"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Never Look Away: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A flawed and uneven film that explores some fascinating themes and boasts solid yet understated acting. Due to its long running time (3 hours and 8 minutes) it isn’t good enough to see in the theatre but is worth checking out on Netflix/cable for free.

Run Time: 3 hours 8 minutes

German with English subtitles

Never Look Away, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is “inspired” by the life story of famed German painter Gerhard Richter, and follows his life from childhood under the Nazi regime to his adulthood under communism and recounts both his personal and artistic travails. The film stars Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert - the character loosely based on Richter, and boasts supporting turns from Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl and Sebastian Koch.

Never Look Away, nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the upcoming 91st Academy Awards, is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature film. Von Donnmersmarck’s first feature, The Lives of Others (2006), won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar in 2006. Never Look Away is a more vast and ambitious artistic undertaking than The Lives of Others, but it is nowhere near as good as that sublime study of Orwellian life and love under communist rule.

Never Look Away attempts to cover an expansive period of time, from the late 1930’s to the 1960’s, in a deeply personal and intimate way, this is no sweeping historical epic, but more an Artist’s Guide to Historical Totalitarianism.

The best part of the film is the opening act, that gives us a glimpse of the cold-hearted collective madness of Nazi Germany, where only the insane would tell the truth and where the truth was truly insane. In this section, the lead character Kurt, who at this point is a small child, finds his muse in his painfully beautiful and beautifully pained aunt Elisabeth May, played with exquisite aplomb by the beguiling Saskia Rosenthal.

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Elisabeth, like Kurt, is an artist at heart, and for her, life under the Nazis is a lie her spirit won’t allow her to tell. Her one split second interlude with Hitler causes such a psychological tsunami of archetypal energy that her psyche (and skull) is literally unable to contain it and she is obliterated by it. The physical, mental and emotional destruction left in the wake of the Nazi archetype and accompanying armageddon leaves Kurt with a unique view of the world and a distinct eye through which to observe it.

In Kurt’s art school years he finds another muse, Ellie, played by the luminous Paula Beer. While this section of the film is compelling, it is also where the film begins to occasionally fall into standard Hollywood plot territory, which is disappointing since it’s a German film.

As the film wears on it loses a great deal of momentum as the dramatic potential from the film’s beginning dissipates and never fully blossoms. Watching Kurt struggle with his artistic demons is in theory interesting but in practice less than enthralling and the film’s various sub-plots never gather enough steam to be dramatically worthwhile.

It is either a sign of von Donnersmarck’s great success or great failure that after watching the film for its staggering 188 minute run time (which for those not mathematically inclined translates into 3 hours and 8 minutes) I was left wanting…either more of the film or more from it.

While I found the plot and its surface twists and turns to be unsatisfying and at times frustratingly so, what kept me engaged were the compelling themes upon which von Donnersmarck meditates. Totalitarianism in all its gruesome faces plays a feature role in this film, and that beast’s corrosive effect on humanity in general, and artistry in particular, is front and center.

In a weird bit of synchronicity, as I sat in the theatre waiting for Never Look Away to begin I got an email from a reader who was commenting on an article I had written last year. The article was titled “Echoes of Totalitarianism in #MeToo and Russia-Gate”. I had no idea what Never Look Away was about when I read that email and subsequently re-read my piece…but after viewing the film the synchronicity became clear.

The thing that was so striking to me about that theme, in both the film, the email and my article, is that totalitarianism is now the ascendant, if not dominant, energy of our time, especially in art, or what passes for art in our hyper-capitalist society.

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As I have said previously, “wokeness kills art”, and the suffocating and stultifying conformity of our current culture and its ever present demand for political correctness, is remarkably similar in its totalitarian instincts to the insistence for Romantic Realism in Nazi Germany or Socialist Realism under Soviet communism and avant-gardism in the post-modern art world.

As Elisabeth tells young Kurt, “never look away because everything that is true holds beauty in it”. Truth is an enemy of totalitarianism and the totalitarian will gauge their eyes out in order to avoid looking directly at it. In totalitarian cultures, artistic quality is eclipsed by adherence to political orthodoxy. The artist’s political ideology must be impeccable and if it isn’t impeccable and deviates in any way from political orthodoxy, that artist and his/her work will be disappeared regardless of its quality and worth.

The current wave of political correctness with its accompanying cries for “diversity and inclusion” is just another form of the totalitarian impulse, no different in its intent to banish the idea of an artistic meritocracy or to stifle dissent than Nazism or Soviet communism, although it is hopefully much less blood thirsty.

True artists, not the corporate whores in Hollywood, have a fundamental, if not biological, need to see, know and tell the truth. Totalitarians, whether they be in Berlin, Moscow, Washington or Hollywood, in turn love lies and loathe the truth. Thus the true artist in a totalitarian system is a most dangerous person. This is why the frantic need to silence artistic dissenters or disappear heretics who have sinned against the prevailing orthodoxy of political correctness/diversity/inclusion has spread like a wildfire and is now an inferno engulfing our popular culture. Look no further than Liam Neeson’s recent demise at the hands of the mob or the painfully middling Black Panther’s ascension to an Oscar nomination for proof that truth has no place in our current culture.

In Never Look Away, Ellie’s professor father Carl, played with German precision by Sebastian Koch, is symbolic of the totalitarian instinct, in that no matter what ideology under which he lives, he thrives through a combination of aggressively unthinking and unfeeling conformity and a startling level of righteousness. Carl is the totalitarian leopard who may change trees but never changes his spots. Like Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, Carl is interested in getting to the moon, or at least his own version of it, and will shut off whatever part of his brain or heart is needed, and will play whatever role is demanded, in whatever totalitarian political play going on around him, in order to make that happen.

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As Never Look Away shows us, the lies of the totalitarian will collapse under the enormity of their own blatantly obvious and clearly observable falsity. One can only hope that the Trumpian totalitarians and their equally totalitarian counterparts on the “social justice left” and in corporate America, will suffer the same fate as the Nazis and Soviets and be left on the ash heap of history. At the moment I must admit…my confidence is at an all-time low.

Another theme in the film that was intriguing although never fully fleshed out, was the pseudo-mystical idea of all things being connected. Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth cracks the code of the world playing a single piano note and finds connection in the in-between place of blaring bus horns. Kurt experiences the same feeling high atop a tree as the German countryside reveals itself to him in all its glory. Those fleeting moments of transcendence are the fuel that propel Kurt to his ultimate destiny and ultimately reveal not just his truth, but THE Truth.

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It is this odd concoction of both mystical yearning and political warning that I found so compelling in Never Look Away. Von Donnersmarck shows an artistic daring rarely seen in American films when he explores these themes so unabashedly, in the process even touching upon explosive issues like abortion in less than flattering ways. In this sense, Never Look Away is a form of artistic courage and truth-telling in and of itself and the movie and its themes have stayed with me since I left theater.

That said, the film also is cinematically flawed. As stated, it loses momentum about halfway through its very long run time, and also loses dramatic intensity as well. The film also has some perspective issues that it never fully resolves. The movie is also burdened by a distractingly cloying soundtrack that was much too conventional for my tastes and to me revealed a lack of confidence on the part of the writer/director.

Never Look Away’s cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a long time veteran of the industry, is nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film. I actually felt the cinematography was, a few nicely framed shots aside, rather mundane and not worthy of a nomination. Deschanel’s work isn’t bad, it just isn’t noteworthy, and I can think of numerous other films that were more deserving of a nomination (like You Were Never Really Here, Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk or First Man among others).

The performances were strong across the board. Tom Schilling, who plays Kurt, has a lot of heavy lifting to do in this film and none of it is flashy. Schilling is able to carry the weight of this movie without ever making it all about him, and that is a pretty rare skill for an actor. While Schilling has no explosive scenes upon which to hang his hat, his deft and subtle work is entirely in the service of the script and the character.

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Sebastian Koch also gives a very focused and refined performance as Professor Seeband. Koch has one scene that I won’t give away, that is so critical for the film and he absolutely nails it. While Koch’s work in that scene is extremely detailed and specific, it is all of the precise work he did leading up to that made it all worthwhile.

Paula Beer does impressive work as Ellie, never failing to be magnetic on screen. Beer and Schilling’s chemistry makes this long movie very compelling to watch even when it dramatically falters.

Saskia Rosendahl is absolutely fantastic as Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth, as she never falls into the trap of caricature. Rosendahl imbues Elisabeth with a palpable energy and intentionality that jump off the screen. Elisabeth goes through a series of twists and turns and Rosendahl imbues her with a combustibility and fragility that never fails to be genuine and vibrant.

In conclusion, Never Look Away is a good, but not great film. The more I think of the film the more I think the story would be better served as a miniseries on Netflix rather than as a three hour feature film. Even the long run time does not allow the entirety of the story to be told with adequate depth and nuance. That said, the film is propelled by interesting themes that have kept me thinking since I left the theatre and solid performances that kept me engaged. As the movie teaches us, totalitarianism is on the rise and it is more imperative than ever that we never look away from that truth.

It is for this reason that I think Never Look Away is ultimately worth seeing for the truths it reveals about its world and our current one too. Due to the long run time I recommend you watch it at your leisure at home on Netflix or cable when the opportunity arises…that way you can “look away” by having some bathroom breaks and intermissions when you like and not actually miss anything, or you can stretch the film out over multiple nights, a sort of do-it-yourself mini-series. Never looking away is vitally important nowadays and is a hard discipline to master, and a good place to start your training in that practice would be with Never Look Away.

©201

Destroyer: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!***

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A rather derivative film and a missed opportunity from Nicole Kidman who doesn’t rise to the challenge of playing the archetypal anti-hero.

Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, is the story of LAPD detective Erin Bell who is haunted by an undercover assignment that went wrong years ago and 17 years later is rearing its ugly head. The film stars Nicole Kidman as Bell with supporting turns from Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford.

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While Destroyer spends its time in the all too familiar crime ridden gutters of Los Angeles, the film has much loftier artistic ambitions. Marketed as a gritty character study that highlights Nicole Kidman’s acting chops, Destroyer is hoping to reinvent the the old anti-hero cop drama with a female lead. While all the pieces are in place for this to take place, they never coalesce, and Destroyer ends up being a painfully derivative, dramatically impotent art house wannabe.

The main reason that Destroyer fails to engage is Nicole Kidman. I like and respect Ms. Kidman as an actress, and greatly admire her more daring choices in the second half of her career. Kidman can act, of that there is no doubt, but sometimes a good actor is just so ill-suited for a role that no matter what they do it doesn’t click. Such is the case with Kidman as world weary detective Erin Bell.

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Kidman is a beautiful women, but that beauty can be a curse at times, and Destroyer is one of those times. Kidman is uglied up for the role, given an atrocious haircut, deep and dark bags under her eyes, dirtied teeth…the works. But in the film’s incessant close ups of Ms. Kidman, and boy are there a multitude of incessant close ups, she doesn’t look ugly, she looks like Nicole Kidman trying to look ugly.

The two biggest issues with Ms. Kidman’s performance are her physicality and her voice. The key to the film is that Kidman must be believable as this grizzled and street smart detective, but she never pulls it off because she lacks the necessary physical gravitas. Kidman doesn’t significantly alter her posture or gait, and with her more delicate physical features like her thin legs and arms and impeccable bone structure, she comes across as very wispy and slight.

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Kidman makes the mistake of walking with her feet too close together and with no slouch from the heavy symbolic cross she must carry. She is erect and elegant even as she is supposed to be drunk and slovenly. Finding the right physicality is crucial for a role like this and should start with becoming more grounded and centering her gravity in her chest. Kidman’s center is her heavily made up face, and this creates the impression of her being airy, flighty, weak and inconsequential. Kidman’s voice is equally poorly positioned as it is centered too high in her head/throat and not in her gut. This takes away all of the power from her voice, her body and thus the character.

With her physicality and voice not in sync with the role, the internal emotional life of the character, no matter how dynamic Kidman tries to make it, comes across as hollow and vacant. Kidman certainly pushes for moments of emotional combustibility but when they arrive they are limp and flaccid due to a lack of a powerful and grounded physical foundation.

I greatly admire Kidman’s tackling a role so out of her comfort zone, but sadly she simply doesn’t pull it off and since she is the core of the film, the entire enterprise is scuttled because of her failure.

As for the rest of the film, director Karyn Kusama doesn’t do much more than try and make a female centered lone wolf cop story. Sort of Dirty Harry meets Bad Lieutentent meets Nicole Kidman, which in theory is interesting, but in practice is mired in its own maze of cliche and illogic. There is even a minor homage (or brazen theft) to Bad Lieutenant, a vastly superior film, that involves following a baseball game on the radio. Baseball is a mini-sub-text that could have blossomed into something interesting or profound, but it ends up being something that just comes and goes and like the rest of the film, doesn’t mean much.

Visually the film lacks a distinct aesthetic and therefore feels decidedly flat. While the settings in Los Angeles were mildly interesting to me because I know them so well, they aren’t photographed particularly well or in an intriguing manner so everything is washed out and cinematically lackluster.

That said, the best part of the film was the end, not in terms of the narrative but in terms of the filmmaking. In the final sequences it seems that director Kusama and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood finally find a style and aesthetic worth watching, sort of a poor man’s ( or as the case may be…woman’s) Malick, but by then it is far, far too late to save the movie.

The movie is not aided by the script, which is an amalgam of every gruff and gritty cop story ever told. The cliched dialogue is cringe worthy at times and feels as though it would be better suited as a parody of anti-hero cop movies or something laughed out of the writer’s room of Baretta.

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The cast is pretty underwhelming across the board as well. Toby Kebbell is an actor I really like, but his pseudo-guru, Manson-esque Silas is not given enough time to develop into anything more than caricature. The same is true of the dirty lawyer played by Bradley Whitford, who is remarkably one-note. Sebastian Stan is an interesting actor but he is decidedly underused and his character undeveloped.

In conclusion, I really wanted to like Destroyer and I really wanted Nicole Kidman to be great in it…but neither of those things happened. I give Destroyer an “A” for artistic ambition and a “D +” for execution. I cannot recommend you see this film in the theatre as I found it to be totally forgettable, but if you stumble on it on Netflix or cable feel free to check it out. Destroyer destroyed my cinematic hopes for it, but maybe it’ll fare better with you than it did with me.

©2019

Cold War: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.5 our of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A fantastic foreign film that is both personal, political and philosophical that boasts tremendous performances from both of its leads.

Cold War, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is a Polish drama set during the Cold War that tells the story of the love between a young singer Zula, and the musical director who discovers her, Wiktor. The film stars Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor.

Just when I thought 2018 was to be officially designated as cinematically irredeemable, a bunch of foreign films have appeared late in the year that have been a lifeline to artistic redemption. Four of the best movies this year are foreign films I’ve seen in the last month, Shoplifters (Japan), Roma (Mexico), Happy as Lazzaro (Italy) and now Cold War (Poland).

Of course, context is everything and a less gracious interpretation of my adoration of these four foreign films could be that their artistic success is a result of their being in such stark and glaring contrast to the cinematically vapid garbage vomited upon the movie-going public by Hollywood this year. Regardless of why foreign films are so good this year and Hollywood films so bad…the fact remains that it is decidedly so and I will simply enjoy quality cinema without compromise where I can find it.

Which brings us to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Cold War is a beautiful and brilliant film that is both personal and political, poignant and prophetic. Shot in a stunning black and white that highlights a bleak but bold aesthetic, Cold War is both visually striking and dramatically potent.

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Pawlikowski, who also directed the Academy Award Best Foreign Picture winner Ida (2014), deftly crafts a lean film that is able to thoroughly tell the story of Zula and Wiktor amidst the wider Cold War that comes in under 90 minutes. Pawlikowski trims all the fat from the narrative and we are left with a strikingly effective and deeply insightful film that flows seamlessly through decades of personal and political history without skipping a beat.

Cinematographer Lukasz Zal masterfully uses the stark black and white to enhance the sub-text and narrative by deftly painting with shadow and light. Zal’s framing is impeccable, as evidenced by his very subtle but extremely effective and polished use of mirrors throughout the film to highlight the difficulty in discerning what is real and what is illusion. There is a shot of an after-concert party with a mirror for a wall that is so ingenious, precise and finely detailed I nearly fell out of my seat.

Pawlikowski and Zal never hit you over the head with their artistic virtuosity, as it is so understated as to be sublime, and creates an exquisite cinematic experience that is not only gorgeous to behold but extremely useful in propelling the narrative.

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Joanna Kulig gives a transcendent and mesmerizing performance as the singer Zula. Kulig is a luminous talent and she is blessed with a vivacious, vibrant and voluminous magnetism that is unrelentingly irresistable. Ms. Kulig’s Zula is a wild animal from the hinterlands of Poland and she is as palpably dangerous, untamable and uncontainable as she is volcanically compelling, charismatic and complicated. Zula is a singer of traditional Polish folk songs and jazz, but she has a rock and roll soul as evidenced by her ecstatic and deliriously contagious reaction upon hearing Bill Haley and the Comets in one electric scene.

Ms. Kulig is like a Polish Jennifer Lawrence, stunningly beautiful with a relatable groundedness and charming fearlessness. Simply said, viewers, much like the character Wiktor, are unable to take their eyes off of Zula whenever she is on screen.

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Tomasz Kot is equally effective as Wiktor but in much less dynamic ways than Ms. Kulig. Mr. Kot’s Wiktor is much more intellectual than the visceral Zula, but once she awakens the primal nature within him there is no putting it back to sleep. Wiktor is at first a rational man who is securely contained in a distant coolness, but as the film progresses and he gets ever closer to the inferno that is Zula, the ice melts and with it goes Wiktor’s rationalism.

What is fascinating in Cold War, is that the love story of Zula and Wiktor is such fertile ground for very profound political, social and philosophical symbolism. Zula is not just a firebrand from the back woods of Poland, she IS the Polish anima. While she may be swayed from one camp to another, be it the lure of western decadence or the security of Soviet protection, she is ultimately true only to the “folk” of Poland. In this way, Cold War is a meditation on the nationalism that is currently spreading across the globe in general and Europe in particular. Throughout history, Poland may fall under the rule of the Soviets or the West or some other power, but it will never fall under their spell. As Zula and Wiktor show us, Poland is for the Poles, and only Poles can truly understand it…which is true no matter what nation you plug into that statement.

Both Wiktor and Zula find “freedom”, at least as freedom is defined by western capitalism, but they don’t experience it as freedom at all but rather as decadence that is corrosive to their hearts and souls. The “easy living” of the west is a fool’s gold and Zula and Wiktor would rather be prisoners to political oppression in the east than slaves to their own desires in the “free” west. Zula and Wiktor learn that the “lie” of Soviet communism is dreadful, but the even bigger lie of the capitalist west is even more destructive to them.

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Zula struggles to survive no matter where they go in Europe because at heart, she is the Polish countryside, and it is only there where she can find transformation and transcedence, and only with Wiktor. Early in the film Wiktor stumbles upon the ruins of a church and discovers giant female eyes painted on the wall that look right through him and watch him wherever he goes. Wiktor then looks up and sees a large round opening where the church roof used to be that reveals the sky. This circle, a symbol of wholeness, is the key to the film, as it reveals that both Wiktor and Zula, must go on their grueling journey of heart and soul in order to complete that circle and be transformed. The circle is atop a Catholic Church because the Catholic Church is the container for the spirit of the Polish people and the Polish anima - Zula. The Catholic archetypes are the ones that resonate in Poland, and Wiktor and Zula need to transcend the limitations of not only the Cold War powers that govern them, but also the religion trying to contain them. Their love is a love of wholeness that is as boundless as the heavens that dance above that whole in the church’s circular roof, but they can only attain it by going through the archetypes of the church.

In conclusion, Cold War is a stunning film about love, loss, identity and artistry that is dramatically powerful and politically poignant. Visually stunning and propelled by glorious performances from its two leads Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War is a must see for any cinephile. More conventionally inclined viewers may struggle with the film as, like most foreign films, it is rather existential in nature and is less rudimentary in its storytelling. That said, if you love movies or have a cinematically adventurous heart and open mind, then you should definitely see Cold War.

©2019

Happy as Lazzaro: A Review

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****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An insightful Italian fable that eloquently and poignantly speaks to our modern world and our fallen nature. Be forewarned, it is a foreign film, so those with more conventional tastes may find it a bit odd…but it really is worth giving a try if you can.

Happy as Lazzaro, an Italian drama written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is the story of a good-hearted simpleton, Lazzaro, who lives and works in a farming community in Italy that gets turned upside down as the modern world encroaches upon the isolated village. The film stars Adriano Tordiolo as Lazzaro, with supporting turns from Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi Lopez and Alba Rohrwacher.

Happy as Lazzaro is a fable that insightfully exposes the “progress” of 21st century capitalism that has crushed most under its heel and has broken the spirit and stolen the souls of all those fall under its spell.

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Lazzaro is exquisitely portrayed by Adriano Tordiolo who imbues the character with a genuine humanity that is impeccably good-hearted without ever being cloying or gratuitous. Tordiolo gives Lazzarro a distinct physicality, his arms hanging straight down by his sides, his posture erect, his heart exposed. Like a rural Italian Chauncey Gardner, Tordiolo’s doe eyed Lazzaro is immune from cynicism and illuminated by an eternal optimism.

Lazzareo is at once a holy fool, a saint and a martyr. He is the memory of innocence and the hope of salvation. His entry into the modern world is reminiscent of the scene from The Brothers Karamozov where Christ meets The Grand Inquisitor, echoes of which are seen when Lazzaro is thrown out of a Catholic church and the sacred music follows him. Lazzaro, like Christ, is a shepherd who is unwanted in our cruel and dehumanized world.

Writer/director Rohrwacher deftly tells this gem of a story and allows the narrative to unfold at a leisurely but effective pace. Rohrwacher exquisitely creates Lazzaro’s idyllic world, and then masterfully pulls the rug out from underneath it and the viewer.

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In the latter portion of the film, Rohrwacher expertly uses tempeture, both climate and color, to indicate how Lazzaro’s world has changed, from the warmth of the old village to the foreboding bleakness of the modern city.

Lazzaro’s village, Inviolata, is a symbol of both innocence and a quaint version of shared feudal exploitation. The simplicity of the earlier part of the film is then overtaken by the dark inevitability in the latter part of the movie. Everyone from Inviolata is violated and learns from this violation to spend their time out of that Garden of Eden violating others. Rorhwacher shows that the old ways of exploitation in the village have metastasized and are now global in scale, but the modern world is actually much worse because its exploitation strips the comfort, security and solace of community away from people. The modern world turns everyone into a hustler and grifter, afflicted with a narcissistic myopia focused solely on their own survival at the expense of others.

As the film teaches us, capitalism is exploitation upon exploitation, a cancer of competition where everybody is exploiting somebody…the lone exception being Lazzaro who only gets exploited but never exploits, for he is in this world but not of it. Only saints like Lazzaro can keep their integrity and humanity in tact under capitalism, but integrity and humanity is no protection from the corrupting beast of the free market or the wolf of mankind’s darker nature.

Lazzaro stands guard against the wolf, he communicates with the wolf, he knows the wolf and the wolf knows him. Lazzaro is not afraid, he is immune to fear, which is epidemic in capitalism and is also its fuel…fear of lack, fear of other, fear of self…keep us all on in a state of pain and capitalism sells us the snake oil to soothe our discomfort. Lazzaro is devoid of all of these fears and, even though he is a tireless and selfless worker, is an existential threat to capitalism.

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Lazzaro is a saint, literally the last good man, an innocent whose soul and spirit is pure even though he has been exploited many times over. In the modern capitalist world all things are violated and violate…the church, government, business, people. It is no coincidence the climactic scene of the film takes place in a bank and shows that the spiritual corrosive of capitalism turns everyone into wolves…hungry and insatiable and afraid…always on the hunt for the weaker, needing to exploit…in the end, the actual wolf is replaced by us.

In conclusion, I was deeply moved by Happy as Lazzaro as it is a powerful fable that insightfully speaks to our current spiritual void and how capitalism feeds our darkest impulses. Lazzaro is like a character from a dream who comes to remind us who we really are but have long forgotten, it will do you good to spend two hours with Lazzaro trying to remember. Happy as Lazzaro is currently on Netflix and I whole-heartedly encourage you to watch it.

©2018

Roma: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A directorial tour de force and utter masterpiece from Alfonso Cuaron.

Roma, written, directed, shot and edited by Alfonso Cuaron, is the story of Cleo, an indigenous young woman who works as a live-in maid for a middle-class Mexican family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood in the 1970’s. The film stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in her first acting role.

2018 has not been a good year for movies, and as the final days of the year quickly fall away the chances of a cinematic redemption have grown ever more bleak. But sometimes a Christmas miracle occurs and a movie comes along that reminds us why God invented cinema in the first place…Roma is that movie. Simply said, Roma is a stunningly beautiful, staggeringly well-crafted masterpiece.

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Director Alfonso Cuaron has made some very good movies in his time, the most notable of which were Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Gravity (2013), for which he won the Best Director Oscar. My personal favorite of Cuaron’s movies is the under appreciated Children of Men (2006), which I thought was magnificent but was maybe a little too dark and too existential for audiences and Oscar voters to embrace. Cuaron’s filmography is a testament to his storytelling ability and his dedication to craft, which brings us to Roma…and in the case of Alfonso Cuaron, all roads lead to Roma.

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Auteur Cuaron puts on a remarkable directorial and cinematographic tour de force with Roma. Cuaron’s direction is intimate, intricate and impeccable and creates an immersive cinematic experience that is so sublime as to be hypnotic. Cuaron’s artistic visual prowess is on full display from the very first shot of the film, which is cinematically glorious in every way, and only grows from there.

Cuaron shoots the entire movie in black and white and intermittently uses a slowly panning camera which at times goes a full 360 degrees, to masterfully tell the story of Roma with moving pictures instead of words. Cuaron’s camera movement, framing, choreography and blocking are absolutely exquisite, and are the work of a true master. In fact, you could watch Roma with the subtitles off, and if you don’t speak Spanish or Mixtec you would still have an equally profound cinematic experience. There are so many visual sequences in Roma that are so breathtaking, and dramatic scenes so gut-wrenching, that viewers are left in a cinematic stupor when it is all over.

Cuaron’s use of black and white and his complete mastery of craft are reminiscent of another great auteur’s seminal work, Martin Scorsese and his 1980 classic Raging Bull. While the story’s of Raging Bull and Roma are very different, the artistry and craftsmanship that brought them to life and propelled their narratives are very similar.

Roma is a perfect stylistic combination of realism and formalism, where the viewer is shown a realistic slice of life in Mexico City in 1970 but one that is littered with mythic and political symbolism. Everything in Roma is intentional and deliberate, filled with deeper meaning and symbolic significance.

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Water opens the film and plays a vital symbolic role throughout, signifying transitions and/or baptisms and rebirths. The symbolism of dogs (and their shit) rears its head…literally…and carries with it the symbolism of status and social hierarchy throughout the film. Planes, (symbolic of higher planes of spiritual existence), containers such as eggs and cups (symbolic of the womb-the container of the life force) along with natural disasters (symbolic of God/Fate/Destiny) and social unrest (symbolic of the political as the personal) are all used throughout the movie to great affect. These rich symbols are hiding in plain sight in Roma, but their deeper mythic and archetypal meaning is pulsating just beneath the mask of Mexico City’s middle-class mundanity.

Roma is the story of one drop of water lost in the meaningful, yet mystical and mysterious, Sea of Life. It is a detailed glimpse of the specifics of one woman’s life, where tedious work is transformed into transcendent ritual and the minute and mundane into spiritual magnificence.

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Roma’s politics are both personal and profound, as class and social hierarchy are at the fore of the story, and speak to the scourge of income inequality and the enormous disparity of wealth across the globe and the angry populists sentiments rising in reaction to it. The reason viewers so quickly project themselves onto Cleo is because so many of us are in her shoes in one way or another, under the boot of someone higher up the social/economic class totem pole. Cleo is all of us, exploited and degraded by those who consider themselves our superiors and who look down upon us from tony, Ivy League, Washington, Wall Street, Media, Hollywood perches. Cleo’s struggles are our struggles, in one form or another, and as elites across the globe have been slow to discover, that struggle is quickly becoming conscious and growing very sharp and lethal teeth.

Cuaron’s skillful direction is not limited to just his camera work, as he coaxes an astounding performance from first time actress Yolitza Aparicio. Ms. Aparicio is staggeringly good as Cleo, creating a grounded and genuine character that is part sherpa and part lama, whom the audience is instantly drawn to and sympathetic towards. Aparicio is so comfortable on camera that it appears she isn’t acting at all, and while this may be a case of a person just being perfect for a specific role, that does not diminish her incredible work in Roma. There are so many scenes where Ms. Aparicio has to do so much in regards to blocking and specific “business” and has to do them all with perfect timing and in synchronicity with very detailed camera moves, that it is just remarkable she is able to pull it off. I can tell you with first hand, recent experience with some famous actors, that Ms. Apricio’s skill in regards to doing this is very, very uncommon, and extremely beneficial to a director. Ms. Aparicio isn’t painting by numbers as Cleo either, she brings a potent and palpable emotional vitality to the role that is so compelling it drives the entire film.

In conclusion, Roma is a monumental and magnificent masterpiece that is a film for our times and of our times. It is one of those films that restores my faith in the art form and reminds me of why cinema exists in the first place and why I love it so much. I am hesitant to write too much about the film because I don’t want to spoil it, but just know this…I cannot encourage you strongly enough to go see Roma. If you can see it in the theatre, do so to swim in the lush and immaculate waters of Cuaron’s cinematography on the big screen, but if not, watch it on Netflix (it is available now). I don’t care where you see it, just see it, and bask in the glow of Alfonso Cuaron’s talent and skill, because with Roma, he is currently at the height of his glorious cinematic powers.

©2018

If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A Beautiful mess of a movie that is gorgeous to look at but story wise is derivative and dull, making it difficult to sit through.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is an adaptation of the James Baldwin story of the same name that follows the travails of two African-Americans, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the perils of young love in a racist New York City of the 1970’s. The film stars Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephon James as Fonny with supporting turns from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry .

If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkin’s much anticipated follow up to his 2016 Best Picture winning Moonlight, is another in a long line of disappointments on the very bumpy ride of cinema in 2018.

Based on the James Baldwin story of the same name (which I have not read), If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful mess of a movie. It is at once visually stunning yet also narratively pedestrian and culturally juvenile.

Let’s start with the good news. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers an impeccably lush and cinematically vibrant aesthetic to the film. Laxton’s camera engages in an exquisite dance with his subjects while painting the world of the film with a delicate and ethereal palate that is not only gorgeous to behold but narratively profound. Laxton’s work on Moonlight was equally sublime and dramatically insightful, and with If Beale Street Could Talk, Laxton has shown himself to be not only a master craftsman but a powerful artist.

Sadly, Barry Jenkins script never lives up to Laxton’s stirring cinematography. Jenkins inability to write efficient and effective dialogue and build a coherent and compelling narrative make If Beale Street Could Talk a frustratingly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying film to watch.

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When Jenkins (and Laxton) flashes back and focuses on the blossoming first love of Tish and Fonny, the film crackles with life. The chemistry between actors Kiki Layne (Tish) and Stephon James (Fonny) in these flashback scenes is palpable, and Laxton superbly bathes them in gorgeous light, shadow and color as he lets the viewer see the characters as they see each other, through the prism of unabashed love.

It is when the film shifts to the present moment and its drama of “legal peril”, which is decidedly stale and stultifying with cringe worthy dialogue to match, when the wheels come of the cinematic wagon. An example of which is that there is a scene between Tish and Fonny’s families that is so poorly written, poorly directed and poorly acted that it was like watching kids put on a play…a very bad play…in their basement.

The “legal peril” storyline is so trite, hackneyed and derivative it seems like it was lifted from an episode of Law and Order or some equally awful television show. Anytime the focus of the film shifts to the legal story and its adjacent narratives, it serves as little more than an irritating distraction.

The film is equally abysmal when it tries to convey a political or socially conscious message. When Jenkins tries to use the movie as a statement on race in America, it reveals itself to be, at best, painfully adolescent in its cosmology.

Ironically, in its social themes, If Beale Street Could Talk is as much an unnuanced distorted Black view of America as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is a unnuanced distorted view of America through the White perspective. Both film’s are little more than wish fulfillment and fantasies driven by archetypes deeply embedded in the American psyche. In the case of Dirty Harry, it is the archetypal Righteous Gun Slinging Vigilante, who is part of the system but operates outside of it to protect Whites from those lawless “others”, most notably Blacks (think of the “you feel lucky” scene, where Dirty Harry points his .44 Magnum in the face of a “Black criminal”).


In If Beale Street Could Talk, the thematic archetype is one of the Righteous Victim (think of Fonny as the young Black criminal with Dirty Harry’s .44 in his face), who is oppressed by the system and must operate outside of it in order to survive it. In this way, If Beale Street Could Talk is social justice/victimhood porn and propaganda, which on its surface claims to be about speaking the truth of the Black perspective in America, but in reality is about reinforcing and strengthening the victim archetype and narrative.

What is striking to me about this aspect of the film, is that it also reinforces the racist tropes that fueled the Dirty Harry era to begin with and which eventually led to Clinton’s infamous crime bill in the 90’s which further criminalized Black men. For instance, the lead character Fonny which, along with Tish, is whom the viewer is supposed to identify with, and yet when we first learn about Fonny, he commits a crime, theft. Fonny’s lawlessness is not even given a second thought, but in the narrative structure of the film it subconsciously undermines the audiences connection to him to a devastating degree. This is not some personal revelation from me, this is just Cinema 101: Basic Storytelling and Character Development.

The same is true of the other Black men in the movie, all of whom are equally lawless and all of whom commit crimes. Fonny’s father steals from the docks, and his pseudo father in law not only steals but beats the hell out of his wife…and yet these men are supposed to represent “regular Black men”.

Add to that Fonny’s friend Daniel who is fresh out of prison, and just like Fonny claims he is entirely innocent of the charges against him. Apparently Fonny and Daniel are the two guys who really didn’t do it…even though we’ve already seen Fonny commit a crime and Daniel’s sketchy reputation precedes him.

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While all of the Black men in the film are criminals, none of them take responsibility for their criminality. The crimes they commit are all the fault of the system that is screwing them, thus demeaning these men even further as they are deprived of any and all agency. This is the Victim archetype in full bloom, where no matter what the character does it is never their fault. This is an extremely unsatisfying quality in a cinematic Hero, as it simply castrates the Hero and asks the audience to pity them rather than relate or project on to them. It also does not allow for any catharsis on the part of the character, and that in turn doesn’t allow for any catharsis on the part of the viewer, which results in a psychologically frustrating movie-going experience.

Consider other Hero stories where the Hero is brought down by a corrupt system…movies like Braveheart, where William Wallace ultimately loses, but he goes down swinging, screaming “Freedom” at the top of his lungs as he is torn to shreds. Or think of a parallel for the Fonny character to maybe the best known Hero story of them all…Jesus Christ. Jesus is persecuted, just like Fonny, but the key to the Jesus story is that he has agency and chooses to be crucified….thus becoming Christ. Jesus is the empowered form of the Victim archetype…which is the martyr, who is victim by choice. The choice here is the important thing as it means the Hero may suffer a terrible defeat but he still maintains his agency. In contrast, the perpetually disempowered Fonny is just laundry being tossed and turned in a washing machine, who never chooses but always loses.

In terms of the criminality of the characters in the film, there are other contrasting examples, think of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The mobsters in those movies do awful things to people and yet audiences relate to them and embrace them as “Heroes” of the story, why is that? The reason for that is because those characters, from Michael Corleone to Henry Hill, embrace their criminality. They maintain their agency and don’t claim to be victims of the system, instead they are gaming the system.

These details in the DNA of If Beale Street Could Talk may seem minute to the less sophisticated viewer, but it is these specific elements that can make or break a film and its narrative in the unconscious of the audience. In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, these subtle archetypal issues deter viewers from fully accepting and embracing the characters, story and film.

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It isn’t just the Black men who fair poorly in If Beale Street Could Talk, as White men are portrayed as truly devils in this movie. White men are sexual predators (again, the inverse of the Dirty Harry movie where Black men are predators) and are inherently evil, from a lecherous perfume shopper to a cop who is so consumed with racial hatred he comes across as more than a little insane. For the White characters in this movie, just like Black characters in Dirty Harry, they are entirely devoid of nuance and are absurd caricatures. Even White characters we never see are predators, as there is one who impregnates a poor Latina women and then leaves her with nothing, and then maybe even returns to rape her.

It is for these reasons that If Beale Street Could Talk is just as insidious and insipid as the blatantly racist Dirty Harry movies.

As for the acting, Stephon James and Kiki Layne are glorious in their falling in love sequences. Laxton’s camera holds on their loving gazes for extended periods and their love for one another is tangible in these shots. But when they are asked to do more than just look longingly and lovingly at one another, the two stars lose much of their power.

James is a charismatic screen presence, but he seems rather limited when it comes to the more static shots. James is unable to compress his magnetism and dynamism when he is contained in such a confining space and he loses his power because of it.

Kiki Layne is quite engaging during the dreamy love sequences as well, but she too falls well short when things get much more complicated. Layne’s strong suit is her ability to seem to be overcome by her wonder for the world, but when the world stops being wondrous, she stops being interesting and starts being wooden.

Regina King does solid work as Tish’s mom, but she is hamstrung by being stuck in the intolerably mundane legal drama portion of the story, and while she is a compelling actress, none of her scenes are particularly noteworthy.

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If Beale Street Could Talk, which may be the second most mis-leading title in the history of cinema right behind The Never Ending Story because Beale Street is never seen in the movie and all the action takes place in New York (I am kidding, the title is explained in the opening, but still…I found it funny), is another in a long line of films that underwhelmed in 2018. Barry Jenkins (and his cinematographer James Laxton) has a distinct and luscious visual flair to his work, but his storytelling and character development need serious work. Therefore I can only recommend this film to the most committed of cinephiles who would want to see the cinematography on the big screen. For everyone else, there is no reason to see this in the theatre, but if you stumble upon it on cable one night or on Netflix, feel free to check it out if you like, and tell me if I am wrong or not.

In conclusion, if Beale Street could talk, I’d tell it to shut up because while it talks a lot and does so in a beautifully melodious and mellifluous visual voice, it actually doesn’t say a whole hell of a lot, and what little it does have to say is so vapid and vacuous that it has no value whatsoever.

©2018