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+

JIHADISTS – movie review

JIHADISTS (Salafistes)

Cinema Libre
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lemine Ould M. Salem, François Margolin
Screenwriter: Lemine Ould M. Salem, François Margolin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 25, 2019 in New York’s Cinema Village

 

 

“Jihadists” aka the French title “Salafistes,” contains words perhaps more alarming than anything our President has said, even more controversial than Rashida Tlaib’s locker room word describing her plans for taking on the POTUS. In fact the movie was temporarily banned…not in Boston, not in Saudi Arabia, not in North Korea or Iran, but in…France. During its brief 75 minutes’ running time, you will be accosted by words that will make you shudder, encourage you to shelter your small children, and, if you live in New York to dig yourself a bomb shelter, or else using the Number 1 line at 191st Street as though 180 feet of earth can protect you. Sad to say, not even that station will shield you from the ire of people who want nothing more than to kill you merely because you don’t think like them. These terrible folks called by the French Salafistes will frighten you more than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees ever did, because people like them could be a real problem for you, unlike the creeps that any Stephen King novel could imagine.

After agreeing to cut some of the scenes that went too far over the top—such as images of a police officer killed in France—the French Ministry of Culture lifted the ban giving it a rating of Interdit au moins de 18 ans. Still, the film opened in only two Paris theaters.

In answer to those of the French Culture Ministry who wonder whether this film is an apologia, or defense, of ISIS ideology, truth to tell, many people watching might be swayed to the cause because the people who are interviewed, courtesy of their bedfellows with expensive cameras, appear normal. They don’t have horns coming out of their head and if they have tails, they keep them well hidden. They do not sound like firebrands, nothing like the Hitler who depended on ranting and raving, but instead they explain their positions calmly, as though implying that they would be perfectly willing to debate the opposite side—but as equals. This would be like allowing a debate between those who believe the world is flat and those think otherwise, putting both on the same pedestal.

The assemblage of films has been edited by François Margolin, obviously French, and Lemine Ould M. Salem who is from Mauritania. Margolin is the only talking head that takes us outside of the milieu, sitting calmly with a jacket overlaying an unbuttoned shirt, describing why he chose to do this project, which is to educate the rest of us to what may be ahead especially here in the West. Subject wise, the material has been covered before and may be available on the Internet, courtesy of Isis members who have knocked out professional, Hollywood-style propaganda not unlike what Leni Reifenstahl did with financing from the Nazi Party. Her “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” are considering two of the most effective films of their kind.

Specifically “Jihadists” deals with the Sunni Islam extreme sect of Salafis, the spokesmen—all men by the way—lecturing us heathens and infidels without a smile or laugh on their faces. And that’s a good thing because if they came across as entertainers they could influence far more people than they have done to date. We see one guy whose hand is amputated for stealing, and it’s the right hand at that. Presumably only lefties could snatch wallets after that. Two homosexuals are tossed from the roof, the first one seen in slow motion, because their “crime offends God” and makes them “no better than animals.” In one unexplained strip of film, a couple of jihadists drive by in their car gunning down people with automatic weapons, which takes road rage to a somewhat higher peak. (Why they did this is not explained, so we may assume they were having sport as they had with the animals they machine-gunned from an aircraft in the opening scene.)

The countries exhibited include Afghanistan, Syria, Tunisia and Mali, in that last case focusing on sharia law in fabled city of Timbuktu, liberated by the French in 2013. During the rule of jihadists—who want their own state carved largely out of Syria and Iraq—two morals police warn women trying to sell their trinkets and foods to cover their faces completely.

H.G. Wells said that the human condition is a race between education and catastrophe. Without sufficient learning, not so much of facts but the ability to reason, even we in the United States could be electing politicians whose actions could be disastrous. Perhaps even highly educated people watch “Jihadists” and are tempted to say, “Hmmm, these fellas make some good points” but soon enough wake up from the nightmare to realize “How could we have ever thought that?” Imagine what men and women without sufficient reasoning power would think when they hear the arguments spouted by these clownish but highly toxic people! Happily, this fear-inducing picture ends with a final scene of an elderly gentleman smoking his pipe despite criticism from a passing ideologue. He demanded and received the return of what gives him pleasure saying that his health is not anybody else’s business. He got it back and defiantly exhales a huge puff for the camera.

The film is in French, English, Arabic and Bambara with the subtitles in white—those subtitles clashing with scenes involving people with white shirts. A large part of the cinema world still doesn’t get it: foreign language movies need bold print preferably in a strong color like yellow.

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

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

THE INVISIBLES – movie review

 

THE INVISIBLES (Die Unsichtbaren)
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Claus Räfle
Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López
Cast: Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras, Victoria Schulz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 25, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

Once the Nazis rounded up the Jews and other groups that they opposed for reasons difficult if not impossible to believe, and transported them into concentration camps, there was little hope for their survival. In Poland, which had the largest per capita number, only one Jew out a hundred survived, usually liberated by Russians or Americans. On the other hand, many Jews who once lived in areas occupied by Germany during World War II were able to survive by leaving for the UK, the U.S., or Israel provided that they realized Hitler was not about to go away in a few weeks or months and were courageous enough to give up their property and money by escaping. There is another segment, some 7000 according to historians, who hid in plain sight, given refuse by Christians at the risk of their own lives, refusing to leave and taking their chances. Yet only 1700 survived thanks to the civilian creeps who informed on the others with the Gestapo and especially from the loathsome Stella Goldschlag who used her beauty to ferret out Jews and who, after serving time in a Soviet prison, converted to Christianity and became an anti-Semite. “The Invisibles” is a docudrama about four Jews who remained in Berlin intent on trying their luck. Claus Räfle in his freshman work for the big screen, informs his audience about both the rashness of their decision and the prudence which allowed them to remain calm and not to allow their youthful energy to lead them into captivity.

Räfle, who co-wrote the drama with Alejandra López, employs grainy archival film from the war, frequently cutting from the colorful modern shots, while also pausing to focus on the individuals as they live now. This is a technique that has good and bad points: the latter because it interrupts the flow, and praiseworthy by showing the audience that these folks are still alive (except one who died after the filming) with sharp memories of the most fearful event in their lives. The film could have avoided confusion by concentrating on two people instead of four, one, Cioma Schönhaus (Max Mauff) who wound up with a counterfeiting ring, thereby saving thousands of his fellow Jews, and another, Hanni Lévy (Alice Dwyer), who died her hair blonde and lived by daily visits to the local cinema. Lévy found refuge with the woman who sold tickets and who, maybe, could have figured that a young person seeing the same movie over and over might be hiding from the authorities.

Less developed cases involve Ruth Arndt (Ruby O. Fee) and her sister who turned up as maids for a military officer who knew full well that he was harboring Jews.

In framing the work, director Räfle gives attention to both the talking heads and the dramatizations, the latter being the more absorbing thereby avoiding the plight of documentaries that spend all their time on interviews without dramatic contextualization. The team of survivors dish out credible performances, the most alluring to me being that of Alice Dwyer’s Hanni, who might stand in for perhaps scores, maybe hundreds of young Jewish women who could pass because for one thing, Germans could not imagine that Jewish hair could be “Aryan-color” and for another, Goebbels announced in 1943 that Berlin was free of Jews.

If you go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, be sure to look up the names of Righteous Among the Nations, Christians who risked their lives hiding Jews like the ones in this film, many found out and executed. The film was a feature at last year’s Jewish Film Festival and should be seen by folks of all ethnicities, religions and races. If you go to Berlin, and you should, you can’t miss the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2711 stelae or slabs taking up the entire city block. Germany today, unlike Turkey, does not hide its wartime crimes, openly advertising tours to such structures as the Jewish Museum. The Jewish community of Berlin, which in 1933 numbered 160,000, became what Goebbels called free of Jews in 1943, and is now home to 118,000 Jews who no longer need to hide.

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

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

GIRL – movie review

GIRL

Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lukas Dhont
Screenwriter:  Lukas Dhont, Angelo Tijssens
Cast:  Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/17/18
Opens: January 18, 2019
Victor Polster in Girl (2018)
European countries like Denmark are passing laws outlawing circumcision, but if you accept what you see in the movie “Girl,” you’ll wonder why Belgium would allow sex change operations, which are far more complex than circumcision.  I would guess that this is because babies are circumcised long before they have the right to consent to the minor surgery while boys who want to transgender to girls are of the age of consent.  Still, when 15-year-old Lara, formerly Victor (Victor Polster), opts to change from male to female, he is still a minor by our laws here.  Maybe things are more liberal in Belgium.

The drama “Girl” is directed by Lukas Dhont in his freshman, full-length movie.  He had done the short “Headlong” previously about a young ballet dancer in a foreign location overcome with loneliness, so he is in his métier in dealing this time with a whole class of ballet dancers practicing under strict supervision in one of Belgium’s most prestigious dance academies.

“Girl” is part a mostly internalized emotional roller coaster taken by Lara, part a look at the intense practice sessions of the school where teachers have no problem with tough love, another part being a look at the procedure a man must go through in that country if he wants to change his sex.  Lara is in virtually every scene, her (using “her” from this point) face a clear mirror of the emotional traumas she experiences.   She is living with his Francophone father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), a cab driver, and a six-year-old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) who once makes the mistakes of calling Lara by his birth name of Victor.  The dad is understanding, escorting the 15-year-old to sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Pascal (Valentijn Dhaenens) and the surgeon Dr. Naert (Katelijne Damen).  Both medical professionals listen well, are warm and comforting, and seem to look upon a sex change as a vital procedure for the emotional health of the patient.

At this point, it might be said that straight people like me have trouble accepting the cutting up and surgical dangers to be undergone by candidates for transgender surgery, as it is probably difficult for most people to accept the intense need by candidates to accept the side effects of the surgery and hormonal upsets that the body must go through.  But as they say, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand, though some men desiring to become women may stop short of surgery by becoming simply cross-dressers while others go the full gamut to connect to themselves.

Much of the film comes across as visuals, not depending on dialogue.  The mixed class of young people go through the ballet steps as the instructor barks orders, performing arabesques, glissades, pas de chat, pirouettes, switch leaps, all of which are important if you, as a spectator, attend a concert.  While the dance sessions are outward, Lara’s emotions are inward.  Nothing will please Lara more than to speed up the process of becoming a woman, whether to take extra hormones (not recommended) or to get the final procedure to turn male members into a vagina and even a clitoris.  Though Lara is counseled to live for today and not to make time pass slowly by dreaming of the final surgery, she simply cannot get her ultimate goal out of her mind.  This passion for fast change—something shared by straight adolescents for whom the world is moving too slowly and transgender candidates—will lead to a dramatic finale, one that, from what we hear, will have Cannes viewers talking for months.

Some people in the LGBTQ community may object that a cisgender male was cast, the term meaning one whose birth sex is the same as his natural gender role, just as those in the deaf community believe that only deaf people should be cast as actors in movies about the deaf.  Still Victor Polster has the look of someone who could easily play a girl (see his picture on IMDB.com), a professional dancer who knows how to perform ballet and to take on the difficult role of a person who faces the double emotional rides of both adolescence and a girl born into a boy’s body.  Both Victor and all the supporting roles, especially of girls in the dance class who at one point egg Lara on to show them his “third leg,” are strong. “Girl” is Belgium’s Oscar entry for best foreign picture.

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

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

PIG (Khook) – movie review

PIG (Khook)
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mani Haghighi
Screenwriter: Mani Haghighi
Cast: Hasan Majuni, Leila Hatami, Leili Rashidi, Parinaz Izadyar, Mina Jafarzadeh
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 11, 2019 at Iranian Film Festival in NY: at IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue

Pig (2018 film).jpg

How do you like your Iranian movies? Do you favor meditative ones in the Ingmar Bergman style with a focus on the regrets of old age? Then Bahman Farmanara’s “Tale of the Sea” is your glass of sharbat. If instead you prefer absurdist dark comedy, Coen Brothers’ fashion? Then go for “Pig.” “Pig,” or “Khook” as the picture is known in Farsi, is a hallucinatory look at the high-end folks of Tehran, people who visit museums that show modern art and those whom Trump supporters would consider elitist. These are the well-to-do, BMW-owning artists, in this case represented by Hasan Kasmai (Hasan Majuni), a filmmaker who was blacklisted by the government. People in the know about global politics will pick up that Kasmai stands in for the real-life Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker who was unable to get a job because the politicians did not like his alleged propaganda against the government and who in 2011 smuggled a video out to the Cannes Festival by hiding the flash drive inside a cake.

Writer-director Mani Haghighi, whose “Men at Work” is an allegorical take on four middle-aged men on a ski trip, continues his wont to hide political commentary in a similar allegorical form, this time gives us “Pig,” a barb against the narcissism of artists, a trait that we in the U.S. know well given the current administration in the White House.

To get his message across, Haghighi employs the darkly comic theme of murder, wherein a killer decapitates artists before or after cutting off their heads. One filmmaker, the blacklisted Hasan Kasmai, feels slighted that he still keeps his head, wondering whether he is really in the top tier of his profession if he is being ignored by the murderer. Perhaps Haghighi is saying that some high-up officials are themselves being headless, persecuting those with whom they disagree.

“Pig” can be considered a horror film only as a stretch. When we see a few heads on the curbside and in the morgue with missing torsos, we are not in the company of filmmakers like Wes Craven and Rob Zombie who give their largely teen base the blood and guts that they eagerly lap up. When Hasan, the film’s principal subject, is not lamenting the injunction on his film making, using his time to shoot commercials, he is having an affair with leading lady Shiva (Leila Hatami). But Shiva, tired of being without employment because of the ban on her lover and director’s art, goes over to filmmaker Saidi (Ali Mosoffa) to Hasan’s displeasure.

Still, Hasan is pursued, even stalked for roles in movies yet to come, by Annie (Parinaz Izadyar). At the same time Hasan is himself babied by his rifle-toting mother, who will play a major role toward the story’s conclusion. Hip audience members will recall Chekhov’s insight that a gun shown in Act I will be used in Act III.

Among the visual candy on hand is an extended insecticide commercial, the all-female crew of bugs dressed in red with yellow boots, ultimately to be killed off by a huge, misty cloud. A dig at social media, in this case Instagram (Iran does not allow Facebook), sets Hasan up as the murderer by capturing him in scenes that could lead to his prosecution. Despite the thematic importance of this film, Hasan Majuni in the lead role becomes tiresome with a half hour to go. He is unlikable; an obese, temper-tantrum baby wearing silly T-shirts including one advertising Black Sabbath, an English rock group named after Mario Bava’s 1963 film of the same name.

There’s an elephant in the room. We in the U.S., told repeatedly that Iran is an authoritarian state that denies freedom to women and would not tolerate a movie critical of its repressive laws, may be surprised to note that men and women who are not related are seen chatting freely, driving cars, and observing so-called corrupt abstract art which was banned by totalitarian governments like Germany in the thirties and the Soviet Union under communism.

“Pig” is among the films exhibited beginning Jan. 10, 2019 in New York, enjoying the first Iranian Festival contributions this year. Shot on location in Tehran with sharp images by Mahmoud Kalari, the picture is in Farsi with English subtitles.

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

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

TALE OF THE SEA – movie review

TALE OF THE SEA (Hekayat-e Darya)
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bahman Farmanara
Screenwriter: Bahman Farmanara
Cast: Bahman Farmanara, Fatemeh Motemad Arya, Leila Hatami, Saber Abar, Ali Nassirian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/
Opens: January 10, 2019 at the First Iranian International Film Festival in NY: At IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, NY NY.

Leila Hatami and Saber Abar in Hekayat-e darya (2018)

You would not be surprised at the similarity of “Tale of the Sea” to previous works from the Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Farmanara. Farmanara deals with momentous subjects in previous works. In “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine,” for example, the writer-director envelops his principal character with thoughts of death, plot items evoking thoughts of the final exit. The principal character wonders why his niece’s husband fails to return home. He searches hospitals for an unclaimed body while his own heart is giving out. In “A Separation,” a married couple runs into conflict as one partner wants to leave Iran while the other needs to care for an ailing mother. A heart (one breaking, the other physically fragile), marital conflict, illnesses including a budding schizophrenia and depression, and once again thoughts of leaving Iran, crop up again. This new film may remind literate moviegoers of the works of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his 1957 film “Wild Strawberries”(an aging man confronts the emptiness of his existence)—while Peyman Yazdanian’s score at times recalls Hitchcockian tones.

“Tale of the Sea,” which takes place in a writer’s spacious home overlooking the ocean, is a theatrical piece, with most scenes involving one or two people with the occasional presence of a trio. Taher Mohebi (Bahman Farmanara), the principal character, is played by the filmmaker, who is 77 years old, a large man made up to look as though he is approaching his mid-80s. Conversations take place between drinks of tea that his wife Jaleh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya) often prepares and a cup of Turkish coffee brewed by Paraveneh, a surprise guest in his home who will radically change the married couple’s life.

For his part Taher, a writer known by his former students as Maestro, has spent three years in an institution for the emotionally disturbed, longing to remain there though prodded by his doctor (Ali Mosaffa) to go out and face reality. Taher continues to look like Job, years of woe yielding a face whose perpetual sadness belies the pale blue eyes that we assume should connote joy. We don’t wonder why his wife wants a divorce, though she will wait until her husband gets better lest an announcement of separation now lead to the poor man’s death.

A few scenes on the beach take us temporarily away from the purely theatrical. Taher meets people from his past, including a hallucinatory friend (Ali Nassirian) who had been “assigned to eternity” years earlier, and an emotional political activist (Saber Abar) who would like to relive the best years of his life—which were back in college when Maestro was his favorite teacher. All this Proustian remembrance of past memories is not unlike the situation faced by Dr. Eberhard Isak Borg in “Wild Strawberries,” whose “visits” to past people in his life remind him of the emptiness of his existence.

If you are not familiar with Ingmar Bergman—though if you read commentary on this film you surely must be—then think of Katherine Hepburn who, when asked about the value of old age to provide wisdom to youth replies that old age has not a single redeeming feature. You would expect that in his better days, Taher, active as a teacher and a celebrity author as well, was a different person, and you would probably be right. By the time you exit the theater, you may be more fearful of growing old (yes, of course, it’s better than the alternative), than ever. The melancholia of age and the way the brilliant director, producer, screenwriter and principal actor work to make you feel the mournful emotions, are what make “Tale of a Sea” a downer, if you will, but one that will leave you absorbed for its full 97 minutes while respecting that this filmmaker is at the top of his game.

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

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

ASHES IN THE SNOW – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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