THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

THE UNORTHODOX
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Malka
Screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Cast: Shuli Rand, Yaacov Cohen, Yoav Levi, Golan Azulai, Shifi Aloni, Or Lumbrozo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

The old saying is that you put two Jews in a room discussing anything under the sun and they will not only disagree but will come up with three diverse positions. This is true to some extent among diaspora Jews in the U.S., people of the book who love endless discussions to such an extent that many Gentiles do not understand the verbal mayhem. And it is surely true of Jews living in Israel, who may have seemed unified when the nation was founded in 1948 with its iconic, socialist members of kibbutzim (collective farms), but has since fractured into more political parties than you can count on your fingers, with maybe your toes thrown in. “The Unorthodox” may seem at first look like a deadly serious film about ethnic discrimination but is filled with comic outbursts and undertones and includes many cartoonish figures—not excluding rabbis.

Still, it’s regrettable that Israelis fell into the kind of discrimination that pit those of European background, some of whom migrated to the land while others (Sabras) were born there, against those known as Mizrahis and Sephardim—generally of darker skin including those thrown out of their birth lands including Iran, Dagestan, Syria, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are not only in skin color, though you might scarcely tell by looking who is of European stock and who is Middle Eastern, but in culture, involving music, clothing, food and the like.

Because of this discrimination, one fellow, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), partly comic and otherwise passionate, becomes radicalized when his daughter is suspended from high school twice within two weeks and then told by the headmistress that she “does not fit in.” Turns out that she is Sephardic attending a school filled with Ashkenazi Jews, and is dropped from the register though she is neither a discipline problem nor a bad student. Forced to accept the decision, Yaakov, heretofore apolitical, realizes that the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Jerusalem can show power only by forming a party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas (an actual party of Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern extraction actually founded in 1984). Nobody but he thinks the organization will get anywhere, but in running for the City Council, Yaakov must get the endorsement of at least one rabbi, preferably the head rabbi of the city.

Given the overlong presidential campaigns here in the U.S., each election considered by the media “the most important ever,” you may not be in the mood for another culture’s campaigning, but you will be drawn into writer-director Eliran Malka’s debut feature movie. Eliran Malka presents “The Unorthodox” soon after helming his groundbreaking TV show Shababnikim, an irreverent look at the shenanigans of four ultra-Orthodox fellows studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Malka, intent on showing ultra-Orthodox as people misrepresented by the media as a closed society, highlights each of the major personalities with his or her own quirks, whether they be from the movie’s idealistic anchor played by Shuli Rand, the local rabbi actually named Yaacov Cohen, who was born in Morocco, or the henchmen who try to absorb the Shas founders into their own party thereby hoping to dissolve the divisions. But like political parties everywhere, Shas began with admirable ideals when Shuli Rand’s character ran for the Jerusalem City Council, then rubbed up against the daily corruptions of the game, wherein at least five Shas members of the Knesset were busted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy to commit crimes.

Notwithstanding the writer-director’s championing of the party through his film, today Shas has moved to the far right, against any cutback in activities settling the West Bank. At least the party as we see its members in action in “The Unorthodox” summons us to cheer their ideals, while knowing that somehow Yaacov, its founding member, will become not only corrupted but thrown under the bus by his fellow party members.

“The Unorthodox” was selected to screen at the Israel Film Festival.

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

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

VICE – movie reveiw

VICE

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Adam McKay
Screenwriter:  Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Screened at: DGA, NYC, 11/23/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
Vice - Poster Gallery
Adam McKay is nothing if not a patriotic critic of United States policy.  With his adaptation of “The Big Short,” he took on the folks who gave us the worst recession since the Great Depression.  With “Revolt of the Yes Men” he and his fellow directors struck at corporate crimes for Big Business’ efforts to fight climate change.  “Anchorman 2” showed the man’s ability to make a light movie just for fun, though he is probably critical of any newscaster who came after Walter Cronkite.  Now he does it again with a satire that has elements of Michael Moore’s hard-hitting humor but tempered in his depiction of former Vice President Dick Cheney to such an extent that you might think at times that he is simply neutral about the man’s “accomplishments.”  “Vice” is a most delightful description of Cheney and his times beginning in 1963 and ending with the closing of the Bush administration where he watches the Obama inauguration from a wheelchair, pretending for the photographers that he is not completely disgusted with the afternoon’s activities.

As played by Christian Bale, who gained forty pounds for the role (not a wise choice considering that this could put him in league with the Veep who had five heart attacks), Cheney influences President George W. Bush to such an extent that journalists and pundits believe that he is not just the man behind the throne but the guy who is actually serving as President of the United States.  Cheney is a master manipulator, using his street smarts to get Bush to give him more power than any preceding Vice President ever enjoyed.  In fact he had been so aggressive in his determination to influence American foreign policy that he may have made the big decision to move troops from Afghanistan into Iraq, the kind of mistake to which the U.S. had become accustomed–not such our policy toward Vietnam but dating back to colonial days when patriotic countrymen strung up those dreadful witches.

Though his approval rating when he left office was 13%, you’ve got to wonder where the people who became the rank and file of the Tea Party were. Surely more of us, particularly in the red states of course, are willing to defend anything the Republican Party does, even tolerate a serial liar and womanizer simply because the person occupying the Oval Office is doing what they want him to do.  Cheney himself notes that like Nixon, he believes that anything the President does is ipso factor legal.

McKay, who wrote the script as well as directs, reaches back to 1963 when the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-living politician attended Yale and later the University of Wyoming getting a graduate degree in Political Science.  McKay brings us to the Nixon and Ford administrations where he pushes his way into getting appointed as White House Chief of Staff, then in 1978 becomes the sole Wyoming representative in the House where he is reelected five times, then Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush presidency.  He has time even to become the CEO of Halliburton which, by coincidence no doubt, won many government no-bids contracts to supply war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s little wonder that when he resigned from Halliburton—whose stock rose 500% at one point—he was given a separation sum of $22 million.

Much is made of the domestic life of the man.  He is given hell by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) during the early years of their marriage for being a drunk and getting into bar fights, but soon enough he shapes up to watch his star rise and see the pride that Lynne takes in him.  His wife, surprisingly, does not want him to accept an appointment from Bush to be his running mate since the job is considered ceremonial—or in more colorful terms as John Nance Garner once put it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Little did Garner realize that a manipulator of the sort that Cheney was could actually set policy, which would be officially announced as the thoughts of the President.  The only character who shines as much as both Bale and Adams is Steve Carell, a busy man indeed, who can emcee an evening of Saturday Night Live and now just as effectively portray Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Michael Moore comparison: the most comical scene occurs when Bush (Sam Rockwell, who is truly funny to nobody’s surprise) tries to coax Cheney into becoming his running mate.  Cheney resists, telling POTUS that instead he could recommend a slate of people he considers worthy.  Little does Bush realize that Cheney is playing him, acting coy in order to make demands that Bush give him more policy-making power than any Vice President had before him.  Cheney is  mum on the issue of gay marriage, which a conservative Republican would surely oppose.  Could it be because one of his two daughters, Mary, is an open lesbian now living in Virginia with her wife Heather Poe?  And could that explain why Cheney broke rank with most of his fellow conservatives by supporting gay marriage?  If only the man were that decent and not the one who supported waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation!  Never mind that Mary’s sister, during her own campaign for Wyoming’s rep in the House, insists that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Ah, politics.

Even serious matters like Cheney’s heart attacks are choreographed with wit.  When the Vice President falls to the floor and an ambulance is called, that’s the usual way.  In two other cases he stands with colleagues and announces casually and almost ironically that they should call the hospital.  When Cheney gets the heart of a man who dies in an auto accident, instead of praising the hero’s family he says that he is proud to have “my new heart.”  If Cheney is truly the man with the most influence on foreign policy during the Bush administration, he deserves censure for the loss of life of our fighting team and for 600,000 mostly civilian deaths in Iraq.

This is not the first satiric movie about Cheney but arguably the most incisive and best acted.  Oliver Stone directed a biographical drama using Richard Dreyfus to impersonate Cheney; in “Who is America” Sacha Baron Cohen pranked Cheney into signing a makeshift water board kit.  Ultimately you might agree that Cheney is so out of touch with common decency that you don’t need to pen a satiric book or a broadside on the screen.  He is his own caricature.

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

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

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ – movie review

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ

Menemsha Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Waldheims Walzer (2018)
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.

Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men?  Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours.  Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria.  No, not that one.  Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities?  Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front.  What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.

Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986.  He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.

Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well.  Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria.  She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General.  One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.

The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy?  A Jewboy?”  This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians.  To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.  The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.

We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.”  This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization.  This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment.  This is what dirty politics is all about.  It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.

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

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

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 – movie review

FAHRENHEIT 11/9

Briarcliff Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Michael Moore
Screenwriter:  Michael Moore
Cast:  Donald Trump, Michael Moore
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 9/20/18
Opens: September 21, 2018
Fahrenheit 11/9 Movie Poster
In promoting an intellectually deep, emotionally charged drama whether in a book, a movie or a stage play, there’s no better slogan that a publicist can adopt than “You’ll laugh!  You’ll cry!” Yet from easily the best documentary film released so far this year, the most that you can say is that you’ll cry.  There is considerable humor along with the melancholy on display from our country’s most entertaining documentarian, Michael Moore.  But from the first riveting scene to the final compelling words, you can’t be blamed for wanting to cry your eyes out.  And that’s the strong recommendation one can make for this film.

When Andrew Cuomo campaigned for re-election as New York’s governor, one who would “stand up to Trump,” he stated that the slogan “Make America Great” is a falsehood; that America was always great.  Not so, Moore would reply, America was never great.  And that’s where the tears can flow, because from the penning of the U.S. Constitution by rich white male slave owners, giving us the absurdly undemocratic electoral college, our country has had to struggle to make inroads resonant for all the people, not just the billionaires and not just for rural folks who make the big mistake of thinking that Trump will solve their money problems and not go rogue by blaming race and immigration.

“Fahrenheit 11/9,” a title that cleverly switches the date of Moore’s previously movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” to refer to the announcement of Trump’s 2016 election victory, is a screed against the corruption endemic in our national politics.  The reference is also to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” in which a dictatorship takes over the lives of the citizenry. Moore takes aim at Democrats and Republicans alike, criticizing so-called Democrat Bill Clinton for turning prisons over to private hands, cutting welfare from the checks of millions of needy Americans, and de-regulating banks to such an extent that we wound up with the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression.  Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer could hardly be called reformers.  President Obama is chastised for deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants and pretending that the water crisis in Flint Michigan has been simply blown up to the status of national scandal.  (In Flint, Michigan, he asks for a glass of water as though to show his disappointed audience that the water is pure.  He takes just a sip.)

Still, most of Moore’s animosity goes to the Republicans, especially people like Rick Snyder, a reactionary governor of Michigan, who made nice with corporate power by building a pipeline that would bypass the pure water of Lake Huron to a separate, corroding line,that poisoned the output to the most poor, mostly African-American community.

Trump is the obvious principal target of Moore’s scathing criticism, so demonic that the doc plays archival film of Hitler with Trump’s voice replacing that of the last century’s most evil monster.  You would not be entirely wrong if you thought that this was overkill, that the “It can’t happen here” now longer applies, but there is an eerie sense that the rallies that Trump conducts, his preferred means of communication to his base coupled with his avoidance of press conferences, are a prelude to total dissembling of even what has passed for democracy in our union.

Perhaps his most controversial view is that the reason so many registered voters stayed home on that fateful day in November of 2016 is not apathy or laziness, but a giving up, a surrender to the idea that standard politics is so demented, so unrepresentative, that there’s nothing anybody can do.  In that regard, Bernie Sanders comes across as Moore’s hero, a fellow who, unlike Trump and unlike Hillary Clinton, tells it like it really is but gets shafted by the Democratic National Committee intent on giving Hillary the nomination.

Yet there is hope. Look at what’s going down in some of the red states.  In West Virginia, teachers are so fed up with their miserable wages, with their need to take two and even three jobs to make ends meet, that they succeeded in striking for five days and winning the reasonable raise for which they asked.

As though to nail home points that might have seemed peripheral to the anti-Trump camp, he virtually calls the president a perv, showing a succession of pictures with Trump and his daughter Ivanka at various states in her growing up giving each other affection that might look as though a rich boss is cavorting with his young secretary.  It did not help the president to say that if Ivanka were not his daughter, he would be dating her.

In Stanley Kramer’s movie “On the Beach,” a nuclear bomb has exploded in the North, the radiation heading toward Australia which is still habitable.  The final scene shows a Salvation Army street poster with the hopeful message, “There is still time…Brother.”  Is there?  Are we headed—like climate change—to the point of no return, or can we avoid the mistakes made by Germany’s progressive Weimar Republic when 32% of the electorate voted for the Nazi Party?  If the American voters turn out in great numbers, the Democratic Party victories would be shoo-ins, since after all, we are a left-leaning nation with a majority favoring Medicare for All, proper regulations of guns, free public colleges, and reproductive rights.  Or so Moore says.

There is much to ponder in a film that makes its 126 minutes pass like an entertaining look at an America currently in a dystopian free-fall.  Michael Moore’s hard-hitting, hard left project has not a single dull or irrelevant moment and, like Bob Woodward’s latest book “Fear” is a clearly-reasoned, cleverly edited broadside punctuated by the year’s most awesome musical score.

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

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

REVERSING ROE – movie review

REVERSING ROE

Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directors:  Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screenwriters: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/12/18
Opens: September 13, 2018
Reversing Roe (2018)
It used to be that politically conscious Americans agreed that the Democratic and Republican parties were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, characters made famous by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”  The folks in the House and Senate and in state legislatures would do their jobs in such a bipartisan way that pundits could not be blamed if they were bored, as if we all prefer conflict, some signs of life in our legislatures.  This attitude has been reversed.  Democrats unanimously voted for the Affordable Care Act while Republicans unanimously voted against. And while the Supreme Court once decided cases like neutral jurists, now we all know how the nine people with lifetime appointments will vote: it’s all about politics.  If you were appointed by a Republican you voted conservative.  Democrats, progressive.

In this regard Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “Reversing Roe,” while not even mentioning the name Brett Kavanaugh as presumably his nomination came after the film was completed, has come to theaters now at an opportune time.  How so? While once, the Great Political Slogan was “It’s the economy stupid,” that wages, the stock market and the general health of the dollar was the big issue, now money is second place to social issues, namely gun rights, immigration controversies, and most of all, abortion.  In fact Stern and Sundberg capture the point in the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in which Trump allegedly sews up victory when he concludes that we cannot allow “partial birth” abortions while Clinton came out in protection of women’s reproductive rights.

Never mind that partial birth is not a medical term while referring to fetuses that are “ripped from a woman’ womb,” as only 1.3% of abortions take place then.  Trump does not likely believe in the so-called pro-life movement as he had come out for choice in 1990 and he is arguably one the least religious chiefs of state in our history.  But he knew that would have to win big among evangelicals, so he flipped.

You can try to guess the writer-directors’ own opinions on abortion, but you would have a difficult time doing so, as this documentary is completely fair to both sides.  Each side gets equal time, each side gets famous advocates’ opinions.  However there is absolutely nothing new in what they say.  Anyone who watches the news must be aware of every argument, so this picture, which is cerebral (even while showing violent demonstrations), rehashes controversies that should find a place in a museum of ideas if one is ever constructed.

Republicans, who today are as conservative as they ever were, are generally pro-life. Democrats, who today have moved to center-left, are pro-choice. One side says that government has no business messing with women’s bodies; the other side insists that a fetus is a separate body, a new form of life that should not be “killed.” The most important question that splits our country on this issue is this: when does a life fall under the protection of the U.S. Constitution?  Pro-choice folks say when it is born, i.e. outside of the mothers’ wombs.  Pro-life people say that what is growing inside women’s wombs should be protected, though some say the protection falls at the moment of conception, others stating that it should be protected at some time whether during the first trimester or the second of the third.  Roe v. Wade in 1973 held that abortions must be allowed during the first and second trimesters.

Yet since Roe, some states have tried to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling that undue burdens must not be placed on pregnant women to mean that you can force a woman to watch a sonogram, to get spousal approval, to go only to institutions that have doctors affiliated with hospitals.

In other words, what’s new?  Still this film is an excellent primer for those so interested in sports that they have no time to learn about the welfare of the United States, i.e. people who used to turn to the last pages of the New York Post or Daily News when people still read newspapers.

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

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

AMERICAN CHAOS – movie review

AMERICAN CHAOS

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  James D. Stern
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 8/23/18
Opens: September 20, 2018
American Chaos Movie Poster
With an introductory remark that “you can’t know another person unless you get into his skin,” James D. Stern takes off on a road trip to what some snobs call flyover country—West Virginia and Arizona—but with stops as well in Miami and Cleveland, the latter being the site of the Republic National Convention in 2016 that certified Donald Trump as nominee for President.  He may not have literally gotten into the skin of Trump supporters, but by playing himself as neutral, he is able to elicit considerable talk from a variety of people in much the way that Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah” in 1985 allowed his subjects to say what they would otherwise keep to themselves if they thought the interviewer were biased against them.

Stern, who lives and breathes politics (his “So Goes the Nation” explored the folks in the Buckeye state before the 2004 presidential election), has an awesome array of 59 production credits, and is in his métier as a friendly but seemingly impartial interviewer.  His subjects are almost all Trump supporters though he occasionally tosses in some comments by Democrats, perhaps to give viewers the feeling that America is not all that chaotic, that there are people who, like one scientist, says that yes, we are undergoing climate change which could prove more dangerous to the earth if steps are not taken quickly.

Except for some moments in the epilogue, Stern deals only with the months before the November 2016 election when people had to get their impression of Trump from what he says rather than what he does, which makes absolutely essential a sequel to discover whether their views have changed, though we already know from the pundits that few Trump supporters have left the fold.

So, what’s wrong with Kansas?  In fact, what’s the secret of Trump’s success across most of the red midlands of our great nation?  The responses are from people who vote for the Republican party—or, if you prefer the language of ex-House speaker John Boehner, the Trump party.  Their views are not unexpected by anyone who has followed politics, whether via Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, the Washington Post and the progressive newspaper, The Arizona Republic.

One subject has an analogy: you don’t want strangers in your home, people you know nothing about, do you?  When we tolerate illegal immigration, we are faced by this dilemma, and in fact, one woman who lives 25 miles from the Mexican border notes (without even winking at the interviewer) that Mexicans sneak across, rape the women, and hang up their underwear as though claiming a victory of sorts.  Thus, she concludes, we must rigorously maintain the power of the Second Amendment—never mind that the Founding Fathers put that into the Constitution soon after colonists were involved in a long war with Britain.

Another respondent argues that previously foreigners have assimilated into the American culture, but not so much now.  They had always kept their ways, perhaps preparing arroz con pollo or imam bayeldi at home, but they will enjoy hot dogs on every Fourth of July. Yet another subject appreciates that the President says what’s on his mind: not like the big bad Democrats who keep their real feelings secretive.  As for climate change, nah: Mother Earth will take care of her own.  Coal miners in West Virginia take Trump seriously when Potus promised to bring back their jobs; never mind that other sources of energy are cleaner and that even if the mines were re-opened, automation would put most West Virginians out of work.

A few state that Trump’s billions do not alienate him from the working class: “He has billions and he can help us become successful.”  As for Hillary Clinton, while at least one subject suggests that she has committed treason “and the penalty for treason is death,” others simply hate her, believing that all she cares about are money and power (unlike Trump, presumably).

Surprisingly the issues of abortion and gay rights are not mentioned at all, giving viewers the impression that they are minor considerations that do not concern them one way or another.  However it must be pointed out that Stern does not interview many evangelicals but rather salt-of-the-earth people who worry only about jobs and immigration and resent people who are given welfare though they do not contribute to society.

Throughout, director Stern does not fade back as the invisible interviewer but appears in every scene, sometimes rolling his eyes for our benefit, sometimes seeming on the verge of tears.  He never lets on, though, that he is anything but a blank slate, a neutral observer.

Behind the lens, Kevin Ford captures sides of the American topography that are only casually known by urban dwellers, while Rose Corr and Kevin Ford at the editing machines keep the film moving at a brisk pace.  A rapid-fire introduction to the movie hones in on previous presidential campaigns, as far back at Teddy Roosevelt’s and with celluloid given to Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, JFK, Barack Obama and Trump.  Though people who follow politics may find nothing new in the commentary, James Stern allows us to get at least hints of the over-all personalities of the subjects.  Democrats in the audience might be expected to guffaw at some of (what they consider) unsophisticated, xenophobic and outlandish comments such as the bit about Hillary’s being guilty of treason.  Audience members on the right will doubtless be motivated to don their red baseball caps and continue to see that America is being made great again.  Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!

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

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

CHAPPAQUIDDICK – movie review

CHAPPAQUIDDICK

Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures & Apex Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  John Curran
Screenwriter:  Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Cast:  Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Derm, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/27/18
Opens: April 6, 2018
Inline image 1
If an ordinary Joe had a car accident resulting in the death of a passenger, you would probably not hear about it except in your neighborhood paper.  If a well-known figure, a celebrity, simply slapped his partner in public, the incident would gain at least tabloid notice.  The inference here is that you can get away with a lot if you’re an office worker, a drugstore clerk, a stock-room person, but if you are part of the one percent of folks who are well known in their fields, whether politics, the cinema or TV, you’d better watch how you act.  Ah but on the other hand, if you’re one of the aforementioned big shots, you might get the attention of journalists and broadcast media, but your penalty, if any, will be far less than what the ordinary Joe must suffer.

The Kennedy family was made up of anything but ordinary people.  JFK, the handsome, articulate and intelligent public figure, merited the most attention; his brother Robert, or Bobby, a man popular especially with minority groups for his interest in their cause, and ironically Joe, the patriarch, with close ties to the far-right Senator Joe McCarthy, was a vile anti-Semite who referred to Jews as a people who brought the Holocaust on themselves.

John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” deals with Ted Kennedy, focusing wholly on the incident that we probably remember most about him—not the bills he pushed through the senate, not even his run for president in 1980, but with the accident that did not end his political career (he was re-elected to the senate by strong majorities but would not consider running for the highest office in 1972 and 1976.)  The incident involved Kennedy’s hosting a party in Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard for the so-called Boiler Room Girls, who had worked on his brother Robert’s presidential campaign the year before.  He left the party with one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had resolved to give up working on presidential campaigns but would continue pushing for local politicians in New Jersey.

When Kennedy and Kopechne tried to cross the Dike Bridge in his 1967 Oldsmobile, a small stretch that did not have a guard rail, he lost control of his car which crashed into the Poucha Pond inlet.  Kennedy stated to the police that while he was able to extricate himself from the car, he dived into the water in a rescue attempt.  He swam to the shore, leaving the young woman trapped in the car, and significantly did not report the accident until the next morning when the body had already been found.

The facts to this day are not altogether clear, and we cannot necessarily rely on the senator’s version of events.  Given that the details are still being debated by wonkish types and others who like to discuss the more sensational aspects of the political game, we cannot necessarily trust director John Curran’s version either.  But one thing is clear: the director has it “in” for the senator and likely for politicians in general.  Having sat in the director’s chair for previous movies about a trek across 1700 miles of Western Australia (“Tracks”) and a cholera epidemic in a Chinese village (“The Painted Veil”), he gives no hint at the subject matter for this work.

Here’s the thing: we don’t know the truth about Chappaquiddick.  Only Ted Kennedy did.  But Curran, using Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s screenplay, thinks the worst.  He shows Kennedy driving Ms. Kopechne at night, at a fast clip, one that appears to have frightened his passenger who does not dare to tell the man to slow down.  We show Kennedy drinking whiskey from a bottle before the drive.  Is this the way a man in one of the nation’s highest offices behaves, and what’s more a fellow who would be expected to have the genteel manners of old money?  After his car skidded on the bridge and did almost a somersault into the water, we don’t know what happened, and Kennedy is shown later pretending to have looked and not found anyone inside the car.  (She was.)  And in a show of how corrupt American politics can become (though by current years we have nothing but saintly figures in high office), Kennedy allows himself to be advised, flattered, given spin by his intimate circle, one which includes especially his cousin Joe Gargan who has served as well as his lawyer and perhaps best friend.

He seems to regard Mary Jo at this point as little more than the person who would prevent him from ever becoming president.  Narcissism is nothing new in politics. Paul Markham, the Attorney General of Kennedy’s state of Massachusetts, comes on strong telling him to report the incident, but Kennedy chooses to wait—presumably to allow his breath to clear of the alcohol that caused the accident.  Had he reported the incident immediately, Kopechne would probably have been saved as she did not die from the impact of the car on water but drowned as water inched its way into the Oldsmobile.  The senator should have been convicted of manslaughter at the very least.  He should have been driven from office by an enraged senate and not found unqualified for dog catcher.  But somehow, as we may have recently learned, the public will accept lies from politicians as long as they are liked and as long as they carry out the policies that the majorities desire.

Bruce Dern is excellent as the venomous father Joe Kennedy, in a wheelchair having suffered a major stroke which deprives him of the ability to speak except to say one word on the phone: “Alibi.”  Dern looks like the creep as well with his proverbial round eyeglasses.   Mary Jo is well played by Kate Mara, who is about to be convinced to play a major part in Ted Kennedy’s forthcoming campaigns.  It’s clear from the director’s intention that Ted is about to hit on the woman, and note that Kennedy’s wife, in a later scene, sits apart from him in the back seat of a car looking hostile.  Best of all, Jason Clarke as the senator looks the part with a toned-down New England accent which from time to time becomes re-attached to his voice, and he looks human.  He worries that his father liked his brother Jack best of all and thought of Ted not in the way the senator thought he should be treated.  He is vulnerable, he calls on his friends for help, and he’s scared.  He’s nothing like the way we have come to think of the man as a knight in shining progressive armor, ready to take on the elements of right-wing reaction that threaten our democracy.  And he repays his electorate for throwing his hat in the ring in the 1980 presidential campaign which, despite the Kennedy name, he loses in the primary to Jimmy Carter.

Rated PG-13.  107 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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