THE CALL OF THE WILD – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BALLOON – movie review

BALLOON
Distrib Films US
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Herbig
Screenwriter: Kit Hopkins, Thilo Röscheisen, Michael Herbig
Cast: Freidrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg, Thomas Kretschmann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/6/20
Opens: February 21, 2020

Poster

The Jews in Germany had a real problem during the 1930’s, the situation escalating rapidly right up to the extreme dangers they faced in the forties. By contrast, the people of East Germany, mainly Christian, could hardly consider themselves similarly persecuted by the Communist regime. I fear that Director Michael Herbig, best known in the German comedy scene by performing and directing works like the parody “Bullyparade: The Film,” does not get across with his feel-good thriller “Balloon,” why families are so eager to escape from the Communist sector into the Western area that they would risk their lives. Still, since this is based on a true story, two heroic families go through a lifetime of anxiety in just a few weeks to get out of the land where everyone is under surveillance by the Stasi (police). We see that people seek a new life in the West where they would lose their furniture, their money, and visits with grandparents, in order to go to another part of their own country.

The families on exhibited here are not outliers. A large number of East German citizens tried to escape to the West, some from East Berlin where the distance to a new life is almost as close as that between North Korea and South in the DMZ. But under the leadership of Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke), a not-so-merry band of travelers need to go from their village across to Bavaria. They plan to do this in an almost unique way, however, by building a balloon just as you and I would build a kite and float above the clouds, descending slowly into the forest across its informal border. Since “Balloon” is a thriller, and since the Strelzyks and another family actually make the trip, we visualize that the heroic people would meet with so many failures that you can see them spending their lives in a Stasi jail—though they would be free when the country became unified.

Peter and his wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) live in town of Possneck where Peter makes a living as an electrician—not the best training for building a balloon. Yet they have a car, a TV, and through their friendship with the people next door whose household head (Ronald Kukulies) happens to be Stasi, they are able to take a vacation at an East Berlin hotel. At the same time their oldest child is being “hit on” by the Stasi official’s daughter, the whole setup reminding Amazon Prime customers of the friendship between an FBI agent and a Soviet spy in the wonderful series “The Americans.”

Together with their friends Petra (Alicia von Rittberg) and Günter (David Kross), who at first were unwilling to take the risk, they build the balloon, somehow unnoticed by the local Stasi head Lieutenant Colonel Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann). As if the perils of the balloon trip were not enough, Doris accidentally drops her bottle of thyroid medication in the woods, recovered by the police who begin a search of the three pharmacies that may have filled it.

If you saw “The Aeronauts,” about pilots launching a historic balloon flight in 1862 for scientific purposes, you would be privy to all the things that might go wrong. But that picture lacks the excitement of “Balloon,” which could be appreciated not only by people who are political wonks but by those who don’t know Berlin from Ouagadougou. The thriller aspect reaches its climax when it appears that the entire East German military are in the chase, using helicopters and cars and communicating with frantic phone calls. You’d think that these were important nuclear scientists carrying their secrets into unchartered territory. You might wonder: if these people got away with their scheme—as they did—would the entire Communist system collapse (as it actually did after the collapse of the Berlin wall, built in 1961 allegedly to prevent Western “fascists” from entering the East to destroy the socialist system)?

Whether that frantic pursuit of these humble people took place as we see on the screen or not, this is not a documentary but a well-made narrative dramatizing a heartwarming tribute to the men and women who shed their property and risked their very lives simply to go from one part of the country to another.

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

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

THE NIGHT CLERK – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORDINARY LOVE – movie review

ORDINARY LOVE
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Lyburn
Screenwriter:  Owen McCafferty
Cast: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson, David Wilmot, Amit Shah
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/10/20                                                                                
Opens: February 14, 2020

Liam Neeson & Lesley Manville in First UK Trailer for ...

People go to movies because they like to laugh, but they also like to cry.  In the classic downer, Arthur Hiller’s 1970 movie “Love Story,” a young couple fall in love.  Death strikes, especially tragic since the couple have their whole lives ahead of them.  You would expect the primary audience to be people of about the same age, 20-somethings.  On Valentine’s day comes a new weepie, “Ordinary Love,” which deals with people in the sixties, now retired.  You might expect an audience to be older than the ones that attended the Hiller film, but that’s just a guess.  Though neither of the principal characters passes away, the story is filled with the ways that the two cope with a diagnosis that confirms that the lump that Joan (Lesley Manville) feels in her breast while in the shower is cancer.  Though her hopes were up at first when the doctors were not sure, they were dashed after the final test.  Since Joan has a partner, her husband Tom (Liam Neeson), is drawn into the drama.  Tom has the time free to escort his wife to and from the hospital, though whatever physical difficulties are involved in transporting from a Belfast suburb to the big city hospital is nothing compared to the emotional torment that such a situation provokes.

Some psychoanalysts tell us that when two married people, even those who have lived together for decades, encounter a serious illness, the sick person, who faces surgery, mastectomy, reconstruction of the breast, all followed up by a course in chemotherapy, is not the only individual who suffers. A serious sickness could threaten a marriage, no matter how fond the husband is of his wife. Petty arguments notwithstanding. Tom sometimes baits Joan with comments that he considers witty but which are taken in a negative way by Joan.  Now, however, the normal, quiet household of an average couple is strained to such an extent that when Tom lets slip a thoughtless comment—“We’re in this together” as though they share a burden equally—you can sympathize with Joan’s fury.

The directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Lyburn, who worked together in 2012 on the film “Good Vibrations,” may be stepping out of their comfort zone by morphing from a duo about a story of a man who developed Belfast’s punk-rock scene into tackling one of a generally stay-at-home couple giving each other ordinary love.

Since Owen McCafferty, whose script for “Mikybo and Me”—about two young pals obsessed with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who run away to Australia–contributes ordinary dialogue for this ordinary couple, the principal joy of “Ordinary Love” is in the acting.  Giving themselves over this a slice of life, Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville come across so bonded with each other that you might swear they were actually married.  They take us from their suburb of Belfast into the big city medical system (filmed on location by Piers McGrail), allowing us to see UK’s health coverage up close and personal.   The sadness mounts when we are introduced to Peter (David Wilmot), whom the couple run into at the hospital, where they learn that Peter has terminal cancer.  Peter had once taught Joan and Tom’s daughter.  Oh, and young Debbie, perhaps the only child of the marriage, had died a decade ago.

This, then, is a story well told, one that expects a mature audience as drawn into the ordinary lives of these people as youngsters might be riveted by “Lord of the Rings.”

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

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

YOU GO TO MY HEAD – movie review

YOU GO TO MY HEAD
First Run Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dimitri de Clercq
Screenwriter: Dimitri de Clercq, Pierre Bourdy
Cast: Delfine Bafort, Svetozar Cvetkovic, Arend Pinoy, Omar Sarnane, Laurence Trémolet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

 

“You Go to My Head,” the title taken from the 1938 song by J. Fred Coots, is about the nature of identity, with the specific exploration of what happens to a woman who has lost her memory and whose life is taken over by a lonely architect who convinces her that he is her husband. As we watch the two performers,Kitty (Delfine Bafort) and Jake (Svetozar Cvetkovic) engaging in a slow burn, appearing together in most of the film’s nearly two hours, we are likely to wonder what will happen when Kitty, whose real name is Dafne, recovers her memory. Will her new insight lead her to embrace her life, which despite its inauthenticity involves a sizzling romance, or will she abandon the man who saved her life, disgusted by the perverted game he is playing and sending him back to the loneliness he has endured for years?

Jake is an architect living in the Sahara—actually filmed in a house that must have once been featured in Architectural Digest magazine. When he discovers that a slim, beautiful, blond woman has been the victim of a car accident killing the man who had driven the car, he carries her back to his home, nurses her back to health, and pretends to be her husband. Though Kitty, the fictitious name he had given her, is eager to recall events in her life, she is slowly falling in love with her “husband,” exhilarated by the life she shares with him under the clear desert skies. Convincing Kitty has been easy as he has given her the clothing of the woman who had once shared his domain, even putting a wedding band on her finger while she is asleep under a doctor’s sedation.

The cracks developing in his swimming pool—into which she indulges displaying full-frontal nudity—serve as metaphor for the crumbling of the woman’s amnesia. All takes place within the dreamy landscape of Southern Morocco exquisitely filmed by Stijn Grupping with elements of fantasy embellished by Hacène Larby’s music with startling, climactic notes ninety-three minutes into the drama.

This is a winning job all around, co-written and directed by Dimitri de Clercq in his sophomore feature—following up his 1995 film “The Blue Villa,” about a ghostly return of a man into bordello of a Mediterranean island. At the time of this review we learn that the movie has already won Best Picture in film festivals in Bogota, Houston and Orlando with nominations for cinematography, score and acting among thirty-six wins and one hundred sixteen nominations.

In English and a little French spoken by the Yugoslav-born actor and his Belgian-born partner.

116 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Onlin

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

OLYMPIC DREAMS – movie review

OLYMPIC DREAMS
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeremy Teicher
Screenwriter: Alexi Pappas, Jeremy Teicher, Nick Kroll
Cast: Alexi Pappas, Nick Kroll, Gus Kenworthy, Morgan Schild
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/3/20
Opens: February 14, 2020

Nick Kroll and Alexi Pappas in Olympic Dreams (2019)

Jeremy Teicher’s movie is about a rom-com about competing in the Olympics, but it is also competing in a crowded fields of other romantic tales opening on Valentine’s Day. Think of “The Photograph,” “Ordinary Love,” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even the horror pick “Fantasy Island,” all February 14th fare. There is just one horror in “Olympic Dreams,” one evoked by the soundtrack. Annie Hart and Jay Wadley’s often pounding music does its best to drown out even the soft dialogue of the two would-be lovers as though director Jeremy Teicher is as uncertain about the pillow talk as his two characters are about their goals.

Other than that, this is the kind of fare often distributed during the Sundance Festivals, too gentle to attract the kind of audience that goes for bit commercial love stories. The two actors, Alexi Pappas as Penelope and Nick Kroll as Ezra are both involved in the script writing along with the director (who in real life is Pappas’ husband).

“Olympic Dreams” may feature Penelope and Ezra’s warm but neurotically repressed conversations but you can’t say that it’s the kind of movie that could or should find a spot even on a Broadway stage. To its credit this is the first film green lighted by the Olympic Committee to shoot on location at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, giving even people who don’t typically go for rom-coms to see what goes on both on the slopes and behind the scenes at the Athlete Village cafeteria, the active game room, and the parties.

It’s also where too lonely people meet. Penelope competes in cross-country skiing (in real life Pappas is a long distance runner most adept in 10 km runs) while Ezra is a volunteer dentist who at the age of thirty-seven (41 in real life) is understandably unhappy with his position in a New Jersey dental clinic. We don’t really find out why he never used his clinical experience to branch out into private practice, but maybe it’s because at his age he sprinkles the word “like” into his conversations as though he were still a teen or 20-something. But he does have a good dental-chair manner, chatting up the athletes and getting them to talk about themselves before they open their mouths wide.

For her part Alexi is the assertive member of the duo, in effect asking him out on dates, but as we in the audience wonder when (not whether) they will ever “get it on,” we might leave the theater with the impression that fairly severe neuroticism is at work as he rebuffs the advances of the woman fifteen years his junior. Still, you’re not going to get the spoiler here on how everything turns out. That’s all part of the dramatic tension evoked by the twosome.

Here are two people, both the sorts who never make the headlines, though Penelope is an Olympian and that’s something, and Ezra has made it through dental school but is held back to such an extent that in their first argument, Penelope verbally shakes him up, implying that he “snap out of it,” to “just do it.”

Intrusive music aside, Pappas and Kroll are an interesting couple to watch, to empathize with. You will believe that Pappas is an athlete, which she is, and I that Kroll is a Woody-Allen-like stand-up comedian, which he is.

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

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

 

THE LODGE – movie review

THE LODGE
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Veronik Franz, Severin Fiala
Screenwriter: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/5/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

 

The Lodge

A flagrant male fantasy appears during the opening moments of this film: that a woman would kill herself rather than accept being dumped by a fellow. The first quarter hour of “The Lodge,” from Austrian directors Veronnik Franz and Severin Fiala, is the most illuminating in terms of atmospheric brightness. It’s too bad that the fast pace with normal conversations will slow down to a crawl and end the movie with repetitiveness and far-away looks sustained by the close-up camera, that might lead some in the audience unable to repress their laughter.

Of course scenes of activity in cabins in the woods are a favorite of horror-meisters, the best in my opinion being Eli Roth’s 2007 “Hostel II,” which follows three American female art students in Rome who are directed to a Slovak village where they are kidnapped and taken to a facility in which rich clients pay to torture and kill people. The only torture in this entry is psychological with an occurrence in at least one scene that is simply inexplicable.

The film may recall the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in which a cult leader demands that hundreds of his followers drink poisoned Kool-Aid because “God is waiting for you.” “The Lodge” focuses first on Richard (Richard Armitage), who urges his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) to speed up their divorce to allow him to marry Grace (Riley Keogh). Aside: Anyone who would toss out a woman that looks like Alicia Silverstone for anybody else might be more nuts any other character in this movie.

Dad wants his two sons, teen Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and younger sis Mia (Lia McHugh) to bond with Grace, his new squeeze, allowing the family to settle peacefully into new surroundings. To hasten the peace plan, he invites Grace to his rustic cabin during the dead of winter, then leaves her with the kids to finish up some business in the city. Truth, though, often comes out of the mouths of babes, as when Aiden rhetorically asks his dad “Why do you want to marry that psychopath?”

There is much evidence that things are not right in Grace’s mind. She is the sole survivor of a cult massacre ordered by the leader, depending on prescription tablets to keep what’s left of her sanity. But when things disappear in the cabin—food is gone from the frig, the adorable Maltese dog has gotten out in the blustery weather, and most important Grace is missing her pills—the stage is set for horror.

But the real horror is not  long in coming, though it was best presented in the opening scene. From that time onward the movie bogs down in long stares, cold shoulders, and a single event that indicates a possible sexual attraction by the older boy for the new woman. Melodramatic incidents such as the family unit’s falling through the ice (was that planned or was it an accident?) and visions by Grace of people from her past (hallucinations or real ghosts?) make way for the dramatic conclusion, which leaves questions unanswered.

No complaints about the acting. Richard Armitage is fine as the male adult unable to see what his teen boy intuits, and Riley Keough is spot-on as a woman who seems normal at first but who steadily loses her emotional bearing.

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

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