I, OLGA HEPNAROVA – movie review


    Outsider Pictures and Strand Releasing
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Tomas Weinreb, Petr Kazda
    Written by: Tomas Weinreb, Petr Kazda, story by Roman Cilek “Ja Olga Hepnarova
    Cast: Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka, Juraj Nvota, Marta Mazurek, Zuzana Stavna
    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 3/14/17
    Opens: March 24, 2017

    Murder is a man’s game.  There are far more Ted Bundys than there are Lizzie Bordens.  In fact so few women commit murder worldwide that you remember the few who have committed the ultimate offense.  Still, one wonders how many people outside of the Czech Republic heard of Olga Hepnarova, who not only killed eight people at once but was the last woman executed in her country.  Now there’s Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s “I, Olga Hepnarova, a film which could inspire more people to order Roman Cilek’s paperback book from Amazon, where it lies awaiting a single review.

    The facts, however cherry-picked, could have been made into a Hollywood blockbuster film, an intense melodrama like Robert Wise’s 1958 movie “I Want to Live,” featuring Rita Hayworth as Barbara Graham who is executed for murder.  Or it could have been done in the style of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1989 “Dekalogue,” a series of films based on the 10 Commandments one of which involves not only murder but a grisly look at what happens to a condemned criminal at the moment he is hanged.  In fact, “Olga,” like “I Want to Live,” is done in a film noir manner, but is more like “Dekalogue,” in that the nourish, black-and-white photography by Adam Sikora exudes a color-free image of cinema verité journalism.  Director Tomas Weinreb is known to Czech audiences for his “Vsechno Je Sraka” about a fellow who spent half a year in a relationship with a murderer before the crime (so this movie is right up his alley). Petr Kazda shares the director’s chair in his freshman film.

    It’s easy to figure out the bleak, black-and-white tone of the film: it’s a reflection of the troubled mind of Olga Hepnarova (Michalina Olszanska), a young woman who was abused or ignored by her father (Vickor Vrabek) and mother (Klara Meliskova).  Her mother is a dentist whose communication with Olga goes little further than writing prescriptions for drugs that could ease the young woman’s confused mind.  Olga perhaps exaggerates the extent of her bullying by women her own age and her parents, even her teachers.  We don’t see much of it on screen.   Why is she the one who is picked on, since after all, bullied subjects are generally outliers in their communities?  This could be because of her introversion, her unwillingness to connect with others, or maybe even her lesbianism, which she discovered late in her teens leading her into a brief relationship with Jitka (Marika Soposka).  But Jitka threw her over for one Jana, her regular bedmate, leading Olga to travel further down the road to depression.

    Theme-wise, there’s nothing new about a woman who thirsts for revenge against a society that she believes he done her wrong.  The more melodramatic film on the subject, “Carrie,” shows the title figure bringing mayhem upon her town through telekinesis.  Olga has no super-powers, but this woman, who is considered a tomboy and therefore given a job as the driver of a truck, one day mows down twenty elderly people on the sidewalk, killing eight.  She dooms herself several times: first by telling the arresting officer, who suggests that she fell asleep at the wheel or that the brakes did not hold, “I did it on purpose.”  Then she begs the five-judge panel to give her the death penalty so that her crime would achieve international coverage, leading the greater society to see what harms are committed by bullying.

    As stated, this is not a movie for “Carrie” fans or for advocates of blockbuster melodrama, but is rather a serious, sometimes ponderous work involving several instances of the camera’s simply standing till in an empty hallway, or gazing at Olga’s face, which is usually downcast and sad.  The most significant feature, one that could lead to appreciation for an audience not too big on stasis, is Michalina Olszanka’s somber performance of the troubled lass.  She served as a memaid in Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “The Lure” and later this year in Andrey Malyukov’s “Sobibor,” based on a true story about an escape from an extermination camp.  You can believe that she can kill.

    “I, Olga Hepnarova” was filmed in Dolnoslaskie, Poland with dialogue in Czech.  There is no mood music on the soundtrack.  Did I say this is serious stuff?

    Unrated.  105 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

LADY MACBETH – movie review


    Roadside Attractions

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade:  B+

    Director:  William Oldroyd

    Written by: Alice Birch.  Adapted from the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov

    Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank

    Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/14/17

    Opens: July 14, 2017

    If you read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and were particularly mesmerized by the role of Lady Macbeth, you might get the impression (if you’re just a naïve high-school junior) that behind every successful male murderer lies an ambitious, cold-blooded woman.  A couple of centuries post-Bard, the Russian author Nikolai Leskov penned a novella which he called by the less-than-compelling title “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” and that’s not all.  Dimitri Shostakovich used the tale for his opera of the same title, first performed in Leningrad in 1934—one filled with such godforsaken dissonance that you will turn back a while to a time of less cacophony than that promulgated during the 20th Century to enjoy Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

    Like Figaro, “Lady Macbeth” focuses on a marriage of the sort not completely unknown in our neck of the Western Hemisphere.  In short, it was short.  And it was unhappy. Writer Alice Birch, faced with the challenge of adapting Leskov’s novella, shifts from Russia of 1865 to 19th Century England.  She creates a good guy who becomes a bad guy; one in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor.  (We need not mention the many areas of the world peopled by victims of imperialism and worse who are accused of becoming despotic today.)

    Since Director William Oldroyd’s reputation is on the line with his first full-length movie, he is fortunate in starring Florence Pugh as title character, a woman whose prior film experience has been only in “The Falling,” wherein she played a charismatic pupil in a 1969 English girls’ school faced with a mysterious fainting epidemic.  Given the superior script of “Lady Macbeth,” Pugh shines.

    Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been sold by her debt-ridden father to a scrofulous gaffer, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who owns a large house with considerable land and which employs a cook, a housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and groundskeepers, notably Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).  All are intimidated by the old fella, including Katherine.  Her husband’s erectile dysfunction could symbolize the reactionary British law that allowed women to be sold to men twice their age.  Though Alexander on his wedding night orders his wife to take off her nightclothes and face the wall, he oddly slips into bed and turns to his left side, nodding right off to sleep.  When Alexander must leave town for a while, the sexually frustrated Katherine does what any other subjugated woman would do: she seduces the groundskeeper.  (Feminists in the theater audience might take issue, since the brutish but strangely ethical Sebastian first tries to force himself on the young woman.)  With her new confidence and irrepressible horniness, Katherine can’t get enough of the working-class fellow, but her newfound freedom turns her from victim to victimizer.

    That’s where Katherine turns into her section of merrie England’s Lady Macbeth in a movie that’s minimalist rather than the expected Masterpiece Theatre type of drama.  The dialogue is spare yet energetic, the emotions bold and all-consuming.  In fact Anna, the housemaid who follows orders but is virtually mute, becomes the catalyst for an expose of enough murders which, if actually occurring today, would rate the attention of PM Theresa May and the membership of both the Commons and the House of Lords.  The scenery could be reminiscent of areas in classics like “Wuthering Heights,” all photographed in England’s County Durham, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear.  No attempt is made to embroider the area, and even the old Boris admits that the pasture would not be suitable for the raising of cows.

    Some in the theater audience might embrace Katherine, even excusing her sins, a woman with a force unleashed, possessing an angelic beauty but a person who will stop at absolutely nothing for vengeance and to get what she wants.

    Unrated.  90 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?


THE VILLAINESS – movie poster


Well Go USA
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, 411 Celeb
Grade: B
Director:  Jung Byung-gil
Written by: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik
Cast: Kim Ok-vin, Shin Han-kyu, Bang Sung-jun, Kim So-hyung
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 8/1/17
Opens: August 25, 2017

This cheerfully brainless Korean action drama sports a plot with almost as many digressions and distractions in its 129 minutes than Donald Trump dishes out in half that time.  There is so much blood covering the walls, spurting from noses, foreheads and necks that you’d think South Korea is under attack by Kim Jong-un.  Yet for all its martial-arts, vid-game activity, “The Villainess” could be disappointing to a core base of the millions who enjoy spending all their leisure (and work) time competing on their computers because the story could require multiple viewings to deconstruct.  Have patience: everything works out by the end, or maybe not: the back-stories, the flashbacks, all serve to allow us in the audience to know the motives of the principals.  Did I say many, i.e. those who blinked at any point, may need to see it again?

In the tradition of the cinema of Korean mayhem such as Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge drama “Old Boy,” in which a man imprisoned for 15 years must wreak vengeance within five days—and of all-American fare like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” released the same year, “The Villainess” also reminds us of one of the great thrillers of its kind, Luc Besson’s “La femme Nikita.”  “Nikita” was popular enough to be remade here in a simpler Hollywood form as “The Point of No Return.”  Here, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), whose goal in life is to avenge the murder of her father, is compelled by a secret government organization to work as an assassin.  She is bound to the group for ten years, after which she will be freed with a nice pension (though one wonder whether the government had to spend much tax money on retirements given the short spans of life enjoyed by its agents).

Director Jung Byung-gil wastes no time capturing the attention of the audience, many of whom don’t give much of a fig for motives but are in their seats to enjoy seven minutes of butchery.  Sook-hee alone takes on scores of men, some with Arnold Schwarzenegger builds, hacking them with swords, belting them in their noses, stabbing them in the neck. The mayhem is the work of choreographer Kwon-Gui-duck, who in one scene features ballerinas doing their pas-de-deux in bold contrast to the “dances” going on within the building.  Sook-hee’s mentor, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) allows Sook-hee to leave the building with her cute daughter at which time, the flashbacks are loosed making the movie more incomprehensible than “Dunkirk” with that war film’s three interwoven time threads.

The most interesting aspect, strangely enough, is not the violence, but the courtship between Sook-hee and Hyun-so (Bang Sung-jun), perhaps because romance is something that everything in the U.S. and Korea can understand.  Hyun-soo lives next door to Sook-hee, courting her with such erotic conversations as “I can make you boiled chicken,” but the nice young man is in fact a secret agent sent to keep tabs on Sook-hee.

Breathtaking scenes include one in which the title villainess on her wedding day puts together a sniper’s rifle in the bathroom, which as we learned from “The Godfather” is the place for gangsters to hide guns. She trains the telescopic site on her target, which, for added suspense, moves in and out among the men present—and we discover as well that both the bride and the groom each have hired guests at the festivities.

If you love mass executions and don’t care about the reasons—much as in today’s world countries are at war without really knowing why—go for it.  If you want romance only, then stick to “Hotelier,” “Alone in Love,” and “Full House,” all showing on South Korean TV.

Rated R.  129 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?


  • UNA

    Swen Releasing
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: C+
    Director:  Benedict Andrews
    Written by: David Harrower based on his play “Blackbird”
    Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Tobias Menzies, Indira Varma, Tara Fitzgerald, Riz Ahmed
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 9/26/17
    Opens: October 13, 2017
    Una Movie Poster
    If you were a 27-year-old woman who had carried on a Lolita-style affair with a man 15 years older, how would you feel about the molestation?  Would you forget about it and move on?  Would you want revenge, maybe even think of killing him?  Would you feelings be confused if after he did time, you tracked him down to learn more about his feelings?  The Scottish writer David Harrower’s 2005 play called “Blackbird,” inspired in part by the crimes of sex offender Toby Studebaker,  starred Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams.  If you saw that, you would likely say that Harrower knows how to write women.

    I’d be inclined to agree, at least to some extent, since “Una,” the name given to the film release, tracks its theatrical origins with a center that is a two-hander between Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) and Una (Rooney Mara), with ample time given to Una’s life fifteen years earlier and played by Ruby Stokes.  Needless to say there are flashbacks hitting the screen each time that the mature Una finds herself in a situation similar to that experienced years earlier, but ultimately Una remains a movie version of a theater work that is insufficiently opened up to make for a top-level production.  Nor does it help that much of the dialogue uses British accents (Mara is from Westchester County, New York while Mendelsohn is Australian).
    One can’t help thinking of Rooney Mara’s role in “The Social Network,” the film that gave her a big boost, a college student who rejects the pretentious young man who would become the founder of Facebook.  Here she has a different role: instead of rejecting the man who did not put her down verbally like Zuckerberg character, she can’t get enough of him: she thinks about her molester regularly, a man whom she thought loved him and who disappeared leaving her in a motel room alone after a three-months’ affair.  When she sees his picture in the paper, she tracks him down to a huge factory where he had taken a new name, Peter.  She visits the factory during working hours, insists on seeing him, gets together with him in a break room and then in a bathroom stall where they have sex.

    She is a woman with conflicted emotions, while he, having served time and now living with a new identity, would like to get rid of her.  Or would he?  Anger, curiosity and confusion create havoc in her mind, leading her at one point to fling objects in the break room into the walls.  But clearly she has not gotten over her months of love on the cusp of adolescence.

    Despite her craziness, part of her desires revenge while she is to get him out of her mind Whatever harm she does to him now is nothing like what Ellen Page’s character in “Hard Candy” manages when she gets her hands on her rapist.  In that sense “Una” is more complex than Page’s Hayley Stark, but given the way much of the dialogue is whispered, with the film sound kept low, “Una” comes across less than satisfying.

    Unrated.  94 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?



    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: A-
    Director:  Yorgos Lanthimos
    Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
    Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Rafey Cassidy, Bill Camp
    Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/11/17
    Opens: October 20, 2017
    The Killing of a Sacred Deer Movie Poster
    Greek mythology’s overriding theme is “Don’t mess with the gods,” an idea give some later resonance by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the Ancient Mariner shoots an albatross.  Therein lies the title of this extraordinary film.  When Greek king Agamemmnon, kills a sacred deer, he is punished by Artemis, goddess of the hunt.  Agamemmnon can release himself from punishment only by killing his daughter Iphigenia.  The ancient myths all take place in the modern world as well. You need only find the right current metaphor and the Greeks will fill you in.  Yorgos Lanthimos’s film provides such an example.

    This concept of punishment for a flaw becomes the theme of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” though the only four-legged animal in this film is a large, obedient dog.  You could not get a better director for this kind of theatrical piece than Athens-born Yorgos Lanthimos, who in his recent movie “The Lobster” imagines a dystopian future in which single men are put into a hotel, each given 45 days to find a romantic partner or be changed into a brutish beast and sent into the woods.

    In the central role of “Sacred Deer,” Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiovascular surgeon married to Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, shares his life as well with his two youngsters, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and twelve-year old Bob (Sunny Suljic).  Materialistically they have it made, living in a spacious, exquisitely decorated house, the children facing no greater problem for the doctor than Bob’s long hair, which dad jokingly threatens to cut off and make the boy eat it.

    As though to make up for this idyllic household, the doctor must face the wrath of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a sixteen-year-old, whose father, despite living a healthy life dies on the operating table during heart surgery.  We in the audience can see the surgery visibly in cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ close-up of a thumping heart in receipt of stitches.  The surgery may not have ended well, as the patient’s heart is thrown into a basket with the used uniforms.

    Feeling guilty about the botched surgery on Martin’s dad, Steven befriends the fatherless boy, who is grateful for the attentions, receiving gifts now and then and sounding like a fellow many moons ahead of his years.  He even invites the boy into his home for dinners, at which time daughter Kim falls in love with him and takes rides on his motorbike.  You’ve got to wonder, though, why Steven allows such visits given that the boy acts like a stalker, showing up in the hospital whenever he pleases without phoning ahead.  Martin also invites the doctor to his own, not-so-great home, getting him interested in a movie on TV, “Groundhog Day” chosen specifically by Martin, and going to bed early so that his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) can flirt with Steven.

    Call it a twist on the Greek tragic metaphor, but Steven is not simply a flawed human being messing with the gods: he plays a god himself, making life-and-death choices together with his anesthesiologist, Matthew (Bill Camp), a man who will figure in one of the many black-comic moments of this modern Greek-inspired tragedy.  You may note that young Martin’s aim in introducing the doctor into his home is not only to allow a flirtation with his mother, but also to see whether he could act like a mortal man.  He doesn’t.  As a result, Steven’s children are punished.  Make way for the supernatural.

    It’s amazing what a top-drawer, hugely imaginative  director can do, especially when accommodated by the superior performances of the movie’s ensemble. In the premier role, Colin Farrell, sporting a full beard and Irish accent courtesy of his Dublin birthplace, plays god convincingly with an exceptional role also by Barry Keoghan whose diabolical rendition of Martin is so effective that you might feel like jumping through the screen and strangling him.

    Rated R.  120 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?