#FEMALE PLEASURE – movie review

#FEMALE PLEASURE

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barbara Miller
Screenwriter: Barbara Miller
Cast: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Yithika Yadav
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

#Female Pleasure (2018)

During the Age of Aquarius in America, Joan Baez would sing “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ She’s always controlled, she’s always confined/ Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife/ A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.” You might not think that in free America—as compared, for example with Saudi Arabia—that women have it so bad, but of course there’s room even in our country before we can declare the two sexes absolutely equal. Things are worse, then, in some parts of the world, and Barbara Miller, who wrote and directs “#Female Pleasure,” takes us around the globe from Brooklyn to Japan to India and to the UK and to Italy, where women activists are challenging the rules enforced upon them by religion or by culture. You come away with the impression that Karl Marx was right in saying that religion was invented by men to keep women down–though he could add repressive cultures in general.

The Swiss director hones in on five women, capturing their legitimate beefs through both the interview format and through observing them living their lives. In one case she indicts entire societies in discussing the evil practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation, in which babies, really, five-year-old girls, are held down and have their clitoris cut out so that they cannot feel sexual pleasure. Strangely, though, the women do not explain why this is done. Presumably this is to prevent women from straying from their husbands. In other cases, religion, which of course is part of a culture, is indicted, interpreted by men to pronounce themselves superior to women and to exploit them for their own satisfaction.

The woman whose story meant the most for me was Deborah Feldman, as I had read her book “Unorthodox,” there describing her view of the Hasidic religious sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was one of the few who actually left, taking off on her own, living in Greenwich Village, her book describing her dismal view of the highly Orthodox people who do not allow women to choose their mates. (I think she did a disservice on those pages in which she tells all, describing the sexual practices of her ex-husband which must have humiliated him.) Feldman is seen driving her son inside the Hasidic community, asking him whether she should return to the fold and getting the obvious answer from the young man, “Let’s get out.” And that’s a male talking! We see films of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, where the residents post large signs about respecting the local culture. Women are told to dress modestly—long sleeve shirts, skirts down about her ankles, though what Feldman could have added is that tourists who walk through the community with outfits that the residents consider immodest are spat upon, the women addressed as whores.

At least nobody in the Hasidic culture favors FGM. The bizarre custom of cutting a woman’s genitals when she is but a small child occurs largely in North Africa—Egypt, Somalia, for example, but also in Kenya. We hear from Leyla Hussein, who had the procedure forced on her. Like Feldman, she ultimately escaped the repressiveness by moving to the UK. At the very least she has convinced women in the expate Somali community to the anti-FGM cause, and when she visited the Masai in Kenya, learning that these women too had been mutilated, she gets their pledge not to do the same to their own daughters. As for the view that, hey, men, too are mutilated by some cultures by having their foreskins removed, she counters that the equivalent would be to have their entire penises removed.

Rokudenashiko, the nickname of manga artist Megumi Igarashi which means “good for nothing,” put vaginas in her cartoons for which she was arrested, tried, and acquitted of that charge, but she was convicted for making 3D images of the vagina, creating necklaces, iPhone cases and even a kayak using her own vulva as the design.

Miller also gives time to Doris Wagner, a German nun who claims that she was raped more than once by a priest, though we wonder why she would remain in the convent after a single instance, particularly since her charge was not taken seriously. She had written to Pope Francis, receiving no response, and is now a free woman who loves pop songs which, unlike what she heard in the convent deals with real human emotions.

Vithika Yadav, a feminist activist in India, makes us aware that the government in India appears not to take rape seriously, thinking, perhaps, that “Boys will be boys.” A street demonstration cast with men sympathetic to her cause reenacts the humiliation that women go through.

Some might say that the film is “all over the place,” since it deals with a variety of themes from genital mutilation to arranged marriage, but all falls under the umbrella of ways that women are not valued as much as are men, looked upon—except by me and you—as nothing more than baby-making machines whose pleasure is considered unimportant by men. If you are “woke,” i.e. socially aware, you know and rejects the attitude of male supremacy unearthed by this fascinating trip around the globe. Even so, you will be attentive to the sharp visuals in Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart and Anne Misselwitz’s photography.

The film garnered awards and nominations at film festivals in Locarno, Leipzig, Austria and Thessalonika.

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

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

THE SACRIFICE – movie reveiw

THE SACRIFICE

Kino Classics from Kino Lorber – new 4K restoration
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andre Tartovsky
Screenwriter:  Andre Tartovsky
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production Design: Anna Asp
Costumes: Inger Pehrsson
Editing: Andrei Tarkovsky, Michal Leszczylowski
Cast:  Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall, Guorún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter, Valérie Mairesse, Filippa Franzén, Tommy Kjellqvist
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/17/18
Opens: For complete schedule download https://KinoLorber.com/Film/TheSacrifice.  Blu-Ray and DVD available from Kino Lorber.

The Doomsday clock is ticking and while it ticks, the world remains whole, if deeply fragmented.  Now at two minutes to midnight, or is it three? No matter.  You cannot blame everything on President Trump.  John F. Kennedy moved the minute ever-so-close in the early sixties by challenging the Soviet Union on the high seas but the only bang we heard was from Khruschev’s shoes.  Now, though, with climate change competing with nuclear weapons as the ultimate globe-buster, we need something, but what do we need?  Is it more spiritualism?  More home town religion? A different President and a more flexible Congress?  Who knows?  Maybe Andre Tartovsky can clue us in as he has already done with his final film “The Sacrifice,” which he wrote and directed while dying from lung cancer.  Facing imminent death and the loss of everything, Tartovsky, an expat Russian filming in Swedish with the Ingmar Bergman’s favorite lenser Sven Nykvist, Tartovsky unfolds a drama with no music on the soundtrack save for a Bach aria, a quick melody on the flute, a movie devoid of humor, unless you get your funny-bone tickled by watching a grown man having sex with a witch.

Is that what we need?  Sex with a good witch to end the Iran crisis, the North Korea crisis, the Russia crisis?  Apparently the technique worked then, in 1985 which is the time period of the film, as the world survived thanks, perhaps, to the machinations a small group of neurotic Swedes which included not only the sex (we don’t see much of that since the film is rated PG but don’t even think of taking your eight-year-old to see it) but a sacrifice made by the principal character. Alexander (Erland Josephson), in a Faustian bargain with God, agrees to give up everything, his house and all his possessions if the Almighty would save his loved ones.

The plot, though, takes a back seat to D.P. Nykvist’s capture of the bleak landscape of rural Sweden, here a Baltic island, a scene that makes the viewer understand instantly while Northern Europeans flock to sunny Spain whenever they get a chance.  As the DVD from Kino Classics states, the film evokes an “arresting palette of luminous grays washing over the bleak landscape.”  Characters are shot at first from a distance as in the absorbing opening scene featuring Alexander, a philosopher and critic undergoing a mid-life crisis as anyone living with his neurotic friends and family might.  With his six-year-old mute Little Man in tow, he converses with Otto (Allan Edwall), a dour part-time postman and former history teacher.   Even before the thunder erupts and military jets zoom over the remote island, the two despair.

Aside from the Bach aria, the picture is highbrow, throwing names around like Nietzsche, Gandhi and Jesus while capturing close-ups of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of Three Kings,” which causes the postman fear.   And about the other neurotics: Alexander’s wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) delivers a monologue to which some in the audience will relate, “I have loved one man and married another,” implying that Victor (Allan Edwall), a doctor, is having an affair with her but wants to chuck it all for a post in Australia “to get away from all of you.”

The postman, a bit of a mystic, sees that a Maria (Guarún Gísladóttir), a weird housemaid, is a witch and directs Alexander to bike out to her digs.  And what woman can resist a seduction that promises salvation for the world if she would “lie” with the rich man?  Well, he doesn’t exactly reveal her importance yet, delivering an impassioned monologue about how, in trying to bring order to his mother’s garden, he has destroyed natural beauty.  To restore the natural order, you’ve got to see the real fire that forms a dramatic conclusion to the film.  (In the Kino Lorber DVD we learn something quite interesting about the filming of this fire.)

Message alert: Science is destroying the world!  And this movie was made before young people became addicted to the soul-crushing technology of the iPhone!

Stay with it.  If you’re into Ingmar Bergman, you’ll have no trouble doing so.  This is not middle-brown Woody Allen entertainment but a thoughtful tale with imagery superimposed on and even more important than dialogue.  See it on the big screen as it has been updated to a new 4K restoration to play in several cities.  The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Rated PG.  146 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B+

Overall – B

POPE FRANCIS: A Man of His Word – movie review

POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Wim Wenders, David Rosier
Screenwriter:  Wim Wenders
Cast:  Pope Francis, Recep Tayvip Erdogan, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Shimon Peres, Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Win Wenders
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/14/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

As an occasionally lapsed member of PETA, I have a favorite saint, which of course would be St. Francis.  He once had birds surround him, intrigued by the power of his voice.  As he preached, not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand. Even more sensational, in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though Francis pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet, at which time he lectured the animal, warning him to stop devouring the aforementioned men and animals.

Given my affection for the man who did his good deeds during the first half of the 13th Century, I’m surprised that no other pope beginning with the first one, St. Peter, took his name, though a few were members of the Franciscan order.  What impressed the current holder of the office most is arguably his medieval namesake’s embrace of poverty.  Though the son of a rich silk merchant whose father gave him (if you’ll allow) hell for hand alms to the poor, he redeemed himself from the sinful life of the haute bourgeoisie by giving himself to a life of poverty.  For his part, Pope Francis eschewed living in luxury, instead resting his head in a small apartment near the Vatican—at least when he is not traveling outside Argentina to places like Bangui in the Central African Republic and the favelas of Rio, where somehow the residents are not especially pleased with their own penurious condition.  The Cariocas on display in this documentary do not consider picking up food and clothes dropped by the neighborhood dumpster to be an act of holiness, and would probably give up their chance to go through the eye of a needle if by consolation they could dine on oysters at Marius Degustare’s place at Avenida Atlantica 290.

Wim Wenders, whose best work in my view is the mystical “Wings of Desire,” spends much of his time listening to Pope Francis one-on-one, where the Pontiff elucidates his philosophy without the buzz of the tens of thousands of people he gathers whenever he visits a foreign country, blesses the crowd at the Vatican, or entrances the multitude in his own Buenos Aires.  He is called a charismatic man, but would surely not be classified with JFK or Churchill as a rousing speaker.  Rather, his charisma, his hold on vast numbers of Catholics and other too, comes from the fact that, well, he does hold the highest office in the Church and receives a pope’s share of publicity.

What are his views?  Principally, though he extols his 13th Century namesake for choosing poverty, and is angry at the world’s inequality, wherein 20% of the global population holds 80% of its wealth.  (Even more dramatic statistics come out of the U.S.)

Also he wants governments to build bridges, not walls, wants people to stop ruining their mental health by getting off the accelerator because “we’re not machines,” and praises Judaism for founding the Shabbat when no work is done.  Gays? He tells people on a special flight that “Who am I to judge?”and wants couples whose arguments sometimes lead to “plates flying” (which draws a big laugh from the audience though if you or I said this there would be stony silence), to make peace before bedtime.  Unlike U.S. politicians who preach to the middle class but act to enrich the upper classes, his constituency is the poor.

With all these praiseworthy beliefs in his DNA, it’s no wonder that, as he puts it, the cardinals sought him out “from the end of the world,” meaning Argentina.

Also impressive is director Wenders’ use of his and Lisa Rinzler’s shoots in Assisi, black-and-white, deliberately faded and silent film, showing an actor playing St. Francis who at the key point in his life heard God tell him to restore a dilapidated church—which I believe he did thinking that God’s will is more important than his father’s rage at the saint’s alleged throwing away his money.

The film got added publicity five days before its May 18th opening when CBS’ Sixty Minutes showed excerpts.  Now if the movie crowd is anything like the 10,000 folks who line up every time he speaks, the box office should exceed that of “Black Panther.” After all, what other movie has a cast that includes Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Simon Peres (hugging Abu Mazen, believe it or not), Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, John Kerry, John Boehner, Joe Biden, and  hundreds of extras in the U.S. Congress who give the pope standing ovations.

Unrated.  96 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

FIRST REFORMED – movie review

FIRST REFORMED

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 5/9/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

“Sometimes a pastor needs a pastor,” notes Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) by way of advising Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). And boy, does he ever. While Jeffers heads a huge church, his sermons carried on a TV screen for a vast crowd, Toller is at the helm of a miniscule Dutch Reformed Church built during the mid-18th century. The church has a history, now celebrating its 250th anniversary–which is why Toller keeps his job though he attracts scarcely eight congregants. Toller has psychological and physical problems that lead him toward a reckoning that allows the film to pass from an austere, Ingmar Bergman-esque story to an out-and-out thriller like “Taxi Driver.” With a nod toward Andrei Tartovsky, whose films carry metaphysical tones and a wink toward Robert Bresson, whose minimalism includes a spare soundtrack and all-around minimalism, director Paul Schrader is unconventional enough to throw in some surprises, including one of the most resonant climaxes you’re likely to see this year.

Schrader, whose strict, Calvinist parents did not allow him to see films until he was eighteen, unwraps the story as though a reflection on his own upbringing, entertains a view that actors should not over-emote, that more naturalistic performances would evoke passion in the audience more than a display of firecracker exhibitionism. Think of his “Dying of the Light,” in which Nicolas Cage plays an ill CIA agent who goes rogue to hunt down a terrorist who had tortured him. At first you won’t see a similarity between that work and this one, but wait until you get to the explosive final fifteen minutes!

Schrader’s minimalism is evoked by the paucity of music in the soundtrack and the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, rarely used today and dazzlingly effective in this one. Ethan Hawke, made up to look like the 46-year-old he actually was in the making of the picture, is a troubled man. He drinks, thinking, perhaps, that this is the only pleasure he should allow himself. He is in physical pain urinating, the toilet water turning blood red, but he puts off going to the doctor as though he wants to torture himself. And no wonder. His family has a military tradition. He encouraged his son to volunteer to fight in Iraq, which he considers a morally bankrupt war (duh). The young man’s death weighs heavily on him now, as does the abandonment by his wife shortly thereafter.

He is not the only character with a view of life as a miserable burden to bear. Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist whose wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is troubled that her husband wants her to abort her pregnancy. He delivers a strong monologue to Toller in which he foretells the end of the world, torn asunder not by warfare but by climate change and the global devastation it would bring about. Why bring a child into this world? His wife is not too happy to find a suicide vest, whose existence encourages Toller to search the ‘net for videos of Middle East suicide bombers. Mary is the only person capable of sweeping the cobwebs from Toller, though Esther (Victoria Hill), a parishioner who leads a choir (which sings in beautiful harmony), is resented for her “hovering” around Toller.

Ethan Hawke is most effective in conveying the conflict present in Toller’s own mind, a man who is so racked with guilt, loneliness, alienation and unnecessary austerity that we can believe only one woman can bring him out of his funk. In a different mode, Cedric the Entertainer uses tough love to break through to Toller, urging the pastor to do something in the real world and not to spend all his time in “the garden.” “Ever Jesus went out to the marketplace.”

If you are a fan of stories depicting inner struggles, enjoy wrestling with intellectual conundrums, and relish the work of a very busy Ethan Hawke (who has five movies scheduled in 2018 including a role in a TV series), this is your film. Unsurprisingly you will think of Trump, who gets no mention in the film but whose aversion to thinking of environmental catastrophe (and thinking at all), has a clear bearing here.

Rated R. 113 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

STRANGERS ON THE EARTH – movie reveiw

STRANGERS ON THE EARTH

First Run Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Tristan Cook
Screenwriter:  Tristan Cook
Cast:  Dane Johansen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/18
Opens: May 4, 2018

Strangers on the Earth Movie Poster

There are tourists and there are travelers.  Tourists go to places to sightsee and perhaps to engage in an activity that cannot be found  in your neighborhood.  Skiing in August? Portillo. Spring break?  Mexico. See Leonardo’s work on a ceiling?  Vatican City.  Food?  Italy or France.  Preference?  No hardships.  Travelers, though, would have to include Anthony Bourdain, who doesn’t go simply to a restaurant in Bologna or León but to the far reaches of the globe sampling street cuisine with the locals.

Yet it’s difficult to think of travelers who put up with hardships as those who hike the Camino, the long stretch of land in Spain marked out by either the Church or the tourism department, with group tours available on caminoways.com.  The walk could be some 700 kilometers, maybe 700 miles.  The folks in this documentary film did not book tours but hiked on their own, and they’re all ages, plugging along on the Camino with the destination of the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  As you hike the trail, you realize that you’re treading on land that hosted fellow pilgrims for hundreds of years.  You think a lot about life, and if you’re like the people shown here, you don’t spend your day texting with your Facebook friends.  There are many reasons for going, but the deepest thought is that you do the pilgrimage to perfect yourself, to become a different person.  However if you think you’re stripping life to the bone like Thoreau, realize that you have to carry your belongings on your back like any of the crowd that drive to a campsite and consider their trip to be real traveling.  And you don’t sleep under the light of the moon but in pensions, albergues each housing perhaps twenty people snoring, picking their calluses or their noses, and probably not smelling like people who use Dial soap “and don’t you wish everybody did?” as the commercial stated way back.

The principal character speaking English to us in the theater audience is American Dane Johansen, who carries not only the typical pack with his raincoat and whatever, but adds a cello on his back.  As the producer of the film directed by Tristan Cook in his freshman entry into full-length filmmaking, Johansen anchors the doc with philosophic musings such as his view that there are seven dimensions to life (don’t ask) but more important gives something back to fellow pilgrims and apparently to some of the locals who sit on portable chairs outdoors or inside in churches to listen to Johansen playing Bach by memory. The soundtrack carries the master’s compositions (Bach’s, not Johansen’s) throughout the project.

There’s not a lot of humor here, though its absence for the bulk of the work makes us in the audience appreciate a tale by a man who is traveling with a prospective soulmate that he meets on the Camino.  He is disgusted that she is charging her phone on his charger!  Imagine the chutzpah! Realizing that she may be too self-centered to be a pleasant walking companion he breaks up with her.  Over a charger!

Along the route we watch the passing scene under the lenses of photographer Iskra Valtcheva whom we never see but wonder how this camera person can carry luggage and perhaps the heavy equipment needed to bring the Camino to life—the donkey that one fellow uses to carry too much weight, the owls that turn 180 degrees, a large bird perhaps an eagle flapping wings while trying unsuccessfully to fly, the lambs (or goats) lying peacefully within a fenced area, a few cattle.

The loneliness of the long distance traveler is broken up now and then as the pilgrims gather in restaurants along the way, toasting one another, and urging on each traveler who, using the famous Spanish porrón, is able to chug some red wine without lips touching the bottle.  In the epilogue, some pilgrims end their trip in Finisterre, the westernmost tip of the European continent, where they burn articles of clothing to announce the beginning of a new life.

As you watch these people performing a feat in blistered feet, far more difficult than training for a marathon, you may feel exhausted yourself in your theater seat.  You will likely be motivated to catch other treatments of the pilgrimage.  There is a scene in this movie taken from “The Way,” probably the most popular movie about the Camino, detailing the journey of Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen), starting with the death of Avery’s son (Emilio Estevez).  “Walking the Camino: 6 Ways to Santiago” finds director Lydia B. Smith and crew beginning at St. John Pied de Port where they meet over 15 pilgrims for interviews.  Several reasons are given by the subjects for taking the stroll.  “Tres en el Camino” deals with one lonely Dutch man, a Japanese poet, and a Brazilian girl walking in different seasons, and how the experience changes them.  For the best scenery, check “Oh Ye of Little Faith.”  “I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles” released just last year checks in on Justin and Patrick, two friends who walk together.  When Justin is diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that left him without the use of his arms and legs, he was confined to a wheelchair: Justin pushed him all along the route.  That’s friendship.

Unrated.  96 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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