THE PAINTED BIRD – movie review

THE PAINTED BIRD
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vàclav Marhoul
Screenwriter: Vàclav Marhoul, from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski
Cast: Petr Kotlár Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/20
Opens: July 17, 2020

Harrowing World War II drama The Painted Bird gets a UK trailer ...

In “Leviathan” (1651) Thomas Hobbes calls life “solitary, nasty, brutish and short,” and “A war of every man against his neighbor.” Every picture of Hobbes shows an unsmiling man, looking disgusted, contemptuous, and constipated. Yet as we know after we lose our innocence that there is more than a smidgen of truth in such a pessimistic manifesto. Still, the dour philosopher may have smiled just once from his grave when the movie “The Painted Bird” was first shown in film festivals. Vàclav Marhoul wrote and directs the epic drama inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s book about a shattered post-war Europe, which Amazon calls the story of “a dark-haired, olive-skinned boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, wandering from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for.” (Kosinski committed suicide at the age of 57, his novel available on Amazon for under $14.)

“The Painted Bird,” which was the Czech Republic’s submission for the Academy Awards held in 2020 did not make the short list for Best International Film, but I would rate it as good as South Korea’s “Parasite.” The title is metaphorically taken from an event in which a painted bird, up for sale amid scores of others, is released and promptly killed by a flock flying hither and thither, because they apparently consider him “The Other.” The inability of people to respect those who are not like them, who look different or follow different customs did not die out after World War II but is a concept relevant today as we in America mourn the killing of African-America men by white police officers. The whole of “The Painted Bird,” showing human beings cruel to a cute and polite but mute young man abandoned by his parents is an allegorical tale. Therefore, take “The Painted Bird” as a journey of authorial cherry-picking that displays, with few exceptions, a society of people in war-torn Eastern Europe taking out the misery of their own lives on an innocent boy.

Written and directed by Vàclav Marhoul, whose “Tobruk” deals with a World War 2 battalion of Czech soldiers in the Libyan desert, “The Painted Bird” is seen from the point of view of young Joska (Petr Kotlár) in a startling breakthrough role. Joska wanders through Eastern Europe during the war, only occasionally running into action by German soldiers, Russian Cossacks and regular army, but his troubles come not much from fighting units but mostly from local peasants. The boy is mute throughout but is able to hear dialogue spoken in German, Russian, Czech, and what’s labeled Slavic Esperanto. For most of the running time, Joska, who is Jewish but rarely outed as such, is pleasant looking, obedient, polite, and seemingly able to put up with tortures of ordinary people either driven to hostility from the deprivations of the war or simply full of hate.

In the earlier part of his wanderings, he is picked up by a handful of ignorant peasants, the most gentle of whom calls him a vampire. He becomes enslaved by the superstitious hag. In the movie’s goriest scene, he witnesses a stolid, unsmiling Miller (Udo Kier) who at dinnertime overturns the table on a younger guest because he is convinced that the fellow has been staring with lust at his wife (Michaela Dolezalová). He gouges out the man’s eyes with a spoon and feeds them to the cat, who is too finicky to bother. A sympathetic Joska carries the eyes to the newly blind victim who is lying, sobbing by a tree, beckoning him to replace the eyes in his socket as though they are contact lenses. Later Hans (Stellan Skarsgård), a German soldier, is ordered to take the boy for a walk and shoot him, but Hans, one of the few sympathetic characters, orders Joska to run, firing two shots into the air. Another character who shows a rare humanity is a priest (Harvey Keitel), who takes the boy into his church, fixing him up with a crucifix, asking Garbos (Julian Sands), a pedophile, to take care of him. Bad decision.

In the picture’s most action-filled episode a group of Russian Cossacks gallop into a village, shooting the residents and torching the houses. We hope that no kid in the United States today has to go through what this pre-adolescent lad did—surviving rapes, in one situation thrown into a latrine filled with poop and in another forced by a sex-crazed young blond woman to perform fellatio on her.

“The Painted Bird” is only tangentially a Holocaust film, a subject that the Czech filmmakers know well since releasing “The Shop in Main Street” in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s 1965 “The Shop on Main Street,” in which a carpenter in a Nazi-occupied Slovak state is appointed Aryan Controller of a Jewish widow’s store. That picture won the International Film’s Oscar as did Jirí Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” two years later.

Opinions of “The Painted Bird” might vary from those who think the movie is little more than a relentless succession of tortures to those who, like me, consider it an epic drama in sharp black-and-white that both captures human beings acting in extremis during wartime and displaying irrational hated even here in America during a fragile era considered by some to be a relative peacetime.

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

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

THE TOBACCONIST – movie review

THE TOBACCONIST (Der trafikant)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nickolaus Leytner
Screenwriters: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, based on Robert Seethaler’s novel
Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/29/20
Opens: July10, 2020

Tobacconist-US-Poster-sm.jpg

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That is probably the best-known quote attributed to Dr. Sigmund Freud, meaning that you don’t have to look deeply into everything to understand; that a cigar is not always a symbol of what’s hiding inside every man’s pants. Now immerse yourself into the world of fiction. Think of a 17-year-old boy who confides to Freud that he simply does not understand love. “You don’t have to understand water. Just jump in,” replies the good doctor in Nickolaus Leytner’s period piece taking place in Vienna during the year 1938. Nickolaus Leytner, whose résumé is chock full of TV movies like “Die Stille danach” (how does a family live when its son has murdered five people and himself?), now directs “The Tobacconist,” from the Man Booker Prize-finalist novel of the same name by Robert Seethaler.

The movie is co-written by Klaus Richter, who wrote the screenplay about the rise and fall of actor Ferdinand Marian (who played the title character in the anti-Semitic “The Jew Suss”). “The Tobacconist” is both a coming of age story and a description of Vienna just before and during its occupation by Germany in 1938. While most Austrians after the war protested that they were victims of the occupation, the historical record (and this movie) indicates that many the German-speaking country welcomed the Nazi presence wholeheartedly.

In the film Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a 17-year-old boy, is forced by his promiscuous mother Margarete (Regina Fritsch) to leave their village after the middle-aged woman’s lover is electrocuted while swimming during a storm. (The opening scene is a gem.) Arriving there, he is employed by Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), the owner of a small tobacco shop and probably one of Margarete’s former lovers. Otto is an ardent anti-Nazi who has philosophic views about his main product. As he tells the easily impressed young apprentice, “A bad cigar is like horseshit… and a great cigar is the world.” (Given the state of the world today and in 1930s Europe, I would probably choose the bad cigar.) Otto welcomes Communists and Jews to the dismay of his neighbor the butcher, who, if he had the chance, would probably turn in both the vendor and Dr. Freud (Bruno Ganz in his last role) to the occupation.

The heart of the movie is the unlikely friendship of the young man with Dr. Freud. Though the father of psychoanalysis treats patients who can afford him, he freely gives advice to Franz, in love with an assertive Czech music hall dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova). Freud’s family urges him to leave Vienna for London, believing rightly that his life would be in danger if he remained.

The personal story involves a young man who might have remained naïve had he stayed in the village of Attersee and how his boss, who lost a leg in World War I, coached him on tobacco and life. The personal alternates with the political as a drama of a city that appears proudly to hang large Nazi flags on a government building turned into a Gestapo headquarters. Among the treasures of the film is a series of Franz’s dreams, all surreal as dreams tend to be, and exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer, filming in Germany, Austria and Italy. Aside from the filming, the highlight would have to be the strong performances by Johannes Krisch as the older tobacconist, a humanist who once rejected the business of a man who asked to buy a National Socialist newspaper; of the late Bruno Ganz, unrecognizable as the famous shrink who is both a fount of wisdom and fearful of his future under Nazism; and Simon Morzé as the young title figure, who learns to stand up to the Nazis like the neighboring butcher and to let go of a woman who would be anything but loyal to one mana.

In German with English subtitles.

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

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

THE LAST TREE – movie review

THE LAST TREE
ArtMattan Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shola Amoo
Screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/23/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

The Last Tree (2019) - IMDb

Distributed by Artmattan Films which boasts” films about the human experience of people of color,” “The Last Tree” is a coming of age story that focuses on the changes that form the boyhood and teen years of a British man with Nigerian roots. The drama is the second feature of Shola Amoo whose “A Moving Image,” about gentrification in Brixton, England, blurs the line between reality and fiction by incorporating real people affected by gentrification and who consider a young artist to be a symbol of a revitalization that excludes them.

In this latest project, the writer-director gives approximately equal time to Femi as a child (Tai Golding) and to him as a teen (Sam Adewunmi), hinting that we in the audience might take sides as to which incarnation is the more enjoyable. You can’t help noting that the young Femi is the more adorable fellow, his charm arising largely from the happy childhood he enjoys in a bucolic British suburb with Mary (Denise Black), a white foster parent. Femi fits in just fine with white friends his own age. We never find out why Yinka (Gbemisola Ilumel), his biological mother, could not take care of him, but unlike the foster children we hear about on the 6.30 news who had been taken in by exploitative women out for the money, this lad has clearly lucked out.

Too bad, like so many things, his halcyon home life takes a bad turn when his real mother, coming to see him for what is promised to be merely a visit, wants him back. You’ll think that Yinka lacks the stability to keep him for long, the boy remains in the less promising atmosphere of a London slum (“Careful—there’s pee,” warns his mother). After the passage of ten years, Femi, who spent years in what so many children can only dream about, has become sullen. He no longer has white friends, and Mace (Demmy Lapido), presumably a drug seller, has taken a shine to him, coaxing teen however reluctantly into joining a small gang.

Femi treats his mother like an enemy, not only for taking him away from a loving foster parent in a pleasant suburb, but also because she beats him if he does not take care of the house while she is away working as a cleaning woman. While he tries to avoid Mace—a rotund man with a ready smile—he alienates a few other locals by rescuing Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), bullied because of her dyed-blue braids and her studiousness. While his dedicated teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) takes time out to visit Femi at home, suspecting that he is ignoring his studies and is likely to drop out, the teacher is a good role model, telling the boy that he was not always a preppie and an old, boring teacher, but was once headed in the bad direction of his student.

Stil Williams sharply photographs the bucolic neighborhood, comparing it to the near slum of an inner city, and Segun Akinola’s music may swell at times but is not intrusive. In what amounts to a long coda that changes the tone of the picture, we find Femi and his mother abruptly in Lagos, Nigeria, where he meets his biological father. Though dad is a pastor, he is living in a house that bears comparison to New York’s Trump Tower with his golden staircase, polished marble floor, and enough space to take in a dozen foster children should he so desire. These final scenes are such a precipitous break, the story cries out for some explanation but never finds it.

It’s easy for us in the audience to relish Femi’s good luck as a child with a ready smile, we may find it difficult to empathize with the dour teen. Nonetheless, we leave the theater optimistic that Femi will soon “find” himself. Once that’s achieved, we need not worry about him.

English subtitles on the link that I used are superlative, clear, bold and easy to read, an important feature when those of so many movies and cheap and difficult to read.

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

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

SHIRLEY – movie review

SHIRLEY
Neon
Review by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Screenplay by: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Cast:  Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young
Reviewed from a critics’ link on 5/15/20
Opening:  June 5, 2020
Running Time:107 minutes
What gives one person the impetus to become a psychoanalyst, another an optometrist, yet a third individual a teacher and a fourth a writer?  In these cases consider the possibility that the optometrist had early onset myopia, was prescribed coke-bottle glasses, and is determined to help others by inventing thinner lenses; the teacher had unfortunate experiences with her own pedagogues and knows she can do better; and the psychoanalyst suffered from childhood anxiety and depression, spending long, creditable hours on the couch and hoping later to sit on a padded chair rather than the sofa.  This last scenario could apply to Shirley Jackson, a prolific writer with 200 magazines articles to her credit, an impressive contribution of novels, and a home library with 25,000 volumes.  She did not become a shrink but penned psychological/horror stories to exorcise her demons.
Shirley Poster
One of her shorter novels, “The Lottery,” which became a short movie, is a hair-raising, nightmare-causing story of a bucolic region of farmers in which, to further the fertility of crops, the town holds an annual lottery of all residents.  The “winner” of the lottery is sentenced to death by stoning, presumably donating blood to the fields.  Jackson did not herself live in a farming community but rather in North Bennington, Vermont, the location in the early 1960s setting of the movie an all-girls’ college until 1969. She suffered considerable neuroses, even borderline psychosis, her anxieties, her agoraphobia that essentially sentenced her to her house for months as though a plague  infested the outdoors.  She may not have been cured of her psychological problems, but at least she could use them to create great art.  And so she did.
The film directed by Josephine Decker, an actress and who as a director gave us movies like “Madeleine’s Madeline” (a theater director’s young actress takes her performance too seriously), is adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by Sarah Gubbins, scripter for TV episodes of “I Love Dick.” The movie lifts off by Elisabeth Moss’s electrifying performance in the title role.  Not only that: take a look at Shirley Jackson’s picture on Wikipedia or on Amazon books and you’ll find quite a likeness—except that Moss does not have the weight problem of her character which, together with Jackson’ chain smoking led to the novelist’s death from cardiac arrest at the age of 48.
While Moss carries the principal focus, Decker and Gubbins provide the film with an ensemble performance—three characters given about equal time to express their disappointments, their frustrations, their happy moments, in short, their personalities.  Consider Shirley’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington where he enjoys sexual favors at the women’s college.  He is extroverted, peering at the world though thick glasses with the black frames no longer fashionable in our times.  He insists on originality, on creativity, exhibiting his persona by playing a record by jazz and folk musician Lead Belly, who died in 1949 and seems to be unknown to the bright young co-eds.  At home, he shows his dismay with his wife’s habit of staying home, often skipping dinner to work on her stories, leaving him to dine alone as she would clack away speedily on her standard typewriter.
As though there were not enough drama in the household, enter a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scenario when a young couple arrive, invited by Stanley to remain in the couple’s home.  Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is nervous and pregnant, and her classically handsome husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are soon to incur the wrath of the residents.  The young couple are regularly baited, but Fred is staying on, hoping to get Stanley to recommend him to teach English at the college.  Though Rose is naïve and trusting, she is soon to find out that her husband is following the same path of infidelity as his new mentor.  Among the barbs: Stanley has read the young man’s dissertation.  At the dinner table he announces that the paper lacks originality and is mediocre.  “Have you considered teaching at the high school level?”  If that were not enough to make Fred bolt from the dinner table, what is?
Anyone who has seen Elisabeth Moss knows that she is among the best actresses of all generation.  Her work on Margaret Atwood’s TV episodes “The Handmaid’s Tale” as June Offred Osborne, gave her the extra push to work for women’s causes and led to her telling an interviewer that it made her “a stronger woman.”  She needs no dialogue in “Shirley” to signal her every emotion.  Coiling like a snake, a fierce look at her husband and guests, she could keep you up nights if you were her guest.  Rose is eager to leave this house, virtually haunted by its occupants, but nonetheless she is drawn to Shirley, considering her a friend notwithstanding the difference in age.  It helps that she responds to Shirley’s sexual advances, their playing footsies under the dining table being one of the comic moments in the film.
And Stuhlbarg is no mere straight man to Moss’s manipulations.  His is a formidable performance whether leading a group dance at the college dean’s party, barking at his wife to leave the house, or baiting the poor young man who has been effectively relegated to teaching high school.   As for Odessa Young’s Rose, we can see how Stanley uses her to help his wife complete her latest book, which, in fact, is based on the author’s experiences with her husband and the young boarders.  Write what you know.
The film appears to toy with two endings: one which results in Rose’s suicide, the other finding her sitting in the back seat of the car driven by her Tom-cat husband.
Kudos to Tamar-Kali’s use of music, largely jazz tracks, and Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s lensing, making good use of  the house’s interiors, the lively faculty party, and the rural pleasures of a state whose slogan, “Freedom and Unity,” is, judging by this movie, surely ironic.
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B
Overall – B+
© Harvey Karten, Director, NY Film Critics Online

STAGE: THE CULINARY INTERNSHIP – movie review

STAGE: THE CULINARY INTERNSHIP
Butternut Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Abby Ainsworth
Screenwriter: Abby Ainsworth
Cast: Andoni Luís Adúriz, Kim Joon, Alexandre Castelló, Pawel Poljanski, Sara Merendes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/22/20
Opens: May 29, 2020

Stage: The Culinary Internship

Technology changes, forcing people to give up some of what they learn while training for a career, but there is one thing they can’t take away from you, and that is the ability to think and feel. That is the message that oversees what goes on in God’s country in the Northeast corner of Spain, where thirty applicants are chosen out of fifteen hundred to take part in a nine-month program as unpaid interns at the Mugaritz Restaurant. In this brief documentary writer-director Abby Ainsworth gives her movie audience a look at what goes on in the kitchen of one of the world’s top fifty restaurants, as chef interns with an average age of twenty-four come together to learn technique, of course, but more importantly to put their very souls into the preparation of food.

Among the words of wisdom: “It’s better to show disgust at a dish than to feel nothing at all.” Those who persevere through the rigorous training program are letting us in the audience know that while talent is important, stick-to-ivness is mandatory. In other words, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”)

Abby Ainsworth, whose envious career immerses her in the food industry, tries to “find the beauty of a story outside its face value” as she states in production notes. While she spends a considerable time in a restaurant kitchen watching the thirty interns prepare dishes with designs that would make even top French chefs envious, she is as interested in showing us what these interns are made of, allowing them to discuss their backgrounds with one another, principally how they became passionate about cooking.

The Mugaritz Restaurant (“muga” means “border”), located in Errenteria, Guipúzcoa in Spain’s Basque country, is one of the world’s most celebrated places to chow down. Its founder and chef, Andoni Luís Adúriz, closes the restaurant four months of each year, when much of the training of interns takes place. The movie title “Stage” is a French term meaning “unpaid position.” focusing on two-star Michelin restaurant’s program of mentoring the great chefs of tomorrow.

Ainsworth concentrates on four interns. Kim Joon from South Korea has served in his country’s army and speaks fluent English but is likely under stress because he must follow instructions in Spanish. Alexandre Castelló from Spain has experience cooking in his father’s family restaurant. Pawel Poljanski is from Poland, failing three times to be accepted to the stage program, but he perseveres and, though accustomed to working on his own must acclimate to the group of twenty-nine others. Sara Merendes from Spain wonders why she majored in graphic design in college when her real métiér is cooking.

All are competing to be among a select circle to be chosen for an advanced position in the restaurant’s Research and Development program, which brings us to how this restaurant is probably unlike any for which you’ve dined. The food consists admittedly of dishes that a diner may either hate or love. The design is avant-garde given that some of the dishes include aged mole leaves and bone marrow; natto pie with palo cartado; snails in ceviche over frozen teff; pinecut kagami; and the one that impresses me the most, oyster frozen kiss. This last item, which Aduriz’s wife called “cold,” looks bizarre, but so does almost everything that these interns in their mid-twenties are preparing. (Incidentally, they do not use gloves.)

On a technical note, the music in the soundtrack is intrusive. This is not a thriller and no music at all would for me be a desideratum. English subtitles are available throughout with Spanish and English each the lingua franca of the production.

While the internship does not pay, you get room and board—and my, what board and what a view from the room!—so presumably you need to lay out only for air fare and for occasional personal needs. Feel free to make reservations at the restaurant, and take a trip to Spain’s autonomous Basque country. You can call 34-943-52-24-55, pay a 50€ deposit based on the expected cost (without drinks) of 220€. Then head to Aldura ladea 20 in Errenteria and enjoy.

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

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

ASIA – movie review

ASIA
Tribeca International Film Festival 2020
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ruthy Pribar
Screenwriter: Ruthy Pribar
Cast: Alena Yiv, Shira Haas, Tamir Mulla, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/17/20
Opens: TBD

Asia (2020)

Israel has been academy-award nominated more times than any other country in the Middle East, not surprising given that the Jewish state is considered the freest in that area of the world. Among the Israeli films this year is “Asia,” Ruthy Pribar’s freshman offering, not a political film. Pribar does not cover the tensions between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic, nor the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However among its attributes is its implicit signaling that while Israeli Jews are Jewish by religion, they are a diverse lot depending on their places of birth. Those who are not sabras, i.e. born in Israel, have made alyiah from many corners of the world. In this case, Pribar, whose 22-minutes short “Last Calls” finds a Russian-born woman dialing the mobile phone of her sister who died six months earlier to put together a sense of her last day. Similiarly, Pribar focuses on the last weeks of a teenager whose mother, just fifteen years her senior, faces her daughter’s rebellious search for independence. Yet her daughter’s desire to lose her virginity is turning out difficult given her fear in one case when she tells a boyfriend to stop, and in a latter case because she is dying too quickly and too soon from a neurological disease.

Largely a two-hander, theatrical enough to find a place on an off-Broadway stage, “Asia” deals principally with the relationship of the title character (Alena Yiv), so young that you might confuse her with her daughter Vika (Shira Haas), thinking that they are sisters. While Asia, a single mother and a nurse, leads a life largely for her own pleasure—going to bars and indulging an affair with Shas (Gera Sandler), a doctor in the West Jerusalem hospital—she has a sudden change of priorities when her daughter is diagnosed with a neurological disease. Gaining the support of Gabi (Tamir Mula), a high-school dropout who serves on the staff of the hospital and agrees to babysit on his free time with homebound Vika, she dedicates herself to being there for Vika, whose adolescent moodiness allows her ultimately to appreciate her love for her mom.

The film is tragic with none of the Hollywood glitz of a similar downers like “Love Story,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “What Dreams May Come,” introducing a film director who bears watching. Tender without being sloppily sentimental, “Asia” is a realistic look at a mother who must experience the most difficult episode in her life, the approaching loss of her daughter.

The film is in Hebrew and Russian and has been selected for the Tribeca Festival of 2020.

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

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

ABE

ABE
Blue Fox Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade
Screenwriter: Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Salem Murphy
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/20
Opens: April 17, 2020

“Abe” opens like the CBS sitcom “Sheldon,” dealing with parents who wonder how to get their precocious nine-year-old to fit in, segues into an American version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama “Celebration” wherein dangerous hidden truths are revealed at a 60th birthday celebration, and concludes Hollywood style, the opposing sides meeting in the middle. The dramedy stars Noah Schnapp in the title role, in real life a 16-year-old inhabiting the enthusiastic soul and creative mind of a young man on the cusp of an upcoming Bar Mitzvah who has an identity crisis brought on my his feuding parents and grandparents. The movie is a delight, light and fluffy for the most part, a model of a story that like President Trump is all for motherhood and world peace, perhaps targeted to a Y/A (young adult) audience but which is in every way suitable for all ages, religions, and identities.

The story is unfolded by Fernando Grostein Andrade, a Brazilian filmmaker from São Paulo making himself quite at home shooting scenes in Brooklyn, which I would guess takes place at least in part in the fashionably youthful Dumbo neighborhood.

The film is all about fusion in food and in people, made all the more appropriate given the lush land and variety of cultures in Brazil, more specifically Bahia. Abe is the kind of person who though not fitting in with his own age group and who inevitably is (lightly) bullied and kidded by classmates, seems happy enough—though his parents and grandparents seem to take pleasure in raising the roof at the boy’s birthday party. The attention paid to him by his family is intrusive (as is some of the music in the soundtrack), not only because he is an only child but because two groups—Muslims and Jews who get together (though they shouldn’t)—are trying to influence the boy to follow their cultural traditions. We should mention as well that the kid’s dad Amir (Arian Moayed) is Muslim but identifies as atheist. In that last regard, Abe wonders at a outdoor fair whether it’s sinful to eat pork and is told by his dad, whose birth religion should eschew pig as much as that of kosher Jews, that restrictive customs like those forbidding certain foods are ridiculous. Amir is my kind of guy.

Instead of going to summer camp, Abe plays hookey, befriending Chico (Seu Jorge), a Brazilian chef, who at first shoos the kid away, then takes him on as an intern who must first wash the pots and haul out the trash, and then will be given pointers on cooking. Experimenting successfully for the most part with fusion cooking, melding popsicles with hemp seeds, he introduces and goes with the film’s great metaphor—that his parents and grandparents may be from different, even hostile religious traditions, but need to be fused, i.e. “saved,” by this young would-be messiah.

There is no way that we in the audience would believe that the arguments at the table between the Zionist side and the Palestinain proponents would be so basic and repetitive, so “Middle East 101,” given that these people must have been together for similar feasts for years. Perhaps that is part of why the movie may be targeted to young adults who spend their days and night texting banalities, leaving them no time for geopolitics. Anyway, the whole smorgasbord, or fused falafel and Manischewitz, works well. The few sentences spoken in Hebrew, Arabic and Portuguese are given nice, bright, yellow subtitles. It’s a small world after all.

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

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

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+

LITTLE WOMEN – movie review

LITTLE WOMEN
Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig, adapting the Louisa May Alcott novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, Abby Quinn
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 11/21/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)

When I attended middle school, on the last day of classes before summer vacation the teacher gave us a list of books that she recommended for summer reading. One list headed “For Boys” recommended “Johnny Tremain,”about the American Revolution, while the other list titled “For Girls” lobbied for “Little Women.” At the time I had no problem with that, since after all, boys will be boys and will want books with action, while girls, wearing pink, would like romance. But now, the practice of separating the genders in reading lists is obsolete because, gee, how are boys to supposed to know what girls think about and what they’re like if they don’t read books that focus on women? As a result of this hopefully obsolete practice in schools, men know more about what women are like. But since I did not read Louisa May Alcott when I was twelve, to this day I do not understand women. But wait! Here comes another adaptation of the 1868 novel on the screen to make up for everything missed in middle school. Take advantage and go to the movie. On the whole it’s delightful, really gets into the heads of the fair sex, shows them concerned not only about boyfriends, believe it or not, but ambitious, talented, wanting to get ahead in the world on their own terms and not depend on men for emotional and financial support.

Greta Gerwig, following up her “Lady Bird” two years back about an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl–which included some of the performers in this picture–adapts Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel which deals also with an artistically inclined quartet of sisters. I think that Ms Alcott would have been pleased with the adaptation since we come away knowing what by now even I understand about women. They want financial security, sure, so do men, and like men they want to be loved, and even more important if you follow the trajectory of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) who anchors the film, they want to be able to love others. Jo March, like her three sisters, wants love, but she is unsure whether she can areciprocate that affection with any man. Like Alcott, who never married, preferring the liberties that come with those unencumbered by family restrictions, Jo, who stands in for the author in a movie that is loosely based on the novel, is concerned primarily with her ability to write stories and novels.

In fact judging by the movie, Jo’s sisters are all talented, each with a special skill to show to the public. Meg March (Emma Watson), likes acting. Amy March (Florence Pugh), is a painter. And Beth (Eliza Scanlen), is an accomplished pianist. To follow their lives from adolescence to young adulthood, Gerwig presents the story in two time frames seven years apart, a choice that can cause confusion but at the same time allows us to watch their growth as though this were a Michael Apted type of documentary about people during each seven years of their lives. (Apted’s“63 up” is playing in New York.) If you’re surprised by the feminist theme, wondering whether such ideas were prevalent in the mid-19th century, you need only turn to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in with the theme “We wish to be free as man is free” which launched the women’s suffrage movement. Like Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, who encouraged her creativity as a writer—luckily because “Little Women” flew off the shelves as soon as it came out—Marmee March (Laura Dern) nurtures each of her daughters’ talents while not pushing them into marriage. In that sense she is somewhat unlike the girl’s wealthy aunt March (Meryl Streep), who is not so crass as to say “marry for money” but advises rather “Marry well.”

The most humorous scenes take place between Jo and her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who at first lets her down, telling her that the stories are not commercial, but that she should send more as she churns them out. Ultimately he is excited by the manuscript of “Little Women,” urging her to marry the principal character off because otherwise the book would not sell. As for the other men in the movie, none of whom really in the center of things, Timothée Chalamet in the role of Theodore “Laurie” Laurence claims his long-term love for Jo, who turns him away, given her insistence on being unburdened by marriage. For her part Meg March has committed herself almost from the beginning to marriage, going with John Brooke (James Norton) who is barely getting by on a teacher’s salary, while Laurie Laurence discovers that he can love two sisters at once, getting Amy March as his bride. The story’s tragedy unfolds on Beth, the recipient of a free piano as the March family could not possibly afford such an instrument. She dies of scarlet fever.

Filmed by Yorick Le Saux in Boston, Concord, Harvard, Lawrence, Stoughton in Massachusetts to stand in for Concord, Mass., “Little Women” profits from exquisite, sometimes even painterly photography, while Alexandre Desplaut’s music hits a highlight in the athletic Irish dances, the stomping on the floor, the physical exuberance of the young women matching that of their male counterparts.

Greta Gerwig, able not only to write and direct but is featured largely in quirky acting roles such as Florence Marr in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” A woman of impressive, all-around talent, she continues to play up her principal theme of female dynamics, and does so here with aplomb.

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

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

I LOST MY BODY – movie review

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

Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUEEN OF HEARTS – movie review

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

Dronningen Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HONEY BOY – movie review

HONEY BOY
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alma Har’el
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA twigs
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/17/19
Opens: November 8, 2019

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy (2019)

Thematically “Honey Boy” is focused about the kind of father played by James Lort (Shia LaBeouf) in the way he treats his twelve-year-old son Otis Lort (Noah Jupe). He beats him in one caustic scene, but on the other hand he is a loving fellow in those moments when he acts like a real dad. While you wish he would treat the young lad in a kinder fashion, the way you’d expect in a family like the one in “Leave It to Beaver,” he is still an active person, taking an active interest in the goings on of the boy. So many fathers these days are either passive, too laid-back to give firm support to their little ones, or even worse, they disappear, sometimes for good, other times when on alcoholic binges. This kid on the cusp of adolescence is so cute, really adorable, truly looking for more kindness from James that you wonder how anybody could treat him badly. What’s more, he may be too cute for the father, who has a low-paying job clearing highway trash on the outskirts of L.A., because the boy is actually the breadwinner. He is a child actor preparing for a screen shot in Vancouver, making the father envious of the kid’s talent while at the same time he is so humiliated by being supported by little Otis that in one scene he breaks down and cries.

The script is written by Shia LaBeouf as the principal actor, inspired by the actor’s own childhood, his own feelings about his treatment a couple of decades earlier. The gimmick is that LaBeouf is now playing his father! LaBeouf’s son is played also at the age of twenty-two by Lucas Hedges, his magnificent hair shorn into a crew cut. He is still acting, and in fact the story begins with a bang, as Otis is seen beside a crashed plane, an explosion throwing him back twenty feet in a scene from a “Terminator”-type movie. To an extent, because of his upbringing, the older Otis is a troubled man. After a car crash, Otis, playing out the actual car accident that LaBeouf caused during a drunk driving accident in 2008, is injured in a car crash which lands him in rehab.

The scenes involving the younger boy are the more interesting ones, as we see a child who is coming of age, who continues to film movies while escorted around the set by his dad. One wonders why they’re living in a shabby Motel 6 type of residence given the money that the child is bringing in, surrounded by misfits, one of whom, played by FKA Twigs cuddles with the twelve-year-old in what may or may not be a completed sexual encounter. If the kid is losing his virginity, he is also losing the innocence of childhood by smoking, his father handing him the butts, encouraging his unhealthy habit.

Alma Har’el, the Israeli-born music video and film director, is perhaps best known for her “Bombay Beach,” which won top prize at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. That pic deals with three troubled people in a poor community in Southern California, which bears comparison with her current fare. But “Honey Boy” is too loosely constructed with the usual stereotypical life around rehab to be as involving as her earlier contribution.

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

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

YOMEDDINE – movie review

YOMEDDINE
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: A.B. Shawky
Cast: A.B. Shawky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/4/19Rad
Opens: In Theaters May 31, 2019: September 24, 2019 on DVD

Image result for YOMEDDINE MOVIE POSTER

When I was thirteen I acted like most of the kids around me, belittling people who we saw as “the other.” To lift our fragile egos, we put down people who were too short, too bald, too slow, too klutzy. We even sang a song about leprosy that goes to tune of Frankie Lane’s “Jealousy,” the first lines going: “Leprosy/ night and day you torture me/ there goes my eyeball/ right into your highball/ there goes my ear, dear, right into your beer, dear.” You see, we thought that leprosy involves the steady falling apart of our bodies—our fingers, our feet, and even the organ (not the brain or heart) that we considered our most important possession. Never mind that this infectious disease, however serious, makes people suffer “only” by scarring their skin, causing large bumps about the body, gnarled fingers. In developing countries such people are put away in leper colonies, remaining there even if the malady is cured. Lepers may not lose body parts, but they can be scary, and they can be made fun of, especially by kids who are thirteen years old and adults of arrested mental development.

Along came a movie from Egypt, that country’s candidate for an academy awards for the 91st session, and since it was not nominated for Best Foreign Film, the competition must have been really tough. “Yomeddine,” which means “Judgment Day,” although the Google translator says it means “Extend me,” may not be the best picture I’ve seen so far in 2019 but it is certainly the most moving. A.B. Shawky, who wrote and directs his freshman full-length film, has been active in shorts such as “Things I Heard on Wednesday” (about Egypt’s modern history through the eyes of a middle-class family), and “Martyr Friday” (about demonstrations in Tahir Square in 2011 by crowds opposing the Mubarek regime.) “Yomeddine” centers on forty-year-old Beshay (Rady Gamal) and the teen orphan nicknamed Obama (Achmed Abdelhafiz), who believes his nickname came from “some guy on the TV.” Beshay takes a long road trip, reluctantly allowing the boy to accompany him as the kid has not been happy in the orphanage. His aim is not unlike that of Americans who have been adopted and would like to meet their biological parents. Beshay is off to the town of Qena on the Nile River’s east coast where his father and brother live, eager to find out why he was abandoned by the family at the age of ten. We will discover near the conclusion that his dad loved him but did not want to see him hurt by society. By settling him into a leper colony with people in the same bad shape, he would not be judged.

Surprisingly, as they take off in a cart led by a beloved donkey named Harby (that rhymes with an American name that’s on the tip of my tongue), hopping a ride on the railroad like the hoboes of the American depression, sailing briefly on a ferry across the Nile which neither buddy had seen before, being waved onto a truck heading near the destination city of Qena. Beshay was laughed at only once during the journey, by some jerks, who when asked for the location of the Nile, respond “Up your ass.” If the writer-director’s motif is Beshay’s emotional growth, a man who because of sores and bumps on his face is ashamed of himself, there should have been more insults thrown his way. Instead, he is helped out by quite a few along the way, a momentum of good graces that begins in this story when his wife, hospitalized for a mental illness, dies, is buried with a simple cross, and is offered condolences by a small gathering of Muslims and Coptics at the funeral. That’s not to say that the unlikely road buddies move along as easily as a New Yorker taking a trip to Djerba. The donkey dies (“animals go right to heaven,” he instructs Obama), the boy is injured and is taken to a clinic where the fee to see a doctor is 20 pounds, police officers, annoyed by the absence of regular clothes on Beshay who had been to the beach throw him in jail where his cellmate fears contagion. At any rate, he faces discrimination, but only one group actually laughed at him.

Beshay comes more into his own when he runs into a circle of self-described freaks, including a midget and a man who, because of a road accident, is missing both legs. Thirty years after being abandoned and making a “living” by recycling trash from “Garbage Mountain,” the disgured man had followed the Nike motto “Just Do It,” later to return, homesick no less, to the leper colony just as his young road partner is eager to get back to the orphanage. In Qena where he finally meets his father and drops the netting covering his face to avoid scaring people, he declares, “I am a human being,” which may remind you of Shakespeare’s character Shylock who contends, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”

We’ll all be equals on Judgment day brings us back to the motif; in other words you get pie in the sky when you die. These words have given hope to hundreds of millions of the world’s poor, the wretched of the earth, if you will. The two buddies will not know whether they will meet a gatekeeper on that day, but their optimism is not unlike the confidence that so many in this world feel, the knowledge that the only way to get on with a life touched by some pleasures is to accept a mixture of poverty, disease, and violence.

The DVD for this humanistic film can be ordered from Amazon for $17.99 beginning on its release Sept. 24. 2019. That’s not more than the price of a single admission to a New York multiplex and one that you can treasure forever. Even the bold yellow subtitles, usually missing even for most European films, add to the movie’s grandeur.

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

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

MOONLIGHT SONATA – Deafness in Three Movements – movie review

MOONLIGHT SONATA: Deafness in Three Movements
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Cast: Jonas Brodsky, Sally Taylor, Paul Taylor, Irene Taylor Brodsky,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/25/19
Opens: September 13, 2019

Poster

Ludwig Van Beethoven would be mighty proud if he could see “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” He would be thrilled even more if he received a cochlear implant and actually heard the world’s most famous sonata thanks to the inventive genius of André Djourno and Charles Eyriès who contributed the original cochlear implant in 1957. What’s more Ludwig Van would be amazed to note that the device is covered by Medicare, which makes the composer eligible for free surgery now that he’s 249. The film is directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky who in 2007 gave us a prequel “Hear and Now” about her deaf parents, which puts this film squarely in her métier. Nor is there anything particularly political on the subject as is Josh Aronson’s “Sound and Fury.”

 

There are abundant both animated shorts and archival films of the director’s parents and of the star, Jonas Brodsky. “Moonlight Sonata” shows that handicaps can be overcome given the kind of motivation possessed by the principal character or, when necessary as with Jonas’s grandfather, given up with dignity as grandpa Paul Taylor was urged to do when early onset dementia made driving safely no longer guaranteed.

Jonas stars as a strikingly handsome lad shown mostly when he is thirteen or fourteen years of age, with clear skin and a thick mop of light brown hair, often relating to his 78-year-old grandfather Paul whom he obviously loves, the feeling fiercely reciprocated. He is fond of his piano teacher, who is not the type to robotically boost the lad’s ego like so many school teachers today but who insists on long practice. She tells him when his playing rates a 2 out of 6. Strict teachers who demand much of their students wind up either causing the young ‘uns to drop out or to shine with the satisfaction of accomplishment—a feeling you get only when you have worked diligently toward perfection.

Jonas’ folks are obviously upper-middle class given their spacious, split level home nicely furnished and providing warmth for its residents—who include the filmmaker, her husband, Jonas, and the boy’s two brothers. It’s not clear whether Ms. Brodsky’s parents live within but they surely spend considerable time with the Brodskys and talk a lot with the kind of speech that is intelligible but challenging. Their cochlear implants may have given them the gift of sound, but as that they would born deaf cannot allow them the clear speech that most of us take for granted.

Jonas may be a musical prodigy albeit one whose piano playing does not match that of the child Mozart, but he is always a kid who acts his age, having fun through puppyish discussions with his piano teacher, sometimes shaking his head as would a dog when splashing off rain. Still, he takes music seriously enough to be frustrated at every mistake and tries to interpret his teacher’s meaning when she insists that her pupil is technically proficient but falling short of expressing Beethoven’s sadness in becoming deaf.

An exhilarating moment arrives at the conclusion as Jonas wows the crowd at a concert organized by his teacher, who has given joy to a group of young people through their experience with music. The HBO documentary released by Abramorama a must-see for those who want more insight into the disability of deafness and folks who enjoy watching coming-of-age docs that are brimming with emotion without syrupy melodrama. “Moonlight Sonata” is filmed in beautiful Portland, Oregon by the director and Nick Midwig.

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

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

PROMISE AT DAWN – movie review

PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema

La promesse de l'aube (2017)

In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.

And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.

You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”

The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.

During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.

I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.

In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.

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

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

BOOKSMART – movie review

BOOKSMART
Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriters: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Victoria Ruesga
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 5/20/19
Opens: May 24, 2019

 

The typical high school movie notes that kids sit in the lunchroom according to their personalities. You have the jocks, the nerds, the goths, with further divisions that are unfortunately along racial lines. We never see the students (with the word used loosely) in the cafeteria, but we see a helluva lot of them at parties, in the hall, in the home and in their cars in “Booksmart.” The picture is all the more of interest given that this is actress Olivia Wilde’s (“Life Itself”) freshman contribution to the celluloid pile, and since it’s written by four women—avoiding the usual problem of having script-by-committee emerge as something that none of the scripters want—it looks as though it comes from the pen of a single writer. Whereas as the greatest of the high-school movies, John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” gets its speed-up from a climactic rally led by the title character, “Booksmart” almost never lets up its pace, bounding along at a furious clip save for its obligatory sentimental ending.

While the entire ensemble plays the tale without flaws—though some of the “high-school students” look like they might be doing graduate studies for their MBA’s—the picture is carried by the friendship of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein). Though Molly is class president despite here lack of popularity with her peers, the two nerdie girls regret that they spent their four pre-college years hitting the books when they could have been partying non-stop like their classmates. The reason? They are determined to get into elite colleges, looking down on the others for seeming not to care about their education, but are hit hard psychologically when they discover that the fun-loving seventeen-year-olds have been accepted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. Even one (Molly Gordon) girl who brags about her skill with hand jobs which she refers to as roadside pleasures is headed off to the Ivies. The only notion that adolescents are sexual creatures occurs when Amy notes that she “came out” as a lesbian in tenth grade and has waited until just before high school graduation to get it on.

With just hours to go before commencement exercises, which will star Molly in a valedictory speech, they decide to make up for four years of grinding the books instead of doing same with all the others during their final school night. Of course they are not invited to Nick’s party and have to spend some times locating the address—which leads them into a cab driven by principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) of all people and by hitching with a pizza delivery guy (Michael Patrick O’Brien). At the party Molly plays up to Nick (Mason Gooding), having entertained a crush the past year, and her best pal hides underwater. While a few hours of treating the guys who at first they consider nobodies but ultimately respect cannot make up for wasting four years of fun that only teens can imagine, the two bond with their classmates and draw even closer to each other.

Wilde uses a soundtrack designed to deafen those in the audience not already hearing disabled from rock bands and rappers, including songs from Salt-N-Pepa and Alanis Morissette. The director hits us with a look at secondary education in America that might frighten some of the fuddy-duddies in the audience who still think that children should be seen but not heard. For the young and young-in-heart, “Booksmart”—which at the time of this writing boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes out of sixty reviews—will appeal to a broad market but may dismay some of us who wonder why their own educations were so dull and predictable.

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

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

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS – MOVIE REVIEW

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS

Final Cut
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Screenwriter: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Cast: Oleg Afanasyev, Alexandra Ryabichkina, Yarik
Screened at: Neuehouse Madison Screening Room, NYC, 1/9/19
Opens: February 1, 2019 in LA

Poster

Oleg Afanasyev is a cute ten-year-old boy living in what our President would call a s…hole. There is this village in Ukraine of Hnutove, which has a population of 700, it’s just empty space with nothing growing and sporting no particular buildings, and worst of all it’s a short distance from the gunfire and mines and missiles set up by agents of the so-called Donetsky People’s Republic. Or maybe the Ukranian army is responsible. Ukraine has been at war with Russian separatists in their country who are backed by Putin in Russia, a miserable fight with cease fires that are routinely ignored. However, there’s a fairy story happening there. Young Oleg and his beloved grandmother Alexandra Ryabichkina were scooped up by Simon Lereng Wilmont, who directs a documentary called “The Final Barking of Dogs” and taken to New York where I had the pleasure of listening to them discuss their roles in the making of the film. We in the audience may have expected both Ukranians to say that they love New York, that they love America, and they can’t wait to file for asylum because of their anxiety-ridden lives on the battlefield. But no, both said that New York City is “nice” but they want to go home. Grandma is specific: “We are part of the place, part of the land.” There’s no second-guessing people. They love their land and wouldn’t trade it for a secure for life in New York, where they could presumably fit in with either the Ukranian section in Manhattan’s East Village or the Russian sector in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Surprisingly their talk is so apolitical that we do not know even whether they are ethnically Russian or full-scale Ukranian. (For more info on the war, check here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_military_intervention_in_Ukraine_(2014%E2%80%93present).

Simon Lereng Wilmont, in his debut as sole director of a full-length movie, watches over Oleg and his grandmother as would a fly on the wall, apparently succeeding in coaxing them to behave normally and not to look at the camera. Little Oleg has pillow fights with his cousin Yarik, heartbroken when his pal leaves a for safer haven, but overjoyed when his cousin returns. They have an older friend Kostya, who acts like a big brother to them, showing Oleg how to hold a pistol and fire at bottles—though Oleg winds up with a fairly deep cut on his leg from a ricocheted bullet and is calmly and lovingly censured by his grandmother for shooting and killing a frog, making him promise never to that again.

This is the kind of documentary that happily is not the kind with dozens of talking heads. Nobody is interviewed. The three or four people do behave as though the director-cinematographer is not around, though we wonder how much landed on the cutting room floor during the year and a half that the movie was shot. If anything, Oleg is often curious about the waging of war, examining a mine, though carelessly zipping around the neighborhood without a thought that he could be blown up in an instant. This documentary landed on the Oscar short list for best doc where it will compete with the likes of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “Free Solo,” and “RBG.”

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

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

SHOPLIFTERS – movie review

SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cast:  Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin, Jyo Kairi, Sasaki Miyu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/31/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Manbiki kazoku Movie Poster
It could be an ordeal for a typical American audience to watch two hours of a film with such a measured pace as “Shoplifters,” but for those who appreciate a deeply humanistic look at a scruffy, odd-ball Japanese family, the film offers rewards.  The director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in fact, is known for stories about folks who are living on the edge, barely getting by, or families that are faced with momentous decisions.  Consider “Like Father, Like Son,” in which a businessman is told that babies were switched at birth.  He faces the decision of a lifetime: to keep the boy that he and his wife raised from birth, or to tell the truth and replace him with his biological son.  In “Our Little Sister,” a group of sisters living with their grandmother prepare for the arrival of a 13-year-old half-sister.

“Shoplifters,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is all about a rag-tag group of people who consider one another as though they are legally or biologically related.  Husband, wife, children—all are together in a small rickety suburban home. They are led by a good-natured man, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes the young ones earn their keep by shoplifting.  Osamu is Fagin to his Oliver Twist-like “son” Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo) and “daughter” Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  Shota looks about 14 years old, having lived for a while with Osamu and Osamu’s “wife” Nobuyo Shibata.  Five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is picked up by the family, the product of an abusive home, and she is treated like their own.  In fact, it’s not completely clear just which people have makeshift identities and which are genuine.  But all little Yuri had to do was show the burn on her arm, and she is immediately taken in and fed, no matter how poor her new family is.  What income the family uses is largely from the alleged pension collected by Granny (Kiki Kilin), an elderly lady who seems always to be eating, schlurping up noodles or biting into croquettes.

When we meet Osamu and his “son” Shota, they have been shoplifting on a freezing winter’s night at the local grocery store.  Back in the shack, the family ponders the danger of taking in five-year-old Yuri.  Isn’t that kidnapping?  It certainly is, but surely if anyone in the family were charged with the crime, they could always plead “guilty with an explanation” as we would do in traffic court.

Just as Osamu trains Shota to shoplift, so Shota trains Yuri.  In one scene, Shota takes off with a pair of fishing rods, a theft made easy as Yuri pulls the plug on the alarmed door and replaces it when her “big brother” has done the deed.  If this family were treated by the strict laws of kidnapping and shoplifting, the “dad” and “mom” would go to jail.  But a wise judge would consider the circumstances, and a kidnapping charge would be reduced to probation.  They have performed a service, taking in people from abusive homes and making them happy and healthy.

The sparks fly only in the final half hour, as police move in to enforce the law.  Granny’s demise has much to do with the penalties they face, and while we root for everything to turn out according to true justice rather than the formal laws, we wonder what will happen to Shota, who obviously would like to stay forever with these quirky people, and to Yuri, who has been treated with kindness for the first time in her life.

The acting is naturalistic, standouts being Lily Franky as the putative head of the family and Kairi Jo as his teen “son.”  Behind the lenses, Kondo Ryuto captures a part of Tokyo probably no tourist ever sees, while Hosono Haruomi issues a score that makes the proceedings look like a fairy tale—which, I suppose, it is.  In Japanese with English titles.

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

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

BECOMING ASTRID – movie reveiw

BECOMING ASTRID (Unga Astrid)
 
Music Box Films
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Pernille Fischer Christensen,
Screenwriterd:  Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen
Cast:  Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm, Henrik Rafaelsen, Magnus Krepper, Björn Gustafsson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/14/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Unga Astrid Movie Poster
Pippi Långstrump, Pippi Longstocking as we know her here in America, is the principal character in a series of books translated into eighty-five languages.  The little girl is a red-head, unconventional, strong enough to lift and carry a horse with one arm.  She has contempt for adults for their pomposity and condescension (kutchi-koo, presumably, and “you look like your mother”).  Her sense of morality is as strong as her muscular arm, as she cannot tolerate a man’s beating his horse.  All this comes from being the daughter of a buccaneer captain, who provides her with a solid role model or inner and outer strength, the ability to tackle just about anything, including dedicating hours daily to cleaning a house and cooking.  It’s no wonder that the book series itself provides a terrific model for the readers the world over.  In fact, I would opine that if you find high-school students today who can barely read, who have no idea of emotions behind the words in a book, those youngsters probably did not have moms and dads to read stories as they tucked them into bed.  (I know this from personal experience with hundreds of such high-school boys and girls.)
Yet the words “Pippi Longstocking” gets nary a mention in a movie loosely based on the author’s early life.  Co-writer and director Pernille Fischer Christensen bookends her charmer of a movie with the author, now an elderly woman receiving sacks upon sacks of mail from youngsters everywhere, many of whom ask the key question, “How do you write so well about childhood when you’re are not yourself a child?  How can you write about PippI, monkey, horse, Tommy and Annika?  What comes across in “Becoming Astrid” is that by the time the movie wraps up, you have a good idea of the experiences she has from age 16 to about age 23, the hardships faced, all fueling her vivid imagination. Her books enjoy the popularity of those written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. She’s a Dr. Seuss on the loose. 

Ms. Christensen may be best known for “A Soap,” hardly as conventional a movie as her latest, as the 2006 film deals with the relationship of the owner of a beauty clinic and a transgender woman.  Now she takes a break and goes conventional, tackling her subject in strict chronological order from ages sixteen to about twenty-three.  That should appear to a wider audience rather than the small arthouse crowd that indies often have to accept.  Not that this is a sentimental, Hallmark-type film, considering what happens to the principal subject, Astrid Lindgren (Alba August), despite spending her youthful days with religious parents Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and listening to Sunday sermons of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Under Erik Molberg Hansen’s lensing, we get the feel of the life in a small farming village in the Sweden of the twenties where Astrid begins to display the unconventional behavior of her favorite character Pippi.  Bored with the Saturday night dancing and from the exhausting work on the small farm, she is discovered by Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor who has read some of her essays and hires her to intern on the paper.  Instead of settling for routine, she branches out with articles of her own and falls under the influence of fashion magazines.  She has the barber cut her braids and becomes a thoroughly modern Astrid.

The editor becomes more than a boss, falling in love with her despite an age difference of some twenty years, and gets her pregnant despite his promise to be careful.  Abortion in freewheeling Sweden did not become legal until 1938, leaving the young woman without quite the dilemma.  To avoid the censure of her whole family by the locals, she goes to Copenhagen by train where she lucks out by finding one Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who takes care of the babies of women like Astrid.  Though Astrid could take the easy way out by accepting the father’s marriage proposal, she refuses his entreaties and develops the strength that even nowadays could label her a liberated woman.

It’s not that anyone who makes strong choices is able to write children’s books.  The problems faced by Astrid might appear resolved, as she had the option of leaving Lasse, the child—played by Sigrid af Ekström at three weeks of age, Ludvig V Görensson at six months, and an already accomplished performer, Marius Damslev, at three years.  None of these experiences really explain how the woman who would become Astrid Lindberg became such a popular writer, so maybe we should forget about Pippi Longstocking and not worry about the fictional changes the director and writers make.  This is an involving enough tale brought nicely up to date as in 1987, Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) makes room in her home for the sacks of mail from appreciative kids whose missives are in plain envelopes and in sturdy wrappings alike.  Those of us born before the digital revolution might wonder whether such hero worship of a writer of children’s books could ever come to pass in 2018.  But take a look at any Barnes and Noble store, go to the children’s section, and you’ll find young mothers sitting on the carpet with their small fry as though they are monitor-hating intellectuals who keep reading and books alive in the marvelous sci-fi picture “Fahrenheit 451.”  In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

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

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

OF FATHERS AND SONS – movie review

OF FATHERS AND SONS

KINO LORBER
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Talal Derki
Screenwriter: Talal Derki
Cast: Abu Osama
Screened at: Crosby St. Hotel, NYC, 11/7/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What informal outdoor games did you play with your pals when you were a kid? When I was 12 we played stick-ball in the street, watching out for cars and dodging them as best we could. Punch ball was a variety of this without the technology of the stick. We relied on our own fists to knock out what we called spaldeens (acutally Spaldings). My favorite indoor game was spin the bottle. What do kids in Northern Syria do for fun? In their bombed-out country, courtesy of Bashar al-Assad with the help of the Russians, they play war. There’s not much else to do, as we can see from Talal Derki’s sophomore feature documentary. Derki, whose prize-winning 2013 doc “The Return to Homs” filmed over 3 years, is about a 19 year-old militia leader in a city in Syria’s West, virtually destroyed by Assad’s forces. Homs is a city full of history but is now pockmarked, block after block, its citizens largely having deserted.

This time the brave, even audacious Derki spends two years in Northern Syria as a war journalist who feigns sympathies with the jihadists, gains their confidence, and serves up his documentary as though a drama, full of action, with no tedious interviews—just people chatting with the camera as though it were an old friend, presumably excited to give their views to what they think will be millions of movie fans.

There is plenty of hated among the particular family being filmed by the writer-director’s photographer, Kahtan Hassoun, but though you might expect half the movie to be broadsides against America and Israel, only a token conversation bothers to mention the two states. Even stories of Moses and Abraham are treated warmly. Instead the hatred is directed against Bashar al-Assad who destroyed a good deal of his own country, gassing his own people, welcoming Russian jets into his air space to create more havoc against who he calls “terrorists.” What comes across most vividly, however, is something not overtly covered in the film. This is this: while a large percentage of Americans believe that our government should be arming the rebels against the Syrian dictator, it’s possible that most of the rebels themselves are members of a branch of al-Qaida, a terrorist group that may have contempt for ISIS but is just as much in favor of occupying a vast amount of Middle-East space to form an Islamic caliphate.

As principal character, Abu Osama, is proud of his eight sons—his daughters are not part of the conversation at all and in fact the camera captures only seconds of girls in school. He is proudest of the oldest boy, Osama, who he is training along with the others to become, if necessary, martyrs in the fight against the Syrian government. He passes his hatred down to his offspring, who when not play war games with live ammunition, their faces covered by balaclavas, wrestle with one another and practice throwing rocks at invisible enemies. Sadly, for the forty-something father, he steps on a mine and loses a foot, all of which occur during the two-year time period that Derki patiently spends in the company of what we in America would call terrorists.

Abu Osama is no one-dimensional foe. In a nuanced portrait, we see that he has justifiable rage against the Syrian president who obviously does not drop bombs and engage in chemical and biological warfare for fun. Assad is under attack for years now and has no problem gassing people as collateral damage rather than trying to pick out who are the actual combatants. We in the audience could not be blamed for treating Abu Osama as a character we can to some extent sympathize with, a father who is adored by all eight of his male children, who must suffer the loss of a foot with corresponding pain that is not treated with palliatives. The women who are wailing in sympathy are not shown, presumably because Abu Osama would not permit them to be filmed.

Derki, who lives in Berlin and has received considerable funds from Germany for the making of this film, has succeeded admirably with the risk of his own life and limb to capture the lifestyle—if you can call it that—of people under siege in a battle to which they have committed themselves for revenge against the destruction of their country. It is intimate, a fly-on-the-wall treatment of a single family, while broadly capturing the mind of the jihadist close up.

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

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

BOY ERASED – movie review

BOY ERASED

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Joel Edgerton
Screenwriter:  Joel Edgerton, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir
Cast:  Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/2/18
Opens: November 2, 2018
Boy Erased - Poster Gallery
When you live in New York, the most progressive large city in America, you may not realize what’s going on in broad swaths of our country.  Look at a map and you’ll find that blue states are largely in coastal areas while broad reaches of the South and Mid-West are red.  And since New Yorkers live in a state where parents have been noted to demonstrate with signs saying “I am proud of my gay son,” we are unaware that millions of parents of gay children are either in denial or coerce their gay kids into pursuing change.  These guardians, perhaps because they want to be grandparents or they believe erroneously that they are guilty of “making” their children homosexual, may opt to enroll their young ‘uns in gay conversion therapy.  Never mind that this technique has been proven worthless and that few if any graduates change their sexual orientation.

Thanks to the writings of Garrard Conley, whose memoir “Boy Erased: A Memoir” recounts his weeks in an Arkansas center claiming to reverse the sexual orientation of their charges, we now have a movie adapting his book.  “Boy Erased” could be called a biopic, though the names of the characters have been changed.  Though Joel Edgerton, the director who plays a major role of a counselor, is known principally as an actor. “Boy Erased” is his sophomore entry in filmmaking.

You might expect a writer or director to come out forcefully and with brutal satirical edges in describing what goes on in gay conversion centers, but Edgerton’s character are appropriately nuanced.  The head counselor at an Arkansas center, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), is not the sort of person you might want to have a beer with since he does carry on with a project that endorses some sadism.  Though he seems to have no professional qualifications for the job, he treats the mostly young class of gays with tough love, breaking into some brutal treatment about midway into the story.

The nonlinear story is loaded with flashbacks which seem to me entirely unnecessary, as a straightforward chronological approach would have been less confusing.  We are introduced to Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the father of Jaren Eamons (Lucas Hedges) and husband of Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman).  Since Marshall is a Baptist pastor who wants his son to marry his girlfriend and make him a grandfather, he sees his chances fading when the 18-year-old confesses to being homosexual.  With the support of his religious wife, he enrolls the boy in a 23-weeks’ indoctrination program that pledges to bring the men and women back into the Lord’s fold.  The principal problem with the program is its worthlessness, not the brutality, which is shown in two scenes involving beating a boy on the back with the Bible.  Mostly the folks are treated with compassion.

Jared goes along with everything, sucking up his antipathy for the class, releasing his anger toward the movie’s conclusion, in effect dropping out while he still has some feelings of independence.  Hedges, whom you may have seen in “Manchester by the Sea,” conveys his mixed emotions exquisitely, filling almost every scene with his presence, and is particularly watchable when bouncing his emotions off his mother, who ultimately accepts her son’s homosexuality; his father, who refuses to keep the lad under his roof unless he changes; and especially against the counselor. Given today’s efforts by Judge Kavanaugh to defend himself against charges of involvement in a near rape, we are particularly horrified to watch Jared’s being raped by his college roommate, reinforcing the idea that he has been too passive for much of his life and needs to break out or be emotionally crushed for decades.

One hopes that in states that still allow conversion therapy of minors—that’s all but a handful—people will go to screenings, which might inspire them to do their own research.  A dispassionate look at the many reports that indicate that conversion therapy is not only cruel but worthless if the aim is to convert gays into hetero might convince some people but will likely be dismissed by Trump supporters who care little about science and more about mythology.

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

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

BEN IS BACK – movie review

BEN IS BACK

Roadside Attractions/ Lionsgate
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Peter Hedges
Screenwriter:  Peter Hedges
Cast:  Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/16/18
Opens: December 7, 2018

Climate change, the economy, immigration, wars—these are global problems that cannot be solved by one country alone.  But the opioid epidemic, the thousands of deaths yearly from overdosing on prescription drugs; that appears to be a problem largely within our own United States.  The pundits and the medical community are not sure why this is so, but people of all ages have become devastated by a problem that they brought upon themselves, perhaps by being too trusting of the doctors who prescribe Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet and the like, all legal pharmaceuticals that should be used sparingly if at all to avoid dependence and addiction.

Substance abuse could be treated as a documentary, but more interestingly, Peter Hedges’ “Ben is Back” does the job of being both didactic and entertaining, however morbid the subject matter.  The action takes place in upstate New York (filmed largely in Nyack and Yonkers), centering on Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) and his mom Holly Burns (Julia Roberts).  If you can picture Julia Roberts living in the ‘burbs, wearing an apron, and being married to an overly formal and strict husband, you can ride with the show.  In fact what gives the picture is heft is a stellar performance only somewhat by Julia Roberts but in this case more by the upcoming Lucas Hedges, who is the writer-director’s son and who has appeared winningly as Jared in “Boy Erased,” a splendid take-down of the Christian Right’s rooting for gay conversion therapy to convert homosexuals into what they consider normal people.  Never mind that it doesn’t work while it seeks to change identities that people have from the time they are born.

Ben is about twenty years old (Hedges is 22) and had spent the last 77 days in an expensive program to convert him from an opioid addict into someone who can carry on a normal life without the sickness and expense of a drug dependency.  Unlike conversion therapy, the treatment for addicts can work, though I’ve heard it said that you can be “clean” for even 30 years and yet become newly attracted to the very medications that have driven both you and your loved ones crazy.

On Christmas Eve, Ben, the family’s black sheep, comes home to celebrate the holidays, though his arrival has taken his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) by surprise.  Thinking that he should not be spending even a day away from the institution, the family are properly concerned about the visit.  And they should be.  During the course of Christmas, already a season that drives quite a few people into depressive states, Ben will run into old friends and acquaintances, including the drug seller for whom he had operated as a runner and a fellow addict desperate for money to buy a fix and relieve his sickness.

Holly shows her tough love for the young man by insisting that he never leave her sight. She watches him while he is urinating, she hides her jewelry and every kind of pill that he might experiment with, and sits behind him at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where the members applaud him for being sober for 77 days.

The movie is filled with melodramatic moments when a home burglary leads to the kidnapping of the family Cairn terrier, who has been taken from the home for purposes other than a cash ransom.  When Lucas steals his mother’s car, the story ends with a frantic chase, by which time Holly realizes that her son cannot be trusted for even an hour outside of her presence.

The end credits tell us where to go if you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, but didacticism is hardly the principal purpose.  Perhaps the awards-worthy performance of young Lucas Hedges might be the principal reason for attending a screening, a solid detective story, a coming of age tale, and a dramatic look at why Christmas is not always a time for rejoicing.

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

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

WILDLIFE – movie review

WILDLIFE

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Paul Dano
Screenwriter:  Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 10/11/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Wildlife Movie Poster
Should parents who are having arguments stick out their marriage for the sake of the kids, or would the children be better off if their parents split, thereby ending the confrontations?  This question comes to mind when you’re watching “Wildlife,” which looks at parental conflict through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy.  Based on a novel that first appeared in Atlantic magazine in 1990 by Richard Ford and set in the town of Great Falls, Montana, “Wildlife” finds Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) staring with owlish eyes at events surrounding him that he cannot much alter.  He is caught between what actually appears to be flirtations from his own mother, Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), a woman who is only twenty years older than her son, and the affection he harbors for his dad, Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), who practices tossing the football around and encourages his son to play the game in high school.

Director Paul Dano, known to cinephiles for diverse acting roles such as in “Little Mary Sunshine” (family wants their young daughter to compete in the beauty finals) and in “Swiss Army Man” (guy stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body), now comes through with his freshman directorial debut, and it’s looks like a movie from a director who has had considerable experience in the field.

As young Joe stares at the unfolding scene in school, on a job as a photographer’s assistant, and most of all at home, he keeps his emotions to himself until cutting loose toward the tale’s conclusion.  But this is Carey Mulligan’s picture.  The wonderful British actress, playing the role of a person of her own early-thirties age, runs the gamut of emotions.  At first she supports her husband, Jerry, who has just been fired from a job as an assistant to pros on a golf course, urging him to find another lest she would have to enter the employment market herself.  When Jerry refuses to return to that job (the boss said firing him was a mistake) and not open to a gig bagging groceries (“I won’t do a teenager’s job”), Jeanette begins to lose patience.  When Jerry compounds the problem by hiring himself out to fight forest fires as a dollar a day, not great pay even in 1960, she looks for opportunities, finding one as a swimming teacher.

At the pool, she teaches Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy businessman with his own plane, who begins to court her.  Despite his unattractive demeanor—he’s portly, balding, a drinker and cigar smoker—she responds to his invitations, all to the growing dismay of the boy.  Still, Miller has a glib way of expressing himself, introducing the kid to a scene which found him 4000 feet up, watching a gaggle of honking geese, so entranced that he turned off the motor thinking that this is what it must mean to be an angel.

What’s in the Brinson family for the future?  Will Jeanette and Jerry break up, leaving the 14-year-old to an uncertain fate?  In this case we really do care about these people.  We hope that she does not team up with the divorced Warren Miller despite the financial boon for mother and son, confirming “Wildlife” as a feminist film that may have us rooting for her to find her own steady job rather than depend on her need to find a man.  It looks as though all’s well that may end well, a coming-of-age tale just as it is a feminist film, well designed for a potential audience of moviegoers who do not need much melodrama and have contempt for formulaic soap operas.

Rated PG-13.  104 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ONE WILD MOMENT – movie review

ONE WILD MOMENT (Un moment d’égarement)

Under the Milky Way
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Jean-François Richet
Screenwriter:  Claude Berri, Lisa Azuelos, Lisa Azuelos
Cast:  Vincent Cassel, François Cluzet, Lola Le Lann, Alice Isaaz, Louka Meliava, Noémie Merlant
Screened at: Critics’ link,  NYC, 9/7/18
Opens: September 25, 2018 on VOD
Vincent Cassel and Lola Le Lann in Un moment d'égarement (2015)
When you see a guy about 45 years old in a New York’s expensive Per Se restaurant seated opposite a woman about half his age, how do you react?  Chances are you’ll guess that she is an executive assistant playing up to her boss, wouldn’t you?  Or do you think that the gentleman instigated the liaison and is, perhaps, exploiting the assistant such as we’ve all heard in the #MeToo complaints?  Jean-François Richet, who directs “One Wild Moment,” could have taken the latter stand, a satiric look at an older man taking advantage of the cute young thing, but instead, Richet, who makes a complete about-face since his previous work.  Richet’s “Mesrine”  stands today as one of the great cops and robbers thriller ever, yet voilá: Richet is equally adept with romantic comedy as shown in his “Un moment d’égarement,” which depicts an underage girl who may love to dance with guys about her own age but who seeks a mature man who is all of forty-five years old.

Louna (Lola Le Lann), the seductive young woman about sixteen years of age has her eye on Laurent (Vincent Cassel) who is well over twice the girl’s age and who is drawn into a sexual connection with Louna, one which he tries to avoid, but as they say, “A stiff penis has no conscience.”  If you are a frequent moviegoer you’ll recall the plot from the 1984 American movie, Stanley Donen’s “Blame It on Rio” starring Michael Caine and Joseph Bologna, which in turn is copied from Claude Berri’s classic 1977 work, also called “One Wild Moment.”  And why not copy, have sequels, give it your best shot when you have such a great premise; one which does not find the older guy preying on a young innocent but instead puts the blame not on Rio this time but on the young woman?

When Maureen Daly wrote “Seventeenth Summer” in 1970 about a romance between one Jack and one Angie, she did not have this idea in mind.  Her couple, in puppy love, are about the same age.  The age difference here makes all the difference, propelling “One Wild Moment” into a hilarious comedy of two middle-aged best friends, Laurent and Antoine (François Cluzet) who take their vacation in an old house near the beach in Corsica—which, as portrayed here, looks as close to paradise as you can get.  And the movie is blessed with one of France’s great actors, nay one of the world’s best and most versatile performers, Vincent Cassel in the principal male role.  Cassel’s character Laurent has a platonic interest in Louna, which is fine, except that his mild feelings toward her are beefed up.  Though Laurent’s own daughter, Marie (Alice Isaaz) becomes increasingly suspicious that her dad is a “pervert,” Laurent’s best friend Antoine is clueless.  When Antoine hears that a much older man may have deflowered his precious teen, he storms about, shouting that he will kill the guy just as he shot a wild boar (and killed a neighbor’s dog by mistake).  The film gets much of its humor from dramatic irony; the idea originating in Greek tragedy when the audience knows more than the characters.

The actual seduction is explicit featuring full frontal and back nudity for Louna (the actress who plays her is 22 so that’s OK) and, as usual, no such exposure in the male.  It’s a clear night, the water is pleasantly warm, the seduction is easy, or at least it looks easy despite Laurent’s belief that he could stop it at any time.

Some viewers whose commentaries and reviews appear in the ‘net say that they felt uneasy by the reverse Lolita effects, but the age of consent in France is fifteen, so the only problem is that Laurent could not possibly feel safe, dreading the moment that his friend will know the truth. For her part, Louna, whose home life is troubled because his father is about to separate from his wife, appears to get some joy in watching her mature man unease, his feelings of guilt.

So, don’t be troubled.  There’s nothing perverse here, at least in French law.  As Professor Henry Higgins states in Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” “The French don’t care what they do; as long as they pronounce it properly.”  Louna doesn’t care in the slightest, enjoying her satisfaction in losing her virginity to Laurent.  In fact, the entire story, so well photographed in gorgeous Corsica, is a dream of a comedy.

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

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

MADELINE’S MADELINE – movie review

MADELINE’S MADELINE

Oscilloscope
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josephine Decker
Screenwriter:  Josephine Decker
Cast:  Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 7/10/18
Opens: August 10 in NY; August 17 in L.A.
Poster
Josephine Decker’s latest film is emotionally explosive to such an extent that “Madeline’s Madeline” could be called a stab at expressionism.  Expressionism, which is better known in painting and theater than in the cinema, is the practice of revealing an emotional inner life rather than an objective impression of the world, and has been used most effectively on stage in such works as Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine.”  As the taut bundle of inner turmoil, Decker’s “Madeline” is played by a newcomer, Helena Howard), who lets loose with all her inner demons, a role reversal in which she plays her mother, Regina (Miranda July) during a rehearsal by a New York theater group under the direction of Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Decker is in her mystical métier, having made the film “Butter on the Latch,” wherein fantasy plays with reality at a California camp as a camper sings about dragons who entwine themselves in women’s hair and carry them off through the forest, burning the trees as they go.

At base, the film is about the theater director’s use of a mentally ill title figure—seen in the opening when a blurred figure of a nurse talks to the 16-year-old.  Since her prescription for possible schizophrenia has run out, there’s no stopping Madeline from expressing her demons during a rehearsal where she is utilized by director Evangeline as her principal performer.  Madeline uses her own paranoia with touches of anorexia to give her all to the part during the improvisations attempted by the theater group.  Like other members of the troupe, she acts out the part of a turtle.  She also dons pig’s masks as though rehearsing for Greek tragedy.  In the most excoriating scene she gives her mother hell, the middle-aged now single woman having to walk out despite the congratulations that the young actress receives from the director and the troupe.  Her acting is so dramatic—both within the stage rehearsal and in the film itself—that the director invites her home, where she declares to the director’s husband that she is determined on her 17th birthday to lose her virginity.  She makes it fairly clear that the husband George (Curtiss Cook) is her choice to be the lucky guy.

Race plays a role as well.  Madeline’s mother is white; her daughter is black.  At one point the teenager, hearing the mother tell her that the young woman is “different,” wonders whether she is honing in on the girl’s race.  This becomes part of the tension released by the girl in her role reversal, contributing mightily to Madeline’s explosion of theatrical emotion.  Joys of motherhood indeed.  As for the two older women, Evangeline and Regina, particularly involving is the former’s attempts to pull her star student away from her mother’s influence and into her own inner circle.

One would not be surprised if members of the audience, particularly critics, would find Helena Howard’s performance among the great débuts of recent years—which could catapult her into notice by awards organizations voting breakthrough performance at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, “Madeline’s Madeline” is so experimental, so non-linear, with photography often deliberately blurred, that a positive reception by a majority of ordinary film-goers is hardly guaranteed.

Unrated.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

SKATE KITCHEN – movie review

SKATE KITCHEN

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Crystal Moselle
Screenwriter: Aslihan Unaldi, Crystal Moselle, Jennifer Silverman. Story by Crystal Moselle
Cast:  Rachel Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Kabrina Adams
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/18/18
Opens: August 10, 2018
Skate Kitchen Movie Poster
If you’re accustomed to hanging out with middle-class people who send their kids to pre-school and buy them Harvard sweatshirts when they’re five, you and your kids are missing a view of an urban subculture of teenagers who are likely having more fun skateboarding on the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown than you had when you were a kid.   The youngsters who are the focus of Crystal Moselle’s largely improvised, full of street-smarts, and energetic cast have a lot to say to one another, thanks largely to their refusal to spend all their time starting at the small screens that Samsung makes, i-phones that you might swear are designed to sweep away the natural spontaneity of childhood.

Director Moselle, whose “The Wolfpack” deals with a group of brothers who are locked away from society in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment whose pastime is re-enacting scenes from films, again focuses on what for a better term are called “urban”people—generally meaning African-American and Hispanic youths living on mean city streets.  With a screenplay by the director together with Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Silverman, “Skate Kitchen” is similar to “The Wolfpack” in that its principal character is also locked away from society at least metaphorically.  Eighteen-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), living with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez), is too distant from the hip streets of New York’s Chinatown.  She is still a virgin who has to ask “How do you know when you like a boy?” and “How do you know that a boy likes you?”  She had been a tomboy, bonded with her father until the age of eleven when she switched loyalty to her mom as she wanted to learn the joys of womanhood.

With her skateboard, she travels to Chinatown, meets members of a group called Skate Kitchen about whom she learned on her i-phone.  She is shy and must take her time before she is accepted by an assertive group of skateboarders who admire the risks she takes in the playground—that seems built primarily to allow skateboarders to practice their hobby amid elevations and hurdles.  She takes the Long Island Railroad regularly—it’s summer—and soon fits in just fine, whether hitching to the back of a bus, rolling through city streets and never-mind-the-traffic, or enjoying herself in the playground.  She becomes interested in Devon (Jaden Smith), a young man who works with her in a supermarket, spends one-on-one time with him, and is ejected from the group for horning in on the boyfriend of Janay (Delia Lovelace).

Some of the skateboarding techniques are a joy to watch.  Obviously these kids have been on the boards long before the director ever met them.  And given their patter, including a professional rendition by one rapper, they are comfortable enough to improvise in front of the camera and to provide the audience with a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like to be “urban” in our liberated twenty-first century.  As the principal character, Rachelle Vinberg, in her acting debut (this is the director’s non-documentary feature film debut as well), is perfect for the role.  Introverted at first as a kid unfortunate enough to be shut away from real life in a suburb, she emerges pretty quickly, coming of age, as they say, when she—and we in the audience—emotionally understand the importance of fitting in, finding your own groove.

Rated R.  105 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+

Overall – B+

THE SWAN – movie revei

THE SWAN (Svanurinn)

Synergetic Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Screenplay by: Guðbergur Bergsson, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, novel by Guðbergur Bergsson
Cast: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Thor Kristjansson, Gríma Valsdóttir
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/28/18
Opens: August 10, 2018 in NY August 17, 2018 in LA
Svanurinn (2017)
Kids know more about life than we acknowledge.  Before computers and i-phones they read Dr. Seuss and were looked upon as innocent about real life.  It seems now that adults are more ready to talk to children as though they were adults and not too cautious about what they let the little ones see.  This point is made in Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s freshman full-length feature which stars the adorable Gríma Valsdóttir as a nine-year-old who is bright, curious, and a veritable sponge, picking up new things that she learns every day and trying to parse the emotions on display from a group of farmers in rural Iceland.

As Sól, the child—who was cast in “The Swan” after a far-and-wide search and eventually scouted when the director saw her in a staged version of Pippi Longstocking—is sent by her mother to the child’s great aunt north of the capital.  Though she a first resents the move—her mom was motivated because the girl was caught stealing and the farm was seen as a corrective—she soon adapts to the various folks in the family which boards her.  She becomes particularly close to Jón (Thor Kristjansson), who spends every summer with them doing chores and using his free time to write voluminous notes in a journal. (Somebody in the crew seems to have spent long days and nights copying Icelandic notes longhand, filling several notebooks which are vetted by the young girl.)

These farmers are not the happy workers depicted in kids’ picture-books—the ones that are mistakenly given to urban youngsters who cannot relate to any of the nonsense.  Nobody here resembles “Heidi’s Farm Friends,” “Mrs. Wishy-Washa’s Farm,” “Down by the Farm,” and “Jigaree.”  Collegian daughter Ásta, just back from college in Reykjavik, is morose, as her boyfriend ditched her for another.  She complains to her parents that they are using medieval techniques to milk the cows and will be crushed by the big guys.  For his part Jón, who writes for therapy as he confesses that his life has been a mess, takes advantage of Ásta’s misery with a one-night stand that is witnessed by Sól.  He feels a kinship with the child who he believes could herself become a writer.  Sol helps deliver a calf, shown in full detail by German cinematographer Martin Neumeyer, but even that happy event becomes a source of more misery for Sol when the calf is slaughtered despite being treated as a pet by the child.

The fairy-tale nature of the tale is climaxed when Sól goes to the lake in the mountains where a swan, a monster by myth, is said to lure people to their deaths.  She is determined to face up to the handsome creature, given emotional fortitude by her summer’s life with this melancholy family, which gives her resolve never to depend on people again because they are at least as fragile and vulnerable as she feels.

Sól captures the director’s interest, the girl appearing in most frames with a look of curiosity to the strange people surrounding her, obviously learning more about both physical nature and human nature than she could from a schoolbook.  The actress, whose real age is not revealed by internet sources like the IMDB, has a remarkable debut and can expect other offers to follow.  The film as a whole, which was shown at the Scandinavian Film Festival, is slow moving and mostly evenly pitched.  The relationship of the girl to the summer worker, which appears to be headed into pervert territory as he wraps his arms around her at bedtime, is innocent enough in a picture that is a pleasure to watch, a coming of age story that in fact reveals changes in outlook not only of Sól but of the summer farmhand and the family college girl as well.

Unrated.  91 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST – movie review

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

Film Rise
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriter:  Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, book by Emily M. Danforth
Cast:  Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/27/18
Opens: August 3, 2018
The Miseducation Of Cameron Poster
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of Mental Disorders, which classifies emotional problems with codes, eliminated homosexuality as an illness in 1973 but still calling it a “sexual orientation disturbance.”   In 1987 the term was dropped entirely.  That did not stop millions of Americans from dissenting from that view, with religious organizations particularly mean-spirited in their outright disagreement with the shrinks.  Our Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and legislatures codified gay rights in general, but as recently as the 1990’s, some parents, guardians and religious organizations pushed for what is called gay conversion therapy.

Desiree Akhavan, whose freshman feature “Appropriate Behavior” focuses on a Persian daughter struggling with her identity as a bisexual, is in her métier with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”  This feature is satirical but never lowers itself to sit-comish, three-laughs-a-minute clichés.  Its theme should be old-hat to Americans who tuned into the weekly sitcom “Will & Grace” which arguably helped Americans to moderate and even reverse their antipathy to homosexuality.  “Miseducation” has humorous moments but at base it’s a serious drama about adolescents, some miserable not because of their so-called same sex attraction, but because elements of society continue to denigrate them to this day and beyond. Their parents and guardians—not the type to carry signs “I’m pride of my gay son”—would rather to spend their money on trying to “cure” their children.

Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz), the orphaned title character who prefers to be called Cam, is sent by Ruth (Kerry Butler), her guardian to “God’s Promise,” a camp that deals with curing what is not in any way an emotional illness.  She is outed as gay after the boy who escorts her to the school prom discovers her in the back seat of his car making out with her best friend Coley (Quinn Shephard).  Internalizing the views of the straight adults in her life and believing that she needs saving, she is impressed by the camp’s counselor, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who claims to have been “cured” and Rick’s sister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), who runs the camp.

The biggest problem with God’s Promise is not that it fails to “cure” young people with same sex attractions, but in a way, the reverse.  It causes them, or at least some, to hate themselves for having a “sickness,” a hatred that will turn one boy into such a self-destructive act that the camp may be closed by the authorities.  Most of the action revolves around Cameron’s relationships with the others, especially Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who in one scene removes weed from her prosthetic leg, Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), whose hair is shorn by the director, and pixie-like Erin (Emily Skeggs).   Surprisingly each camper gets a same-sex roommate instead of a private room but Lydia and Rick make calls at random times with flashlights to ensure that nobody is “sinning” against God.

The strangest statement is by Lydia, who announces that “there is no such thing as homosexuality,” preferring to believe as do some deplorable Americans that being gay is a choice.  Twenty-year-old Chloë Grace Moritz comes across as the least idiosyncratic member of the group, preferring to be a good listener rather than acting out.  She does come out of her shell near the conclusion in a dramatic move that she makes with Adam Red Eagle and Jane Fonda.

Director Akhavan does not play around with melodrama, preferring to let the camp’s wrongheadedness play out to an organically believable climax.  She shows a genuine affection for the adolescents and for Reverend Rick, even holding back against demonizing the director—who also displays an affection for her charges.  The film fits right into the Sundance Festival scheme where it won the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize.  Get the book from Amazon for eight bucks.

Unrated.  91 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B

Overall – B

EIGHTH GRADE – movie review

EIGHTH GRADE

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter:  Bo Burnham
Cast:  Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/21/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
Eighth Grade Trailer for Bo Burnham's SXSW Hit
In the Jewish religion a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen.  Fashionably enough, particularly in an age that women demand equality with men, a girl becomes a woman at thirteen as well.  Notwithstanding assertions at Bar Mitzvahs and Bas Mitzvahs, thirteen-year-olds are hardly men and women, though perhaps in Biblical times when folks had a life expectancy of fifty (Methuselah among the exceptions), teens became adults.  Nowadays, let’s compromise and say that we start thinking of ourselves as adults at that age while still anchored in childhood.  We want to be adults but are wondering what responsibilities will bring.  Most of all, at the age of thirteen we are afraid of not fitting in.  If you go through school thinking and acting awkwardly, if you don’t have friends, you will not look back kindly at early adolescence.  That’s where Kayla (Elise Fisher) comes in.

Like some of her classmates, she has a face covered by acne—except in scenes where she doesn’t—but that’s not her concern.  She’s not bullied; more like she’s ignored, and that is a worry for anyone her age and also for their caregivers. Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is a single father who worries about her.  He tries to talk with her at the dinner table but she does not look at him, she does not hear him with those infernal ear buds in her head, and she’s irritated when he tries to converse with her.

Twenty-eight-year-old writer-director Bo Burnham’s “The Big Sick” focuses on a comedian, so we figure we’re not going to get another “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Solondz’s caustic look at an unattractive seventh grader who has good reason to feel anxiety.  “Eighth Grade” by contrast is a feel-good treatment of a thirteen-year-old middle schooler who hates when people call her “quiet,” though she herself does not agree with that label.  Trying to prove this, she knocks out a series of videos in her bedroom giving advice to others of her generation, counsel that she tries, with only limited success, to follow in her own life.

At a pool party given by one of the school’s rich kids, she spots others having great fun, shooting one another with water cannons, showing off as one boy does when fitted with goggles that fit over his nose he tries without success to do hand-stands.  The tentative conversation between him and Kayla is rich with insight into the minds of people their age, just as all the chit-chat, the addiction to smart phones, the separation of pupils in cliques are spot-on.

Try not to get irritated at the opening scene.  Kayla is giving one of her Ann Landers’style advice to fellow teens, using terms like “you know” even more than the newscasters on CNN, “like” several times in a sentence, and “OK” so many times you may want to shake her up and say “Hey, you’re not OK, at least not yet.”   She enjoys bursts of conversations from a variety of people such as Gabe (Jake Ryan), the aforementioned fellow with the hand-stands who challenges her to a breath-holding contest.  She is afraid when a high-school junior (Daniel Zolghadri) asks her to remove her shirt just as he removed his.  Though “not comfortable” in that situation as she explains, she privately looks forward to sending sexy pictures to her boyfriend, whenever she lands someone on her wave length.  She enjoys a big breakthrough just her father does, when around a campfire, she realizes how lucky she is to have a dad like Mark who struggles with bringing up a girl without help from a partner.

The picture belongs to Elsie Fisher, a fifteen-year-old who has a remarkably long résumé in the TV and films business and who you may have seen before in “McFarland USA” or heard her voice in “Despicable Me.”  This is a breakthrough performance that may well be remembered at end-year awards time and should prove a movie that can fill far more seats at the multiplex than did “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”  Andrew Wehde filmed the action in White Plains (upstate) New York.

Unrated.  94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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