the idea that their daughter has voluntarily upended her free life to become an Orthodox Jew. This conflict mirrors that troubles that all of Israel goes through nowadays, the religious Jews generally siding with their current prime minister in favor of expanding the country into the West Bank, while the secular Jews generally favor a peace with the Palestinians based on two societies living side by side.

The film is welcome both as a primer to people of all religions who are open to educating themselves to the schisms within such a small country, and an indictment of those who side with one point of view to such an extent that they cannot understand the rationality of the other. As such, it mirrors the split in our own country between Republican and Democrats, right and left, and splits within the parties as well.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

 

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

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

FOR THE BIRDS – movie review

FOR THE BIRDS
Dogwoof
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Richard Miron
Cast: Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, William Brenner
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/23/19
Opens: May 31, 2019 at IFC Center in NY

Kathy Murphy

Although both the title and the early scenes make you think that this will be little more than another propagandistic tale of animal welfare, Richard Miron, who shot the documentary over a five-year period in Ulster County, New York, nails what it’s like to be a nonconformist in a village community, and the effects on a marriage of a 58-year-old woman’s hobby which could not have been pursued in any but a rural space.

Starring in the film, Kathy Murphy, obviously an animal lover, seems destined almost masochistically to bring about an end to a long marriage and the possibility of winding up behind bars should a prosecutor increase his reputation by fighting a woman who is obviously poor (note her missing teeth) and who has only the best intentions toward her pets. And what a world of quacks and cock a doodle dos! Kathy and Gary find a small duck in their yard, one which happily will never wind up on a hook in a New York Chinatown restaurant. A decade later, lo and behold, she has a menagerie of ducks, roosters, chickens, geese and turkeys that should make her a candidate for woman of the year in the town of Wawaring, New York. Her devotion to these pets is so unbounded that she is will not only destroy her marriage to Gary, who is hardly as enthusiastic as his wife, but is so consuming that she would die rather than lose them. Or so she said, because when the authorities got after her, calling her a hoarder who boards the birds in filthy conditions—feces everything, chickens in her bed, dirty water–she manages to stay alive but suffers not only a matrimonial crisis but the chance to be sentenced to a fine of $1000 and/or imprisonment for up to a year.

When officers from the Woodstock animal sanctuary, a beautiful place surrounded by a mountain range with grass and water everywhere, speak with her, they are sympathetic, at least more so than the judicial branch. When the long arm of the law closes in, she is defended pro bono by William Brenner, a country lawyer with as large practice and three assistants who also plays a mean banjo and sings “You Are My Sunshine” with the appropriate rural twang.

Things were better in previous days, at least from archival pictures we see of her wedding to Gary, a war veteran, which probably would have been stable for decades to come if the birds had not entered the story. When we see Kathy now, she is a veritable motor-mouth, defending her boarding of animals with such passion that we wonder whether she is bi-polar though with 100% of the time experiencing the manic stage. When the darkness lifts, we are happy to see that Kathy has let bygones be bygones and can look forward to caring for at least a legal percentage of her the animals that appear to share and return the woman’s devotion to them.

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

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

THE TOMORROW MAN – movie review

THE TOMORROW MAN
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noble Jones
Screenwriter: Noble Jones
Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 4/8/19
Opens: May 22, 2019

The Tomorrow Man Movie Poster

Although two first-rate actors receive the focus of Noble Jones’s “The Tomorrow Man,” this drama that could easily have been put on afternoon TV. Though there is enough of a cutesy element guiding the trajectory of an autumn courtship that could find a place on an off-Broadway stage, the entire production is too slight to warrant a worthy full-screen adaption.

Noble Jones in his sophomore full-length movie involves two people with idiosyncrasies that in a way are complementary are both single, one “on the other side of sixty” and the other about the same age, living alone in houses that could be placed somewhere in the mid-west—though the director, who is behind the lenses, films all in Rochester, New York. Ed (John Lithgow), a retired systems analyst, is a survivalist who expects the end of the world in the near future and so has prepared himself with a few years’ supply of food and water in a garage whose location is unknown even by the man’s middle-aged son. Ronnie (Blythe Danner) works at a local gift shop, a hoarder whose small house is crammed with stuff she will never use. They get together after Ed spots her on his line at a supermarket. Ed, who is aggressive in going after what he wants, follows Ronnie to her car, exchanging names (though she is nonplussed), the two seen heading out for coffee. This would be a good time to get to know each another, but Ed talks too much about himself and would seem to set himself up for rejection. Not so.

She has only a fellow employee, Tina (Eve Harlow), to confide in, a younger woman who advises Ronnie to go for it. For his part, Ed has a one-sided phone conversation—actually a phone lecture—with his son Brian (Derek Cecil), married to Janet (Katie Aselton) with a teen daughter Jeanine (Sophie Thatcher). The cast of characters becomes relevant later when Ronnie attends a Thanksgiving dinner with Ed’s people.

Their relationship is pleasant enough, giving us more a look at what elderly people might talk about when dating. The only suspense might be to wonder when the two decide to “get it on,” but otherwise we must content ourselves with watching performances of two experienced actors whose material they could have walked through with blindfolds. John Lithgow has a huge résumé going back to 1972. Blythe Danner, known these days also for commercials, is at least equally impressive and can be easily identified with your eyes closed by her husky voice.

The only break with conventions are a) that we don’t see many movies about people romancing beyond the age of fifty, and b) the final minute opens up a scene that some of us might have predicted but comes as a welcome surprise.

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

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