GUEST OF HONOR – movie review

GUEST OF HONOR
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenwriter: Atom Egoyan
Cast: David Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Tennille Read, Rossif Sutherland, Tamara Podemski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/27/20
Opens: July 10, 2020

guest-of-honour-poster-600x867

A sleazy bus driver is obsessed with a beautiful young woman. A depressed and confused father cannot understand why her daughter, in jail for a crime she did not commit, resists all chances for release. While Atom Egoyan, whose “The Sweet Hereafter,” about complications following a tragic accident involving schoolchildren may be his best film, he now presides over a relationship that brings out the character of both Jim (David Thewlis), the dad, and his adult daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira). To the movie’s credit, the performance by David Thewlis, the emotional center of the film, is superb, and Egoyan is able to evoke an accomplished job from De Oliveira. However the zigs and zags of time are so frequent and distracting that we wonder why he could not have played the story straight.

The story is framed by a conference between Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) and Father Greg (Luke Wilson), a priest. After her father dies, Veronica wants to give the minister clues to her dad’s life for the eulogy, though the details she reveals may be simply too truthful for the testimonial. She describes Jim’s profession, that of a food inspector in Ontario with the power to close down small businesses. She seems cheered when remembering how much care and attention he paid to her pet rabbit Benjamin when she was away from home conducting concerts with the school orchestra. But she has no problem raising one issue that caused her trauma. When her mother was ill with cancer, she saw Jim holding hands with another woman, an observation Jim defensively tries to refute.

After driving the teacher and the kids to a concert, Mike (Rossif Sutherland), the driver, gets into Veronica’s cell phone and texts a message pretending it is from one of the youngsters. When Veronica realizes that the driver is the guilty party, she stages a prank in which she pretends to have sex with two of her underage boys in order to drive Mike crazy. She feels so guilty for her own actions that she goes willingly to jail for statutory rape and refuses a chance to be released. Melodramatic as this venture can be, Jim’s search for redemption is the real heart of the film. He is a failed restaurateur turned Ontario food health inspector, willing to close down restaurants with a single inspection almost as if he is getting revenge on those successfully plying the food trade. He finds a rat in one place, sniffs at the temperature of the meat, and in one dastardly deed he plants rabbit poop in the men’s room of one restaurant for reasons that become clear. The highlight occurs when he threatens to close down an Armenian place for processing meat on the premises, a violation of code. When days later when a large, boisterous party enjoys the rabbit meat, honoring him for keeping the place open,even making him the guest of honor. The sad, hesitant speech he delivers to the bemusement of the crowd sums up buried feelings.

In several scenes, Thewlis wears a green shirt with green slacks and jacket amid a background of sickly green, the colors becoming warner as the story continues. While granting that the convoluted plot, a characteristic of Egoyan’s general directing, may keep the audience on edge, withholding information to tease an audience into wondering about a payoff, in this case the technique goes so far that the plot is too muddied.

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

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

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+

TEACHER – movie review

TEACHER
Cinedigm
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Adam Dick
Screenwriter: Adam Dick
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/2/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Teacher (2019)

Melania Trump’s took on a mission as First Lady to deal with cyberbullying. Her “Be best” message is probably at least as effective against bullies as Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No made a dent in drug addiction. Cyberbullying aside, the most painful kind of bullying occurs directly, physically, not on the ‘net, although the latter has been unfortunately responsible for suicides among victims. “Teacher,” Adam Dick’s movie, which deals with both forms of bullying, has a clear message, which is that bullies are people who have been abused themselves. His characters, from a 16-year-old student who commits horrendous acts of torturing others, to the title character himself, now an English teacher who had been physically attacked in the past, commit acts of bullying which reflect back to their own childhoods. One of the abusers is a sixteen-year-old kid who you will think has always been coddled and who is sufficiently respected by his classmates, turns out to have been a victim, while the teacher, picked upon when he was of middle school age, has a psychotic break, doing what you’d never expect such a meek gent to execute.

There are surprises in “Teacher,” making it often riveting in its brutality. James Lewis (David Dastmalchian) serves as an English teacher in a suburban Chicago high school. It’s no coincidence that the play he chooses for his class, “The Merchant of Venice,” is his preferred text given that Shylock, like the teacher and like one particular kid in his class, is both victimizer and victim. As a kid himself (played by Bryce Dannenberg), he was endlessly taunted, in one scene pushed into the mud by a body of water by young men who threaten to drown him. Now, as an adult with a drinking problem and undergoing the stress of an impending divorce and anxiety about making tenure, he has the making of a gentle, almost saintly man who is ripe for a psychotic break.

He is pained by the experience of Daniela (Esme Perez), who is cyberbullied for her race and who becomes a candidate for suicide, but even more so by the experience of Preston (Matthew Garry), an intelligent, sensitive boy with a hobby in photography who is tormented by jocks under the leadership of Tim Cooper (Curtis Edward Jackson). In one scene on a school bus, Cooper plunges a needle into Preston’s seat causing a back injury, but that injury turns out to be scarcely worth worrying about when his very life, or at least his eyesight, is in Cooper’s crosshairs. Cooper is a rich kid pushed to achieve as a pitcher for the high school team by his rich, well-connected father Bernard (Kevin Pollak). The stage is set for a showdown involving father and son, the teacher serving to be the surprising combination of hero and villain.

Writer-director Adam Dick, building upon his twenty-minute short “Teacher” about an unbalanced high-school instructor, turns out an expanded freshman film sure designed to engage the emotions of his viewers. He is fortunate in employing the skills of David Dastmalchian, who can do meek and aggressive with authority.

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

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

LUCE – movie review

LUCE
Neon/Topic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/29/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Luce Movie Poster

Every time I think that the high schools in which I taught are pretty OK, not great but certainly not blackboard jungles, I get a wake-up call that says, “Your schools are OK: but compared to what?” Then I come across this high school in Arlington, Virginia which looks nice and clean with grounds to match and students that really pay attention in class and one teacher who has given the teens fifteen years of her life, sees parents after class, and discusses education with the principal. So I think, “I wish I could have been assigned to this Arlington city High School.” Then my envy of the place gives way when I find out that this school may be in prosperous Arlington but it could in no way deserve real estate in Shangri-La. Things are happening therein that would threaten a parent’s trust of her son, a teacher’s dedication to her students, and would start warfare enveloping teacher vs. principal, mother vs. father, student vs. teacher, and would involve questions of race and class. That Julius Onah, who adapted the movie from a play by JC Lee featured in New York’s Lincoln Center leaves ambiguity not only in the ending but throughout the proceedings is a good thing. In fact without the ambiguity’s causing us in the audience to pause and think deeply about the film, we would be shut off from any thought of discussion save for “Where should we go now for our frappuccino?”

“Luce,” which is the name of the principal character played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., means “light” and light indeed brightens the upper-middle-class home of Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and her husband Peter (Tim Roth). Unable to have children of their own, they seek out a potential adoptee from the most troubled place imaginable, a seven-year-old who has already been tormented more than almost any American adult by growing up in war-torn Eritrea. With a back-story that involves years of psychological help and any other form a rescue that his adoptive parents have tried, Luce attends a school that gives his room to develop and express his natural talents and is lucky—or maybe not–to have as his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who pushes those in her charge so strictly that she has been called a bitch. For reasons that a movie audience will find ambiguous, she snoops into Luce’s locker, finding illegal fireworks among the notebooks, confiscates them, and, instead of telling Prinicpal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) calls in Luce’s parents. To add to her suspicions, Harriet has graded the student’s essay on the subject, name a historical figure and write a paper on how you would act in his place. Luce uses the example of Frantz Fanon, whose “Wretched of the Earth” advises violence to get overthrow colonialists. Luce is virtually labeled a terrorist, and when in addition, Harriet hears a rumor that Luce is involved in the rape of Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), the stage is set for verbal, and later physical warfare, involving students, teacher, principal and parents.

What motivates Harriet to go after this one student, a young fellow who excels in debate, track, and can hold an audience of parents in thrall when addressing them in the auditorium? We in the audience are left with an unspoken motif that Harriet, who is on the one hand demanding outstanding work especially for marginalized teenagers, is envious of Luce’s parents, who appear to be upper middle class, who presumably did not have the stresses affecting Harriet, who has lived with her emotionally disturbed sister Rosemarie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). In fact in the film’s most energetic scene the entire school must cope with Rosemarie’s psychotic break as she goes ballistic, removes all of her clothes, and is carted away by the police.

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play parents who must have had to cope with the frustrations and joys of bringing up a child with a damaged psyche, their most compelling scene involving an argument about how to deal with accusations that their young man has committed an act of minor terrorism. Should he be exposed for what he may be—the emphasis on may be—or should they lie and give him an alibi that would counter charges against him? Still, the film belongs to Harrison, who has appeared in films and TV since his minor role in 2013 in “12 Years a Slave,” but who, at the actual age of twenty-five is too old to convince us that he is a student in high school rather than going for a graduate degree.

Nigerian-born director Jonah Onah, whose “The Cloverfield Paradox” finds scientists testing a device to solve the energy crisis, moves ahead with this intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping tale with metaphoric possibilities that feed into the current sophomoric racism of our president, who does not have a racist bone in his body.

This is an emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying meditation on racism, parental pressures, and teachers’ expectations.

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

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

MA – movie review

MA

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net 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

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

SCIENCE FAIR – movie review

SCIENCE FAIR

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

DEAR DICTATOR

Cinedigm
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

  • BEFORE I FALL

    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?