LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

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

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

THE LION KING – movie review

THE LION KING
Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, story by Brenda Chapman, characters from Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Cast: Voices of John Kani, Seth Rogen, Donald Glover, Keegan-Michael Key, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Early Jones, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, Alfre Woodard, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Eric André, John Oliver, JD McCrary, Florence Kasumba
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/10/19
Opens: July 19, 2019

Lion King Movie Poster (2019)

John Badham’s “Point of No Return” is a carbon copy of Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” but there are qualitative differences between the two that should be obvious to people who have acquired a taste in film. Similarly Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” is a copy of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 film of the same name, and here again, the quality of the current version is obvious. Favreau’s version is blessed by a quantum advance in animation technology known as photorealistic computer animation which takes away the illusion of artifice in favor of rendering the subjects quite life-like. You may be able to tell the difference between animals photographed at Serengeti and the same beings in which no real animals are used (or harmed), but the eight-year-old who takes you to “The Lion King” will be stunned by the naturalness of all that the child can see. One wonders whether in the future live actors will be automated out of jobs just as are the movie personnel who sell you tickets at the multiplex will have to look for some job that has not already been deleted by machines.

Even without the new technology, Disney could continue the reign as the animation king of blockbuster films. “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, is a familiar enough tale, yet when you watch it again you may find it to be fresh. In the same way though the songs used in the current “Lion King” may be familiar enough—think of “Hakuna Mattata” (what a wonderful phrase…ain’t no passing craze”) and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” ah weemoway”). When sung by a variety of creatures of the jungle it’s as though you’re hearing the songs for the first time.

Whether you think that Disney’s trope of creating animals that talk and sing like human beings is no problem, a hakuna mattata, or whether you believe that this way of conveying animal behavior is overdone, is a matter of opinion. The way that the lions, the hyenas, the warthogs, a variety of birds speak our language does take away from their individuality since, after all, giraffes are not zebras, but such is not likely to be a problem for the small fry.

As in the 1994 version, “The Lion King” is about family and the importance of home, but those of us in the U.S. now having to put up with a circus of campaigning for top gun a year and one-half in advance cannot help thinking that we have a president and we have a number of people who would like to unseat him. Similarly, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the respected monarch of the Pride Lands, particularly as he believes (unlike a few of our politicians) that what makes a king is not what he takes but what he gives. Yet among the Pride Lands, his own brother wants him killed so that he can ascend the throne—which makes this a kind of Shakespearean theater. Mufasa’s son Simba (Donald Glover as an adult and JD McCrary as the cub) has been readied by the king of beasts to take over when his time comes, and this is where the Circle of Life comes in, but Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is determined not to let this happen as he has monarchial ambitions. Scar’s allies are a group of nasty hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key) who realize that Simba must be lured into a forbidden part of the kingdom so he can be killed and eaten.

The villains are ugly. Scar is easily recognized despite having the mane of his brother because he has been grayed out, the typical bold color of lions is desaturated. The hyenas, whose dialogue is fast and idiotic, are as ugly as animals can be. Comic relief is supplied by Pumbaa, a warthog (Seth Rogen) who adopts Simba when the future king has run away from home, and is never seen without the company of a Meerkat who pops on and off Pumbaa’s head. Beyoncé’s voice serve as Nala, Simba’s childhood sweetheart who insists that she could never marry Simba while Alfre Woodard is the voice of Sarabi, the Queen, and Simba’s mother.

Unlike the 1994 version which is rated G for general audiences, this one features an MPAA rating of PG given the realism of the violence (animals falling from cliffs into fire, for example) and perhaps more disturbing for the young ‘un in the audience, there is talk of death which could be even scarier than watching scenes of violence and death, such as the statement that life is not a circle but a straight line. When you come to the end of the line, that’s it.

As you can probably guess the visuals are splendiferous. Favreau takes a story that so many of us know about from the original and from the stage version where it is still holding court at the Minskoff, and with photorealistic animation can make you think you’re on a prohibitively expensive safari—yet paying no more than $20 a ticket.

Music is composed by Hans Zimmer, with songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice.

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

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

DOGMAN – movie review

DOGMAN
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenwriter: Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Raucci, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Alida Baldari Calabria, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 4/2/19
Opens: April 12, 2019

Dogman Movie Poster

“Dogman” is the movie that won the “Palm Dog Best Canine Cast” during the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2018. If that’s not a reason to run to the theater I don’t know what is. Maybe I do: the picture also gave Marcello Fonte the Best Actor award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year and the aforementioned Cannes Festival as well. If you’re still not convinced, consider whether you’d like the films made by Matteo Garrone. The director’s well-named “Gomorrah” a few years back deals with the Napolitano mafia, is full of violence (obviously), and has the additional scare for audiences when the title “Gomorrah” shows up on covering the entire screen.

You’re still with me? You have no problem with extreme violence? And maybe you like dogs enough to watch canines of all sizes getting groomed? But you’re queasy when one chihuahua is tossed into a freezer praying to be rescued and defrosted, especially if his savior could be the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor? You’re set for an interesting time at the movies.

The tale focuses primarily on Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a milquetoast, an easily bullied fellow, who makes a living grooming dogs in a godforsaken shop called Dogman in a sh*thole of a town outside Naples. He has a daughter of about nine years, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), who is the most mature character in the movie, regularly promised by her dad to take her on a trip to the Red Sea but settling for scuba-diving in a nearby watering hole. He wants to fulfill this dream and is lured into selling cocaine to make the needed money, and he is also more or less forced into more criminal activity by the town bully, ex-boxer Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a bruiser of a guy that some in the community would like to kill. This Simoncino is such a brute—I hesitate to use the term “animal” unless you compare him to the pit bull that opens the movie ready to tear into Marcello’s throat—that in one scene he virtually kills his mother, (Nunzia Schiano) with an outrageous bear hug. Still, she deserves the treatment for tossing her dear boy’s cocaine into the air (though Marcello is forced to sweep it up).

When Simone insists that wimpy Marcello take part in robbing Marcello’s friend Franco (Adamo Dionisi) who runs a gold-buying service next door to Dogman, the stage is set for a disaster that will bring Marcello down and lead to an act of vengeance that has unintentional consequences.

Nicolaj Brüel’s lenses capture the action in Caserta, Campania, Lazio and Rome, though the principal location probably had its last batch of tourists during the time of the Caesars. There is an indication that metaphoric use is made of the town since it’s almost inconceivable that anyone in the culture-rich nation of Italy would live there—and maybe (metaphor alert) nobody does. “Dogman” was Italy’s Oscar candidate for movies opening in 2018, though the rich assortment of imports made it impossible for the pic to get a nomination. Subtitles are clear, as the only words of English are spoken to a dog as in “sit” and “stay,” though those are about the last words you’d use in the presence of Simone.

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

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

THE FIRST PURGE – movie review

THE FIRST PURGE

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Gerard McMurray
Screenwriter:  James DeMonaco
Cast:  Marisa Tomei, Lex Scott Davis, Luna Lauren Velez, Melonie Diaz, Y’lan Noel, Mo McRae, Steve Harris
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/2/18
Opens: July 4, 2018
Poster
In his sophomore feature as director, Gerard McMurray gives us “The First Purge,” a better title being “The Shooting Gallery.”  Let’s hope this “First Purge” is the last.  The real first “Purge” took place in 2013 in the more interesting movie directed by James DeMonaco, since that one at least had a plot—involving a wealthy family held hostage for sheltering the target of a murderous syndicate.  This time, using James DeMonaco’s script, the action blockbuster features dialogue that utilizes half the country’s clichés with not a single syllable of originality, of nuance, even of substance.

Here’s what passes for talk followed by a potential audience response:

“I’ve see a lot of stupid shit.”

Reaction:  We have too.

“It’s been a long night.”

Reaction:  Yes it has.

“What’s going on?  I’m so confused.

Reaction:  You fill in the blanks.

Though Marisa Tomei is listed on some programs as the lead, she is wasted here, or perhaps after watching what’s going on, she became wasted.

Just like in 2013 when the government declared a 12-hour period once a year to allow people to let off steam in any way they want, the administration is led by a new political party called New Founding Fathers or NFFA.  To allow people now to let loose, instead of declaring a nationwide hunting season for the 12 hour period, all is confined to Staten Island, New York, where the administration’s real goal is to decimate the mostly African-American population living in low income housing.

To coax the folks in the projects to hang around in Staten Island rather than flee to other boroughs, NFFA President Bracken (Ian Blackman) through his chief of staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) offers $5,000 to anyone remaining, implanting in each volunteer a tracking device which is supposed to act as check to make sure the people are participating, but is actually used for a government militia to wipe them out.  Soon men in KKK masks, gas masks, and other wartime attire are smashing down doors in the projects, gunning down residents right and left, while the men and women under the leadership of Dimitri (Y’lan Noel), a drug dealer, push back with knives, machine guns, fists and strangulations.  After realizing what the government really has in mind, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), aka “The Architect,” remarks “What have I done!” to the amused movie audience making that line the principal example of unintended humor.

Unless you like to see flame throwers barbecuing people, knives drawing heaps of blood, guns used on both sides, and the usual hand-to-hand combat of the sort that you never know what’s going on because of rapid editing, you will conclude that this “Purge” has no redeeming features.

Rated R.  99 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – D-
Technical – C
Overall – D

MOM AND DAD- movie review

MOM & DAD

Momentum Pictures
Director:  Brian Taylor
Screenwriter:  Brian Taylor
Cast:  Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: January 19, 2018
Mom and Dad Poster #1
Home is not only where the heart is, but the refuge from the wilds and anonymity of the outside world, a place where everybody knows your name and loves you.  Except when they do not.  “Mom & Dad,” a horror pic that will be compared unfavorably even to the other movies opening during the dreaded movie month of January, is more horrendous than horror.  The film, which spends all too much time exhibiting parents running amuck with the usual rapid editing that makes the theater audience wonder what’s really happening, is twice as long as it should be despite its brief eighty-three minutes’ running time.  It should cut about eighty-three minutes from the final release.

Brian Taylor, who wrote and directs, is known for “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” in which a fellow in Eastern Europe tries to stop the devil, who is trying to take human form.  The macabre, then, is in Taylor’s DNA, but this time around his movie fails on every level.  It’s lacking narrative continuity, with editing that makes a joke out of the violence, with Nicolas Cage’s ranting and raving at a volume that could wake the dead (and indeed it seems to have done so with one of the young men he attacks); and with sudden flashbacks that pop out at inconvenient moments to give the audience a feel for what life was like for these characters in better times.

The Ryan family, which consists of Brent (Nicolas age), his wife Kendall (Selma Blair), their daughter Carly (Anne Winters), and Carly’s kid brother Joshua (Zachary Arthur), live in a sterile suburb with what Pete Seeger would call ticky-tacky housing.  Something happens to people throughout the town, though one could hardly call the violent breakout the fault of suburbia since a human tsunami breaks out throughout the land.  Parents, people who almost surely have resentments against their kids due to jealousy, and smarting at the mischief that the young ones have caused them, have become intent on killing their spawn.  There is a hint that a TV broadcast with snow on the screen has tripped the mayhem, but whether or not TV is responsible, all the parents of youngsters in high school have gathered at a gate that is locking them out, ready to comic massive homicide.

What is meant to be the source of climactic action finds the Carly and her brother in the basement hiding from their parents, as Kendall and Brent manage to see through their rage enough to decide how to get at the kids with various tools that suburban houses have almost as additional rooms in their homes.  Again the rapid-fire editing makes a jumble of the battle in a movie that lacks scares, a screenplay, and anything beyond the usual generic horror music.  A travesty that somehow managed to find a place at the Toronto International Festival.

Rated R.  83 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – F
Acting – C
Technical – C
Overall – D