READY OR NOT – movie review

Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

Jokes are often made about marriages of Hollywood actors. They have elaborate ceremonies, their receptions are written up in People, interviewers ask all sorts of personal questions such as “How many kids to you plan to have?” Then two years later, four years later, “in sickness and in health” becomes the big lie. Divorces are common after short periods. If you really want to see an extreme version of this as though satirizing the concept, look into “Ready or Not,” featuring a marriage that lasts all of twelve hours. Blame it on the in-laws. Though “Ready or Not” is fiction, some viewers may think that it’s a send-up of the one percent, the belief that any family that is rich enough to be in that bracket must have gained their wealth through stealth, even murder somewhere along the line. Still, that would be a difficult thesis to prove, nor do Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who share directing credits as well for “Devil’s Due,” about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon facing an earlier than expected pregnancy.

Unlike “Devil’s Due” the couple may or not have an unexpected pregnancy, but they have one hell of a bad honeymoon. Nor is the bride favored by in-laws, an eccentric group of people living in a mansion with rooms that may be larger than the cubic feet of an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. (The pic is filmed by Brett Jutkiewicz in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto, considered the safest place in the area where kids can play at night—but tell that to the people in this film.)

Samara Weaving anchors the activities as Grace, whose history as a foster child compels her to want a family. She lucks out, or so she thinks, in meeting Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) not realizing that she is being set up like Chris Washington by Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s superior film “Get Out.” After an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the estate, she returns with Alex to meet the family—one which could be compared, except in appearance, to the folks in Charles Addams’ cartoons. These are people bound by tradition, as shown in an opening scene thirty years earlier. A satanic pact has been made with the ancestors, agreed to by the family to pay back the man who originally made the money by creating and selling games.

Told that she must pick a card, any card from a deck featuring games, Grace selects Hide and Seek, the worst choice she could have made. As the family counts to 100, she is delighted to run away, hide in the dumbwaiter, and then think of a less cozy place. Soon enough she sees that if she cannot escape from the mansion by dawn, she will die at their hands, nor can she count fully on her husband Alex, who loves her but is conflicted by the pact of which he too is a part. Soon she is hunted down by Alex’s brother Daniel Le Domas (Adam Brody with Etienne Kellici as the young Daniel), Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell with Kate Ziegler as young Becky), Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun) who needs help in using a crossbow), Tony Le Domas, the majordomo of the outfit (Henry Czerny) and Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the aunt who most resembles a Charles Addams character.

As is customary in horror pictures, people get picked off, one by one, in this case by crossbow, weights smashed on their heads, strangulation, gunshots, and ultimately by a Götterdammerung of a conclusion that comes off more like a deus ex machina than a scene that you might expect. While some critics believe that Adam Brody comes off tops in his role as the bride’s brother-in-law, also with conflicted feelings, I have high regard for Henry Czerny, who is the epitome, or perhaps society’s stereotype, of a chief executive. Czerny, who delivered a powerful performance as a pederast in John N Smith’s 1992 “The Boys of St. Vincent,” has a lesser role here but his depiction of the family’s leader is compelling. Best of all, Samara Weaving, whom we have seen in Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” about a virus that causes white collar office workers to act out their worst impulses, is perfect for the role. She starts out in her bridal dress, a long white gown, innocent in the ways of people whose riches she could only imagine. She reflects the tension that all feel, with a terrific depiction of fear, shaking, breathing hard, tearing her dress to allow her to run, then becomes an angel of vengeance.

The visuals are great. An estate with wall paintings of ancestors becomes symbolic of the home of the super-rich, though weighed down by a pact with which only some are enthusiastic with others conflicted. The music, which includes sections of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, is perfect. There is one serious weakness, found in Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s freshman feature screenplay. The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight which has served as the highbrow companion of 20th Century Fox, has the visual quality of its traditional art-house fare. But the dialogue, with its incessant use of the f-word and the s-word, is vulgar, not warranted except to draw in those moviegoers who never get tired of the profanity used well beyond its function in the movies. Screenplays are important: some consider writers, not directors, to be the most important elements of a movie. The juvenile language amid the paintings of the masters and a soundtrack that includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is incompatible.

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

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

TEL AVIV ON FIRE – movie review

Samsa Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriter: Sameh Zoabi, Dan Kleinman
Cast: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yaniv Biton
Screened at: Cohen Media Group, NYC, 7/11/19
Opens: August 2, 2019 in New York and Los Angeles

Tel Aviv On Fire Poster Sizes 11x17" 16x24" 24x36" 32x48"

Think of the most talked-about rivalry within a country today. Israel has a Jewish majority and a Muslim minority and, to my knowledge, has blessed far too few intermarriages between the groups. In fact if you set up a TV program with a proposed marriage between the clans, you might get little support from either side. But in “Tel Aviv on Fire,” such an arrangement is possible because in TV soap operas, anything can happen. Sameh Zoabi, co-writer and director, gives us a light comedy that spoofs soap operas with their far-fetched plots and more importantly treats the possibility of a marriage between a Jewish general and an Arab spy. You might consider this the kind of story that would not gain prominence from either side, but “Tel Aviv on Fire” was not only showcased at the 34th Haifa Film Festival but garnered a best actor award for a Palestinian actor. Zoabi is in his métier on the subject of cultural divisions, having directed “Under the Same Sun,” a story about two businessmen from opposite tribes set up a solar energy company, and “Man Without a Cell Phone” about modernization coming to a Palestinian village.

In “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam Abbas (Kais Nahef) serves as a low level movie production assistant living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah. He’s a good-natured slacker given a job by his producer uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawahlha). He is fluent in Hebrew and charged with correcting the way characters on a soap opera speak. Because of his low status, his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Alhady) is not interested, which motivates Salam with the goal of impressing her. When a clueless Salam is given the job of screenwriter for the soap, he has his chance to become Maryam’s hero but lacks the talent for writing.

The soap being satirized, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is lightly anti-Zionist but not to the extent that would alert Israeli censors. The cheesy soap-opera plot finds Marwan (Ashraf Farah) training Tala (Lubna Azabal) to be a spy, to use the name Rachel, and acquire military secrets held by General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef Sweid). The episodes are not yet complete. As Salam is writing, he is stopped at a checkpoint separating Ramallah from East Jerusalem by Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), who recalls that the soap is eagerly watched by both Arabs and Jews. The captain grabs the incomplete script from Samar, making his own suggestions and even insisting that the captain’s script be utilized (and his portrait held on a shelf in the background). The captain wants his family to be impressed that he knows how the story will proceed and insists that Tala and Edelman fall in love and marry.

While this looks as obvious as any soap would be, the entire film is full of surprises, unpredictable right until a sudden coup de théâtre in the final seconds. The entire movie is filled with ironic humor, not the kind that seeks belly-laughs but goes for more subtle, satiric notes. While the entire ensemble performs nicely—probably having to go through may takes as they involuntarily smile at the ironies while acting—you can see why Kais Nahef would take away a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival while Haifa’s 34th International Film Festival awarded “Tel Aviv on Fire” best film and best screenplay.  Nahef exudes loser  authenticity, turning the tide and winning the respect and affection of his ex-girlfriend Maryam. This is one of the best comedies to come out of the Middle East in recent times.

In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

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

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

STUBER – movie review

20th Century Fox
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Tripper Clancy
Cast: Kumal Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/2/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

Stuber Poster 2019 Movie Dave Bautista Kumail Nanjiani Film Print 24x36" 27x40" - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

Nobody expects “Downton Abbey” or “Last Year in Marienbad” to open in the summer. We expect movies to take in our air conditioning with violence, with sitcom romances, maybe a few Marvel Studio entries. But “Stuber” represents a new low even for a July opening. It has the violence, the comedy, even a romance of sorts, but the funny parts aren’t, the violence leans toward the non-stop, the romance involves one of the principals emailing a woman he’s been dating, the woman virtually harassing him to come right over and they’ll “have sex.”

Co-star Karachi-born Kumal Nanjiani is best known as a stand-up comedian and for his role in “The Big Sick.” Time magazine calls him one of the hundred most influential people in the world, presumably because he is Pakistani-American, and newscasts rarely focus on Pakistan as one of the world’s centers for comedy. “The Big Sick” deals with cultural barriers; Nanjiani co-wrote that film with his wife Emily Gordon. This time, however, he faces off with a big guy who insists “I’m not white” the difference being of personality rather than ethnicity. Vic (Dave Bautista), a cop, is obsessed with finding and bringing to justice a drug dealer, Teijo (Iko Uwais) who killed his partner during one of the several fight scenes in the film.

The never-ending set-up for jokes takes off from Vic’s Lasik eye surgery, which leaves him legally blind for a day and obviously affects his ability to catch the drug dealers. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets him up with a phone app to allow him to spend the day Teijo-hunting, but Vic, a virtual techno-phobe, instead hails an Uber driven by Stuber (Kumal Nanjiani), which is not his real name but a combination of “Stu” and “Uber.” The two share a fragile bond: if Stu does not do what the cop says, he may die at the hands of the criminals. Even worse, he will get a one-star review on Yelp, which could sink his career, as he had received a stack of one-star comments from racist passengers.

Believe it or not, in this comedy based on physical violence that has people slammed into walls, shot at, racing around to catch up with Teijo, there is a sentimental core. Two people who only intermittently show themselves not to be dumb as doornails advise each other on dealing with significant others. Stu is in love with Becca, a friend with benefits (Betty Gilpin), but is afraid to declare his secret love for the lass. Vic lets Stu know how to get around the dilemma. To square away an obligation, Vic is required to listen to Stu’s cajoling: Vic does not pay enough attention to his daughter, a sculptor, who in one scene has opened a show, her work going far over her dad’s head.

This road-and-buddy moves along the two drive around California, hitting spots in Koreatown and Compton among other areas. A struggle in a veterinary office, in which Vic winds up adopting a pit bull, does not lead to an arrest, and police captain McHenry may be other than she seems. The story, which lacks anything in the way of nuance and fills the screen with the kind of violence that some audiences are unable to get enough of, may remind you of those Amazon reviewers who say “I would have given this product zero stars if I could.”

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

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


STAN & OLLIE – movie review


Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/26/18
Opens: December 28, 2018

Stan & Ollie Movie Poster

Even if you read the gossip magazines like “People” with news about divorces, births, miscarriages, and off-set fights, you may still think that actors do not have personal lives. Or maybe you believe that in the personal lives, they act in the same manner as they do on the big screen. Take the example of Laurel and Hardy; i.e., Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). During their skits—and they had quite a few during their long careers on the stage and screen—Laurel would play the simpleton while Hardy would be the more sophisticated one who’d look with condescension on his teammate. Never mind that Oliver Hardy was fat, and that the excess weight would contribute to heart problems that found him losing 100 pounds, down to 138 in his final year. And that Stan Laurel was slimmer, handsomer, and a writer. Both were klutzy on stage, but to paraphrase George Orwell, some people are klutzier than others with Laurel having to take guff from Hardy regularly. To prove the point, along comes “Stan & Ollie,” made by the Scottish-born director Jon S. Baird. Baird is known mostly for TV episodes but he did have two other feature films: “Filth,” about a corrupt junkie cop with bipolar disorder, and “Cass,” about an orphaned Jamaican baby raised by a white couple in a white neighborhood. Interesting stuff, offbeat like Baird’s current feature.

Baird’s “Stan & Ollie” does spend time reviving the stage shtick, concentrating at first on exposition with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and their first pic together in 1921. In 1953 their careers looked ready to be wrapped up during a tour of Britain and Ireland playing to disappointing numbers at the box office in the UK countryside. Yet they sprang back to life in London drawing a full house of laughing, applauding, and greatly appreciating the duo that they remember so well from the films and stage appearances of the past. They owe much to the marketing savvy of their British promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).

Much is owed in this movie to the make-up team, twenty-one people, each concentrating on getting John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan to be the spit-and-image of Laurel and Hardy. Reilly did not have to gain 40 pounds as Christian Bale did to play the lead role in “Vice.” Instead he was given a prosthetic double chin along with the padded belly while others in the make-up department styled hair, special effects teeth, contact lenses, leaving some work for the mould maker and silicone technician. Solid supporting roles come from Shirley Henderson as wife Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as wife Ida Kataeva Laurel. The two women add to the comic touches; Henderson with her squeaky voice and our visual disbelief of being a foot or more shorter and much slimmer than Reilly; Arianda showing off her Russian accent and her assistance with her husband’s drinking problem which she solves by grabbing each glass he picks up and drinking the liquid herself.

Laurel and Hardy did not always get along in their private lives though they seem to be as close as conjoined twins, traveling with each other, and dining together with their wives. They are savvy enough not to break up like so many duos who have always performed better as a team, though Ollie resented that Stan went on to act in a movie without him while Oliver was stuck in a contract. Their bond is shown most when Ollie collapses with a heart condition and later dies. Stan refuses all offers to perform without his favorite partner though he continues to serve as a comedy writer.

The movie is a genial one filled, if not so much by the belly laughs that Laurel and Hardy evoked throughout their careers, then with gentle humor. We may smile rather than laugh, but nothing will stop us in the audience from doffing out caps to the duo that was named in a poll of UK comedians “the seventh best comedy team ever.”

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

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

ALL ABOUT NINA – movie review


The Orchard
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Eva Vives
Screenwriter:  Eva Vivas
Cast:  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Clea DuVll, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/29/18
Opens: September 28, 2018
All About Nina - Poster Gallery
Life is easy.  Comedy is hard.  Does Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the title role prove the theory?  Yes and no.  Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at first discovers the converse: that life is hard but comedy is easy.  She is having an affair with Joe, (Chace Crawford), a married cop, with whom she has sex multiple times but who slaps her around.  “He’s a cop. What did you think?” is more or less the way Nina describes the relationship.   She loves the sex.  She may even like the brutality.  We find out why later, near the conclusion of the film, but early on she has to get away from this guy. She moves to L.A. to escape and find a new life while continuing as a stand-up comic.

“All About Nina” is anchored by a powerhouse performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears in virtually every frame, an actress well known to moviegoers for such pics as Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” where her character is held in a shelter by two men who claim that the world is falling victim to a chemical attack.  For her part, director Eva Vives has dabbled in experimental themes such as her recent “Swiss Army Man,” about a guy stranded in a desert island who befriends a dead body, moving on his way to get home.  “All About Nina” is not so unconventional but then again Vives is able to evoke a nuanced performance from Winstead in a story that begins as a comedy featuring Nina delivering sex-based shtick in a comedy club, and concludes with her coming to terms with her demons by exposing them to an audience  at the risk of her career.

After Nina moves in with her agent’s Mexican-American friend Lake (Kate del Castillo), a meeting that provides fodder for some comic touches, she meets Rafe (rapper Common, who has some 60 film credits), whose shaved head, full beard, and gentle demeanor may just bring Nina out of her funk She is able to spend time with a guy rather than write off all her boyfriends as one-night stands.  Continuing on her path toward a more secure career, she auditions with Comedy Prime’s boss Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges), a man who could launch a career beyond just comedy corners, but must compete against women for the one female shot in the show.

(Some may find it surprising that comedy houses like New York’s Comedy Central consider men to be funnier than women, even while we note that Nina is able to out-raunch the best of them in a motor-mouthed, sometimes hilarious patter about bodily functions.)

If Winstead is at the top of her game, Common is no slouch as Rafe, his gentle way of talking (surprising for the contractor he alleges he is) is not feeding her a line—knowing that a cynical Nina is familiar with the best of them.  It’s difficult to believe that a woman whose deep-seated problems, not discussed even with women friends, could lose her fear of intimacy with any male, but both the days she spends with Rafe and her final shot when performing at L.A.’s most important comedy house are able to exorcise her demons.  What’s more they propel Mary Elizabeth Winstead into the elite circle that may well consider her performance by various film groups right up to the Oscars.

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

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

LOVE, GILDA – movie review


CNN Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa D’Apolito
Cast: Chevy Chase, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Melissa McCarthy, Lorne Michaels, Paul Shaffer, Cecily Strong, Laraine Newman, Rose Abdoo Alan Zweibel
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, Sept. 10, 2018
Opens: September 21, 2018
Love, Gilda Movie Poster
Life is easy. Comedy is hard. That’s an old saying that brings to mind many exceptions wherein comedy is easy but life is hard.  Think of Robin Williams, the funniest guy around.  Just looking at him can make an audience smile.  “Good Morning Vietnam.”  “Mrs. Doubtful.”  And no slouch at serious stuff either. Yet he hanged himself.  Now think of Anthony Bourdain.  Not a comic, though many of his episodes are humorous.  Had lunch with President Obama.  Had a job to die for, traveling the world, eating up a storm. Top rated shown on CNN.  He hanged himself as well.  What does this show?  Simply that you never go what’s going on in private lives.  Actors and comedians who are exuberant on stage are melancholic or downright depressed off, which may be why so many have been addicted to hard drugs.

Now think of Gilda Radner.  She was a charter member of Saturday Night Live.  She was as popular with the stars as she was with her audiences, dating many, until she went head over heels for Gene Wilder, the true love of her life.  Yet she had eating problems, her weight disappearing below the 100 pounds mark.  She was finally rescued by Wilder, who got her interested in again, which by extension could mean that people who starve themselves are missing something important in their lives, or rather, someone important.

Lisa D’Apolito, who appeared once as an actress in “Goodfellas” heads off into directing territory in her freshman work, “Love, Gilda” is not shy of depicting the sadness in the comic’s life, ending with Gilda Radner’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of forty-three.  Most of the doc, which features Radner in a number of funny characterizations, is a joy to watch.  We can see how Radner, one of the great funny people of a past generation brought up on the beginnings of SNL (Saturday Night Live), notes that the best way to cover up sadness is with comedy, just as a good laugh by any of us can dispel a host of demons.  She loved her audiences, whether putting on a one-woman show on Broadway (we see a full house, orchestra, balcony, second tier and above) giving her a standing ovation, one which must have gone far in giving Radner confidence given her fear that an audience on the Great White Way might be bored without a full cast.

The talking heads are folks familiar to most of us, at least to those above the age of twelve, their
commentary woven well into the story so we do not have to face the prospect of watching guys sitting in their chairs and pontificating.  The movie is loaded with clips of the title character in a variety of shows as the marionette wife of the fictitious Howdy Doody; as the bimbo-ish Roseanne
Roseannadanna; as the woman who gets fired from her job in a burger joint because customers did not  like a sample  of her abundant  hair with their fries.

Director D’Apolito finds that Rander’s lifelong melancholy may have been caused in her youth at the death of her father who died  while she was still young, the man who encouraged her pantomime without which she may have become an office worker or a nurse, catering to a relatively small group of people rather than to the tens of millions who watched her on TV and in the theaters.  Archival films show her to be a girl who refused to take life seriously, to laugh because it lightened her spirit and because she would do anything to make others laugh as well.

The film opened the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, perhaps because it was the ideal pick in which forty-six percent of the films are directed by women.

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

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