PROMISE AT DAWN – movie review

PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema

La promesse de l'aube (2017)

In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.

And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.

You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”

The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.

During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.

I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.

In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.

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

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN BIGFOOT – movie revewi

From Montréal’s Fantasia International Film Festival 2018

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT

Epic Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Robert D. Krzykowski
Screenwriter:  Robert D. Krzykowski
Cast:  Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Ron Livingston, Ellar Coltraine
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Featuring a revisionist view of history, an element of horror, regret at a romantic opportunity not taken, Robert D. Krzkowski’s fantasy is mostly about the loneliness and melancholy of old age.  And who better to pay the part of a quiet man who rises several times to the occasion when only violence is justified than Sam Elliott?  As Calvin Barr, this New England resident lives a quiet life with his loyal Golden Retriever Ralph, and is a subject that is in the writer-director’s métier.  Though this is Krzykowki’s freshman feature-length movie, we can anticipate the subject matter by noting that his short “Elsie” in 2016 is located in the sleepy town of Campbell Falls, wherein one Ridley Hooper awakens to discover that he must rescue his little sister has been stolen by an army of creepy Shadowmen.

What emerges is a look at Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott), who has memories of his younger days, where he is played by Aidan Turner, a World War 2 hero and American soldier with a gift for languages who dons a Nazi officer’s uniform, worms his way into Hitler’s headquarters, and shoots him in the chest and in the head.  Of course we know that Der Fuehrer ended his own life by poison and a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after which his loyal followers destroyed his corpse in limestone.  Or do we?  According to Krzykowski, the assassination was covered up and it was really Hitler’s number two man who ended his life as the Russians moved in.

Using his signature gruff voice and monotone, Elliott appears with a thick head of white hair parted in the middle, his only roommate being Ralph the dog, and for our benefit, Calvin conjures up the past.  He is a resounding success as an espionage agent who infiltrates the Nazi war machine, observing two lines of prisoners bound to a train leading to a concentration camp.  Though he knows his killing of Hitler is both justified and essential, he has mixed feelings since, after all, he had taken a man’s life.

In a more pleasant setting, he dates Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), and is about to offer her a diamond ring in an upscale restaurant when the couple are harassed by the parents of one of Maxine’s third-grade students.  They profess their love for each other, but nothing has come of it, though events overtake the two leading to Calvin’s loneliness.  Now in 1985 the elderly gentleman is still able to fend off an attack by three thugs demanding his wallet and car keys.  Knowing Calvin’s reputation in the war and of the way he dispatched the muggers, two agents–one from the FBI, Flag Pin (Ron Livingston), the other, Maple Leaf (Rizwan Manji), from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, visit him in his cabin begging him to go to the Canadian wilds and destroy Bigfoot (Mark Streger), a monster who is spreading an epidemic that could lead to the end of the world.

Calvin is a man of few words and, in fact, he has not kept in communication with his younger brother Ed (Larry Miller), a small-town barber, who offers to give him solace if only he would use him to relieve the stress of Calvin’s loneliness.  Since the title of the film already gives away that Calvin kills both monsters, Hitler and Bigfoot, there is no surprise there.  Instead the real treat is in Sam Elliott’s performance, a delightfully underplayed execution that is threatened only by Joe Kraemer’s loud, intrusive music.  This is the kind of American myth which is however fantastical comes across as strangely believable.  And boy, do we need a myth to believe in now!

Unrated.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY – movie review

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ben Lewin
Screenwriter:  Robert Rodat
Cast:  Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/9/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
The Catcher Was A Spy - Movie Posters
I was about to say that there’s not a heck of a lot of major league baseball players who are Jewish but got straightened out by Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Jewish_Major_League_Baseball_players. Morris (Moe) Berg was not only one of them, though not much more than a mediocre catcher.  His forte was intellectual.  He graduated from Princeton and Columbia, knew 12 languages including Latin, Turkish, Japanese, Sanskrit and Hindi, and read 10 newspapers daily.  In other words he was a Renaissance man, ideally suited, our military believed, for acting out a project as a spy during World War 2 and an assassin.  In a best-selling book by Nicholas Dawidoff “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” the egghead-jock was known as the brainiest man who ever played for the Majors.  Ben Lewin, who adapts the book along with Robert Rodat give us nothing to doubt that assessment.

The biopic, which takes some liberties with truth, fashions Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) as a guy who was not being entirely self-deprecatory when he describes his baseball achievements without a shred of bravado when folks crowd around him and ask him to autograph a ball.  But ultimately he does such a fantastic job as a spy that he was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can get for contributing to the national interests of the United States.

But something is amiss in the film.  Somehow a picture about espionage—about a plan to assassinate a German nuclear scientist—comes across as not only old-fashioned (which Lewin may have intended) but as plain dull.  There are stereotypical scenes at night during rain and fog which makes the viewer think of the hoariest of clichés “It was a dark and stormy night.”  And while Rudd successfully passes himself off as an intellectual, in part by playing a chess game without a board and with the man he is expected to kill, he is too bland for the role and is better suited for films like “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Ant Man,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  He does have a woman friend, Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) who is itching to marry him and who participates in one sexual scene which, however innocent today, would never have been shown if the film were released in the 1940s.

Before the war began, Berg is touring Japan playing exhibition games with American baseball stars, but he shows his capacity for spying by filming military targets from the roof of a tall building.  While playing catcher for the White Sox, Red Sox, Indians and Senators he is thought to be “queer,” and in one instance he is followed down the street by a bully and comes off able to defend himself and then some.  When William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels), a high official in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), later to morph in the CIA, is considering sending Berg out on his assassination mission, the catcher is asked whether he is “queer” and answers “I can keep a secret”—the perfect reply in that his mission requires great secrecy.

The baseball scene is all too brief and so is the battle action. When Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giammatti), a physicist working for the U.S. in Italy, becomes trapped in a shootout with German occupiers, Goudsmit comes off as a fish out of water but acts the part in a clownish and embarrassing way.  Ultimately Berg is smuggled from Italy across the Swiss border to Zurich where he does meet the would-be victim, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). While we in the audience might be tempted to think “Shoot the guy and stop talking,” we may be missing the point.  Berg is using his intellect to ignore the order at least temporarily while he tries to calculate whether Heisenberg would defect to the Allied effort.  Germany did not develop nuclear weapons.

Though Berg would hang out in gay bars, there is little indication that he was homosexual, and in any rate, the suggestion as conjured by scripter Robert Rodat is superfluous, a possible invention that does a disservice to the hero.  Andrij Parekh filmed the action in Prague and Boston, taking full advantage of cloak and dagger proceedings on dark and foggy nights.  English is spoken throughout with an occasional injection of Italian and Japanese.

Rated R.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

AFTER AUSCHWITZ – movie review

AFTER AUSCHWITZ

Bala Cynwyd Productions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Kean
Screenwriter: Jon Kean
Cast: Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, Linda Sherman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/28/18
Opens: April 20, 2018

After Auschwitz Poster

Only those inmates who entered the Nazi concentration camps at a youthful age are still alive today. Very young boys and girls were generally gassed as useless to the German war machine. The six brave women who populate Jon Kean documentary were about 18-23 years old when they entered Auschwitz. Some died since the making of this film and, as they say, time is running out. We cannot learn first-hand about the experiences of survivors for much longer, though thanks to the magic of celluloid, their testimonies will be with us forever.

Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman were mostly from Eastern Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. One was from Holland. They discuss in part their experiences in 1945 after the British or the Russians liberated them, but most of the doc deals with their lives in the West, particularly the USA. Still it bears mentioning that the country that is supposed to be a haven for people who are yearning to breathe free was not too eager to issue visas given the anti-Semitism allegedly present in our own State Department.

The one theme that runs through the experiences of the six women is that after they were freed from the camps, they could not return to their homes in Eastern Europe. Their property had been taken over by the locals and in some cases fellow Czechs dragged survivors through the streets, blaming Jews for the black market and yelling that they will never again see their living quarters.

After a stay in Displaced Persons camps, many went on to New York and California, though the film is not clear how they dug up the money for flights, which were more expensive then than they are now. These women, bless them, might be able to sustain an 83 minute film by talking to the cameras, but thankfully archival clips take over about half of the running time, shifting back to the camps during the week of liberation where bodies, thousands of them, are piled up unburied. Destruction in Germany as we see here was so immense that Hitler’s order to destroy Berlin did not have to be carried out. That was presumably one command that the generals ignored from the madman.

The women traveled around by train, and terrific archival shots show people riding on the top and on the sides of the carriers as though hoboes during the Depression or perhaps the way some in India travel third-class or even lower.

All the new residents of the USA are pleased with the culture here, except for one who was urged to try Coca-Cola. She drank a glass, and that was the last time for her. Others went to the wider spaces of California. They married, had kids and grandkids. Some gave talks to classes in Hebrew school to youngsters kept in the dark by their parents, though despite the need the women have to teach others so that “it will happen never again,” they do not want to be obsessed with the bad times of the past. What shocks them most is that we haven’t learned. Just mention Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Armenia. And as nations fall to right wing authoritarians today, we are bound to be faced by similar tragedies—to say nothing of the possibility of the extinction of humanity in a nuclear war.

Jon Kean wrote and directs, a man whose “Swimming in Auschwitz” featured six women who kept their spirits and their faith alive during their months in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His “Kill the Man” describes the adventures of men who try to keep their company afloat while being stressed by the competition and by a visit from a thug.

Unrated. 83 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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