ASSASSINS – movie review

Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ryan White
Writer: Ryan White, based on Doug Bock Clark’s 2017 GQ article “The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination”
Cast: Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, Siti Aisyah, Doan Thi Huong
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/9/20
Opens: December 11, 2020 in theaters. PVOD January 15, 2021

Assassins Poster

The GQ article which Ryan White adapts for his film (see link above) is exciting enough to make anyone think: “A film version. That would be terrific.” Here’s an excerpt: “Already, the liquid that the women had applied was seeping into Jong-nam, rapidly jamming his muscles’ receptors in the ‘on’ position, causing his muscles to constantly contract as if struck by endless cramps. The liquid was VX, a chemical weapon that the CDC calls the most potent of all nerve agents and that the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction. He absorbed a lethal dose, which could have been as small as a drop.

“Jong-nam started toward the bathroom—and then lost his only chance to wash off the poison and survive when he rerouted to a nearby information desk. There, he moaned in English, “Very painful, very painful, I was sprayed liquid.”

You would never think that two young women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, would be implicated in an international cause celebre, but youths are often tempted to do nutty things when under the illusion that they can become famous and enjoy careers as actresses. Their painful coming of age began when they were told that they could make money doing prank videos. Inspired by the movie “Jackass,” Siti and Doan, who became “like sisters,” are asked to sneak up behind Kim Jong-nam, not told that he was the half brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. When Jong-nam was booking a ticket at the Kuala Lumpur airport, they would successively sneak behind him and run what they thought was simply hand lotion into his face, around the eyes. In truth, their hands were covered with VX, the most potent nerve agent known, which would cause death in fifteen minutes one hour.

As you can guess from the excerpt of the magazine story, Jong-un died painfully, the perps running away, washing their hands, unimpaired thanks to the natural fat in the hands. The North Korean agents took off, and Malaysia, worrying about its global prestige, had to find a scapegoat. The two young women are jailed, tried over a period of some fifty days, facing automatic hanging if found guilty of murder.

Two parts of this film are terrific. One is Helen Kearns’s editing, involving the taking of the airport’s surveillance film, giving it narrative shape, even highlighting the crime under a bright light with imaginative arrows pointing to perps and victim. The other is the suspense. You will wonder about the results of the long trial, the young women obviously scared out of their wits, eager to go home and concerned that they were being railroaded. Politics rears its head when first the ambassador of Indonesia arrives to try to affect the judge’s verdict, then an approach from the Vietnamese ambassador to Malaysia, who for reasons given is not as confident that he can succeed in getting his citizen off.

Director Ryan White made his political interest felt with his film “The Case Against 8,” the attempt to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Here he keeps the tension going as though he were filming a mafia action, with the all-powerful Kim Jong-un (that’s the guy who Trump considers one of his best friends), who must have taken a cue from Putin’s skill in poisoning opponents’ beverages and upping that to VX.

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

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


UNHINGED – movie review

Solstice Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Derrick Borte
Screenwriter: Carl Ellsworth
Cast: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Stimpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYc, 8/17/20
Opens: August 21, 2020

Russell Crowe in Unhinged (2020)

During the 1940s moviegoers everywhere in the U.S. could look forward to a good buy for a quarter. You’d get an A movie and a B movie, a newsreel (nobody had TV), a cartoon, and a weekly serial episode. Everyone knew what a B movie was because it was listed in the newspaper ads as the second feature, a companion. To some extent, “Unhinged” is a B movie, the big difference being that given its lead actors, it may not be typically low-budget. Like Beethoven, who wrote the kitschy “Wellington’s Victory,” when he needed some cash, and Tchaikovsky who for the same reason penned “The 1812 Overture,” often used in high-school music appreciation classes because of its noise, Russell Crowe must have been in need of some quick Benjamins. “Unhinged” follows the formula of psychological thriller/horror to a T. It’s predictable, dumb as all get-out, a movie that might be unloved even by the presume target audience of teens.

Crowe, whose belly is either padded with a My Pillow or wholly natural, looks even fatter than Donald Trump. As The Man (hint: Everyman) he is more menacing than director Derrick Borte’s “American Dreamer,” about a driver at the call of a drug dealer who kidnaps his passenger’s child. This everyman (the beast inside all of us?) he is an obvious psycho who opens the movie by battering down the door of a private house and then battering its inhabitants, burning down the house for good measure.

Driving a truck, he is cut off by Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who is trying to get her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school on time. He follows her, bids her open her window, and demands an apology—which she does not give; the mistake of her life. Later stealing her cell phone, which he uses to track her location and to call her divorce lawyer for nefarious purposes, he gives her a Sophie’s choice. Which one are you willing to have killed to make up for the road incident? Your son Kyle, your brother Andy (Jimmi Simpson) or the boss who just fired you?

The movie is shot outside New Orleans as though to show that there are dangers out there that can compare with those of Hurricane Katrina. Even adolescents might sneer at this artless picture, with an atmosphere so gray you’d wonder whether it was filmed in color.

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

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


STRAY DOLLS – movie review

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for & 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

BLOW THE MAN DOWN – movie review

Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Screenwriter: Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole
Cast: Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Marceline Hugot, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/20/20
Opens: March 20, 2020

Early on we see a sign in one house “Bed and Breakfast,” which coyly hides the term “Bordello,” which would have completed the alliteration. The real problem is that if the Bed and Breakfast place were really open for innocent enough tourists, where would they get the business? The small town in Maine is utterly provincial, and to top it off the area is regularly snowed in with damp weather that might make London seek like a climatic dream. This is a bad location for tourism but a good one for mystery. Bodies turn up including one of a hooker, but the real interest of writer-directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole is the dark secret that involves not just the madam but a trio of elderly women who appear ready for redemption.

“Blow the Man Down” is a sea shanty sung in the opening scene with delightful harmony by a group of grizzled fishermen, and another shanty will serve to bookmark this movie, which was awarded best screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. The script is an original, nicely combining a detective story with a look at an ambiance of a part of America not often seen in the movies.

Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) do not look like sisters and what’s more, despite their kinship they exhibit different personalities. When their mother dies, the sisters are determined to continue the fish business, though Mary Beth, unlike her sister, talks often of wanting to bolt from the town. They have occasional chats with their mother’s pals Susie (June Squibb), Gail (Annette O’Toole), and Doreen (Marceline Hugot).

Mary Beth, always the adventurer, picks up a guy at the bar, becoming anxious when she sees a gun in the glove compartment and a trunk filled with blood. He calls her “cute,” touches her leg, finally attacking her, resulting in his being harpooned in the neck and as dead as a punctured lobster. You and I would probably plead self defense, but the defender instead informs her sister who help in burying the body in the deep.

The person of major audience interest is Margo Martindale as the town madam, Enid, longtime friend of the trio of elderly ladies, any one of whom could serve as the lead in Joseph Kesselring’s play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Nobody will mess with Enid until somebody does, when her three pals, after hearing that one of her hookers has been shot in the head. Gayle Rankin performs as a character who is one of Enid’s workers, and Will Brittain pounds the beat as Justin, a young police officer who has a liking for Priscilla and, in one scene as you think that he will collar the two sisters, he instead follows up his undeaclared courtship by accepting an invitation to the sisters’ fish dinner.

At our time, when women are increasingly empowering themselves, “Blow the Man Down” serves as another example of how the sisterhood look out for one another. The film does not try to satirize small-town living or houses of ill repute but accepts the flaws of this remote coastal village of Easter Cove without judging.

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

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

EL ANGEL – movie review


The Orchard
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Luis Ortega
Screenwriters:  Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, Sergio Olguín
Cast:  Lorenzo Ferro, Chino Darín, Mercedes Moran, Cecilia Roth, Daniel Fanego, Luis Gnecco
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/30/18
Opens: November 9, 2018
El Ángel Movie Poster
After the murder of eleven synagogue congregants on 10/27/18 by Robert Bowers, some the grieving family contemplated his picture.  One fellow said, “He doesn’t look like the face of evil.”  Whether from comic books or movies or videogames, many of us think that killers look the part: smirking with scarred faces or showing Hitler-type mustaches, bulging eyes, maybe bad teeth and comb-over hair lines.   The reality is that criminals are likely to look like any of us: riding the subways, sitting before computers, relaxing in an easy chair.  The evil that men do lives after them, as Marc Antony said in “Julius Caesar,” but there is like to be no reflection on their faces.  Such is the case in spades when we consider Carlos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), known to friends and family as Carlitos, because the title figure, the angel, looks like what we conceive to be the face of pure innocence.  Though in real life he killed eleven people and committed robbery forty-two times, this seventeen-year-old is hardly the typical angel—except perhaps the fallen angel known as Satan.  You will not find horns growing on Carlito’s head and if he has a tail he hides it well.  What’s more, instead of a pitchfork—which we’d have hoped he’d use—he has a collection of guns, any number of which he used to carry out his killing, sometimes holding the firearms in both hands as though a figure out of the Old West.

This story based on the true events in the life of Puch—who, having served over forty-six years in jail is Argentina’s longest-serving prisoner ever—is directed by Luis Ortega with an eye for letting us contemplate the possible effect of his attraction toward young men on his crimes—though no outright homosexual act is filmed.  The thirty-eight-year-old Buenos Aires writer-director Ortega, whose “Black Box” is more of a character study involving three people than a riveting look at crime, allows Lorenzo Ferro to anchor the movie.  Ferro, in his debut as an actor, is in virtually every scene, committing his robberies and murders without much of a motive except to have some fun.  The curly-haired seventeen-year-old partners up with Ramón Peralta (Chino Darin) while both are sharing a class in a vocational high school, his choice probably based on the handsome looks of a guy a year or two older whose attention Carlos craves.  The partnership is sealed after Carlos holds a Bunsen burner close to his classmate’s back, resulting in suffering a sharp punch to Carlos’s left cheek, and from then on they are fast friends and partners in crime.

Ramón’s role model is the young man’s father, José (Daniel Fanego) an ex-convict who shoots up through his ankles, married to  Ana (Mercedes Morán) who at one point tries to seduce Carlos as though playing Mrs. Robinson to Ben Braddock in “The Graduate.” We’re convinced that this Carlitos is the polar opposite of the type of person some of us believe killers resemble.

A string of holdups include the robbery of a couple of dozen guns, some necklaces and rings, and in one case the cracking open of a safe with surprising results.  Carlos, obviously a thrill-seeker rather than a needy individual (though in an early scene he sounds like a Marxist), has had a good upbringing with honest and caring parents Héctor (Luis Gnecco) and Aurora (Cecilia).  Both look after their boy, obviously overjoyed with the good lucks for which they may take credit, but the best upbringings do not necessarily lead to favorable results.

The robberies and murders are shown as capricious rather than based on a need to do away with witnesses to crimes.  In fact they are part of the teen’s need for attention and thrills.  A stolen car, one of which leads to a head-on collision that may or may not have been
accidental, becomes part of Carlos’s carelessness, a flaw that will lead to his capture and long-term imprisonment.

The film in Spanish with clear subtitles and a terrific soundtrack of over a dozen instrumentals, is Argentina’s entry into the 91st Academy Awards competition, a worthy effort that will cement your impression that lawbreakers, even of the extreme kind, can look like you and me and Robert Bowers.

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

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

LIZZIE – movie review


Roadside Attractions/ Saban Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Craig William Macneill
Screenwriter:  Bryce Kass
Cast:  Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Jeff Perry
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/11/18
Opens: September 14, 2018

“Yesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died…”

Considering the low status of women in America during the late 19th century, it’s surprising that the jury took only 90 minutes to find Lizzie Borden not guilty of murdering her father and stepmother.  Didn’t they see that she had a strong motive to do the deed?  And didn’t they have respect for her father, perhaps the richest man in Fall River (his fortune would be worth $8 million today)?  Nor was there any sign, at least in this film, that the man was disliked by the community.

In this version of the Lizzie Borden story, one which has been told and retold in books, TV episodes and movies, the occurrences in Fall River, Massachusetts that made the title character one of the classic cases of multiple murder, Lizzie is played by Chloë Sevigny as a stiff, somewhat repressed woman, an old maid though in her early thirties, as folks called spinsters in 1892.

“Some folks say she didn’t do it/And others say of course she did
But they all agree, Miss Lizzie B/ Was a problem kinda kid”

Nowadays we don’t consider lesbians to be a problem, at least not in blue states, but then, as her father, Andrew Borden (Jamie Sheridan), states, when he witnessed her daughter making whoopee with Bridget the maid (Kristen Stewart), her retorts “You’re an abomination,” to which the daughter comes back in a second with “So are you.”

“Lizzie kinda rearranged him/With a hatchet so they say/ Then she got her mother/In that same old fashioned way.”

Let’s see, now.  What might motivate Lizzie to murder her father AND her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw)?  Could it be that she wanted her hands on that fortune which, after killing Abby (first—before dad, that’s important), she and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), would get it all?  If she killed dad first and stepmom second, the money would got to stepmom’s children from another marriage.  That would make the lyrics of the nursery rhyme inaccurate, since of course she killed stepmom an hour or so before rearranging her dad.

“No, you can’t chop your Papa up in Massachusetts/ You know how neighbors love to criticize.”

There’s plenty of reason besides money that would motivate the murder, as her dad was so concerned about what the neighbors thought that she refused to allow Lizzie to go on her own to a concert, then relented, demanding that she be home by midnight..

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/And then blame all the damage on the mice.”

There were no mice in the Borden household but there were caged pigeons, Lizzie’s pets.  She kept them in cages until her father decided he’d had enough, that the pigeons would draw the curious hoi polloi to the house, and used the axe to prepare them for dinner.  Lizzie cries.

“You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts/ That sort of thing just isn’t very nice.”

The lyrics to the nursery rhyme as you guessed are a terrific example of understatement.  I use the poem teaching English classes to demonstrate the power of both understatement and overstatement as literary devices.

As director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass note, this Andrew Borden is something like the way J. Paul Getty is described in “All the Money in the World.”  The latter, a billionaire, would wash his own clothes in a hotel.  Borden did without electricity and without indoor plumbing, stating the advantages of frugality.  If such skinflint tactics helped him gain a fortune, so be it.  But what did he do to enjoy the money, except to terrorize his daughter and repeatedly rape the maid?  His wife knows what was going on, but she serve as enabler, hoping to get the money eventually—which gives both her and the maid a motive.

The film brings out the tenderness and sexual feeling that Lizzie has for the maid, and she helped the unlettered lass along by teaching her to read.  Two lonely women find each other.  It helps that Bridget could serve as an alibi for Lizzie.  See nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.

The film does not seek to educate the viewers about the WHAT but more about the WHY, serving admirably to point out four people who might be motivated to murder (the fourth being the old man’s brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare), who called Lizzie some awful names and could have served to back up Andrew Borden’s desire to send both Lizzie and her sister Emma to a lunatic asylum.  Such are the conditions of women long before #MeToo that men in black uniforms would, upon petition of the pater familias, cart women off for life.

A well acted story, nice and slow moving with only a modicum of horror.  This is not “Hostel 2.”

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/ She gave her mother 40 whacks/ And when she saw what she had done/ She gave her father 41.”

Nope.  Count ‘em.  18 for mom, 19 for dad.

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

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

RONDO – movie review


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

THOROUGHBREDS – movie reveiw


Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Cory Finley
Screenwriter:  Cory Finley, adapted from his play
Cast:  Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/22/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

Proudly displaying its theatrical origins on the big screen, Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” is an intimate look at a flawed friendship between two emotionally disturbed high-school seniors, revealing how one criminally intentioned young woman can embed her mind-set on someone her own age.  This is the kind of cinema that could be equally effective on the legitimate stage, perhaps even more so given that dramas before a live audience tend to prioritize dialogue while subjects treated in a cinematic way emphasize visuals.

Though the movie takes place in the homes of two seventeen-year-old women, intricate camerawork and editing using shot-reverse-shot techniques to close in on first one speaker and then the next help to open the play for the big screen.  The plot depends on slowly building suspense, with Erik Friedlander’s dissonant music augmenting the tension-filled effects.  Nor does it hurt that the acting by Olivia Cooke as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily is particularly strong, the rhythms of their dialogue approximating those found in many of David Mamet’s plays.

Amanda is one emotionally troubled teen, a girl who has killed her horse after the latter’s incurable paralysis in a scene reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus.” As Amanda’s mother realizes that her daughter will have trouble making friends, she pays Lily ostensibly to act as her tutor for college boards, concerned with supplying Amanda someone to hang out with.

The movie’s focus is on the almost musical dialogue of Amanda and Lily as they bounce viewpoints about, like the music of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor.  It takes only moments for Amanda to spot Lily’s hatred for her incredibly rich stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), an overbearing man who treats his wife like royalty complete with spa treatments and the use of a suburban Connecticut mansion but has only disgust for Lily whom he wants out of his house.  They plot to have Tim (Anton Yelchin), a low-life convicted of statutory rape who works as a dishwasher in a nursing home shoot Mark and make the crime look like a robbery.  The give-and-take of the two girls with Tim is a gem in itself, displaying a man who is not too keen on doing the dirty deed despite the offer of $100,000.

As the plot moves forward from Chapter One through Chapter Four (the segments are displayed on the screen), the interest in ridding Lily of the hated man increases, brought to a fever pitch during a nasty argument with her stepfather.  However when the story should rise to a fever pitch, the tension, insufficiently reined in by director Finley, falls off during the final forty minutes, leading to an epilogue that should have been cathartic but is really anti-climactic.

This is a bold freshman venture by Cory Finley, a member of Youngblood, a collection of playwrights who are under the age of thirty.  Elements of the British playwright Harold Pinter come across, giving credibility to the writer-director’s feeling that Pinter may have been the chief influence on his writing.  The drama is dedicated to the memory of “StarTrek” actorAnton Yeltchin,  who at age 27 died in a freakish accident when his Jeep Cherokee backed up on an incline crushing his lungs.

Rated R.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WIND RIVER – movie review


Acacia Entertainment
Director:  Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:  Taylor Sheridan
Cast:  Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, Teo Briones
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/21/17
Opens: November 14, 2017

  • Image result for wind river poster
    We hear in the news that the city of Baltimore has the highest murder rate this year, so far, at about 358.  But you can’t avoid people who think that killing is OK as long as the taking out of an adversary will get them ahead in the world.  Nor do you have to be a sociologist to know that people living under extreme physical conditions in rural areas where there’s nothing else to do may seek sport in assault and murder, as do the no-good-niks in Taylor Sheridan’s sophomore directing with “Wind River.”  Taylor had been imaginative enough to contribute the movie “Vile” a few years back, about a woman hitchhiker who knocks out the driver and passengers out with gas and plants  devices inside the base of their skulls.  This time the women are all pure but some men are vile.  It’s an entertainment that evokes a lot of rumination but if you’re a Tarantino fan, Sheridan will cater to you wish some rousing melodrama—including a Mexican standoff that shows that he might be paying homage to Q.T.

Two solid actors anchor the drama, Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a worker in the wildlife department on the snow-covered grounds of Wyoming and Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young novice working for the FBI who is sent out to the woods alone to solve a murder.  Of course the two work together and we wonder when an obligatory “romance” scene will develop, but that has to wait until after the end credits roll and the movie concludes.  There is some hanky panky, though, as we see in a flashback involving some cuddling between Wilma (Julia Jones) and her s.o., a man with a number of roommates who work with him on an oil rig.

The action takes place on a particularly decrepit Indian reservations with Ben (Graham Greene) standing in for the law as the sheriff.  When Wilma’s dead body is discovered, the coroner, Dr. Whitehurst (Eric Lange) is unable to write that the cause of death was murder, despite evidence that she had been raped and had died while running to escape a band of morons.  Chief among the scum, Pete (James Jordan), has the role of acting out a Sam Peckinpah-style monologue, a surprisingly over-the-top piece of melodrama in an otherwise, mostly soft-spoken group.

What’s odd here is that Jeremy Renner’s character Cory Lambert is not a lawman.   He is a tracker who looks out for the sheep and other potential prey by shooting wolves and, if he can find some, lions.  In fact the picture opens with a bang: we watch Lambert looking through the telescopic sight of his high-powered rifle to take out a wolf who is moments from attacking a band of sheep (or goats).  Since the FBI agent is wet behind the ears, and because the regular law enforcers from the sheriff’s office need the skills of a tracker, Lambert takes on the major role in this most quiet, though in key spots melodramatic, work.

Taylor Sheridan is the man to watch.  He is involved now in a TV special called “Yellowstone,” wherein a ranching family in Montana must face off against people encroaching his land.  City people can learn about rural living from Sheridan’s films, enough for me to think that I’m hardly suffering from spending my whole life in Brooklyn.

Rated R.  111 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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