SYNONYMS – movie review

Kino Lorber
Reviewed for & 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-



Bleecker Street and 30 West
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Screenwriter: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/1/18
Opens: September 21, 2018

Colette Movie Poster

If you think that Paris has always been a sophisticated city with a reputation for progressivism, think again. Though Renoir’s paintings were accepted by Parisians, the impressionist painter had to bear with years of bad reviews. And in 1913, when Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was first performed on the Paris stage, there were outright riots as the audience had never heard tones such as those played by the mournful bassoon, the dissonance that has become the watchword of contemporary music, or the knock-kneed women that appeared on the stage when the overture was completed. The public, in fact, had been prepared with choice vegetables, looking for a fight, people who, if they were an elite attending a concert, could be mistaken for some of the deplorables that Hillary cited in her campaign.

But, you say, Paris is still the city of love! Yes, except that while women could be accepted as companions for men three times their age, not so long ago, homosexuality could not. In one of the melodramatic incidents in a movie that moves along smoothly without Hollywood-style mayhem, the crowd became antagonistic only when two women kiss each other on stage. Director Wash Westmoreland, whose “Still Alice” investigates problems when a linguistics professor and family have their bond tested when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, now finds the title character’s bond with her husband tested as well. There’s plenty of conflict in his “Colette,” a biopic of one of France’s great novelists, who during most of her career suffered the indignity of ghost-writing salacious novels for her husband Willy (Dominic West), the much older husband who notes that a woman simply could not be published in Europe in the early twentieth century. Like the couple in Björn Runge’s “The Wife,” dealing with a talented woman whose books were published under the name of her husband, “Colette” demonstrates yet another way that today’s #MeToo feminism is the happy background for writers and directors who try to compensate for society’s prejudice against creative females.

“Colette” could probably do just fine with any reputable star in the lead role, but Keira Knightley’s awards-worthy performance allows the film to soar both emotionally and intellectually. Though some will grouse that a French woman is the subject of a movie produced in the UK with British actors, you would do well to overlook that and enjoy the delightful unfolding of a career centered on a woman who could have spent her life in obscurity had she not decided to break away from her husband and knock out novels with her own name.

The film opens in 1893 when Colette (Keira Knightley), a country girl from Burgundy, is whisked away to Paris by Willy (Dominic West), a fake novelist who runs a stable of ghost writers and is now to include his beautiful wife among the serfs. One may wonder how Colette put up with the womanizer who even at age 46 had women in the early twenties throwing themselves at him. Noting that his wife, who in at least one instance is locked up in a room with the demand that she spend four hours writing before being freed, emerges with pages showing considerable spice. Willy sees a way out of his perpetual poverty brought about by gambling, dining and whoring. After the repo guys take away his furniture, he is saved financially when Colette” Claudine at School” becomes a best seller.

Colette turns out to be bisexual, carrying on an affair with an American from Louisiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), using her experiences as juice for future novels. The most interesting attraction is between Colette and Missy (Denise Gough), a woman who resembles Ellen De Generis with her suit, close hair style, and masculine carriage.

As with blockbuster thrillers, the women come out on top, so to speak, Colette gets revenge, divorcing her miserable husband, and goes on to write thirty novels. The picture, scripted by the director, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is constructed in a conventional manner (unusual, perhaps, considering the sexual progressivism of the theme) and is not only a great story but highlights a marvelous Keira Knightley as a turn-of-20th-century feminist.

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

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



Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter:  Christopher McQuarrie, Bruce Geller
Cast:  Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris
Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 7/11/18
Opens: July 27, 2018

Movies have come a long way since an audience for “The Great Train Robbery” ducked under the seats as the railroad train headed toward them in that historic six-minute film screened in 1903.  Just imagine what the audience, perhaps seeing their first film at the turn of the 20th century, would think if they saw “Mission: Impossible—Fallout”! They wouldn’t be ducking under their seats. They would be shouting and running for the exits, thinking that the end of the world was finally here.  If they stayed for most of the almost two and one-half picture, though, they would not think the world was ending. They would be certain, because the bad guys, who include August Walker (Henry Cavill) as a rogue agent actually tasked with eliminating the good guys, and especially Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), an anarchist with, of course, a full beard, plan to blow up a good part of the world knocking out 1/3 of our population to start.

Lucky for us that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), working for the IMF together with Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is available to make amends for his failure to capture the anarchist.  While many would think his new mission is impossible, the fallout is altogether a happy one, ultimately finding a reconciliation between Ethan Hunt and his wife Julia Meade-Hunt (Michelle Monaghan).

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, in his métier having directed “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” in 2016 (a homicide inspector looks into the case of a sniper who shot five random victims) and is the only one who directed two “Mission Impossible” actions.  At the screening I attended he spoke to the vast audience at AMC Lincoln Square’s IMAX theater, making sure that we all appreciate that Tom Cruise, who does some of his own stunts, injured his ankle during a drop from one roof to another in London, yet without waiting for his foot completely to heal continued to show up for work.  (Work?  This is pure fun.  We all should have jobs like his.)

In a picture with a great many strengths, though plot is not one of them, Tom Cruise leads his team against people out to kill off much of civilization to start “a new order.”  McQuarrie and a cast of hundreds of extras supporting to main characters, enact what some consider to be one of the greatest action movie of all time.  Given the steady march of film technology—special effects, booming sound, motorcycle chases through the streets of Paris that look so real you’d swear  you witnessed the real thing—“Mission: Impossible—Fallout” will impress audiences that are already hip to video games and scores of action features—but I can’t think of a single one that can surpass what occurs on the screen in an IMAX theater.

This sixth installment following McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” (Ethan Hunt and team go after the Syndicate, which had been charged with eradicating the International Monetary Fund) opened in Paris July 12, 2018 as well it should be given the City of Lights’ major role as virtually another character.  Don’t expect this to be in any way comparable to the intellectual spy stories of Joh Le Carré though you might compare the story to chapters in books by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum.  In an opening sequence Ethan Hunt and Benji botch an operation irritating CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) forcing Hunt to team up with Luther (Ving Rhames) and the complex character August Walker (Henry Cavill).  In a breathtaking sequence the two jump from a jet like joyous sky divers, their chutes threatening to stay closed even as they are within 1000 feet of Paris’ Grand Palais.

One of the actions exquisitely choreographed is a fight scene in a men’s room between the team and a goon, the action unfolding with a minimum of itchy editing so common to martial arts pics, the realistic punches landing with thuds.  Other adventures involve masks donned by some to conceal their identities, with a great gag involving CNN commentator Wolf Blitzer.  Audience members who may not have traveled much will be treated to the wonders of Paris, but Hunt is not one to sit in a sidewalk café watching pedestrians but is happier in cars and motorcycles charging down the cobblestone streets.  At times that most drivers would be honking their horns at traffic delays, Hunt is able to traverse the streets at 60 mph without knocking down a single civilian.

Other stunts involves jumping from roof toe roof, climbing and hanging on to a rope which Hunt holds onto for dear life as a helicopter takes off,.  All comes to a smashing conclusion in Kashmir (filmed in Norway and New Zealand) as the team of good guys try to defuse a series of bombs set to go off in 15 minutes thereby destroying most of India, Pakistan, Kashmir and presumably the happiest country, Bhutan.

Each episode tops the one before, the movie owning nothing to the James Bond series since every gadget owned by 007 has been largely surpassed by today’s technology.  So: plot is familiar, action is incredible.  The picture deserves to be seen in 2-D on the largest screen available in your area, IMAX if you can get it, but given the length of the film and the annoyance of wearing those pesky glasses I would recommend skipping the 3-D.

Rated PG-13.  144 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WINDOW HORSES – movie review

  • WINDOW HORSES: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming

    First Pond
    Director:  Ann Marie Fleming
    Screenwriter:  Ann Marie Fleming, Maryam Najafi
    Cast:  Voices of Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ellen Page Sandra Oh, Navid Negahban, Nancy Kwan, Omid Abtahi
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017

    If you don’t like poetry because you cannot understand its meanings, you’d do fine by watching “Window Horses.”  Ann Marie Fleming’s animated creation evokes poetry in the exotic scenery, and the verses read especially by the awkward Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) are as clear as good writing can be.  This is animation created for adults, although responsible children can surely profit from watching and hearing from the stick figure of Rosie and the more elaborate designs of all the others.  The story would be found particularly poignant by people whose fathers had abandoned them, and when Rosie discovers the real reason she was lost to her dad, you may find sympathy for the man who left his daughter through no conscious fault of his own.

    Rosie Ming, who is half Chinese and half Iranian lives in North Vancouver with her supportive grandparents, who, upon hearing that she is invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran, have mixed feelings.  They know that she loves Paris, though she has never been there, and try to persuade her to shift her travel plans—but at the time she had no invitations to similar festivals in the French capital.  Rosie’s best friend Kelly (Ellen Page) did not know even that Rosie was a poet, though Rosie explains that “it’s nothing,” an indication of her self-denigrating posture.

    Arrival in Shiraz wearing a black chador—whose symbolic meaning she probably does not know—she is encouraged by people she meets that she has no real need to dress that way.  She makes friends with a scruffy German, Dietmar (Don McKellar), fascinated that the fellow with a straggly beard lives in the city of her dreams.  Warmly met by fellow poets and by the festival’s cultural ambassador Mehrnaz (Shohreh Aghdashloo), she reads on two occasions from her poetry. When the festival’s MC Cyrus (Camyar Chaichian) tells her the reason for her father’s disappearance, her principal fear (that she was not wanted) and hostility (how could he do such a thing?) melt away.

    Criticism of the present government of Iran is so subtle that one might expect that country’s censorship people to OK the animation, at least for export.  Political satire is hardly the point of the 89-minute film by Ann Marie Fleming who directs her first feature since 2003, but there is no small feminist message throughout.  We learn something of the history of Persia, a glorious chapter in the world’s record of the past, the brilliance of a fourteenth century’s beloved Persian scribe seemingly snuffed by a government that cares more about arming terrorists in Hezbollah than in reflecting on the country’s humanistic past.

    Unrated.  89 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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