YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS – movie review

YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Massoud Bakhshi
Writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Babak Karimi, Faghiheh Soltani, Arman Darvish
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/6/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Yalda, a Night for Forgivness Poster

If you think that the United States has gone through bizarre times during the last four years—which it has—wait till you see what’s going on in Iran. I don’t mean the general way that religious fanatics have taken over, determined to lash out at = the U.S. The Great Satan, pointing their fingers at us for our promiscuity, our consumerism, our spending more money on the military than the next ten nations, and breaking solid treaties not only with the Islamic Republic but as well with scientific bodies. Consider their system of allowing the families of murder victims to forgive the perpetrators of crime thereby saving them from a hanging, which to their culture involves both following the religious precept “an eye for an eye,” and allowing the felon to give “blood money” to the families of the deceased instead of paying for the crimes with their lives.

This concept of forgiveness is on trial in “Yalda, A Night for Foregiveness,” which (and this is really what’s bizarre) bringing the immediate family of the victim face to face with the felon on a TV reality show, by which the audience of millions at home, at the conclusion of the give and take between victimized and felon, can text their idea of a just verdict to the show’s producer and decide whether to allow the TV station itself to pay the blood money to the family. The ultimate decision, though, is in the hands of the victim’s immediate relative, though there appears to be a conflict of interest. The relative can refuse to forgive and send the offender to the gallows, then windiung up with nothing but satisfaction. Instead, the family can forgive and add quite of number of rials to their account at the Bank of Iran.

As written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi—whose “A Respectable Family” deals with a professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad—Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) has been convicted of killing her husband, a man several decades older, the alleged motive being that she is after his money. But then, here’s even more bizarro. Iran may not be as bound to puritanical religious ideology as you may think. For reasons that include the fact that many young Iranians have put off marriage for financial and other reasons but still have sexual needs, the country’s law allow for temporary marriages. This might be considered to us a form of legalized prostitution, but it’s a way that the Muslim state puts the cloak of legitimacy on a union—something like what we in the U.S. consider a partnership but with the right of inheritance.

Did she kill her husband for his money, as his daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) believes, or was it an accident as Maryam insists? The two are brought face to face in a reality show moderated by Omid (Arman Darvish), after an opening of the story with a stunning view of the Milad Tower in Tehran. The producer is Ayat (Babak Karimi), and, coaching her daughter, her mother (Feresteh Sadre Orafaly) advises her to show humility, to apologize, virtually to kiss Mona’s butt. The daughter, who is about 17 years of age and not yet imbued with the need to compromise, holds that the killing was an accident, so why apologize? Nonetheless, at the appropriate time, she begs Mona to spare her life while Mona, despite being a woman with class and education, is conflicted between wanting the blood money and wanting revenge in the name of her dad.

Everyone but Mona hopes for forgiveness. Even the prosecutor urges Mona to relent, to commute the sentence to no more than six years, provided that enough viewers sympathize with the teen and vote thumbs up through their cell phones.

Though at times you could swear that the whole business is a parody of our own reality shows, junk productions like “The Assistant,” you could forgiven if you are drawn into the emotions of the program, wanting to talk to the screen and tell Mona to spare a life, take the money and run. A further complication centers on Maryam’s mother’s manipulation involving a baby, adding to the melodrama that were it not developed with honesty and authenticity could have landed “Yalda” into soapy territory.

The title of the movie involves a night of celebration (something like our own glorious November 7th, 2020), during the winter solstice when families and friends get together to drink and to eat pomegranates and nuts, a holdover from the ancient Zoroastrian religion. This film won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury prize, doubtless considering the performances of the two female leads—Sadaf Asgari, tight-lipped, confused, virtually shuddering with fear of imminent death, and Behnaz Jafari as a woman of a higher class who had gotten Maryam a job with her father and now regrets ever laying her eyes on her. Up to the final minutes, you will be convinced that she will pardon the offender, but no, maybe she would not, given her contempt for the person of a lowly class who allegedly seduced Mona’s dad but is told that the opposite is true: that the victim, already married, begged the young woman to agree to a temporary marriage provided that no pregnancy take place.

In Farsi with English subtitles.

89 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

 

ADVOCATE – movie review

ADVOCATE

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Screenwriter: Rachel Leah Jones
Cast: Lea Tsemel, Michel Warschawski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/19
Opens: January 3, 2020 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Advocate (2019)

Some of us in the U.S. are proud to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but Palestinians and ordinary people in large parts of the world may disagree. It’s true that Israel has a working parliament, the Knesset, with real powers (if the multiple parties could ever agree on anything), but Israel continues to occupy land around surrounding it in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. And while the court system really works, it functions better for some (the Israelis) than for others (the Palestinians). One Palestinian a while back sums up: “Israel has democracy for the Jews, dictatorship for the Palestinians).

Where else, though, can you find an occupier which has lawyers within its borders defending the occupied? Berkeley-born Rachel Leah Jones, who majored in Race, Class and Gender Studies with a graduate degree in Documentary Media Studies, and Parisian Philippe Bellaïche, who has been honored by several awards for his films, focus on Lea Tsemel, that rare Jewish attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians, has been regularly attacked by her own people who presumably never heard of the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. How does she have the chutzpah to take on cases involving suicide bombers and terrorists? Somebody has to do it. If Palestinians do not put forth a lawyer who can compare with Tsemel in the court, she’s the one to do it. (Aside: Even Eichmann had a trial, but with a German attorney.)

No doubt about it. Documentarians Jones and Bellaïche love Lea Tsemel, who is in virtually every scene, someone whom Americans of a certain age might compare to New York’s late great Bella Abzug. Though she has defended Palestinians for decades, the focus is on two cases. One involves a 13-year-old boy who is arrested for taking part in what the prosecution calls attempted murder. He was an accomplice to the kid who actually stabbed two Israelis of about the same age. He too held a knife and that is what dooms him to face either a few years in a juvenile center or, if he went to trial a considerably longer stretch in an adult prison. Tsemel appears to have convinced the family to take their chances on a trial, given that he did not actually commit the stabbing.

Another case involves a woman who is arrested for terrorism when her car, laden with explosives and apparently meant to cause several killings, blew up accidentally, injuring her. You might think that given the injuries she sustained, the judges might not come down as harshly on her as they would had she succeeded.

As for why Tsemel does what she does though by her own admission she is bound to lose most of her cases, she explains that this is the right thing to do. “After fifty years of occupation” becomes almost her logo. Her long-term husband, Michel Warschawski, also a demonstrator for Palestinian rights, was once given the option: either give up all political relationships with Palestinians and be freed immediately, or suffer years in jail. He chose the latter, largely because of prompting from his wife.

Tsemel believes by implication that were there a two-state solution and the Palestinians had their own country, there would be peace. End of terrorism. Whether she is correct is anybody’s guess, but I’d imagine the typical viewer of this documentary who is pro-Israel even while objecting to the Netanyahu right-wing government would be skeptical.

From time to time the screen is bisected with animation to protect the identities of the advocate’s clients. This is a distraction. One wonders why faces could not be clouded over as they are in American movies. Of course there is an imbalance of power. Has any society in history occupying another ever given equal rights to the conquered?

Lea Tsemel turns out not only to be a fine lawyer (despite losing most of her cases) but an excellent actress, who dominates
proceedings and rivets attention. The film played at a couple of dozen festivals and is scheduled to open January 3, 2020
at NewYork’s Quad Cinema. In Hebrew, Arabic and English.

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

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

BRIAN BANKS – movie review

BRIAN BANKS
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tom Shadyac
Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
Cast: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 6/5/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

Brian Banks Movie Poster

When Spain in the 15th century determined to make the entire country Catholic, Jews and Muslims were told that if they did not convert to Catholicism, they would be expelled from the country. Most did. The authorities set up the Spanish Inquisition. If a converso, i.e. a Jew who converted to Catholicism, could be caught secretly practicing Judaism, e.g. by lighting candles on Friday night, he or she could be hauled before the court of the Inquisition and, if found guilty, could be tortured and executed. Some say that it was enough for a servant to accuse her boss of heresy, of practicing Judaic rituals though professing identity as a new Catholic. The servant’s word would be taken. A similar event in a way, made into art by the 1960 novel by Harper Lee “To Kill a Mockingbird,” deals with a false accusation of rape made by a Mayella Ewell, a white woman against Tom Robinson, a black man.

It took some guts to produce the movie “Brian Banks” at a time that the #MeToo movement carries momentum as women have stepped forward in greater numbers than ever before accusing men of sexual harassment and more. Men who have questioned the veracity of accusers are ostracized as Neanderthals who want to bring back the 1950s, when women, having pledged to honor, cherish and obey their future husbands, stayed in the kitchen and sucked up (so to speak) any harassment of a sexual nature. “Brian Banks” is the anti-#MeToo movie, though since it’s based on true facts, the cast and crew cannot legitimately be faulted for standing up for a man who had been falsely accused of rape.

The title character is played by Aldis Hodge in a career-making role. Hodge, one of the most muscular guys you’ll see in the movies, delivers a stunning performance in a powerful movie closely based on true events that took place beginning in 2002. Though his director Tom Shadyac is known largely for comedies like “Bruce Almighty” and “The Nutty Professor,” Shadyac does quite an impressive job hammering home the injustices of our legal system, here specifically against what is called California’s “broken system.” (If a blue state’s system is broken, what must be going on in Alabama?)

Brian Banks had everything going for him. A football player at Long Beach, California high school offered a scholarship at USC which may have seen him as destined for the NFL, he briefly flirts with a female high school student, Kennish Rice (Xosha Roquemore) in the hall. They go past other classrooms into a secluded area known as a make-out spot, kiss, and are spotted by a security guard. Returning to class, Kennisha—who later admits that she was afraid to tell her mother that she was sexually active—accuses Banks of rape. Banks’s lawyer, who must have been as stupid as Kennisha, never insisted on DNA evidence, tells her client that he should plead guilty and take probation rather than risk a 41-year-sentence, but looks as shocked as Banks when the judge denies probation and hands down a six-year sentence with years of parole following. His football career appears over, Banks cannot get a job, and he is harassed repeated by his parole officer when Banks temporarily leaves the county to interview for jobs.

Banks contacts Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), founder and head of the California Innocence Project, who at first sees the man as another of the hundreds, more likely thousands of petitioners asking for help in getting their sentences overturned. Behind the scenes, Kennisha’s mother (Monique Grant) sues the school for providing lax security, winning a $1.5 million settlement. With that kind of money, we cannot expect Kennisha to ‘fess up and admit that she lied, thereby losing the award and freeing Banks to get his life back.

Many scenes should enrage an audience of fair-minded people who still think that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Watch how the technicalities of the law prevent common sense judgments. Best example: during the end of his parole period Banks gets Kennesha to admit her lies, the confession is taped, but the tape cannot be admitted in court since Kennesha did not give permission to be recorded. Banks is provoked into a fight in prison, breaks the guy’s jaw, and is sentenced to 60 days in the hole, in solitary, a tiny room that could be used on the set of a movie taking place on Devil’s Island. If Americans who regularly cite the Second Amendment would protest violations of the Eighth Amendment as forcefully, maybe we would get somewhere to creating a more just society.

Greg Kinnear delivers mightily as a man who has noble ideals but can disappoint since he must choose his cases among thousands of requests, while Sherri Shepherd plays the kind of mom we all want who will stick up for her boy, wanting his happiness more than anything else. Contrast her role with that of Kennisha’s mom who, in sticking up for her lying daughter enacts a scene that smacks of racist stereotypes.

Yes, the movie can be schmaltzy, but the schmaltz is what brings tears to the eyes and joy in the ultimate outcome. This is a movie that’s easy to recommend for large public consumption, a “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 21st Century.

For the actual facts of the case go to https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3901

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

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

CROWN HEIGHTS – movie review

CROWN HEIGHTS

Amazon Studios
Director:  Matt Ruskin
Screenwriter:  Matt Ruskin
Cast:  LaKeith Stanfield, Nnande Asomugha,  Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Brian Tyree Henry
Screened at: Critics’ link,
Opens: August 18, 2017.  On Disc December 8, 2017

Crown Heights movie poster (2017) picture MOV_2neqndfh shadow

Matt Ruskin, who wrote and directs “Crown Heights” and who a few years earlier directed “The Hip Hop Project” (which takes a benevolent look at Rap), finds a few brief moments to show archival clips of some U.S. presidents who had bent over backwards to cater to a popular will.  (Read: the will of the deplorables.)  Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton (the last being a Democrat who did not rule as a progressive) all told the American people that, in effect, violent criminals should be put behind bars and the keys should be thrown away.  Because of the belief by ignorant people that the severity of a convicted person’s sentence is justice for the victim, America now has the largest per capita percentage of people in jail at 2.4 million and the most severe sentences in the developed world.  Aside from the injustices of the American penal system, the district attorneys, many of whom must stand for election and re-election, are so determined to bulk up their conviction rates that they will send innocent people to prison, sometimes by promising even those innocents to plead guilty to lesser offenses and get a smaller sentence.

We now know that some innocent people have been executed, while it is predicted that 120,000 now behind bars are likewise untainted.  But the appeals process is so jammed with cases that it could take years to get before an appellate judge.  Meanwhile people who should be free sit and smolder behind bars while taking a lot of crap from the guards.  All this is brought out by articles in journals, such as the one in the January-February 2018 issue of The Atlantic, but for a more dramatic look at this situation, one which taints America with a criminal justice system that is creaky at best and corrupt at worst, you can’t do better this year than “Crown Heights.”

There are a few good people in the drama, some almost saintly in their dedication to get an innocent man freed, and a lot of bad folks such as a fellow who actually committed a murder but implicated a neighbor as co-defendant.  There were eyewitnesses to the crime who refused to come forth.  As a result, one Colin Warner (LaKeith Stanfield), a resident of the mostly African-American community of Crown Heights Brooklyn, was sent upstate to Dannemora Prison, a mostly white community with principally white guards.

Though some might accuse the movie of being a nothing-new copy of a “Law and Order” program on the TV, there is considerable tension furthered by the big-screen treatment of a rank injustice.  The enterprise gains credibility not only because it is based on a true event, but because of the splendid acting especially from LaKeith Standfeld and from his dedicated friend and fellow Trinidadian Carl King (Nnande Asomugha).

The story is yet another realization of Shakespeare’s disgust with “the law’s delay, insolence of office,” and even the Bard’s desire to “kill all the lawyers.”  One of the gross violations of justice occurs when Carl King, raising money for his pal’s appeal, hires a hot shot lawyer specializing in appeals who appears to do only what is barely necessary, then refusing to follow up unless he receives more money.

Sports fans may recognize Asomugha as a former player on the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders who had a hand in producing this film.  To the extent that this story is based on truth, we can see what a person so dedicated to free his buddy can do with persistence.  Persistence is the key to success, as our school guidance counselors keep telling us.

Of course we cannot expect a national turn of sympathy from the dilemma of one man who after twenty-years’ imprisonment is finally released—after having married his childhood sweetheart in prison and getting his GED and community college credentials.  One lesson that may be missed by some watching the film is that when you’re a kid and not as responsible as you should be, you go steal a car or two and you’ve got a record that will be considered by the authorities should you be accused of something more serious later.  “Crown Heights” is deserving of a solid audience and is now available with streaming.

Rated R.  99 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

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