THE WHITE CROW – movie review

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter: David Hare
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raophel Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergie Polunin, Dalypso Valois
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 3/20/19
Opens: April 26, 2019

Rudolph Nureyev would likely be famous even if he remained with dance troupes in Moscow, but became an icon when he defected to France. Why would anyone want to defect from Mother Russia? Possibly the same reason people risked their lives in the bad old days, most notably when East Germans tried to flee to the West. Communism, in the opinion of many, is an example of social engineering gone wrong. It asks people to conform to an economic way of life that is unnatural. Therefore those governments who call themselves communist—whether they follow orthodox Marxism or not—have to keep control on its residents lest they evacuate en masse from this unnatural environment and make new homes in countries that simply do not need this kind of control.

But what of people who have done well in communist states like the former Soviet Union? Creative people who have become well known, have been educated by the state, and whose vocations are subsidized by the government? Think of Rudolph Nureyev, ascending to the potential of the Bolshoi Ballet, considered good enough to join a group going to Paris to dance as representatives of their proud state. Why would he want to leave everything behind? Strangely enough, we simply do not know even while we are riveted by Ralph Fiennes’ “The White Crow,” flexing his directing muscles for the third time. Sure. Nureyev liked the glitter of Paris, as did his fellow dancers who looked at the Champs Elysees goo-goo eyed. Maybe not all of them were too pleased when the bureaucrats assigned to keep an eye on the troupe gather all passports as they descend from the bus to spend a few days wowing the French. What country in West would think of collecting passports, handing them back only as they are returning to Moscow from the airport?

Then again, “The White Crow” is entertaining enough so we go home not disappointed without the insight that drove us to watch this movie. It’s fragmented, going from Nureyev’s birth on a train of the trans-Siberian railroad, and who was prepared from an early age for a career as a dancer. We watch as he develops an ego, strong enough to refuse to be trained by a teacher who he thinks does not like him, then taking up with Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes). The principal role is played by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer in his debut as an actor, a handsome fellow playing a man who rejects the communist view that the good of the state is paramount over the desires of the individual.

In Paris Nureyev flirts with Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who is on the rebound after the death of her boyfriend, a woman of some influence given her relationship with the son of André Malraux, who is France’s minister of cultural affairs. While he is staying out late enjoying the entertainments that Paris offers, he causes his handlers anxiety, suspecting that he could become a great embarrassment for the Soviet Union is he decides to defect. He continues his training with Pushkin, played by director Ralph Fiennes with such meekness that we wonder how such a person could inspire a ballet troupe. The poor man’s wimpy personality appears to push Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) into seducing Nureyev, though the bisexual performer nurses a craving for his roommate Yuri Soloview (Sergei Polunin).

Nureyev shows his temperament, not always held in check, when he feels patronized by a Russian waiter who may suspect that though he and Clara are dining together, the woman has class but the man is from peasant stock. His connection with Clara, a meeting of opposites, could result from her pleasant surprise to be with a man whose style is direct rather than wishy-washy.

The film jumps from the Soviet Union to Paris, with regular intervals shown in desaturated colors of his life as a small boy, who even then demonstrates a passion for dancing. I would have wished for more time spent on Nureyev’s theater performances, as Oleg Ivenko demonstrates everything on stage from adagio to allegro, from grande jeté to pirouette. Still, the scene of greatest drama, actual edge-of-the-seat minutes that you can find on police dramas, occurs when at the airport on the final day in Paris he asks for asylum. The KGB handlers, aware that this could happen, jump into the fray, fighting with the French airport police who with great patriotic fervor announce “This is France!”

Flashbacks do not detract from the continuity of the story, in fact we’re happy to see Maksimilian Grigoriyev depicting an enthusiastic Nureyev at the age of eight. This is a movie with great charm, glorious dancing and high drama, concluding with our excitement to watch a man thumbing his nose, or rather extending the middle finger, to the duplicitous agents of the big, bad Soviet Union.

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

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

GIRL – movie review


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, 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+

FOOTNOTES – movie review

FOOTNOTES  (Sur quel pied danser)
Monument Releasing
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Paul Calori, Kostia Tesut
Written by: Paul Calori, Kostia Testut
Cast: Pauline Etienne, Olivier Chantreau, François Morel, Loïc Corbery
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,  7/5/17
Opens: July 14, 2017
If you live in New York or plan to visit the Apple, you’re probably going to see “Phantom of the Opera,” maybe “Chicago,” and if you’re really lucky, “Hamilton.” And I can’t blame you.  There are lines every night notwithstanding the prices. Let me suggest the film versions of the first two.  The tariff is ideal and producers, directors and actors can make the experience as pleasurable as the live shows. And you can see from any seat in the house.  Not every musical has to Big League, which is why you might be quite pleased with this delightful, French entry called “Footnotes,” or in the original French, “Sur quel pied danser,” which means literally “On which foot dancing.”  Paul Calori and Kostia Tesut, who wrote and direct this screen version, play around with politics, as when they provoke the hard-working women in a shoe factory to call a strike.  France has a progressive custom written into law that once an employee passes a probation period, she is offered a permanent contract and cannot be fired without cause.  But there is an exception: workers can be laid off when business is slow or when the bosses shift production to other parts, particularly China.
Politics aside, “Footnotes” is more of a fantasy with just a whiff or two of ho-hum reality.  Think of the American “Pajama Game,” which finds workers furious that management refuses to agree to a wage increase of seven and a half cents.  The labor friction takes a back seat to union leader Gladys Hotchkiss’s love for Sid Sorokin, the factory manager.  In “Footnotes,” the lovely Julie (Pauline Etienne) worries that she could lose her job if she joins her colleagues in a walkout, but people don’t live by bread alone.  Love is more important, and Julie is head-over-heels with Samy (Olivier Chantreau),  a free spirit who drives a truck and dreams of doing something less mundane with his life.

With a flurry of songs and dances, “Footnotes” also enjoys the expert translation from French (English subtitles), affording us in the audience with a long series of rhymed couplets, including the coupling of “rag” with “nag” and “horse” with remorse.”  As Julie, Ms. Etienne exudes conflicting traits like innocence and sophistication, signaling Olivier Chantreau’s  Samy with both come-ons and stay-aways.  In one scene she is frolicking with the macho driver, in another she spits in his face.

Similarly the bosses are playing both sides; assuring workers that an “upgrade” is temporary is does not mean layoffs, while warning them that their labor actions could result in termination.

This is a low-key musical in the tradition of Jacques Demy and Stanley Dolen, less like an expansive “The Young Girls of Rochefort” than a simpler “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”  In that sense the dancing, mostly by women who are middle-aged and beyond, would hardly challenge the slicker footwork that you’d find in American musicals like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” but the women seem to know this as they swing about the factory, gossip on the bus trip to Paris where they go to meet the big boss Xavier Laurent (Loic Corbery).  We come away not only with an appreciation for well-made products, especially the classy red shoes that as prominent here as in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.  The songs are not the showy kind that you might expect if you’ve been brought up on “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma,” and “My Fair Lady,” but several cast members each get their several minutes of fame. After all “Footnotes” is a working class story dealing with the hopes and dreams of people who have not had fancy educations but simply want to ply their craft with a modicum of security.

Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

BOBBI JENE – movie reveiw


    Oscilloscope Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Elvira Lind
    Written by: Elvira Lind
    Cast: Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber, Ohad Naharin, Denise Smith, Yaniv Nagar, David Harvey, Barbara Frum, Nirit Schraiber, Amir Schraiber, Matan Daskal, Adam Whitney Nichols, Laura Dern
    Opens: September 22, 2017
    Bobbi Jene Poster #1
    Director Elvira Lind, whose film “Songs for Alexis,” deals with the struggle of two teens for love in a grownup world, knows how to avoid the mistake of so many documentaries, if “Bobby Jene” is an example.  The principal problem that finds general audiences shunning them in favor of narrative films is the use of talking heads– that make most nonfiction films undramatic.  “Bobbi Jene” is a nonfiction story that comes off like a narrative, since the camera follows the famous dancer from the ages of thirty to thirty-two, and like a fly on the wall is content simply to capture her moments on the dance floor, the situation she faces with her Israeli boyfriend Or Schraiber, who is ten years younger, and her hard choice to leave the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel after performing modern dance there for a decade.

    It helps as well that Lind opens the film by capturing the most dramatic and controversial moment in her dance life, which is performing on stage in the nude, a situation that had worried her mother Denise Smith, an Evangelical Christian.

    Among the highlights of Bobbi Jene’s life is her tearful announcement to Ohad Naharin, her former lover who is the director of the Batsheva company and is ten years older than Bobbi Jene, that she does not entirely feel at home in Israell Yet when she dropped out of college at the age of twenty-one, she had already dreamed of dancing for the Tel-Aviv based Batsheva, which was founded by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964, a company inspired by an attachment to modern dance in America.

    While she is in San Francisco, Bobbi Jene does some teaching while seeking locations for performances, and ultimately gets work in Jerusalem, where she again takes up with Or Schraiber, discusses the possibility of marriage, and return again on to New York.  If there is one scene that is even more daring than her staging in the nude it is one that involves pleasuring herself on top of a sandbag, an extended replica of intercourse that goes on for five minutes of writhing and moaning and which is simply neither charming, nor amusing, nor worthy of serious thought.  Why not simply go ahead and do the same in the nude, substituting a man like Or for the sandbag?

    Why Bobbi Jene is able to live in Israel for ten years and only then deciding that she does not feel at home is not explored, and there is little explanation to a movie audience, many of whom have never seen modern dance, about the nature of the art.  There are times that I had hoped that the Batsheva would entertain a long intermission to allow the Bolshoi Ballet to make a surprise entry and to demonstrate a Pas de deux or two.  For me, the best example of avant-garde ballet, which of course is “modern” but not like Bobbi Jene’s work, would be Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” although I suppose the ballet that caused a riot in Paris when first presented would be considered hopelessly passé by aficionados of modern dance.

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?