THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM – movie review

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Chester
Screenwriter: John Chester, Mark Monroe
Cast: John Chester, Molly Chester, Alan Young
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/4/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

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In “An Essay on Man” (1733) an optimistic Alexander Pope notes:
“All discord, harmony, not understood,
All partial evil, universal good”
He concludes: “Whatever is, is right.”

Pope believed that one God, all-wise and all-merciful, governs the world providentially for the best. While Pope is not invoked in John Chester’s movie “The Biggest Little Farm, “if Pope were alive today Chester could have been the model that helps to prove Pope’s wisdom. After all, when you are forced out of your cramped Santa Monica apartment because your dog Todd would bark all day when left alone, Chester must have believed that life is nothing more than one discord after another. However, being forced out of your flat turns out to be just what John Chester and his wife Molly needed to turn their lives around, to go from being just another anonymous pair of city people who turn all partial evil to universal good. What to any impartial observer looks like a land scam, since the farmland John and Molly purchase one hour’s drive from L.A. is dust-dry, turns out to be just the challenge that this creative couple needed to make themselves productive beyond their wildest imagination.

“The Biggest Little Farm” is an extraordinary documentary, not only because it was filmed over a period of ten years but because it is photographed with detailed attention to nature by John Chester himself with four other cinematographers and includes a few comical animations, courtesy of Jason Carpenter. All is augmented by Jeff Beale’s music. Like Israel, a country known during its founding to have “made the deserts bloom,” these incredibly hard-working, motivated Chesters take land ruined by a California drought and turne it into not just any old farm, certainly not the satanic factory farms that make life hell for animals, but an organic property filled with a huge diversity of crops and animals. By the time this movie ends, we note in a eight-year period they planted 10,000 orchard trees, 200 crops, and a variety of animals that would make Noah envious. To bring this animal menagerie down to human proportions, the Chesters have two pets. One is a large black dog, Todd, with human eyes that they saved before it was scheduled to be put down by a shelter. Another is Emma, a pig that provides entertainment for tourists who visit the farm, an attraction principally because it stands as a model of diversity, diversity, diversity. And Emma must have helped the farmers by producing one litter of 17—that’s 17—piglets. (Eventually they would be sent “to market” since you can’t have ideals without money.)

John and Molly see first-hand that there is a balance in nature. For example, coyotes had a tendency to sneak around at night to kill the farm’s chickens, though why they don’t eat the bodies is a mystery to me. John has to take his rifle to kill the pesky creatures. But then he discovers that coyotes are actually needed to balance nature because they eat gophers, another pest which left on their own would help destroy the farm. As for the tens of thousands of snails that eat leaves, they’re taken care of by ducks who would eat the French delicacy without bothering to get a thank-you from their human friends.

The Chesters are lucky to get the expert help of one Alan Young who had vast experience in natural farming, though since nature can be cruel, this mentor died or a particularly aggressive cancer. They were helped as well by a crew of workers, all collaborating to make this a dream farm, a paradise borne from a land that could have been the site of a dystopian movie. All of this takes place despite nature’s other cruelties: a drought thought to be the worst in 1200 years and a series of wildfires that we have all seen on recent news reports.

This sumptuous drama whose photography, including close-up, slow-motion shots of bees, hummingbirds and other critters could rival any nature drama shot by National Geographic and Disney. This is how a doc should be made: no interviews, not talking heads; in other words make it indistinguishable from a clever and vastly entertaining narrative drama.

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

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

3 FACES – movie review

3 FACES (Se rokh)
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jafar Panahi
Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei, Maedeh Erteghaei, Narges Del Aram
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: March 8, 2019

Jafar Panahi in Se rokh (2018)

In March 2010 Jafar Panahi, among the best-known of Iranian film directors, was arrested, sentenced to a six-year jail term , spending much of that time under house arrest and forbidden to leave Iran. He was accused of making propaganda films against the Iranian government. While awaiting the result of an appeal, he made This Is Not a Film (2011), a documentary feature in the form of a video diary in spite of the legal ramifications of his arrest. It was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden inside a cake and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

That act of smuggling is what could pass, justifiably, for excitement even here in the U.S., a sort of incident that patrons of commercial movies might line up to see. Nothing of this sort occurs in “3 Faces,” the title characters being one aging actress who performed before Iran’s 1979 revolution, one who is famous today, another being a young woman accepted to a conservatory who dreams of being in the movies. Panahi’s latest offering is a road-and-buddy movie using the genre’s tropes: a couple of friends who travel outside their neighborhood to observe the customs of folks from a less sophisticated walk of life. When Panahi travels from Tehran to a rural village in the Northwest of his country with actress Behnaz Jafari in the passenger’s seat, he entertains us with the odd folks you’ll probably find in the sticks anywhere. They are a friendly people who throughout the village invite them to tea, but under the surface is a hostility to women, sometimes shows vividly, and at other times with passive aggression.

This is not to say that Iranian women are like those of their gender in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They do not have to cover themselves head to toe and get whipped if they show so much as an ankle. They do wear hijabs, or coverings, on their heads but can push the scarfs back to expose some hair. (This would not be so objectionable if men were also required to cover themselves. Wouldn’t people with the uncovered looks of Brad Pitt get the women all hot and bothered ?)

Performers use their own names as though this were a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The movie gets off to a vivid opening when Marziyeh (Marziheh Rezaei), a woman of about eighteen, makes a video of her suicide, tying a rope around her neck, the other end fastened to a tree. She sends the video to Jafar Panahi who shows it to Behnaz Jafari, who becomes obsessed with what she considers the injustice: the young woman’s parents will not allow her to attend a school for acting. Women who “perform” are said to dishonor the family, at least in this rural area where Turkish and Azeri become the dominant languages of the people. (I won’t bother to say obvious things about the millions of Americans living predominantly in rural and suburban areas of red states.)

As the director and the celebrated actress negotiate the unpaved roads in areas where many people had probably never seen Tehran, they take note of oddities. An elderly woman relaxes in a grave that she has dug, keeping the snakes away because the reptiles will punish her for her bad deeds. An old man soon after instructs Panahi to honk his horn once, then twice, seemingly a compulsion but in fact having a rational purpose. Toward the conclusion, another resident hands Jafari a foreskin of her infant to serve as a talisman. And a bull with “golden balls” that has practiced his stud service in a single night on ten cows lies in the road with a broken leg, its owner determined not to put the animal out of his misery because the animal makes a living for him.

There is virtually no music in the soundtrack. Panahi respects his audience enough to take many a long shot, all filmed expertly by Amin Jafari’s use of handheld cameras. Of course the young woman’s “suicide” is faked, designed to get the famous actress to visit and to talk the girl’s parents into allowing her to “perform.” In this film the acting profession is used to symbolize the patriarchy of the country, strongest of course, in the sticks. The three faces of the title include Shahrazade, who does not appear, having performed before the 1979 revolution and now living alone and miserable. While Behnaz Jafari has had success in her profession and is treated with excitement by the teen girls in the village who crowd around her, she is not all that welcomed by the oldsters. We wonder whether the third and youngest face will be able to compete for the success of Mrs. Jafari. “3 Faces” demonstrates the solidarity of women, all the more pronounced when it is repressed, a compassionate look at what some would call the “real people” of their country, all the more moving because of the film’s meditative nature.

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

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

RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR – movie review

RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Milorad Krstic
Screenwriter: Milorad Krstic, Radmila Rockov
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 1/24/19
Opens: February 15, 2019

Ruben Brandt, Collector Poster

Why do some people become optometrists? Chances are they got interested in the field because of their own need for eyeglasses. What about dentists? These are people who may have had trouble losing their baby teeth: maybe they failed to get the tooth fairy to reward them since they had nothing to give her in return. And psychotherapists? That’s easy. They’re crazy. Why else would someone become interested in the field? Ruben Brandt is just one of the crazies serving to shrink heads when his own head needs to be whittled down to a more compact size. How do we know? He has nightmares, but not just any dreams about the boogie man hiding under the bed, but dreams in full, vivid color, with enough violence to satisfy Steven King, John Carpenter and Wes Craven combined. Ruben Brandt, analyzing himself, decides that to end nightmares that plague him nightly, he would have to steal thirteen works of great art. Why so? The subjects of these painting are attacking him without mercy. The best—or worst—of the nightmares occur quickly after the start of the film. The title character is riding a train when suddenly, on the outside, a bizarre passenger who at first appears to be hitching a ride without paying is instead intent on sinking her teeth into the therapist. Who could it be? No other than the not-so-innocent Infanta Margarita, blood pouring from her head, obsessed with gaining entrance into Ruben’s cabin to do nasty things.

Putting aside thoughts of suicide, Ruben gathers four of his patients, people already experienced with larceny and worse, bidding them to steal paintings not just from the Guggenheim but requiring them to travel the world snatching canvases from the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate, our own MoMA and others. The entire film thematically lauds Picasso, so we see characters along the way with three eyes, one with two heads like the Roman god Janus, but featuring one woman, Mimi, with a soft, sexy voice who when not driving her Mercedes is a gifted gymnast. How are the paintings stolen? In some cases the foursome simply enter a hall, cut the canvas from the frame, wrap it up, and its Rubens’. In one case Mimi shoots an arrow to pierce the apple on the head of a modern William Tell. When the arrow lands on a canvas, she uses the point to encircle the painting and wraps it up. Simple enough especially if you’re a cartoon character.

Once the police determine that the paintings could not be fenced or sold because they are too well known, they decide that the thief is a collector, one with the combined name of Rubens and Rembrandt (Ruben Brandt; get it?) Rewards are posted. When the amount goes to $100 million for the lucky guy who provides information leading to his arrest, the underworld is brought into the fray. At the same time Kowalski, a private eye, sets out on the mission, appearing ultimately in the final scene as a reflection in the window of the train that Ruben is riding.

Considering the work that went into both the hand-drawn and the computer animated, you might expect the movie to be slow-moving, allowing the artists who designed the film to have a job that would allow them to see their families at night. But no: this is as fast-paced as a James Bond picture, featuring in several scenes a Mercedes Benz going at full speed down French city streets to evade equally fast-moving cars determined to block its path. Similarly the characters talk fast, act quickly, and show purpose, though the narrative itself is difficult to follow. That’s how rapidly the story unfolds.

Co-writer and director Kristic, a 66-year-old visual artist working in Hungary, had a crew of 150 animation pros, knocking out this visual candy for just $4.25 million—with support of the Hungarian National Film Fund. Believing that story, graphics, animation, music and sound are equally important, Kristic senses when the music is not right, a shot should be longer or shorter, the camera angle should be at the right height, close-ups should be extreme. This film took him six and one-half years to complete. He asks audiences to give his work their undivided attention for just ninety-five minutes, and, I might add, given how reasonable the time demands are on the audience, this feature deserves not two but multiple viewings to assimilate the various scenes.

We’ve come a long way from Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy, Mickey, Minnie, Tom, Jerry and Woody, who animated the memories of those of us who have been around for half a century.

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

Story – B
Acting – N/R
Technical – A
Overall – B+

OF FATHERS AND SONS – movie review

OF FATHERS AND SONS

KINO LORBER
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Talal Derki
Screenwriter: Talal Derki
Cast: Abu Osama
Screened at: Crosby St. Hotel, NYC, 11/7/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What informal outdoor games did you play with your pals when you were a kid? When I was 12 we played stick-ball in the street, watching out for cars and dodging them as best we could. Punch ball was a variety of this without the technology of the stick. We relied on our own fists to knock out what we called spaldeens (acutally Spaldings). My favorite indoor game was spin the bottle. What do kids in Northern Syria do for fun? In their bombed-out country, courtesy of Bashar al-Assad with the help of the Russians, they play war. There’s not much else to do, as we can see from Talal Derki’s sophomore feature documentary. Derki, whose prize-winning 2013 doc “The Return to Homs” filmed over 3 years, is about a 19 year-old militia leader in a city in Syria’s West, virtually destroyed by Assad’s forces. Homs is a city full of history but is now pockmarked, block after block, its citizens largely having deserted.

This time the brave, even audacious Derki spends two years in Northern Syria as a war journalist who feigns sympathies with the jihadists, gains their confidence, and serves up his documentary as though a drama, full of action, with no tedious interviews—just people chatting with the camera as though it were an old friend, presumably excited to give their views to what they think will be millions of movie fans.

There is plenty of hated among the particular family being filmed by the writer-director’s photographer, Kahtan Hassoun, but though you might expect half the movie to be broadsides against America and Israel, only a token conversation bothers to mention the two states. Even stories of Moses and Abraham are treated warmly. Instead the hatred is directed against Bashar al-Assad who destroyed a good deal of his own country, gassing his own people, welcoming Russian jets into his air space to create more havoc against who he calls “terrorists.” What comes across most vividly, however, is something not overtly covered in the film. This is this: while a large percentage of Americans believe that our government should be arming the rebels against the Syrian dictator, it’s possible that most of the rebels themselves are members of a branch of al-Qaida, a terrorist group that may have contempt for ISIS but is just as much in favor of occupying a vast amount of Middle-East space to form an Islamic caliphate.

As principal character, Abu Osama, is proud of his eight sons—his daughters are not part of the conversation at all and in fact the camera captures only seconds of girls in school. He is proudest of the oldest boy, Osama, who he is training along with the others to become, if necessary, martyrs in the fight against the Syrian government. He passes his hatred down to his offspring, who when not play war games with live ammunition, their faces covered by balaclavas, wrestle with one another and practice throwing rocks at invisible enemies. Sadly, for the forty-something father, he steps on a mine and loses a foot, all of which occur during the two-year time period that Derki patiently spends in the company of what we in America would call terrorists.

Abu Osama is no one-dimensional foe. In a nuanced portrait, we see that he has justifiable rage against the Syrian president who obviously does not drop bombs and engage in chemical and biological warfare for fun. Assad is under attack for years now and has no problem gassing people as collateral damage rather than trying to pick out who are the actual combatants. We in the audience could not be blamed for treating Abu Osama as a character we can to some extent sympathize with, a father who is adored by all eight of his male children, who must suffer the loss of a foot with corresponding pain that is not treated with palliatives. The women who are wailing in sympathy are not shown, presumably because Abu Osama would not permit them to be filmed.

Derki, who lives in Berlin and has received considerable funds from Germany for the making of this film, has succeeded admirably with the risk of his own life and limb to capture the lifestyle—if you can call it that—of people under siege in a battle to which they have committed themselves for revenge against the destruction of their country. It is intimate, a fly-on-the-wall treatment of a single family, while broadly capturing the mind of the jihadist close up.

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

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

WHAT THEY HAD – movie review

WHAT THEY HAD

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Elizabeth Chomko
Screenwriter:  Elizabeth Chomko
Cast:  Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/10/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
What They Had Movie Poster
There’s a reason that 65% of registered voters in the U.S. will not go to the polls for this all-important mid-term election, or at least this is so if we go by history.  We’re too busy with family squabbles, maybe earning a paycheck which adjusted for inflation has not risen in decades, to care all that much about Iran, North Korea, and our present dysfunctional White House.  Elizabeth Chomko may be on to something in reflecting the lives of three generations in “What They Had” (whatever that means).  The director, who has a longer resume as an actress than a director (this is her freshman project) does show possibilities for further work in the director’s chair, but “What They Had,” a look at a dysfunctional family brought under one roof to argue what should be done with the ailing family matriarch, is a soap opera.  It’s a classy one, but still a soap.  It does have superb performances from an array of top actors going for it, but that’s enough to shake off potential audience ennui given its tiresome script.  It might also get young people in the audience—the few that would attend a movie with a concentration of older, more mature performers—to rethink whether they even want a family.

Though at first we might expect the story to focus on Ruth (Blythe Danner), taking a breath from her commercial for Prolia, which she says can strengthen bones and relieve arthritis. The Alzheimer focus becomes secondary to a free-for-all of family squabbles, none of which is either original or compelling.

Set in a large Chicago-area brownstone occupied by Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth, “What They Had” brings in Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) one woman from flies from California ready to break into tears (as she eventually does) because of her stale marriage to Eddy (Josh Lucas).  She kvetches that she was pushed into wedlock by her dad who figured he was more than good enough for her.  For his part Nicky (Michael Shannon), who bought a bar and tends it, is not meeting his potential according to father Burt.  Young Emma Ertz (Taissa Farmiga) is super unhappy in her freshman year of college, her mother Bridget clueless about how her daughter feels. Mom is called upon, in effect, to allow her to drop out.

The principal conflict pits Nicky against his dad, Burt. Nicky wants to send her mentally ailing mom to a facility that could take care of her but Burt, a former Marine now suffering a heart condition, insists that she can do best by staying just where she is.  Never mind that they had to send out a posse to rescue her after she walked in the snow and took a commuter train out of town.

You can do better by renting “Away From Her,” Sarah Polley’s trenchant, yet humorous look at a woman hospitalized for Alzheimer’s, who transfers her affections from husband to a fellow resident at the center.  “What They Had” has a terrific ensemble of actors but they can’t overcome the weakness of the soapy script.

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

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

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ – movie review

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ

Menemsha Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Waldheims Walzer (2018)
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.

Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men?  Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours.  Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria.  No, not that one.  Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities?  Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front.  What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.

Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986.  He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.

Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well.  Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria.  She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General.  One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.

The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy?  A Jewboy?”  This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians.  To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.  The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.

We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.”  This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization.  This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment.  This is what dirty politics is all about.  It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.

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

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

MADELINE’S MADELINE – movie review

MADELINE’S MADELINE

Oscilloscope
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josephine Decker
Screenwriter:  Josephine Decker
Cast:  Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 7/10/18
Opens: August 10 in NY; August 17 in L.A.
Poster
Josephine Decker’s latest film is emotionally explosive to such an extent that “Madeline’s Madeline” could be called a stab at expressionism.  Expressionism, which is better known in painting and theater than in the cinema, is the practice of revealing an emotional inner life rather than an objective impression of the world, and has been used most effectively on stage in such works as Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine.”  As the taut bundle of inner turmoil, Decker’s “Madeline” is played by a newcomer, Helena Howard), who lets loose with all her inner demons, a role reversal in which she plays her mother, Regina (Miranda July) during a rehearsal by a New York theater group under the direction of Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Decker is in her mystical métier, having made the film “Butter on the Latch,” wherein fantasy plays with reality at a California camp as a camper sings about dragons who entwine themselves in women’s hair and carry them off through the forest, burning the trees as they go.

At base, the film is about the theater director’s use of a mentally ill title figure—seen in the opening when a blurred figure of a nurse talks to the 16-year-old.  Since her prescription for possible schizophrenia has run out, there’s no stopping Madeline from expressing her demons during a rehearsal where she is utilized by director Evangeline as her principal performer.  Madeline uses her own paranoia with touches of anorexia to give her all to the part during the improvisations attempted by the theater group.  Like other members of the troupe, she acts out the part of a turtle.  She also dons pig’s masks as though rehearsing for Greek tragedy.  In the most excoriating scene she gives her mother hell, the middle-aged now single woman having to walk out despite the congratulations that the young actress receives from the director and the troupe.  Her acting is so dramatic—both within the stage rehearsal and in the film itself—that the director invites her home, where she declares to the director’s husband that she is determined on her 17th birthday to lose her virginity.  She makes it fairly clear that the husband George (Curtiss Cook) is her choice to be the lucky guy.

Race plays a role as well.  Madeline’s mother is white; her daughter is black.  At one point the teenager, hearing the mother tell her that the young woman is “different,” wonders whether she is honing in on the girl’s race.  This becomes part of the tension released by the girl in her role reversal, contributing mightily to Madeline’s explosion of theatrical emotion.  Joys of motherhood indeed.  As for the two older women, Evangeline and Regina, particularly involving is the former’s attempts to pull her star student away from her mother’s influence and into her own inner circle.

One would not be surprised if members of the audience, particularly critics, would find Helena Howard’s performance among the great débuts of recent years—which could catapult her into notice by awards organizations voting breakthrough performance at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, “Madeline’s Madeline” is so experimental, so non-linear, with photography often deliberately blurred, that a positive reception by a majority of ordinary film-goers is hardly guaranteed.

Unrated.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SKATE KITCHEN – movie review

SKATE KITCHEN

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

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

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

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

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

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+

Overall – B+

COLETTE – MOVIE REVIEW

COLETTE

Bleecker Street and 30 West
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Screenwriter: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/1/18
Opens: September 21, 2018

Colette Movie Poster

If you think that Paris has always been a sophisticated city with a reputation for progressivism, think again. Though Renoir’s paintings were accepted by Parisians, the impressionist painter had to bear with years of bad reviews. And in 1913, when Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was first performed on the Paris stage, there were outright riots as the audience had never heard tones such as those played by the mournful bassoon, the dissonance that has become the watchword of contemporary music, or the knock-kneed women that appeared on the stage when the overture was completed. The public, in fact, had been prepared with choice vegetables, looking for a fight, people who, if they were an elite attending a concert, could be mistaken for some of the deplorables that Hillary cited in her campaign.

But, you say, Paris is still the city of love! Yes, except that while women could be accepted as companions for men three times their age, not so long ago, homosexuality could not. In one of the melodramatic incidents in a movie that moves along smoothly without Hollywood-style mayhem, the crowd became antagonistic only when two women kiss each other on stage. Director Wash Westmoreland, whose “Still Alice” investigates problems when a linguistics professor and family have their bond tested when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, now finds the title character’s bond with her husband tested as well. There’s plenty of conflict in his “Colette,” a biopic of one of France’s great novelists, who during most of her career suffered the indignity of ghost-writing salacious novels for her husband Willy (Dominic West), the much older husband who notes that a woman simply could not be published in Europe in the early twentieth century. Like the couple in Björn Runge’s “The Wife,” dealing with a talented woman whose books were published under the name of her husband, “Colette” demonstrates yet another way that today’s #MeToo feminism is the happy background for writers and directors who try to compensate for society’s prejudice against creative females.

“Colette” could probably do just fine with any reputable star in the lead role, but Keira Knightley’s awards-worthy performance allows the film to soar both emotionally and intellectually. Though some will grouse that a French woman is the subject of a movie produced in the UK with British actors, you would do well to overlook that and enjoy the delightful unfolding of a career centered on a woman who could have spent her life in obscurity had she not decided to break away from her husband and knock out novels with her own name.

The film opens in 1893 when Colette (Keira Knightley), a country girl from Burgundy, is whisked away to Paris by Willy (Dominic West), a fake novelist who runs a stable of ghost writers and is now to include his beautiful wife among the serfs. One may wonder how Colette put up with the womanizer who even at age 46 had women in the early twenties throwing themselves at him. Noting that his wife, who in at least one instance is locked up in a room with the demand that she spend four hours writing before being freed, emerges with pages showing considerable spice. Willy sees a way out of his perpetual poverty brought about by gambling, dining and whoring. After the repo guys take away his furniture, he is saved financially when Colette” Claudine at School” becomes a best seller.

Colette turns out to be bisexual, carrying on an affair with an American from Louisiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), using her experiences as juice for future novels. The most interesting attraction is between Colette and Missy (Denise Gough), a woman who resembles Ellen De Generis with her suit, close hair style, and masculine carriage.

As with blockbuster thrillers, the women come out on top, so to speak, Colette gets revenge, divorcing her miserable husband, and goes on to write thirty novels. The picture, scripted by the director, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is constructed in a conventional manner (unusual, perhaps, considering the sexual progressivism of the theme) and is not only a great story but highlights a marvelous Keira Knightley as a turn-of-20th-century feminist.

Unrated. 111 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT – movie reveiw

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter:  Christopher McQuarrie, Bruce Geller
Cast:  Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris
Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 7/11/18
Opens: July 27, 2018

Movies have come a long way since an audience for “The Great Train Robbery” ducked under the seats as the railroad train headed toward them in that historic six-minute film screened in 1903.  Just imagine what the audience, perhaps seeing their first film at the turn of the 20th century, would think if they saw “Mission: Impossible—Fallout”! They wouldn’t be ducking under their seats. They would be shouting and running for the exits, thinking that the end of the world was finally here.  If they stayed for most of the almost two and one-half picture, though, they would not think the world was ending. They would be certain, because the bad guys, who include August Walker (Henry Cavill) as a rogue agent actually tasked with eliminating the good guys, and especially Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), an anarchist with, of course, a full beard, plan to blow up a good part of the world knocking out 1/3 of our population to start.

Lucky for us that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), working for the IMF together with Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is available to make amends for his failure to capture the anarchist.  While many would think his new mission is impossible, the fallout is altogether a happy one, ultimately finding a reconciliation between Ethan Hunt and his wife Julia Meade-Hunt (Michelle Monaghan).

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, in his métier having directed “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” in 2016 (a homicide inspector looks into the case of a sniper who shot five random victims) and is the only one who directed two “Mission Impossible” actions.  At the screening I attended he spoke to the vast audience at AMC Lincoln Square’s IMAX theater, making sure that we all appreciate that Tom Cruise, who does some of his own stunts, injured his ankle during a drop from one roof to another in London, yet without waiting for his foot completely to heal continued to show up for work.  (Work?  This is pure fun.  We all should have jobs like his.)

In a picture with a great many strengths, though plot is not one of them, Tom Cruise leads his team against people out to kill off much of civilization to start “a new order.”  McQuarrie and a cast of hundreds of extras supporting to main characters, enact what some consider to be one of the greatest action movie of all time.  Given the steady march of film technology—special effects, booming sound, motorcycle chases through the streets of Paris that look so real you’d swear  you witnessed the real thing—“Mission: Impossible—Fallout” will impress audiences that are already hip to video games and scores of action features—but I can’t think of a single one that can surpass what occurs on the screen in an IMAX theater.

This sixth installment following McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” (Ethan Hunt and team go after the Syndicate, which had been charged with eradicating the International Monetary Fund) opened in Paris July 12, 2018 as well it should be given the City of Lights’ major role as virtually another character.  Don’t expect this to be in any way comparable to the intellectual spy stories of Joh Le Carré though you might compare the story to chapters in books by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum.  In an opening sequence Ethan Hunt and Benji botch an operation irritating CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) forcing Hunt to team up with Luther (Ving Rhames) and the complex character August Walker (Henry Cavill).  In a breathtaking sequence the two jump from a jet like joyous sky divers, their chutes threatening to stay closed even as they are within 1000 feet of Paris’ Grand Palais.

One of the actions exquisitely choreographed is a fight scene in a men’s room between the team and a goon, the action unfolding with a minimum of itchy editing so common to martial arts pics, the realistic punches landing with thuds.  Other adventures involve masks donned by some to conceal their identities, with a great gag involving CNN commentator Wolf Blitzer.  Audience members who may not have traveled much will be treated to the wonders of Paris, but Hunt is not one to sit in a sidewalk café watching pedestrians but is happier in cars and motorcycles charging down the cobblestone streets.  At times that most drivers would be honking their horns at traffic delays, Hunt is able to traverse the streets at 60 mph without knocking down a single civilian.

Other stunts involves jumping from roof toe roof, climbing and hanging on to a rope which Hunt holds onto for dear life as a helicopter takes off,.  All comes to a smashing conclusion in Kashmir (filmed in Norway and New Zealand) as the team of good guys try to defuse a series of bombs set to go off in 15 minutes thereby destroying most of India, Pakistan, Kashmir and presumably the happiest country, Bhutan.

Each episode tops the one before, the movie owning nothing to the James Bond series since every gadget owned by 007 has been largely surpassed by today’s technology.  So: plot is familiar, action is incredible.  The picture deserves to be seen in 2-D on the largest screen available in your area, IMAX if you can get it, but given the length of the film and the annoyance of wearing those pesky glasses I would recommend skipping the 3-D.

Rated PG-13.  144 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SKYSCRAPER – movie review

SKYSCRAPER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON CHESIL BEACH – movie review

ON CHESIL BEACH

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Ian McEwan from his novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronana, Billy Howie, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel Wes

Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/12/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

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The soundtrack is filled with the beautiful music of Schubert and others while at the same time finds a place for Little Richard’s assertive (and in this case ironic) “I’m ready, ready ready, I’m ready ready ready to rock and roll.” “On Chesil Beach,” adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by the screenwriter, finds two young people who are anything but ready to rock and roll. The opening sentence if Ian McEwan’s novel goes: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this their wedding night and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” That pretty much sums up the theme.

If you were born after 1970 you might find that sentence incredible. The sexual revolution, which began with the invention of the birth control pill and was furthered by resistance against authority during the Vietnam War, really was a upending of the old conventions. Both women and men who started their adult lives in 1962, the year this film begins, might well be virgins. Some were considered technical virgins, meaning that they “everything but.” However Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) were not even that. In fact shortly before their wedding Florence is seen reading a sex manual that must have been written in the forties, looked on by her kid sister Ruth (Bebe Cave), who appears more excited about the subject than Florence. For his part, Edward seems untutored by his parents Lionel Mayhew (Adrian Scarborough) and Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), his father being an elementary school teacher in a profession looked down upon by Florence’s haute-bourgeois mother Violet (Emily Watson) and to a lesser extent the father Geoffrey Ponting (Samuel West).

Dominic Cooke, who directs and who is at the helm of a miniseries of Shakespeare histories, projects the genteel nature of life in a small English town, where Edward may be considered more of a hayseed than is the love of his life despite his scholarly affinity for history. Florence is involved leading a chamber music string group whose music is given ample and most welcome time on screen by the director.

Social classes notwithstanding, the meeting of these two college graduates at a function is the foundation of love at first sight, the two unable to resist each other, their eventual marriage a natural climax to their affection. This is why it is nothing short of tragic (despite some comic undertones) that the two in their honeymoon suite on Chesil Beach, are nervous: the young man’s leg shaking nervously under the table, his partner’s hand maintaining a tight grip on her dress. Their failure at sex on their wedding night could have been treated as a slip, nothing more, but the couple lack experience even in the ways of solving disputes.

There is an argument here for having sex before marriage which, strange as it seems today when couples live together for months and years and may never even tie the knot. In fact co-habitation should be as required by law just as are the requirements of a blood test for a marriage license.

Though this is essentially a two-hander with hardly a scene that does not include either principal actor, side issues are explored. One involves a terrible accident on a train station when Edward’s mother Marjorie is hit by a door and brain damaged. On the tennis court, Florence’s dad shows his infantile side, ready to break his racket when he fails to shut out his future son-in-law in what should have been a friendly match.

The two principals are made for each other; that is, until the wedding night changes them forever. At twenty-four Saoirse Ronan, soon to play the title role in “Mary, Queen of Scots,” was generously awarded for her performance last year as Lady Bird. Less known in the U.S., Edward Howle had a smaller role in last year’s “The Sense of an Ending,” here fitting in quite well as an equal to Ms. Ronan.
While some critics may show displeasure at the way the film ends, I see nothing wrong with the use of sentiment on the screen, even of the Hallmark variety.

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

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

REVENGE – movie review

REVENGE

Shudder/ Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Screenwriter:  Coralie Fargeat
Cast:  Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchede, Jean-Louis Tribes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/27/18
Opens: May 11, 2018

Women in the developed world are as free as men to say whatever they want. But that doesn’t mean it’s wise to say just anything that comes to mind.  For example, if a woman criticizes a man’s size, that could be a conversation-stopper, but it could be more than that.  And if a woman tells a man that he’s not her type, that’s not a diplomatic thing to say.  In “Revenge,” Coralie Fargeat unfolds a tale in which a beautiful French socialite—and I mean beautiful that way Brigette Bardot was in “And God Created Woman”—tells a gentleman to whom she played up the night before but now telling him that “You’re not my type.”  She follows up with “you’re small: I like tall guys.” Such a rebuff can lead to no good end.  Nor should a woman verbally threatened to tell a French millionaire that she is going to reveal all to his wife.

Coralie Fargeat, whose “Reality +” imagines a chip that would make you see yourself with a perfect physique while letting others see you in this new way, now helms her first full-length feature that similarly involves two people with perfect bodies untouched by pills.  Their gorgeous physiques, which obviously would allow them to enjoy more of life than most of the rest of us, plays havoc.  Blood is shed; more blood than any human body contains.  There are chases, there are telescopic rifles, there are cliffs (probably located in Morocco where much of “Revenge” is filmed) which make handy places for an insulted guy to take revenge for being not somebody’s type.

The revenge in this story does not belong to the men, however, but rather to Jen (Matilda Lutz), an American sex kitten seen debarking from a helicopter after having shared considerable passion with Richard (Kevin Janssens), a French multi-millionaire
on a hunting trip together with Jen.  They are met in a gorgeous desert home by his two pals Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Bouchede (Guillaume Bouchede).  When Jen does provocative dancing, first with Richard, then with Stan, Stan is turned on, but the next morning, when Richard takes a few hours off to see about hunting licenses, the rebuffed Stan rapes her while his portly friend Dimitri looks on, crunching a chocolate bar seen in close-up under Robrecht Heyvaert’s lens.

There’s not much of a plot, but you don’t need a subtle story line for a movie that depends on visuals, and you can see some mighty fine visuals looking at Jen, and for those who prefer, some nude scenes involving the muscular Richard as well.  The bloody vistas are inventive. Think of being pushed from a cliff and surviving because you get stuck on a tree limb that penetrates your body.  How about feasting your eyes on a woman who climbs out, pulls the tree limb from her body with the help of a peyote substance that not only dulls pain but makes her into a Wonder Woman?  Best of all, the cauterization scene is the one to see for drop-dead inventiveness

All in all a bloody good time.  French and English with English subtitles.

Unrated.  108 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

BAD SAMARITAN – movie review

BAD SAMARITAN

Electric Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dean Devlin
Screenwriter:  Brandon Boyce
Cast:  David Tennant, Robert Sheehan, Carlito Olivero
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 4/24/18
Opens: May 4, 2018
Bad Samaritan Movie Poster
A traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, left for dead.  A Levite and a priest walk by and ignore the man.  A Samaritan (a group from the Levant originating from the Israelites of the ancient Near East) sees the injured man and helps him.  Today we consider a good Samaritan to be one who helps a stranger.  But what’s a bad Samaritan?  We never heard that before.  Watching Dean Devlin’s “Bad Samaritan” we realize that such persons may be of flawed character but nonetheless are willing to extend themselves, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, to assist someone in jeopardy.

That’s the theme around which this thriller is based, a movie whose story comes from Brandon Boyce, the scriptwriter of “Apt Pupil’s” (a 16-year-old discovers that a Nazi is living quietly in his neighborhood) and is directed by Dean Devlin, whose “Geostorm” finds two brothers acting to prevent a climate change catastrophe from engulfing the world.  Neither Devlin nor Boyce may have the patience to unveil a plot consisting largely of dialogue, and that’s to the good.  This time they unfold a white-knuckle  thriller with some horror undertones filled with so many fascinating incidents, one building on the other toward an explosive finale.  “Bad Samaritan,” then, is the kind of picture that won’t have you looking at your watch for a second.  Its villain is as disturbed as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in “Psycho” (and in fact the actor bears a resemblance to him) and its hero is the title character, a petty thief who more than redeems himself in tracking down a serial killer in his attempt to save a complete stranger.

The picture starts off with a bang:  a short backstory, wherein young Cale (Austin Leo) is whips a horse that has the nerve to resist his efforts at breaking it, then firing a shot–before moving ahead to current-day Portland, Oregon, where Cale Erendreich (David Tennant), a billionaire with a penchant for “breaking” women and a knack for using all the technology that a billionaire can afford, to get revenge on a young, Irish, green card immigrant who could upset plans for his latest victim.

There is no shortage of humorous elements, particularly involving the petty thievery of Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) and his buddy Derek Sandoval (Carlito Oliver). They work as parking valets outside Nino’s Restaurant with a plan to rob the well-heeled diners.  While Derek keeps watch on the tables inside, he transmits the time a prospective patsy will take courses by cell phone to Sean—who is on his way in the patron’s car to the diner’s home, where he lifts items that may not soon be detected as missing.  Sean uses the money to finance his relationship with Riley Seabrook (Jacqueline Byers), his girlfriend, and occasionally presents his mom with expensive jewelry.

While robbing the home of billionaire Cale Erendreich (David Tennant)—which he accesses through the GPS by driving the man’s Maserati to the location instead of to Nino’s parking lot– he is faced with an ethical dilemma. Finding a woman chained to a chair with a metal gag on her mouth but unable to release her at that point, he ponders whether to tell the police of his discovery. Revealing that information would result in his own arrest for burglary.  Though friend Derek urges him to forget the prisoner, Derek soon comes around to supporting the bad Samaritan.

The plot is filled with so many episodes crammed into a film under two hours that you could get dizzy trying to recall what happens when.  Yet the busy-ness of the story makes it a journey into the heart of a movie that keeps it thrilling.  You can see why so many actors say they would rather be villains than good guys, since David Tennant has the best lines and loves showing his psychotic side when not dining with his friends at Nino’s.  By contrast Sean’s petty thievery gets him into far more trouble than his bad side could justify.

This, then, is a first-rate thriller filmed in lovely Portland and environs that will make your time pass so quickly you’d imagine yourself zipping down Portland city streets in your own blue Maserati.

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

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

BEYOND THE CLOUDS – movie review

BEYOND THE CLOUDS

Zee Studios International
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriter:  Majid Mafiji, Mehran Kashani
Cast:  Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Monanan, Gautam Ghose, GV Sharada, Dhwani Rajesh, Amruta Santosh Thakur, Shivan Puj
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 20, 2018
Beyond The Clouds Poster
Celebrated Iranian director Majid Majidi invites us to a tale that could serve as a fable, pitting good against evil, redemption against corruption, light against darkness, ultimately the glow of the moon against limitless darkness. Majidi, whose “Barat” focuses on a girl who like an Iranian Yentl disguises herself as a man in a Tehran construction site and “Children of Heaven” about a boy who loses his sister’s shoes and ventures to find a pair, this time tells an epic, Dickensian story in a Mumbai slum.  This is hardly the place that rich tourists seek out while preparing to move on to Agra and the Taj.  At its center, Amir (Ishaan Katter), a spirited young man who serves as a drug courier cycling around the neighborhood to deliver the goods, will soon find that he endures a series of events that will both make use of his restless energy and at the same time allow him to struggle against the hardships that are the fate of many of his neighbors in a typical shantytown.

Just as he finds himself heading deeper into trouble, his sister Tara (Malavika Monanan), defends herself against her boss Akshi (Goutam Ghose) who, having advanced money to Tara to allow her a nice apartment now thinks he owns her.  Struggling to avoid being raped by Akshi, Tara clubs him on the head with a stone and is imprisoned.  Her fate rests on whether Akshi, now immobile in a hospital, lives or dies.  If he dies, Tara faces life imprisonment without a trial, and the jail shown here is not designed as a copy of any penitentiary in Norway.  Because of his sister’s situation, Amir must care for the man he hates, hoping that Akshi will survive.  During his stay at the hospital, he meets the man’s mother and his two lovely grandchildren.  When Amir is not caught up with getting the man medicine, even sleeping under his bed to be on the site should a crisis occur, he is frantically trying to get his sister released from prison, even thinking of selling the man’s ten-year-old daughter into prostitution.

Melodramatic runs break up the dialogue, as the curly-haired Amir bolts in an opening scene through a Mumbai market to escape the two police who are making a drug bust, and later bounding forth to escape a couple of goons ordered by a brothel keeper to rough him up.

There’s little question that Amir is quite the performer, seemingly doing his own stunts, as in one episode he is not only beaten but pushed into a landscape of mud just off the Indian Ocean.  While Amir is redeeming himself by caring for Akshi and his two young daughters, Tara is bent on reforming herself by caring for a small boy whose mother is dying in the prison.

We’ve got to wonder whether the Tourist Board of India welcomes such a film, since it shows not only the hardscrabble life of people who have nothing but also the dramatic color of the marketplace including the saris sold on the street that are quite a contrast with the suits-and-ties uniforms of the West.  This is a well-acted piece of cinema backed up by A.R. Rahman’s score and will remind cinephiles not of the typical, light Indian pieces that end with dancing but of more serious films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” centered on a teen’s reflections of his life in a Mumbai shantytown.

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

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

WHERE IS KYRA? – movie review

WHERE IS KYRA?

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Andrew Dosunmu
Screenwriter:  Darci Picoult based on a story by Darci Picoult and Andrew Dosunmu
Cast:  Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Sam Robards, Suzanne Shepherd
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/12/18
Opens: April 2018
Inline image 1
Andrew Dosunmu, who directs “Where is Kyra?” is known to cinephiles especially for “Mother of George,” which finds a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn, the woman unable to have a child and thereby undermining her Basotho culture.  The woman, panicked at the thought of criticism she would get from her own society, takes dramatic action to override her shame.  Similarly, in “Where is Kyra?” the title character played by Michelle Pfeifer is desperate, not because of her specific culture but because she has no money. She apparently has little hope of getting a job (though only about 40 years old and, if we believe her, knowledgeable in Power Point and Excel), and needing to do almost anything simply to keep avoid eviction from her Queens, New York apartment.

Just as people might attend this film as fans of Pfeifer rather than via a special interest in the story, others may pick it up because of the particular techniques of its director, since Dosunmu keeps most of the action in the dark, lets visuals rather than dialogue express a good part of the plot, and is fond of long takes during which time he has his cameraperson Bradford Young focus on close-ups and medium shots of Kyra’s face.

The tale seems a cross between the working-class themes of Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake” for example) and the absolute pits of Maxim Gorky (“The Lower Depths”).    The influence of “The Lower Depths” comes from that classic film’s treatment of the imprisoning hold of poverty; the disheartening odds of people rising from such social despair.  Kyra, who at first does not resemble the typical personality of the homeless and the near homeless, appears to be living in a recent time when we had ten percent employment.  She is unable to find anything, nor does she expect too much when she visits a seedy restaurant where she was promised a job but is told “My husband hired someone else without telling me.”  She cannot get office work though she allegedly has the skills and the middle-class personality to handle this.  At the bottom, she sandwiches a sign for a tax office, giving out circulars, and even here nobody picks up the ad and the tax office does not even keep her on the job the next day.

Yet she is a deserving person.  She has taken care of her physically old and disabled mother, bathing her, fixing her oxygen mask, keeping her out of a nursing home.  When her mother dies she tries to cash her pension check, ultimately committing a crime by disguising herself as a crone with a silver-colored wig, large shades and a winter hat, hobbling down the street in a cane and pretending to be the old woman.  With shaky hands and the tip-tap of her cane, her performance is so convincing that we in the audience might wonder if the role is played by Suzanne Shepherd, who does quite a job in the guise of Kyra’s mom.  While distracting herself in a bar, she meets  Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), another victim of our callous capitalist system, working part time driving people to and from the airport and finding a place in a nursing home as a caretaker.  What looks like a one-night stand becomes a relationship, as Doug not only continues the courtship but becomes enveloped in Kyra’s illegal acts.

The title of the film, “Where is Kyra?” could relate to the scenes in which various officials look for Kyra, asking her “mother” when she will be back, and those scenes in which she becomes the mother and tells officials that Kyra is out. This is a slow-moving, dark, perhaps allegorical tale of poverty in the midst of plenty, which makes me wonder how many Americans, known for having no savings, can manage long-term unemployment and retirement.  It also reminds me of what one homeless man, soliciting funds in the subway, admonishes, “This can happen to you.”

Unrated.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

UNSANE – movie review

UNSANE

Bleecker Street/ Regency
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter:  Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Cast:  Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 3/19/18
Opens: March 23, 2018
Unsane Movie Poster
During the last few months when women, later embraced by the #MeToo movement, accused men of sexual abuse, the public would not always believe them.  After all, who would wait five, ten, twenty years after a series of horrific sexual attacks to report them?  Ultimately we find out that the accusing women had a right to keep silent.  Some depended on the men for their very jobs, others may not have believed that what the men were doing was even wrong (particularly the young gymnasts who let their grievances dissolve because some could not know that what the doctor was doing was illegal and immoral).  Now comes a film that warns us: ignore women’s accusations at your peril.

That’s not the only thematic concept brought out by “Unsane,” an absorbing and, for director Steven Soderbergh, one which takes him away from his usual concerns.  Think of the corruption of hospitals who sucker in patients with insurance, whether Medicare, Aetna, Oxford, of any of a number of businesses–that should be giving medical facilities an ever harder time to justify their treatments than they do now.

In a bizarre sequence of events that finds Sawyer Valentini (Clare Foy), on the fast track as a data analyst with a bank whose boss (Mark Kudisch) praises her work—seeks therapy at a Pennsylvania psychiatric hospital, where gets more than she bargained for.  When she answers affirmatively that she sometimes has suicidal thoughts, then goes a step further by signing a paper (without reading it, don’t you do that sometimes?) agreeing to a voluntary commitment, the counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) has Nurse Boles (Polly McKie) tell her to remove her clothing to search for marks notwithstanding a crescendo of objections from Sawyer.  While the hospital looks spanking modern on the outside, the interiors where patients are bedded border on the nightmarish.  (In fact, Soderbergh, utilizing Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, may want the audience to wonder whether Sawyer is having a bad dream.)  Her roommate, Violet (Juno Temple), feeling dismissed by the new patient, threatens to kill her with a knife she has secreted under her gown, Dr. Hawthorne (Gibson Frazier) ignores her objections, ending both conferences with “To be continued.”  Sawyer’s threats to call the cops does not scare the administrator: the police more or less ignore complaints from “the crazies.”

Worst of all nurse George (Joshua Leonard) takes a fancy to her, playing a larger part as the film progresses, and is accused by Sawyer, whose protestations are at the loudest pitch yet, of stalking her all the way from Boston to Pennsylvania.  She has only two people to count on: her mother, Angela Valentini (Amy Irving), who wails that her daughter is 450 miles away, and best of all Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), completely normal, a voluntary patient in for opioid abuse.  He clues her in about the corruption: the hospital tries to commit people right and left in order to collect insurance during the seven-day allowance period.

You may be scarcely aware that cinematographer Peter Andrews captures the whole film on an iPhone, which makes the movie serve as an ad for the pesky gadget that has addicted almost the entire millennial generation.  And the iPhone absolutely loves Clare Foy, a stunning performer appearing in almost every scene, a veteran of TV episodes like “The Crown,” where she connects with her audience in the principal role of Elizabeth II.

“Unsane” comes across like a B-movie, which is probably Soderbergh’s aim, a rollicking trip into a snake pit where compensation from insurance companies maintains a cuckoo’s nest that may or not serve the public for which it exists.  There is a lesson in this film that we would do well to remember.  Next time someone in the so-called helping professions asks you if you have suicidal thoughts, answer: “Never.”

Rated R.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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


STRANGERS ON THE EARTH – movie reveiw

STRANGERS ON THE EARTH

First Run Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Tristan Cook
Screenwriter:  Tristan Cook
Cast:  Dane Johansen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/18
Opens: May 4, 2018

Strangers on the Earth Movie Poster

There are tourists and there are travelers.  Tourists go to places to sightsee and perhaps to engage in an activity that cannot be found  in your neighborhood.  Skiing in August? Portillo. Spring break?  Mexico. See Leonardo’s work on a ceiling?  Vatican City.  Food?  Italy or France.  Preference?  No hardships.  Travelers, though, would have to include Anthony Bourdain, who doesn’t go simply to a restaurant in Bologna or León but to the far reaches of the globe sampling street cuisine with the locals.

Yet it’s difficult to think of travelers who put up with hardships as those who hike the Camino, the long stretch of land in Spain marked out by either the Church or the tourism department, with group tours available on caminoways.com.  The walk could be some 700 kilometers, maybe 700 miles.  The folks in this documentary film did not book tours but hiked on their own, and they’re all ages, plugging along on the Camino with the destination of the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  As you hike the trail, you realize that you’re treading on land that hosted fellow pilgrims for hundreds of years.  You think a lot about life, and if you’re like the people shown here, you don’t spend your day texting with your Facebook friends.  There are many reasons for going, but the deepest thought is that you do the pilgrimage to perfect yourself, to become a different person.  However if you think you’re stripping life to the bone like Thoreau, realize that you have to carry your belongings on your back like any of the crowd that drive to a campsite and consider their trip to be real traveling.  And you don’t sleep under the light of the moon but in pensions, albergues each housing perhaps twenty people snoring, picking their calluses or their noses, and probably not smelling like people who use Dial soap “and don’t you wish everybody did?” as the commercial stated way back.

The principal character speaking English to us in the theater audience is American Dane Johansen, who carries not only the typical pack with his raincoat and whatever, but adds a cello on his back.  As the producer of the film directed by Tristan Cook in his freshman entry into full-length filmmaking, Johansen anchors the doc with philosophic musings such as his view that there are seven dimensions to life (don’t ask) but more important gives something back to fellow pilgrims and apparently to some of the locals who sit on portable chairs outdoors or inside in churches to listen to Johansen playing Bach by memory. The soundtrack carries the master’s compositions (Bach’s, not Johansen’s) throughout the project.

There’s not a lot of humor here, though its absence for the bulk of the work makes us in the audience appreciate a tale by a man who is traveling with a prospective soulmate that he meets on the Camino.  He is disgusted that she is charging her phone on his charger!  Imagine the chutzpah! Realizing that she may be too self-centered to be a pleasant walking companion he breaks up with her.  Over a charger!

Along the route we watch the passing scene under the lenses of photographer Iskra Valtcheva whom we never see but wonder how this camera person can carry luggage and perhaps the heavy equipment needed to bring the Camino to life—the donkey that one fellow uses to carry too much weight, the owls that turn 180 degrees, a large bird perhaps an eagle flapping wings while trying unsuccessfully to fly, the lambs (or goats) lying peacefully within a fenced area, a few cattle.

The loneliness of the long distance traveler is broken up now and then as the pilgrims gather in restaurants along the way, toasting one another, and urging on each traveler who, using the famous Spanish porrón, is able to chug some red wine without lips touching the bottle.  In the epilogue, some pilgrims end their trip in Finisterre, the westernmost tip of the European continent, where they burn articles of clothing to announce the beginning of a new life.

As you watch these people performing a feat in blistered feet, far more difficult than training for a marathon, you may feel exhausted yourself in your theater seat.  You will likely be motivated to catch other treatments of the pilgrimage.  There is a scene in this movie taken from “The Way,” probably the most popular movie about the Camino, detailing the journey of Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen), starting with the death of Avery’s son (Emilio Estevez).  “Walking the Camino: 6 Ways to Santiago” finds director Lydia B. Smith and crew beginning at St. John Pied de Port where they meet over 15 pilgrims for interviews.  Several reasons are given by the subjects for taking the stroll.  “Tres en el Camino” deals with one lonely Dutch man, a Japanese poet, and a Brazilian girl walking in different seasons, and how the experience changes them.  For the best scenery, check “Oh Ye of Little Faith.”  “I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles” released just last year checks in on Justin and Patrick, two friends who walk together.  When Justin is diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that left him without the use of his arms and legs, he was confined to a wheelchair: Justin pushed him all along the route.  That’s friendship.

Unrated.  96 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE CHINA HUSTLE – movie review

THE CHINA HUSTLE

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jed Rothstein
Screenwriter: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Carson Block, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl, Maj Soueidnn
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/23/18
Opens: March 30, 2018

The China Hustle Movie Poster

History has judged capitalism to be the winner. With the exception of a handful of countries—Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba—all follow the tenets of capitalism whether they announce themselves as capitalists or not. And theoretically, capitalism is the most form of economy that has integrity; that is, if you do good for others, make the products that people actually want, you will get rich. However there is another way of looking at this: if you get away with stealing from the people, you can also get rich. Or as Balzac said “Behind every fortune there is a great crime.” The latter opinion gets cinematic treatment in Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle.”

When I visited China in 1985 the country was a lot different from the way it is now. The street in Shanghai that was to resemble New York’s Fifth Avenue was a dark and dismal place, its stores pathetic haunts with shoddy goods, but at least the Chinese people were able to afford them. Tipping was not permitted. China was Communist in word and deed. Flash forward to 2018 and China has become the second largest economy, threatening to knock the U.S. off its pedestal as the world’s leading producer. The country that houses 1.3 billion people calls itself Communist, but though Mao’s portrait remains in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese people according to some are the most eager in the world to amass great wealth.

Still, some companies are shady at best. While the Chinese government forbids foreigners from owning stock in its corporations, leave it to those in America with the most vivid profit-making ideas to find a way around the law. The technique described in Rothstein’s documentary, called the reverse merger, is for Chinese companies to creep into the American stock exchanges like Trojan horses. When an American company is about to go belly-up but is still listed on our stock exchanges, a Chinese company pulls a reverse merger. This means that the foreign company enters the American one like a dybbuk, merging with a dying American corporation while operating in China. Hedge fund managers and financial companies would solicit investment from rich Americans, using the ecstatic balance sheets to convince all that huge profits can be made. Who needs Bernie Madoff when so many other clever capitalists can do the same?

There is one trouble: some Chinese companies vastly overstate their revenues and prospective futures even though they are heading south just like the defunct American businesses. It’s only the balance sheets that are raves. When some crafty Americans visiting China took note, discovering that the factories in no way enjoyed the traffic they claimed, they could have blown the whistle to expose them. Instead, these would-be muckrakers, aware that the bad news is around the corner and that the stocks would soon race for the basement, they sold the stocks short, a technique that allows investors to borrow stock from the brokers. Then, when the stock goes way down, return the stock to the brokers by repurchasing at the lower price. (See Wikipedia for a full explanation of “selling short” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_(finance).

Rothstein’s doc hands the stage to people who have profited by this scam. As one leading financial manager states, “There are no good guys here. Not even me.” The film does not overstay its welcome at just 84 minutes and is reasonably easy to understand unless you’re a North Korean and have never heard the term “stock market.” Its editing is snazzy, meaning lots of bells and whistles such as you’d find in an action drama. It serves as ample warning: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. If any two words summarize the lessons taught, they are: Trust nobody. Do not take expert opinions except with a grain of salt, as Bernie Madoff’s investors learned the hard way.

Do I have to warn readers that Donald J. Trump should not be trusted? He recently pushed through and signed legislation that he said would deregulate 70% of the corporate world, as though he never heard of the market crash of 2008. If there’s anything that could be said of “The China Hustle” it’s that its lessons have not been absorbed by people who should learn from them lest they wind up selling apples on the street to make a living.

Unrated. 84 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

TEHRAN TABOO – movie review

TEHRAN TABOO

Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ali Soozandeh
Screenwriter: Ali Soozandeh
Cast: Elmira Rafizadeh, Zara Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Marandi, Bilal Yasar, Negal Mona Alizadeh, Payam Madjilessi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/26/18
Opens: February 14, 2018

Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. The Roman poet Horace said this. Translated: You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but it keeps coming back. When human beings have their natural implications aborted with repressive laws, you can expect blowback. We learned this with our own horrendous experience with prohibition. Our attorney general still has not learned this as he tries to override California’s legal acceptance of recreational marijuana. Add sex to the package: think of the absurd and hopefully dead U.S. laws against same-sex cohabitation, against the use of birth control, even against same-sex marriage. Ultimately our natural inclinations will win.

Iran is still back in the 19th century with its rigid legislation against unrelated people holding hands; against the use of any drug; against disco-type parties. The young people are smarting. Some desire nothing more than to leave the country for the U.S. or Germany, while others protest in the streets as we’ve seen in the recent demonstrations. To get a solid look at the ways the religious government in Iran punishes people for what we in the U.S. consider wholly inoffensive, watch Ali Soozandeh’s animated story “Tehran Taboo,” which uses rotoscope to avoid the need to film in a place like Jordan and Morocco since surely Iran is outside of what’s possible.

Rotoscoping involves tracing the movement of live actors to convert their story to animation, a technique now done with computers. (See the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotoscoping). While the technology is mind-boggling, of course what is important is the story unfolded under Ali Soozandeh’s direction. The writer-director was born in Iran and lived there to the age of 25. He was alarmed that after the Islamic revolution, boys and girls were separated in school. Now living as a citizen in Germany, he sought to break the silence and protest restrictions, opining that the Iranian people are adept with working around the restrictions. For this film, he was motivated by a conversation between two Iranian men in the subway who noted that a prostitute would take her child along on the job. What may bother him most now is that individuals and their entire families can lose honor for an extramarital relationship.

Though you may root for some people in “Tehran Taboos,” all the individuals are flawed, even the small mute boy who observes everything like a Greek chorus and gets his fun from dropping water balloons from a roof onto the people below. It would not be spoiling the movie to tell you that the taboos that are broken include restrictions against watching porn, getting married when you are no longer a virgin, judges who tilt the balance scales in a petitioner’s favor if she gives her favor to the bench, disco parties, all illegal drugs including weed, and possession of girlie magazines. The most amusing albeit sad problem faces a woman who is deflowered at a party shortly before her wedding and must find a way to become a virgin once again.

Soozandeh opens with a bang, or more accurately a shot of Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) giving a blow job to a man inside his car. Before you cast blame on her, note that she is desperate to split from a drug addict who is in prison and must ply her trade with a judge to get his signature on a divorce document. In fact she becomes his concubine, living in his apartment together with her son Elias (Bilal Yasar). Even middle-class people have needs: Sara (Zara Amir Ebrahimi), married to Mohsen (Alireza Bayram), a banker, wants to get a job, “not about the money,” she advises the husband who says he can support both, but to get out of the house of his parents.

The men don’t have it so bad, or do they? After a party in which Babak (Arash Marandi) shares a pill and then sex with Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), he must raise the money to get her…not an abortion…but a fake hymen! He is threatened with repercussions from her tough fiancé if he discovers what’s missing, and the musician cannot raise the money for the operation. The doctor who is to perform this illegal procedure is pictured as seedy as a doctor can get. (Oops, I forgot about Dr. Larry Nassar, who “harassed” some 150 Olympic gymnasts.)

We get a brief glimpse of people hanging on poles right in the heart of the city, nor does the cat fare much better. It is put into a trash bag, banged against a wall three times, and popped into a dumpster.

There’s nothing unpredictable here if you know anything at all about repressed societies, but at least we can leave the movie feeling good that we live in a progressive country cared for by a genial congress and a sophisticated philosopher-king for a president.

Unrated. 96 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B

Technical – B+
Overall – B

VAZANTE – movie review

VAZANTE

Music Box Films
Director:  Daniela Thomas
Screenwriter:  Daniela Thomas, Beto Amaral
Cast:  Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Sandra Corveloni, Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/18
Opens: January 12, 2018

Vazante  Poster

1821 was a very good year—if you were King George IV of England—but not if you were born or shipped to Brazil as a slave.  If you resent the patriarchy in America, the behavior of white males in important positions, be thankful that you do not have to undergo the humiliation of enslaved people in the mining areas of Brazil, a country that imported more slaves via Luanda than any other state in the Western Hemisphere.  Forty percent of all such unfortunate people sent to our hemisphere went to Brazil, where slavery was the peculiar institution even before the Portuguese traveled to the New World.  Brazilians must have liked the institution: they were the last to emancipate all, in 1888.

“Vazante,” or “The Surge” tells the story of one family, folks of all ages, living in a shack that looks nothing like the plantations you’ve seen in “Gone With the Wind,” but still, if you owned the place and you possessed a dozen slaves to work the mines or do some planting, you did some heavy work.  Maybe you moved some cattle from place to place, riding a horse like an Argentine gaucho or relaxing in a hammock on your porch, ordering the African women to bring you not mint juleps but perhaps cachaça, the national drink.

“Vazante” is quite an impressive job from director Daniela Thomas, a Carioca who presumably lives better than even the owner of this dilapidated plantation in the Diamantina Moutains.  As in antebellum America, the owner of these people who are often chained, marching as a team from the field or tied to trees to “break” them, could have his way with the women, and as shown in one quick scene, with the young African boys as well.  Though filmed by Inti Briones in black and white, the rugged beauty of the area is apparent, the absence of color accentuating the primitive lives of the people far away from what would become Ipanema Beach.

The stage is set for drama when Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), the owner of the farmhouse seen leading a group of fresh slaves and oxen, learns that his wife has died in childbirth as well as the baby.  He is now not only a widower but the son of a senile mother-in-law (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha), who gazes about listlessly, occasionally shoveling gruel into her mouth.  One slave (Toumani Kouyate), who gives the movie audience the impression that he will lead a Nat Turner-style rebellion, speaks a different language.  His inability to communicate fills him with a rage that a freed African, Jeremias (Fabricio Boliveira), both an Uncle Tom and a Simon Legree, insists that he can handle.  Jeremias is valuable as well as he knows how to plant, a necessity for raising money when the diamond mines have dried up.

Antonio takes Beatriz (Luana Nastas), daughter of his brother-in-law (Roberto Audio), in marriage, a 12-year-old with whom he does not consummate his marriage until she has her menses.  Otherwise, he’s no Mr. Right.  He gets off with Feliciana (Jai Baptista), as masters had been wont to do with the enslaved.  For her part, Beatriz hangs out with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), a choice that will lead this slow-paced, reasonably quiet story to burst into frightful melodrama.

With the help of co-scripter Beto Amaral, Ms. Thomas has no problem challenging the probable art-house crowd to keep patient, given the long takes and the occasional, dramatic close-up.  Though I haven’t been anywhere in Brazil in 1821, I would bet that the scene is as authentic as you can get, probably backed up by the counsel of historians impressed by the 17th century discovery of emeralds, gold and diamonds in Minas Gervais.  This led to a rush of Portuguese to colonize that vast land.  As a film “Vazante” is a gem in itself, graced with serious performances albeit without the usual infusion of humor that filmmakers throw in for comic relief.  Life looks hard, whether you’re a gaucho of an enslaved person.  Aren’t we lucky all that baggage is now gone and Brazil is, like the U.S., a land of a multi-cultural population?  Some political scientists have even praised the concept of Brazil’s “coffee-colored compromise” as a solution to racial hostility, an interesting label especially considering that, as Frank Sinatra told us, “They have an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”

Unrated.  116 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE DINNER – movie review

  • THE DINNER

    The Orchard
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: A-
    Director:  Oren Moverman
    Written by: Oren Moverman, based on the novel by the Dutch author Herman Koch
    Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/6/17
    Opens: May 5, 2017
    The Dinner Movie Poster
    Fans of Edward Albee’s shattering play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” are going to eat this movie up.  “The Dinner” joins the many previous films about family dysfunction but writer-director Oren Moverman handles the thematic content with genuine sophistication.  Moverman, whose 2009 movie “The Messenger” deals with the ethical struggle of an American soldier when he becomes involved with the widow of a fallen officer is in his métier with “The Dinner.”  This latest contribution involves the moral battle of two families whose sons have committed an atrocious crime, one father suggesting that he may hold a press conference to turn in the two criminals, his reasoning opposed by his brother, his wife and his brother’s wife who believe that idealism has its place, but not when your own families are involved.  Not only does this release deal with ethics: thematically, Moverman brings in the nature of mental illness, the concept of the trophy wife, and the needs of a weak, cynical, emotionally disturbed man whose wife treats him like a wounded bird—to his disgust.

    This superbly acted ensemble brings together Richard Gere in the role of Stan Lohman, a congressman well on his way to becoming the governor of his state; Steve Coogan as his younger brother and former high school history teacher Paul; Laura Linney as Paul’s wife Claire Lohman; and Rebecca Hall as Katelyn Lohman, Stan’s trophy wife.  Stan, who would probably answer the biblical Cain’s rhetorical assertion “Am I My Brother’s Keeper”? with a resounding “yes” to Paul’s dismay.  Paul has been treated by his wife as a man who needs too much support in order to function, and by his older brother as the emotionally disturbed person that he is.  We find out through the incisive dialogue that mental illness runs in the Lohman family, bypassing Stan, the plague resting on Paul’s shoulders.

    When Stan invites Paul and Claire to a dinner at the poshest restaurant you can imagine—one in which the mäitre d’ Dylan Heinz (Michael Chernus) serves not only as sommelier but as a man who lectures the foursome about the origin of each dish, we know right off that we are in the hands of a writer-director who can deal equally with satire and with melodrama.  It’s difficult to believe that the next governor would have to wait three months for the reservation, but we can easily accept that Paul, who feels vastly inferior to his politician brother.  Paul knows, or thinks, that his mother treated Stan as the favored son, that his wife looks down upon him, and must face the contempt of his teen son Michael (Charlie Plummer) who stands up to him, having no problem with cursing his dad out.

    After some semblance of civilized discussion, they change tables to a private room where Stan has something to say that could alter six or seven lives irrevocably.  Why he would choose a public restaurant to reveal such intimate details, especially in front of Paul’s adviser Nina (Adepero Oduye) is anybody’s guess.  Both the sons had committed a terrible crime, the act destined for social media; but so far nobody knows the identity of the perpetrators.  Paul is willing to destroy his own political career, lose his wife to divorce, create a final break with his brother and sister-in-law, and condemn the young lads to a long term in prison.  This is the nature of idealism.  The other three disagree with this decision and let him know as forcibly as they can without actually raising weapons.  For his part, Paul, quoting from the Civil War battle of Gettysburg (we are actually taken to the scene), decides that he would go to war if necessary to defend his family.

    The story is anything but straightforward.  Bobby Bukowsky behind the lens photographs within the lavish restaurant and outside, the suburban streets being the playground of teens Michael, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Beau (Miles J. Harvey).  They horse around and find the opportunity to deal with a homeless woman inside an ATM with the kind of cruelty that you see publicized now and then whenever the homeless are bullied merely because they are too weak to fight back.

    The spot-on performances find Steve Coogan reacting against type, the British actor utilizing a perfect American accept, demonstrating the view of himself as a loser in one of the most authentic performances one can imagine in such a role.  His monologue to high school students is the kind of lecture many teachers wish they could get away with.  He is contrasted with the character played by Richard Gere, whose puffed-up white hair and puffed-up personaliy contrast with his brother’s near crew-cut and self-deprecating humor.  At the same time Laura Linney affords us with the most superlative job as the wife who wears the family pants and who is the congressman’s equal in debating the ethics of the situation, while for her part Rebecca Hall, acting in a relatively passive state throughout most of the title dinner launches into a harangue against her husband for treating her like a trophy.

    For his part Charlie Plummer takes such pride in his malicious crime that the movie audience would probably want to send him away for life, or possibly to Syria.  “The Dinner” brings out all the complexities of the novel (available for under $10 at Amazon) at once with cinematic flair and stunning performances.

    Rated R.  120 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS – movie review

  • THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: C
    Director:  F. Gary Gray
    Written by: Chris Morgan
    Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
    Screened at: AMC 34th Street, NYC, 4/11/17
    Opens: April 14, 2017
    The Fate of the Furious Movie Poster
    If you were researching a term paper for your film history class on the topic “The Early Use of Vehicles by the Film Industry,” you would undoubtedly mention the first narrative film, “The Great Train Robbery,” released in 1903 when cars were first appearing in the U.S..  The movie, inspired by an actual robbery of the Union Pacific in 1900 in which four men blew a hole in the safe and took off with $5,000 cash, must have been the year’s most exciting event to its audiences, many of whom ducked under their theater chairs when the characters appeared to jump from the screen.  Imagine if, instead of seeing that as the first viable, commercial picture, they were introduced to “The Fate of the Furious.”  Really, in 1903!  The event would have made eclipsed the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in North Carolina and would position director F. Gary Gray to be Time magazine Man of the Year if Time had such an award then.

    So granted: “The Fate of the Furious” is a technological marvel, but unlike the folks 115 years ago, we have gotten accustomed to crashing cars, exploding helicopters, well-aimed torpedoes, countless bullets from machine guns bolted to the tops of cars, even a revolver or two pointed at people but completing the act of killing in only one such case.  Really, folks, have you had enough of such wall-to-wall mayhem?  I guess not.  “The Fate of the Furious” is set to break opening weekend box office records.

    More interesting, to me at least, is that the film gave jobs to three hundred Cuban people in Havana, namely transportation coordinators, producers, location advisors, drivers and the like for six months.  This is what may have worried Fidel, that the big bad capitalists were handing more money out to the local extras in six months than doctors make in a year.  Even “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” filmed there in 2013, required elaborate permissions from both Washington and Havana, so one imagine what red tape may have frustrated many an executive before this one could  approved, but one incentive that seems to have worked was the money that the U.S. gave to the state-run Cuba Institute of Cinematographic Art.  We’re supporting Communism?  That’s one way of looking at it.  Anyway, look for feature articles on how the U.S.-Cuba deal was made.

    This installment, the eighth in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, one sadly missing Paul Walker, had early segments shot in Old Havana and Centro Havana. These were the most interesting scenes in the movie, including the singular case of a soulful exchange when Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is on his honeymoon with Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez).  A sneering, local bully seeks to take off with Dom’s cousin’s heap.  They agree to a race, the winner taking the other driver’s car.  Dom strips the jalopy to its very essence, continuing just behind the bully even when fire engulfs what’s left of the vehicle, but darn if the hero doesn’t cross the finish line first—and by driving backwards in the final stretch.  If you believe that, you can believe anything you see, but “The Fate of the Furious” is not about being rational, credible, justifiable, but about technology.

    Cipher (Charlize Theron) introduces herself to Dom, seeming to know all about him and demanding that he work for her, showing something on a cell phone that makes him go rogue to the distress of Dom’s crew including Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris Bridges), his wife Letty, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and later agents Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood).  What passes for Cipher’s motive as chief villain is her desire to teach superpowers a lesson so that only she, and not they, will be able to explode nuclear bombs.  In that interest, she captures a nuclear code from a Russian defense minister in New York, though not before threatening to cut his car and him into two neat parts.  She will then dictate “accountability,” warning the superpowers never to explode another such bomb.

    To make an overlong story just long, the convoluted plot finds Luke breaking out of jail along with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), his rival, Computers—not your father’s computers and not yours but some that you’ve seen before only in action-adventure movies—are tap-tap-tapped to dazzle the audience, even one giant machine that starts cars in New York operating with no input from their drivers, and of course crashing, flying through the air, dodging fireballs and the like.  As for writing, the script allows for just one memorable remark:  that the trouble with putting your foot on a tiger is that you would not be able to take it off—which could remind moviegoers of the movie “Mine” about a soldier who steps on an IED in the desert and will not be able to move for fifty-two hours, when rescue arrives.

    There is every indication that there will be a “Fast and Furious” episode 9, perhaps filmed in other parts of the world than this episode 8 which takes us from Havana to Berlin to New York and Russia, though Iceland stands in for that last country.  This is expensive moviemaking, but one which lacks convincing performances, a lyrical script, a realistic set of conflicts.  “The Fate of the Furious” (who’s furious, by the way?) is a technological dream but about as soulful as your computer monitor’s advertising “Black screen of death.” People who turn up their noses not so much at action adventure films, which can be quite good, but at off-the-wall repeated mayhem such as we see here, can be considered snobs.  What are movie snobs like?  They believe that from good books, films and theater, we learn something about the human condition.  If instead of a steady diet of video games like this one, you want to know what people are really like, people who are not just like you and your friends and family, you might continue seeing popcorn movies by all means.  But be open as well to be entertained not exclusively by special effects and visual effects but by honest, funny, tragic, melodramatic and complex illustrations of human character and personality.

    Rated PG-13.  136 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

WAKEFIELD – movie review

  • WAKEFIELD

    IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Robin Swicord
    Written by: Robin Swicord
    Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo
    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/1/17
    Opens: May 19, 2017
    Wakefield Movie Poster
    Think of Syrian refugees who escape the bombings in Aleppo and arrive to our in tatters without two dimes to rub together. Can you begin to imagine what they would think if they saw Robin Swicord’s movie “Wakefield” (Arabic subtitles)?  “These Americans are completely crazy,” they would say.  “Did we come to a country that’s one big lunatic asylum?”  What would baffle these good folks no end is the idea that an upper-middle-class Wall Street partner, Mercedes car in his two-car garage and a large house in a suburb of New York City, would chuck the whole thing and become a vagabond, a bum.  True, some people in the business world might go into a low-paid teaching job when they retire at 55 or even quit the firm looking for a profession without the pressure of producing for the bosses.  There are even people who desert their families and take off to a distant state and begin a whole new life.  But to give up your wife, your two children, your home, your credit cards, only to move to the attic next door and live there for a year?  To grow a beard like Rip Van Winkle, dumpster-dive for what the perfectly good food that the neighbors have thrown out, including melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, segments of a steak, a baked potato that would taste oh-so-good if you’re hungry enough?

    Howard Wakefield is that guy who appears to flip out, tired of the same old routine, driving to the station and taking the train to Grand Central, sitting in on parties initiated by his wife and attended by people including one guy who he thinks is flirting with his wife and one woman, Babs (Beverly D’Angelo)  to whom he accords the epithet “bitch.”  Howard, in fact, looks like somebody out of the casting of TV’s “Mad Men,” one of those handsome, if bland characters with an inflected American pronunciation, who has the usual two kids, and pays the mortgage and the insurance policies.  It helps writer-director Robin Swicord, who was partially responsible for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (surely a more creative project than “Wakefield”), that she enlisted Bryan Cranston for the title role.  Cranston, who showed us that he is one of the great actors of his generation with his portrayal of the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, now follows up with a virtual one-hander as narrator and performer in this theatrical piece of celluloid.

    One day, after having a nervous breakdown, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) takes the train from Manhattan’s Grand Central station to his suburban home, but after a breakdown of the train and a necessary hike along the tracks, he decides to forego entering his home.  Instead he camps out in the attic next door, using the days, weeks and months to spy on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner), who always leaves her blinds open.  Diana reports the missing husband, and the police arrival is observed by Howard, who can virtually read his wife’s lips and mimics what she is saying using his impression of her voice.  That he’s talking only to himself and the movie audience probably means that he is psychologically a goner, especially when he laughs hilariously at scenes that would make a normal person cry.

    He is discovered in his lair by two developmentally disabled kids, Emily and Herbert (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva) who live in the adjacent home under the care of a professor, but they agree to keep his secret—though if you watch the young girl giggling, you realize that she is happier than Wakefield.  He presumes that a fellow employee, Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) is hitting on his wife and unable to think that he might be wrong about her reaction to this flirtation.

    There’s a reason for Howard’s narration.  He is quoting from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, who like John Updike frequently wrote about upper-middle class suburban life.  Such narration does not often work in the movies, where screenplays should be acted and not spoken, and it does not help the film here either.  Still, Bryan Cranston is a superior showman whose virtual one-man show is the movie, though without him probably someone like Kevin Spacey could do the job almost as well.  Note also that Doctorow has virtually taken the story from Nathaniel (“The Scarlet Letter”) Hawthorne’s 1835 study of the same name which took place in London and was published in the New England Magazine in May of that year.  One literary critic noted that “even as Hawthorne castigates Wakefield, he colludes with him relishing an ordinary man’s extraordinary caprice.”  Go the source, namely one of America’s great writer of short stories and full-length fiction, and you’ll see that even in 1835, “Wakefield” seems remarkably modern, treating a man’s escape from marriage and the routine of his life.

    Rated PG-13.  106 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE BEGUILED – movie review

  • THE BEGUILED

    Focus Features
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Sofia Coppola
    Written by: Sofia Coppola based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice’s screenplay
    Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
    Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/19/17
    Opens: June 23, 2017
    Nicole Kidman's 'The Beguiled' Gets a New Movie Poster
    Given the way the U.S. is divided today, politicians from red states clashing with those from blue states, you might wonder whether the split in our country is not unlike the divisions that led to the Civil War. One could imagine that history buffs would turn to the War Between the States for guidance during this time that few leaders are crossing the aisle, and though “The Beguiled” is informed by that war in that it takes place in Virginia in 1864, the subject matter is unlike that of most other films set in that period.  Sofia Coppola, who directed “Marie Antoinette,” has been cheered by feminists as a person who will choose stories focused primarily on women.  “The Beguiled” would surely reinforce her commitment to women’s roles since aside from a brief shot of Confederate soldiers near the battles in Virginia, there is only one male with a significant role, dependent on the kindness of seven women in a girls’ boarding school.

    That said, however, Colin Farrell in the role of Corporal John McBurney, a Union soldier who lies wounded near a southern battlefield, disrupts the lives of the seven women housed under the school’s roof.  He is the catalyst that unleashes a flood of repressed sexuality in at least three of the women, more evidence of the saying aturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret, or “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, she keeps coming back.”

    Filmed by Philippe Le Sourd on Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville, which has the look of an Eden about to be corrupted (though it would be restored decades later as a historic hotel with Wi-Fi), writer-director Coppola takes us to a wounded Corporal McBurney lying under a tree with a half dozen bullets in his body.  He is a gentleman who should never have been there, having crossed over from Ireland without a dime to his name, eager to accept $300 from the federal government by volunteering for the Union Army.    An understandably afraid Amy (Ooona Laurence) helps him to walk back to the large house where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) serves as headmistress with Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) on the teaching staff.

    As the only man for miles, surrounded by women who sympathize with his vulnerability, he serves as catalyst for the repressed sexuality of the two adults and one student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), as well.  As Martha takes charge, removing the bullets and washing him, she fights internally against what comes naturally, treating him with ice at one point and with warmth at another.  Edwina’s feelings are not so subtle.  Already considered a spinster who, unlike Martha may never have had a boyfriend, she is more overt in her lust, intensified since she has moments alone in the room to which McBurney is confined for treatment.  Conversations about what to do with him, whether to turn him over to the Confederates, take precedence over the French lessons, while for his part McBurney, looking to remain sheltered as long as possible, deceives the women.  He professes love to one, and gushes over the kindness of the others.  His presence, in short, is beguiling, a term that means both “deceptive” and “charming.”

    Southern hospitality is front and center, the whole enterprise—confined to the big house and its immediate surroundings for a few weeks—test whether the rivalries for McBurney’s attention will tear apart the school and turn the women from mutual affection into an anarchy that reflects the divisions of the two armies during the final year of the war. Though conventional suspense is not the film’s strong point, the graceful performances all around—the women conflicted on what should be done with this welcome intruder—give the film gravitas.  Another title for this Civil War harlequin-style romance could be “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

    Rated R.  93 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

GOOD TIME – movie review

  • GOOD TIME

     

    A24

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, 411 Celeb

    Grade: B+

    Director:  Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

    Written by: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie

    Cast: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress

    Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/13/17

    Opens: August 11, 2017

    Good Time Movie Poster 

    There are moments that Robert Pattinson, even with a Trump-like blond dye-job on his voluminous hair, resembles Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.”  And wouldn’t you know that in this performance he may become a heartthrob not so much to teen girls who eat up his full-bloodied role in the “Twilight” saga but to millennial women and more, because in “Good Time,” he has emerges as a genuine actor who could probably do anything.  It helps that he is directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the latter taking a major role in the Safdies’ latest, because the Safdies, who in “Heaven Knows What” are tuned into the street-wise and the drug culture.  “Good Time” might give the theater audiences the view that dealing liquid LSD would benefit not some 1960’s style hippies but rather the low life elements in New York’s outer borough of Queens.

     “Good Time” is not simply a movie about a bank robbery gone amiss and subsequent attempts to get away from the law, but treats the sensitive role played by Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) as mentor and protector to his intellectually disabled brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie).  If you’ve read John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men” which is frequently required high-school reading, you’ll immediately recognize the fraternal bonds of Connie and Nick as reflecting the tender relationship of George Milton and Lenny Small.  The former is the more rational guy, the latter the hulking, yet vulnerable brother.  Just when you think that the movie will deal exclusively with Connie and Nick, a clever twist occurs setting Connie up a barely tolerant liaison with motor-mouth parolee Ray (Buddy Duress.)

    The Safdies waste no time setting up the bank robbery complete with a Daniel Lopatin’s pulsating soundtrack.  The brothers Nikas, wearing masks of African-Americans with sunglasses, pass a handwritten scrawl to the teller asking for a specific sum of money, and when the teller assures them that her drawer cannot meet that sum, she is directed to find the rest.  (Though the teller takes her time in the adjacent room, she does not pull the silent alarm, but does something else that will surprise the robbers.)  On the run with the money, the brothers continue with George-and-Lenny syndrome, Connie repeatedly assuring his disabled brother.

    In a botched getaway Connie, who eludes the police, has his girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh in her usual high-pitched flaky role) get up the bail to get Nick out of jail, but when Nick, after a brutal fight with another inmate, winds up at Elmhurst Hospital, Nick has no problem the fellow’s right under the nose of the cop at the door.  When the scene switches through another twist, Connie, and now Ray, become temporarily bonded, and while continuing his escape, Connie winds up in the Queens apartment of a Haitian woman (Gladys Mathon) and her sixteen-year-old granddaughter (Taliah Webster). 

    There you have it; a movie with a major interest in an atmosphere of high tension coupled with the ways that Connie, who is street-wise enough to know how to manipulate Dash (Barkhad Abdi), a security guard at an amusement park that has seen better days; an elderly woman; a teen granddaughter who has no problem handing him car keys to continue the getaway, and most of all his hulking brother who is not only intellectually disabled but wears a hearing aid.  There are sensitive scenes between Nick and a psychologist, who can barely evoke sensible answers to a verbal test.

    “Good Time,” then, juxtaposes Connie’s treatment of his brother and of a stranger, but most of all is a high-tension picture with bold use of music and songs, including Iggy Pop’s “The Pure and the Damned,” and assorted electronica—which could make the picture a Best Music nominee at awards time.  You won’t have time to look at your watch: blink, and you’ve missed a key point.

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

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY – movie review

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY

Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Tommy Wirkola
Written by: Max Botkin, Kerry Williamson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Robert Wagner, Marwan Kenzari
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/3/17
Opens: August 18, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
Thomas Malthus predicted a gloomy future for us all, warning that the food supply on our planet would become scarce, as population growth would outpace the ability of farms to keep up.  He was wrong, at least as concerns the developed countries, since technology has been able to yield geometrical quantities of crops.  GMO foods, widely criticized, have at least expanded what our farms could give us, but according to Tommy Wirkola, who directs “What Happened to Monday” with a script by Kerry Williamson and Max Botkin, Malthus’s creds have gone up.  In the near future, about a half century from now, famine lurks.  People are having too many children.  The solution brings to mind what the government of China had done but has now modified: the government forbids mothers from having more than one kid each.

This Malthusian thesis is given credible life but in this fantasy, Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), a fiercely ambitious bureaucrat, is in charge of enforcing new legislation, which would mean that no child would ever have a brother or sister to play with, to provide support, to counsel, even to fight.  Inevitably, though, some parents have twins, triplets, or even brothers and sisters of different ages. The trouble is that the government under this legislation could take away the superfluous little human beings, allegedly freezing them for a future time that the population would ease off, then be brought back to life.  But as we know especially from our recent U.S. election, things do not turn out as we had hoped.

In a brilliant performance, Noomi Rapace playing seven roles.  Through the wonder of cinema technology they talk to each other, fight with each other, and plan strategy.  The characters who are each named for a day of the week are under the guidance of their grandfather, played by Willem Dafoe.  The adult has forbidden the girls to go out into the street as a group of even as a pair.  The girl named Monday can leave the house on Mondays, and so on.  The children, who look vaguely alike—though one has blond hair—are warned that they must fool the authorities, even their own doorman who might turn them in—which reminds us of the Anne Frank saga.  Kids don’t always do what they’re told, but they all survive up to the time they are young women. They take care that each one has the proper hair style and color, and try to match personalities.

When the authorities enforcing the one-child-per-family are on to them, the chase begins.  Moments of physical violence appear now and then, though most of the action is verbal—the seven sisters, again played amazingly by one Noomi Rapace who was so magnificent in the “Dragoon Tattoo” series—keep one another abreast of the situation.  One incident played for comic effect finds one sister, a virgin, having to emulate another more experienced sibling when faced with a sexual situation by a man who loves one of her siblings but is credibly fooled one afternoon.

Even at slightly over two hours, “What Happened to Monday” does not outlast its welcome, as Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola, known for his 2014 movie “Dead Show: Red vs. Dead” featuring a man on the run from Nazi zombies, now functions on a deeper level with this impressive feature.  His new film has suspense, thought-provoking dialogue, a nice dose of physical violence, and especially the multiple personalities of Noomi Rapace.

Unrated.   123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT- movie reviews

THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT

Strand Releasing
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Tarik Saleh
Written by: Tarik Saleh
Cast: Fares Fares, Mari Malek, Yasser Ali Maher, Slimane Daze, Ahmed Seleem, Mohammed Yousry
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 8/5/17
Opens: August 11, 2017

The Nile Hilton Incident

When Shafiq (Ahmed Seleem), a developer who is also a member of parliament, tells a cop, “Do you think this is Switzerland?  There’s no justice here,” what place do you think he’s talking about?  Even if you had ten guesses you might not pick the right place given the corruption that is endemic in many parts of the world.  Tarik Saleh’s tale of mendacity, where the rich get away and the little guys get killed, happens to be Egypt. And come to think of it, Egypt’s capital looks nothing like Geneva, either.  Cairo, as filmed in “The Nile Hilton Incident,” would look something like Beijing one of the world’s most polluted capital cities, but given the mosques, the soulless buildings, the third-world streets, is the perfect location for a noirish detective story, in many ways not unlike “Chinatown,” and what’s more Saleh and his excellent cast creates the mood of a fable, an allegorical look at the bleakness in one of the many sordid corners of the world.

All revolves around Noredin (Fares Fares), a chain-smoking police major about to be promoted to colonel by his uncle, Kamal (Yasser Ali Maher).  Noredin hungers for justice, even while despairing that there is little of that in his country.  Yet he is no choir boy, having pilfered some cash at the scene of the crime, even pocketing a bribe offered by the manager of the Nile Hilton where the murder took place.  The only witness to a murder, Salwa (Mari Malek), is a cleaning woman who sees the perpetrator, and barely gets away from the scene where she would have been murdered herself.  Noredin, who sees that Salwa is the key to a successful prosecution of a bigwig developer, encourages her to testify, even protecting her from forces who would think of nothing of taking out anyone who might bring them down.

Noredin himself cannot break away from the beautiful singer and prostitute, Gina (Hania Amar), a friend of the murdered woman Lalena, who worked under a pimp named Nagy (Hichen Yacoubi).  Nagy would secretly photograph Lalena’s clients for blackmail.  Noredin, still grieving for his wife who died in a car accident, cannot tear himself away from Gina, asking if he could see her again, perhaps even knowing that a well-placed bribe would end any investigation of his own indiscretions.

The picture ends with scenes from the Cairo uprising in Tahrir Square which eventually led to the expulsion of Hosni Mubarek, who as his country’s leader must take responsibility for running a place with a justice system not on a par with Switzerland’s (to say the least).  This is an effective story that is happily light on melodrama, one in which the audience would not be too concerned about who actually did the killings but rather on why so little is done to prosecute the criminals.

Unrated.  107 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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DAYVEON – movie review

DAYVEON

FilmRise
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B-
Director:   Amman Abbasi
Written by: Amman Abbasi, Steven Reneau
Cast: Davin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, Kordell “KD” Johnson, Chasity Moore, Lachion Buckingham, Marquell Manning
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/26/17
Opens: September 13, 2017
Dayveon Movie Photo
A recent issue of the leftist online magazine Counterpunch advises that we are not living in a post-racial society.  Never mind that white people alleviate their guilt by seeing African-Americans in top positions; Obama, Oprah, Beyoncé, and all those newscasters, white and black getting along famously, and act as though we are well beyond the days of white-only water fountains, hotels, restaurants. Black earnings are well behind those of whites on average, and perhaps the most depressing cases are African-Americans still living in the rural South, having never given up the ghost to move north into the cities  The folks in Amman Abbasi’s freshman feature are young blacks without jobs, who spend their time in the summer just chilling out, hanging, and living under the protection of gangs like the Bloods.  In Abbasi’s particular focus is the title character, Dayveon Buckingham(Devin Blackmon), coming of age with some characteristics of rural people who despite their lack of urban, so-called elite membership would hardly vote for Trump—even they even knew the names of the president and vice-president in their inward society.

Dayveon appears destined to wind up in jail, of at least the probation system, through a series of actions that are partly his own doing, but mostly a fault of his environment.  Even at this young age, he understands that there is something wrong with the way he is living, as in the opening scenes in which the boy rides his bike furiously through the tree-lined, rough roads, now and then chasing way the bees, and entertaining himself with a monologue about how stupid he finds everything in the town.  What’s more he has not gotten over his grief over the shooting death of his brother, often standing before a large colorful poster of the unfortunate victim of what is undoubtedly a senseless crime.  When he passes by members of the local Bloods, he is initiated into the membership by being beaten, showing his begrudging acceptance of the violence as it allows him to become one of them.  There are people who care for him in his own family, which is bereft of a mother,who apparently had a breakdown after the death of her son.  His sister Kim (Chasity Moore) takes care of meal preparation, and her boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) with whom he plays computer games, wants the boy to confide in him, though the relationship is mixed with some hostility by Dayveon, who considers the large man an interloper.

While there are a few melodramatic moments, such as a robbery of a convenience store in which Dayveon remains in the getaway car, this is a meditative drama which occasionally crosses the line into documentary.  The audience is presumably the small group that would go for David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” in which George is part of a group of working class youths in North Carolina who, through a mistake, seek redemption.  Like Green’s year 2000 movie, this is a slow-mover which captures the rural south dialogue (subtitles would have been most helpful) and whose major feature is that the performers are non-professionals who, like many groups of young people seem to be all talking at the same time.

Unrated.  75 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why

AMERICAN MADE – movie review

  • AMERICAN MADE

    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Doug Liman
    Written by: Gary Spinelli
    Cast:  Tom Cruise, Domhnail Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke
    Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 9/25/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017
    click for larger (if applicable)
    In one scene Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is relaxing with a copy of Al Capone’s biography, which he presumably is using as a model for his own actions.  It’s the late seventies, so Seal could not be privy to the seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” but that series of dramas deals with the failed experiment of prohibition in America, and while its star, Steve Buscemi, is no Tom Cruise, many of the TV episodes can run circles around “American Made,” quality-wise.  Of course in those seasons, the characters, including Al Capone, have much more time to define themselves, but in Doug Liman’s new picture, they are given two hours to bring a story to life.  Expect lots to be crammed into “American Made,” so much coming at you from the screen that you have little time to catch your breath or analyze the ways that the “based on a true story” is loaded with hype.

    Barry Seal has a regular job, a beautiful wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), a well-appointed house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  But he’s become bored with his job on a TWA domestic route  where for kicks he fakes air turbulence to scare his passengers.  He’s willing to take a chance, giving up his salary and benefits for an opportunity to feel more alive. He gets that chance when Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him to do something for his country, namely to fly missions for the CIA when traveling over countries south of the border.  He is so good at the job that he is promoted: now he is assigned to meet with General Noriega in Panama serving as courier, but on the way the Medellín Cartel in Colombia offers him a job with more money than he could have imagined, flying drugs from Colombia to various drops, making deliveries by dumping huge bags of cocaine to middlemen along the way.  Best of all he transports a staggering array of guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, who are fighting the rebel Sandinistas for control of the Nicaraguan government.

    Much of the action takes place in the air, as he barely misses losing his life on a runway that’s too short even for his plane, which pushes aside trees and barely misses the mountains that are so prominent all over western South America.  He loves the money as well, though his way of laundering appears too simple in that he deposits all his gain in a small bank in Mena, Arkansas, where he and his family are forced to relocate.

    Feeling alive, getting a rush, and swimming in money: what more can a guy want?  Too bad the U.S. is supporting the wrong side in Nicaragua, despite what you hear from clips of Ronald Reagan and Nancy.  But why worry about politics when you’re just a delivery-boy?

    The film is reasonably entertaining, not as much as director Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” and “Jumper,” but there is ample comedy provided by Seal’s discussions with the fun people he deals with in South America (in one scene they say “Shoot the gringo,” but that’s all in jest).  The hand-held cameras keep the pace dizzying and the editing is top-notch.  Call this another star vehicle for Tom Cruise who looks years younger than his 55 years.

    Rated R.  114 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

QUEST – movie review

  • QUEST

    First Run Features
    Director:  Jonathan Olshefski
    Cast:  Christine’a Rainey, Christopher Rainey, P.J. Rainey, William Withers
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/17/17
    Opens: Dec.1 in Philadelphia; Dec. 8 in NY; Dec. 15 in L.A.; then wider.
    Quest Movie Poster
    A brief segment of this loving study of an African-American family in North Philadelphia, filmed over a period of almost ten years, finds Donald Trump trying to persuade African-Americans and Hispanics to vote for him.  Why?  Because “what do you have to lose?”  While African-American spokespersons nationwide condemned the speech because it implied that all African-Americans and Hispanics are living in poor neighborhoods, it is perhaps an irony that director-cinematographer Jonathan Olshefki, obviously a progressive, situates his study inside a community that is probably the kind that Trump envisions for all Black families.

    Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a Rainey, their son William and daughter P.J. live in an urban ghetto probably like the kind that Trump may understand, yet the Rainey family do not agree with Trump’s condescension.  “He doesn’t know how we live,” offers P.J., whom we see first as a kid and now as she is graduating from school. Those mostly conservative folks who wonder why Quest and Christe’a have not pulled themselves up by their bootstraps should pay attention to one bit of dialogue between P.J. and her mother.  The young girl wants money for school supplies, about $100, but she also wants a dress.  Her mother, called “Ma,” as a nickname for a character in August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is sympathetic but informs the young woman that she can barely afford the Benjamin for a school necessity, much less for a modest dress.  Implied is that you can’t rise on the economic scale unless you have some money to get the education you need, and so the poverty is passed on to other generations.

    The Rainey family had the bad luck to watch their son diagnosed with a brain tumor, but now, as an adult William is in remission.  In a more graphic misfortune, one that should not have had to happen, P.J. loses an eye from a stray bullet, the result of a fight between two or more people on the street—who to this day have not been found.  What’s more, P.J. apologizes to her parents for getting shot. On a more pleasant note, Quest has a weekly radio program discussing community relations, and during the week he, having overcome addiction, runs a recording studio where neighborhood young people are free to come in to practice their rap.  For her part, equally pro-community Ma works at a shelter for abused women.  One has to wonder how, between the two of them, they have enough money just for themselves to say nothing about providing for their son and daughter.

    During the ten years that Jonathan Olshefki trains his lenses on the Raineys, he would have time to pick up signs of exuberance in the neighborhood.  This comes out dramatically as he catches a uniformed parade of his neighbors, and spots a torn American flag hanging on a residence in an area of housing that has caught their share of bullet holes as though north Philly were a war zone.

    This is how perhaps a majority of our country’s African-Americans live.  These are not the quarters of Barack Obama, or Beyoncé or Rihanna, superstars that have transcended their group’s barriers. Though political discussions involving the Raineys and their neighbors are few, we can’t help noting that just months ago, three states that voted for Obama twice could not overcome a presumed lack of excitement for the Democratic candidate.  We may infer that they voted for Obama as “one of us,” helping to give the President the electoral votes he needed, then simply stayed away from the voting booths in 2016, having seen that the first African-American President did not turn their communities into Shangi-La.

    Movies depicting the lives of an underclass are not difficult to find.  In this year’s glitziest entry, “Get Out,” a rich white family is satirized for having progressive ideas while at the same time acting out an agenda of less visible racism.  “Quest” is obviously not in the same class, being far less expensive to make and involving not highly paid actors but real people.  “Quest” shows us a cross-section of working-class Blacks in a most authentic style, a film that may not appeal to typical filmgoers for whom “Thor” is the movie of the year.  But in its homespun way is a better guide to what goes on within a depressed urban community.

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

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

ALIVE AND KICKING – movie review

  • ALIVE & KICKING

    Magnolia Pictures
    Director:  Susan Glatzer
    Cast:  Mary Murphy, Norma Miller, Chester A. Whitmore, Chandrae Roettig, Evita Arce, Frankie Manning, Hilary Alexander, Stephen Sayer
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/15/17
    Opens: April 4, 2017
    alive and kicking poster
    This year it’s possible to watch people bumping and grinding, gyrating and flying, in full frontal and back body poses—in other words swingers—without paying a hotel an extra fee for premium TV.  Just go to Amazon and order the  DVD of “Alive and Kicking” (under $19) where you’ll see the highest-spirited documentary of the year, one of the best in fact.  It’s all about the virtues of the Lindy Hop, which came out of Harlem decades ago, went into a coma, and was revived in the 1980s in about a dozen variations.  With enough power to uproot our addiction to oil, the young, middle-aged, and elderly men and women who people this scintillating picture lose their own addition to Prozac and find their depression gone gone gone, the only side effect being ecstasy.  Politically our country may be racing to catch the late 19th century, but for pure joy, we’ve got to wonder at the superior knowledge of our Charleston-loving forbears of the 1920s, who helped during the trying times of the Great Depression and are now spiritually coming to life in our own time’s new jazz age.

    Susan Glatzer in her directing debut allows us in our movie seats some vicarious thrills and chills and hopefully will encourage people of all ages and ethnic groups not only in the U.S. but in places as far as Singapore and South Korea and as iconic as New Orleans to turn off the cell phones, forget about texting and even sexting, put on a pair of flats, find a partner and dance, baby dance.

    Among the bon mots flung out from competitive ballrooms and on the street is that “you can’t hate someone if you dance with them.”  Instead of trading insults and indulging in propaganda warfare, can you imagine Donald J. Trump Lindy-Hopping with Kim Jong Un?  Oops, neither can I, so we’ll have to put the suggestion on hold.  Still perhaps you can start with a weekend frolic of the two Koreas, open up the border, and see what can be done.  As our President said during the campaign, “What have you got to lose?”

    As for the dating game (if you recall the word “dating”), in addition to having three-minute round robins as a meeting game, why not put people of (again) all ages and ethnic groups on the dance floor, let them improvise to the limit of their imagination, and see what happens.  No harmful side effects are likely, nor are any put forth on Glatzer’s movie.

    Behind the camera, John W. MacDonald brings the energetic spirit front and center with Steven Argila’s original, cool soundtrack, particularly with the clarinet, the principal instrument of Dixieland jazz.  As for individuals, Frankie Manning, who died recently at the age of 95, is perhaps the hero of the movie, having choreographed the Lindy Hop, guiding many students to happiness, while the cinematography puts some of the dazzling steps into slow motion with images that will make your eyes widen and your head spin.

    Swing provides a respite, goes a zen-like expression, from isolation, with physical contact and touch touted as the greatest gift we can give each other.  You can’t avoid agreeing with the epilogue summary, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  Life is swinging in the rain.”

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

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