THE FAREWELL – movie review

THE FAREWELL
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lulu Wang
Screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 6/19/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

[ FAREWELL POSTER ]

A childhood friend of mine had a father who was dying of cancer though he seemed fine to us. He attended a wedding of his niece. He danced. He gave a lovely speech about his new son-in-law. He had three weeks to live, but didn’t know it, and since all this took place in the early 1960s, he was kept in the dark. “What’s the point of telling him? That will only ruin his last days.” This aspect of American culture seemed to make sense, though nowadays, things are different. We believe that a patient has the right to know what’s going on with his own body.

Chinese families enjoy a culture that in many ways is similar to ours. When writer-director Lulu Wang’s characters in “The Farewell,” were told that their beloved matriarch had Stage IV lung cancer, all are sworn to keep that the secret despite the opinion of Billi (Awkwafina), a granddaughter—as one who left China from an early age and lived in New York. She believed that a lie is a lie. There is no such thing as a good life, a white lie.

In this fictional drama based on “a lie experience,” Billi, a young single woman working in New York, is invited to return to Changchun, China, to celebrate a family wedding whose date may have been pushed ahead so that Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) could attend the festivities. A controlling person, grandma Nai Nai handled all the planning, complaining that the menu mentioned that crab would be the highlight, and not the lobster that she had proposed.

During this time Billi is disturbed that nobody else in the family is willing to tell Nai Nai the truth, but she keeps to the bargain, in one case speaking to the doctor who is treating Nai Nai, knowing that her granny does not know a word of English. Like any American nanna, Nai Nai is ready to fix her granddaughter up with the doctor. Our cultures are not that far apart in many ways.

Filmed by Anna Franquesta Solano on location in Changchun, the largest city and capital of Jilin province with a population of over seven million, “The Farewell” has comic touches particularly in exploring the relationship of the dim marriage couple, Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara)—who had started dating just three months earlier and seem unable to speak to each other in a common language. Writer-director Lulu Wang in her sophomore feature evokes solid work from the entire ensemble, anchoring the story with Awkwafina, who, you may recall, took on the role of Peik Lin Goh in the more commercial movie “Crazy Rich Asians.” Awkwafina presents the granddaughter with all the nuances needed as a woman who reluctantly plays along with the charade. Does she finally break down and tell all or does she remain as shut down as Stormy Daniels in the recent American posturing? What would you recommend?

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

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

THE OTHER STORY – movie review

THE OTHER STORY
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Avi Nesher
Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer
Cast: Maayan Blum, Maya Dagan, Sasson Gabai, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Sean Mongoza
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/19
Opens: June 28, 2019

The Other Story (2018)

When Israel was born in 1948, there was much joy outside the Arab world. Jews both in Israel and around the world rejoiced, but in addition so did most governments and people in the industrialized world. “They made the desert bloom” was the watchword when Jews cultivated what was then a barren land. The kibbutz was a popular kind of work on collective farms, and democratic socialism was the norm in a society that surprisingly enough was mostly secular. Problems arose later after wars that were forced on the tiny state, and the country expanded its borders into territories formerly inhabited only by Palestinians. Let’s not forget, though, that Israelis are today not a unified people where everyone thinks alike, any more than are Americans nowadays. The ultra-religious including the Hasidic sects have grown in population and influence. As a result there is conflict between the religious Jews and the secular majority, the former imposing its will by its voting bloc in the Knesset, or parliament.

Two camps exist to this day: the ultra-religious have been able to ban public buses on the Sabbath and to run Mea Shearim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, as though it were an independent state. Their influence is considered undemocratic by the secular society. You could barely imagine that a secular Jewish woman would get together with an ultra-orthodox man in marriage, and for the most part the two groups are almost never romantically involved. In the rare cases when they are, however, the sparks fly within the families, which is good, because without sparks, there is no drama.

Now Avi Nesher, who has an impressive résumé as producer, writer, actor and director including his direction of such movies as “The Matchmaker” (teenager’s relationship with a matchmaker who survived the Holocaust) and “Turn Left at the End of the World” (a family from India moves into a desert neighborhood in southern Israel). His “The Other Story” is an involving and often riveting story featuring two plots that merge seamlessly, the principal one being the more absorbing tale while the other is more melodramatic, even off-the-wall. Both plots center on women who are rebelling against their upbringings. Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger) is your typical product of dysfunction having seen his father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), a psychologist, all too rarely since her parents divorced and he moved to the U.S. Nor is love lost between Yonatan and his successful real estate agent wife Tali (Maya Dagan). He returns to Tali after getting an urgent message: their daughter, who has thrown off her secular upbringing and is now Orthodox, is set to marry Shachar (Nathan Goshen), also a drug-addicted secular musician who introduced his fiancé to drugs and now denies that he is an addict.

At the same time, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai) is playing host to his son Yonatan. Both are psychologists. Shlomo is treating a couple on the verge of breaking up. Rami (Maayan Blum) accuses his wife Sari (Avigail Harari) of threatening the safety of their young son Izi, as a member of a feminist cult given over to worshiping idols and having occult ceremonies that recall Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” She ultimately will rely on the testimony of both Yonatan and Anat regarding both a kidnapping charge and their opinion that the occult ceremonies are not endangering her son’s safety.

“The Other Story” is the name of a song, but it refers as well to the other story of both Yonatan, who has been involved in criminal dealings in the U.S., and the situations of the two young women rebelling against the conformity their families represent and, on a greater level, the impositions of the patriarchal society. The principal conflict, though, pits young Anat against the horror that her parents feel at the idea that their daughter has voluntarily upended her free life to become an Orthodox Jew. This conflict mirrors that troubles that all of Israel goes through nowadays, the religious Jews generally siding with their current prime minister in favor of expanding the country into the West Bank, while the secular Jews generally favor a peace with the Palestinians based on two societies living side by side.

The film is welcome both as a primer to people of all religions who are open to educating themselves to the schisms within such a small country, and an indictment of those who side with one point of view to such an extent that they cannot understand the rationality of the other. As such, it mirrors the split in our own country between Republican and Democrats, right and left, and splits within the parties as well.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

 

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

Story – B+
Acting – A-
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

TALE OF THE SEA – movie review

TALE OF THE SEA (Hekayat-e Darya)
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bahman Farmanara
Screenwriter: Bahman Farmanara
Cast: Bahman Farmanara, Fatemeh Motemad Arya, Leila Hatami, Saber Abar, Ali Nassirian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/
Opens: January 10, 2019 at the First Iranian International Film Festival in NY: At IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, NY NY.

Leila Hatami and Saber Abar in Hekayat-e darya (2018)

You would not be surprised at the similarity of “Tale of the Sea” to previous works from the Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Farmanara. Farmanara deals with momentous subjects in previous works. In “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine,” for example, the writer-director envelops his principal character with thoughts of death, plot items evoking thoughts of the final exit. The principal character wonders why his niece’s husband fails to return home. He searches hospitals for an unclaimed body while his own heart is giving out. In “A Separation,” a married couple runs into conflict as one partner wants to leave Iran while the other needs to care for an ailing mother. A heart (one breaking, the other physically fragile), marital conflict, illnesses including a budding schizophrenia and depression, and once again thoughts of leaving Iran, crop up again. This new film may remind literate moviegoers of the works of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his 1957 film “Wild Strawberries”(an aging man confronts the emptiness of his existence)—while Peyman Yazdanian’s score at times recalls Hitchcockian tones.

“Tale of the Sea,” which takes place in a writer’s spacious home overlooking the ocean, is a theatrical piece, with most scenes involving one or two people with the occasional presence of a trio. Taher Mohebi (Bahman Farmanara), the principal character, is played by the filmmaker, who is 77 years old, a large man made up to look as though he is approaching his mid-80s. Conversations take place between drinks of tea that his wife Jaleh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya) often prepares and a cup of Turkish coffee brewed by Paraveneh, a surprise guest in his home who will radically change the married couple’s life.

For his part Taher, a writer known by his former students as Maestro, has spent three years in an institution for the emotionally disturbed, longing to remain there though prodded by his doctor (Ali Mosaffa) to go out and face reality. Taher continues to look like Job, years of woe yielding a face whose perpetual sadness belies the pale blue eyes that we assume should connote joy. We don’t wonder why his wife wants a divorce, though she will wait until her husband gets better lest an announcement of separation now lead to the poor man’s death.

A few scenes on the beach take us temporarily away from the purely theatrical. Taher meets people from his past, including a hallucinatory friend (Ali Nassirian) who had been “assigned to eternity” years earlier, and an emotional political activist (Saber Abar) who would like to relive the best years of his life—which were back in college when Maestro was his favorite teacher. All this Proustian remembrance of past memories is not unlike the situation faced by Dr. Eberhard Isak Borg in “Wild Strawberries,” whose “visits” to past people in his life remind him of the emptiness of his existence.

If you are not familiar with Ingmar Bergman—though if you read commentary on this film you surely must be—then think of Katherine Hepburn who, when asked about the value of old age to provide wisdom to youth replies that old age has not a single redeeming feature. You would expect that in his better days, Taher, active as a teacher and a celebrity author as well, was a different person, and you would probably be right. By the time you exit the theater, you may be more fearful of growing old (yes, of course, it’s better than the alternative), than ever. The melancholia of age and the way the brilliant director, producer, screenwriter and principal actor work to make you feel the mournful emotions, are what make “Tale of a Sea” a downer, if you will, but one that will leave you absorbed for its full 97 minutes while respecting that this filmmaker is at the top of his game.

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

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

THE WEDDING PLAN – movie review

  • THE WEDDING PLAN     (Laavor et hakir)

    Roadside Attractions
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B-
    Director:  Rama Burshtein
    Written by: Rama Burshtein
    Cast: Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Noa Kooler, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/18/17
    Opens: May 12, 2017
    click for larger (if applicable)
    Rami Bushstein, who wrote and directs “The Wedding Plan” (former title “Through the Wall,” in Hebrew Laavor et hakir) contributed a less messy picture in 2012.  In that previous work, an eighteen-year-old Hasidic woman is pressured into marrying an older widower per Levirate custom.  This time around, Burshtein, who is strongly connected to her Hasidic community (see her picture on IMDB.com), takes a somewhat opposite view.  A Michal (Noa Kooler), a thirty-two year old single woman, wants nothing more fervently than to get married.  She wants to give and receive love, she does not want to be alone, and incidentally she does not want the community to pity or disparage her.  Unlike Shira in “Fill the Void,” who wants nothing more than to rid herself of an arranged marriage, Michal is in despair about her single status.  You get the impression that all she wants is a serious proposal: that she will accept anyone, now that Gidi (Erez Drigues) her Hasidic fiancé has dumped her, stating that he does not love her.  Hey, this is something new: that Hasidim insist on loving a proposed bride when, even in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevya’s wife had to think long and hard whether she loves her husband.

    You can learn things in “The Wedding Plan.”  One is that ultra-orthodox women and Hasidic men go on dates.  My impression is that a single woman sits home and waits for the matchmaker to send a potential husband to her whole family.  In the presence of all, they sit on opposite ends of the sofa, stealing a glance here and there, and announcing straight-out whether they like the other’s looks enough to marry and have ten children.

    But then, this independent-minded Michal, having to get over her despair about the rejection, goes on a number of blind dates set up by a matchmaker.  First she visits a homeopathic witch doctor, Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), who after assigning Michal to pound some dough sits her down and rubs some fish oil into her face to destroy the evil eye.

    We’ve seem movies before about the dating game, whether speed-dating or the traditional kind, but here she goes to restaurants such as with her meeting with a deaf mute(Jonathan Rozen) , whose signing is interpreted by a young man at the table.  Then there’s that weird date with a Hasid (Udi Persi), who refuses to look at her for two hours with the excuse that he wants to believe that Michal is the most beautiful woman in the world.

    A good deal of the tension in this romantic dramedy, which is more drama than comedy, is from audience betting on which man will win her hand.  In any case, she’d better have her hand won fast, because Michal had been independent enough to book a wedding hall for 200 guests with Shimi (Amos Tamam), son of Hulda and owner of the hall.  She pays the 15,000 shekels (about $3700 US) despite having no groom and believes that God will supply her with a man.  She has 22 days. Should she accept the proposal of Yossi (Oz Zehavi), a dreamy singer with a following of beautiful women?.  After all, he asked for her hand while the two were in Ukraine, visiting the shrine of Rabbi Nahman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect in the city of Uman (incorrectly named “Uma” in the English subtitles). But he might be too secular for her and would ask for divorce at the drop of a kippa.

    As Michal, Noa Koler is an almost overwhelming force, appearing in virtually every scene, in closeups and surrounded by her friends and family.  This is a slow-moving drama which succeeds quite well in familiarizing people with the customs of Haredim and ultra-orthodox Jews, and its does keep the audience guessing on the mystery man who will hopefully emerge before the eighth day of Chanukah, the date of the wedding.  Too bad Haredim may be sparse in the audience given their custom of refusing to attend the cinema in general.  Still this PG-rated picture could bring in an audience of Jews of other ideologies from secular to Orthodox, and may even cross over to a universal audience, since isn’t marriage the goal of people all over the world?

    This is an Israeli film in Hebrew with English subtitles.

    Rated PG.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

THE LOVERS MOVIE REVIEW

  • THE LOVERS

    A24
    Director:  Azazel Jacobs
    Screenwriter:  Azazel Jacobs
    Cast:  Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Jessica Sula, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/11/17
    Opens: May 5, 2017
    The Lovers Movie Poster
    Nobody can slash away better at the notion of marital bliss than Ingmar Bergman, but Azazel Jacobs does it the American way with lots of comic touches and without the mystical or iconic accoutrements.  The director, whose “Momma’s Man” finds a gent who has been avoiding his wife and child, is following in the same territory here.  With the great Debra Winger in a title role of Mary (actually there are five lovers all told) and Tracy Letts as her husband Michael, the story takes off as a traditional cheating-wife, cheating-husband merry-go-roundelay, neither husband nor wife fully knowing about the lovers on the side and yet not without suspicions given the “gotta work late at the office” excuse—one that could easily be checked out by simply calling the offices.

    This is the kind of movie that would appeal mostly to middle-aged and older audiences—a shame, since youths can learn lessons by watching the antics of those decades older.  Both are working in cubicles, both “work late” at the office.  Michael has an imaginary friend called Ben with whom he “has drinks late at night” when he is not “working late at the office.”  Instead of seeing Ben, he cavorts with a professional dancer, Lucy (Melora Walters), who is apparently unmarried and feels lonely whenever she is without Michael’s company.  For his part, a youthful Robert (Aidan Gillen), also free, has attached himself to Mary despite an age difference, at one point demanding that she make up her mind and leave her husband or he’s outta there.

    There’s one great scene with which people in the movie audience can identify if they’ve ever thought of leaving their spouse or significant other.  What if the partner with whom they enjoy cheating will stay with the spouse, not just as a convenience, but because the married couple realize they really love each other?  In that scene, Mary and Michael awake one morning, still dazed, thinking that they are in bed with their outside lovers.  They kiss and suddenly the flame arises.  This is probably the kind of wet dream that a man or woman goes through, thinking that maybe they will not only stay together but like the idea.

    Complications arise when Michael and Mary’s son Joel (Tyler Ross) visits with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) for a three-day stay, expecting to see fireworks but wondering why dad and mom are so lovey-dovey.  Obviously they are role-playing for the benefit of their young guests, no?  In fact the young seems even to hope that the parents will let loose against each other rather than play a game for the sake of the visitors.

    The best part of the movie is in the final scene, when an arrangements has worked out that we didn’t see coming.  Thinking back from there, you’ve got to acknowledge that, yes, Michael and Mary have taken us on a ride wherein we wonder what will happen when the young visitors leave.  And they do something that probably surprising them even more than it does the movie audience.  A nice, mordant comedy.

    Rated R.  94 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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