GHABE – movie review

GHABE (Forest)
GVN Releasing
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Markus Castro
Writer: Markus Castro
Cast: Adel Darwish, Nathalie Williamsdotter, Ahmad Fadel
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/22/20
Opens: October 16, 2020


If Monir (Adel Darwish) had a cairn terrier walking at heel, he might say, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Syria anymore.” And no wonder. In place of the 180,185 kilometers of desert, he’d find a vast forest of Redwood-sized trees. In fact the film’s title, “Ghabe,” is Arabic for “forest.” Taking with him all the memories of the Syrian culture that he must have absorbed during his twenty-five or so years in that current shithole plus the post-traumatic stress he feels not only for the chemical attacks Assad launched on his own people, you can imagine the difficult time he would have adapting to any Western culture. It takes him some coaxing to get out of a car outside a cabin that a progressive Swedish family set aside for the use of Monir, his uncle Farid (Ahmad Fadel) and three other refugees. Of course he will learn to love the place, but not because of what he must consider its strange culture, given the summer festival under a Viking symbol involving the statue of a penis and two testicles. How about his sight of a couple of Swedish women swimming in the nude while he hides behind a tree? Only the love of a local beauty could possibly convert this stressed-out guy into finally embracing his good luck in escaping from the wretched, war-torn Fascist state into perhaps the progressive Western country that welcomes refugees. Recall that Sweden served as a Shangi-Li for thousands of Americans who refused to serve in Vietnam and a refuge for hundreds of Jews that Denmark under wartime occupation shipped to Swedish shores to escape the Holocaust.

When Monir first sees the adorable Moa (Nathalie Williamsdotter), with her thick, red hair and dazzling blue eyes, he is smitten. Believing that he has no chance with her, he is content to watch her swim and masturbate, hiding behind a tree. Little could he imagine that Moa spotted him, accepting his “self-abuse,” even laughing but in a tender way. How different the response from Karin, her racist mother, probably angry that Sweden is accepting Middle Eastern refugees who will try to gain residency after a few months. Moa takes little time in seducing him as they are out with a rowboat, the kind of action that (we think) people from reactionary Arab cultures would consider the satanic work of a hooker. Not Monir. Despite his immaturity, he not only relishes the seduction but falls even more deeply in love with the young woman.

Events come to a melodramatic conclusion involving a police action, one of the officers acting as though he must have been trained in some U.S. red state to shoot a person who not had not attacked him and, in fact had put down the kitchen knife as he was told. A decision by Moa which could threaten Monir’s chance for a residence permit is uncalled for, unpredictable, and plain unimaginable. But here is a love story, a political drama that should make you think of the excesses of police power in our own country, and a meditation on countries like Syria that can kill its own people, most of them innocent of rebellion against the government.

Markus Castro directs his freshman offering with a storyteller’s professionalism, casting a lyrical glow on a section of his country with forests so vast that you’ll think you’re in California. One particular long shot is breathtaking—a view of the lovers in their rowboat set across the vastness of the forest and the universe, constellations brightly shining on two young people who are embracing the risks of a star-crossed romance.

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

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

WAITING FOR ANYA – movie review

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ben Cookson
Screenwriter: Ben Cookson, Michael Morpurgo, Toby Torlesse adapting Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Sadi Frost, Jean Reno, Nicolas Rowe, Thomas Kretschmann, Frederick Schmidt, Gilles Marini, Tómas Lemarquis, Elsa Zylberstein, Joséphine de la Baume
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/23/20
Opens: February 7, 2020

Jean Reno, Sadie Frost, Anjelica Huston, Thomas Kretschmann, Urs Rechn, Nicholas Rowe, Elsa Zylberstein, William Abadie, Tómas Lemarquis, Gilles Marini, Joséphine de La Baume, Phin Glynn, Frederick Schmidt, Raj Awasti, Noah Schnapp, and Lukas Sauer in Waiting for Anya (2020)

Geography is destiny. If you’re born in America or Canada you have less chance of starving to death than if you come from Burkina Faso or Eritrea. If you’re born in Western Europe, you are not much of a candidate for malaria or diphtheria as you would be if you your village is near Mogadishu or Djouba. And if you’ve been privileged to be baptized a Catholic in Sioux City, you are probably not going to be victim of anti-Semites.

However! If you have the distinct disadvantage of entering the world in Germany or Poland during the 1930s and remain there despite warnings, you are in deep defecation. Once the German borders closed, Jews remaining there or in any of that country’s occupations will inevitably be shot or gassed, perhaps tortured in a concentration camp and hanged. So what to do if that’s your state of affairs? You’ve got to forget about your house, your clothing, your bank account, and hightail it into a nearby more tolerant country like Albania and Bulgaria. Ben Cookson’s narrative drama “Waiting for Anya” deals with one hero who escorted a Jewish family over the Pyrenees to safety in (Fascist, ironically) Spain.

Despite how gruesome a movie on this subject looks, you probably should not worry about taking your children, even as young as eight. The movie, like the movie of the same name written by the British laureate author Michael Morpurgo, could not be described as “Holocaust 101,” because that would imply a college level course. This is more like middle school material which might be laughed at by some adults who think that this is a mature film, but clearly the dialogue serves as easily digestible for kids. (Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse” is about a horse fighting in France who longs for the return of his human companion.)

In his sophomore feature, director Ben Cooksen sets his film in the French village of Lescun during the early 1940s and filmed who-knows-where because the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are clueless about the breathtaking “Sound of Music”-style mountain range, “Waiting for Anya” centers on Jo (Noah Schnapp), a shepherd in his mid-teens, impressionable, a lad who is obviously not thinking of where can find a date for Saturday night. Why not? He is too busy risking his life to save Jews. Since he and his family—most notably his grandpere (Jean Reno) and a no-nonsense widow, Horcada (Anjelica Huston)—await the return of Jo’s dad (Gilles Marini) from a prisoner of war camp. At the same time Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jew, had escaped from a train taking his fellow Jews to a concentration camp, not before depositing his little girl Anya through a window into a bus. (Benjamin’s escape is among the less credible points in the movie, as he simply leaves the sealed train, hiding under it until it departs.) Benjamin hangs out hidden in the village, awaiting the return of Anya, who had departed in a different direction by bus.

Though the southern French village is under the Vichy regime, not directly occupied by the Nazis, a group of soldiers under a Lieutenant (Tómas Lemarguis) are guarding the frontier to prevent Jews from escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain. Jo takes time from supervising the sheep and feeding the pigs to make sure a band of Jewish survivors stay hidden in a cave, all means for death (including Jo) if discovered.

Aside from the sheep and pigs, “Waiting for Anya” features a dog, perhaps a Border Collie which is the breed best suited for herding sheep; and a bear, which threatens the life of Jo in one scene. Though the whole town are in on protecting the Jews, there is also one good German, a corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) who may the only one from his country who knows where the Jews are hiding but says nothing. He endears himself to Jo, acting as an unusual mentor to the boy.

A lively performance from Noah Schnapp who is 15 in real life and can be seen on the Netflix series “Stranger Things” should captivate the youngsters in the movie audience with his audacity, his desire to learn (even if it’s from one of the Bosch), and his high ethical conduct. Think of similar Holocaust adventures marketed to kids as well as adults such as “Life is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (which makes you think that the young son of a concentration camp commandant chats amiably with an inmate on the other side of barbed wire). Don’t guffaw at the simple dialogue and the sentiment projected herein, now that you know that Morpugo’s novel is recommended for kids, its scary cover noting that “they only have one chance to escape.”

As Holocaust survivors die off and as teens are riveted to the dumb-phones, many young people have no idea what the word “Holocaust” means. This movie serves as a decent primer. (Hey! It’s not just kids who are uninformed. Even some adults today think that Trump is being impeached for cutting a devil’s bargain with Czechoslovakia.)

Everybody speaking English.

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

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

JOJO RABBIT – movie review

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi based on on the book “Caging Skies” by Chrstine Leunens
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Scarlett Johansson
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/14/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

The time is long past that we did not dare to treat Hitler and the Holocaust with broad comedy. Hitler was a demon, the most evil man of the 20th century, so how can we deal with him other than with serious documentaries and dramas? Must everything be as serious as Berthold Brecht’s 1941 play “The Resistable Rise of Urturo Ui”? No. Charlie Chaplin knew that the best way to take such people down is to laugh at them, thus “The Great Dictator,” though in 1940 Chaplin could scarcely have known just how evil the German chancellor was. “The Producers” could be considered the first major movie that laughs at Hitler, and now comes “Jo Jo Rabbit” that mocks Hitler as a fool but hardly shows the depths of depravity in his characterization by Taika Waititi. If you’re wondering about the name of this inventive director, Waititi hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast of New Zealand, and is the son of Robin Cohen, a teacher, and Taika Waiti, an artist and farmer. His father is Maori (Te-Whanau-a-Apanui), and his mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent.

While the director has twenty-two credits, largely from overseeing TV episodes, his “What We Do in the Shadows” about vampires who worry more about paying the rent than about nourishing themselves, gives us a hint of the oddball and original works to come. The title figure in “Jojo Rabbit” is a ten-year-old boy from a German village played by Roman Griffin Davis, the son of Rosie Betzler, (Scarlett Johansson), who has an adult playmate in his spacious house named Adolf Hitler (the director himself). In the opening scenes which are the movie’s fastest-moving and zaniest, he attends a Hitler Youth camp taught by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), where the young men are taught military skills while the girls, scarcely teens, are instructed in how to get pregnant. (Truth to tell, the Nazi government cared not a whit about marriage. Women’s purpose was to give birth as many times as they could to populate the Reich with Aryan babies.) The girls here are instructed by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who gave the Fatherland eighteen of ‘em.

When Jojo Belcher is injured by a grenade he is drummed out of the camp but not before taking part in such fun activities as burning books. When he refused orders to kill a rabbit, he is derided by the counselors, given the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Filled with ridiculous tales of alleged Jewish depravity he is shocked to discover that his mother is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish woman of about eighteen years of age. You might expect that Elsa, when discovered by this young nazi kid, would cower, but instead she boldly declares that if Jojo turns her in, she would tell the Gestapo that he and his mother were hiding her, even using some physical force to show her lack of fear. Eventually, as everyone in the audience knew, he would hear about the Jewish tradition, how Jews were chosen by God, and comes around even to falling in love with her.

Brief archival shots show the genuine love for Hitler as thousands lined the streets when he passed in his car, reminding us that the people in charge of governments, the CEOs as you will, are often hardly the types of people that Plato advocated to be leaders. Few of them even now are Platonic philosopher kings, and many subjects are blown away by their vulgarity and cannot understand how their decisions could spell disaster for themselves and their country.

This is a remarkable feel-good movie in the style of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner who must shield his young son from the terrors of the Nazis. Eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis is the actor to watch, having turned in an astonishing role, evoking the full range of emotions from surprise to joy to terror. “Jojo Rabbit” was filmed in the Czech Republic.

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

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

WAR MACHINE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film review d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  David Michȏd
Written by: David Michȏd, adapted from Michael Hastings’ book “The Operators”
Cast: Brad Pitt, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/24/17
Opens: May 26, 2017W
click for larger (if applicable)
A comic whose identity eludes me once said that General Stanley McChrystal “sleeps standing up.”  This exaggeration is based on the man’s discipline: he sleeps only five hours a night, runs seven miles in the morning before the sun comes up, and eats only one meal a day.  He has been genuinely liked by the men who serve the U.S. in Afghanistan, and if you go along with the truth of “War Machine,” you’ll note that he never has to raise his voice.  He is deadly serious about the mission, but in the obviously campy way that writer-director David Michȏd casts him, he appears to take the war as a bad joke.

Michȏd, whose “The Rover” illustrates an unusual bond by a loner who sets out to retrieve his stolen car, deals this time with a man who is no loner, but who in fact is Obama’s appointee to leads the war in Afghanistan.  McChrystal, the obvious object of the writer-director’s bitter, yet comic take on the seemingly endless war and on the general, is portrayed by Brad Pitt in the fictional role of General Glen McMahon, who is seen several times running in the dark after his brief rest.  His role, as one critic states, could have been better played by John Goodman, but really—a morbidly obese actor as a hyperactive four-star general?

Pitt does OK in his campiest role, treating victory in the war as a can-do American goal, asking the President for an additional 40,000 troops though Obama is intent on whittling down the manpower, and lobbying France and Germany for contributing proportionally as stalwart American allies.  The men under his command accept what he has to say in his pep talks, but not so the Afghan resident goatherds of a godforsaken village, who don’t care about receiving blood money from the allies and simply want the invaders to leave.

Going over the top in making Afghan President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan a buffoon, Ben Kingsley plays the fellow not as corrupt as he has been made out to be by the American media but as an inept, out-of-touch man who wants to be called “Hamid” and not “Mr. President,” a spot-on choice by Karzai considering his relative indifference to the war and his compulsion to watch TV while in bed with a cold rather than chat with the general.

The movie has too much intrusive music and too much narration by the journalist from Rolling Stone magazine whose highly critical article led President Obama to fire the general, though Obama himself becomes an object of satire for his lack of contact with McMahon.  As the Rolling Stone journalist notes, the general met with the president only once, appearing to equate Obama with Karzai for incompetence.

The overriding issue is that America’s war with Afghanistan, like its war in Vietnam, is foolhardy and humiliating, the greatest military power in the world unable to bring the Taliban to their knees after a dozen years or so.    There is some fighting toward the conclusion, an unnecessary gesture with serious overtones as one of the soldiers is responsible for killing a child.  (America gives the father compensation, of course.)

Brad Pitt fans will be delighted—or not—to see their favorite performer and movie-magazine icon as barely recognizable, with a straight military haircut, but I much prefer his role in my favorite movie of 2009 “Inglorious Basterds,” where Pitt, a commander in the war against Germany, hears a captive say he’d rather die than give in to his captors, only to have Pitt ask a subordinate, “The man wants to die for his country. Indulge him.”

Unrated.  122 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

FOXTROT – movie review


    Sony Pictures Classics
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Samuel Maoz
    Written by: Samuel Maoz
    Cast:  Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor, Noam Lugasy, Karin Ugowski
    Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/2/17
    Opens: December 8, 2017 in NY & LA; March 2, 2018 wider
    Foxtrot Poster #1
    Let no one say that Israeli filmmakers hold back on portraying its citizens, particularly its soldiers, as ordinary, often scared citizens, despite that country’s success  in winning five wars, capturing Eichmann, and rescuing scores of its citizens held as hostages in Uganda’s airport.  Yes, Israelis can be frightened like the rest of us.  Writer-director Samuel Maoz depicts that vulnerability in his only other feature-length movie “Lebanon,” taking place largely in a tank sheltering some mighty scared  Israeli soldiers.  Now with “Foxtrot,” Moaz pushes into surreal territory abundant with metaphors such as the very name of this film.  “Foxtrot” is not only the battle name of a platoon of soldiers in a remote desert area. The foxtrot is also a simple dance that has the couple moving forward, sideways, backwards, and back to the front.  Like Sisyphus trying to roll a huge rock up a hill, first succeeding only to have the boulder fall back, Israel’s political history consists of steps forward, sideways and backwards but always falling back to the place where the dance started.

    There are three divisions to this feature, with one of its most baffling mysteries making sense only in the very end.  In other words, watch the entire film and live with a little frustration for a while.  In the first segment, two army soldiers report to the spacious, expensively furnished and book lined home of Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi), an architect, and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler). Their son Yonatan (Yonatan Shiray) is reported dead, “felled” in the army euphemism, while stationed in a desolate desert post.  After Daphna faints, Michael paces about, enraged, and shaken, while his brother Avigdor (Yehida Almagor) tries unsuccessfully to comfort him.  Michael is far from appeased by the attention paid to him by the soldiers, whose instructions on the funeral alternate with their advice to drink a glass of water every hour.

    In the second segment Maoz’s cinematographer  Giora Bejach captures the loneliness of a desert post which shows a toilet in worse shape than the one in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” where four young soldiers stop cars with traveling Arabs, vetting their ID’s with a screen that instructs “clear,” and manipulating the post that indicates the inspection stop.  They raise the post to a lone camel traveling without a rider but with dignity, an animal that will assume a significant role in the third segment.  To kill time, Yonatan tells his buddies stories about his childhood, stories that he has committed to paper in the form of cartoons.  Being barely out of their teens, he and his buddies concentrate on his memories of a Playboy-style magazine featuring a blonde in a Marilyn Monroe pose but with X’s on the nipples.  In the movie’s highlight, Yonatan turns up the music of the old records on hand, solo dancing the fastest foxtrot you can imagine to entertain the three men—none of whom appears to be older than twenty-three.

    The final act finds the lad’s mother and father reminiscing but facing each other with the hostility one might expect of couple whose honeymoons are long past.  Even in their home the metaphoric foxtrot takes shape, the arguments morphing into laughter as they share a joint.  One step back, one to the side, forward as though nothing had changed.

    This film, which is Israel’s candidate for awards consideration as best foreign movie, is essential viewing for cinephiles, though once-a-month film-goers and “tired businessmen” might be too baffled to enjoy the artistry on display.  We are fortunate that whatever censorship boards to which filmmakers must present for approval interpret their role quite liberally, cutting scenes that perhaps might endanger military security but giving a free hand to cinema that is critical of Israel.

    In Hebrew with English subtitles.

    Unrated.  113 minutes.  ©Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

HUMAN FLOW – movie review


Amazon Studios
Director:  Ai Wei Wei
Cast:  Ai Wei Wei
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/18/17
Opens: October 13, 2017
Human Flow Movie Poster
Famine, Poverty, War, Disease: Four horsemen of the apocalypse, human problems that will not likely go away as people make their New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Most of us know about the overwhelming problems faced by people who leave their lands in search of a better life or, indeed, of just a continued life somewhere where they can be fed and live with people who respect them as human beings.  It’s not until we see Ai Wei Wei’s engrossing, yet sad, documentary, that we see visual examples of the terrors that face tens of millions of the world’s seven billion.  And these may be the lucky ones.  Others simply stayed in their homelands, too sick or old or indifferent to move, as their bodies shriveled with malnutrition, their very beings torn apart by bombs.

Ai Wei Wei, who seems to have traveled almost as much as Hillary Clinton when she was Madam Secretary, at age sixty is an artist who has been openly critical of the lack of Chinese democracy.  In making this film he emerges once again as a humanist, a fellow concerned not with Trump’s super rich one percent, not even with the U.S. politicians’ favorite target the Middle Class, but with people who are not only poor like America’s homeless but who are at risk of life and limb.  As we see them in this film, which could have easily gone another hour to cover the field, they are walking, traveling in rickety boats, getting some rest in tents.  The verbal ones face the cameras to talk about their grievances, some in halting English, but most with their native languages of Arabic (as with Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis and Gazans) Turkish, and other tongues.  Those affiliated with organization to help these people speak English while there are snippets of German and Greek as well.

Some of the 65 million on the move from 23 countries, who are photographed by some 12 cinematographers, are turned away by guards or by fences (there are no 70 such barriers) and barbed wire, others given just temporary respite from xenophobic authorities.  “Don’t send us back to hell,” shouts one woman, presumably more willing to live in a rain-soaked tent than to go back to their failed communities largely in Asia and Africa.  They heard that Europe is a continent enjoying freedom and democracy and empathy for the downtrodden, which they can occasionally confirm when, for example, Italian aid workers give them foil capes for warmth, probably in Lampadusa (see the movie “Fuocoamare” for more on this).

Palestinians from Gaza note that millions of their ilk are in Jordan and Lebanon, and while these people are critical of Israel, they do not utter the fierce denunciations of the Jewish state which newscasters love to capture.  One creature does find solace after living like an animal: a tiger, having escaped into Egypt thanks to a tunnel built by Gazans to sneak into Israel, paces around his cage like an animal in my own borough’s Prospect Park zoo: frustrated in his desire to live as a tiger should live.  That tiger lucks out by being flown to South Africa where he or she will presumably be released to a sanctuary.

Unrated.  140 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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