NEWS OF THE WORLD – movie review


Universal Pictures

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Greenglass
Writer: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon, Marc Winnigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/17/20
Opens: December 25, 2020

News of the World film poster.png

When I was a kid, say 9 years old, I couldn’t get enough of Westerns on TV and in the movies, though in a recent interview Tom Hanks said “they don’t make Westerns any more.” My favorite heroes were Gabby Hayes, who played a toothless, bearded gent for comic relief; Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. Every story of the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian scout Tonto, ended with “Hi Yo Silver. Away!” Its only classic notion was the theme music from the overture to the opera William Tell, which I always use first to introduce high school kids to classical music.

Occasionally a Western had real class, with “High Noon” standing so far above the rest that it stayed in my mind as the Greatest of the genre. Westerns today are so rare that “News of the World” can be welcomed indeed. It may or may not have resonance with twelve-year-olds today, though there’s a good chance that one of the two principal actresses, Berlin-born is Helena Zengel, a 12-year-old playing a Johanna Leonberger, may connect with them. Kids today may marvel that she can speak English, German and Kiowa—that last word taken from an Indian tribe that originated in Western Montana and whose name means “principal people.”

We’ve come a long way from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and any of that genre that portrayed Indians as the bad guys, whooping it up on battle and taking white scalps to show their courage. In these older westerns the U.S. cavalry were the good guys who arrived in the nick of time to save a family, announcing their courageous entry with blasts of the bugle.

In this drama, Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in the year 1870 in northern Texas, now makes a living reading newspapers in towns where the people either had no newsstands and were probably illiterate. They were interested in news of their area, though later in the story they would find not only amusement but incitement when Captain Kidd, suddenly turning Marxist, reads to the people of Pennsylvania miners who fought back against their bosses, who were not particularly concerned about the yearly deaths of these employees.

The story turns on the relationship between the Captain and the blond child, the latter having lost her parents via an Indian raid, was adopted by the tribe where she learned the Kiowa language, and has only a rudimentary understanding of German. In fact when Kidd, who finds her and dedicates himself to taking her to her aunt and uncle (whom she hated), refuses to identify herself as Johanna, instead taking her Kiowa name, Cicada.

The road movie involves the growing bond between a man in his sixties and an anxious girl over three-score years his junior. As they ride toward the relatives, they run into problems. The first involves a trio of bad guys with rifles who try to buy the girl from the captain for fifty dollars, set on making money by pimping her out. When he refuses, they chase him. In the story’s best action sequence, the captain has to take out all three, which he does using advanced military strategy of its time—with the help of the girl who in a later action scene saves him again.

The movie has resonance today as the solitary captain, wandering from town to town to deliver the news, finds a tree where a Black man has been lynched, a note on the body inscribed “Texas says no. This is White man’s Country.” When the captain and his young charge ride through a no-man’s land, they find a town seemingly owned by Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who brags about how he lorded over the Indians, Mexicans, and Blacks. (Guess who would play Farley most realistically today!) Buffalo bodies are strewn across the land. (Remember them? There must be a few remaining).

Paul Greenglass, who directs and co-wrote, may be best known today for films of greater action such as “Jason Bourne” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” here settling down to concentrate on the bonding experience of man and girl. We all know that Tom Hanks can do no wrong, but we take surprise in the energy cast by young Zengel, who is both vulnerable and fierce, resisting the adult at first based on her memories of older people, and of course yielding to the love that she feels for her new adopted dad.

Here the actions scenes might be considered a temporary relief from the quiet seriousness, but both action and sentiment are conveyed with authenticity as is the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski in the proud blue state of New Mexico.

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

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

DAMSEL – movie reveiw


Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Screenwriter:  Nathan Zellner, David Zellnew
Cast:  Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Forster, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Joseph Biligiere
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/30/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Damsel Movie Poster
If you’re a big movie fan, you are likely to be disappointed by same ‘ol same ‘ol.  Revenge stories?  He done me wrong, I made him pay.  Romances? Boy chases girl, girl chase boy, marriage.  Old Westerns?  Cowboys surrounded by Indians, Cavalry comes to the rescue.  Children may like to hear the same story twenty times, but mature adults want change.  And “Damsel” is one picture that offers a change. Quite a change.  But being different, being a maverick film maker like the Zeller brothers, does not necessarily result in entertaining fare.  “Damsel” is an example of a tiresome look at a post-modern picture that may make you crave another look at “High Noon” and “Shane” and “Unforgiven.”

The Zellners’ “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunger” about a Japanese woman who thinks a VHS of “Fargo” is a treasure map leading to a pot of money, is as conventional as “Leave It To Beaver” by comparison with “Damsel.” A few scenes stand out, but then again even “Showgirls” is not a dud throughout its entire running time.

The prologue, for example, focuses on a dialogue, more like a monologue, between a young man and an older preacher, the latter played by the Robert Forster, one of the greats of the business but a performer who has always been seriously underutilized.  The old preacher has had it with trying to convert Indians to Christianity, but they “just ain’t interested,” and probably “there are enough Christians already.” The young fella takes on the identity of the preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner) and heads out to find love, his quest about to become less remote when he takes a job from Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattison), who pays him to perform a hoped-for wedding between him and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), a damsel he seeks to rescue from kidnappers.

As the two move westward, leading Butterscotch (Daisy) who is to be Samuel’s wedding gift to his bride, they run into odd characters, ultimately discovering that all their expectations—the parson’s for love, Samuels’ for marriage, and Penelope for happiness– are difficult to meet.

It’s too bad, because the convincing commentary up front from the old preacher, a downright high stepping hoedown between the characters you’ve come to expect from the old Westerns, just about the cutest pony you’re likely to see in other movies, and a look at a broken-down saloon managed by a hostile bartender with a foot-long beard, are not enough to take this parody into high ground.

The photography featuring the standard red rocks that announce The West (taken in the beginning in Utah’s Goblin Valley and later in parts of Oregon) and the music by The Octopus Project are spot-on.  But with a parson who is more irritating than anyone should have to take, a one-note performance by a pretty woman, and the images of a handsome, nattily dressed easterner on the way to rescue his damsel, do not serve to help the story at all.

Unrated.  113 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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



DAWSON CITY – movie review


Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Bill Morrison
Screenwriter: Bill Morrison
Cast: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula, Bill O’Farrell, Bill Morrison
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/30/17
Opens: June 9, 2017 at New York’s IFC Center

If you’re a film buff, you might be one of the relatively few people who saw “Decasia,” Bill Morrison’s meditation on humankind’s attempt to transcend physicality.  Eschewing a narrative connection, “Decasia” is a short, 70-minute movie of film reels now self-destructing, including some rare old shots of a whirling dervish, scenes of the sea, camels, factory workers, Ferris wheels and the like.  Now Morrison expands his view to issue a two-hour meditation on silent films based on a find that film buffs might equate with the discovery of Dead Sea scrolls, in at least as poor condition as some of the silent films on display. The films shown in Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time” are contemporary when compared with the Scrolls, as even the most ancient is just 120 years old.  No professional archeologist or film curator may have been on hand when a bulldozer in 1978 uncovered 533 nitrate film prints that date from 1897 through World War One.

“Dawson City” is all about the location of these lost films (75% of silent films are gone forever), with a great deal of shots of the Yukon Territory’s Dawson, which was settled in 1896 and is the locus of the Canadian Gold Rush.  Philosophers may find it sad that gold, a fairly useless metal, had such value that it drew prospectors by the hundreds to the area north by northwest of the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, but human beings follow the money, as they’re saying now on CNN.

Bookmarked by commentary, the major segment of the film draws upon the gold rush, featuring a bevy of still photographs and newsreel clips of the men who, with broad hats and bold mustaches left home to try their luck.  If you can somehow shut down Alex Somers’s intrusive music, which is not at all needed, you might find quite a few of these moving picture clips entertaining, perhaps even satisfied to find so many of them plagued with the sorts of defects that you’ll find in movie theaters when the projectors break down and the screen projects black holes, spots, and burned celluloid.

Because the films shown in Dawson City could be returned to the U.S. only by paying a large tariff, most were burned, easy to do since the nitrate stock is flammable; or dumped into the Yukon River by error or by inclination.  Despite their age, these pics are 35mm, some well preserved since they are sealed in the territory’s permafrost, while others are barely in shape even for the most dedicated fans of silent pictures.

Much of this overlong film is of the gold rush, becoming tedious despite the importance of its discovery, while the more involving ones deal with events surrounding World War One.  Particularly engrossing is the action taken against radicals, mostly union organizers for such organizations as the radical International Workers of the World, the most famous of the subversives being Emma Goldman who was deported to Russia along with some 270 acolytes.

A major flaw in Bill Morrison’s doc is the rapidity with which the films zoom past us, sometimes so quickly that we can barely see their titles.  Silents had their day from 1897 through 1929, and there’s virtually no market outside a special group of fans who tout Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s performances to try to get more folks involved in their cult.  You might see the relevance today of Mr. Chaplin’s role in “The Great Dictator” and while there may be no prospectors for the yellow metal in the U.S. or Canada nowadays, there are many other ways that ambitious folks can strike gold.

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

HOSTILES – movie review


Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Director:  Scott Cooper
Screenwriter:  Scott Cooper
Cast:  Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/7/17
Opens: December 22, 2017
Hostiles Movie Poster
It may still surprise some to hear that Columbus did not discover America; that Indians, or Native Americans, were here as far back as 20,000 years ago.  Even while acknowledging this truth, some may still say that the Europeans who made incursions into the U.S. were justified in committing genocide against the original inhabitants, because “the Indians are savages.”  Some add that the tribes did not live together in peace and harmony but made war against one another.  “They do not discriminate,” states Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), the principal Indian personality in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.”  He is alluding to the fact that the Comanche tribesmen and the Cheyennes had been enemies, out to kill as many of the others as they can.  As the story unfolds, Cooper will ultimately show that the whites did not live together peacefully either, but are just as adept at killing one another as any other race.

Cooper, whose “Black Mass” deals with Whitey Bulger, the most infamous violent criminal in South Boston history, deals with a criminal element in “Hostiles” as well, though the focus could conceivably be the massive criminality on the part of both an army platoon and their enemies.  If you like, you may call the actions of the Indians against white incursion the Resistance, though both sides could lay claim to that label—the soldiers resisting the presence in America of people from a different culture, the Native Americans fighting against those they consider invaders.

As you might expect, there are periods of drastic violence encouraged by pure hatred, as when in the earliest such action a group of Apaches raid the domicile of a white family, slaughtering all but the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who escapes by hiding.  Yet by 1892, the Indians have more or less been subjugated by the cavalry in Arizona territory.  As such, the army looks for a soldier to escort its prisoner, Chief Yellowhawk to his Montana digs. And who is chosen by the colonel to lead a team?  That would be Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who surprisingly is almost fluent in the Cheyenne dialect.  Though he is an educated fellow who reads “Julius Caesar” in the original Latin, he has no use for Yellowhawk.  The theme of the film becomes the way that through his meetings with the old and sick Indian, he becomes a mensch, understanding that there are two sides to every conflict.

Blocker’s trust in the Indians he is escorting through Comanche territory on the way to Montana is such that he ultimately unchains them, freeing them to fight alongside the army lest they die together.  As though the job were not complex enough, the army quartet, made up of the captain, a corporal, a sergeant and a private, pick up a criminal, Philip Wills (Ben Foster), dealing with him with such indifference to his humanity that Wills could be called part of the resistance as well.

The inevitable happens in the romance department.  Rosalie, who had lost her entire family to the Apaches, warms up to the captain.  They may or may not “get it on.”  A climactic scene involving white civilians who are themselves opposed to the actions of the army will conclude the physical action, while an epilogue, involving a train to Chicago, wraps up the story.

“Hostiles” has fast-moving action but these are few and far between.  Most of the movie involves phlegmatic talk by people who drone on whether in monotones or near-whispers.  Though many films can profit from a slow pace, the tempo frequently halts the momentum of a tale that is more about its varied cinematography than about compelling battles.  “Hostiles” was filmed in the West; in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

Rated R.  133 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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