VIVARIUM – movie review

Saban Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwike, Jonathan Aris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: March 27, 2020

One of the most explosive and controversial books in recent times, David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament,” takes the view that giving birth is bad. Benatar is an anti-natalist not so much because of the usual reasons—too many people in the world leads to disastrous climate change and food shortages—but because, he believes, you are inflicting pain on your children. The happiness our children feel will is subordinate to their pain. Citing Benatar’s example, would you be willing to accept an hour of pain in return for getting an hour of pleasure? Hardly anyone would say yes. Which brings us to “Vivarium,” the word meaning a structure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation and experimentation.

Director Lorcan Finnegan, whose “Without Name” follows a land surveyor’s measuring an ancient forest, who loses his reason under supernatural conditions, is in his métier with “Vivarium,” a intriguing puzzle of a movie that will evoke several interpretations. The easy one is that the film is a satire on suburban living, which it is, not unlike “Suburbican,,” “The Burbs,” “Pleasantville,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out.” However, think of the movie on deeper terms and you may agree that Garret Shanley’s screenplay is in its way a promulgation of Benatar’s book as the images on the screen for most of its 98 minutes show a young couple whose initial happiness gives way to months of continuing pain.

How so? Watch the progress, or regress, of a young couple on the cusp of life; Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They’re looking for a dream house, white picket fence and spacious rooms, of course, because that’s what America is about. Gemma, an elementary school teacher, is good with her class, putting them through an exercise that has them identify with winged creatures. Just after dismissal she runs into one of her pupils who discovers two dead birds who have fallen out of their nest shortly after birth, a time that finds the young birds with open mouths tasting their first pangs of hunger. Perhaps they have just bird brains or maybe they can tell already that life is a vallis lacrimarum.

When Gemma and Tom consult Martin (Jonathan Aris), a real estate agent whose oddball behavior should have them running for the hills, they are escorted by him to a development called “Yonder,” where they behold a labyrinth of ticky-tacky houses, all painted puke-green. (Great set design by Julia Devin-power.) Impressed by the spaciousness inside number 9, they are surprised to note that the agent has disappeared. Set to go home, they wind up driving in a circular fashion, always landing back on number 9. Life is a circle, isn’t it? They take in a baby deposited in a box outside, a brat who grows daily, who imitates the actions of his, or its, foster parents, screams like the devil, and speaks in a voice not like Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist,” but like a grown man. Tom is ready to kill. Gemma has not reached that stage but hates the kid’s calling her “mother.” “I’m not your f******mother!”

Already the suburban dream has been smashed. The desire to have a child? Gone. The boxed-in togetherness of the trio drives both off the wall, the child being the only one who, despite screams, is looking to learn. Benatar’s prescription is swallowed with a vengeance, as relative moments of happiness are dissolved into hellish suffering. Like many other psychological thrillers, “Vivarium” begins with a light touch, moments of humor, dissipating in the second half, just as weird as the opening but loaded with misery.

This is a low-key sci-fi adventure with almost bloodless smidgens of horror which, with the crackerjack acting especially of Imogene Poots with Jesse Eisenberg in almost a supporting role is entertaining and enlightening. A fine performance from child actor Senan Jennins, who looks and acts something like CBS’s Young Sheldon, delivering the goods. Think before you marry or before you trust that a long-term relationship is heaven on earth. Think before you have children. Think before you believe suburban life is a cure-all or protective cocoon for life’s misfortunes. The universe is indifferent to you and so is your real estate agent.

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

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

THE DAY SHALL COME – movie review

IFC Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chris Morris
Screenwriter: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong
Cast: Marchánt Davis, Danielle Brooks, Anna Kendrick, Denis O’Hare, Andrel McPherson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/20/19
Opens: September 27, 2019

The Day Shall Come movie poster 12x18 - 32x48 inch

Is it possible that during the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War during the sixties, some of the youths were coaxed by the authorities to do more than burn the flag and their draft cards? Perhaps Molotov cocktails were suggested and agreed to, leading to the arrests of the young people who were flattered by the attention? Today we suffer through an endless war in Afghanistan, though student demonstrators against them are nowhere to be found. Given the relative absence of domestic terrorism, could the FBI, the CIA, the local police and other agencies, fearing a downsizing of their numbers, deliberately use overbearing ways to entrap otherwise innocent people? They could tempt them to buy or sell drugs, guns, bazookas, Molotov cocktails and the like. We are supposed to be able to resist such calls to crime, but sometimes the authorities have ways to convince you to do wrong.

Such is the case in “The Day Shall Come,” directed by Chris Morris, whose “Four Lions” in 2010 about incompetent British terrorists puts him clearly in his métier with this contribution. Though the entrapment attempts are over the top, we are told that such machinations really go on today. In the lead Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt David), wearing a six-pointed star to symbolize his leadership of a farm community, aims to eliminate “white gentrificators” who are ejecting African-Americans from their homes. Blowing up a nearby crane is in his plans, but for now, Moses is more a pontificator than a real doer, given to swearing allegiance to Black Santa, Jesus, and Haiti’s liberator Toussaint Louverture. He hears God speaking to him through a duck, so who can be more motivated to lead an act of terrorism?

Meanwhile in an FBI office committed to trapping would-be terrorists before they can strike, the authorities under Andy (Denis O’Hare) pressure informant Reza (Kayvan Novak) into entrapping Moses, convincing him to go through with an arms deal to a neo-Nazi group (also working for the law). Agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) does most of the footwork. Jesse Armstrong and Chris Morris’s script requires Moses and his accomplices—who act more like the Three Stooges than like competent terrorists—to project to us in the audience to remember that this entire film is a comedy, a satirical one that can wake us up to the shenanigans law enforcement agents go through to keep their jobs and grab promotions. While Moses’s wife Venus (Danielle Brooks) is the only normal person in the entire movie, Morris delivers the laughs, and laughing at grandiose people is the best way to take them down.

Kudos especially to Marchánt Davis whose emotional disturbances anchor the movie and its successful and outrageous notions.

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

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

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU – movie review


Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Kartne
Director: Boots Riley
Screenwriter: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/13/18
Opens: July 6, 2018

Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” is an Orwellian kick in the groin of capitalism with one scene sending up a form of communism that has a labor force working and sleeping in the same dormitory, China style. In other words, it’s a satire like that combines the contradictions of communism in “Animal Farm” with a caustic look at a modern “1984.” The first two-thirds, which constitute a clever look at the job of telemarketers selling print encyclopedias (encyclopedias? In 2018?), which is imaginative enough even while looking Kafkaesque yet rooted in reality, while the final segment, which turns to full-blown surrealism, is surprisingly the less interesting part.

Rapper Boots Riley, the picture’s Chicago-born African-American director and screenwriter, unfolds his freshman feature with a focus on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an out-of-work dude who gets along just great with his significant other, Detroit (Tessa Thompson—who you’ll remember for her role as Samantha White in Justin Simeon’s “Dear White People”). However he might question whether his Afro in 2018 would make him a hit with potential employers in corporate settings. However, as a telemarketer, with Regalview, he need not be groomed for success, though he is advised by the gent in the next cubicle (Danny Glover) to use a white voice.

All is under the supervision of his manager (Michael X Sommers), who reminds the workers to STTS (Stick to the Script), an unusual request given that “Sorry to Bother You” does not stick to any script familiar to rank and file filmmakers. Though his name sounds like “Cash is Green,” he needs a job badly as he is in debt to his uncle (Terry Crews) with four months’ rent due on his garage that serves as his living quarters. Regalview comes across as just the thing to get him out of the poorhouse when he turns into a crack salesman, but he is about to sell out to his working-class stiffs when Squeeze (Steven Yeun) organizes a strike just as Cassius is promoted to the upper level where the big boss, Steven Lift (Armie Hammer), lets him on a secret: the company uses telemarketers as a front. Its real goal has nothing to do with pushing encyclopedias but is engaged in a revolutionary system that will find its stock soaring through the roof.

Riley uses special effects that are usually the purview of more experienced filmmakers. For example, when Cassius phones a potential customer, he does not stay in his cubicle but crashes (surrealistically) into the homes of the people who are more disturbed by his in-person pitch than you have ever been when you have the option of hanging up the phone.

As the film progresses, strikes are called, cops are brought in to break through the picket lines, and Cassius must regularly go through the line to get to his upper floor where he is free to sniff Steve Lift’s coke (though the big boss has increased strength of the white powder to strange effect), listen to the Man’s convincing talk on why he must continue with his new job, and is promised a salary of one hundred million dollars if he goes with a five-year contract. Steve Lift must be hallucinating with the coke or giving young Cassius the job of a lifetime—or over one hundred lifetimes.

When the movie goes gonzo, boredom may set in and scripter Riley’s train does not only threaten to go off the rails but turns somersaults and lands upside down. But a demonic imagination is at play in a film that may be this year’s biggest challenge to more formula-bound film releases, egging them to ditch the tried-and-true in favor of trippy hallucinations.

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

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

THE DEATH OF STALIN – movie review


IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Armando Iannucci
Screenwriter:  Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Cast:  Adrian Mcloughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/15/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

It’s commonly agreed even by those who hated Josef Stalin that the Russians owe him a great debt, that without policies under his leadership that turned the Soviet Union from an agricultural state to a mighty industrial nation in just a couple of decades, the USSR would have been defeated by Hitler.  Some say, in fact, that Stalin was crazy during a good part of his reign but virtually electroshocked into sanity during the war.  When Khrushchev denounced Stalin, thereby ending the man’s glory, even changing the name of Stalingrad in 1961 to Volgograd, you might have assumed that the man who ruled the Soviet Union from 1953-1964 was showing his disgust for Stalin’s purges, the show trials that led hundreds of thousands to the gulag or to the firing squad.  After seeing Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin,” you might get the idea that disowning previous administrations is the way things were done to consolidate power, something never seen in recent U.S. elections.

Armando Iannucci, whom you may know from his TV series “Veep” which takes satiric aim against the U.S. government and “The Thick of It,” in which American and British operatives try to prevent a war between the two countries, now takes on a government system ripe for satire.  “The Death of Stalin” spends most of its 106-minutes’ screen time dealing with the struggles for power immediately after the death of Stalin, who, at least in this movie, dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after reading a missive denouncing him as a tyrant.  As one of the few people who really look like their real-life counterparts, Adrian Mcloughlin looks the part with a thick, brown mustache and a grin that replicates pictures that used to hang on the residential halls of patriotic Soviet citizens.  As Stalin lay on the floor hovering near death, high-level officials gather, each ambitious to wield power after their leader succumbs, debating which doctor to call.  Slowly.  “They’re all either in the gulag or dead,” explains one, and by the time they decide on a retired doc, Stalin is dead.

The film starts with promise.  During a symphonic concert performed with Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) at the keyboard, the engineers get a call: Stalin wants a recording of the music.  Since no record had been made, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) in the engineer’s booth, orders the doors locked as the audience shuffle out and demands that the concert be replayed from the beginning.  This time the recording will be made.

After that, the picture falls apart, with the potential successors to the Kremlin’s equivalent of the Oval Office argue, debating who is the most qualified to fill Stalin’s shoes.  The problem is that none of the dialogue is the least bit amusing, and what’s more the bickering becomes repetitious particularly given its lack of bon mots.

Steve Buscemi comes across with the loudest mouth in the role of Nikita Khrushchev, Leventiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) turns in a role of the head of the NKVD (secret police) with the most bear-like figure, and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) stands in as the fashion-conscious, would-be successor who asks strange questions and delivers a range of stories in a white suit.  The party leaders meet to take votes which seem to require unanimous consent.  Afterward we receive visits from army commander Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) weighed down by some twenty medals and ribbons, and Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who throws his weight around with a flurry of tantrums.  Unfunny.

When Khrushchev emerges as new leader, the movie is bookended with another concert, finding the man in the audience while his own successor, Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) sits behind him probably plotting a move that will put him over the top.

The best that can be said is the music: the concert that opens the show and even the majestic orchestral tones that underscore (finally) the long list of credits.  Two days before the picture’s release in Russia, the Ministry of Culture banned the film.  Lucky Russians.

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

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

THE PARTY – movie reveiw


Roadside Attractions
Reviewed by : Harvey Karten
Director: Sally Potter
Screenwriter: Sally Potter
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/8/18
Opens: February 16, 2018

The Party Movie Poster

This is the kind of party that only academics might enjoy, professors in a graduate faculty at that. Despite the numerous bon mots and the writer-director’s attempts to have the ensemble cast show their fangs, as a locus for the release of emotional tensions this film cannot begin to compare with the king of the circuit, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” We may have a case of a viewer’s preference for a more American style of browbeating, which I offer by way of declaimer.

The chatter of this strange assortment of upper-middle class Brits might work better in the theater, since the action takes place in real time set wholly in an extensively furnished London home (actually filmed in a West London studio), with the women doing most of the talk and much of the witty liftings.

The dull and conventional ambiance here is a surprise given that Sally Potter has previous contributed “Orlando,” with the great Tilda Swinton performing in the role of a nobleman who stays forever young and moves through periods of British history, thereby giving the film a broad canvas on which to paint differences in centuries. Nor does “The Party” stand up to Potter’s “The Tango Lesson,” which finds Sally taught to dance by Pablo, forming a bond which later breaks when the two find that they want different things in a relationship.

Like the duo in “The Tango Lesson,” an ensemble of people who presumably were friends discover that maybe they don’t belong together, considering the barbs that emerge when some of the attendees discover what they must have barely suspected.

With soundtrack music at a minimum and black-and-white photography giving a more intimate feel for the occasion, Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) invites pals to a night of talk as she celebrates her promotion to British Health Minister by an opposition party. Her hirsute husband Bill (Timothy Spall) seems comatose, having sat in a chair with wide eyes nursing a glass of red wine but otherwise keeping his body still.

The most entertaining guest (a low hurdle), Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), performs in the role of an aromatherapist, lecturing the group about the body’s capacity to heal itself without medicine and praising doctors who prescribe placebos to help further the cure. As April (Patricia Clarkson), once a leftist but now cynical about everything makes generic statements about civilization while Jinny (Emily Mortimer), pregnant with three triplets presumably not based on her lesbian relationship with Martha (Cherry Jones). Completing the ensemble, banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) is the most agitated of all not necessarily because he snorts a line in the hostess’ lavatory and packs a gun on his shoulder.

Secrets emerge: terminal illness meets extramarital affairs, the whole episode designed also to make points about the inability of establishment politicians to make real change and the changing nature of the women’s rights movement. The majority of critics so far appear to believe that humor can indeed travel well across the Atlantic, but to that concept I’ll have to join the loyal opposition.

Unrated. 71 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE NEIGHBOR – movie reveiw


Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aaron Harvey
Screenwriter: Richard Byard, Aaron Harvey
Cast: William Fichtner, Jessica McNamee, Jean Louisa Kelly, Michael Rosenbaum, Colin Woodell
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/30/18
Opens: January 26, 2018

The Neighbor Trailer

Since Aeschylus popularized the Greek myth of King Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra for parading a concubine in their home, men have been warned. Don’t fool around with other women if you’re married. Nothing good will come of a sexual adventure; not in the long run at least, as we learn once again from Aaron Harvey’s movie “The Neighbor.” Harvey, whose “Catch .44” finds a trio tasked with capturing a drug shipment for their own crime boss, takes on a more domestic theme with this, his sophomore full-length feature.

You soon get the impression that this “Neighbor” joins the ranks of satires of suburbia, whether the recent “Suburbicon” or the classic “Stepford Wives.” We should note that the violence between neighbors of this community would probably not occur in apartment houses, where we keep our doors locked and would never admit people who, with good intentions, mean us harm. The film succeeds well enough as both a satire and a thriller, thanks in large part to its acting ensemble led by the always reliable William Fichtner—veteran of video games, shorts, and especially of the remarkable 2004 picture “Crash,” which interweaves stories of race and attempts at redemption in L.A.

We are asked to believe, however, that Fichtner at the age of 62 could attract the sensual attentions of a new neighbor, played by Jessica McNamee, who in real life is 31 and who, as we hear from the older man that she could easily be his daughter. This is a classic male fantasy. “The Neighbor” takes place in a bright, middle-class area where houses are so close together that you’d better watch how loud you play your music and how you might want to avoid rafter-shaking arguments.

Mike (William Fichtner) watches the arrival of two newcomers to the house next door, Jenna (Jesccia McNamee) and Scott (Michael Rosenbaum), from different generations and with different personalities. Mike, who works from home as a technical writer (a good career for introverts), watches as loudmouth Scott (a Corvette salesman, also a good match), has periodic arguments with his wife of four months. In one case at their pool, Scott, enraged by his wife over who-knows-what, kicks the chair, the whole brouhaha witnessed by Mike. So far Mike is wary but non-interventional. When ultimately Mike believes that Jenna—whom he has regularly offered to help with moving furniture and with gardening—is in danger, he takes action personally rather than call the police. Meanwhile, though Mike has done nothing wrong on a romantic level, he is confronted by his wife Lisa (Jean Louisa Kelly), who in my opinion is cuter than the young Jenna, leading to a mid-life crisis that worries him and his adult son Alex (Colin Woodell).

There’s nothing especially original about Richard Byard and the director’s screenplay, but if you’re a married, middle-aged man with thoughts of tarrying with someone half your age—wait, even if you’re a single man dreaming of the same—let this movie be a warning. In that sense, it’s worth your ten or fifteen bucks, handing you a lesson that you’ll forget at your own risk.

Rated R. 97 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

GET OUT – movie review


    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: A
    Director:  Jordan Peele
    Written by: Jordan Peele
    Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Erika Alexander, Keith Stanfield
    Screened at: Regal E-Walk, NYC,
    Opens: February 24, 2017
    Get Out Movie Poster
    Phil Ochs, a true leftie, satirized liberals as hypocrites with the 1965 song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”  Ochs sings, in part:

    I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes
    As long as they don’t move next door
    So love me, love me
    Love me, I’m a liberal

    And I’ll send all the money you ask for
    But don’t ask me to come on along
    So love me, love me
    Love me, I’m a liberal

    It’s easy enough to skewer a racist, particularly nowadays, as it has become unfashionable in reasonably polite circles to parrot the same old tiresome clichés  in referring to African-Americans.  But what about liberals?  Do they get off without rebuke?  Just as Phil Ochs points out that people who are left of center will go only so far and no farther—contribute money to civil rights causes but not take part in demonstrations—so does Jordan Peele in his debut directing role.  Peele is not nearly as timid as Ochs, though.  He is not the sort of screenwriter/director who points out in a most genteel manner that white liberals are “full of it.”   In “Get Out” he sees whites as people who are so uncomfortable around blacks that they have to say how much they admire Tiger Woods, or how they would have voted for Obama for a third term, or how Jesse Owens really showed up those Nazis in the 1936 Munich Olympics.  Since satire requires exaggeration, Peele goes the distance, indicating that genteel whites may invite blacks to their homes, welcome them to their neighborhoods, smile when their daughters date African-Americans and even feel just dandy if their daughters want to marry these boyfriends.  Yet they still feel a sense of ownership somehow that black people, though certainly a lot more than servants, exist largely as an auxiliary to their own privileged, pale skin.

    Few films have captured this dimension.  Here’s one off the bat; Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 “Putney Swope,” wherein African-Americans take over the running of an advertising corporation, hire one white guy for diversity, and show how they would change the culture we expect of the Fortune 500.

    “Get Out” will be greatly enjoyed by the more educated and more mature folks who come to see it for the satire.  It will be at least equally enjoyed by those who like visceral action, who are looking for a psychological thriller that they can feel deep-down on a gut level, one whose buildup leads to a conclusion that could knock them out of their seats.  This is because “Get Out,” which gets its title because one of its black characters shouts this out a few times, is the most exciting film of its type in many years.

    This is the real thing, readers, involving a blend of talents that capture the suspicion between the races, blithely covered over by false bonhomie.  Its direction by Peele (catch his shtick on Key and Peele on youtube at /search/video?fr=mcafee&p=key+ %26+peele+youtube#id=2&vid=4fe 62182ebcb66159283f185dfc471cc& action=click) evokes superlative performances from the entire ensemble. The cinematography and special effects are spot-on, particularly in scenes that depict the main performer’s hypnosis.  The filming location, Fairhope, Alabama, is just right for illustrating the estate owned by two upper-class professionals.  The screenplays toys with us in the audience, throws in some twists that you will not see coming, and ends in the expected bloodshed, filmed with love by Toby Oliver behind the lens, backed up perfectly by Michael Abels’ spooky music.

    And where has Daniel Kaluuya been?  In the principal role of Chris Washington, he is in virtually every frame, displaying a huge range of expressions and emotions from those of a vaguely uncomfortable guest of the family of his current squeeze Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to a confused role when he meets some of the “brothers” at a lawn party, and ultimately to full-scale murderous rage when he discovers what the white folks at this party have in store.

    To sum up without spoilers: Rose Armitage’s parents, Miss Armitage (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis while her husband, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), performs neurosurgery.  They have a couple of black servants (as for why they refuse to hire white servants comes out clearly enough).  If 20-something Rose dotes on her parents, so Chris depends on a very special best friend, Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery) in the role of a TSA employee who stands in for the story’s comic relief.  He is, how can one put it, funny as all get-out.  When Chris goes missing, Rod reports his concern to a trio of detectives who burst out laughing—as you will too.  (Note that Shakespeare put comedy into his great tragedy “Hamlet,” but those gravediggers are not half as amusing as Lil Rel Howery).

    “Get Out,” then is a race-conscious thriller that veers from a comedy of manners to a visceral thriller, to a conclusion of all-out horror.  You probably will not see a better picture of this genre—and remember this is from a debut director!—for the remainder of the year.  Nothing quite like it recently.

    Rated R.  103 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

DOWNSIZING – movie review


Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shock Ya!
Grade: C+
Director:  Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cast:  Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Screened at: Paramount, NYC, 10/27/17
Opens: December 22, 2017
Downsizing Movie Poster
With enough people today struggling to make a living as jobs go overseas and to robots, there’s gotta be a better way to live comfortably, maybe even luxuriously, than we have now.  Along comes a scientist who provides the answer.  He is the first guy to have the solution.  Just think: you can have an apartment the size of the kind inhabited by lower-middle class residents of Tokyo  and yet have an illusion of luxury by cutting yourself down to size.  To get an idea of how this would work, think of the common housefly or even a flea.  To him (or her), a bread crumb that is so small that you can barely notice it on the sink is like a four course meal to our flying friend.  You got it: if you can shrink yourself from six feet tall to just five inches, the Big Mac that you can wolf down and still feel hungry can last you for a week.  And talk about luxury!  A diamond ring for your gal that would have cost you $15,000 can now be bought for $83, meaning a stone that looks to a five-incher the way the full-size one appears. She will love you forever.  Shrinking bank account?  No problem.  Take your life’s savings of $50,000 to a special place and you can retire with it for twenty years.  There’s a catch, though.  You have to submit to surgery—get all your hair shaved because when you’re five inches high you’d be submerged as though in a Costa Rican rainforest.  Then you’d have to give up your friends and find new ones in that special area.  But if you have no money, if you’re in debt, you will still be poor in this area called Leisureland.

Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” is his best picture, writes what he knows at least geographically.  He situates the characters in Omaha, where Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is an occupational therapist for the guys in a meat-packing plant.  He has just paid off a student loan when he and his wife Audrey (Kristeen Wiig) are entranced by a lecture from a Dr. Jorgan Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard), who, having succeeded in experiments with mice has found a procedure to shrink volunteers down to five inches high.  They decide to go through with the deal, get surgery all the while thinking of the good life that will be there’s with other small people, when Audrey gets cold feet and backs out after her husband has been transformed.  Making new friends in Leisureland, Paul runs into some party people, particularly the aging duo Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and Konrad (Udo Kier), both intent on making even more riches by smuggling enough tobacco to make cigars for the multitudes and other luxury items as well.

The most interesting new friend is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese who lost a leg in a Southeast Asian prison, and has escaped—now devoting her life not to the attainment of material goods but to providing for a host of other poor people.  With her pigeon English she makes friends with Paul, who later will fall in love with her while at the same time thinking that he could be part of another experiment: by following the Norwegian cult leader into some sort of Middle Earth-type environs, he could be a part of something great, which is to start a new race of homo sapiens after our planet dies in the same way that our ancestors 200,000 years ago became the nucleus of our present billions.

The film is long at 136 minutes, but not overlong by the standards of movies competing for end-year awards.  During that time we are treated to more than one film, or at least it looks like that.  First we have superficial comedy, watching jokes made by the big guys either against or in favor of the experiment.  One fellow in particular, a bartender, complains that the small people would not be part of the economy, would therefore not pay taxes, and therefore be a burden to people like him.  There’s always another way to look at what at first looks like the ideal solution.  As the story heads toward a conclusion, Payne gets real serious, giving the word that our planet, because of overpopulation, cannot afford enough food for everybody, and come nuclear winter, it’s all over after two million years of human habitation.

Matt Damon has been hot for a while.  Every kid must have seen his blockbuster fare like “Jason Bourne” and “Intersteller.”  Here, puffed off to represent a resident of Middle America (e.g. a Nebraskan), he is sucker bait for the experiment to cut him down to size.  But is Payne telling us that proclamations like “I am going to help solve our environmental problems by agreeing to be shrunk” are hypocrisy?  After all, many people will proclaim how liberal they are looking for solutions to the big problems but this is just a rationalization for accumulating more—here, ironically by being less.  Is that it?  Are liberals like the characters in a better movie like “Get Out” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” who profess their love of everybody, black, white or polka dot, but who are as phony as our present U.S. cabinet?

Generally, though, the movie is disappointing because it presents its lead characters as mere spokespersons for beliefs rather than real human beings.  By doing so, Payne fails to connect emotionally to his audience (my personal view, anyway), and if you don’t connect, you also forget about making an impression.  The only character who is real and who tries mightily to save the movie is Ngoc Lan Tran, who as a dissident went to Vietnamese prison and is now serving the not-well-off with little thought about her own material well-being.  Everything is appropriately in place from costumes and production values to photography and music in the soundtrack.  But these virtues do not succeed in following the advice of E.M Forster, “Only connect.”

Rated PG-13.  136 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?