KOKO DI, KOKO DA – movie review

KOKO DI KOKO DA
Dark Star Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Johannes Nyholm
Screenwriter: Johannes Nyholm
Cast: Ylva Gallon, Leif Edlund Johansson, Peter Belli, Katarina Jacobson, Morad Khatchadorian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/9/20
Opens: TBD

The idea is a clever one, one of monstrous people acting out the only partially buried grief of a couple in a Swedish tale of horror and torment. This pic, however, does not involve mass killings or aliens emerging from bodies. It’s more grown-up tale, though remember that the fairy stories targeted to children have motifs of terror. Still, a clever idea does not always make for an entertaining film even if the performers play their parts dutifully. The rip-off from “Groundhog Day” goes on too many times with too few variations. Remember that the masterwork “Groundhog Day” does not simply repeat scenes daily but shows the principal character played by Bill Murray as one who grows with past knowledge, as when he starts out as a beginner in piano and winds up a dazzling jazz pianist.

Writer-director Jonahnnes Nyholm, whose “The Giant” looks at an autistic man who enters a fantasy world where he is a giant indulges his own fantasies in his full-length sophomore narrative feature, but the picture as a whole may test your patience. Maja (Katarina Jacobson) dies on her eighth birthday from a severe allergic reactions after eating mussels while on vacation with her parents, Tobias (Leif edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon). Mom, who consumes the fish likewise, becomes ill but survives though neither parent has been able to let go of grief. The vacation, which allows them to take in a show at a restaurant featuring two clowns (Stine Bruun and Martin Knudsen) is hardly compensation for what befalls the family, then indulging in bunny make-up, greasepaint that will turn up three years later in a different form while mom and dad go on a camping trip.

Strangely the couple sets up a tent in an isolated forest area rather than on camping grounds, a choice that could and does leave them open to be victimized by criminals and madmen. Sure enough Mog (Peter Belli), a dapper man with a bowler hat, a huge Andre (Morad Khatchadorian), and Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), looking like an escapee from a Charles Addams cartoon in New Yorker magazine, pop up by the couples’ tent, toying with the duo before inflicting their punishments on them. Those intruders are representations of their pictures on Maja’s music box, but they are no longer like the painted, cheerful people singing something like “Zip-a-dee-doo da,” The trio are not looking for money but are psychos who enable one another—Cherry carries the gun, Andre a club and his own muscular body, and Mog the master of ceremonies who in one scene sings “Koko-di, Koko-da,” directs the torture.

Good so far. But when the scene is repeated again, then again, with only a few changes of behavior, that’s where the aforementioned patience trial kicks in. The one comic element is the sight of Tobias, having been warned by fantasies of Mog and company, racing out of the tent in his underwear, yanking his wife Elin into the car to escape from the evil trio.

Now and then the scene fades to a series of animations of bunnies, principally, an obvious reminder of what the poor eight-year-old may have loved but can do so no longer. Perhaps the writer-director would have been ahead of the game if he restricted the running time to that of his previous shorts, “Dreams from the Woods” (8 minutes) and “Puppetboy” (27 minutes). What grief. In Swedish with English subtitles.

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

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

HOMEWRECKER – movie review

HOMEWRECKER
Dark Star Pictures/ Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Zach Gayne
Screenwriter: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe, Zach Gayne
Cast: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe, Tony Mathews, Kris Siddiqi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/20
Opens: July 3, 2020

A strange thing about “Homewrecker,” mostly a two-hander theatrical piece that could do well on an off-broadway stage, is that despite some clunky dialogue and obviously fake fights, it dies gave a hold on an audience. This could be in part because at 76 minutes it does not outlast its welcome and because young people, especially, women in the their twenties who may consider having babies will want to think over whether their husbands are the right people to team up with. We get the impression that though sisterhood may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, a liberated woman would do well to choose the right person to be your “sister.” Sometimes a friendly person who believes she has rapport with a potential friend is wrong. The other young woman may be just not into the budding friendship and should not be afraid to tell this individual that discussing husbands and boyfriends is off limits.

In the case of “Homewrecker” Michelle (Alex Essoe), an interior designer working on a laptop in a public space tells Linda (Precious Chong) she appreciates the atmosphere because it’s quiet. But Linda fails to take the hint. Even worse, Michelle, who is so introverted that she can barely construct a sentence without several ums is too nice to tell an aggressive person to buzz off. When Linda asks Michelle take a look at her house and offer suggestions on decorating it, Michelle, who has work to do and should know better, agrees.

Now once a psycho has you inside her quarters, there’s no getting out, unless the house has a door that can be opened from the inside and windows that are not too small and too tightly bound to the wall make that impossible. When Linda shows that she is so desperately lonely that she has gone past the limits of borderline psychosis, the horror begins. Michelle is locked in, willing to take Linda up on the latter’s suggestion to play a board game called Party Hunks. The subtext of the game is that players will reveal things about themselves that they would not consider saying, especially to someone they had just met.

The film goes from horror to temporary truce, back to horror, until Linda makes a move with a hammer on the wall that will make you think of Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Shining.” Summing up, Linda is psychotic and Michelle is neurotic, which is not a good combination for friendship.

The movie is written by the two principal actors plus the director, Zach Gayne in his freshman entry. Gayne also directed “F*ckdrive” which is only seven minutes long, and is likely to be back with something less sophomoric than “Homewrecker.”

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

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

EXIT PLAN – movie review

EXIT PLAN (Selvmordsturisten)
Screen Media
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Screenwriter: Rasmus Birch
Cast: Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Ashfield, Jan Bïjvoet, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/30/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Exit Plan Poster

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comment about the Soviet Union, “Exit Plan” is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Just when you think you’ve figured it out—is it a dream? A tumor-inspired hallucination? A strange, horrifying reality? Anything is possible in this Danish movie with English subtitles and some spoken English (Scandinavians are famous for fluency in English) but by the time the film is over, you’re not sure what happened. To its credit, this is a horror movie without the slashing, a psychological thriller without car chases or explosions. “Exit Plan” is a virtually a chamber piece whose focus is fixed on the principal character, who by his expressions tries to tell us in the audience what he’s thinking and feeling. He takes off his glasses and leans his head on the table. He stares at a loved on as if afraid to tell her what he’s feeling. He even smiles sometimes, which is not easy if you have a terminal, growing brain tumor that, as one knowledgeable person notes, might make you mistake your wife for a dog–not an entirely bad idea since you’ll probably give her some affection for a change.

This is a star vehicle for Nikolai Coster-Waldau, who you’ll remember in the role of Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” He is directed in a sophomore feature by Jonas Alexander Arnby, whose previous movie, “When Animals Dream” finds 16-year old Marie living on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father. When suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body. You’ll see that the Copenhagen-born director is right in his métiér with this one.

Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) learns that he has terminal brain cancer. To avoid a painful demise, he opts to travel by car and small plane to the frosty north (could be Denmark, Norway, Finland or Sweden), registering with the Hotel Aurora. The management therein provides assisted suicide fantasies allowing guests to have dream suicides, choosing the landscape, the method, the whole shebang. The trouble is that the Aurora is like the Roach Motel. You go in, but you can’t come out. Yep. Once you sign the register, you are not allowed to leave. In fact bolting is more difficult than breaking an apartment lease in New York.

While clad in pajamas, Max waits out the few days till his demise, chatting with one woman who will try to escape, but each time he has a talk back home with his wife Lærke (Tuva Novotny) he does not know how to raise the topic. Most of the time, director Arnby, using a script by Rasmus Birch, whose “Brotherhood” deals with Danish servicemen thrown together in a neo-Nazi group, tries to penetrate Max’s mind, his expertise being able to let us in the audience know what it’s like to be in an extreme existential crisis.

The pace is slow, picking up during the final fifteen minutes when Max decides whether he wants to go through with the plan or has cold feet. (When in one scene he falls through the ice, his extremities are literally freezing.) A good indie for a patient audience.

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

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

VIVARIUM – movie review

VIVARIUM
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwike, Jonathan Aris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: March 27, 2020

One of the most explosive and controversial books in recent times, David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament,” takes the view that giving birth is bad. Benatar is an anti-natalist not so much because of the usual reasons—too many people in the world leads to disastrous climate change and food shortages—but because, he believes, you are inflicting pain on your children. The happiness our children feel will is subordinate to their pain. Citing Benatar’s example, would you be willing to accept an hour of pain in return for getting an hour of pleasure? Hardly anyone would say yes. Which brings us to “Vivarium,” the word meaning a structure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation and experimentation.

Director Lorcan Finnegan, whose “Without Name” follows a land surveyor’s measuring an ancient forest, who loses his reason under supernatural conditions, is in his métier with “Vivarium,” a intriguing puzzle of a movie that will evoke several interpretations. The easy one is that the film is a satire on suburban living, which it is, not unlike “Suburbican,,” “The Burbs,” “Pleasantville,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out.” However, think of the movie on deeper terms and you may agree that Garret Shanley’s screenplay is in its way a promulgation of Benatar’s book as the images on the screen for most of its 98 minutes show a young couple whose initial happiness gives way to months of continuing pain.

How so? Watch the progress, or regress, of a young couple on the cusp of life; Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They’re looking for a dream house, white picket fence and spacious rooms, of course, because that’s what America is about. Gemma, an elementary school teacher, is good with her class, putting them through an exercise that has them identify with winged creatures. Just after dismissal she runs into one of her pupils who discovers two dead birds who have fallen out of their nest shortly after birth, a time that finds the young birds with open mouths tasting their first pangs of hunger. Perhaps they have just bird brains or maybe they can tell already that life is a vallis lacrimarum.

When Gemma and Tom consult Martin (Jonathan Aris), a real estate agent whose oddball behavior should have them running for the hills, they are escorted by him to a development called “Yonder,” where they behold a labyrinth of ticky-tacky houses, all painted puke-green. (Great set design by Julia Devin-power.) Impressed by the spaciousness inside number 9, they are surprised to note that the agent has disappeared. Set to go home, they wind up driving in a circular fashion, always landing back on number 9. Life is a circle, isn’t it? They take in a baby deposited in a box outside, a brat who grows daily, who imitates the actions of his, or its, foster parents, screams like the devil, and speaks in a voice not like Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist,” but like a grown man. Tom is ready to kill. Gemma has not reached that stage but hates the kid’s calling her “mother.” “I’m not your f******mother!”

Already the suburban dream has been smashed. The desire to have a child? Gone. The boxed-in togetherness of the trio drives both off the wall, the child being the only one who, despite screams, is looking to learn. Benatar’s prescription is swallowed with a vengeance, as relative moments of happiness are dissolved into hellish suffering. Like many other psychological thrillers, “Vivarium” begins with a light touch, moments of humor, dissipating in the second half, just as weird as the opening but loaded with misery.

This is a low-key sci-fi adventure with almost bloodless smidgens of horror which, with the crackerjack acting especially of Imogene Poots with Jesse Eisenberg in almost a supporting role is entertaining and enlightening. A fine performance from child actor Senan Jennins, who looks and acts something like CBS’s Young Sheldon, delivering the goods. Think before you marry or before you trust that a long-term relationship is heaven on earth. Think before you have children. Think before you believe suburban life is a cure-all or protective cocoon for life’s misfortunes. The universe is indifferent to you and so is your real estate agent.

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

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

THE LODGE – movie review

THE LODGE
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Veronik Franz, Severin Fiala
Screenwriter: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 2/5/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

 

The Lodge

A flagrant male fantasy appears during the opening moments of this film: that a woman would kill herself rather than accept being dumped by a fellow. The first quarter hour of “The Lodge,” from Austrian directors Veronnik Franz and Severin Fiala, is the most illuminating in terms of atmospheric brightness. It’s too bad that the fast pace with normal conversations will slow down to a crawl and end the movie with repetitiveness and far-away looks sustained by the close-up camera, that might lead some in the audience unable to repress their laughter.

Of course scenes of activity in cabins in the woods are a favorite of horror-meisters, the best in my opinion being Eli Roth’s 2007 “Hostel II,” which follows three American female art students in Rome who are directed to a Slovak village where they are kidnapped and taken to a facility in which rich clients pay to torture and kill people. The only torture in this entry is psychological with an occurrence in at least one scene that is simply inexplicable.

The film may recall the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in which a cult leader demands that hundreds of his followers drink poisoned Kool-Aid because “God is waiting for you.” “The Lodge” focuses first on Richard (Richard Armitage), who urges his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) to speed up their divorce to allow him to marry Grace (Riley Keogh). Aside: Anyone who would toss out a woman that looks like Alicia Silverstone for anybody else might be more nuts any other character in this movie.

Dad wants his two sons, teen Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and younger sis Mia (Lia McHugh) to bond with Grace, his new squeeze, allowing the family to settle peacefully into new surroundings. To hasten the peace plan, he invites Grace to his rustic cabin during the dead of winter, then leaves her with the kids to finish up some business in the city. Truth, though, often comes out of the mouths of babes, as when Aiden rhetorically asks his dad “Why do you want to marry that psychopath?”

There is much evidence that things are not right in Grace’s mind. She is the sole survivor of a cult massacre ordered by the leader, depending on prescription tablets to keep what’s left of her sanity. But when things disappear in the cabin—food is gone from the frig, the adorable Maltese dog has gotten out in the blustery weather, and most important Grace is missing her pills—the stage is set for horror.

But the real horror is not  long in coming, though it was best presented in the opening scene. From that time onward the movie bogs down in long stares, cold shoulders, and a single event that indicates a possible sexual attraction by the older boy for the new woman. Melodramatic incidents such as the family unit’s falling through the ice (was that planned or was it an accident?) and visions by Grace of people from her past (hallucinations or real ghosts?) make way for the dramatic conclusion, which leaves questions unanswered.

No complaints about the acting. Richard Armitage is fine as the male adult unable to see what his teen boy intuits, and Riley Keough is spot-on as a woman who seems normal at first but who steadily loses her emotional bearing.

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

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

READY OR NOT – movie review

READY OR NOT
Fox Searchlight Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/13/19
Opens: August 21, 2019

Image result for ready or not movie poster

Jokes are often made about marriages of Hollywood actors. They have elaborate ceremonies, their receptions are written up in People, interviewers ask all sorts of personal questions such as “How many kids to you plan to have?” Then two years later, four years later, “in sickness and in health” becomes the big lie. Divorces are common after short periods. If you really want to see an extreme version of this as though satirizing the concept, look into “Ready or Not,” featuring a marriage that lasts all of twelve hours. Blame it on the in-laws. Though “Ready or Not” is fiction, some viewers may think that it’s a send-up of the one percent, the belief that any family that is rich enough to be in that bracket must have gained their wealth through stealth, even murder somewhere along the line. Still, that would be a difficult thesis to prove, nor do Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who share directing credits as well for “Devil’s Due,” about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon facing an earlier than expected pregnancy.

Unlike “Devil’s Due” the couple may or not have an unexpected pregnancy, but they have one hell of a bad honeymoon. Nor is the bride favored by in-laws, an eccentric group of people living in a mansion with rooms that may be larger than the cubic feet of an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. (The pic is filmed by Brett Jutkiewicz in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto, considered the safest place in the area where kids can play at night—but tell that to the people in this film.)

Samara Weaving anchors the activities as Grace, whose history as a foster child compels her to want a family. She lucks out, or so she thinks, in meeting Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) not realizing that she is being set up like Chris Washington by Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s superior film “Get Out.” After an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the estate, she returns with Alex to meet the family—one which could be compared, except in appearance, to the folks in Charles Addams’ cartoons. These are people bound by tradition, as shown in an opening scene thirty years earlier. A satanic pact has been made with the ancestors, agreed to by the family to pay back the man who originally made the money by creating and selling games.

Told that she must pick a card, any card from a deck featuring games, Grace selects Hide and Seek, the worst choice she could have made. As the family counts to 100, she is delighted to run away, hide in the dumbwaiter, and then think of a less cozy place. Soon enough she sees that if she cannot escape from the mansion by dawn, she will die at their hands, nor can she count fully on her husband Alex, who loves her but is conflicted by the pact of which he too is a part. Soon she is hunted down by Alex’s brother Daniel Le Domas (Adam Brody with Etienne Kellici as the young Daniel), Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell with Kate Ziegler as young Becky), Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun) who needs help in using a crossbow), Tony Le Domas, the majordomo of the outfit (Henry Czerny) and Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the aunt who most resembles a Charles Addams character.

As is customary in horror pictures, people get picked off, one by one, in this case by crossbow, weights smashed on their heads, strangulation, gunshots, and ultimately by a Götterdammerung of a conclusion that comes off more like a deus ex machina than a scene that you might expect. While some critics believe that Adam Brody comes off tops in his role as the bride’s brother-in-law, also with conflicted feelings, I have high regard for Henry Czerny, who is the epitome, or perhaps society’s stereotype, of a chief executive. Czerny, who delivered a powerful performance as a pederast in John N Smith’s 1992 “The Boys of St. Vincent,” has a lesser role here but his depiction of the family’s leader is compelling. Best of all, Samara Weaving, whom we have seen in Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” about a virus that causes white collar office workers to act out their worst impulses, is perfect for the role. She starts out in her bridal dress, a long white gown, innocent in the ways of people whose riches she could only imagine. She reflects the tension that all feel, with a terrific depiction of fear, shaking, breathing hard, tearing her dress to allow her to run, then becomes an angel of vengeance.

The visuals are great. An estate with wall paintings of ancestors becomes symbolic of the home of the super-rich, though weighed down by a pact with which only some are enthusiastic with others conflicted. The music, which includes sections of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, is perfect. There is one serious weakness, found in Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s freshman feature screenplay. The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight which has served as the highbrow companion of 20th Century Fox, has the visual quality of its traditional art-house fare. But the dialogue, with its incessant use of the f-word and the s-word, is vulgar, not warranted except to draw in those moviegoers who never get tired of the profanity used well beyond its function in the movies. Screenplays are important: some consider writers, not directors, to be the most important elements of a movie. The juvenile language amid the paintings of the masters and a soundtrack that includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is incompatible.

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

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

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID – movie review

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Shutter
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Issa López
Screenwriter: Issa López
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón Lópex, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoh Huerta
Screened at: Technicolor Screening Room, NYC, 8/6/19
Opens: August 23, 2019

Image result for TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID MOVIE POSTER

Feel free to call this movie an example of Guillermo del Toro light, considering that del Toro is best known for “Pan’s Labyrinth” (n the Falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world). Like the master, writer-director Issa López fills her works with magic realism, a technique for characters to conjure dreams as an escape from reality. Perhaps “Tigers are Not Afraid” does not succeed because the actors, however skillful and talented, are ten-year-olds with a limited grasp of the situation but more likely it is because the actions in this Shutter release come across like a work-in-progress. Its plot that does not congeal, landing across the screen as a bunch of actions not full thought out.

 

Since the principal characters are all young orphans whose parents have presumably been rubbed out by drug lords during the war that began in Mexico in 2006, we can accept the ease by which these kids fill their time with fantasies about killers on the loose. The story opens on a classroom. The teacher assigns the writing of fairy tales, stories which for ten-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) star tigers because tigers are not afraid. She and her classmates have good reason to be afraid when shots are fired down the hall, the children and teacher hitting the floor. However Estrella holds three pieces of chalk in her pocket, each with the power to grant a wish. With the first she succeeds in killing a local mobster, an initiation of sorts into a roving band of street urchins who include El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez).

Issa López, who wrote and directs, projects that for these kids, things that go bump in the night may be seen as by adults as just superstitions, but for these kids they are as real. They include shadows, ghosts, the dead whispering their demands for vengeance. A line of blood follows Estrella as she and her male pals plan on dealing with members of the cartel including El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), whose cell phone with damning evidence of murder has fallen into the hands of the children and which the drug lord seeks—not that the cops are interested in doing anything with the evidence as Estella and company find out.

Though the film is described as horror, at most it could be called supernatural, with visions that are not overdone by López, whose “Efectos secondarios” about four young adults adrift in Mexico City shows her versatility. Good performances aside, “Tigers are Not Afraid” is filled with repetitive and dull commentary by the street kids and lacks the kind of variety that would substantially fill even its brief running time.

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

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

MIDSOMMAR – movie review

MIDSOMMAR
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Cast: Florench Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, Will Poulter
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/1/19
Opens: July 3, 2019

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When you go to Europe on vacation, what do you expect to do? Take in the sights? Enjoy fine dining? Fishing and golfing and womanizing? Scuba-diving or mountain climbing? One thing is missing: the people who live there. Don’t you want to blend in with the locals, meet and chat with them, get invited to some of their social functions? If you don’t have family in France, Germany or Iceland, you are likely to gaze at some of the natives but unlikely to have conversations with them, and that may be the wise thing to do. After all, look what happens to a band of American graduate students who are invited by one of them, a Swedish-American, to travel to a remote rural area to observe some special festivities. When Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) suggests that his friends join him on a trip that bypasses Stockholm in favor of watching a nine-days’ festival that occurs that year, they go for it especially when Josh (William Jackson Harper) is doing his thesis about midsummer rituals for his Anthropology major.

“Midsommar,” which is writer-director Ari Aster’s second feature—his “Hereditary” dealing with dark secrets when the family matriarch passes away—finds Dani (Florence Pugh) in circumstances not unlike those of Toni Collette’s Annie in that first offering. Dani, who has a neurotic dependency relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), is urged by his male friends to dump her, but instead, perhaps feeling sorry that Dani has just lost her sister and parents in a catastrophe, Christian makes the mistake that they all make in taking the trip. What they find among a large ensemble standing in for Pelle’s cousins and other relatives is an inbred community whose warm welcome of the Americans belies their intentions. Like the folks in Jordan Peele’s stunning horror picture “Get Out,” finding African-American boyfriends of young family member Rose Armitage embraced by a group of people who go overboard to show that like Joe Biden they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, actually have sinister plans for the guys to whom they are introduced.

The extended (and this must be repeated) inbred family may remind old-timers here in America of Woodstock in mid-August 1969, with its hallucinogenic drugs, its nudity, its camaraderie, its peace-in-our-time atmosphere, one difference being that there, only two people died; one was run over by a tractor and another passed away on a drug overdose. You can’t blame the Yanks for thinking that the big bear kept in a small cage is an hallucination, but it has uses for the locals in white folksy costumes to celebrate an event that happens only every ninety-nine years.

Pawel Pogorzelski photographed the macabre party in the Hungarian countryside, taking a few startling close-ups when required, otherwise using a vivid imagination as when turning the Americans’ world literally upside down as they go well past the urban Stockholm landscape for the spacious family grounds. Production values are spot-on, and Aster’s solidly directed expansive action are big plusses. A sex scene involving a score of naked women cheering on one man’s performance in one moment will draw unintentional laughter from the audience, though one might surmise that this particular moment arises from the director’s sense of humor. A playful cinematography is marred by a convoluted plot, however, the editing taking a back seat to a chronological treatment of events though the visual effects department nicely projects a drug-fueled distortion of nature. Best of all, Florence Pugh turns in a dazzling performance in the key role, anchoring the show as a woman who opens on a mournful note, overly dependent on her boyfriend Christian, yet ending up having the authority of life or death.

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

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

THE INTRUDER – movie review

THE INTRUDER
Screen Gems
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Deon Taylor
Screenwriter: David Loughery
Cast: Meagan Good, Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy, Joseph Sikora, Slvina August, Debs Howard
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 4/30/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

The Intruder Movie Poster

It’s difficult to believe that anyone who read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” about the murder of four people of the Herbert Cutler family in Holcomb, Kansas, would think of buying a house in the country. The house shown in Deon Taylor’s “The Intruder,” filmed by Daniel Pearl in British Columbia standing in for California’s Napa Valley, is a spacious estate with a large acreage of grass framed by a forest, just the kind of quarters that demands the presence of either a couple of Doberman Pinchers or an army of guards from the Secret Service. There are more rooms than can be explored in a single trip guided by a real estate agent, and some of those rooms will turn up at a surprising moment in the suspense-filled plot.

Director Taylor, whose “Traffik” considers the plight of a romantic couple who are invaded by a group of bikers, is right in his métier here, though you don’t need more than one psycho to allow its likewise romantic duo to regret their move from a beautiful apartment complex in the city to the dangers of the sticks.

If Scott Howard (Michael Ealy) and his wife Annie (Meagan Good) are a well-suited, upper-middle-class couple with a happy marriage bound to produce a beautiful family in a year or two, then Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid) can be considered a guy married to a house. After his wife died, allegedly from cancer, his daughters living elsewhere, Charlie needs to sell his quarters, but the problem is that while he needs the $3.5 million, or the $3.2 million he settles on, throwing in his furniture because he really wants these two lovebirds to settle there, he has no intention of giving up the place. He’s the neighborly guy that you can’t get rid of, though Annie, who feels sympathy for the man and has a vague attraction to him, is making it difficult for her husband to throw the guy out.

One day Charlie is mowing the lawn, which is no longer his, but try to tell him that. Another day he is helping with the hanging up of ornaments. When Scott is in the hospital, injured by a car on the rural road, Charlie comes over with a pizza for Annie, which just happens to be large enough for the young woman to invite the guy in to share it with her. When Scott and Annie’s friend Mike (Joseph Sikora) stubs out his cigarette on a decaying statue obviously beloved by the former owner, and when the guy urinates on the lawn, you can see the almost perpetual smile on Charlie’s face disappear, replaced by a sickly scowl.

“The Intruder” is a psychological thriller, sometimes passing itself off as a horror movie though it does not have the accoutrements of the genre, one in which the villain takes on the kind of role that so many actors would love, given that many Hollywood performers have regularly said that the villain usually has the juiciest role versus the blandness of the good guys. That’s certainly true here, as Quaid can charm those he is with given his broad, toothy smile and hale-fellow image,while Ealy and Good (the latter with a pixie-ish hair style resembling a young Nia Long) are in the roles of people who have made it at a relatively young age, acting the part of people who can afford to lay out several million on their abode with the promise of another million in fixing-up.

The major part of the movie balances humor with scares, the big attraction being the give-and-take of friendly dialogue among the three, their screenplay afforded by David Loughery whose script for “Penthouse North” considers the fate of a reclusive, blind photojournalist who lives quietly in a New York penthouse, until a smooth but sadistic criminal looking for a hidden fortune enters her life. When the physical stuff begins during the final third of the story, the action is predictable, following the playbook of so many other film that portray violence.

Ealy, Good and Quaid’s dialogue bounces merrily back and forth, with Scott Howard’s becoming increasingly suspicious about the congenial former homeowner and Annie Howard’s leaning on Charlie when her husband is away at work or in the hospital. This is for the most part a solid psychological thriller, the tension ratcheted up by Geoff Zanelli’s music, the country mansion furnished elaborately by production designer Andrew Neskoromny.

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

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

FAST COLOR – movie review

FAST COLOR
Code Black
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, David Strathairn, Christopher Denham
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 3/27/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Fast Color Movie Poster

Are movies in 2019 heading for the metaphoric and the allegorical? You’d think so after seeing Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which throws symbols at us so fast that we’re glad the film is not in 3D. Where his “Get Out!” was about racism and the white liberals’ hypocrisy, “Us” is about the whole America, which Peele divides into the rich and powerful and the underclass that serves it. “Fast Color” is at base a sci-fi thriller with a few mild aspects of horror, its domestic scene serving largely to make us more aware of the need for men to crush feminism, but it is also about a helicopter parent who smothers her daughter to such an extent that she becomes rebellious and moves away for a long time. Still, it can be enjoyed even by folks who don’t give much of a fig (to coin a metaphor) for symbols, since it shows domestic scenes to which some of us can relate. And for those who like computer graphics/visual effects, director Julia Hart has her abundant visual effects team throw in some bright color, albeit not of the fast kind.

Julia Hart, whose “Miss Stevens” tracks a teacher who shepherds a group to a drama competition (to which I can relate since I arranged similar activities for my high school students), and the upcoming “Stargirl,” about a homeschooled teen who shakes this up in an Arizona high school, may not be dealing with high-school kids in “Fast Color” but her interest remains with young women. The primary focus, and that of her real-life husband Jordan Horowitz who serves as co-writer, is on Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a confused woman in her early thirties who is on the run. Formerly a drug addict, she for the past eight years of so has left her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) in the care of Ruth’s mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint).

Without the help of her mother, she is on the run from the government in a dystopian America that has not seen rain for a long time, conjuring up John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” if you will. She has a special power that makes a pursuing government out to haul her in to study her since when she has a seizure, the earth shakes and pictures fall from the wall of her solitary New Mexico town where Bo and Bo’s granddaughter are living. In particular Bill (Christopher Denham), a scientist who will advise Ruth to stop running because she is “hurting people,” has been trying to track her down.

This power has been handed down through the generations, though Bo, who does not get seizures, has a hobby of breaking up objects into molecules and putting them together, shown as she whips her cigarette into its toxic parts and puts it together. Much of the action is like the CGI; on a low key until the final minutes when the sky bursts into colors, the family’s principal trick consisting of taking the sky apart and putting it together into its current, bland blue color. Ultimately Sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn) hopes to track the runaway down, while we in the audience get the story’s principal twist. Yes, there’s something about this fellow that makes him more than just the enforcer of laws, a guy who has no intention of locking up his prey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has entertained audiences in “A Wrinkle in Time,” another imaginative tale involving a father’s disappearance in space and the team sent to find him, but you’re probably wondering about her name. Her father, Patrick Mbatha is a Black South African doctor, and her mother Anne Raw, a Caucasian English nurse. The British-born actress delivers nicely, whether causing earthquakes all around her during her seizures, breaking free of the ropes that bind her, or checking into a fleabag motel that charges as much for a huge jug of water as it does for the room, though despite her special powers she is vulnerable almost throughout.

The problem with “Fast Color” is that the story is not solid enough to convince the audience that it serves the transcendent purpose of seeing it as a feminist allegory of three women (yes, even young Lila can make a bowl rise from the table and disappear into a collage of colorful dots) being chased by men who, if they could, deprive the trio of their powers. Nor are we convinced that the behavior of Ruth’s mother, Bo, caused Ruth to disappear from a forlorn home and desert her own daughter for eight years. In short, the tale could have used more flashes of melodrama.

“Fast Color” was filmed by Michael Fimognari exclusively in New Mexico.

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

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

US – movie review

US
Universal Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 3/19/19
Opens: March 22, 2019

With the rise in antisemitism and racism that we’re seeing not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, you will get the allegorical point of “Us.” There’s “us” and there’s “them.” “Them” are the people that “us” perceives as enemies, perhaps too smart, or even too uneducated. Hillary had the idea when she spoke of the “basket of deplorables” that expected to vote for Trump, a speech that helped to seal her fate. Now, it’s not as though “us” and “them” are in two separate worlds, never to see one another, never to work with one another. The “them” are “tethered” to the “us,” serving us resenting us, and yet the “us” are too wrapped up in ourselves, too sure that we are actually helping “them,” serving as their saviors, that “us” are completely unprepared for what’s in store. Maybe the “them” could even outvote “us” and elect the politicians that allegedly speak for “them”? Nah.

Us Movie Poster

This commentary is all in the service of understanding what may be going on in Jordan Peele’s mind during the couple of hours that he entertains us. We’ve been looking forward to his first sequel since, after all, didn’t he write and direct “Get Out,” one of the great horror pics of contemporary times? Truth to tell, while “Us” has a lot going for it in the way of film-making, it falls way short in the way of story-telling. Yet our disappointment is tempered by the idea that this is effective as horror; it’s entertaining, in parts it’s funny. And it’s remarkable how the four principal performers play both roles, both “us” and “them,” and as the story unfolds we see that Peele does not depend on the cheap tropes of standard horror films. He doesn’t have the false starts, the McGuffins. And his major foursome are well up to the task of providing fun and games for our stomachs and allegory for our brains.

It takes quite a bit of time for the movie to get into the terror groove, but that’s all in the way of allowing the audience to get to know the personas. Adelaide is a girl of about eight at the beach with her family during the summer of 1986. She strays from them to explore, goes into a haunted house like the kind you still find in Coney Island, and gets the shock of her life as she is confronted by her double. Wide-eyed, she is segued into the present day where Lupita Nyong’o takes over the role. She is a young mother, married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and has two kids, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason Wilson (Evan Alex). Though Gabe is eager to take the family to their summer beach home in Santa Cruz, Adelaide is at first opposed, given the shock she received thirty-three years back. But soon enough Gabe, Adelaide, Zora and Jason are on the way, where they join their neighbors Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker). Gabe supplies the story’s humor, but Adelaide is Peele’s focus.

They are confronted by a foursome standing still outside their home, refusing to move despite Gabe’s warnings. Soon they are under attack by… their doubles! The most impressive is Adelaide’s double, with make-up like the rest of the invaders to look like the normal folks only scarier. Near the conclusion, Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger delivers a raspy lecture that explains the action of the invaders, noting that “It’s our time now.”

Could Trump’s election and the rise of large proportions of forgotten Americans be on Jordan Peele’s mind in composing the script? I would like to believe this, but then again, this would give our current situation in America too limited a perspective. Peele posits two classes, as stated above, the have’s and the have not’s, the latter overthrowing the smug, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, bland, middle-class types, taking on the prejudices of the “overlords” that they have served but now abandoning their peaceful demeanors.

“Us” represents filmmaking that is more active and frantic than in “Get Out,” but then, Peele’s debut is one of the miracles of the 2017 film year. Peele is probably aware that his public expects another stunner, perhaps surpassing a debut, but may realize that he has given himself too high a hurdle to leap. Look for some agitated cinematography from Mike Gioulakis, some masterful editing from Nicholas Monsour, and trust that Michael Abels’ score will help keep you on the edge of your seat.

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

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

SOMETHING – movie review

SOMETHING   
Subspin Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Stephen Portland
Screenwriter:  Stephen Portland
Cast: Michael Gazin, Jane Rowen, Joel Clark Ackerman, Eric Roberts
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

Something

If you want to make a horror film to catch on with the typical fans—teens, maybe 20-somethings—you may need name actors and an expense account to hire a crew of animators, set designers, costumers and the like.  In his debut feature, though, Stephen Portland goes with a true, low-budget movie, though it’s clearly not the kind of picture you could make at home behind your iPhone as director, writer, editor and cinematographer.  In his “Something” everything takes place inside a spacious ranch house with just a shot or two of the land outside.  The focus is on just two people, one named Man (Michael Gazin) and the other, his wife Woman (Jane Rowen).  Later, Portland, who wrote the script as well, will bring in a couple of cops, one named Cop (Joel Clark Ackerman) and the other named Rookie (Evan Carter); then finally, Eric Roberts, wearing a frightful rug, takes a role with a job that should not be revealed in a review to avoid giving away a surprise.

Actually “Something,” while remaining in the horror genre, is really a mood piece.  If you’re a mature moviegoer who realizes that nothing made after William Friedkin’s 1973 movie “The Exorcist” has been able to hold a candle to that classic in the horror genre, you will be pleased watching this movie.  This is the kind of pic that people like us can identify with, whether you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s like Man and Woman or whether you have ever lived in a house or apartment with another person.  (Michael Gazin in his sophomore feature film role is 34 while Jane Rowen looks about the same age.)

If you pay close attention, you will notice a couple of hints early on that will allow you to guess the surprise ending.  Most of the story is a dialogue between Man and Woman, the type of talk that could take place in any household with a new baby, with a mother who may love her little man but is also frustrated with latter’s crying.  Both are sleepy: he, possibly a freelancer, is about to take a business trip out of the country to the dismay of woman, who is frightened.  He finds a knife in the baby’s crib.  He chews her out, wondering how she could do such a thing.  Twice, the door to the nursery is locked requiring Man to force the lock.  He blames her for that as well.  He finds his passport in the trash, and he naturally blames her since she had a strong motive to sabotage his trip.  When the baby carriage is outside during the night in the cold, she again states that she doesn’t know what she’s doing lately.  That could have just about broken up their marriage.

As if their marriage bonds have not been frayed enough, a ghostly presence appears several times inside the house, disappearing without having to open and close the windows and the screens.  She sees it.  He sees it.  At least one other person is going to spot the creature as well.

Have you guessed the identity of the intruder?  I did not because I probably was not paying close enough attention to the unfolding of the story.  There is reasonable chemistry between Man and Woman, though three nights straight they both go to bed in their street clothes, wishing each other a good night.  The dialogue is naturalistic; the sorts of subjects that married people who are not cast in a Shakespearean tragedy say to each other.  As a whole this modest picture, notwithstanding the lack of conspicuous cleverness in the writing or bells and whistles is an enjoyable enough experience.

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

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

THE GOLEM – movie review

THE GOLEM
Epic Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz
Screenwriter: Ariel Cohen
Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golen, Brynie Furstenbwerg, Daniel Cohen, Adi Kvetner, Lenny Ravich, Alex Tritenko, Olga Safronova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/8/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

“The Golem” is a folklore story that over the years, at least since 1915, has been reinterpreted to bring the action up to what modern audiences crave. For example, the original, the 1915 version “Der Golem” shown in the U.S. as “The Monster of Fate,” was the opener of a trilogy that continued with versions in 1917 and 1920. (The 1920 version was shown years ago at Lincoln Center with a live organist to replicate the way that folks saw silent movies a century ago.)

Generally, the entire series of Golem films revolve around the way Jews discover a chance to defend themselves against the anti-Semitic Christians (so-called Christians would be more accurate for the haters). There is also the element that recalls the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.” This would apply as well to the Frankenstein episodes wherein Dr. Frankenstein creates what was looked upon as a monster though he was in truth a gentle person, persecuted by the population until the monster turned killer.

In the current version scheduled to open in New York’s Jewish Community Center or JCC February 1, the Israeli Paz brothers utilize the tropes of modern horror. But there’s a difference. Here lies notable element that would resonate with any persecuted people, in this case Jews who because they form only a minority wherever they live are picked on, oppressed, persecuted, and condemned, usually by anti-Semites who need scapegoats for their own problems. That’s where “The Golem” resonates with real life. In 1948, after centuries of being a minority in every country, Jews took Israel as their homeland and acted quite differently from the way they lived their lives in the diaspora—meaning outside of the homeland. Realizing the absurdity of trying to reason with the enemy, Israelis were forced to fight five wars, when losing a single one would mean the end of the Jewish State. Without a golem to protect them in 17th century Lithuania, village Jews would have been destroyed.

Doran and Yoav Paz are known primarily for their 2015 film “Jeruzalem”—scheduled for a sequel shortly—and which deals with a flight of young adults to Jerusalem where they encounter a Biblical nightmare. Similarly, in 17th century Lithuania, a woman becomes a hero by conjuring a powerful figure, a golem, to save her village from anti-Semites who blame them for a plague. Specifically, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), unable to provide her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) with a son after the loss of their child, violates the standards of the Jewish community by seeking solutions to two problems. One is that she wants to create a figure out of mud to replace the boy she lost. Second is the need for protection against hostile men on horseback. A plague makes Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) suspect that the Jews are at fault, as his young daughter has become frightfully ill. He gathers his landsmen with the aim of wiping out all the Jews and burning down their entire village. When Hanna sculpts the figure of a boy in the mud, she has someone who can save the Jews, but at the same time, like the Frankenstein monster, he will turn on the community, which makes for a rousing, violent, bloody conflict. See it on the big screen.

In this community in 1673, women did not have nearly as great a role in Jewish prayers as men. Under Judaic law, ten men would form a minyan. Without the minyan, prayer would not be effective. Women were not allowed to join any minyan, which makes this “Golem” a horror tale that shows how Hanna has been seriously underrated by the men—though she got substantial help from a male, the title golem (Daniel Cohen), able to wave his arms and decapitate the enemy one by one. If he turns on his own people, it’s the fault of the folks he saved. The town healer Perla (Brynie Furstenberg) wants to destroy the boy as a freak of nature who could, and does, turn violent even against the Jews.

Some might argue that the dialogue is not on a Shakespearean level, but the picture’s simplicity will draw young audiences, including young women who would not usually be caught dead in a horror show. Fine performances abound by Ishai Golan, and especially Furstenberg. The orthodox Jews serve as a splendid Greek chorus.

Filmed in Ukraine and Israel, “The Golem” is in English with no subtitles.

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

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

BORDER – movie reveiw

BORDER (Gräns)

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ali Abbasi
Screenwriter:  John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf, based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Cast:  Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petren, Sten Ljunggren
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/18/18
Opens: October 26, 2018
Gräns Movie Poster
People are not who they seem.  This is something most of us pick up by the time we are six years old, and is a common theme in literature, theater and movies.  There are two people, however, in Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” that are tangentially like others of their ilk, but this couple—a twosome that “found” each other–could pass for human beings.  And that’s something you can’t necessarily say about vampires (at least before they received new fans by their good looks) and zombies.  They’re not as innocent looking as the evil people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but if you ever encountered them you would be suspicious, but then you would write off your distrust by thinking that you’re guilty by some kind of “ism.”

Ali Abbasi, who directs “Border” (his sophomore full-length feature) is known by cinephiles for being at the helm of “Shelley,” about a couple who are unable to bear children but hire a Romanian maid to do the honors with unappealing results, the title baby’s clicking sounds perhaps the least unusual thing about the little one.  For his part, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story which was adapted for this film, is responsible for writing “Let the Right One In,” about a bullied fellow who finds love and a chance for revenge through a meeting with a peculiar girl.  So we know what we are in for with “Border.”  Or do we?

Let’s let Tina in.  As played by Eva Melander, she may strikes you as a woman with a face that only a mother could love.  Yet even she finds the affection she seeks while working as a customs agent in a Swedish seaside border post, a perfect career choice since she can smell both illegal goods from smugglers and moral rot from anybody.  A businessman with a suit who would be sent away with a wave of her fellow worker is stopped by Tina, who takes apart his mobile and finds incriminating stuff.  When Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes her way, a fellow who is so ugly he could be her soulmate, he is body-searched by her male colleague with embarrassing (for the agent) results.  We are well aware that the two will indeed get together, histories will be exchanged, maggots and worms will be eaten, and for the first time in her life, she will realize that she, too, is person who is not who she thought she was.

What follows is a believable story notwithstanding its genre-bending look into horror, Nordic myths, a police drama, and a film that expresses a back-to-nature thematic structure, finding Tina running barefoot through the forest that is right outside the door of her isolated cabin.  She takes steps to deal with a freeloading roommate, Roland (Jörgan Thorsson), who is more interested in TV and in showing his Rottweilers in competition than in her, a man who is rebuffed when he tries for intimacy with Tina.  Tina is more at home with the animal kingdom, possesses a nose that can tell when deer are approaching, allowing her to stop the car so they can pass unmolested.  Both Tina and Eero become involved in capturing a pedophile.  From her father (Sten Ljunggren) she ultimately learns the truth about her upbringing.

Don’t feel sorry for the actors who play Tina and Vore.  They are not that ugly.  Instead, they put up with four hours daily in the make-up studio to give them the grotesque looks, giving the movie the possibility of picking up awards for the prosthetic team.  Filmmaker Ali Abbasi holds an Iranian passport and had been unable to enter the U.S. because of the current restriction on some Muslim countries, but he was allowed to enter our country for the Telluride Festival. (Don’t let Trump know or he will fire the officials who allowed this.)

Strictly speaking, movies that feature serial killers like Freddy Kruger are not horror films.  They are slasher fare.  A true horror film must deal with supernatural aspects, like the title baby in “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the pod people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  If you are repelled by slasher movies you may find that true horror is more to your liking, which is why you should give “Border” your time.  The film was screened at Cannes, Telluride, and the Toronto festivals.  And those who do not recognize the environment in which the story takes place, it was shot by Nadim Carlsen in Kapellskär and Norrtäje, Sweden.  English subtitles are provided.

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

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

RONDO – movie review

RONDO

Fantasia International Film Festival
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Drew Barnhardt
Screenwriter:  Drew Barnhardt
Cast:  Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 7/26/18
Opens: July 27, 2018 at Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal
Rondo (2018)
After spending 60 hours watching Masterpiece Theatre-like episodes like the magnificent “Downton Abbey,” you might be in the mood for something not as nuanced, not as dainty, without hoity-toity royalty or the filtering in of characters from a different era.  So no offense,  members of the spacious English mansion, but sometimes you want to sit back, hear pounding electronic music on the soundtrack, and not have to worry about whether the characters are believable, or the plot credible.  Yes.  You can be as riveted by a exploitation movie that has you rooting for the good guys and wishing mayhem for the villains, just as you might sometimes prefer “Greenback Boogie” on the soundtrack of “Suits” rather than the ethereal tones of Liszt’s Étude No. 13.  That’s where “Rondo” fits in.

“Rondo,” which opens July 27 at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montréal, has elements of horror but without the subtle touches of last year’s horror masterwork, “Get Out.”  There is no real satire either in “Rondo,” no hidden messages about current U.S. politics however that makes you fall back in terror, no A-list actors either but a coterie of villains and good people that can keep you riveted.   Writer-director Drew Barnhardt, whose freshman feature “Murder Loves Killers Too” (about one “Big Stevie” whose idea of sex is murder and who loves to kill carefree teens), is obviously in his métier with his sophomore production “Rondo.”  Part slasher, part black comedy, and all designed to have the audience focused without moving for a quick 88 minutes, “Rondo” is a doozy of a film.  Just check out the director’s hip picture on the IMDB and you know what to expect.

Steve Van Beckum narrates as though reading sentences in  novel, and this time the technique of voice-over does not mar the quality of the picture since Beckum’s voice-overs are kept to a minimum and even serve to inject irony into the festivities by being so matter-of-fact when blood is gushing from every pore.  At first Paul (Luke Sorge) appears to be the principal actor.  He has returned home with PTSD after a dishonorable discharge, takes to the bottle until he becomes homeless, and is housed by his incredibly beautiful and sexy sister Jill (Brenna Otts).  She sends Paul to Cassie (Gena Shaw), a therapist, who tells her new patient what we all want to hear from our psychoanalysts: get laid.  And she tell him where to go.

With the password on a card in his pocket, he goes to a “Rondo party,” meets the suave host Lurdell (Reggie De Morton) and two other patients. Soon enough we realize that he is not having hallucinations.  Weird things begin to happen, Paul becomes perhaps even more scared than he had been when in the military.  He tells his sister about this experience until finally he convinces not only her but also her father, Sam (Michael Vasicek).

Any more exposure of the plot would ruin the twists, the about-faces, the aspects of criminality indulged by the host and his three accomplices, but strangely, the simpler, the sleazier the plot dynamics, the more engrossed you might be (particularly when the gorgeous Jill strips down to bra and panties).  While the voice-over is not at all intrusive, the same cannot be said of Ryan Franks’ and  Scott Nikoley’s pounding music, which drowns out some of the dialogue.  John Bourbonais films entirely in Denver, spending much of his time inside a contemporary-designed apartment to die for.

Rated R.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

HEREDITARY – movie review

HEREDITARY

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter:  Ari Aster
Cast:  Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 5/31/18
Opens: June 8, 2018
Hereditary Movie Poster
In his debut feature, Ari Aster—known for shorts such as “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” which is a dark family melodrama—graduates into a full length picture that goes beyond mere melodrama into the realm of horror.  But “Hereditary” is not a simple slasher movie like the “Friday the 13th” series but is instead for a discerning crowd.  The film will draw people who do not need to see scenes of killings, each one occurring within five minutes of the other, all the cuts edited so quickly you can barely see what’s going on.  Instead Aster is fond of long takes and intense close-ups, with patient buildups heading toward the inevitably concluding mayhem which is foreshadowed in a Hebrew inscription that fortells “pandemonium.”

While the story does not match up to the hype the film received at the Sundance Festival, its chief talking point is a stunning performance from Toni Collette in the principal role of Annie Graham, who lives in a wilderness home of undisclosed location (filmed by Powel Pogorzelski in Utah).  Annie, who creates and paints miniatures, has a mild-mannered husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) who is the only normal person in the family, a teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and Peter’s thirteen-year-old sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  It doesn’t take long to see that something is wrong with Annie and her children, with Steve doing his best to contain the schizophrenic-type rages and impulses of the family, all of which come emerge in full bloom after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen.  When Annie delivers a eulogy for her mother she appears anything but broken up, yet her miniatures depict scenes from her life as though she is intent on holding fast to her personal history.

Yet this obsession with her recent past is based not on pleasant memories of her upbringing but with a feeling she cannot shake off that something was strange about her mother, something relating perhaps to the older woman’s belonging to a cult along with Joan  (Ann Dowd). John, despite her neighborliness and support for Annie, appears to have supernatural powers to communicate with the dead. As though these were not problems enough, Annie must deal with her young daughter’s antisocial behavior and strange appearance and we in the audience catch a whiff of the thirteen-year-old’s macabre activities when she slices off the head of a pigeon that had died when crashing into a building.

The story takes a grisly turn when Peter, forced to take his kid sister to a school party, must deal with a sudden medical emergency when her sister, having eaten some chocolate cake at the party, has an episode of anaphylaxis and must be rushed to a hospital.  She doesn’t make it.  What occurs at a series of séances should not be revealed but should be experienced first-hand by the audience, but don’t expect to be riveted by unbearable tensions unless you have the same outlook on this horror film as some of the attendees at Sundance.

The principal plus is the three-dimensional performance from Toni Collette, who goes from quietly painting her miniatures to a somewhat alarmed concern for her daughter’s awkwardness to an outright breakdown at a funeral and soon, one of the most chilling monologues you’re likely to see this year.  Colin Stetson’s music does it best to ratchet up the tension but there’s little available here that’s memorable; perhaps nothing that will raise the kind of post-performance discussions so indelible in the horror greats like “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Exorcist” and “The Sixth Sense”—the last featuring an expertly crafted dinner between Olivia Williams and a missing Bruce Willis.

Rated R.  126 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE ENDLESS – movie review

THE ENDLESS

Well Go USA Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenwriter:  Justin Benson
Cast:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, Lew Temple, Tate Ellington, James Jordan
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/21/18
Opens: April 1, 2018
Inline image 1
As you watch “The Endless,” you may wonder where to file its genre.  Is it horror?  No, nobody gets slashed or murdered in any other way; quite the opposite, in fact.  Is it sci-fi?  To some extent only.  There are elements, but there’s no time travel, no new technology to rave about.  Is it dystopian?  Not that either.  It does not show the Earth after nuclear holocaust.  Zombie?  Vampire? What is it?

What can be said is that the low-budget indie is adept at creating atmosphere; more effectively, in fact, than any picture that appeared in 2017.  The music, the elements of fog, the occasional lapse into mumblecore, all create suspense, and the suspense will have a payoff in the end.  As the movie moves forward toward resolution, it picks up from a the pleasant chit-chat of a pair of brothers, steadily toward increasing anxieties as the brothers face an ensemble who at first welcomes them to their long-standing party.  They open their arms to them, try out some tricks such as a tug of war that they join with an invisible foe, to a sense that the good will they enjoyed when first meeting the group is turning to hostility.  At the same time the experience that the brothers are facing is pushing the two of them away from each other, the big brother no longer able to convince the younger one about the desirability of backtracking to their previous unfulfilled lives.

Justin Benson, who wrote the screenplay and co-directs the feature with Aaron Moorehead, are also its stars, one of them even serving as cinematographer.  Think of the money they saved by multi-tasking!  With a total production cost of just a million dollars, the film bears some comparison to “The Blair Witch Project,” which took in many times more than its cost. In a directors’ previous feature, “Resolution,” a man imprisons a junky friend in a cabin to force him to sobriety.  “The Endless” has one scene reminiscent but on the whole is a more developed piece of work than either that or of “Spring,” featuring a woman in Italy who harbors a dark secret.

“The Endless” is all about secrets, gaining intrigue as an audience wonders just what makes the group that the brothers meet so different even from other communal folks who have escaped from the rat race.  When Justin Smith (Justin Benson) and his kid brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) receive a videotape in the mail, we can’t help thinking that this will be one of those horror movies about screened events that warn or even imprison the viewers.  This time the tape does not intimidate but rather gives the younger man the excuse to revisit the commune at Camp Arcadia whose members took them in ten years earlier when they were orphaned by a car crash.  At that time Justin was barely able to convince Aaron to leave, to escape from what he calls a death cult, warning that they could be drinking the Kool Aid if they did not bounce.

The members, remembering the escape, are now forgiving.  They show magic tricks including a tug of war with a rope that seems to be attached to a cloud, competing with the two brothers by exerting a powerful force.  A baseball is thrown up and remains suspended in space for a minute before dropping into the hand of a guest.  One again, the older man pushes his brother to leave with him before it’s too late, but Aaron is intrigued, this time demanding the right to remain in the camp for good even if Justin leaves.

The visual effects are neat, especially strong since they are used with restraint, and as the twists multiply and the atmosphere becomes weirder and less explicable, we could expect a powerful conclusion to reveal the secrets of the commune which may have already become so much a part of their visit that it will affect them forever.

Unrated.  111 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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