JAWLINE – movie review

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Liza Mandelup
Cast: Mikey Barone, Bryce Hall, Jovani Jara, Julian Jara, Austyn Tester, Donovan Tester, Michael Weist
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/18/19
Opens: August 23, 2019
Jawline Movie Poster

In at least one sense, the social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—have not changed teen-aged girls. The bobby soxers screamed when Frank Sinatra performed during the 1940s and 1950s, and ditto Elvis Presley during the sixties. Their hearts skipped beats when their owners listened to the Beatles, (while their elders saved their lusty emotions for Liberace from 1936 to 1986). There is a quantum difference to teen girls’ choices, however, thanks to Instagram. People of little talent but stunning good look have been able to arouse their yelps and gasps and breathlessness, as long as the celebrities are their own age. “Jawline” takes us to this age of technophilia with “Jawline,” the implication of the title being that as long as a boy has granite features—with a thick head of hair to help and the ability to charm—he can be a celeb and not for just fifteen minutes.

Director Liza Mandelup in 2016 contributed a ten-minute short “Sundown” about the camp life of kids who are allergic to the sun and, more apropos to her current offering, the five-minute “Fangirl,” about social media celebs you never heard of but your adolescent daughter has. Now in her freshman full-length feature, she explores the excitement that young high school coeds feel when they Instagram their favorite hunk and their completely off-the-wall reactions when seeing him in person.

Austyn Tester tests his luck as the film’s anchor, a 16-year-old who lives in a rundown house in a broken-down town of Kingsport, Tennessee. He is eager, like so many millions of young people, to get out of a town where the mall is the only hangout, and to go to the big city, in this case to L.A. Though five university have satellite branches in Kingsport, none of the teens in the film show the slightest interest in attending college and, in fact, we have no idea what life is like for them in school.

Austyn, however, is home-schooled. His favorite social media platform is YouNow—which I had the curiosity to explore and lasted there for ten minutes. He talks with his fangirls as do other so-called boy broadcasters, who have fans perhaps in the millions. The young women are not listening to great songs like Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elvis’s “I’m All Shook Up,” or the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” So what exactly is holding their attention? Austyn appears to rivet them whether talking about topics of such originality as “believe in yourself,” just like Elsie Fisher in the far superior Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” But he spends most of his time shucking off self-help platitudes in favor lip-syncing a song just out or simply changing focus on his laptop from a medium sitting position to a close up that exploits his thick blond hair and chiseled jawline. His friends are good-looking as well, though only Austyn could pass for a young Brad Pitt.

He occasionally signals his following that he will appear at a local mall, giving the date and time. Sometimes a dozen girls show up, all eager to do selfies with him and most of all to hug, sometimes he gets a larger following. He lucks out, however, when taken under the wing of Michael Weist, a guy who looks about twenty-one years of age and who, as CEO of a business promoting vacuous, talent-less boys with good jawlines organizes photo shoots and takes them around L.A. treating them to massages and shopping sprees. It’s no wonder that Kingsport, Tennessee becomes even more the place to leave, as there you have no chance of ascending to the stars.

We don’t find out what kind of income Austyn is getting when he appears on stage before scores of screaming Mimis, but the entire picture challenges us to figure out who is being exploited, if anyone. If you think the girls are the victims of fake celebs, of people with no talent and probably little education, we remember what one of them said: that their Instamatic and online friends are better than the kids at school, where they are bullied. Could this explain why so many of their gender are plugged in seemingly 24-7 with their phones on their pillows all night, ignoring the crowds around them, sometimes bumping into people accidentally? Shouldn’t they be spending some more time reading books, magazines, anything that could give them a deeper perspective on life than the endless, repetitive phony entertainment provided by the small screens?

If a look at vacuity is Liza Mandelup’s theme, she has succeeded despite the repetitiveness of the action on the big screen. If she is satirizing a society that makes kids want to shut down the world and enter the small screens, she has done her job. This is not to say that the documentary is spellbinding. It can be downright work to slog through if you’re a thinking adult, laughing at or, being kinder, empathizing with the kids and wishing we could do something to break their need to conform without challenging their imperative to fit in.

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

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

EL ANGEL – movie review


The Orchard
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Luis Ortega
Screenwriters:  Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, Sergio Olguín
Cast:  Lorenzo Ferro, Chino Darín, Mercedes Moran, Cecilia Roth, Daniel Fanego, Luis Gnecco
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/30/18
Opens: November 9, 2018
El Ángel Movie Poster
After the murder of eleven synagogue congregants on 10/27/18 by Robert Bowers, some the grieving family contemplated his picture.  One fellow said, “He doesn’t look like the face of evil.”  Whether from comic books or movies or videogames, many of us think that killers look the part: smirking with scarred faces or showing Hitler-type mustaches, bulging eyes, maybe bad teeth and comb-over hair lines.   The reality is that criminals are likely to look like any of us: riding the subways, sitting before computers, relaxing in an easy chair.  The evil that men do lives after them, as Marc Antony said in “Julius Caesar,” but there is like to be no reflection on their faces.  Such is the case in spades when we consider Carlos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), known to friends and family as Carlitos, because the title figure, the angel, looks like what we conceive to be the face of pure innocence.  Though in real life he killed eleven people and committed robbery forty-two times, this seventeen-year-old is hardly the typical angel—except perhaps the fallen angel known as Satan.  You will not find horns growing on Carlito’s head and if he has a tail he hides it well.  What’s more, instead of a pitchfork—which we’d have hoped he’d use—he has a collection of guns, any number of which he used to carry out his killing, sometimes holding the firearms in both hands as though a figure out of the Old West.

This story based on the true events in the life of Puch—who, having served over forty-six years in jail is Argentina’s longest-serving prisoner ever—is directed by Luis Ortega with an eye for letting us contemplate the possible effect of his attraction toward young men on his crimes—though no outright homosexual act is filmed.  The thirty-eight-year-old Buenos Aires writer-director Ortega, whose “Black Box” is more of a character study involving three people than a riveting look at crime, allows Lorenzo Ferro to anchor the movie.  Ferro, in his debut as an actor, is in virtually every scene, committing his robberies and murders without much of a motive except to have some fun.  The curly-haired seventeen-year-old partners up with Ramón Peralta (Chino Darin) while both are sharing a class in a vocational high school, his choice probably based on the handsome looks of a guy a year or two older whose attention Carlos craves.  The partnership is sealed after Carlos holds a Bunsen burner close to his classmate’s back, resulting in suffering a sharp punch to Carlos’s left cheek, and from then on they are fast friends and partners in crime.

Ramón’s role model is the young man’s father, José (Daniel Fanego) an ex-convict who shoots up through his ankles, married to  Ana (Mercedes Morán) who at one point tries to seduce Carlos as though playing Mrs. Robinson to Ben Braddock in “The Graduate.” We’re convinced that this Carlitos is the polar opposite of the type of person some of us believe killers resemble.

A string of holdups include the robbery of a couple of dozen guns, some necklaces and rings, and in one case the cracking open of a safe with surprising results.  Carlos, obviously a thrill-seeker rather than a needy individual (though in an early scene he sounds like a Marxist), has had a good upbringing with honest and caring parents Héctor (Luis Gnecco) and Aurora (Cecilia).  Both look after their boy, obviously overjoyed with the good lucks for which they may take credit, but the best upbringings do not necessarily lead to favorable results.

The robberies and murders are shown as capricious rather than based on a need to do away with witnesses to crimes.  In fact they are part of the teen’s need for attention and thrills.  A stolen car, one of which leads to a head-on collision that may or may not have been
accidental, becomes part of Carlos’s carelessness, a flaw that will lead to his capture and long-term imprisonment.

The film in Spanish with clear subtitles and a terrific soundtrack of over a dozen instrumentals, is Argentina’s entry into the 91st Academy Awards competition, a worthy effort that will cement your impression that lawbreakers, even of the extreme kind, can look like you and me and Robert Bowers.

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

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

DOUBTFUL – movie review


Rogovin Brothers
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Elya
Screenwriter:  Eliran Elya
Cast:  Ran Danker. Yaakov Aderet, Osher Amara, Liron Ben-Shlush, Elroi Fass, Melodi Frank, Adar Hazazi Gersch, Shaley Girgin, Elad Hudara, Riki Hudara, Eli Menashe, Batel Moseri, Idan Naftali
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/18
Opens: June 3, 2018 at the Seattle International Film Festival
You might think that Israeli Jews have enough problems on their hands with Arabs inside Israel, in Gaza and in the West Bank; that they don’t have the time or the inclination to fight among themselves.  This is a doubtful premise.  There is probably not a nation in the world whose people live together in a Shangi La location, and that includes North Korea though we in the West have no idea how those folks get along with one another.  Now Eliran Elva, who wrote the script and directs “Doubtful,” uses the experience he has had with two shorts involving gunplay and the IDF, to give us his freshman full-length feature.  He gives us insight into the lives of people who are not the sort that you see in Israeli posters that show a solidarity of human beings unified by a common religion.  Instead his characters, eleven who are non-professional actors, play out a script about dysfunction in a small desert town in Beersheva.

The youths look like something out of “Blackboard Jungle” or “Precious,” with Ran Danker in the role of Sidney Poitier  and the ineffective Bill Sage respectively.  In this case Danker’s character, Assi, is himself an emotional wreck, sentenced to community service for drunk driving.  At one point he reminisces about his youth, about his failure to fit in, about being alone, playing alone, and now dealing with kids who are more scarred than he is.  His small class of students who in New York might fit into a special education class, are bored with everything except horsing around with each other, and who attend Assi’s new film-making class as a condition of their parole.

Assi will ultimately gain control and respect in the manner of many a movie about teachers perhaps in part because they recognize in him the similarities with themselves.  Though the theme is not a new one, “Doubtful” bears a look from an audience that might consider their own wild ideas and actions when they were younger, seeing at least some part of themselves in the teenagers here.  And the young people do quite a professional job acting out their anxieties and later filming an episode with a student director who yells “cut” with enthusiasm.  In fact Assi takes a special interest in Eden (Adar Hazazi Gersch) whose mother invites the teacher to her abode for some home cooked meals, leading Eden to hope that Assi is in love with her and could become his stepfather.

This is based on a true story, one with a sad ending that involves one character who executed an act far worse that whatever got him into trouble here.  Eliran Elya directs with an appropriately blunt style, encouraging the physicality and even the charm of these roughneck teens.  His script allows a three-dimensional look at the thirty-three year old Assi with some naturalistic scenes including the journey by bus and train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba.

Unrated.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AVA – movie review


Grasshopper Film
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sadaf Foroughi
Screenwriter:  Sadaf Foroughi
Cast:  Mahour Jabbari, Bahar Nouhian, Leili Rashidi, Vahid Aghapour, Shayeste Sajadi, Sarah Alimardani, Houman Hoursan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/20/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Ava Movie Poster
Watching this mother-from-hell berate her daughter reminds me of verses by the British poet and Oxford University graduate Philip Larkin (1922-1985):

“They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had/  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f***d up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Never mind that the mother (Bahar Noohian) in this case is Iranian and that the setting in a conservative society helps provoke the woman to extremes.  Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is the sixteen-year-old whose own kids years later will likely be as screwed up as she.  Most important, what is happening to her could happen to teens anywhere in the world and quite often does.  There is some truth that many adolescents, despite being in the best physical condition in their lives, are a troubled mess.

Sadaf Foroughi, in her freshman job at directing and writing, has made an auspicious beginning, one which quite often in the field of filmmaking leads to even more mature works to come.  This is the kind of story that could be semi-autographical, so strong and unrelieved are the tensions created in Ava that we suspect that Foroughi has endured this pain herself.

The title character, Ava, comes from a solid middle-class home, a well-appointed house with clean, tiled bathroom and granite countertops.  She attends a school where the students appear likewise well off and studious.  She’s a normal girl who may be shoved under a metaphoric bus thanks to her mother, a doctor, whose overreaction starts a spiral that her father (Vahid Aghapoor) may not ameliorate given that he’s an architect and often not home.  The trouble begins when Ava’s mom finds out that she has spent an hour in the park with Nima (Housman Hoursan), a young man who it unwittingly the target of a bet that Ava makes with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi) that he will ask her out.  Her mother is frantic.  Alone with a boy for an hour!  She takes the girl to a gynecologist to confirm whether her daughter is a virgin.

Again: are there reasons for this overreaction?  It turns out that 17 years back, dad got mom pregnant. They married and apparently were not too pleased to have a child this early in their lives.  Mother is convinced that she has spooked her girl into acting like her, and this dovetails with the background of a conservative Muslim society.  It doesn’t take long for teacher-parent conferences with the school principal-from hell, Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi), who wears white gloves perhaps to symbolize her expectation that her charges will be virgins—and not doing crazy things like seeing a boy in the park for an hour without supervision.

The girls in the school all wear black veils albeit with the front of their hair showing while the boys are like teen boys everywhere, in this case wearing red sneakers. As in the U.S. the girls curse as much as the boys.  The focus is on Ava, an intense young woman with a growing anxiety and rebellion that prompts her to cut her hand (and this is the hand of a violinist) and deliver a monologue to counter her mother’s own monologue in the film’s most melodramatic scene.  American teens watching this film will identify—that is, if they don’t mind reading the English subtitles while the performers speak Farsi.  (In English class, the girls throw spitballs at each other when the teacher’s back is turned, which is not likely a reflection of hostility toward the English-speaking world.)

Quite an interesting first film by Foughi and likewise a suitably intense performance by Jabbari, on whom lenser Sina Kermanizadeh concentrates sometimes in sharp close-up and other times in soft focus.  Tehran is the location.  In Farsi, English subtitles.

Unrated.  103 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

LEAN ON PETE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrew Haigh
Screenwriter: Andrew Haigh, novel by Willy Vlautin
Cast: Charley Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 1/31/18
Opens: April 1, 2018

There’s not a single reference to politics in “Lean on Pete,” but people in the audience who are tuned into the latest developments probably can’t help thinking: “This is Trump country.” The folks on display are different segments of what might be considered on a low socioeconomic level, but there’s a big difference between those who do heavy work however unintellectual, and those who are at the bottom of the heap with no jobs. You can guess that the ones doing heavy lifting have little use for those below them, and you can imagine that none of them might want to vote for a President who was originally a law school professor and who always thought before he spoke. Nor would they have any use for books, high-end magazines, or Sunday morning shows like “Face the Nation.” The land considered here at in the Northwest, ranging from Spokane, Washington through Portland, Oregon, and on through the long trek to Laramie, Wyoming.

Andrew Haigh, who directs and who adapted Willy Vlautin’s novel, recalls the director’s “Weekend,” about how a pickup between two guys in a bar leads to what they expect to be a one-night stand but turns into a gay love story involving drunkenness and story-telling and a real relationship. Haigh moves outside the conventional world again in this film, putting Charlie Plummer in the major role—a 15-year-old forced to fend for himself that encounters a number of adventures of the sort that most young people can barely imagine. Plummer, in the role of a teen who is potential heir to J. Paul Getty’s fortune but whose luck runs out when he is kidnapped now plays yet another kid not favored by Lady Luck who has enough spirit to survive in the mean and macho world of today’s modern West.

Not only is the story absorbing; but Plummer turns in a star turn that, if memories remain near the end of this year, could lift him into the stratosphere of awards from critics’ groups right through to the Academy Awards.

Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) wants what every normal teen needs: a loving set of parents, food on the table, a school that might allow him to be a star on the football team. But when his no-longer married dad Ray Thompson (Travis Fimmel) moves from Spokane to Portland and must spend most of his time in a warehouse job, Charlie is left mostly on his own in a ramshackle house, though given affection by his father who acts more like a big brother. When his often drunk and regularly roving father is shot by the husband of his latest woman (Amy Seimetz), Charley seems to know what might be in store for him: a trip to a dreaded foster home where abuses are not uncommon. His only remaining family is his aunt Margy (Allison Elliott) who is estranged from her brother and whose address somewhere in Wyoming is unknown to Charley.

Without proper schooling, Charley takes on a job of tending horses under the guidance of the earthy owner Del (Steve Buscemi), cleaning the manure and walking one horse, Lean on Pete, in circles to prepare him for the races at what must be a third-tier racetrack. “Blink and you’ll miss the race,” cautions Del, and we in the audience are surprised to see that each race lasts no more than ten seconds. The five-year-old Lean on Pete—the title possibly chosen because Charley learns to lean on the horse for affection—is no longer able to win races. His jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), warns Charley not to treat the horse as a pet, not to bond, which in this circumstance might be wise counsel, Charley is stunned to learn that Pete is to be sold to a dealer involved in Mexican slaughterhouses where killing is legal. Charley runs off with the horse, expecting to trek on foot perhaps a thousand miles, and from there “Lean on Pete” becomes a road (meaning long stretches of open land ) and buddy movie. As such, director Haigh plans Charley’s moves in the tradition of that genre, setting up meetings between the teen and some rough trailer people like Silver (Steve Zahn in his typical, crazy role).

What’s especially interesting is that during these adventures Charley runs into some people who are kind (his aunt, a waitress, a woman living with her abusive grandfather); some are mean, like the killer of his father who smashed the door of his Portland home and murdered the man; and especially nuanced, like Steve Buscemi’s Del who sense that he needs to act in loco parentis but at the same time exploits the kid’s labors. Even Steve Zahn’s Silver, who chats up the lad in a soup kitchen and invites him to share his trailer turns abusive in a fight over the money that Charley had just earned.

Again, Charlie Plummer is the guy to watch, morphing from a shy boy who precedes requests for food and lodging with a “Can I ask you a question?” but who, from necessity turns into a justifiably enraged beast when exploitation and meanness cross the line.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THOROUGHBREDS – movie reveiw


Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Cory Finley
Screenwriter:  Cory Finley, adapted from his play
Cast:  Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/22/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

Proudly displaying its theatrical origins on the big screen, Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” is an intimate look at a flawed friendship between two emotionally disturbed high-school seniors, revealing how one criminally intentioned young woman can embed her mind-set on someone her own age.  This is the kind of cinema that could be equally effective on the legitimate stage, perhaps even more so given that dramas before a live audience tend to prioritize dialogue while subjects treated in a cinematic way emphasize visuals.

Though the movie takes place in the homes of two seventeen-year-old women, intricate camerawork and editing using shot-reverse-shot techniques to close in on first one speaker and then the next help to open the play for the big screen.  The plot depends on slowly building suspense, with Erik Friedlander’s dissonant music augmenting the tension-filled effects.  Nor does it hurt that the acting by Olivia Cooke as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily is particularly strong, the rhythms of their dialogue approximating those found in many of David Mamet’s plays.

Amanda is one emotionally troubled teen, a girl who has killed her horse after the latter’s incurable paralysis in a scene reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus.” As Amanda’s mother realizes that her daughter will have trouble making friends, she pays Lily ostensibly to act as her tutor for college boards, concerned with supplying Amanda someone to hang out with.

The movie’s focus is on the almost musical dialogue of Amanda and Lily as they bounce viewpoints about, like the music of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor.  It takes only moments for Amanda to spot Lily’s hatred for her incredibly rich stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), an overbearing man who treats his wife like royalty complete with spa treatments and the use of a suburban Connecticut mansion but has only disgust for Lily whom he wants out of his house.  They plot to have Tim (Anton Yelchin), a low-life convicted of statutory rape who works as a dishwasher in a nursing home shoot Mark and make the crime look like a robbery.  The give-and-take of the two girls with Tim is a gem in itself, displaying a man who is not too keen on doing the dirty deed despite the offer of $100,000.

As the plot moves forward from Chapter One through Chapter Four (the segments are displayed on the screen), the interest in ridding Lily of the hated man increases, brought to a fever pitch during a nasty argument with her stepfather.  However when the story should rise to a fever pitch, the tension, insufficiently reined in by director Finley, falls off during the final forty minutes, leading to an epilogue that should have been cathartic but is really anti-climactic.

This is a bold freshman venture by Cory Finley, a member of Youngblood, a collection of playwrights who are under the age of thirty.  Elements of the British playwright Harold Pinter come across, giving credibility to the writer-director’s feeling that Pinter may have been the chief influence on his writing.  The drama is dedicated to the memory of “StarTrek” actorAnton Yeltchin,  who at age 27 died in a freakish accident when his Jeep Cherokee backed up on an incline crushing his lungs.

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

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