ABOUT A TEACHER – movie review

ABOUT A TEACHER
Hanan Harchol Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hanan Harchol
Screenwriter: Hanan Harchol
Cast: Leslie Hendrix, Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Aurora Leonard, Kate Eastman, Yan Xi, Hanan Harchol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/26/20
Opens: April 7, 2020

About a Teacher

As a guy who spent a 32-year career in the high school classroom, I sometimes wondered why there are far more movies about police than about teachers. Think of “Training Day,” “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Untouchables,” and the best of all, “Serpico.” After all only a small fraction of us have had careers in law enforcement and most of us were never in real trouble, but we’ve all been in classrooms and we should we fascinated by stories about teachers, comparing the movie pedagogues with our own. Wait. On second thought, there are at least one hundred movies about classrooms that are considered among the best, including “Election,” “Chalk,” “The English Teacher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “School of Rock,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” So maybe our own experience in classrooms is mirrored by quite a number of shows about our favorite mentors and our worst nightmares.

Now comes what the marketing people might call a feel good movie. It’s “About a Teacher,” and though happily not a documentary, it follows the experience of an award-winning instructor who felt like quitting during his first year in an inner-city school. Since his favorite word is “perseverance,” he struggled through the first two years, was almost fired before beginning even a second semester, and went on to guide students into using the imparted knowledge to win many thousands of dollars in awards from festivals and the like.

Writer-director Hanan Harchol also has a bit role of “Mr. Caldwell,” an assistant principal who in real life is the great man who helped create careers of his rambunctious students in a tough school. The title character is played by Dov Tiefenbach, known to his students as Mr. Harchol, or just Mister, or Mr. H. At the same time Harchol’s fellow teachers call each other Mr. or Ms., rarely by first names, which in my experience might have been the case before the mid-1960s when we had to wear jackets and ties but now just first names and a t-shirt are de rigueur. The current dress code is good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was good enough for me—and for Hanan.

You would think that Hanan Harchol would have no problem even from the first day since, after all, he is not teaching algebra, which might be of little interest to teens in almost any high school, but instructs them in film making. Here the kids have something to do with their hands. They don’t sit still facing the front of the room listening to long lectures or trying to participate in subjects they can’t really get their minds into. Instead, Harchol faces the indifference so dismaying in “Precious,” in which that title character, sitting in a history class where students are simply talking to each other and ignoring the instructor, bops a kid on the head with a notebook, demanding that the whole class pay attention.

Because of the discipline problems facing Harchol during his first year, he gets into frequent tiffs with Ms. Murray (Leslie Hendrix), the department chair, who could easily fit into a role as Ilsa Koch, the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald concentration camp. She will turn out to have a heart of gold, though, which makes us recall that people wear masks to cover their real feelings and attitudes.

So the kids are a problem. When one of them refuses to turn off his computer, Harchol moves to turn it off himself. The youngster grabs him by the wrist, inflaming the educator who yells “Get out,” notwithstanding that at a previous time, several of his pupils are roaming around the hall leading to an admonishing by an administrator for sending someone out of the classroom without supervision—which could make him lose his license. Seeking a mentor (not realizing that Ms. Murray has been just that all along), he consults a young, attractive Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard) whose algebra class quietly works at their desks, seeking to learn what she does to get such attention. After receiving feedback from her, he is startled to hear her ask him a key question: “Do you like the kids?” Aha. A genuine affection for your charges will be felt by them, and you’ve won half the battle.

I related strongly to the discussions in the faculty lounge, which features the burnt-out Mr. McKenna (Tyler Hollinger), whom Ana Martinez calls an a**hole. There is considerable grousing when the department chair conducts a meeting, telling the men and women about the demands of the state: lesson plan every day, suitable for inspection. Call each parent of every failing student. Keep the pace: do not fall behind, spending too much time on one project.

Inevitably Harchol cannot avoid taking his problems home, where his sometimes bored wife has to listen to her husband’s tales of woe when all she wants to do is to get some sleep. But when they clash on whether to start a family, you might think the marriage can go belly-up just as Harchol may get fired from his job. Harchol notes several times that he received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools, which makes one wonder why he did not opt to get a gig at least in a community college. It’s not as though he carried with him a liking for teens, so what’s the deal? Since the story is based closely on real life, I would like to know the answer, especially since hell, the maximum pay right now in New York City public schools, one of the highest paying municipalities in the country, is $119,000, but you have to work 25 years and have a Master’s plus 60 credits to get there. A lawyer getting a fairly decent job right out of law school can make that at age twenty-four. So can a pharmacist. So can a lot of people.

Harchol deals with individual problems of some of his charges, including one girl who had been “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend from the age of five to the age of nine, and another who sleeps in class because he has two jobs after school and has to look after a child, though he is only seventeen. In the end comes a Hallmark statement by Ms. Murry, who notes (decades before the coronavirus business), that we have little control over many things, but that “the only thing we have is the ability to give away.”

If you do not expect the movie to be as lively as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or chaotic and violent like “To Sir With Love,” or as wacky as “Teachers” (an escaped mental patient serves a day as a substitute), or as horrific as “Never Let Me Go,” you should have a good time enjoying the inevitable rise of Harchol from a miserable failure to brilliant educator. No, that’s not a spoiler: you already know the trajectory. It’s quite well played by Dov Tiefenbach, though at the age of 38 he seems long in tooth to perform as a beginning teacher. He has particularly interesting conversations in a coffee shop with his dad (Tibor Feldman), who makes fun of his son’s gig entertaining restaurant guests with his guitar but is proud of the lad’s choice to be a teacher.

The students, who may be improving much of the dialogue, were actual pupils of Harchol who came back to play themselves at age seventeen. As their teacher said to them many time, “good job.” This is Hanan Harchol’s freshman film, though he may be known to some at the helm of the short, animated TV episodes of “Jewish Food for Thought.”We look forward to his next venture.

112 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS – movie review

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliza Hittman
Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/18/20
Opens: March 13, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

In her third feature movie, writer-diector Eliza Hittman continues to explore people who are vulnerable, youths who are missing the proper guidance in life and who are put into positions that they would not have found themselves if they had the proper direction. In the director’s “It Felt Like Love,” a young woman dreams of emulating the sexual exploits of a more experience person, putting herself into a dangerous situation. In “Beach Rats” a teen “experiments” with drugs and looks to meet older men. Now with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hitmann focuses on “Autumn” (Sidney Flanigan), a seventeen-year-old girl who must deal with a pregnancy that she never wanted but with the good luck to have a friend like Skylar (Talia Ryder), who acts more like Autumn’s older
sister willing to go the distance with Autumn during a difficult time in the younger girl’s life.

After Trump was elected president largely with the support of rural Americans, voters in small towns and farms complained that city people consider them racists, sexists, homophobic and the like. We would like to think that this is true, yet as Hitmann portrays small-town Pennsylvania, at least through the eyes of people on the cusp of mature adulthood, a large number of these Americans are what they say they are not. For example, when Autumn is performing in a talent show, one guy yells out “slut” in the middle of her song, and the attendees including even Autumn’s young parents, appear to think nothing of it.

Autumn, who appears not to realize that she is pregnant until eighteen weeks have passed since her last menstrual period, tries to self-abort the fetus by taking a slew of Vitamin C pills, then punches her belly without much result save for some large bruises. Stealing some money from the supermarket with the help of her cousin, she takes a bus to New York, not even considering that she would need to get a round-trip ticket, that she lacks money for a hotel, that she would have to stay in New York two nights. On the bus Skylar is hit on by a young passenger (Théodore Pellerin), who will try to encourage Skylar to go with him “downtown” and who the girls will later exploit for money.

In this slice-of-life drama, Hittman takes us first to a rural clinic, the agent explaining that there are alternatives to abortion, that there are people who would gladly adopt the future child. Since it’s too late for Autumn to get an abortion in her area, she and Skylar take two buses toward New York’s Port Authority Terminal, going to Planned Parenthood on 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and back up to a Manhattan facility which would be able to conduct the procedure.

Autumn has no particular support from her parents, and in fact by showing us the youthful age of the father and mother in the audience of the talent show, Hitmann may be making the point that they too had babies while they were teens. Hélène Louvart films all in 16mm, from the broken-down areas of rural Pennsylvania to the chaos of New York.

Here is an ideal slice of life drama. No melodrama, no frantic behavior, with Autumn’s emotions showing only when she began to cry during a social worker’s interview. At that meeting, she is asked a series of questions such as “Were you ever forced to have sex when you did not want to” for which she needed to answer “Never, rarely, sometimes or always.” In Hitmann’s hands, the two young performers, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder relate to each other as though they knew each other for a decade. But even to her cousin and best friend, Autumn never opens up. She does not tell her even that she’s pregnant, just that she has “cramps.” These are inarticulate people, the sort that just might vote for politicians who do not necessary offer much but who are grand showmen who can entertain and who do not evoke articulate responses from their audience.

101 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

WAITING FOR ANYA
Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ben Cookson
Screenwriter: Ben Cookson, Michael Morpurgo, Toby Torlesse adapting Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Sadi Frost, Jean Reno, Nicolas Rowe, Thomas Kretschmann, Frederick Schmidt, Gilles Marini, Tómas Lemarquis, Elsa Zylberstein, Joséphine de la Baume
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/23/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

Jean Reno, Sadie Frost, Anjelica Huston, Thomas Kretschmann, Urs Rechn, Nicholas Rowe, Elsa Zylberstein, William Abadie, Tómas Lemarquis, Gilles Marini, Joséphine de La Baume, Phin Glynn, Frederick Schmidt, Raj Awasti, Noah Schnapp, and Lukas Sauer in Waiting for Anya (2020)

Geography is destiny. If you’re born in America or Canada you have less chance of starving to death than if you come from Burkina Faso or Eritrea. If you’re born in Western Europe, you are not much of a candidate for malaria or diphtheria as you would be if you your village is near Mogadishu or Djouba. And if you’ve been privileged to be baptized a Catholic in Sioux City, you are probably not going to be victim of anti-Semites.

However! If you have the distinct disadvantage of entering the world in Germany or Poland during the 1930s and remain there despite warnings, you are in deep defecation. Once the German borders closed, Jews remaining there or in any of that country’s occupations will inevitably be shot or gassed, perhaps tortured in a concentration camp and hanged. So what to do if that’s your state of affairs? You’ve got to forget about your house, your clothing, your bank account, and hightail it into a nearby more tolerant country like Albania and Bulgaria. Ben Cookson’s narrative drama “Waiting for Anya” deals with one hero who escorted a Jewish family over the Pyrenees to safety in (Fascist, ironically) Spain.

Despite how gruesome a movie on this subject looks, you probably should not worry about taking your children, even as young as eight. The movie, like the movie of the same name written by the British laureate author Michael Morpurgo, could not be described as “Holocaust 101,” because that would imply a college level course. This is more like middle school material which might be laughed at by some adults who think that this is a mature film, but clearly the dialogue serves as easily digestible for kids. (Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse” is about a horse fighting in France who longs for the return of his human companion.)

In his sophomore feature, director Ben Cooksen sets his film in the French village of Lescun during the early 1940s and filmed who-knows-where because the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are clueless about the breathtaking “Sound of Music”-style mountain range, “Waiting for Anya” centers on Jo (Noah Schnapp), a shepherd in his mid-teens, impressionable, a lad who is obviously not thinking of where can find a date for Saturday night. Why not? He is too busy risking his life to save Jews. Since he and his family—most notably his grandpere (Jean Reno) and a no-nonsense widow, Horcada (Anjelica Huston)—await the return of Jo’s dad (Gilles Marini) from a prisoner of war camp. At the same time Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jew, had escaped from a train taking his fellow Jews to a concentration camp, not before depositing his little girl Anya through a window into a bus. (Benjamin’s escape is among the less credible points in the movie, as he simply leaves the sealed train, hiding under it until it departs.) Benjamin hangs out hidden in the village, awaiting the return of Anya, who had departed in a different direction by bus.

Though the southern French village is under the Vichy regime, not directly occupied by the Nazis, a group of soldiers under a Lieutenant (Tómas Lemarguis) are guarding the frontier to prevent Jews from escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain. Jo takes time from supervising the sheep and feeding the pigs to make sure a band of Jewish survivors stay hidden in a cave, all means for death (including Jo) if discovered.

Aside from the sheep and pigs, “Waiting for Anya” features a dog, perhaps a Border Collie which is the breed best suited for herding sheep; and a bear, which threatens the life of Jo in one scene. Though the whole town are in on protecting the Jews, there is also one good German, a corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) who may the only one from his country who knows where the Jews are hiding but says nothing. He endears himself to Jo, acting as an unusual mentor to the boy.

A lively performance from Noah Schnapp who is 15 in real life and can be seen on the Netflix series “Stranger Things” should captivate the youngsters in the movie audience with his audacity, his desire to learn (even if it’s from one of the Bosch), and his high ethical conduct. Think of similar Holocaust adventures marketed to kids as well as adults such as “Life is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (which makes you think that the young son of a concentration camp commandant chats amiably with an inmate on the other side of barbed wire). Don’t guffaw at the simple dialogue and the sentiment projected herein, now that you know that Morpugo’s novel is recommended for kids, its scary cover noting that “they only have one chance to escape.”

As Holocaust survivors die off and as teens are riveted to the dumb-phones, many young people have no idea what the word “Holocaust” means. This movie serves as a decent primer. (Hey! It’s not just kids who are uninformed. Even some adults today think that Trump is being impeached for cutting a devil’s bargain with Czechoslovakia.)

Everybody speaking English.

110 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

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

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

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – movie review

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en fej)
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noemi Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/4/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Now that Céline Sciamma’s film has been tapped by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Cinematography, you may be even more curious to find out just how good the movie is. Be assured: it is excellent in every way, from the unusually authentic acting, to the Pinteresque pauses that define the two principal characters’ dialogue; from the composition of the scenes, each one serving as a potential painting in itself; to the remarkable isolation of the scenery shot on location in the French province of Brittany. Sciamma follows up on her previous film “Tomboy” about a ten-year-old girl who presents herself to other children as a boy named Mikhael with her current entry, about two women who are not tomboys but who broaden their concept of sexuality in similar ways.

The title of the film is also that of a painting executed by Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and depicts the sexual awakening of a previously closeted woman who had spent her early years in a monastery. The action, which takes place in 1760, opens as a number of men row Marianne out to the island, complete with her painting gear—which she recovers when it had left the boat and is floating in the water by jumping right in and taking it back. Except for an additional segment of the film that shows bewigged men looking at paintings in a museum, there is no sign of masculinity to be found. This is strictly a study of women, focusing on the way that a liberated Marianne and an isolated woman about her age are ablaze with desire, though spending a fair amount of time before throwing off resistance to action.

How did this lesbian relationship begin? Marianne, who makes her living by receiving commissions from rich and titled women for portraits, shows up at the home of a countess (Valeria Golino), observing a portrait of her sponsor painted by Marianne’s father years back when the countess was a young woman. Yet the countess’ daughter Hèloise, having refused to sit for her own portrait, is reacting to the suicide of her sister who had been pledged by her mother to a rich Milanese man. To ease the way for Hèloise’s eventual surrender to the proposed painting, Marianne has been told to pretend she is merely a walking companion, during which time she understands that Hèloise is enraged by the thought of marriage to a man she had not met.

In a subplot, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the housekeeper who does embroidery, is pregnant, desperate enough to abort the fetus to go to an abortionist who uses an undisclosed poison to separate the unborn from its mother.

Gratefully the soundtrack is almost bereft of music, the kind of distraction that ruins so many Hollywood movies whose directors do not trust their audience to know when to cry and when to feel joy. As the two women go about walks on the beach, heading back to the quarters to work on the portrait, they are filled with desire. Hèloise begins to ask Marianne whether she had ever “known love,” asks how it feels, and yes, succumbs to the mutual urges of the two women. Their tsunami of forbidden emotions is palpable, the two offering a shower of sparks to display their mutual love. At one point Hèloise even allows her dress to catch afire, taking her good time to put it out.

“Portrait” received not only a best cinematography award from the prestigious NY Film Critics Circle but has been blessed by a best screenplay citation at a Cannes Festival. Photography and screenplay and direction aside, nothing would have come of this film were it not for the passion of the two actresses evoking forbidden love at a time that might surprise moviegoers who believed that lesbianism was created in the 20th century.

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

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

LITTLE JOE – movie review

LITTLE JOE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

 

Take a ride on the New York subway. Look around at the people surrounding you while pretending you’re looking at your smartphone. Do they seem particularly happy? If not, do they seem really depressed? Not usually. Would you be surprised to find out that a large number of your fellow New Yorkers are taking anti-depressants? In other words, people who take Prozac or the older medications like Elavil are acting relatively normal in public. They are not “different” people zombied out by their medication from the way they were before swallowing the pills, but Jessica Hausner, who directs and co-wrote “Little Joe” appears to warn us that Big Pharma is out to get our money and willing to take away our personalities as well. Then again we don’t really know what her point is since nothing in the story takes a firm stand.

The people in this film who have become affected by a feel-good flower have not particularly changed their character. They are not pod people. Nor are they carrying on as though they have just downed a couple of ecstasy pills at an all-night party. The changes that they undergo are subtle, which makes Hausner’s treatment a lot more nuanced than that taking place in your typical horror movie. By contrast think of how different they become in Jordan Peele’s excellent “Get Out.”

In one sense, this is good. “Little Joe” does not go over the top with horror tropes but rather makes the changes in personality almost too subtle to notice. On the other hand, since the people do not change much, what’s the big deal? Is this enough of a warning that we are too dependent on happiness pills? Not by my reckoning.
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Vienna-born director Hausner, whose terrific “Lourdes” in 2009 focuses on a wheelchair-bound woman attaining a miracle by going to Lourdes, films in Krems an de Donau, Vienna and Liverpool putting Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) front and center. The pixie-ish redhead is dedicated to her work in Planthouse Biotechnologies currently experimenting on a flower whose aroma can make people happy, provided that they are affectionate with the plant and water it regularly. In fact the hundreds of flowers laid out in the opening of the film do appear to respond well to human beings, opening their petals as though they were Venus flytraps that have just digested a scrumptious meal of caterpillars.

However the plant has not yet been approved by the necessary government agencies leading Karl, the boss (David Wilmot) to warn his crew about excess optimism. In violation of the rules, Alice takes a plant home, one of a species that she has named Little Joe in honor of her 13-year-old son Joe (Kit Connor). She becomes alarmed when Kit, who has never expressed a wish to live with his father who is Alice’s ex-husband, falls under the influence of Little Joe and suddenly wants to move out and live with his dad. Is he changing because he is going through puberty, or because of the influence of the petals?

For her part Alice is being pursued romantically by her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), rejecting one of his advance but reconsidering later. Is that change of heart an effect of the Little Joe? We in the audience need to interpret that and several other aspects of the movie. As we can see, the biotech workers who have been in contact with the flowers have not changed, although they may, like those of us who take antidepressants, be trying to act their regular selves. If Géraldine Bajard, who co-wrote the script with the director, wants us to see noticeable transformations, why be so subtle as though shrugging off all the melodramas inherent in other sci-fi movies?

One character, Bella (Kerry Fox), had returned to work in the lab having been on leave after a suicide attempt. She has a nice sheepdog which she brings to the lab, a sweet, obedient fella who had suddenly turned vicious, ignoring Bella’s commands and threatening to bite her. She decides: “This is not my dog.” Is the dog acting strange because he senses that Bella is not the same woman? And why isn’t Bella, despite her mental illness, made as happy and content as the others?

These questions may be to the credit of the writers and director, or on the other hand may be so inconsistent and vague to warrant audience confusion and frustration. Finally is it supposed to be terrible that depressed people change their personalities for the better under the influence of Big Pharma? At least one person is happy even without the use of Little Joe, and that would be Emily Beecham who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.

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

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

MIDNIGHT FAMILY – movie review

MIDNIGHT FAMILY
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen
Cast: Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Josué Ochoa, Manuel Hernández
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Midnight Family Movie Poster

Question: When is an ambulance chaser not a hungry lawyer? Answer: When it is another ambulance. In Mexico City where the population is a hefty nine million, there are only forty-five certified, government vehicles to transport people to hospitals during emergencies. What’s more, the government hospitals are not as equipped as the private ones. So what happens to a victim of a car crash? What is a baby falls from a window and lands four stories later with a concussion? How do Mexicans pay for their rides in an ambulance, much less have money left over for a private hospital? In some respects “Midnight Family” takes the side of capitalism. Government is limited. Enter the private sphere where ambitious drivers chase accident victims and often try to outrun competing ambulances.

Watch this documentary, for which Stanford graduate Luke Lorentzen, an Art History and Film major spent six months riding in the back of an ambulance. He observed the Ochoa family during that time to gain just eighty minutes of prime footage. By the time you complete the visit, you might move politically to left (put more pesos into the public sector so that Mexicans, like Scandinavians, Germans, French and British are not bankrupted by the health care industry), or you might move to the right (leave it to the private market and you will find enough people motivated by money to take up the slack). But politics aside, this is an exciting picture that does not overstate its welcome, a documentary that eschews the old tried-and-boring interview process, showing, rather than telling, about how Mexico City handles its patients in emergencies.

Before you begin to think about the ethics of the Ochoa family, the most mature being seventeen-year-old Juan, put yourself in the back seat of a private ambulance, at the spot where sits the pudgy, chips-eating small fry who might be of the next generation of ambulance chasers. You pick up a guy with a bullet in his foot, fully conscious, and complaining that the ropes keeping him in place are too tight: “My foot! I can’t take it any more!” Feel awfully sad when the mother of an infant who has fallen from the fourth story in the pleasant residential area that the Ochoas cover worries that her child will not survive. Most interesting is the case of a high-school student whose boyfriend socked her one and broke her nose, an incident that might have active moviegoers compare the scene to one in the film “Waves,” wherein an eighteen-year-old receives a life sentence for killing his girlfriend with a single punch to the head. The young woman, who sits up, worries that the trip will be expensive. She also asks for a hug to “calm me.”

If you can take your attention away from the awe-inspiring mileage tracked by the ambulance, nicely photographed by the director, you may consider some ethical issues. It seems clear that while the Ochoas are performing an important service that the government lacks the political will to handle, and that they often come out broke when their passengers have no money and no health insurance, they may be crossing some legal lines. For example, we don’t know whether the Ochoas are in a vehicle that is fully registered with the proper license plates on the back that could ensure the respect of the populace. We are not sure that they have all the legally required equipment, though Juan does put the car through a check.

Are they always driving their patients to the nearest hospital, or do they sometimes take them to a more distant building which can pay them more pesos? And is the money they receive from one private hospital a legal fee to which they are entitled, or is it a kickback? Is it right for the Ochoas to chase other private ambulances to such an extent that they risk mowing down pedestrians to cut off their rival paramedics and be first at the scene? Given that there really is no alternative to private ambulances that may skirt legal issues and that the family may often be transporting money-challenged accident victims that cannot pay for their services, the Ochoas are heroes. One way or another, you are urged to go along for the ride. And look both ways when you cross the street.

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

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