"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? : 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. Even with two solid performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, this movie is never rises to be worthy of seeing it in the theatre.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based upon the memoir of the same name by Lee Israel) and directed by Marielle Heller, is the true story of Lee Israel, a down on her luck writer who turns to forging letters from past literary giants in order to make ends meet. The film stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee with supporting turns from Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those films that doesn’t really know what it is and doesn’t really know what it is doing, and ultimately ends up being a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing. Sadly, it is a fundamentally unsound and suffocatingly conventional film which could have flourished with a stronger and more artistically insightful director at the helm.

Let’s start with the good…Melissa McCarthy does some really terrific work as the emotionally stunted curmudgeon Lee Israel. McCarthy has made a name for herself as a top-notch comedic actress, but this film shows that she is more than capable of tackling dramatically diverse roles.

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McCarthy is still funny as Israel, but she isn’t playing funny, the comedy is grounded in the character, which is refreshing. McCarthy is likable even when Israel is unbearably unlikable, and that is a testament to the actress’s charisma.

McCarthy is able to make chicken salad out of the chicken shit of a script she is given, by giving her Lee a hidden but palpable wound that pulsates through her every action. To McCarthy’s credit she rises above the mundane script and creates a somewhat multi-dimensional character where a lesser actress would’ve just played for easy surface gags.

McCarthy is assisted in the acting department by her supporting star Richard E. Grant who plays gay ne’er do well and man about town Jack Hock. Grant’s Jack is a magnetic mess who can’t get out of his own or other people’s way.

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Grant’s performance is an understated tour de force, as his Jack is something like a cross between Ironweed and Birdcage. Grant, like McCarthy, is very likable even when Jack is extremely unlikable, which makes for a sort of dynamically terribly duo.

The direction of Marielle Heller leaves quite a lot to be desired. The film is visually flaccid and the storytelling so muddled and cluttered that the film, like its characters, never gets out of its own way.

The biggest problem is that the film tries to be both a straight forward narrative revolving around Israel’s crimes, but also a character study. I think the better and certainly more interesting approach would have been to do a straight character study and solely focus on the relationship between Lee and Jack, two emotionally broken people trying to survive in a hostile world.

Of course the problem is that the only reason people know who Lee Israel is, is because of her crimes, so the trap becomes that the crimes are the story and not the characters. And frankly, Heller as director simply does not possess the skill to do the delicate balancing act of combining the crime narrative with the character study, and so we are left with the bland, lukewarm film that we have.

At the end of the day, the crime story distracts from the solid character work done by both McCarthy and Grant, and ends up scuttling the entire cinematic ship of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is a shame.

I wanted to like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and thought it could be an artistically inclined art house film, but instead was disappointed to find that it is some rather thin Hollywood gruel slopped onto the tasty steak that are the performances of McCarthy and Grant.

In conclusion, Can You Ever Forgive Me? simply is not worth the time, money and energy to see it in the theatre. If you stumble across it on cable or Netflix, feel free to watch it for free for the performances but have low expectations for the film. So to answer the question…”can you ever forgiver me?”, in regards to director Marielle Heller, who squandered two solid performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, the answer is a resounding NO…that sin I simply cannot forgive.

©2018

Bohemian Rhapsody: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. If you are a cinephile looking for great cinema, look somewhere else, but if you are a Queen fan looking for some mindless fun, this is the movie for you.

Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Antony McCarten and (sort of) directed by Bryan Singer, is the story of Freddie Mercury, the iconic lead singer of the band Queen, and his rise to the top of the rock world and his struggles once he got there. The film stars Rami Malek as Mercury, with supporting turns from Lucy Boynton, Gwylim Lee and Ben Hardy.

This past Tuesday, after doing my civic duty and voting to Make America Great Again in the morning, I had my entire afternoon free, so I ventured down to the local cineplex to check out Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury bio-pic.

Mercury’s band Queen, is, in my not so humble opinion, not the greatest rock band of all-time, but it is in the neighborhood. They aren’t The Beatles, Stones or Led Zeppelin, but they are more The Doors, The Who and Pink Floyd adjacent. While I am not a Queen super fan, I do enjoy the band and consider Freddie Mercury to be the greatest singer in the history of rock and one of the most original front men to boot.

Mercury is a fascinating figure who took the androgynous pose of the likes of Jaggar, Bowie. and Plant and turned it up to 11, becoming a closeted but widely acknowledged gay rock star when being gay was not so warmly embraced as it is now.

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What made Mercury and Queen so appealing is that they simultaneously took themselves way too seriously but not seriously at all. Mercury was the consummate showman, and his flamboyant stage act, with his perilously short shorts or impossibly tight pants along his awkward movements made him a sort of court jester of rock and roll, but it was his extraordinary voice that also made him King (and Queen) of rock. Mercury’s vocal power and range is unmatched by every other rock singer who has ever pelvic thrusted across our collective consciousness.

Queen were one of the great bands because they were able to take the genre of arena rock and infuse it with a healthy serving of prog rock which resulted in the most anomalous, avant-garde, radio friendly anthems to ever come out of the genre. Brian May’s titanic guitar sound combined with Mercury’s sublime voice and Roger Taylor’s thunderous drums (and stellar backing vocals) added together to make a first rate and stunningly original band, the likes of which we will certainly never see again.

Which brings us to the film Bohemian Rhapsody, which is more a bio-pic of Mercury than of the band, but the two are forever intertwined. The problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is that for a story about an exquisitely unconventional band and man, it is a painstakingly conventional and standard film. Bohemian Rhapsody cuts a lot of corners and softens a lot of edges to spoon-feed a rather trite and contrived story, and personally, I think a phenomenal talent and complicated human being like Freddie Mercury deserves a hell of a lot better.

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Bio-pics are tough to make, particularly about music legends, and Bohemian Rhapsody falls into every single trap that lay before it. The film doesn’t tell you about the man Freddie Mercury, it simply recreates the myth. The myth is fun but it isn’t interesting because it isn’t real. Freddie Mercury (real name Farrokh Bulsara) was a real person and had all the baggage that goes along with that. The better movie is the movie that tells us the story of Farrokh, not the one that recounts the well-known exploits of Freddie.

An example of a bio-pic that succeeds in crossing the myth and man divide was Oliver Stone’s electric The Doors. Stone was able to dig deeper into the myth of Jim Morrison and find the lost man/little boy at its center.

A lot of people commented after seeing The Doors that Val Kilmer, who starred as Morrison in the film, “looks so much like Jim Morrison”, which is funny because if you actually look at the two men, Val Kilmer looks nothing like Jim Morrison. What made people think he did is that Kilmer is a terrific actor, who in the early 90’s was at the height of his powers. Kilmer created his own Morrison and audiences accepted it because his work was thorough, genuine and grounded. Kilmer played Morrison the man, and then wore the mask of the Morrison myth on top of that, which made for a compelling piece of screen acting.

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In contrast, Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, is hamstrung by a very limiting script that never allows him to fully flesh out Freddie Mercury/Farrokh Bulsara the man, and so he is left to play Freddie Mercury the myth. To Malek’s great credit, he does a stupendous job doing so, particularly during the musical performances. Malek brings Mercury to life on stage to such a degree that it is deliriously infectious. Like Kilmer, Malek has only a passing resemblance to Mercury in real life, but with his undeniable commitment to character, aided by some very effective fake teeth, Malek visually transforms into a remarkably believable version of Mercury (so much so in one particular scene that it is actually creepy, as Malek/Freddie lies in a blue bed and looks like a corpse) which is heightened with his exquisite recreation of Mercury’s stage presence and persona. (As a weird aside, speaking of Freddie Mercury look-a-likes, one of the doctors on my cracked medical team looks like he could be Freddie Mercury’s blond younger brother…seriously…and truth be told he could actually be related, I don’t know as I don’t know his backstory. Anyway, I find his Freddie look-a-like status distracting and oddly unnerving when trying to have a serious conversation with him. He is an extremely nice guy and very good doctor, I just wish “Fat Bottomed Girls” wouldn’t get stuck in my head every time I interact with him. Although to be fair, one of the other doctors on my cracked staff is quite an attractive woman with a decidedly voluptuous bottom, so maybe I shouldn’t blame all of my Queen ear worms on Freddie Mercury’s little brother.)

The supporting cast of Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello all do solid work as well and look strikingly like their real-life band counterparts Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.

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The supporting actor who stood out the most though, and by a mile, is the luminous Lucy Boynton who plays Mercury’s girlfriend Mary Austin. Boynton is an alluring and captivating presence who jumps off the screen. Her role is pretty under-written but she is able, through sheer magnetism and artistic determination, to create a multi-dimensional character which would have been absent in lesser hands.

The only other film I have seen Boynton in was Sing Street, where she was equally beguiling. Boynton is blessed with being a charismatic yet approachable beauty with a deft and subtle acting touch. She certainly has the ability to be an actress of note and I look forward to seeing where her career takes her as the sky is the limit.

As for the directing of Bohemian Rhapsody, officially, everybody’s least favorite pedophile, Bryan Singer, is the director. But Singer was fired after two thirds of the shoot was completed when he simply vanished and didn’t return to set after the Thanksgiving break. Apparently Singer was dealing with personal some issues, I wonder if they were related to his insatiable (and illegal) sweet tooth when it comes to his sexual partners….hmmmm?

Dexter Fletcher was hired to complete the film and considering the mess this movie could have been with the hapless Singer at the helm followed by a substitute teacher trying to piece it all together, he does a passable job.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a great movie, but to its credit it is a fun one. Fans of Queen will love the movie, they won’t learn anything new or gain any insights into Freddie Mercury/Farrokh Bulsara but they will get a sanitized ride along with the band through the ups and downs of their roller coaster to the top of the music business.

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As much as the first hour and 40 minutes of the movie is rather lackluster, thanks to Rami Malek and the music of Queen, the final 30 minutes pulsates with a vibrant life. The concert footage is not shot particularly well, and it isn’t a great piece of filmmaking by any stretch (as opposed to say, Oliver Stone’s dynamic direction of concert scenes in The Doors which is magnificent), but the music of Queen that erupts during the climactic concert footage is impossible to deny. At my screening there was a palpable sense of joy mixed with some melancholy at watching Freddie Mercury back from the grave to slay dragons from the Wembley stage once again. As underwhelmed as I was by the majority of the film, the final concert scenes had me leaving the theatre with a bounce in my step.

In conclusion, if you are a Queen fan, even in passing, you should grab the nearest Fat Bottomed Girl or Your Best Friend and Bicycle Race to see Bohemian Rhapsody, I mean why not? It is fun, it has Queen music, it has Rami Malek giving a solid performance and it boasts the incandescent Lucy Boynton. On the other hand, if you are not a Queen fan, or if you are a cinephile looking for serious cinema, Bohemian Rhapsody is not a Killer Queen, dynamite with a laser beam and certainly isn’t guaranteed to blow your mind, it is just a case of Another bio-pic Bites the Dust.

©2018
















First Man: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An unorthodox take on a “space movie” that I found to be ultimately satisfying and moving…but your mileage may vary.

First Man, written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle, is the story of Neil Armstrong and his long march to the moon. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, with supporting turns from Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler.

First Man is a film that, for good or for ill, defies expectations. One would expect a film about Neil Armstrong and NASA to be a “space” movie in the vein of the expansive The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but First Man is not a conventional space movie but rather a painstakingly intimate movie that uses space as metaphor.

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What makes Neil Armstrong such a compelling character not only in this film but in our culture, is that he was an exceedingly “normal” person. Armstrong was the everyman of the space program which turned him into a sort of empty vessel which the public could project upon whatever traits they wished. Armstrong was portrayed in the media as smart, strong, honorable, noble and patriotic, but what Chazelle does in First Man is make Armstrong less heroic and more human by showing him to be wounded.

Armstrong’s wound is so palpable and catastrophic that he must risk life and limb and travel 238,900 miles in an attempt to soothe it. Ultimately, Armstrong’s journey to the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, isn’t a running away from his wound, but a solemn yet desperate pilgrimage to it.

The moon in First Man is not a destination or ambition but a ghost, haunting Armstrong at every turn as he tries to take one small step for man through the fog of mourning in an attempt to regain his balance and find some semblance of normalcy once again.

By flouting “space movie” expectations, First Man can be a bit frustrating, but once you accept the premise and go along the dramatic journey, it becomes a remarkably satisfying and deeply moving experience. I readily admit that my own my own personal life experience made the film resonate with me and that others with a different life experience may not find it so worthwhile.

Emotional pull aside, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) shows a deft and skilled hand at the helm of First Man. Chazelle’s film wonderfully mirrors Armstrong the man and the character in that it is strictly compartmentalized. Armstrong walls off his emotions and contains his pain and Chazelle uses magnificent framing to express this dramatic reality.

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Chazelle also pulls off shooting in very tight spaces, like in the cockpit of a space capsule, by embracing rather than shunning the claustrophobia of those places. Chazelle recreates the physically and emotionally suffocating experience of being compartmentalized to such a degree that you can’t even turn your head to look at the exit, never mind walk through it. Chazelle’s embrace of dramatic claustrophobia also pays off when the cinematic expanse of the moon is finally reached.

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Ryan Gosling’s work as Neil Armstrong is spot on, as he keeps with the theme of the film by keeping Armstrong entirely contained. The pain pulsating through Gosling’s Armstrong is tangible, but he keeps it tightly controlled, never letting the wound gush, only fester. The final scene of the film beautifully illustrates Armstrong’s dilemma, he is walled off and isolated, if not quarantined, from the world, and even from his wife, and he is at a loss for words, but still has the desperate human need to connect, even if he is unable to.

The long journey of Armstrong to Lunar catharsis is so potent because it is so deftly and subtly portrayed by Gosling, who with First Man proves once again that he is more an actor than a movie star.

Claire Foy’s work as Janet, Armstrong’s wife, is equally compelling. Foy’s Janet is much more combustible than Neil, but that just means it takes more effort for her to keep herself together. Foy and Chazelle imbue Janet with a percolating dynamism through a focused intensity and a mildly floating hand-held camera that gives Janet the feel of being ever so slightly unbalanced and teetering out of control, like a satellite knocked off its orbit. Janet has a volcanic magnetism that is a testament to Foy’s making the most out of what, in lesser hands, would have been just another astronaut wife character, at best an adoring moon, but Foy’s Janet is a planet unto herself, spinning in a wilder orbit around a dying Sun.

The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll and Ciaran Hinds among many others, all do solid work in mostly underwritten roles. The supporting cast are most definitely very small pieces around the sun that is Ryan Gosling, who, along with Claire Foy, carry the emotional and dramatic weight of the picture.

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First Man is really a story about alchemy through fire and ice (recurring themes throughout the film) and the psychological transformation and evolution that comes about through the alchemical Grail quest. Neil Armstrong’s connection to the cause of his existential anguish gets further and further away with every passing second, and he single-mindedly chases it through the fire of earth and its atmosphere all the way to the cold silence of the moon to catch up to it one last time.

In conclusion, First Man is not what you’d expect it to be, but it is all the better for it. I definitely recommend you spend your hard earned dollars to see it in the theatre (IMAX if possible). Director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling create a worthwhile and serious film of dramatic heft that turns the gigantic evolutionary moment of a human expedition to the moon into an intense and intimate evolutionary moment for a single man. When Neil Armstrong said it was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he would’ve been more accurate to say that it was “one small step for mankind, and one giant leap for his humanity”.

©2018

A Star is Born: 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. No need to see this tired old horse be beaten once again.

A Star is Born, written by Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters and directed by Bradley Cooper, is the fictional story of the tumultuous relationship between famous singer/songwriter Jackson Maine and the talented newcomer he discovers named Ally. The film stars Bradley Cooper as Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally, with supporting turns from Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle.

For months now there has been a tremendous amount of buzz swirling around A Star is Born, with industry insiders gushing about Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and Lady Gaga’s feature film debut. To be completely honest, I really had no interest in seeing A Star is Born, but solely out of a duty to you, my dear readers, I braved the perfect weather out here in Los Angeles and ventured out to the local cineplex in order to find out what all the fuss was about.

I went to the first show of the day on a Tuesday and the theatre was pretty crowded. I had also heard reports from other, less film business oriented parts of the country, that screenings had regularly been sold out even during the day since A Star is Born premiered. It seems that this is one of those movies that people who usually don’t go to the movies go to the movies to see.

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As the lights dimmed and the film started I got distracted by an older couple entering my screening. This wasn’t just some old couple…this was the oldest couple. The man, or more accurately…the 2,000 year-old man, slowly but determinedly made his way up the stairs, with his wife, Methusala, close behind. It was hard to tell because of the darkness, but one of them was carrying a walker, which seemed strange to me that they would lug this thing all the way up the stairs. I would’ve done the chivalrous thing and helped them except I quickly deemed them enemies of my state for having arrived 15 minutes late for a movie, something that is irredeemably evil in my book.

Like the Sir Edmund Hillary of movie theaters, the 2,000 year old man climbed the stairs, then planted his flag and entered my row. He made a bee-line for the center of the row and I dutifully stood up to let him pass and stayed standing so his lagging sherpa of a wife could pass once she got to me. The thing to understand is this, I am an incredibly important and fancy person, so I only go to theatres that have assigned seats, and of course, being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I was sitting in my assigned seat.

The movie continued to play in the background as I watched the drama of the 2,000 year old man unfurl before me as he was trying to read his ticket number and the numbers on the seat in our very, very dark theatre. 2,000 year old man kept shuffling back and forth saying to himself, “fourteen and sixteen, fourteen and sixteen”. Little did 2,000 year old man know, but the even numbered seats were all the way over on the other side of the theatre, which would’ve been an Everest-esque climb to this guy who was as old as dirt. I was tempted to help 2,000 year old man out by picking him up and throwing him the 30 feet or so where his seats were, but I thought better of it…I didn’t want to get old people smell on me.

Methuselah then scurried by me and went from being a lagging wife to being a nagging wife when she decided to shout at her husband that she didn’t care where their seats numbers were, she was sitting down right where she was. She then told him to sit down too and shut up on top of it…and that is exactly what he did.

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I then turned my attention to the movie screen and there was Bradley Cooper pretending to rock out with his guitar and I thought to myself “these old people are going to HATE this movie!”. It reminded me of when I was a kid and this equally decrepit old couple I knew peripherally were complaining to my parents after having seen Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. No doubt these dusty people saw the original The Jazz Singer when they were young and thought they were getting some more Al Jolson this time around and were viciously disappointed to get Neil Diamond instead because as we all know…Neil Diamond is no Al Jolson God-Damn it!!

The 2,000 year old man and his bridezilla Methuselah were probably a retired married couple with grown children out of the house when the original A Star is Born came out in 1937, and made a pledge to one another to only trek out to these new-fangled movie theatres if and when A Star is Born remake hit the big screen. So, by my count, this was officially the third time since 1937 that 2,000 year old man and Methuselah have hit the cineplex, having seen the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version of A Star is Born, followed by the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version in 1976…both of which I am sure were followed with a night of perfunctory yet ravenous lovemaking.

A glance at film history shows us that roughly every 20 years or so this old A Star is Born war horse is run out of the barn with a new saddle and new horseshoes and is dragged across the cultural consciousness. My math isn’t great but by my calculations that means that this new 2018 Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version was long overdue, coming more than 40 years after the last Streisand/Kristofferson dance. As they say, everything old is new again or as I say about the 2,000 year old man and Methuselah, everything old gets older…and so it is with cinema. I am sure that 2,000 year old man and Methuselah kept their lifelong pact and followed up their A Star is Born watching with an afternoon and evening of excruciatingly arduous and ancient sex….I hope they enjoyed that more than the movie.

In regards to this latest version of A Star is Born, I found it to be as cinematically vital and vibrant as watching 2,000 year old man and Methuselah’s afternoon delight…but before I dive into the shit pile, let’s try and focus on the positive for a moment.

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The good news is that Bradley Cooper does terrific work as Jackson Maine. Cooper has matured into a quality actor and his Maine is no cookie - cutter character, but a rather a layered and complex human being. Cooper makes the wise decision to wrap Maine up tight and keep his wounds hidden until they split open and bleed all over him. I am not a Bradley Cooper fan, but I must say my respect for him as an actor is expanding over time.

Sam Elliot also does admirable work in a rather underwritten role as Maine’s brother, and every time he is on-screen the movie is elevated just a tiny bit from its descent into the bowels of absurdity.

Now for the bad news…well...A Star is Born is really little more than a paper thin exercise in star fucking. A Star is Born is the perfect Hollywood blockbuster for the Trump Age, all surface and no soul. It is a shallow, vacuous and empty shell of a film, a movie about stars, made by stars and is the perfect embodiment of reality tv filmmaking.

This is not a good movie, it is an amateurish, melo-dramatic soap-opera. I am willing to bet regular folks like the movie, but I found it to be insipid, insidious, absurd and cinematically obtuse.

Lady Gaga is undoubtedly a very talented women, but acting is not one of the talents she possesses. Yes, she is a terrific piano player and a remarkable singer, but her acting leaves a whole helluva lot to be desired. Gaga’s acting works in music videos because they are all surface and no substance and last about 4 minutes, but in a two hour movie, her lack of skill becomes more and more glaring with every passing scene.

Gaga is joined by her on-screen father, Andrew Dice Clay, as being uncomfortably bad in the movie. Clay seems like he is auditioning for a community production of Guys and Dolls or something.

As for the script…well…this film asks its audience to take extreme leaps of logic and to suspend its disbelief to such a great degree that it is simply untenable. While the core of the story is sort of “Hollywood myth-making” believable, in execution it becomes bizarrely inane.

My biggest issues with the movie are the logical problems…like since Ally is such a great song writer and has come to prominence with Maine’s audience which is rock/country, why does she then turn into a bubble gum pop idol? It makes no sense at all. On top of that, Ally’s music is a steaming pile of shit, just atrociously and comically bad on every level…why do audiences love it so much and why does she even win critical acclaim for it as well?

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Now, their might be a way that does make sense, but only in the deep hidden meaning of the film, which I will get into in much more detail in a separate post. There is a deeper message in A Star is Born, and once you crack the code of it, which I think I have done, it becomes pretty interesting (and this message may be entirely unintentional and sub-conscious on Cooper’s part), but that hidden message is so obscured by the rudimentary surface of the movie that it will be totally invisible to most every viewer except the most extreme like me.

As for Bradley Cooper the director, there has been a lot of talk about an Oscar nomination for his directing, his acting and the film. I will say this, Hollywood loves its own, and I would not be surprised if Cooper gets nominated for all three categories and maybe even screenplay too…but he is not an Oscar worthy director…not even close…and is only remotely worthy of an acting nod, and even that is an incredible stretch.

Cooper’s direction is pretty lackluster. He has a distinct liking for using flattering close-ups and a whole lot of flaring light, but the aesthetic, like the story, falls rather flat. Cooper’s direction of actors isn’t much better, as many of the supporting roles (the aforementioned Clay and his limo driving cohorts) are painfully awful.

My biggest question regarding A Star is Born is why? Why make this movie? And why do people, critics included, love it? I don’t get it, I really don’t. I don’t understand why anyone would think this is worthwhile cinema. My one guess as to the commercial and critical success of the film is that in an Age of Turmoil people like their lies to be pretty and their catharsis to be easy and cheap.

In conclusion, as Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine opines, an artist needs to have something to say, sadly, with A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper the director has nothing to say. A Star is Born is little more than old Hollywood nonsense that feeds America’s celebrity addiction.

As a cinematic venture, A Star is Born is all hype, it is a vapid enterprise that gives the pose of depth but is entirely devoid of soul. If you like mainstream manipulative melo-drama in a conventional Hollywood celebrity package, A Star is Born is for you. If, like me, you like your cinema to be more substance than style, you will recognize that this Star is most definitely still-born.

©2018





The Old Man and the Gun: 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. No need to see this rather dull and insipid bit of psuedo-nostalgia in the theatre, but if you stumble across it on cable feel free to watch it if you want…it is entirely harmless and toothless…which is what is wrong with it in the first place.

The Old Man and the Gun, written and directed by David Lowery, is the ‘mostly’ true story of Forest Tucker, a career bank robber. The film stars Robert Redford as Forest, with supporting turns from Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

I like David Lowery as a director, I don’t think he is Scorsese or Kubrick or Malick, but he is an interesting filmmaker. I found Lowery’s last venture, A Ghost Story, to be a really daring art house film which is one of the reasons why I was excited to see Lowery’s latest project The Old Man and the Gun. Even the graphics for the advertisements and trailer of the movie were intriguing to me, as they had the look and feel of a 1970’s Robert Redford movie, most of which were pretty darn good.

And so, I headed to the theatre hopeful that Lowery and Redford had recreated some of the movie star’s 1970’s magic in what could very well be his last film. Sadly, The Old Man and the Gun does not live up to its premise, its collection of talent or even its marketing.

The Old Man and the Gun is the flimsiest of nothing-burgers that is so devoid of substance and drama that it plays more like a 90 minute commercial for itself than an actual cinematic experience

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The Old Man and the Gun is a shockingly dull and derivative affair, and it is a remarkably mainstream enterprise considering the director’s last picture bent space and time while starring a ghost with a sheet over his head and was highlighted by a women compulsively eating a whole pie in a single take.

The Old Man and the Gun is, to put it as bluntly as I can, nothing more than an old person movie in every single way. Old people love seeing movies about old people…especially old people doing un-old people things like robbing banks (1979’s Goin’ in Style or the 2017 remake) or being astronauts (Space Cowboys) or something equally moronic. Old people will love this movie because it is a lot like them in that it has no teeth and moves real slow. Old people will like this movie because it is little more than an hour and a half of watching Robert Redford be charming…oh and Sissy Spacek be charming too..and, like prunes and Matlock, old people like that sort of thing.

The most damning thing I can say about this film, or any film really, is that there is not a single real or genuine moment in this entire movie. Everything in this maddeningly unsatisfying film is manufactured horseshit that feels more at home in a Lifetime movie or on the Hallmark channel.

Robert Redford is an often under-appreciated actor, and it wasn’t just his 1970’s heyday that highlighted his talents, as his work in 2013’s All Is Lost was also a reminder of his stellar ability. But in The Old Man and the Gun, Redford looks and feels every bit his 82 years and has most definitely lost a step. Redford matches the listless pace of the film and coasts through the movie on “charm autopilot” from start to finish.

While Redford is most definitely charming, his Forest Tucker character is not even remotely a real human being, even though he is based on a real person. The film never sheds any light into the real Forest, preferring to skim the surface and play things for cutesy shits and giggles.

Redford and Lowery had a chance to really create something special with Forest Tucker, to dig into the character and unearth his soul, but instead they chose to take the safe and easy route and make a entirely forgettable film.

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One of the foundational problems with the movie is that Lowery’s script, like his direction, is tepid and flaccid. There are numerous opportunities to explore deeply dramatic and relevant themes throughout the story, such as Casey Affleck’s character, Det. John Hunt and his interracial marriage in early 1980’s Texas, or the darker side of a sweet-talker like Forest Tucker who makes his living committing armed robberies, but Lowery ignores these things and instead chooses to make a stultifying elderly romance.

None of the talent assembled for this movie is able to overcome the insipid script or their under-written characters, as Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Sissy Spacek and Tom Waits all give rather rote and lethargic performances.

The Old Man and the Gun is a dead-eyed failure of a film because it is only about the Old Man and not his Gun or his relationship with his Gun, and on top of that the Old Man has no scars, no wounds and ultimately no soul. The film suffers terribly because of its decision to focus on the vapid, the vacuous and the shallow.

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Towards the end of the film, Lowery gives us a montage of Forest Tucker and his history of breaking out of prison. It is the only remotely interesting thing in the entire movie and that is because that sequence is basically an homage to Robert Redford’s career and a tip of the cap to his monumental filmography.

If you really want to pay tribute to the great actor and movie star Robert Redford, go watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, The Natural or All Is Lost and stay aware from the insidiously vacant and nostalgically saccharine The Old Man and the Gun.

©2018




The Sisters Brothers: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An at times funny and also surprisingly moving French, art house “western” that boasts a career best performance from John C. Reilly and a very stellar cast.

The Sisters Brothers, written and directed by Jacque Audiard based upon the book of the same name by Thomas Bidegain, is the story of the Sisters brothers Eli and Charlie, assassins in 1850’s Oregon. The film stars John C. Reilly as Eli and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie, with supporting turns from Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed.

The Sisters Brothers is a strange film that American audiences, conditioned by Hollywood to expect certain things from certain genres, will probably find frustratingly obtuse. On the surface, The Sisters Brothers is a standard western, with all the revenge fueled shootouts and horse-ridden treks through wilderness you’d expect from that genre, but buried just beneath that veneer of conventionality is the gold of a rich and complex foreign art house film and biblical parable.

I had no idea what to expect from The Sisters Brothers, as far as I knew it could be a slapstick western in the vein of Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ South or something, so I just went along for the ride on which the film took me, and I am ever so glad that I did.

Director Jacques Audiard is a terrific filmmaker, having made three distinctive and at times fantastic French films, A Prophet, Rust and Bone and Dheepan. Audiard’s directing touch on The Sisters Brothers, his first English language film, is exquisitely deft, and his artistic vision and cinematic aesthetic are a perfect match to turn the western genre on its head.

The film is a comedy, of sorts, with the Sisters brothers Eli and Charlie acting like an old married couple, bitching and bickering with one another to much hilarity. But the film is also gripped with an existential and hereditary darkness that gives it a resonant dramatic power.

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The film is elevated by four outstanding acting performances. The best of them all is John C. Reilly, a remarkably versatile actor, who gives a nuanced and complex performance as Eli which is the very best of his stellar career. Eli is the more thoughtful of the Sisters brothers, who has a gentle heart and caring soul. Reilly imbues Eli with a palpable sensitivity that, like the character, evolves and reveals itself over the duration of the story. Reilly’s ability to make Eli a genuine human being, rather than a buffoonish caricature, gives The Sisters Brothers a dramatic grounding that is the heart and soul of the film.

Reilly’s Eli is the archetypal feminine in the movie, which is symbolized by his relationship to the spider. In Jungian psychology and in Shamanic traditions the spider is representative of the feminine and of the weaving of fate. Eli has a fateful and intimate encounter with a spider in the film and literally gives birth to spiders.

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Eli’s kindness extends not only to his troubled younger brother Charlie, but to his second rate horse, with whom he grows a deep bond that is quite moving. It is Eli’s feminine nature that is both his greatest strength and also his crippling weakness as it has led to his being usurped and passed by his more archetypally masculine brother for the position of leading brother in the family.

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors on the planet, and he is in the midst of a terrific year in cinema. Thus far in 2018, Phoenix has given stellar performances in both You Were Never Really Here and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, and he keeps that streak alive as the combustible Charlie in The Sisters Brothers.

Phoenix is an actor that vibrates with a viscerally chaotic and unnerving unpredictability, and his Charlie is the perfect avatar to highlight that talent. Phoenix’s performance is one of understated brilliance as it is filled with some startling moments of primal anguish and pain.

Phoenix’s Charlie is a deeply wounded soul carrying a grievous original sin, but who has been elevated to the “right hand” of the Father not in spite of that sin, but because of it. Charlie’s great weakness is that he is so wounded he can never mature and evolve enough to survive in such an exalted position. In other words, crazy will only get you so far, but to be fair to Charlie, he comes by his crazy honestly.

What makes both Phoenix and Reilly shine is that they are blessed to have each other off of which to play. Eli ingests spider energy and is transformed, whereas Charlie slays a bear, a symbol of the power of the unconscious and the dawning of a personal spring. Eli’s encounter with the spider leads to transformation, whereas Charlie’s encounter with the bear is symbolic of his breaking of the connection with the unconscious and with it goes his chance at self-realization and transformation.

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Jake Gyllenhaal gives a solid performance as John Morris, a tracker and wannabe Thoreau who, like the Sister brothers, is trying to understand and deal with the affliction that his father passed on to him. John, Eli and Charlie are all victims of the archetypal father wound, and the malady they carry unconsciously guides them through their lives and propels the film forward. Gyllenhaal’s Morris is more aware of his ailments than the Sisters brothers, or at least becomes more aware of them, which leads him to question the entire purpose of his life.

Gyllenhaal is always at his best when he is understated, and his John Morris is a perfectly subdued and technically proficient performance. Gyllenhaal never pushes or prods with Morris, he simply let’s him be, and that decision makes for a solid contribution to the film.

Riz Ahmed plays Hermann Kermit Warm, a chemist who is hunted by the Sister brothers. Ahmed is absolutely fantastic in the role. Ahmed has a, pardon the pun, warmth about him as an actor that is captivating on screen and that trait serves him well in The Sisters Brothers. Ahmed’s Warm is a Christ-like figure, who radiates a near-defiantly fervent gentleness that is remarkably compelling.

Besides being a biblical and Jungian parable, the film is also a political, religious and economic parable. Mr. Warm is a pied piper for a socialist (and Christ-like, but not necessarily Christian) utopia which is alluring to the idealist and dreamer in all of us. In contrast, the uber-capitalist corporate town of Mayfield is held up as a bastion of deception and debauchery.

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The film also touches upon the need for a dismantling of a patriarchy that produces such twisted and tormented forms of masculinity as the Sisters brothers and much of the other violent men in the film. The patriarchy in its old form, namely the character the Commodore, needs to die for these men to ever have a chance to be free from their afflictions and to find the utopia that deep down they have yearned for their entire lives.

The religious aspects of the film are glaring for those with eyes to see them, for instance there is the brothers grooming of each other like apostles or the men anointing themselves with oil in a pseudo-baptismal ritual before they wade into the river among. There is also the connection between Mr. Warm and Eli’s horse…who are both, in their own way beasts of burden, and the viewer should keep a keen eye out for the similarity in the eyes of Warm and the horse at pivotal moments in the film.

The Sisters Brothers is a film with a multitude of layers, each one more interesting, revealing and insightful than the last. If you are planning to see the film, put aside your cultural conditioning and your expectations for a western, and instead watch the film as if it were a dream. Keep a vigilant eye out for spiders, bears, raccoons and the plethora of other signs and symbols that show the way to the film’s profound message.

The Sisters Brothers opens with a shout in the silent darkness of the Oregon night, but then there are flashes of light that splinter that darkness ever so quickly. That opening scene is the story of The Sisters Brothers, for it is a film about alchemy, where finding the gold in the darkness is an act of transformation which leads down the road to redemption. I never expected to be, but I was deeply, deeply moved by The Sisters Brothers, and found it be a profoundly satisfying cinematic experience. I wholly recommend you suspend your expectations and go see this film in the theatre, it is well worth the time, money and effort.

©2018

Blaze: 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/SEE IT. Skip it in the theatre, as the film never rises to its ambitions, but see it on cable or Netflix to catch Ben Dickey’s charismatic performance.

Blaze, written by Ethan Hawke and Sybil Rosen (based on Roen’s book “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze") and directed by Hawke, is the story of enigmatic musician Blaze Foley. The films stars Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Elia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen, along with supporting turns from Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn.

Blaze director Ethan Hawke is an intriguing character, he has been the symbol of a sort of intellectual artist in the film business for nearly thirty years. Hawke’s attraction to the real-life Blaze Foley, a legendary but mysterious country music figure, is no doubt born out of his respect for Foley’s commitment to artistry over commerce.

Blaze is Hawke’s love letter to Foley and in a sense, a bit of projection, as Blaze Foley is what Hawke wishes he could more genuinely be…a tortured artist. While Hawke is certainly an artist, he is not a tortured artist. Hawke has, by every measure, had a very successful, dare I say, comfortable life, first as the poster boy for Gen X ennui then as the symbol of intellectual literacy in a film industry that can barely read.

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I was excited to see Blaze because, as I have gotten older, I have grown to appreciate and respect Ethan Hawke more and more as an actor and also as a presence in our culture. Hawke may be a bit pretentious (as am I) and may be a bit of a poseur (as am I), but at the very least his pretensions and his pose are attempting to fill the cavernous void in American culture, where stupidity is translated into relatability and intellectualism is maligned as elitism.

Sadly, Hawke’s Blaze misses the mark for a very surprising reason…it is suffocated by the orthodox conventions of the genre. Blaze is a standard bio-pic wearing an art house jacket. Hawke makes the unwise decision to hold to the traditional conventions of bio-pics, and thus neuters the story and the film of any and all cinematic vibrancy. For Blaze to have succeeded, Hawke needed to eschew the format of the bio-pic and commit to a pure arthouse venture.

Yes, Hawke does sprinkle in some artistic homages to Robert Altman, and gives his actors freedom in front of the camera, but ultimately he confines his own vision into the straight jacket of the bio-pic, and that vision loses its artistic mind struggling to break free of such a stultifying form.

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Bio-pics are, by nature, hagiographic, but the very best ones (Raging Bull, Malcolm X) at least give you a glimpse into the genuine person behind the myth. In Blaze, Blaze Foley is reduced to being a tall tale told for effect, not a quest for the truth at the center of the man. Blaze Foley is never revealed in this film, and by the end he is just as big a mystery, if not bigger, than he was when it began.

Blaze Foley is a mythical creature, like a guitar playing Sasquatch, and Hawke’s film of his life is a campfire story recounting that time someone saw a glimpse of a shadow in a dark forest and could swear it was Bigfoot.

There were some bright spots in the film, namely the magnetic performance from Ben Dickey as Blaze. Dickey has an ease and charm about him in front of the camera that is undeniable. He is also a magnetic screen presence with a palpable air of meloncholy and mischief about him, and because of that he lights up every single scene he inhabits.

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On the down side, Elia Shawkat, who plays Foley’s wife, Sybil Rosen, is just not up to the task. Shawkat, who comes across as younger than she ought to be, underwhelms in a pivotal role, and it undermines the film even further.

Charlie Sexton, who plays Blaze’s friend and musical compatriot Townes Van Zandt, is also problematic, and feels stilted and unnatural on screen. The interview scenes of Townes that pepper the film, bring any sort of narrative or creative momentum to a screeching halt every time they pop up.

While there are some solid scenes and some directorial flair, such as an Adam and Eve scene where Sybil convinces Blaze to pursue glory, even feeding him an apple in the process, or a scene where Kris Kristofferson, playing Blaze’s father who barely speaks, is visited by Blaze, the rest of the film is basically recounting things that happened, which never gives us insight into the man.

At the end of the day, Blaze is a bit of an indulgent and unfocused film that needed a stronger hand and a more coherent cinematic aesthetic from its director, Ethan Hawke. As the film reveals to us, Townes Van Zandt is a mannered, self-serving liar, and Blaze Foley is an unabashed truth-teller, Ethan Hawke the director, lies somewhere in-between.

©2018




Fahrenheit 11/9: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.9 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An insightful glimpse into America’s future and its not too distant past, that shows Trump is a tumor that grew out of the cancer that is the corporate controlled establishment political parties.


Fahrenheit 11/9, written and directed by Michael Moore, is a documentary that explores Donald Trump, the forces in America and American politics that made his presidency possible, and the repercussions of Republican and Democrat corporate rule upon regular Americans.

Michael Moore may not be the best documentarian of his time, but he is certainly the best known documentarian of his time. Moore is a polemicist and a provocateur, but to his credit he is a really good one.

Moore’s filmography is a testament not only to his liberal bona fides but his extraordinarily accurate instincts in regards to the American unconscious. His scathing Roger and Me swam against the Reaganite tide and exposed free-market, trickle-down economics for the charade that it is well before that was a popular notion.

His Oscar winning Bowling for Columbine exposed the deep psychological wounds inflicted upon generations of young people raised under a flag-waving dream of unabashed corporate militarism that led to the illusion shattering nightmare of Columbine.

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His most financially successful film, and the most financially successful documentary of all-time, Fahrenheit 9/11, pushed back against the establishment media’s War on Terror hagiography and exposed it for the fraud that it was. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a cultural phenomenon, a lightning rod both for liberal anger at the Bush administration and for conservative angst with liberal fifth columnists.

Moore’s films in recent years have not had the same cultural cache of Fahrenheit 9/11. Sicko was a smart and insightful film, as was Capitalism: A Love Story, but it sells out at the end by embracing Obama, who ended up being a poison pill for any real Wall Street or health care reform that would work for regular folks.

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Moore’s, Where To Invade Next, is a film that was widely overlooked and ignored, but which is a gem, and shows Moore to be at his most prophetic best. In the movie, Moore goes to various foreign countries to see what parts of their culture and government we should bring to America. This film was a precursor for the wave of progressive ideas that buoyed Bernie’s campaign and which have animated the progressive left to such a degree that even some centrist corporate Democrats are parroting the same lines.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is Moore’s best film since it’s pseudo-namesake, Fahrenheit 9/11. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is pulsating with an anger bordering on desperation that shows the iconic filmmaker taking on not only Trump and the Republicans but establishment Democrats as well.

Moore wisely doesn’t focus on Trump for the majority of the film, we know Trump and most everybody is sick of the guy, instead, Moore takes side trips to Flint, Michigan, to reveal what the rest of America is going to look like if the corptacracy of establishment Republicans and Democrats stays in place, then to West Virginia to show what the power of unionization and solidarity can accomplish in the face of government corruption, and finally to Parkland, Florida to show the younger generation as the key to breaking the logjam of bullshit that is American politics.

The opening sequence, an homage to Moore’s own Fahrenheit 9/11, is exquisitely funny in the darkest of ways. Watching the “I’m With Her” crowd of fools and the media, so sure of her ascension to the throne, have their hopes dashed upon the rocks of reality is hysterically funny, especially for me, since like Michael Moore, I actually told people before the election that Trump would win. I was ridiculed before the election for saying that, and was pilloried after the fact for having been right.

As Moore dives into the loathsome oddity that is Trump, he covers much well-trod ground. What was refreshing about this section is that Moore holds himself accountable for not having taken Trump to task when they were on a talk show together, and for how Moore’s own career has been bolstered by Trump lackeys Steve Bannon and the crown prince himself, Jared Kushner. Moore’s honesty is refreshing and no doubt will blunt counter-attacks to his movie.

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Trump is a pretty disgusting character and is a total conman, this we all know and Moore backs up his claims to this fact, but where Moore stumbles in this section is in his gravitating towards the salacious and the prurient by making the argument that Trump and Ivanka have or had a sexual relationship. I get what Moore is doing, he is exposing Trump for being a gross and lecherous fiend, but this part of the film feels cheap and much too placatingly easy for me. I think Trump is a lech and a fiend, but Moore leaves himself to easily open to charges of being more tabloid propagandist than documentarian with this particular part of the movie.

The best parts of the film are the Flint and West Virginia sections. The Flint section is breathtakingly depressing, as it lays bare the craven contempt that politicians (of both parties) hold not only for the truth but for their fellow citizens. Moore’s compelling thesis is that Flint is the future of America, where corporate interests override all humanity, and people are left to live in an environmentally toxic open air prison.

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Included in this indictment is the holiest of liberal holies, President Obama, who is shown to be a despicable shill for corporate interests and brazenly contemptuous of the working class and poor people of Flint. Adding to the case against Obama is the fact that not only did he aid and abet the poisoning of the population of Flint, he also terrorized them by using their city for target practice. Obama’s charlantanry, including his subservience to Wall Street (Goldman Sachs in particular), his callous drone program and his complicity in war crimes, is no shock to me, but I think the liberals I know will feel like this section of the film is an absolute gut punch. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a worthwhile film for no other reason than no liberal who watches this movie will ever feel the same way about Obama again.

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The West Virginia section of the movie is equally insightful as the Flint section, but much less depressing. As per Moore’s thesis, Flint is the future of America, but West Virginia is the model for how to fight back. Moore’s examination of the teacher’s strike and how unionization and solidarity are the the only way to stop the spread of government/corporate fascism that is destroying America, American cities and towns, and the American family, is so energized it makes you want to put a red bandana around your neck and go out and crack some skulls.

Moore makes an important point in both the Flint and West Virginia stories, namely that race and ethnicity is used by both Republicans AND Democrats to divide working class and poor people in order to maintain the corrupt and disastrous status quo. As a striking teacher says in the film, “class above all else”. This will no doubt be a slap in the face to the establishment corporate Democrats, the Hillary Hypocrites among them, but it is one, as Moore points out, that they so richly deserve.

Moore’s multiple story lines don’t all work, as I found the Parkland narrative to be especially vapid and frankly illogical. Moore’s anti-gun sentiments are well-known, but it is striking to see these young Parkland students, so traumatized by the shooting at their school, be held up as the ideal because they are so stridently anti-gun, in the context of a documentary arguing that Trump may literally be the next Hitler. The lack of self-awareness in this Parkland section is staggering, especially in the midst of the Trump and Flint sections, which lay bare the fact that regular Americans are under assault and it is only going to get worse.

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To watch earnest but misguided young people, so sure of their righteousness and rightness, vehemently argue for disarmament right after watching the U.S. military invade Flint and Trump contemplate being president for life, is breathtaking for its stupidity. Moore’s blind spot on this issue, like those of the teenagers he highlights, is due to being the victim of unabashed emotionalism. The young Parkland teens that Moore holds up as the paragon of virtue and the path forward, are not the solution to the problem Moore presents, but the problem itself. To see the effects of emotionalism laid so bare in the form of these Parkland teens is a remarkable thing.

An example of the illogic on display in the film is when Moore’s declares the danger of Trump as a potential Hitler, and then uses history professors from NYU and Yale to persuasively make the case that America is in peril but then transitions to the Parkland anti-gun crusaders, which completely undermines the intellectual and political seriousness of the thesis of the film. If Trump is Hitler, disarming is ridiculous if not absurd. The logical and rational response to the notion that Trump is a tyrant or Hitler is to go out and arm yourself, not disarm yourself and everyone else.

Despite the weakness of the Parkland section, Fahrenheit 11/9 pulses with a vitality and urgency because Moore, like many Americans, even Trump voters, feels America disintegrating before him. Moore is a polemicist, of that there is no doubt, but he is a damn fine documentarian and an even better political physician. In Fahrenheit 11/9 Michael Moore’s diagnosis of America is once again completely accurate, and his prescription is, for the most part, spot on as well. Moore makes the extraordinarily insightful case that the establishment Democrats are fighting for a return to the Pre-Trump America, but that Pre-Trump America is what got us to Trump. As Moore points out, the good old days before Trump weren’t so good and and the tumor of Trump grew out of the cancer of establishment Republicans and Democrats who beholden to corporate interests over the interests of the people.

America, and liberals in particular, had better wake up and start listening to Michael Moore, who, like me, accurately foretold of Trump’s presidency. If liberals ignore Moore’s prescription and turn back to the old centrist Clinton medicine to heal the Trumpism that ails them, the disease of Trump will spread and gain strength, and once again liberals will have no one to blame but themselves, but will lack the self-awareness to do so.

In conclusion, if you like Michael Moore, go see Fahrenheit 11/9, you’ll love it. If you are a sturdy centrist Democrat who cheered Hillary and loved Obama, go see Fahrenheit 11/9 to be disabused of the notion that those two people are anything but different faces on the same evil machine of exploitation, abuse and destruction. If you are a progressive or liberal looking for hope, go see Fahrenheit 11/9, and learn the lesson that I have been preaching for decades, that hope is insipid. If you are an American citizen, the bottom line is this, go see Fahrenheit 11/9, if for no other reason than to see what has been done to Flint, and what can be done by West Virginians.

©2018

We the Animals: 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 derivative childhood trauma drama that is a pale imitation of other better movies.

We the Animals, written by Jeremiah Zagar and Dan Kitrosser (based on the book of the same name by Justin Torres) and directed by Zagar, is the coming of age story of Jonah, a young boy growing up with his two brothers in a tumultuous family deep in the throes of working-class poverty. The film stars Evan Rosado as Jonah with supporting turns from Raul Castillo (Paps) and Sheila Vand (Ma).

We the Animals is another in a long line of recent films about the difficulty of growing up in modern America, particularly when poor. Just off the top of my head I can think of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project. I am sure there are more I am forgetting, but probably because those other films are forgettable.

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We the Animals follows the same blueprint as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project but also flirts with some of the same topics as this year's indy darling Eighth Grade. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild it tries to capture the magical imagination of a child under duress, and like Moonlight it tries to bring to life the struggles of one who is "different", and like The Florida Project, it eschews formal narrative structure in favor of a more free-wheeling story-telling that attempts to expose poverty as it really is, and like Eighth Grade it explores the minefield that is sex in pornified America.

If We the Animals had come out five years ago, it might be noteworthy because of its subject matter and style, but since it came out now after the aforementioned cavalcade of similar films, it feels decidedly derivative. There is nothing in We the Animals that we haven't seen already and done either slightly or distinctly better. 

Director Zagar uses an impressionistic style to convey the inner life of Jonah, and those parts of the film are easily the best. Zagar and his cinematographer Zak Mulligan's use of animation, a floating camera and dynamic framing make the film at times visually stunning. Mulligan's ability to uniquely frame the mundane and turn it into something of depth is exceptional, and he captures some exquisitely beautiful shots.

Sadly, the film is not entirely impressionistic, in fact, the majority of the film (about two-thirds) is more stylistically conventional, and this is where the film struggles, so much so that it scuttles the entire ship. Mulligan's intermittent Malick-esque camera work brings life to a script that is dead on arrival and that fact is only more accentuated when the film tries to actually tell a story.

The cast of newcomers and unknowns does their best, but the acting is pretty underwhelming. Lead actor Evan Rosado is a charismatic kid and he pops on camera, but he is very limited in range and what he is able to do as an actor at such a young age.

Raul Castilla and Sheila Vand fall flat as Paps and Ma, and needed to be much better than they were for the film to really take off. Both of their performances were too one-dimensional for my tastes, and lacked an inner life. To be fair they certainly weren't aided by the rather shallow script.

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We the Animals still could have pulled it off despite its cinematic imbalance but it makes a fatal error in its final act. There is a twist, hinted at throughout but which becomes explicit in the last quarter, that turns the film from an experimental-impressionist cinematic exploration into a rather banal piece of faux-edgy arthouse moviemaking. This plot revelation had significantly more artistic merit and integrity when left unstated, and by forcing the narrative to conform to such a conventional, 21st century after-school special theme, the weighty pretensions of profundity surrounding the film collapse and we are left with a movie that is resoundingly unsatisfying dramatically.

At the end of the day, because of the similarly themed and styled films that have preceded it, We the Animals feels trite, contrived, manufactured and manipulative to the point of exploitative. While director Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan certainly show flashes of talent throughout, because of a weak script and cast, along with Zagar's uneven approach, the film never coalesces into a coherent and worthy piece of cinema. Sadly, We the Animals is not worth the time and effort to go see it in the theatre, but fret not, if you want to see a film about minority children growing up in poverty, you have a plethora of other options from which to choose.

©2018

Burt Reynolds and the End of the Movie Star

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 38 seconds

Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82. A review of his career reveals a great deal about not only the man, but the current state of Hollywood.

Burt Reynolds was once the king of Hollywood. For a period of time in the late 70's and early 80's, Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star on the planet. From 1978 to 1982 Burt was the top box office draw for every single year, a five year run that in the history of cinema is only matched by Bing Crosby's 5 year run in the late 1940's.

What makes Burt Reynolds magnificent box office run all the more a monument to his star power and charm is that the movies Burt churned out during this stretch were absolutely abysmal. Here are the films that Burt Reynolds sold to the public to become box office champ for a record five years straight.

1978 - The End, Hooper. 1979 - Starting Over. 1980 - Rough Cut, Smokey and the Bandit II. 1981 - The Cannonball Run, Paternity, Sharkey's Machine. 1982 - Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Best Friends.

That is a Murderer's Row of completely forgettable, horrendously awful movies. But the cinematic atrocities that are those films only act as incontrovertible evidence of the tremendous mega-movie star Burt Reynolds really was. Audiences didn't show up at movie theaters to see these films for any other reason than to get to hang out with Burt for two hours.

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Burt's formula for success was simple...just be Burt, the fun lovin', handsome, good ole boy that he was, who guys wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Didn't matter the story or the character, as long as Burt was on camera people would pay money to see it. Burt was...well...Burt...sort of a one man Rat Pack, with Bacchanal Burt as the Pope of the Church of Shits and Giggles, which is why he was such a sought after guest on The Tonight Show or any other talk show.

Burt's films, particularly the mind-numbingly awful Cannonball Run movies, are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise, in that audiences are basically paying to watch famous, good-looking rich people have fun with each other. Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen are a way for regular folks to get to hang out with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon for two hours and feel like part of the crew. Audiences get to watch these "stars" dress up, be witty and outsmart everyone and get to be in on the joke.

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Burt Reynolds film's are the same formula as Ocean's Eleven except Burt didn't need a bunch of other stars, he was big enough and bright enough to carry a movie all on his own. Sure, he'd have Mel Tillis or Dom DeLuise caddy for him, but Burt didn't need them, he was doing them a favor and kept them around because they made HIM laugh.

Burt was so big from '78 to '82 that if you melded George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon at the height of their careers into one, you'd still have to add in Matthew McConnaghey in order to have it all add up to be even remotely close to peak Burt Reynolds. That is stunning for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that it shows how staggeringly magnetic Burt Reynolds was back in the day, but also the shocking dearth of movie stars walking the planet now.

Could any actor working today draw audiences with the cavalcade of crap that Burt Reynolds was churning out during his heyday?  Not a chance. Tom Cruise is the closest actor since Burt to capture the public's imagination in the same way, he has been a box office champ 7 times over three decades (80's, 90's, 00's), but Cruise never accomplished it in consecutive years never mind five years running. 

Unlike Burt, Cruise has benefited by starring in the big budget Mission Impossible franchise and in a few Spielberg extravaganzas. Even Cruise's earlier, more critically acclaimed work, was a result of his being secondary to his directors. Born on the Fourth of July is not a Tom Cruise film, it is an Oliver Stone film, and the same could be said of Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick) or The Color of Money (Scorsese).

Burt Reynolds didn't work with big name directors, in fact, remarkably enough, Burt actually directed two of the film's in which he starred during his box office championship run, 1978's The End and 1982's Sharkey's Machine...that is absolutely insane.

When it comes to the "movie stars" of the current era the proof is in the pudding, and today's pudding shows us a paucity of stars so stunning that the cupboard is basically completely bare.

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Tom Cruise has a big box office hit this year with his latest Mission Impossible monstrosity, but without that franchise or a big name director, Cruise's ability to attract audiences on his own has diminished in striking ways over the last twenty years. Since 1996's Jerry Maguire, Cruise has been under performed on his own without the friendly confines of a big budget franchise or the assistance of name directors, like Spielberg and Kubrick, who overshadow him.

Many thought George Clooney was the heir apparent to the movie star throne, but he isn't ready for the crown as shown by the recent poor box office results of Tomorrowland and Monuments Men, and as the Ocean's Eleven films show, he needs not just one other star to help him over the finish line, but a cornucopia of stars.

Brad Pitt had his moment in the sun but was always more of a second rate Robert Redford than an imitation of Burt Reynolds, and has never had the box office impact of either man.

Matthew McConnaghey has churned out similarly awful films to Burt's sub-par canon, but he has never even remotely approached the star wattage or box office prowess of Burt.

Leonardo DiCaprio is often considered a movie star, but Leo is much more of an actor than a movie star, and his inability to open films on his own without the benefit of a big name director like Scorsese, Spielberg or Christopher Nolan is testament to that fact.

Studios have figured out that nowadays it is about teaming auteurs like Scorsese, PT Anderson, Inarritu or Tarantino, with name actors in order to generate profits. The auteurs alone, or the stars alone, just don't cut it anymore, so the studios combine them together.

The film industry has changed dramatically in other ways since Burt Reynolds ruled the roost, as studios have discovered it isn't the stars that make a movie, but the characters, and so studios have slowly transitioned from building movie star brands to creating big budget franchises. Boiled down to its essence, this approach is basically, It doesn't matter who plays Batman, people will see a Batman movie.

As a result, actors try and attach themselves to these franchises in order to become "movie stars"...but the truth is the actors are, like sports stars for people's favorite teams, just wearing the jersey. These sports stars could be traded to another team and wear another jersey next year, so the fans aren't really rooting for the players, they are rooting for the laundry.

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For example, Chris Pratt is a "big movie star" right now, and to his credit he can carry a movie, but no one is dropping $14 to go see Chris Pratt, but they will pay to see Chris Pratt in Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy. Same is true of the other Chris's...Chris Helmsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Evans...otherwise known as Thor, Captain Kirk and Captain America. Those guys are decent enough actors, but no one rushes out to see them in anything unless they are playing their signature franchise roles.

What is staggering to consider is that Burt Reynolds could have been an even bigger star than he was. Burt notoriously turned down the role of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise and John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, which if he had starred in those films only would have extended and expanded his box office dominance to such exorbitant heights as to be ridiculous, adding at least $4 billion more to his overall box office tally.

Besides making poor movie business decisions, Burt also made bad artistic decisions which hurt him in his attempt to score prestige points. For instance, besides turning down Han Solo and John McClane, Burt also turned down the role of Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, which won Jack Nicholson an Oscar and may have done the same for Burt.

Burt Reynolds as an actor, was, to be frank, pretty dreadful, mostly because he just didn't give a shit. Burt was more interested in having fun and feeling safe rather than pushing himself as an artist. Burt the actor liked to take the easy road, and for the artist, that road ultimately leads to nowhere.

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That said, Burt he did rise to the occasion twice in his career, in the two best films he ever made. In the 1972 classic Deliverance, Burt embodied archetypal masculinity to a tee and elevated the film to great artistic heights. Burt's performance as Lewis Medlock, the bow wielding alpha male on a river adventure in the backwoods of Georgia, gave audiences a glimpse of his acting potential. Sadly, it would take another 25 years before Burt ever even approached the same level of artistic achievement in PT Anderson's 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, as porn impresario Jack Horner.

Burt's Jack Horner is an extension of Lewis Medlock, he is like Zeus, a great father to the panoply of gods and goddesses atop the Mount Olympus of porn. Horner is Medlock grown old, still the dominant alpha male but using his brain more and his phallus less.

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In one of the great displays of foolhardy hubris, Burt, who admitted that over his career he only took roles he thought were fun, hated the greatest film in which he ever appeared, Boogie Nights. Burt ranted that he didn't like the movie or the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Burt's public distancing from the film no doubt led to his losing his only chance to win an Oscar, as he was nominated but refused to campaign and ended up losing to Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), and ended up scuttling what could have been his acting renaissance.

If Burt didn't have such a pedestrian taste in film, such a voracious appetite for the inconsequential and such a artistically myopic outlook, he could have been not just the George Clooney + Brad Pitt + Matt Damon + Matthew McConnaghey of his day, but also the Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis of the 80's/90's and a multiple Oscar winner to boot...which would have made Burt Reynolds the biggest movie star of all-time. Instead what we got was bacchanalian Burt, boozing with buddies, chasing skirts and ultimately chasing his own tail.

In conclusion, even though Burt Reynolds was a mega-movie star for a period, the likes of which the film business has rarely ever seen, it is difficult not to lament Burt's career with a quote from the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, The Saddest are these, 'It might have been'."

©2018

 

 

 

The Wife: A Review

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

My Rating: 1.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A Lifetime movie masquerading as serious cinema.

The Wife, written by Jane Anderson (based on the book of the same name by Meg Wolitzer) and directed by Biorn Runge, is the story of Joan Castleman, the long suffering wife who must live in the shadow of her acclaimed novelist husband, Joe Castleman. The film stars Glen Close as Joan and Jonathon Pryce as Joe, with supporting turns from Christian Slater and Max Irons.

I had some time to kill yesterday and was near a theatre, so I decided to see a movie. All of the films I had any interest in seeing did not fit into my schedule, so I was left to decide whether I would see The Wife, as that was the only movie that worked for me time wise, or go home and spend time with my wife. I made the obvious decision to avoid my wife and go with my girlfriend (shhhh!) to see The Wife...as always, deciding to spend some time with any wife, but especially The Wife, left me with nothing but a headache.

The Wife yearns to be an insightful and serious drama but instead is a trite, contrived, dramatically flaccid and pandering piece of neo-feminist melodrama that is more at home on the Lifetime network than in any serious Oscar discussion. The Wife is a paper-thin metaphor devoid of any and all dramatic nuance meant to assuage the anger and hurt feelings of Hillary supporters of a certain advanced age by cashing in on the era of #MeToo and Trumpism.

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The film is getting some Oscar buzz mostly because of Glen Close's performance as Joan. Ms. Close may in fact win an Oscar at this year's Diversity Olympics aka The Oscars, but not because her work is so transcendent but because it fulfills all the proper political and gender empowerment criteria. In truth, Ms. Close's performance is not noteworthy at all as it rings decidedly false and hollow. Unlike other notable actresses of her generation (Meryl Streep as just one example), Ms. Close never seems to be able to fill her character with a vivid inner life, but rather feels the need to indicate her intentions rather than organically expressing and releasing them. Ms. Close seems to want to show that she is acting, maybe in an attempt to win that ever elusive Oscar, but instead of showing, she should embrace being. Ms. Close's Joan is a one-dimensional, cardboard cutout of a character, and any praise of her performance should be taken as little more than "woke" charlatanry.

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Close's performance feels entirely manufactured and stilted, without a single whiff of genuine human expression and she is joined in her acting obtuseness by Jonathon Pryce, who plays her husband Joe, in the film. Pryce creates an entirely incoherent and inconsequential character that is as light and whispy as a snow flake falling in the cold, dark Helsinki night. Pryce never fully inhabits Joe, instead choosing to use a rather theatrical approach to cover the inadequacies of the script.

Christian Slater and Max Irons give painfully banal and one note performances that fall decidedly flat. Slater is supposed to be charming or something, but he is aggressively bland while Irons is stuck being a mope for two hours.

The bad acting even spread to the extras as they were atrocious. In the climactic scene of the film there is an extra so distractingly awful that it is riotously funny.

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To be fair to all the actors, it isn't entirely their fault. Director Bjorn Runge lacks any sort of visual or dramatic style and thus the actors are left at the mercy of the abomination that is the script. The dialogue is mannered and rings false throughout, and none of the characters even remotely seems like a real person. Runge's lack of a distinct cinematic aesthetic, combined with his inexperience directing English language actors (this appears to be his first time doing it) and Anderson's verbose and more stage friendly dialogue, lead to a suffocating and dramatically impotent affair.

My friend, the big shot Hollywood director Mr. X., once said to me that there is nothing worse than a bad stage play...well, with The Wife you get to see a bad stage play caught on camera, which is not a pleasing experience.

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The Wife is what I deem a "post-wave" movie, similar to last year's Spielberg film The Post, that is meant to give the audience wish fulfillment after the fact, as opposed to an artist intuiting where the collective is going next. In other words, The Wife shamelessly panders to the Hillary crowd who think the election was stolen from their saintly genius of a Queen by making Joan Castleman a Hillary proxy. The cheers and groans I heard from the audience at various moments led me to believe that it also confirms the belief among these Clinton cultists that Hillary was always the brains behind the Bill Clinton's political success...wish fulfillment indeed.

In conclusion, The Wife is a dramatically contrived, cinematically disingenuous, wretchedly constructed and inefficiently executed exercise in neo-feminist gender politics porn meant to titillate and satiate the bruised feelings of the "I'm With Her"/pussyhat wearing contingent. My recommendation is to divorce yourself from any idea of going to see The Wife, as it is not nearly worth your time and hard earned money...you'd be better served going over to your girlfriend's house and watching The Affair instead.

©2018

BlacKkKlansman: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A flawed but insightful, incisive and compelling film that speaks to the struggles of our time.

BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee and written by Lee and a coterie of others (based on the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth), is the true story of Ron Stallworth, a Black cop in Colorado Springs who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. The film stars John David Washington as Stallworth, with supporting turns from Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace.

At one time, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, Spike Lee was one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. His breakthrough film, 1989's Do the Right Thing, which featured Lee's signature aesthetic of humor, drama and cultural commentary was an explosive piece of cinema that catapulted Lee into the spotlight and into the hearts of cinephiles everywhere.

Lee followed up Do the Right Thing with two films that weren't quite as ground breaking but were noteworthy films nonetheless, Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991). Following those two critical and commercial successes Lee then made his masterpiece, the phenomenal Malcolm X (1992), which is a staggering cinematic achievement.

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After reaching the summit with Malcolm X, the cinematic world seemed his for the taking, but then something strange happened to Spike Lee...he lost his fastball. I am not sure why it happened, whether it was a case of the muse abandoning him, his mojo shrinking, his spirit being broken or his just not giving a shit anymore, but I know it most certainly did happened. To be clear, he didn't lose it all at once...but there was a noticeable and precipitous decline in the quality and artistry of his work in the wake of Malcolm X.

The middling movies Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus, He Got Game and Summer of Sam are all painfully lackluster efforts, especially in the shadow of the murderers row of Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever and the Babe Ruth of the canon Malcolm X. The precipitous decline in Lee's filmmaking ability was equaled by his fall from cinematic relevance.

Lee wasn't just losing his artistic and critical fastball, the box office had left him as well as none of those films even made back their production budgets, making this unfortunate streak a near death blow to Lee's career. Directors can churn out average and below average films for decades...but only if they make their investors money or at the very least do not lose their investors money...a perfect example is Ron Howard.

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The last Spike Lee film I saw in the theatre was also the first Spike Lee film to make any money since Malcom X, and that was 2002's 25th Hour. Three things stood out about this movie in regards to Lee's other films, the first is that it is a story about a White protagonist and stars a White cast. Secondly, it made more profit than all of the previous seven second tier Lee films (post Malcolm X) combined, and actually made more in net profit than even Malcolm X. And third, even though I thoroughly enjoyed 25th Hour, it was not a "Spike Lee film" as his signature aesthetic was noticeably absent. While I hoped 25th Hour signaled a new phase in Lee's career and began his long climb back into relevance...it didn't. Lee's descent into cinematic irrelevance only seemed to quicken its pace.

In 2006, Lee had a financial hit on his hands with the film Inside Man (which was originally supposed to be directed by...ironically, Ron Howard), but while the box office was stellar, the biggest of his career, Lee's artistry was lacking, and the movie was little more than a Denzel Washington star vehicle rather than a Spike Lee joint, and again, could have been directed by anyone. After Inside Man the wheels came off the cinematic wagon for Lee as he churned out a string of films, one more awful and irrelevant than the next.

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Which brings us to BlacKKKlansman. With BlacKKKlansman Spike Lee has done something extraordinary...he got his fastball back. Now, it isn't all the way back, not by a long shot. If Lee was throwing 98 MPH heat in his early 90's heyday, and in his post-Malcolm X phase dropped to an anemic 90 MPH, and in the last decade has been hurling up grotesque 84 MPH meatballs, with BlacKKKlansman he hits a solid and very respectable 92 to 94 MPH on the radar gun.

The story of BlacKKKlansman is the right story at the right time with the right filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman is right in Spike Lee's wheelhouse and shows him to be artistically and cinematically invigorated by the material because it allows him to highlight his best quality...namely his flair for mixing of humor, politics and cultural commentary. Though not as sharply crafted as his sterling early works, this movie is easily Lee's best effort in the last 25 years, hands down. It is vibrantly relevant, pulsatingly alive and at times gloriously infectious.

Lee's direction is energetic as he unfurls an insightful and incisive story that lays bare the perilously combustible nature of our time. Lee's politics, particularly his racial politics, have always been overt in his films, but in BlacKKKlansman he is not only able to get a blunt and brazen message across out in the open, but also covertly weaves a subtler, yet ultimately more nuanced, mature and impactful political message just beneath the emotionally furious surface of the film.

As much as some may take this film as an anti-White and pro-Black screed, they would be missing the deeper messages embedded in the movie. If you can leave your preconceived notions at the door and watch the film looking for Lee's masterful weaving together of the dynamics at play in the Black and White power struggle, you will be surprised, if not downright shocked, as to what the film is telling/teaching you. In my reading of the film Lee's vision is not so starkly black and white (pardon the pun) but he appears to be trying to find allies where he once saw enemies, and is trying to solve problems rather than exacerbate them.

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The film's star, John David Washington, gives a charismatic and magnetic performance as Ron Stallworth. Unbeknownst to me prior to seeing the movie, John David is Denzel Washington's son, and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. John David is certainly not the skillful actor and master craftsman his father is...but that is an unfair bar to set...rather John David is his own actor, and to his benefit he isn't a look-alike of his father either. John David does have his father's undeniable charisma and charm though and he carries this film from start to finish with aplomb and ease. Funny, likeable and genuine, John David Washington's confidence never crosses the river into arrogance, and that is a quality that will serve him well in the future, which will hopefully be very bright.

Adam Driver is an actor I generally do not understand. I do no think he is very good and cannot for the life of me understand why other people do. That said, he does solid work in BlacKKKlansman and is an asset to the movie. Driver's character is a bit underwritten, but he makes the most of what he is given.

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The luminous Laura Harrier plays Patrice, the love interest of Ron, and she is excellent. Harrier is able to embue Patrice with not only a determined strength, but a nagging fragility that is compelling to behold. Harrier makes Patrice a complex character where a lesser actress would've made her a two-dimensional bore.

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Topher Grace is spectacular as Klan leader David Duke (yes, THAT David Duke). Topher's performance is so understated and comedically genius as to be sublime. Of course, Topher is aided by the fact that David Duke is such a repulsive and captivating character as to be amazing, but to Topher's credit, he does not make Duke a caricature but rather a very real and genuine human being. Topher's ability to seamlessly and subtly make the Duke character's emotional transitions elevates the film considerably.

It is also worth noting that two actors give terrific performances in very small parts. Alec Baldwin has a cameo as Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard, and he crushes his minimal screen time, which was a treat since the last time I saw him he was embarrassing himself with his hackneyed performance in Mission Impossible. And Corey Hawkins has a small supporting role as Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) that is electric. The scene where Ture gives a speech is one of the best in the film and Hawkins' performance (and Lee's direction) is dynamic.

As much as I liked BlacKKKlansman, it isn't a perfect film. I thought the Klansman characters were very poorly written, or underwritten as the case may be. The caricature of all Klansman as stupid and redneck is a cheap and easy way to make fun of them, but a bad way to make the case that racism is a prevalent and predominant evil in our society. The Klansmen in the movie lack a genuine desperation and fear which would make them much more complicated (and believable) characters instead of being the cartoon cutouts that are only motivated by sheer lack of I.Q./hate that the movie makes them out to be.

Lee may have some of his fastball back, but certainly not all of it. The final 1/3 or 1/4 of the film shows the cracks in Lee's skill level. As the story accelerates towards its climax Lee's direction gets messy if not downright sloppy. Lee's cinematic incoherence is matched by some dubious writing and plot twists that make for a muddled and mundane finale to an otherwise pretty riveting narrative.

Lee then adds a coda to the film that is completely extraneous, indulgent, logically absurd and frankly embarrassingly idiotic, that in many ways scuttles the exquisite cinematic experience of the movie. This coda is so amateurish and dreadfully awful it is truly amazing, so much so that I felt myself and my opinion of the movie deflating as the scene wore on. This scene feels like it is from a bad high school morality play rather than a quality piece of cinema. But then...Lee redeems himself with a second coda that ends the movie...which I will not spoil...only to say that it is dramatic and emotional dynamite and is extremely well-done and poignant.

In conclusion, BlacKKKlansman is easily Spike Lee's best film of the last 25 years. It is a relevant piece of cinema that speaks to the troubles of our time by equating it with the troubles in our past. Buoyed by a strong lead performance from John David Washington, BlacKKKlansman is a smart, often subtle and insightful film that packs a wallop, and is well-worth your time and money to go see in the theatre.

©2018