MA – movie review


Universal Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: May 31, 2019

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When people are asked how they enjoyed their years in high school, their answers might make you think of movie critics. With us reviewers, there is often little agreement, some saying that such-and-such movie is “a triumph, an instant classic,” while others call the same film a “Turkey,” a “Lemon,” or a “Dog.” What accounts for similar differences of opinion about high school? Probably those who say the years were “the worst of their lives” while others say “I’d give anything to go back and relive those years,” has to do not so much with their grades or their teachers, but how they were accepted by their peers. Those who were bullied “hated high school” while those treated as though they were captains of the football team “loved it.” Along comes a killer thriller called “Ma,” which Melania Trump ought to see when she’s not watching her husband in the ring with sumo wrestlers. The first lady took upon herself the task of stopping all bullying among the young. Her motto: “Be kind to each other” which has as much effect as Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” Director Tate Taylor, whose “The Help” won a Best Actress academy award for Olivia Spencer, wants to show that even if bullying ends on the day of high school graduation, its effects are far reaching, at least for some victims who are hell-bent on revenge.

In the first horror movie led by an African American female, Olivia Spencer anchors the proceedings as Sue Ann, the title “Ma.” Through flashbacks edited smoothly by Lucy Donovan and Jin Lee, we get enough of Sue Ann’s backstory to make us believe in the vengeance she seeks. She is out for blood just like Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” in Brian De Palma’s shocker; however Sue Ann was humiliated not just at her senior prom like Carrie but throughout her years in high school. Now, some time later as an adult, she will get back for that, not only against sixteen-year-olds who had nothing do to with Sue Ann’s high school days but also some who directly made her life miserable.

Filming by Christina Voros in the director’s Mississippi birthplace (though in the city of Natchez), Taylor, using a script by Scott Landes in Landes’ first feature film screenplay, “Ma” finds Sue Ann pleaded with by a rowdy group of underage folks who ask her to buy liquor for them, needed for a party. At first she demurs, probably playing hard-to-get, then gives in, not only getting the sauce but inviting the lot of ‘em to her house. She hosts them in her basement, warning them never to go upstairs (where they would find African objets d’art thereby emphasizing a racial component in the movie), which makes us in the audience certain that they would use her private bathroom and, in a switch from the situation in “The Help” would be punished far more than Tate Taylor’s Minny Jackson in that film.

Soon the house is wall-to-wall kids, having a ball until two of their parents, the mother (Juliette Lewis) of adolescent Maggie (Dana Silvers) and Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans), the father of Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), catch on to the danger faced by their children. But before that happens, director Taylor treats us to rousing parties, where an innocent Maggie is pressured to vape, smoke a joint, drink, and even kiss. It turns out mama Erica was once young (Skyler Joy) as was Ben Hawkins (Andrew Matthew Welch), the two guilty as hell in bullying and humiliating young Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson).

Though there are racial implications in the picture, don’t expect “Ma” to be another “Get Out.” Given a powerhouse performance by Octavia Spencer, whose facial expressions give away every emotion, and fine ensemble acting particularly by Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers, “Ma” delivers its chills in a runaway climactic scene as the body count mounts. Allison Janney does a cameo as the veterinarian, Dr. Brown, who makes the mistake of hassling Sue Ann, her assistant, and none other than Taylor Tate shows up as Officer Grainger.

High school bullies should be required to see this movie. If they can think past the coming Saturday night’s party, say, ten or twenty years later, they may be warned sufficiently to “be kind to each other.”

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

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

BOOKSMART – movie review

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for & 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

SCIENCE FAIR – movie review


National Geographic Documentary Series
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster
Screenwriter:  Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett, Cristina Costantini
Cast:  Kashfia, Myllena, Gabriel, Robbie, Ryan, Harsha, Abraham, Anjali, Ivo, Dr. Serena McCalla
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/30/18
Opens: September 14, 2018
Science Fair (2018)
There’s the old expression, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.”  As for practicing in all areas, the same could be said for basketball or learning Sanskrit or weaving underwater baskets.  But the sad truth is that there is a limit to what most of us can do even with eight hours’ practice daily for years.  You must also have talent, because if practice were the only thing required, everyone on every high-school basketball team would become Michael Jordan and everyone in a high school chess club would be Bobby Fischer.

That’s where “Science Fair” comes in.  Cristina Costantini, who co-directs and serves as a co-writer has previously done a doc about death by fentanyl while co-writer and co-director Darren Foster has co-directed “Inside Secret America,” about underground networks.  “Science Fair” soars above Costantini and Foster’s previous works, winning the Sundance Audience Choice award and capturing the passions of high-school students worldwide who have not only (presumably) practiced their projects but were obviously born with superior mental capacities.

Now we have an administration in Washington that is anti-science, that denies climate change, believes that evolution is just one opinion among many.  This makes it an even greater pleasure to see movies like “Science Fair.”  This is not say that literature and history, music and art should be merely electives in high school and college, but if we are going to make progress in fighting disease and improving people’s living standards, science and technology are where it’s at.  Costantini and Foster look into how young men and women below the age of eighteen have been chosen to take part in the science fairs held  in Los Angeles, about 1700 boys and girls in all, looking to “give back” to society for what has been given to them.  Students interested in competing first go to local science fairs, then regionals, then to the big one where just one person will win $75,000 while the others will have their chances of getting into a good college boosted by their participation in the science competition.

The directors must have taken hundreds of hours of film before whittling the story down to ninety minutes since they focus throughout on the people who have “made it,” who have won or placed or show or perhaps climbed the ladder from the local contests to be invited to the L.A. affair.  In one sense, “Science Fair” is a thriller: we in the audience get a fair idea of what these folks’ projects are like and take guesses as to who will win at least a fourth-place award in several categories of science.  The winner’s name will not be divulged here lest the review be considered a spoiler.

From what we see only one teacher is involved in the travels to L.A.. Dr. Serena McCalla Ph.D. works fifteen-hour days with researchers from Jericho High School in New York’s Long Island, apparently one of the best schools in the state; and interestingly most of her prize students speak English as a second language. They are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who have come to the U.S. for opportunities and stand out as models of the importance of immigration to our country’s progress.    Here are some of the bright people:

Anjali goes to a school that’s at least as prestigious as Jericho High.  In Louisville, Kentucky, Anjali scored a perfect 36 on the American College Test which determines one’s readiness for college. And she did this at the age of 13.  She is giving back to society with an arsenic testing device that could save lives by warning people against drinking water with dangerous levels of the poison.  Ivo, who went to L.A. from a small town in Germany, works on improving aeronautics.  Another impressive duo of small-towners, Myllena and Gabriel, go to LA. From Ceará, a poor state in Brazil, finding a way to stop the spread of Zika, which had infested their area.  Kashfia, a Muslim girl who wears a hijab and who had never attended a party in high school, visits the coast from Brookings, South Dakota.  Having found no mentor in the science department, she teams up with the football coach, of all people, and where her accomplishments in science were ignored by her school’s faculty and administration.  (We’re free to guess why.)

These people speak freely of their dreams and of their projects, some talk filled with jargon as befits those who research obscure factors.  Peter Alton behind the lenses takes in the big fair in L.A. but has also traveled to faraway places with strange-sounding names, contrasting the poverty of Northeast Brazil with the glitz of Los Angeles; visiting high schools in areas that some snobs call flyover country to accentuate the talent in small towns, focusing on high schools with presumably less-than-adequate facilities.  If there’s one scene that’s more impressive than any others, it’s the look at hundreds of kids partying-down, acting like completely normal teens, bouncing about the dance floor as though they were a non-selective cross-section of the world.  Some of us will come away with the sad fact that we are just ordinary people, not the best and the brightest, hopefully coming to terms about this existential fact.  C’est la vie.

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

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

DEAR DICTATOR – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse
Screenwriter:  Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse
Cast:  Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Jason Biggs, Seth Green, Fish Myrr, Jackson Beard
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/10/18
Opens: March 16, 2018

Whatever happened to satire with political undertones that are as smart as they are ruthless, that portray real characters in extremis but not as cartoons?  Think of “Dr. Strangelove,” the more recent “Thank You for Smoking,” and anything coming out of Monty Python?  With “Dear Dictator” a modern parody playing on figures like Fidel Castro and suburban moms and teens, the genre has sunk to its most unfunny low.  This is dumbed down with the most obvious gags, pure sitcom “entertainment”—with a portrayal of a dentist but with an overall story with no bite, no teeth, nothing to chew on.

Even Tatiana Mills (Odeya Rush), who has the gumption to send letters to a Caribbean dictator about to be ousted, projects herself as not a bimbo but a girl who is so uncoordinated that she falls to the ground twice.  And in a side role Denny (Jackson Beard) shows himself as the usual Hollywood portrayal of a religious nut, a Bible thumper, the kind of role that could make Evangelicals furious, except that he is so unconvincing that even folks in the reddest of states might tease out an uncomfortable laugh.

In the story Titiana has a single mother Darlene (Katie Holmes) is so horny that having her toes sucked by the dentist she works for, Dr. Charles Seaver (Seth Green) drives her into a sexual frenzy.  The high school girls gets the idea for a history project from her teacher Mr. Spines (Jason Biggs), fulfilling the assignment of writing a “letter to a person you admire.”  Strangely, she admires a Caribbean communist dictator, General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine), who writes her back, even sending her a revolutionary flag. When he is overthrown, he somehow winds up hiding in the large suburban home of the person heretofore just a pen pal.  He shaves his beard, drops his revolutionary uniform, and puts on a ridiculous wig and mustache, eluding Titiana’s mother for a while, playing miniature golf with the young woman, and learning about the Internet.

That’s Michael Caine, taking a big slide down from his magnetic roles such as Harry Palmer in the 1965 “The Ipcress File,” a performance which makes that movie stand as a masterwork of espionage fiction.  Now he’s a bumbler who, in this story, tries to redeem himself by complimenting Tatiana and Darlene, giving them feminist-style messages that they’re much better people than they think they are and telling them to “go for it.”

The picture was first introduced with the title “Coup d’état,” which could have been called “Coup d’éTatiana,” but no name could have given this mess of physical comedy, dumbed-down script, been-there- done-that high-school parody worth a view.

Unrated.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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


BEFORE I FALL – movie review


    Open Road Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Russo-Young
    Written by: Maria Maggenti based on Lauren Oliver’s novel
    Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 3/1/17
    Opens: March 3, 2017
    Before I Fall Movie Poster
    Some say that if you had your life to do over, you would make the same mistakes.  Russo-Young who directs “Before I Fall” using Maria Maggenti’s screenplay based on Lauren Oliver’s novel does not exactly beg to differ.  But we get the impression that you can change some things within days, and you don’t have to be reborn.   The catch is that you have to be aware that you will die imminently.  With that knowledge, though, even if you’re an immature 17-year-old high school student, you can do your bit to become a better person, much like the condemned man who confesses on the day of his execution that he indeed did the crime.

    “Before I Fall,” which could have been named “Before I Die,” is of special interest to a high-school audience.  Callow youths may learn something from it that could change their lives even if they are lucky enough to have several decades ahead of them.  The major flaw in the project is that it plagiarizes or expropriates the clever theme of Harold Ramis’s 1993 film “Groundhog day,” in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who relives one day over and over and over until he gets his life right.

    The focus now is on Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), played by an actress who is twenty-two years old and has had roles in movies you don’t want to brag about such as “Dirty Grandpa” and “Why Him?”  She is best friends with a trio of fellow students, the particularly mean Lindsay (Halston Sage), the doll-like Allison (Cynthy Wu),and  Elody (Medalion Rahimi).  She lives in a luxurious home in the Pacific Northwest (filmed as though a tourist brochure in Vancouver and Squamish) with her mother (Jennifer Beals), father (Nicholas Lea), and kid sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay).  She is popular in school, receiving roses from admirers on “Cupid Day” February 12.  Since these are rich kids, they have cars, and that is how Samantha dies—in a horrible crash that turns the vehicle over several times.

    But wait!  She wakes up the next morning thinking she was dreaming, but when the day proceeds, she recognizes what is happening—and she can predict the activities of the day including a lesson from her teacher, Mr. Daimler (Diego Boneta) about Sisyphus.  And the same thing happens the next day and the next, seven times in fact, avoiding the car trip a few of those days but not others.  Realizing that she has only one day (seven times over) to make things right and to die a good person, she takes steps to change her boyfriend from the thuggish Rob (Kian Lawley) to the sympathetic, clean-cut Kent (Logan Miller). Best of all, she moves to make up for years of bullying the strange Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who eats lunch alone but not before receiving nasty comments from the Lindsay and company.

    The film could have been more visceral had it stuck to the trajectory of the novel, where Samantha is shown especially nasty to her mother and kid sister and has joined in for years in harassing poor Juliet.  In the novel she seduces her math teacher, but here, she simply approaches her English teacher seductively in front of the class, asking whether she is breaking his heart. She is actually the nicest of her best friends but is shown acting bitchy on only one day when she wears a suggestive dress, eye shadow, and has an attitude of anger.

    The film is reasonably entertaining and serves as another imaginative view of life in high school in a rich community that would scarcely believe a scene out of “Blackboard Jungle.”

    Unrated.  100 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?