STRAY DOLLS – movie review

STRAY DOLLS
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sonejuhi Sinha
Screenwriter: Sonejuhi Sinha, Charlotte Rabate
Cast: Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Aramayo, Samrat Chakrabarti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/20
Opens: April 27, 2020

Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) is an immigrant whom Trump would like to put in the gallery during his delivery of the State of the Union message, not as his hero (Rush Limbaugh is more his type) but representing the threat that immigrants supposedly pose to our country. Riz, a petty thief who runs out of her native India before she becomes a hardened criminal, comes to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. Though wanting to follow the rules at first, she realizes that a newcomer to our shores has to do a lot more than serve as a chambermaid in the Poughkeepsie, New York motel owned by Una (Cynthia Nixon). Though she starts out an immigrant that the American people with good, progressive souls insist are a treasure, she falls into felonious violence after meeting Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), the sleazy roommate that Una makes her share her room as though she would ever have a “no vacancy” sign on the grounds outside.

The story’s setup is intriguing. Put two people together who appear with opposite personalities—Dallas, a blond who works on narcotic sales partnered with Una’s son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo—who could play Dr. Oz should a doc be considered; and Riz, a dark-haired woman about the same age who Dallas at first thinks is “a Mexican or something,”a relatively quiet gal learning the ropes from someone with considerable knowledge of the drug trade and with a sexual partner.

Strangely it is Riz, not Dallas, who takes the initiative early on by stealing a brick of coke from motel guest Sal Samrat Chakrabarti), though not until Sal offers her compatriot money if she would let him see herself “with a towel around her.” He accuses Una, though everyone knows that the first person who gets accusations is the room’s maid. When he rightly suspects Riz and Dallas he launches a spiral of violence that will motivate the two to leave town fast.

Everyone in the movie is flawed. Una, an immigrant herself, shreds Riz’s passport as though she were running a den of prostitution, though she had insisted that her new maid forget about making money with sex. Riz, who calls home from a public phone, lies about how she is enjoying America, swimming and anticipating sending money back to her folks in India, though she will never be able to do so without criminal activities. Dallas, the fast-talking maid, is tough as nails and taking no crap from her boyfriend, comes around to planning an escape from Poughkeepsie.

This is director Sonejuhi Sinha’s first feature narrative, though her shorts could be looked as a almost prequels to this work. Her “Miles of Sand” is about a single mother in India determined to repay her debts, while “Love Comes Later” focuses on an undocumented motel employee. In her notes Sinha advises that motels are a hotbed of crime and that crimes committed by women have gone up ten times over in the 1990s. If you want to take her “Stray Dolls” (the title presumably comparing the marginal characters to pathetic, scruffy and unwanted stray dogs) to be about female empowerment, that would not be unreasonable, though these are not the kinds of people who would be models that a feminist politician like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez would embrace. Still, they do what they think they have to do, when following the law would guarantee them the equivalent of a life spent in Poughkeepsie. Should we root for them?

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

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

SYNONYMS – movie review

SYNONYMS
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nadav Lapid
Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid, Haïm Lapid
Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilotte
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/5/19
Opens: October 25, 2019

Synonyms Large Poster

Thomas Wolfe said you Can’t Go Home Again, in fact that is the title of a novel published in 1940. The novel tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town of Libya Hill which was actually Asheville, North Carolina. The book is a national success but the residents of the town had been unhappy with what they view as Webber’s distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats. Nadav Lapid, a brilliant director whose “The Kindergarten Teacher” tells of a New York teacher who becomes obsessed with a five-year-old’s gift for poetry, now takes tackles a film thematically alike Wolfe’s novel, about a 20-something who not only can’t go home again: he does not want to. You can’t blame some critics who, like the writer for “The Jerusalem Post,” in effect blames director Lapid for washing Israel’s dirty laundry in public in a similar way that Thomas Wolfe disturbed his townspeople.

“Synonyms” is a bold, original, impressive movie that has critics divided though it took top prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year. That’s not surprising. The best movies are strong enough to divide audiences, since unlike pics that are febrile, that do not hurt anybody’s feelings, controversial ones may have some people hating while picking up other people’s praise.

As for the fellow who has no intention of ever going back to his homeland, Yoav (Tom Mercier) left Israel after fulfilling his military duties, traveled to France without a shekel in his pocket, and refuses to speak Hebrew. He pores over grammar books, walking the streets around the Seine mumbling words together with their synonyms, takes a demanding and exciting citizenship class where he is required to sing the second stanza of the Marseilles, and even when visited by his father who is worried that his son is not eating and is living in a shoebox refuses to respond to the older man in Hebrew.

But he is not at all out of luck. In the film’s opening he visits a strangely vacant Left Bank apartment, wakes up nude (full frontal nudity: beware), discovers that someone has stolen his backpack with all his clothes and wakes up in the home of Émile (Quentin Dolmarie) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). Émile finds Yoav an impressive young man, given that Yoav is filled with stories about his life in Israel, making analogies to the Greek legends about Homer’s Hector, represented as the ideal warrior. By contrast Émile responds that his own life is boring, that he has no stories to pay his new guest back. For her part Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), an oboist with the local symphony orchestra, is likewise fascinated by the immigrant, not surprising since he has sworn off Hebrew, knows the complete French national anthem, and is more Gallic than the typical person born in France and knowing no other tribe.

Despite his reverse nationalism, Yoav appears qualified only to be a security guard at the Israeli consulate, where one officer goads him into a fight as though training him for the Israeli Defense Forces. Yoav is slim, yet seems rock hard from his army training and is occasionally interested in starting a fight—particularly with a member of Caroline’s orchestra who chastises him for rudeness.

Émile soon sense that Caroline is more interested in Yoav than in him, no considering that Caroline and Yoav fell into each other’s arms—Caroline muttering that she “always knew that we would sleep together.” Perhaps the most emotional scene occurs when Yoav, determined to flee the militaristic country of his birth, becomes enrapt hearing a classmate in his French class sing the first stanza of the Marseilles, following up with the next which speaks of the “purity of the French blood” and the needs to spill the blood of the enemy.

All this makes “Synonyms” as arresting a film that you’ll see this year, perhaps later competing against great movies like the South Korean “Parasite” for Best Foreign Picture. Note especially the great performance coming from Tom Mercier in his early career, a likely candidate for those organizations like NY Film Critics Online which give awards for Best Actor.

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

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