BEFORE WE VANISH – movie review

BEFORE WE VANISH (Sanpo suru shinryakusha)

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Yuri Tsunematsu, Mahiro Takasugi, Masahiro Higashide
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/18
Opens: February 2, 2018

If you’re looking for the suspense and melodrama of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you won’t find it here except in such rare moments that you’ll welcome the mayhem. If, however, you seek a philosophic understand of the concept of love and the dire necessity of it in a world that sometimes seems on the fast track to hell, you may get some satisfaction from “Before We Vanish.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has enough of a reputation to encourage attendance by cinephiles, is best known for films like “Cure,” wherein a detective investigates a series of gruesome murders by people who have no recollection of what they have done. Here the famous Japanese director continues on that theme, soon noting that Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), the daughter of a victim, may be guilty of murdering her family. When Sakurai (Hiroki Hawegawa), a journalist with a weekly magazine, is following the story when he wanders into a more original and involving tale: Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), an alien, asks the journalist to be his guide. One wonders why Sakurai would involve himself at all given that Amano speaks of an imminent invasion of Earth by his fellow aliens. Grudgingly, Sakurai acts as a guide, informing the young man, a fish out of water, of the general culture of his fellow earthlings.

The principal story, however, is a romantic one, one of the redemptive power of love. Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is having a difficult time getting along with her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has become like an empty vessel. He has no memory of his life and, resembling an autistic man of about 30, has no knowledge of social graces. When Narumi, an illustrator whose boss is not satisfied with her designs for a festival, finds that Shinji interferes with her work by following her into her office, Shinji, with the touch of a finger, transports the rigid employer into a fun-loving fellow who throws papers around the office and acts like a fellow who’d rather not wait until the Christmas party to act child-like. In other words, sometimes changing people by taking from them their concept of work may not be an altogether bad thing.

Expect people to act odd, whether they are aliens with little knowledge of the culture of earthlings or human beings who have been inhabited by them, but the moments of violence are doled out as though with the annoyance of a director who would rather remain on a philosophic plane. With a Japanese title of Sanpo suru shinryakusha, or “Strolling Invaders,” we can understand that Kurosawa is in no hurry to rush into physical actions.

At 130 minutes with scattershot attempts to discuss the meaning of life, “Before We Vanish” is highbrow sci-fi that could have made its points with a metaphoric red pencil. The film played at the prestigious New York Film Festival in 2017. There are bound to be journalists who consider this the best sci-fi movie of the year, but for me, a more intense and focused narrative would have better served the entry.

Unrated. 130 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

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?

BREATHE – movie review


    The Orchard
    Director:  Joachim Trier
    Written by: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
    Cast:  Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag, Oskar Pask, Steiner Klouman Hallert
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/10/17
    Opens: November 10, 2017 in NY.  November 24, 2017 in L.A.
    Thelma Movie Poster
    Norway’s candidate for best foreign language picture, competing for the Oscar at the Academy’s 90th annual presentations, is a study in contrast.  On the one hand, it is icy, distant, intellectual rather than emotional; skimpy with melodrama and rigid with repressed sexuality.  On the other hand, this is a horror movie but one that is Norwegian-style.  This is no “Exorcist” copycat, certainly little in common with “Friday the 13th” or “Saw.”  The Danish-born filmmaker and native Norwegian  co-writer would both fit into Denmark and Norway given the way the clever citizens thereof appear to have a solid grasp of each other’s language, and the locale of this latest movie makes use of the sophisticated, academic neighborhoods of expensive Oslo.

    Joachim Trier, well known in Scandinavian by cinephiles is celebrated therein for his 2011 movie “Oslo, August 31st,” a casual look at one day in the life one Anders, a recovering drug addict, who takes off to catch up on his friends in Norway’s capital.  “Thelma” is surely intense by contrast, well-acted in the title role by Eili Harboe, while her younger self puts Eili Harboe in front of Jacob Ihre’s lenses.  The young Thelma is cute enough but harbors ill feelings toward her baby brother, as her wheelchair-bound mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) ignores Thelma whether giving the baby a feeding or soaping him in the bath.

    Thelma’s dad Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), an internist, is a mixed bag, character-wise.  He never yells.  He shows patient understanding of his daughter, listens to her problems, and worries about her when she suddenly has a series of non-epileptic seizures.  We in the audience know more than the father, though, as when Anja (Kaya Wilkins),another female student at the college, hits on the innocent Thelma, who has been brought up as a fundamentalist Christian (an anomaly in one of the countries with the smallest percentage of church-goers).  As the emotionally immature Thelma is approached by fellow student Anja, Thelma has a seizure, writhing helplessly on the floor in much the same way as the title character jokingly faked in the film “My Friend Dahmer.”  We are led to believe that the father, whose medical practice paid for Thelma’s college education so her daughter would not have to work for tuition, is not the ideal person for ways that the film audience will perceive only by the mid-point.  We watch how Thelma, whose alcoholic drink is straight Coke but who tokes on an alleged roach to fit in, has telekinetic powers that make objects, and in at one case a human being, move.  But if you go to this movie strictly as a “Carrie” fan,you may be disappointed by how subtly the surreal is shown.

    With a terrifying, Hitchcockian conclusion and with elements akin to the works of Danish director Lars von Trier, “Thelma” is a winning mixture of psycho-babble and horror propelled by Eili Harboe’s performance.  If you are interested in psychology more than in what passes in America for horror, this pic is made for you.

    Unrated.  116 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

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

THE SHAPE OF WATER – movie review


    Fox Searchlight Pictures
    Director:  Guillermo del Toro
    Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo del Toro
    Cast:  Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Olivia Spencer
    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 11/21/17
    Opens: December 1, 2017 in NY.  December 8, 2017 in LA.

    Given the appalling movement toward the far right by Republicans in power, their grim determination to give the bulk of tax cuts to the rich, a vulgarization that has led neo-Nazis to consider the President their man, it’s good to know that while decent people are resisting the coarsening of our democratic standards. We can have moments of escape from a bleak reality via stories and movies of imagination and beauty.  Adults can escape not through kiddie fairy tales like “Pinocchio” (however that character’s demeanor is mirrored in the White House), not through Marvel comics, which is a grand outlet for teens and millennials.  We mean by an adult fairy tale.  That means “The Shape of Water,” the most fanciful film to come our way this year.

    Credit Guillermo del Toro, the Guadalajara-born director and co-writer, whose poetry comes across in features like “Pan’s Labyrinth” (a stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer in Franco’s Spain) and “Cronos” (a device that could grant eternal life has severe side effects). You know what to expect when you see a del Toro movie).   “The Shape of Water,” an adaptation of the director’s story (available soon from Amazon), features Sally Hawkins, who appeared as well this year in “Maudie,” as a mute but hearing individual whose physical handicap has led her to the misfortune of loneliness.

    The movie is marked by perhaps the best aquatic shots you will see on the screen in 2017 of a huge but lovable creature about nine feet tall, similarly lonely, isolated, penned inside a glass body of water.  The events take place in 1962, during a period of Cold War paranoia, the United States determined to beat the Soviet Union into outer space.  The creature (played by Doug Jones), dredged up in South America by government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), is regularly given strong electric shots by the cruel agent to keep it in line, or simply for the amusement of the agent.

    Loneliness casts its shadow over Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who like Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and like the creature, is an outsider. He lives in a dilapidated Baltimore apartment. He had been a prominent advertising illustrator ousted from his job by scandal.  He attempts a pass at a counter-person at the local diner (Morgan Kelly), whom he sees when feeding his addiction to pies of all flavors.  Elisa, who lives downstairs, is his only friend, and as for Elisa, she can count on the company of Giles and also Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker-cleaner in a large government plant.  Punching up the plot, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is on hand as a marine biologist assigned to study the creature’s physiognomy for use in the space race against the Soviet Union.

    Like the Frankenstein monster, the amphibious creature becomes friendly with those who seek to befriend him.  He reveals himself as a male in one of the most beautifully photographed scene of loving sex, in this case with a nude Elisa.  Before that point, Elisa forms a bond slowly, introducing at first a hard-boiled egg which is consumed after the creature tests the waters, then moves into a more spiritual phase when Elisa plays music on a portable phonograph.

    “The Shape of Water” is a robust tale of love, one that redeems Elisa who until that point has had no-one but a pair of platonic friends, and takes aim at the forces of bigotry, hatred, and fear of what or who is different from what many of us consider to be normal.  The war between good and evil is black-and-white, Strickland as almost pure evil and Elisa, Giles and Zelda are almost saintly—despite or perhaps because of their near poverty.

    Rated R.  123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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