HAMILTON – movie review

HAMILTON
Disney+
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Thomas Kail
Book Music, Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s biography by Ron Chernow
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onadowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillips Soo, Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana DeBose, Hope Easterbrook, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Elizabeth Judd, Jon Rua, Austin Smith, Seth Stewart, Ephraim Sykes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/2/20
Opens: July 3, 2020

hamilton posters

As one opponent of Alexander Hamilton states in the musical “Hamilton,” “He’s a threat as long as he holds a pen.” Would this insight be a dated one, or would it apply to the resident of the Oval Office today? History repeats itself. Every person in power has enemies, every ideology has its suggested modifications. After the American Revolution, opposition did not end but continues to this day. Everybody is unique and therefore everyone has a point of view.

Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, had opposition early on in both the political and the personal all creatively evoked in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical, which played to full houses in the Richard Rodgers Theater beginning August 6, 2015. Seats are filled by people who paid upward of $1,000 (to brokers) for tickets. Now, after almost five years since its opening, it hits the big screen, or rather, it opened on July 3, 2020 streaming only, for a while depriving the lush, glorious musical of venues where it would best be enjoyed.

There is an advantage to the film version, which is that we get to see the original cast with particular focus on an absolute genius, Lin-Manual Miranda, who composed the book, the music and the lyrics and plays the title character. He has a powerful singing voice, a presence that illuminates the room whether you’re watching from your computer or, perhaps later, in the multiplex. Though many movies deal with World War II, only a handful, like this one, are inspired by the American Revolution and the people in the colonies.

In our current year, the persecution of Black people seems finally to hit home even with people who think Obama’s election meant that racism was over. By contrast, what a representation of Blacks and Hispanics in “Hamilton,” a majority of the performers! The play was filmed in situ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016 with cameras that are not simply anchored to the floor but moving with the performers under Declan Quinn lenses, all under the direction of Thomas Kail in his big-screen freshman narrative movie. Dolly shots, closeups, and overhead filming adds to the wide scenes of bodies in motion, capturing the stillness of the intimate songs and the bouncing rhythms of jazz, rap and rhythm and blues.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes portray the Redcoats in their uniformed glory, while the colonists planning revolution don their colorful, but by contrast muted, colors. David Lorins’ scenic design emphasizing wooden scaffolds avoids the usual Broadway custom of being wheeled out and replaced depending on the action. Andy Blankenbuehler’s super-charged choreography evokes dancing that is anything but the sort popularized by the 18th century Puritans. Though some songs display moments of intimacy such as “Wait for it” sung by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), the general tone is bouncy and loud. The opening, Alexander Hamilton,” brings down the house in short order. Jasmine Cephas Jones captivates as both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, though every scene involving King George (Jonathan Groff), who shows up on stage usually alone to warn the colonists not to come back crawling to him, is the musical’s comic highlight. Think of the insight Groff belts out “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Know any current government officials who think that way, also without irony.

Theater fans who mourn that so many Broadway shows are retreads of the oldies; “South Pacific,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Music Man,” will cheer that “Hamilton” is thoroughly original. There is nothing quite like it in Broadway’s history, with top audience seats prohibitively expensive. Now you can stream it with a Disney + accouint while you wait for the virus to calm down allowing it to make history at the multiplex.

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

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

AVIVA – movie review

AVIVA
Outsider Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenwriter: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Zina Zinchenko, Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips, Or Schraiber, Omri Drumlevich, Mouna Soualem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Writer-director Boaz Yakin may lead a life full of conflicts—a good thing because that is how people become creative—but his characters are certainly not lacking in bodily motion. His personal movie “Aviva” is chock-full of nudity, writhing bodies and modern dance and would have probably received an NC-17 rating rather than opting for NR, or not rated. It is not only about to be the year’s horniest film; it has the kind of dancing by veterans of Israel’s Batsheva troupe that Tschaikowsky (“Swan Lake,” Sleeping Beauty”) would not have understood. For that matter I wonder how many viewers will understand the film, given its use of masculine and feminine characterizations that serve to show us women with masculine sides and men with their feminine proclivities. Not that gender bending is unknown to the cinema, as it is expressed also by Luis Buñuel in his 1977 film “The Obscure Object of Desire,” in which a former chambermaid is played by two persons who differ physically as well as temperamentally.

In an interview, Yakin had said that his “adult creative life has been this very, very upsetting push and pull between trying to find a way to fit myself…This time I didn’t want to limit myself at all.” There it is: the background of a film seemingly without limits, one that deserves a second and third viewing to sort out the confusion as you watch a woman played in some scenes by a man and a man performing in the physical persona of a woman.

There are two principal players, the title character Aviva (Zina Zinchenko) and a man (Tyler Phillips), and then again Aviva as a man (Or Schraiber) and Eden as a woman (Bobbi Jene Smith). When Aviva moves from Paris to New York to be with Eden, the gent gets cold feet, conflicted over whether to marry her. (We are told in press notes that Aviva is based on the director’s relationship with his ex-wife Alma Har’el.) To understand this difficult, theatrical movie you must be aware that Aviva becomes a man unpredictably while Eden morphs into a woman, the idea being that they are expressing, respectively, their masculine and feminine sides.

As with any love affairs, most of the excitement is in the early stages, shown creatively enough in Eden and Aviva’s dancing through city streets—which may remind you of Gene Kelly’s resonating with an umbrella, singing in the rain. Aren’t first love and hormonal youth exhilarating? Eden and Aviva’s relationship are on and off, filled with both anticipation and heartbreak. When Eden is dabbling with his feminine side he changes from an indecisive male to a female full of hormonal tension. There are repeated scenes of sexual congress that border on hard core, with male and female frontal nudity displayed as though nakedness should be embraced (literally).

The best scenes, though, are those involving dances, particularly from a trio of thirteen-year-olds meant presumably to reflect the director’s childhood in the happiest moments, played here by Roman Maldenda. He and his two pals rap and show off terpsichorean talents in Coney Island, the iconic Wonder Wheel serving as background. Equally electrifying is a dance number in a bar as a group of denizens acting like Greek men showing their camaraderie with their footwork, burst forth with enough energy to light up the city.

The movie is overlong, though, and too intent on sexual scenes which seem thrown in to turn on a theater audience with vicarious thrills, the men, at least while they are still men, performing energetic thrusts to the gasps of the women who seem unable to get enough. Still, given the way that commercial films are equally repetitive, albeit with guns and car crashes rather than sex serving as melodrama, “Aviva” is an offering that deserves the attention of a patient audience open to its experimental nature.

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

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

THE WHITE CROW – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUSPIRIA – movie review

SUSPIRIA

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich, based on Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s original screenplay
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sylvia Testud
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 10/22/18
Opens: October 26, 2018

While you watch the overlong, drawn-out visuals in this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, you may wonder whether its sinister doings and bizarre rituals are meant to be campy or hope to be taken by the audience as arty horror. As a horror film it bears as much resemblance to cheap pictures highlighting the mad exploits of Freddy Krueger as it does to “Singing in the Rain.” There is little question that much of what passes is eye candy, the violent, modern dances of a Berlin-based company reflecting the more melodramatic incidents outside. This is 1977. The far left, pro- Palestinian Baader-Meinhof Group terrorize the city, warning the authorities that unless all Red Army prisoners are released, each passenger on the hijacked Lufthansa plane will be burned alive. Luca Guadagnino, fresh from his hit movie “Call Me By Your Name” about the romance between a 17-year-old student and an older man, brings the audience back from time to time to what’s going on outside in divided Berlin. However, most of the action takes place within the dance hall used for rehearsals, auditions of new candidates for the modern choreography, and an audience.

suspiria-poster

With outside terrorism serving the initial plot, a secondary one involves Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, exquisitely disguised by prosthetics as an 80-year-old man). We learn in time, in bits and pieces, that during the bombing of Berlin in 1943 he had the chance to escape with his wife and now feels guilty that his inaction led to her death in a concentration camp. (The remarkable Ms. Swinton will be seen in the role of a dancer, though principally as a director of the group.)

The movie opens on American dancer Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) in full-blown psychotic break, prancing around psychotherapist Dr. Klemperer’s office shouting that she has witnessed a coven of witches at work in the dance academy. While the doctor calmly writes notes about his patient’s “paranoia,” her assertions turn out to be true. The company indeed includes witches in its membership, all the better considering how much more vibrant the members slam, crackle and pop out their interpretive moves. The three witches, who could have come out of a first-act staging of “Macbeth,” are Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum, and Mother Lachryharum.

As principal character, Dakota Johnson takes on the role of Susie Bannion, who left a Mennonite group in Ohio, strangely enough accepted into the company with a full scholarship and lodging despite her lack of training. She impresses the troupe’s director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to such an extent, providing energy to the whole company, that Blanc takes her on as her private mentor, feeding her counsel on how best to use her talent. From what we make out, it’s not how high you jump as much as how you carve out space on the floor, which sounds puzzling enough for a potential movie audience. For her part, Madame Blanc is engaged in a power struggle for the group’s directorship, losing her status by three votes as the members of the troupe cast their vocal ballots as though members of the U.S. Senate. You may wonder whether Susie Bannion will make a pact with the witches rather than becoming one of their victims as the tale grinds on, each segment announced as Act one, Act two, etc.

What can we say about a film that has such striking visuals, augmented by an inventive lighting design and fueled by women whose floor pounding and seizure-like posturings make this a pleasure for the eyes? Alas: coherence is lacking. The narrative is spread out with an epilogue that should have brought the random parts together but wind up merely making a bold statement about Germany’s guilt for the war and the Holocaust. The real stars of the film are the prosthetic designers in the make-up department, particularly in turning Tilda Swinton into an 80-year-old psychotherapist. The only film that year that can begin to compare with their talent is another horror feature, Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” featuring two grotesque-looking yet still human characters serving as a Swedish customs inspector and a traveler for whom she orders a full-body search.

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

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

LA LA LAND – movie review

  • LA LA LAND

    Summit Entertainment (A division of Lionsgate Films)
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Damien Chazelle
    Written by: Damien Chazelle
    Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
    Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 11/16/16
    Opens: December 9, 2016
    La La Land Movie Poster
    If you’re of a certain age or simply catch up on movies made before you were born, you are likely to say “They don’t write musicals the way they used to.”  You’re thinking of the oeuvre of George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  Some of their traditional musicals are revived on Broadway, and deservedly so.  Consider “My Fair Lady,” the perfect musical; South Pacific with its outdated(?) theme of racial tension, “Yankee Doodle Dandy, which features a stirring performance by the great James Cagney.  The splashy modern musicals are no slouches: think of the ones still playing on Broadway like “Chicago,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera.”  The distinction between the old and the new is more a line drawn on sand than on stone.  Capitalizing on the idea of doing a traditional musical, Damien Chazelle, whose “Whiplash” shows him as a man who understands and loves jazz, knocks out “La La Land” (a slang term for Los Angeles) with an opening and closing that will look familiar to any who have taken in the lavish spectacles of the forties and fifties.  “La La Land” opens with a small screen logo of the company, Summit Entertainment, then surprises the audience with an expanded screen and a mention that this is a Cinemascope production.  At the conclusion, we see the letters “The End.” Now that’s something you don’t see at movie endings any more.

    “La La Land” is the sort of musical that might find a better environment off-Broadway than in the big ones, with one exception, the spectacular opening number, a single take, choreographed with brilliance and sung with abandon but a diversified group of Los Angeles drivers and passengers in one of those daily, tortuous jams.  When one driver in a convertible, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) honks and passes the auto driven by Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), Mia gives him the finger, which is not the best way to start a romantic relationship, but in this case, absent the bird, there would be no coupling off.

    Hearing music back on land Mia enters a crowded restaurant to find Sebastian, who at first conforms to the manager’s demand that he play Christmas clichés but then takes off with the kind of jazz piano he knows and loves.  This gets him fired by the boss (J.K. Simmons), so, teed off, he knocks Mia on the shoulder as he passes Mia—which qualifies as a meet-cute.  For Mia, this is love at first sight; never mind that she doesn’t like him.

    They get together, they talk, they dance, they click. They find out that they’re not simply drivers: they are human beings young enough to hold onto dreams.  Sebastian likes jazz, but only the kind that he considers pure.  He tries to influence Mia to share his affection for the music.  In the planetarium they dance, literally rising through the air like a modern Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, gazing at the stars above, sharing their fantasies.  He wants to stop playing what the band leaders want and to start his own club.  She wants to be an actress, and takes off from her job as barista in the Warner lot whenever her smartphone informs her of an audition.

    Mimicking the splashy colors favored by Jacques Demy in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”—which featured the stunning Catherine Deneuve as a 17-year-old in the French town of Cherbourg—and Demy’s use of saturated colors in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”, Chazelle alternates dazzlers like the opening scene, with fast-moving jazz compositions, Gosling on the keyboard, and slow, moody, lyrical songs.  Unlike “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Music Man” and scores of other musicals, there are no memorable songs in “La La Land,” nor are the lyrics that clear to make out.  The dancing cannot match that of the pros like the aforementioned Astaire and Charisse and the singing is not on the level of South Pacific’s Ezio Pinza.  Nor does it have to be.  Though many critics will rave and gush, ultimately this is a middling musical measured against the gold standard works of the forties and fifties but is well worth a visit for setting a romantic mood, enjoying the jazz, and feeling as good as you can after the recent political debacle in the U.S.

    Rated PG-13.  128 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

FOOTNOTES – movie review

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

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

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

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

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

POLINA (pOLINA DANSER SA VIE – movie review

POLINA (Polina danser sa vie)

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Valérie Müller, Angelina Preljocaj
Written by: Valérie Müller, Bastian Vivès
Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Juliette Binoche, Aleksey Guskov, Niels Schneider, Jérémie Belingard, Miglen Mirtchev, Kseniya Kutepova, Sergio Díaz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/8/17
Opens: August 25, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
If you want to make it in the dance world, whether in classical ballet or modern, forty percent of the requirements is your chemistry with your partner. This may not be true, but you can pick it up from the comments thrown at the title character by her choreographers. Estimate that another twenty percent comes from pulling the broomstick from your butt, but those who cannot shake the sweeper out will never get past the high-school drama club play.

To find the ideal principal performer for the title role of “Polina,” which is directed by real-life choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his partner Valérie Müller and adapted from Bastian Vivès’s graphic novel, the production team interviewed six hundred candidates in France and Russia before coming up with Anastasia Shevtsova.  The team found some who were perfect for the classical ballet segments, and some who could do modern improvisations.  They chose Shevtsova because she is comfortable with acting.  Anastasia Shevtsova, who carries the movie and, as an adult, appears in virtually every frame, has a mystical gaze, can move her body with the steps that would influence the Bolshoi Ballet to hire her, but most important for this film, she can do modern, she can improvise, and finally she can rise to the status of choreographer.  For her, this would fulfillment of her dreams, since she is one of the few dancers in the Bolshoi to have the courage to split from the highest status a Russian can have in dance, eager to break away from all convention and invent her own moves.  In the business world, we’d call that entrepreneurship.  In the dance world, that would be throwing away the tried and true in quest of the authentic you.  In the movie industry, call it art, rather that commerce; surprises rather than formula.  “Polina,” in fact, meets that standard of art, as a film that can enrapture even an audience that has never seen Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, nor marveled at the gyrations on TV’s “Dancing with the Stars” or “Bring It!”

Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 movie “The Red Shoes,” in which a young ballet dancer is torn between her lover and her ambition to be a prima ballerina; and like Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film “Black Swan,” projecting a dancer who is losing her sanity, “Polina” has a solid story to give genuine context to Polina’s quest for artistic freedom.  As an eight-year-old (Veronika Zhovnytska), she is tyrannized by the choreographer Bojinsky (Aleksey Guskov), whose demands for perfection would cause many a girl to drop out and fall back on twelve hours a day of texting.  Polina is stressed by family problems as well.  Her father, Sergio (Sergio Díaz) is engaged in illegal trade to pay for his daughter’s ballet studies, a man who in one scene has a gun pointed by a thug, forcing him to agree to the “Afghanistan route.”   That is never explained, nor do we know who trashes the family apartment.  No big deal.

Quitting the Bolshoi to the dismay of her father, she travels with her lover Adrien (Niels Schneider) to Aix en Provence in the south of France, where she studies modern dance with Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche—who worked for months on her own performance).  Liria reads the riot act to Polina after watching her dance with Adrien, stating “You are focused only on yourself; you must harmonize with your partner.”  After falling and spraining her ankle, she loses hope for a job, traveling to Antwerp in Belgium which is known for modern dance.  In one scene there, a choreographer asks the class to imitate any animal, at which point one male dancer takes off to electronic music in a frenzy that could make anyone want to chuck the strict rules of classical ballet and do your own thing.

In a final scene, which arrives without much preparation, she is totally fulfilled, performing an intricate modern dance with her partner, showing that she has learned well to focus on his feelings as well as her own.  So, the dance takes work, years of hard work if you want to be a professional.  There are mishaps along the way, family problems to work out.  As Polina, Anastasia Shevtsova shows the audience what has to be overcome; that not everyone can make it like her, and only few can chuck the classical rules of footwork, move into contemporary dance, and ultimately become a choreographer—the inventor herself.  Call “Polina” a feminist movie if you must, one certainly more authentic in showing the way a real human being can move to the top, and not a pop fantasy like Patti Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman,” which has been touted as feminist but is really just a surreal entertainment with few roots in humanity.  In French and Russian with clear English subtitles.

Unrated.  112 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

ALIVE AND KICKING – movie review

  • ALIVE & KICKING

    Magnolia Pictures
    Director:  Susan Glatzer
    Cast:  Mary Murphy, Norma Miller, Chester A. Whitmore, Chandrae Roettig, Evita Arce, Frankie Manning, Hilary Alexander, Stephen Sayer
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/15/17
    Opens: April 4, 2017
    alive and kicking poster
    This year it’s possible to watch people bumping and grinding, gyrating and flying, in full frontal and back body poses—in other words swingers—without paying a hotel an extra fee for premium TV.  Just go to Amazon and order the  DVD of “Alive and Kicking” (under $19) where you’ll see the highest-spirited documentary of the year, one of the best in fact.  It’s all about the virtues of the Lindy Hop, which came out of Harlem decades ago, went into a coma, and was revived in the 1980s in about a dozen variations.  With enough power to uproot our addiction to oil, the young, middle-aged, and elderly men and women who people this scintillating picture lose their own addition to Prozac and find their depression gone gone gone, the only side effect being ecstasy.  Politically our country may be racing to catch the late 19th century, but for pure joy, we’ve got to wonder at the superior knowledge of our Charleston-loving forbears of the 1920s, who helped during the trying times of the Great Depression and are now spiritually coming to life in our own time’s new jazz age.

    Susan Glatzer in her directing debut allows us in our movie seats some vicarious thrills and chills and hopefully will encourage people of all ages and ethnic groups not only in the U.S. but in places as far as Singapore and South Korea and as iconic as New Orleans to turn off the cell phones, forget about texting and even sexting, put on a pair of flats, find a partner and dance, baby dance.

    Among the bon mots flung out from competitive ballrooms and on the street is that “you can’t hate someone if you dance with them.”  Instead of trading insults and indulging in propaganda warfare, can you imagine Donald J. Trump Lindy-Hopping with Kim Jong Un?  Oops, neither can I, so we’ll have to put the suggestion on hold.  Still perhaps you can start with a weekend frolic of the two Koreas, open up the border, and see what can be done.  As our President said during the campaign, “What have you got to lose?”

    As for the dating game (if you recall the word “dating”), in addition to having three-minute round robins as a meeting game, why not put people of (again) all ages and ethnic groups on the dance floor, let them improvise to the limit of their imagination, and see what happens.  No harmful side effects are likely, nor are any put forth on Glatzer’s movie.

    Behind the camera, John W. MacDonald brings the energetic spirit front and center with Steven Argila’s original, cool soundtrack, particularly with the clarinet, the principal instrument of Dixieland jazz.  As for individuals, Frankie Manning, who died recently at the age of 95, is perhaps the hero of the movie, having choreographed the Lindy Hop, guiding many students to happiness, while the cinematography puts some of the dazzling steps into slow motion with images that will make your eyes widen and your head spin.

    Swing provides a respite, goes a zen-like expression, from isolation, with physical contact and touch touted as the greatest gift we can give each other.  You can’t avoid agreeing with the epilogue summary, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  Life is swinging in the rain.”

    Unrated.  88 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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