THE TWO POPES – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 11/18/19
Opens: November 27 in theaters and Dec. 20 streaming

The Two Popes (2019) movie photo

Much of the humor of Fernando Meirelles’s fictional encounter between two popes whose ideologies are almost polar opposites comes from what Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI did for amusement. Audience laughs purportedly come from the mysterious idea that “Wow. These heads of church are not gods, they’re not saints, they’re human.” For example in one scene they shares a pizza. Imagine that! In other we see Pope Francis (when he was Cardinal Bergoglio) watching soccer and rooting for his home team from Argentina. And Bergoglio even tells a joke. A follower of the church asked whether he could smoke while praying. “Of course not,” replied the church official. Then he was advised that the question needed re-framing and became “Can I pray while smoking?” The answer presumably changed. It’s how you express yourself that counts.

Brazilian born director Meirielles follows up his famed “City of God” (2005) about two boys from the Rio slums whose paths diverge, just as Bergoglio and Benedict could be said to argue from different opinions. And writer Anthony McCarten (not my Irish cousin) takes off from “The Theory of Everything” encompassing the differences and similarities between Stephen Hawking with his wife. So what is “The Two Popes” about? It’s mostly about performance. We watch two veterans of the cinema Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio meet. What do they talk about? Does either fellow change his opinions based on the chit-chat? Benedict is Bavarian, a status quo pope, whom some people might consider a reactionary given that he wants to go back to the Latin mass (which, by the way, Mel Gibson prefers). By contrast Bergoglio, an Argentinian, emphasizes the needs of the poor while serving as the Holy Father. He even carries his own luggage (like Jimmy Carter), does not live in the Vatican, and visits Lampedusa to welcome the African refugees.

What is not emphasized, however, is that they agree on the basics. Meirelles and McCarten glide over the fact that Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, endorses the usual views on the Catholic Church against divorce, homosexuality, clerical marriage, abortion and contraception. He is, however, more forceful in dealing with priests who stray by exploiting their choir boys, but even there we don’t hear much about this.

The most trenchant archival film puts us up close to the brutality of the Argentine military after a coup under which opponents disappeared, were tortured, kidnapped, placed in secret concentration camps. The film suggests that since Bergoglio as a high church official was silent during the reign of military dictator Jorge Raphael Videla, he feels so guilty that he asks the pope for permission to resign from the church. For his part, the conventional Benedict is about to make the most unconventional decision to retire from the papacy, the first time in some seven hundred years that such an action would occur. Whether he was burdened by any guilt for serving in the German military during the World War 2 some time after being drafted at fourteen into the Hitler youth is glossed over. The bottom line is the big surprise: that Benedict, knowing the liberal views of the man who succeeded him, refuses his offer to resign and suggests that Bergoglio get right into the running of pope following Benedict’s retirement.

You might want to take the civilized interchange between these two larger-than-life people as a sign that the nations of the world which appear to have irreconcilable differences might actually come together in compromise, or even the more unlikely idea that Republicans and Democrats would become the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum that they used to be when I was a kid.

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

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

ATLANTICS – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mati Diop
Screenwriter: Mati Diop, Olivier Demangel
Cast: Mama Sane, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traore, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane
Screened at: Soho House, NYC, 11/17/19
Opens: November 15 in theaters and November 29 streaming

Atlantics (2019) movie photo

Senegal’s Oscar candidate is part ghost story, part romance, with even a dollop of social commentary and criticism. The film is anchored by the lovely 17-year-old Marne Bneta Sane as Ada in a breakthrough performance as a woman who is destined to marry Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich individual who spends nine months in Italy each year. When Ada confesses to her friends that she is in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and that she has no interest in coupling with Omar, they advise to suck it up. After seeing Omar’s house with a bed that is large enough to carry a man with four wives comfortably, they are envious. Given the tight economic times in this third-world country, you can’t blame them for the chance at being taken care of in style.

Director Mari Diop, who is the first female black person to present a film in competition at Cannes plays down the supernatural aspects of her new film in favor of stressing the romance, though given the shabby neighborhoods covered on location in Dakar (specifically the Plage du Virage, Plage de Yoff, and Thiarove though with key moments at the Radisson-Blu Hotel) you will not find lovers cavorting in an ersatz Paris. With a bunch of eager, nonprofessional actors photographed amid a Dakar community with a tower block under construction, “Atlantics” faces off with a group of pissed-off construction workers who have not been paid for three months. They have just about given up the possibility of getting their due, instead taking off in a rickety board for Spain Souleiman among them.

Being stiffed from wages becomes a concept that will appear toward the conclusion of the film, but the constant, understandable obsession with money finds Ada’s friends Fanta (Amina Kane) and Marianna (Mariama Gassama) hanging out at a night club on the beach looking for sugar daddies that will allow them to remain in Senegal rather than having to take off for Europe.

A fire burns down the aforementioned detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned to the case, but the police work is already beginning when the eyes of the women at the night club turn white, corneas only, crash the home of the construction boss N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene), demanding that they pay the wages owed even though the men are out to sea, dead, or already in Spain. Wherever they are, you will likely suspect that Souleiman will return to his great love, whether with milk-white eyes or seeing normally, to spend at least one night with the heartbroken Ada.

“Atlantics” is a compelling work that will disappoint those who like their zombie movies filled with terror but will be embraced by folks who like their films nuanced with supernatural elements that genuinely expand and interpret the plot.

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

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


Roadside Attractions/ Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jake Scott
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Amy Madigan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/16/19
Opens: June 14, 2019

American Woman Movie Poster

As you watch “American Woman,” you will soon see why its star, Sienna Miller, could rise to the top of Oscar candidates for best actress and also of the various organizations and guilds that announce awards annually. Her performance as Debra (Sienna Miller), a single mother whose reliance on men will gradually wear away as she gains in maturity, wisdom and specific experiences. Jake Scott, the director, whose “Welcome to the Rileys” focuses on an emotionally distraught man who, like Debra, finds a modicum of salvation by taking care of a woman, is obviously in his métier with the current offering. Scott’s people living hardscrabble lives in rural Pennsylvania with clouded political horizons to such an extent that they vote for Republicans if they bother casting ballots at all. The movie’s writer, Brad Ingelsby, implies that these folks are representative of a broad swath of Americans who have been cast aside as factories close down in our country.

Debra has had to overcome emotional handicaps early on as she has had a baby at the age of sixteen, had considered abortion, but decided that she wants the little fella enough to fight against more rational thoughts. She is dependent enough on man to put up with an abusive Ray (Pat Healy), who thinks nothing of hitting her and of laying down the law to her son, who is now seven years old. As though the kind of life she dreams of is not unattainable enough, she suffers the loss of her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), a kidnap victim who has most likely been murdered, perhaps by teen Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), who is Bridget’s absent dad. By contrast Deb’s sister Kath (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, is content with her devoted husband Terry (Will Sasso), a mensch who is willing to do whatever is needed to help Deb and other neighbors.

Six years go by. Bridget is still missing. Deb tries to elevate her station by taking accounting classes while raising Jesse (Aidan McGraw), now age seven. Then zap. Ten more years pass by and Deb is now attached to Chris (Aaron Paul), a devoted family man happy to become Jesse’s role model, until yet another domestic issue appears to cast Deb into blackness.

While the plot is nothing new—woman desperate for stability and affection, realizing the bad choices she has made—“American Woman” is all about Sienna Miller’s riveting performance as a lower-middle class woman whose growth comes in spurts but has never realized contentment. Her roller coaster emotions sees her at times desperate, at other moments optimistic, an American woman whose life may never reach true fruition.

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

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

MARRIAGE STORY – movie review

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

Marriage Story Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCANDALOUS – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mark Landsman
Screenwriter: Mark Landsman
Cast: Gereroso Pope, Jr., David Pecker, Carl Bernstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: November 15, 2019

Scandalous Movie Poster

How does a journal get a wide circulation? The same rules apply here as those which drive movie box office returns. A blockbuster movie like “Terminator,” or “Purge,” or “Joker,” lots of violence and some sex, will attract a larger box office than a picture like “Frankie,” or “Jojo Rabbit,” or “Little Jo.” A movie aiming for big box office is going to be more expensive than one catering to an elite, so in that sense an investor can wind up ahead of the game by taking chances on an indie. Now with newspapers and magazines, the ones that hope to capture a large share of the American audience are bound to be simple, like “Readers Digest,” which does not exploit sex and violence, or like AARP journals that go to members of the huge older community. Both of these have to cater to the lowest common denominator. If ever a magazine in our country had a chance of going viral, or whatever the equivalent of viral is to print journals, it would be the National Enquirer, given its splashy headlines about sex scandals, celebrity divorces, politicians’ career suicides. In the early days the Enquirer would concentrate on UFOs, in other words false news designed to capture the attention of people who believe in such nonsense. Now, the Enquirer concentrates on what is partially true, blowing up those events for maximum melodrama.

Using impressive archival footage wedding to ultra-fast editing, director Mark Landsman who made the scene with “Thunder Soul,” about a high school band in Houston that returned 35 years later to pay tribute to its beloved leader, takes on a story with national interest. This time, the Enquirer, which started as a New York paper, was converted under Gereroso Pope’s leadership to a national format. Pope had an idea that people might be ashamed to tell pollsters what they are truly interested in but will have no problem stopping their cars on a highway to rubber-neck a gory accident. These folks, who both envy celebrities while wishing these reputations to be marred, will go for anything that given them schadenfreude. Think of Princess Diana’s death in a car accident, or Gary Hart’s undoing when a candidate for president found to be cavorting with beautiful women. Consider Elvis’s death, or Trump’s marriage to Marla Maples. Big, big interest.

Currently, UFOs and violent stories take a back seat to celebrity take-downs, its most recent philosophy to advance the cause of political candidates it favors.

Landsman shows us how political the paper can be. In 2016 the Enquirer endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. When ownership fell to David Pecker, often seen in photos with Donald Trump, his paper refused to publish a story from Karen McDougal about an alleged affair she had with the president in 2006. Pecker bought out her story for $150,000 for exclusive rights to any relationship she had with a married man, and buried the whole account.

If some people believe everything in the Enquirer on the grounds that if it’s in print it must be true, you can easily see how Trump’s lies, also published in national newspapers, are believed. This is a hard-hitting documentary, lots of footage including items on Bill Clinton and Hillary (“Hillary has six months to live”). Trump has said that being “presidential” is boring, an attitude that captivates tens of millions of Americans. In like manner, a “gray lady” like the NY Times, considered to be the world’s most trustworthy and comprehensive newspaper, cannot compete in sales with the National Enquirer, a periodical pandering to the average Joe.

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

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


I LOST MY BODY – movie review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

QUEEN OF HEARTS – movie review

Breaking Glass Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: May el-Toukhy
Screenwriter: Maren Louise Kaehne, May el-Toukhy
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav, Lindh, Magnus Krepper
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/8/19
Opens: November 1 in theaters. November 19 Streaming/DVD

Dronningen Movie Poster

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. May el-Toukhy, following up her “Long Story Short” about a group of Danes meeting at different parties, shows in her third feature movie that there’s no murder involved in “Queen of Hearts,” but there is certainly an element of revenge. Most important, while nobody is having his way the wife of the murdered king as in “Hamlet,” we’re dealing with another sordid affair–between Anna (Tryne Dyrholm) a woman in her late forties, and her sixteen-year-old stepson Peter (Magnus Krepper).

A common theme in literature, theater and film is the idea that if you peel back the outer layers of even our most civilized and financially comfortable people, you will find emotions that could well suit up a film of horror and desolation. Director el-Toukhy and her co-writer Maren Louise Käehne dig into the intrigues involving three people living under one roof in a lavish home with acres of grounds—a doctor, a lawyer, and a disturbed teenager whose father was “not there for him” during the kid’s early years.

While Peter (Magnus Krepper), the guilt-ridden divorced father whose son Gustav (Gustav Lindh) is now taken back into the older man’s home, Peter’s wife Anne, who is not having enough sex with Peter, opens up to the boy while her husband is away. After allowing the teen to put a symbolic tattoo on her arm, she takes a bold and misguided chance on leaving a dinner party with the boy, taking him to a bar, and kissing him on the lips. There is an implication that at her age, she realizes that the wrinkles are inevitable, the limited sex with her husband just OK, and that she wants to prove that she’s still hot and able to seduce someone one-third her age. You would think that a successful lawyer would be enjoined by the illegality, being instead simply fearful of discovery by someone in her family such as her grown sister.

“Queen of Hearts” has no problem showing some hardcore sex with the boy, doggy style, and with her husband, missionary choice, because, well, it sells, and Denmark’s being Denmark can’t hurt. And since the shots are taken in Denmark and not Alabama or Mississippi, there is no implication that she feels sinful. The only thing that concerns her is being caught. Perhaps she is a Danish Donald Trump—not that she would try getting away with shooting someone on Jægersborggade, the busiest street in Copenhagen, but that under her husband’s nose she can cuddle up with a young lad, a disturbed one at that, without harmful consequences.

The film is as sophisticated as is Scandinavia, and dare one say that in fashioning the principal woman as one with the feeling that she is rich, educated, and superior and can get away with anything, that Ms. El-Toukhy is satirizing our own president?

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

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