THE MOLE AGENT – movie review

Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Maite Alberdi
Screenwriter: Maite Alberdi
Cast: Detective Romulo, Sergio
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/6/20
Opens: September 1, 2020

A still from The Mole Agent by Maite Alberdi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alvaro Reyes.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

You will not be able to see the new James Bond thriller, “No Time to Die” until November, but you might consider “The Mole Agent” a story that will tide you over until then. Like 007’s “Quantum of Solace,” this one is filmed in Chile but with an all Chilean cast. Directed by documentary filmmaker Maite Alberdi, whose “The Grown Ups” takes on a group of friends with Down Syndrome attending the same school for forty years, “The Mole Agent” may look like a scripted drama but is a surprisingly adept documentary. There are three deaths and several robberies involved, yet there is not a gun, a knife or an axe to be found. Instead of an Aston Martin, a jet boat or a ski lift, there’s just one wheelchair and an array of benches. And instead of prison, you have an old folks’ home, but the characters may not consider the place much better. Replacing Q is a private eye named Romulo, and the most danger that faces Sergio, an 83-year-old spy, is being proposed to, even physical mauled, by a woman about his own age.

The Mole Agent poster

Though the unusual ad in the newspaper asks for a man between the ages of eighty and ninety, a reader might suspect that something is fishy. As Sergio says in his interview, old people are never recruited for paying jobs, which is one thing that Chileans and Americans have in common. Though some technical proficiency is required, Sergio has to be trained to use a cellphone: how to communicate with the detective, what buttons to click and when. And he must memorize the face of Sonia, called in code the “target” of the investigation.

The motif is that a middle-aged woman whose mother is in a nursing home in Chile suspects that the older woman may be the subject of abuse, not an unusual idea since even some expensive assisted living dwellings involve unprofessional caretakers who take out their frustrations on the defenseless clients. Since some filming had been done at the home earlier, nobody need suspect that Sergio is not a new patient but a man hired to spy on them for three months. Since women live on average six years or more than men, Sergio is the talk of the elderly women from the time he arrives, particularly since he is gentlemanly, courteous, well dressed, ready to start conversations with any who might respond. All but one cranky woman express themselves.

The one problem they seem all to have is loneliness. Sure, they’re surrounded by women about their own age but these people are not their families. And as my mother used to tell me “Old people do not want to be surrounded by old people.” They long for visits from their sons and daughters, and one woman of about ninety years converses on the phone with her mother who is criticized for never visiting. (The home has one of its staff pretend to be the 125-year-old woman.)

It’s obvious that there would be no abuse in the nursing home when cameras are trained on the staff and their clients and, indeed, the place looks like it could be mistaken for a comfortable, albeit not luxurious retirement community. The floors shine, the rooms, except for one, are clean. The staff are ready to help is someone falls.

Sergio may have no favorites, certainly not the unfortunate two or three women who are completely bedridden, but he does listen to one woman’s poetry, though he is critical: his favorite poems rhyme and these do not. The strangest thing is that you may wonder why these women have to be in nursing homes at all, with the exception of a few who have Alzheimer’s and cannot remember having conversations with Sergio just hours earlier. They are not in wheelchairs, they do not watch TV or play bingo, so the documentary filmmaker can concentrate on the chats that Sergio has with several women.

Pablo Valdes films the proceedings in San Francisco, Chile, with almost all the action taking part within the building and in the surrounding grounds, where only the solitary cat seems happy to be alone all day, his time occupied by cleaning himself. Near the conclusion, a woman with a stroke is taken away in an ambulance, in a scene that reminds us that this is not narrative fiction. One critic notes that this is the most heartwarming spy movie of all time, and though I haven’t scene all in the genre, I’ll take his word for it. You may come away recalling the expression “Old age is bad but it beats the alternative,” but given the dreariness and sameness of the days here, you would not be blamed for challenging its veracity.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

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

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

THE TWO OF US – movie review

TWO OF US (Deux)
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Filippo Meneghetti
Screenwriter: Filippo Meneghetti, Malysone Bovorasmy, additional writing by Florence Vignon
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier, Léa Drucker Muriel Benazeraf, Jérôme Varanfrain, Herve Sogne
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/19/20
Opens: July 10,  2020

Deux (2019)

A nine-year-old boy learns all about sex in his hygiene class at P.S. 103 augmented by discreet animated visuals that show him how it’s done. “EEEEEUUUU Gross,” he shouts, “My mom and dad would never do that!” Now imagine that a woman in her forties is about to discover that her mother, now in her seventies, is “doing it.” She realizes that granny must have done something or mom would not be here, but “at age seventy? And what? Wait a sec. With another woman!” Still this is France, not Saudi Arabia, so many middle-aged moms will come around. After all, Professor Henry Higgins (“My Fair Lady”) suggested, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Joshing aside, “Two of Us” is a remarkably well-acted, exquisitely photographed chamber piece featuring two stellar performers who act out a scenario that must have jogged the imagination of so many of us, meaning: do people in their seventies have sex lives? And more specifically, do lesbians in their seventies have sex lives? If so, are their sons and daughters aware of this? (Yes Virginia, some lesbians have children of their own through marriage or less perilous means.) In this case Madeleine or Mado (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) have been lovers for decades. Living next door to each other in a town in the South of France, they have to sneak into each other’s apartment because theirs is a romance that not all French people can understand, least of all Madeleine’s mother Anne (Léa Drucker) and Anne’s brother Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain).

It may be hard to believe in these times, when most of the West—certainly France—has come to accept lesbianism, but sneak around they will, and their almost daily pas de deux gives this slice of life a comic touch. Filippo Meneghetti, who directs and co-wrote “Deux” as his first narrative feature scores big, and will hopefully evoke a deep emotional impact from his theater audience. The story begins simply, becoming more complex when the two principals realize that deux en compagnie de trois est une foule.

German expatriate Nina is next-door neighbor to Madeleine. They should have been able to be roommates but Madeleine, at any rate, fears the opprobrium of her daughter Anne. They plan to spend the rest of their lives in Rome but Madeleine gets cold feet and backs out of selling. Madeleine determines to come out of the closet with her daughter and son who are sure that their father was adored by her.

Their secret is complicated by Madeleine’s caregiver Muriel (Muriel Benazeraf) who believes that her job is being taken over by Nina, and senses the secret that Madeleine has kept from her son and daughter. At long last Anne and Frédéric are on to Madeleine, are understandably shocked, though the single moment when Anne discovers her mother’s secret is both amusing and melodramatic.

No scenes are wasted in a pas de deux that could easily fit on your TV or on an off-Broadway stage. The storytelling is crisp, to the point and forms a terrific palette for a dance that to my memory is thoroughly original.

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

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

LIVES WELL LIVED – movie review


Shadow Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Sky Bergman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/18
Opened: February 16, 2018 in small markets, later tbd

Moe to Joe (both are 50): Hey Joe, would you like to live to 100?
Joe to Moe: Don’t ask me, Moe.  Ask the guy who’s 99.

Being a curious guy who at age fifty is thinking of mortality, Moe should take a look at “Lives Well Lived.”  The characters portrayed in this doc by Sky Bergman (who wrote, directed, edited, produced and photographed the doc) are from 75 to 103.  Spoiler alert: none of the forty folks interviewed, representing 3000 years of wit and wisdom, show interest in dying earlier than 100.  The elderly subjects are from California, where the Philadelphia-born California transplant director teaches photography at California Polytech in San Luis Obispo.  Why doesn’t anyone feel like bowing out of life before 100?  It could be because they are mostly cherry-picked group of citizens, middle-class to upper-middle-class, involved in sculpting, painting, dancing, yoga, reading, and taking long walks along the leafy roads in and about San Luis Obispo.

They do have wisdom to apart, but come up short on wit. In fact the only bon mot came from a fellow who is asked how he happened to have 9 kids.  His reply?  “My wife couldn’t take her hands off me, and since I never have a headache, I had no excuse.”

As for the wisdom, there is nothing that you don’t already know, because, after all, is there anything original on this subject; something that hasn’t been said in hundreds of self-help books, in movies, on TV, and in your own life? Examples: Family is first.  Be kind.  Have curiosity.  Take some risks.  Take one day at a time (whatever that means). Don’t worry about failure: it teaches.  There is one comment on the border of originality: “Never try to change anyone, not one bit.”

Obvious points aside, Bergman has succeeded in accumulating some dandy archival film.  Nazis occupy Europe.  People are poorly clothed during the Depression.  Japanese-Americans in California are interned in camps, though the husband of one inmate fought for the U.S. and is shown in military attire (he was killed in action).  Whites protest school integration with signs like “Racial mixing is Communism.” Shots of the train leading some lucky children out of Vienna on the kindertransport program to Britain.

The most interesting fellow grew up helping his parents make mozzarella in their food establishment, then taking time out to attend medical school while going home daily to continue baking cheese and then studying medical texts until midnight.

Did anything come across that I could relate strongly to?  Of course, but the principal comment to the question “What should young people take away from this” was a wish that young people would stop texting.  “They’re oblivious to the beauty around them.” Amen.

The film was shown at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, which was attended by Evelyn Ricciardi, who wanted most at the age of 103 to see herself on the screen for her 15 minutes of fame.  She died three weeks after her birthday and is eulogized by Ms. Bergman.

Unrated.  72 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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