THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN – movie review

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN (L’homme qui vendu sa peau)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/21
Tunisia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards

Image result for the man who sold his skin poster

Sylvia Sims sang the classic song that opens: “You’d never think they go together/ But they certainly do/ The combination of English muffins/ And Irish Stew.” Top chefs know how to mix quite a number of things that would not have been attempted years ago. In the same way, stories combine groups from different classes, nationalities, and religions. Suprisingly, sometimes they find common ground. One example is found in female director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, which is the official entry of Tunisia into the 93rd Academy Awards competition. She mixes Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) a poor, uneducated Syrian, one who has been arrested for comically inciting rebellion on a train, with Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a world-renowned contemporary artist. They find that they can do business together profitably, but in signing a contract that represents a document that binds Faust together with Mephistopheles, the oppressed Arab sells his soul and is ultimately disgraced. Or is he? Ben Hania, whose first film, “Beauty and the Dogs,” tracks a college student brutally assaulted by police officers, turns now to a topic of more international resonance, bringing Syria, Lebanon and Belgium into the bargain.

“L’homme qui vendu sa peau,” the original title which translates directly into the English, begins smashingly on a rail car filled with people who break into cheers when Sam announces that he is in love with his seatmate, Abeer (Dea Liane). His love is requited, and in his moment of ecstasy, he calls for freedom for Syria and is arrested. The plot turns, in fact, on whether Sam himself is a free man or one who in later moments has lost all dignity, shaming his country as well. As our President would say, here’s the deal: When Sam breaks out of jail and meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his elegant assistant Saroya (Monica Bellucci) in Lebanon, he is offered unusual work. The artist will tattoo a huge Schengen visa on Sam’s back. Sam will be at Jeffrey and Soraya’s beck-and-call to show up in museums and galleries, his back exposed, his head down in a pose of humiliation. In return Sam will be able to travel throughout Europe and receive a sizable commission when the artwork is sold to a collector. Here’s quite a new form of slavery, one that leads an organization that opposes the exploitation of Syrian refugees to sue against mortification of any of its citizens.

Today’s so-called political far-left calls capitalism nothing more than the turning of human beings in commodities, possibly using this film to advance its case. Yet Sam may be able to stay in five-star hotels, “bought off and sold out” as some would say, while Sam enjoys room service caviar, but in the end he is expected (by the movie audience) to regret his agreement to the Faustian deal. Look: Sam becomes a celebrity, able to meet up in Brussels with Soroya—who had entered into her own Faustian bargain by marrying Ziad (Saad Lostan), a rich diplomatic official at the embassy in Brussels.

Concluding moments come off like an exhibition of sedate fireworks that had turned into a thunderous climax. The film’s underlying dark humor comes to the fore, leading to a satisfying conclusion. This is a bold, original work, full of twists, enjoying an ensemble of superb performances especially by Mahayni in only his second full narrative performance.

In Arabic, French, Flemish and English with English subtitles (displayed even when English is spoken!)

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley based on his play “Outside Mulligar”
Cast: Jamie Dorman, Emily Blunt,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/27/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Wild Mountain Thyme Movie Poster

John Patrick Shanley, who directs and wrote both the movie and the four-character play on which it’s based, must have French-kissed the Blarney Stone for inspiration once again. His delightfully stereotyped look at an Irish family that is not as traditionally-oriented as it appears is not unlike his equally stereotypical look at an widowed Italian-American woman in “Moonstruck,” who falls for her fiancés’ energetic brother. The movie opens with a drone shot of rural land in Ireland (is there any other?) that could have been made by the Irish Tourist board and has a musical soundtrack that leads the viewer into a mood of enchantment. “Wild Mountain Thyme” considers a 75-year-old man’s decision to leave the land he owns with its sheep and adorable dog to his American relative rather to his local grandson, who deals with the passion of his neighbor whose romantic entreaties he ignores.

In traditional rom-com mode, the young pair remain apart though they are meant for each other, and surely, though we may think we want a non-traditional conclusion to upend a Hollywood ending, we hope that Anthony (Jamie Dorman) will end up with his soul-mate, the pipe-smoking Rosemary (Emily Blunt), who had the hots for Anthony since she was a little girl.

Jamie Dorman, in a role as far apart from that of a veritable sex counselor in “Fifty Shades of Gray,” hangs out regularly with Rosemarie, and given that women are more assertive nowadays than they were when they had the excuse of Sadie Hawkins day to become the pursuers, we can accept her fevered attempts to get Anthony to propose to her. After all she has loved him for the past quarter-century, as we find out when she looks with frustration at the boy’s attraction to another.

Believing that he will be embraced with first dibs on the farm he wants to buy from Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken), Adam (Jon Hamm) takes off from New York where he has a successful career in finance to try his luck as a farmer. Adam would be Anthony’s opposite, asserting his charm to capture Rosemary’s heart, but his city-slicker mentality does not work on Rosemary. Though she meets him in New York for a ballet and dinner, hers is a one-day stand; that is, she has a return ticket to Ireland the following day! “How yer gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? Just watch Rosemary who has seen enough of the big city for the next ten years.

The movie is so charming, not in spite of, but because of its kitsch, and did I imply that Emily Blunt is hot?

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

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

GRIPPED: CLIMBING THE KILLER PILLAR – movie review

GRIPPED: CLIMBING THE KILLER PILLAR
1091
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Benjamin Galland
Screenwriter: Corey Fischer, Benjamin Galland, Donna Laemmlen
Cast: Kaiwi Lyman, Megan Hensley, Amanda Maddox, Natalie Duran, Bryce Wissel, Jacki Florine
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/4/20
Opens: August 17, 2020

Gripped Film Picked Up for Distribution, Announces Release Date ...

If you want a climbing movie with a plot, you’ll want to look back to Clint Eastwood’s 1975 “The Eiger Sanction,” wherein a a hit man, who is an experienced climber, is ordered to take out a climber. He sees three men scaling the Eiger in the Swiss Alps and does not know who is the true target. The plot is unbelievable, but so what? It makes for interesting action fare, scenes of the Alps, and an exciting motif. “The Vertical Limit” is another, also a ridiculous plot, but keeps the viewers glued as a young climber seeks to save his sister and a summit team before time runs out. “Shivaay” focuses on a skilled mountain climber whose daughter is kidnapped while he seems helpless to save her. Eleven percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but then again, there’s a plot.

The plot is not ridiculous in “Gripped: Climbing the Killer Pillar,” but Benjamin Galland in his sophomore full narrative feature doesn’t have much of a story, which makes one wonder why three screenwriters were needed when the chatter on level ground could have been improvised. The story takes place in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains featuring one thousand foot rock cliffs with enough cracks to place your fingers to propel you from the ground up.

The two leads, Bret (Kaiwi Lyman) and Rose (Amanda Maddox) meet up with others on the grouind, spending the first night drinking beer and partying. You can believe that Kaiwi Lyman would know how to scale a cliff given that he’s an outdoorsman, having played water polo, sailed, indulged in Brazilian jiu jitsu, surfed and acted as a magician, but as his bio states, nothing excites his more than being on the stage. It’s not that he should stick to the stage. The trouble is that the rock-climbing movie which is billed as a comedy but is really a romance in the great outdoors is not much of a watch unless you are yourself a rock climber.

In the movie’s favor is that there are no stunt people. The actors do their own rope-climbing and must worry that the head and shoulder injury faced by Bret would not be too serious. There is excellent cinematography by John Garrett, who may have done even more than the two climbers by lugging heavy equipment up the rocks—if indeed he got the close-ups and far shots from a neighboring peak.

Rose falls for Bret, not unusual given the man’s chick-bait looks with long blond hair and beard, a kerchief tied to his forehead, and since there’s nothing like danger to arouse the passions, the two hit it off hundreds of feet up, kid each other, find time to kiss, and Rose is able to save Bret (not the other way around) when the gent slips and hits his head and shoulder. While the folks back on land, Jade (Megan Hensley) and company rush into action when the two injured daredevils do reach the land, whatever amounts to a story is predictable. Still it’s a woman-empowerment film especially since the woman saves the rugged man.

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

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

THE DEPARTURE – movie review

THE DEPARTURE
Merland Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Merland Hoxha
Screenwriter: Merland Hoxha
Cast: Jon Briddell, Kendall Chappell, Olivia Lemmon, Austin Lauer, Grant Wright Gunderson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

The Departure Poster

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” So said Sir Walter Scott in 1806 in a historical romance novel. Nobody really thinks times have changed. Scott was writing about events in the 16th century and now Merland Hoxha directs his update on the theme using three major players in a piece that you could easily stream on your small screen now that theaters are closed. In his freshman job as writer-director Hoxha, who may or may not be a relation of Enver, hones in on a modern romance which has moments of comedy but is as serious as you can hope to get with twenty-somethings who will interrupt almost any live conversation to pick up a text message or answer a call. Immaturity abounds in “The Departure,” a cute, theatrical piece involving three major characters, one young woman who quickly leaves the screen, and the boss of a company that sells environmentally-friendly equipment.

People lie all the time, white lies to save people’s feelings and the other kind to advance our objectives. This production highlights the machinations of two best friends Nate (Grand Wright Gunderson) and John (Austin Lauer) and the way they and one young woman, Jessica (Kendall Chappell) manipulate one another. The result of the game may turn out to be other than what each had hoped, but perhaps they had fun playing with one another’s feelings, though not without the guilt that should cloud the emotions of anyone but a sociopath.

For all we know, Hoxha may have been inspired by Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” which in a filmed version finds Jeanne Moreau coercing her husband Gerard Philippe into ruining the reputation of pious Annette Vadim. Philippe spoils the nasty plan by falling in love with his intended victim. The ultimate punishment in both the classic study and this lighter version is painful.

Nate is assigned by his grateful boss Bruce (Jon Briddell) to go from the West Coast to New York for six months to shape up a team whose manager is inept. Wouldn’t you know that the plum job that could mean a career advancement for Nate occurs just about the time that he asks his steady gal Jessica to move in with him. Wondering whether Jessica would stay loyal to him during the six months’ separation, he asks John to try to seduce her. At first John is dumbfounded but agrees. For a while he is quite pleased the way things are turning out. The wheels turn, the game moves forward, and tensions erupt that threaten to send the entire troupe into soul-searching depression.

The tale is well acted by the threesome; by Kendall Chappell, whose theater major at the University of Michigan is paying off; by Austin Lauer who studied acting at the University of Evansville in Indiana, and by Grant Gunderson who previously appeared in a short about people planning to enter Trump’s private house to steal a billion bucks (though the president may have more experience in that profession).

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

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

ASH IS PUREST WHITE – movie review

ASH IS PUREST WHTIE (Jiang hue er nü)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jia Zhang-Ke
Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feeng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

When I visited China in 1985 as part of a study tour, I found a country that had been wracked by a Cultural Revolution that ended a few years earlier. What I saw was as backward as you might expect for a state that had not experienced a global outlook. All felt provincial, with Beijing’s airport looking more primitive than even our own LaGuardia terminal and Shanghai’s equivalent of our Fifth Avenue coming across like a major road in Milwaukee. Even the best hotels were second-rate given that the big international chains were afraid to invest in a poor, Communist country. Today things have changed dramatically, though at the cost of making Beijing and Shanghai among the most polluted cities on earth. Instead of the quiet pace that found the older generation enjoying the camaraderie of the bathhouses, you now have ambitious young men more likely to bathe their Beemers or their Mercedes. The forty-eight year old Jia Zhang-Ke, easily China’s most celebrated filmmaker today and in the opinion of an NPR critic perhaps the best filmmaker at work in the world takes a look at how the changes affect a particular group of people. In 2001 they look like a bunch of small-time gangster nobodies socializing in a decrepit shack but calling one another “brothers” as a sign of undying loyalty. Seventeen years later life had caught up with them, the reversals symbolized in the characters of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan).

Bin is the honcho of the underground society taking for granted the deference given to him by his brothers. Qiao is in love with him, a woman who is one of the boys, giving love punches in the back to two men and taking a bite from the shoulder of her paramour, Bin. The entire group must feel that their loyalty will be unchallenged for life while Qiao seems assured that her love for Bin and his for her will last forever as well.

Though Qiao considers ballroom dancing “too Western,” but the entire company dance to a rhythm that would be familiar here in the U.S. When Bin is attacked by young people from a rival gang, Qiao saves his life by firing a gun into the air. Since China is not Texas, she spends five years in jail for mere gun possession. It’s now 2006. Qiao is out of prison sailing the Yangtze. noting villages along the way that are going to disappear—not from climate change but from the building of a dam to give electric power to the community. There’s one change. From the narrative’s point of view comes another change. Bin has moved on to another girlfriend and refuses to see her, leaving her adrift and forced to use her prison-acquired scamming skills to get meals and money. (Telling some wedding guests that she is a friend of the bride and those of the groom is a technique sometimes used even here.) By 2018 Bin has become a different man entirely, sidelined by a serious stroke, wheeled around by Qiao who tells him that their love is gone. Yet Qiao is in no mood for schadenfreude despite being dumped by Bin while she is in jail.

The conclusion is one of great sentiment but not at all like the cheap kind you’d find in commercial Hollywood movies. Though Jia does not afford us in the audience the spectacular scenery found in epic films like Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, supplies some panoramic shots around the Yantze and through the windows of a train—the latter being the backdrop of a humorous scene involving a passenger’s line that he is conducting research on a UFO project and would like Qiao to join him, offering her a job.

The film’s highlight is Jia’s expertise in the director’s chair but most of all from a shattering, albeit subdued (compared to what Hollywood would do to her) performance. “The years pass just like that” (snaps fingers) notes Gloria’s mother in Sebastián Leilio’s marvelous movie “Gloria Bell.” With those years, in China, there arrive momentous economic and social changes which, at the same time, make their mark against loyalties that had been expected to continue forever. Those wedding bells in our town may be breaking up that old gang of mine, but the simple passing of years does irreparable damage to familial ties in China. “Ash is Purest White” casts its eye on an exuberant but ultimately mournful setting in a particular spot involving two particular people, but its theme can stand in by extension for us all.

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

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