HARRIET – movie review

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriter: Gregory Ellen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters
Screened at: Bryant Park, NYC, 9/11/19
Opens: November 1, 2019

Harriet Movie Poster (2019)

You’ve got to hand it to Canada. They have nationwide government health coverage just like the countries of Western Europe. They welcomed Americans who did not want to serve in the immoral war with Vietnam. They welcome immigrants even now! Even Ivanka has been seen checking out their Prime Minister. And they provided a safe haven for enslaved people in the U.S. who were able to travel, say, the 600 miles from Maryland to the Canadian border, some by boat from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where many settled and found jobs. O Canada: can you take us in today when we need you so badly?

Hundreds of thousands of people in the early 19th century would have flocked to you, O Canada, to escape their status as property, where some of the opposition refused even to consider each to be 3/5 of a person. Otherwise a slave was considered property, and Harriet Tubman wanted none of that for herself, her family, her friends, and provided the energy and spark for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. After seeing “Harriet,” you will not wonder why President Obama proposed her image on the $20 bill. You can probably forget that for now, since Trump is a big admirer of Old Hickory, even visiting his grave. But he would “love” to see Tubman’s face on another denomination, like the $2 bill. Yes, he really said that, which is to his credit. After all, he could have suggested the $3 bill. Which gets us back to Araminta Ross, called “Minty” by the slave owners in Dorchester County, Maryland. She had been thrashed by some of the farm owners under the direction of the handsome but villainous Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who took over the family estate after the death of his mean father, and may have been responsible for particular thrashings that injured Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) in the head, causing pain and dizziness and a series of seizures that caused her to dream, to hallucinate, and as an already devout Christian to hear messages from God. Cultural appropriation of Joan of Arc?

When she is not acting, Director Kasi Lemmons has a long c.v. of TV serials, her film direction including “Eve’s Bayou,” which relates just what happens when a woman witnesses her father’s having an affair. The “Harriet” screenplay, which she co-wrote with Gregory Ellen Howard (“Remember the Titans” about a newly assigned African-American coach), plays out events in chronological order, with some hallucinations and dreams serving as an intermittent backdrop to a colorful biopic.

Determined to breathe free, she runs away from the farm that owns her chased by three bloodhounds, depending on her two legs to carry her but getting the help of a sympathetic white man in his covered wagon. She reaches Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania where she connects with an anti-slavery society under the direction of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and is eventually given room and board in a hotel owned by Marie (Janelle Monáe), a sophisticated African-American who not only accepts Harriet but also takes in several members of her family whom she picked when Harriet—get this—returned from freedom, going back to the slave state of Maryland several times to pick up others.

“Harriet” is peppered with monologues form the title character, who invokes God’s communications with her, with dialogues among farmers who want Gideon’s family to pay them since Gideon’s slave has been taking them away to freedom, with tete-a-tetes especially between Harriet and Marie. But also there is considerable melodrama each time the dogs are sent to sniff out her path and one climactic face-off between good and evil: between Harriet and Gideon. Limiting herself to 125 minutes, Lemmons does not continue with Tubman’s working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse and later—as if she needs to do another miracle to attain an informal sainthood—with guiding a raid at Combahee Ferry which liberated 700 enslaved people. And she became the first woman to lead an armed expedition of men in the Civil War. She found time later in life to lobby for women suffrage.

Harriet Tubman must be grinning widely in her grave at Auburn, New York where she died in 1913, as this is a handsome movie that shows her in such a positive light that she appears to have not a single human flaw. For her part, look for Cynthia Erivo’s nominations by a host of awards groups including the Academy and even New York Film Critics Online.

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

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

FIG TREE – movie review

Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Screenwriter: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Cast: Betalehem Asmamawe, Rodas Gizaw, Weyenshiet Belachew, Yohannes Musa, Mitiku Haylu, Mareta Getachew, Tilahune Asagere
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/27/19
Opens: June 5, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

No sooner has the film advanced past the opening credits when someone in a hell-hole of a town outside Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa says, “Everyone wants to be Jewish.” That’s something you don’t hear every day, but it was probably quoted in one way or another in the Soviet Union when in 1989 a record number of that country’s Jews left for Israel and the United States. Some Russian Christians, not particularly pleased with the travel limitations of their Communist government, discovered that by declaring themselves to be Jews they can not only be let out but can be taken in and treated well by the Jewish state. A situation in presented itself in Ethiopia during its long civil war between a Communist government that took power after a coup ousting Haile Selassie and various guerrilla groups. Both sides in in 1989 were kidnapping men between the ages of 15 and 30, conscripting them into their armed divisions. In that background Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a feisty 16-year-old staying with her weaver grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew), both lives for the moment, giving herself over to horseplay with her long-term boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse), and looking forward to spending her life with both her grandmother and Eli in Israel once the fluctuating flight schedules allow them to finalize their plans.

Two big questions arise. There are risks that Eli faces when military units without advance warning could snatch the young man up and make life unbearable, which is at least the perception of a young woman like Mina. The other is that like her grandmother and like her mother who is already in Israel, Mina is Jewish. However Eli, adopted into Mina’s family, is Christian. Mina fears that once the equivalent of a Mexican coyote who has pocketed money that Eli would be left behind, as Mina is instructed to take flight with her grandmother first.

Time passes, military units occasionally causing anxieties such as by forcing a school’s principal to hand over the list or male students, but a climactic point arrives when Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier (Tilahune Asagere) hanging from a fig tree in a patch of land that Eli uses to hide from the military. They save the man, who takes his time becoming conscious, and we see him as a metaphor for the whole mess that faces the country. The area is wracked by fear to such an extent that we may be surprised at the good will of the two young people when shortly thereafter the soldier crawls away, collapses, and is ignored by passersby.

The bulk of the film is slow-moving and is based partly on the experiences of the writer-director, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian who left Ethiopia when she was eleven. The languid pace makes the climactic moments, when all tensions burst in an array of frantic activity, all the more riveting. Still, considering the unhurried rhythms that last for the major parts, more exposition in the opening minutes could have better clarified the theme.

In the seventies and eighties Israel gave itself lots of credit, deservedly so, for taking in so many Ethiopians, a surprising decision since—as we learn from Eliran Malka’s film “The Unorthodox”which opens one day before this one at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center—the ethnically European Ashkenazis were not exactly welcoming of their fellow Israelis of Middle Eastern origin. “Fig Tree” does give us the tensions surrounding both the civil war and the desires of Ethiopian Jews to get out of their country leaving everything behind, but should be seen as well for the terrific performance of Betalehem Asmamawe, a non-professional performer in her first role.

Daniel Miller filmed on location in Ethiopia. “Fig Tree” is an entry of the Israel Film Center Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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

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

THE BEGUILED – movie review


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

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

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

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

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

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

CITY OF GHOSTS – movie review


    Amazon Studios/IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, 411 Celeb
    Grade: A-
    Director:  Matthew Heineman
    Written by: Matthew Heineman
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 6/22/17
    Opens: July 14, 2017
    City of Ghosts Movie Poster
    The Middle East is an irrational place, crazier than even present-day America.  Sunnis and Shiites go after each other; Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews the same, albeit with long periods of quiet; Turks against Kurds; Russians against Syrian rebels; Syrian rebels against Assad; ISIS against everybody.  Don’t even go so far as to ask about Aleppo.  Raqqa is where it’s happening according to Matthew Heineman’s grisly and shockingly-effective film.  “City of Ghosts” is a documentary happily without the usual static convention of interviewers and subjects, talking heads and responders.  It’s a first-class look at hell on earth, considered by ISIS, the Islamic State, aka Daesh, to be part of its caliphate.  Yes, ISIS finds glory in the Seventh Century and vows to turn back the clock albeit without the need of a time machine.

    “City of Ghosts” is not an all-purpose, generalists’ look at Syria, but wisely focuses on one aspect of the civil war; namely the heroic work being done by Syrian journalists to expose the destruction of this fanatical group.  The awards-winning journalists are members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which is to say “silently” if not for the reporters who keep track of what the Islamic State is doing.  Some of these reporters have been killed, not necessarily while filming the devastation, but even after they had gone over the border into Turkey, nor are they safe even in Germany where they are put into safe houses rather than expose them to assassination in Berlin.

    The principal point made about ISIS is that they employ sophisticated Hollywood-style media to glorify the “prosperity” that they assert they have brought to Raqqa, which is their “capital,” when it just is not so.  Not by a long shot.  They not only pump out dramatic recruitment ads via Facebook.  They excite schoolchildren, making the adventure like camping, except that these enthusiastic kids are trained to execute those who are accused of fighting the Islamic State.

    Unless you turn your head away, you will be exposed to actual assassinations, which are done by having the victims in their orange outfits on their knees, one ISIS member behind each hapless fellow, each victim dropped by a bullet to the back of the head.  Some so-called enemies are hung on crosses, others are tortured before being killed.  ISIS is in effect making snuff films to terrorize the people while at the same time effectively recruiting men, who proudly wave the organization’s black flag.

    Thanks to the journalists in RBSS, the initials for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, we are able to see the devastation wrought by these evil fanatics.  Ordinary people must line up for barely enough food to sustain them.  We know this thanks to the reportage of men like RBSS editor Naji Jerf, who is among those executed during the course of the film.

    As if the Syrian reporters do not face enough danger, they are assaulted by skinhead types in Germany’s far right, chanting “Depot them” as if there is not difference between them and the Assad government or ISIS.  We are left with a heartfelt look at some of the noblest people in the journalism profession, and with sharply edited film honing right in on the anarchy unleashed by a group that has superseded Al Queda and the Taliban for their fervor, theair brutality, and their successes.

    Rated R.  92 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?