"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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

The Favourite: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.35 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A very dark, arthouse comedy set in the early 1700’s that speaks to the absurdity of the world in which we live today.

The Favourite, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the story of palace intrigue in early 1700’s England as two cousins, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, conspire to out do one another in an attempt to be the favorite of Queen Anne. The film stars Emma Stone as Abigail, Rachel Weisz and Sarah and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, with a supporting turns from Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley.

As I have said repeatedly over the last few weeks, 2018 has been a rather tepid year for cinema, but finally, after the recent ill-exectued visual art house bombast of the highly anticipated At Eternity’s Gate and the messy mainstream misfire of the even more highly anticipated Widows, I have come upon a film worthy of my cinematic attentions and affections. That movie is The Favourite.

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos has directed two previous films that I have seen, The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), both of which were exceedingly dark, at times laceratingly funny, uncomfortably insightful and strikingly original. Lanthimos’ ability to make the off-beat and absurd, not just palatable but penetratingly profound, elevated those two movies onto my list of best films of the year.

Thankfully, Lanthimos is up to his old tricks with The Favourite, as he coaxes deliciously powerful performances from his three leading ladies, Stone, Weisz and Colman, all while putting on a master class in verbal sparring, physical comedy and visual storytelling.

The crazy thing about The Favourite is that it made me laugh out loud on occasion due to the absurdity of it all, but it wasn’t until after seeing the movie and reading about the story, that I discovered it is based on a true story…which makes it all the more absurd…and also makes it extraordinarily prescient in regards to our current political moment.

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Watching Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah jockey for position and using ever more outlandish tactics to get their way in order to have the Queen’s ear, made me think of the pervasive palace intrigue of Trump’s soap opera White House. Sarah and Abigail could be Ivanka and Kellyanne or Jared and John Kelly or Sarah Sanders and The Mooch or any of the myriad of other miscreants who, in an attempt to warm their hands at the hearth of presidential power, have latched themselves onto the mad king currently sitting on the throne.

Speaking of which, Olivia Colman gives a deliriously Trumpian performance as the rabidly insecure, emotionally incontinent, childless and widowed Queen Anne. Queen Anne is blissfully uninformed, ill-informed and disengaged when it comes to politics and governance…sound familiar? Colman’s Queen Anne is, for all intents and purposes, an entitled basket case (again, sound familiar?), so for Sarah and Abigail, manipulating the erratic sovereign takes a deft hand and a decidedly strong stomach.

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The Favourite is also relevant not just for political reasons but for cultural ones as well, as Queen Anne’s court and kingdom have a glaring lack, and a desperate need, for traditional masculinity…there are no warriors here, only connivers. The women, such as Sarah and Abigail, are the ones with power, close to power and jockeying for power, while the men, all impotent and effeminate dandies, are little more than pieces on a chess board for the women who rule the roost to manipulate. These “men” are not only emasculated but embrace their emasculation, and are thus reduced to being second rate women as opposed to first rate men, this is evidenced by Nicholas Hoult’s small but truly stellar performance as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer.

The sex in The Favourite, whether it be in the court of Queen Anne or in a filthy brothel, is, in keeping with the grander theme, entirely transactional. Even when men are involved there is no actual penetration when it comes to consummation, for the fairer sex prefers to keep these perfumed and powdered geldings literally at an arm’s length during carnal interactions. In the female dominated world of The Favourite, the only body part used for penetration is the tongue…and it is very effecteive.

Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan do a masterful job using light and darkness to illuminate the rich sub-text in The Favourite. Ryan’s use of candles is particularly sublime, as he creates a crisp vision of light dancing in a sea of darkness, symbolic of the perils of swimming in the black oceans of power where danger lurks just out of sight and where your humanity, your name and your future can be snuffed out at a moments notice.

Ryan’s framing and Lanthimos’ embrace of animals as sub-text and storytelling devices work hand in hand and are both extremely well done. For instance, Lanthimos’ and Ryan wisely use the symbolically vital seventeen rabbits in Queen Anne’s room as notable backdrops for certain important scenes and although it is very subtle, it is extremely effective.

The performances in The Favourite are stellar across the board. Stone, Weisz and Colman all deserve Oscar nominations for their complex and thoughtful portrayals of what could have been caricatures in lesser hands.

As previously mentioned, Colman is particularly mesmerizing as the petulant Queen who fluctuates between being a tantruming toddler and a vengeful tyrant. Colman gives Queen Anne a remarkable depth, and makes her clownish antics both pained and somehow poignant.

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Rachel Weisz is a force to be reckoned with as Sarah, and make no mistake about it, she literally and figuratively wears the pants in Queen Anne’s court. Weisz’s Sarah is the cunning and compelling brains behind the throne. Weisz’s impeccable use of her physicality to convey Sarah’s strength and determination brings a forceful element to the power dynamic of the Anne-Abigail-Sarah narrative.

Where Sarah is vulnerable though, is where Emma Stone’s Abigail strikes. Stone’s Abigail is more feminine than Sarah, but equally vicious when it comes to getting what she wants. Stone’s performance is beguiling as she taps into a darker and more overtly sexual side as Abigail than we have ever seen from her before, and it suits her nicely. Stone’s natural charm makes her Abigail all the more adept at manipulating the Queen and in turn, the audience.

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I would argue that The Favourite may be Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone’s greatest performance to date. I also think Maria Colman deserves to be nominated and maybe even win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for her remarkable work as Queen Anne. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both of Stone and Weisz get nominations as well as they are certainly worthy.

Politically The Favourite teaches us that being a slave to your ambitions ultimately leaves you a slave. I think Jared Kushner, Don Jr., Michael Cohen and the rest of the Trump bootlicking groupies will understand this film more than most as it highlights the degradation, humiliation, inherit myopia and associated dangers involved in doing anything to gain favor with power. As the film and the actual real life events that inspired it show, the long game, if you have the strategic mind, testicular fortitude and vigilant patience for it, is a much more complicated, complex and ultimately rewarding venture than just being a sycophantic ass-kissing lackey.

In conclusion, The Favourite is a dark and delightful treat of an art house film. I believe the film is worthy of your time and energy to see in the theatre in order to enjoy not only Colman, Stone and Weisz’s performances but Robbie Ryan’s exquisite cinematography. I also think it is worth seeing for no other reason than to get a glimpse of what is no doubt the absurdist black comedy playing out behind the scenes right now in the epicenter of buffoonery known as the Trump White House.

©2018

Widows: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A poorly written, cliche ridden, Hollywood heist movie that stumbles over its own absurdity. Worth seeing for free on Netflix or cable if you want to see director McQueen’s visual prowess, but has scant few other worthwhile qualities.

Widows, directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, is the story of a group of women in Chicago who plot a robbery amidst political intrigue after their criminal spouses are killed pulling a big money heist. The film stars Viola Davis with supporting turns from Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya.

This has been a bad few weeks of movie going for me. As I stated in a previous review for At Eternity’s Gate, 2018 has been a down year for film. There were two films I was greatly anticipating seeing this Autumn that I thought might break this year’s cinematic malaise, the first was the aforementioned Julian Schnabel film At Eternity’s Gate, and the second was Widows. At Eternity’s Gate failed me miserably, and so I was left with all of my optimistic eggs in one basket, and that basket was Widows

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The reason I was excited for Widows is that Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the iconic actor Steve McQueen of Bullitt and Papillon who died almost 40 years ago, is one of my favorite directors. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was a Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay) winner, and is a truly terrific movie, but my personal favorite, and McQueen’s best film in my opinion, is his first feature, Hunger (2008). In Hunger, McQueen’s cinematic vision and dynamic style jumped off the screen in his big screen debut about the I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands.

McQueen’s approach has always been a bit unconventional, for instance, in Hunger there is a static shot of a conversation between two characters that is held for 17 straight minutes. It is a staggeringly courageous maneuver for a rookie filmmaker to attempt, but McQueen dramatically pulls it off, aided in no small part by two pulsating performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.

McQueen’s dexterity with the camera, his flair for framing and shot composition and his ability to draw out superb performances, make him one of the great film makers working today, a true auteur….which is why I was so anticipating Widows.

But much like my disappointment with At Eternity’s Gate, Widows dashed my hopes of a 2018 cinematic revival onto the rocks of cold, hard, Hollywood reality.

Widows is a movie terminally at odds with itself. On the one hand, Widows is a filmmaking masterclass filled with expertly rendered shots, and on the other hand its story is a nauseatingly contrived piece of Hollywood hackery that is so far-fetched as to be absurd.

Widows is meant to be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but by the looks of the box-office it isn’t drawing much of a crowd, and it certainly didn’t please me. The main issue is that the story is too much, the script is too much and the movie is too much in that what it asks of its audience is too much. For the movie to succeed the viewer must make such gargantuan leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief to such a degree that the entire enterprise simply isn’t tenable.

Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay with McQueen, and as she has proven in the past with her decrepit Gone Girl script, Ms. Flynn is not very good at screenwriting. The dialogue in Widows is just as forced and manufactured as the inane plot, the fault of which no doubt lies with Ms. Flynn and her writing accomplice Mr. McQueen.

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The performances, for the most part, are pretty lackluster as well. Viola Davis is a good actress, but she never finds her footing as Veronica Rawlings, the leader of the widowed women’s brigade. Daniel Kaluuya is also pretty underwhelming as Jatemme Manning, the alleged badass in the movie. Kaluuya strikes the right pose but his Jatemme is a one dimensional character that never goes anywhere and is more akin to a dog chasing its tail than a pitbull on the loose. Both Davis and Kaluuya’s performances are entirely predictable and lack any spark of originality.

Colin Farrell, who in recent years has gotten his acting groove back with quality performances in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, badly misfires as Jack Mulligan, the candidate to replace his father for Alderman in the newly reshaped Chicago district where the film is set. Farrell’s accent is all over the map and his character work is unfocused and erratic.

Michelle Rodriguez plays one of the widows and she gives the same Michelle Rodriguez performance she’s been giving her entire career where she is tough…real tough…but also boring as hell. She is joined in her uncomfortable acting futility by Liam Neeson, who comes across as equally unprepared and awkwardly out of place.

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As for the bright spots, there are a few. The first of which is Elizabeth Debicki who plays Alice, widow of Polish descent. Debicki is the only actor in the film who feels like a real person. Her grounded yet charismatic performance lights up and jumps off the screen. Debicki looks like a supermodel but obviously has the soul of an actor as she never poses or preens but rather inhabits a genuine character. I have never seen Debicki act before, but after her intricate and nuanced performance in Widows, I expect I am going to be seeing a lot of her in movies that matter in the future.

Another positive was that one of my favorite, and one of the greatest, actors of all-time, Robert Duvall, has a small part in the film. Duvall plays Tom Mulligan, the patriarch of the political dynasty that Colin Farrell’s Jack hopes to inherit. While Tom Mulligan is not much of a role, Duvall plays it with aplomb, filling it with as much ornery old man piss and vinegar as you’d imagine.

Widows also has a fairly interesting sub-text that touches upon issues of race, class, power and politics that McQueen highlights with some exquisite shots, like when he places the camera on the front of a limousine while candidate Mulligan rants and raves out of sight in the back of the car. The shot travels from the desperate urban blight where Mulligan is campaigning to the tony upscale neighborhood where Mulligan actually lives. To McQueen’s credit, it is a fascinating shot that says more than any of the dialogue in the film. Sadly though, as interesting as the sub-text is, it gets pulled under by the cliched silliness that is the main plot.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is top notch, and his framing and shot composition, particularly his use of mirrors, borders on the sublime. Bobbit is McQueen’s long time collaborator, having worked as a cinematographer on all of McQueen’s features, and his confidence with the camera and his mastery of craft have always enhanced McQueen’s vision. In Widows though, with its ludicrous script, Bobbit’s superb cinematography is akin to putting a silk hat on a pig.

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In conclusion, Widows in not the cure for what ills 2018 cinema, instead it is more a symptom of what ails the art form. What Widows has going for it is an Oscar level auteur at the helm (McQueen), a master craftsmen behind the camera (Bobbit) and a superb cast (Davis, Kaluuya, Fareel, Debicki, Duvall), but the albatross around its neck is the hackneyed script that scuttles the whole ship. As a result of that ill-conceived and executed script, Widows ends up being a contrived and vapid film that makes the fatal error of trying to give the audience what it wants, instead of giving them all that it has.

Whether you are an art house cinephile or an action movie creature of the cineplex, Widows leaves you lacking. It simply isn’t worth the time, money and effort to see it in the theatres, and you will feel like you’ve been on the short end of a heist if you do end up paying to see it. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable, feel free to watch it for free for no other reason than to see Bobbits cinematography and to maybe catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Dibecki’s star being born.

At the end of the day, cinema is the great love of my life, and Widows left me feel like a grieving black-clad widow of the art house. I am not sure what stage of cinematic grief I am currently in, but if I keep getting disappointed at the movie theatre like I did with Widows and At Eternity’s Gate, I am pretty sure anger is right around the corner.

©2018

At Eternity's Gate: 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 Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.

At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.

The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it, first off I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.

Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.

Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.

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And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.

With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.

As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.

What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.

A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.

Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt wisely and a perspective correctly was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the perspective of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.

At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.

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What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.

I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggeringly brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.

I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.

With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.

There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.

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When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.

Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.

Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he embues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.

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Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.

The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.

On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.

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As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.

In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.

©2018

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

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

Eighth Grade: 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. This films never rises to the level of being worth the effort to go see it in the theatre, but if you stumble across it on Netflix or cable it is worth checking out.

Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, is the story of Kayla Day as she goes through the final weeks of eighth grade. The film stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla with supporting turns from Josh Hamilton and Emily Robinson.

Eighth Grade is an occasionally funny, often uncomfortable and unwittingly insightful film.

The highlight of the film is Elsie Fisher who does a tremendous job as Kayla, the early teen protagonist who must suffer the excruciating slings and arrows of adolescence in modern America.

Fisher's performance is so gloriously uncomfortable as to be remarkable. Fisher fearlessly embraces being the ugly duckling in a world of cool kids, no doubt mirroring her experience in Hollywood being a "normal" looking kid among the sea of model wannabes. And while the script often lets the film down, Fisher never does. Her performance is so honest and vulnerable as to make you squirm...and that is a compliment.

The rest of the cast are not so good. The other kids give rather one dimensional performances that are only further hampered by a thin script.

Josh Hamilton plays Kayla's dad Mark and ironically enough he misses the mark. I have always liked Hamilton as an actor, having seen him many moons ago at the Atlantic Theater Company in a production of Cider House Rules back when I studied there. I have always rooted for Hamilton to make it big and thought he had the potential to be a movie star. Sadly, it never happened for Hamilton, and after seeing his rather off kilter work in Eighth Grade I wonder if he hasn't simply lost his mojo. Hamilton seems entirely out of sync and rhythm in his scenes and it is pretty startling to witness. 

As for writer/director Bo Burnham, this is his first feature film and his inexperience shows. Burnham's script has moments of magic in it, but it is also very poorly compiled and extremely thin. Burnham seems more adept at writing skits than screenplays, as the movie feels more like a compilation of bits than a true, fully formed narrative.

Burnham as director also shows flashes of inspiration, but too often is scuttled by his own lack of artistic depth and vision. Maybe with a bit more seasoning Burnham can develop into a powerful storyteller, but for now he seems more adept in creating vignettes than vistas.

The one thing that really stood out to me regarding Eighth Grade is that it unintentionally and unwittingly (no doubt) highlights the current crisis of masculinity in America. I know, I know, you are wondering how can I see a movie about a adolescent girl and only come away with insights on masculinity...well...forgive me...I find my insights where I can.

In the film Eighth Grade, there are no real men. None. There are men, but they are all these rather feminized, weak kneed fools (Hamilton's father character or Kayla's dinner date), or are twisted and tortured versions of the American male like the sex-fueled perverts who inhabit her world.

I doubt Burnham did this intentionally because he himself has probably never known a real man, as they are an endangered species. But the world portrayed in Eighth Grade is an accurate one in that respect, and part of the reason it is such a repugnant, repulsive and frankly hopeless world is that there are no true men inhabiting it.

In many ways, Eighth Grade is a companion piece to Leave No Trace, as the female protagonist of that film, Tom, is older than Kayla is in Eighth Grade, and Tom's generation is saying goodbye to the last of the real men...and Kayla must now grow-up and inhabit that male-less world. Leave No Trace gives viewers the proper diagnosis of the disease infecting of American masculinity and Eighth Grade shows us the symptoms of that disease. And contrary to what many think, a world eradicated of real men, is not a safer world but a much more dangerous one, as Kayla could attest. Of course, the saddest part is that Kayla doesn't even know what her world lacks...she is only left to flounder with a void in her being that she cannot comprehend.

There is a scene in Eighth Grade where director Burnham slowly moves his camera in on the school band as they play an off-key and horrendous version of The Star Spangled Banner. This scene was the best thing about the movie because it accurately depicts how much trouble America is in. As Eighth Grade expertly shows us, the next generation of youth, who are all addicted to social media and who live on line or with their face in their phones, and who have no religion or philosophy beyond self-help platitudes and new age nonsense, are the future of America...to put it bluntly...we are fucked. When these sad and sorry sons of bitches come of age it isn't America's anthem that will be butchered beyond recognition, it will be America. If you can watch Eighth Grade and come away feeling anything other than an impending sense of doom...you are a better person than I.

In conclusion, I didn't like eighth grade when I went through it years ago, and I was less than thrilled about sitting through Eighth Grade now. While Elsie Fisher does a solid job in the lead role, the rest of the cast and film never quite measure up. While I didn't hate Eighth Grade, I certainly didn't love it either. If you come across it on cable or Netflix than I recommend you watch it, but I do not believe it is worth spending the time, money and energy to go see it in the theatre. That said, your mileage may vary, as this film might resonate more with women/girls or parents of girls who might be able to relate more to the social struggles of Kayla...but for cinephiles of any gender, Eighth Grade leaves you unsatisfied.

©2018

 

 

Mission Impossible - Fallout: A Review

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

My Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars               Popcorn Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. This is a rather absurd and relentlessly inane take on the tired old action movie formula.

Mission Impossible - Fallout, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is the sixth film of the franchise and like all the others tells the story of Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Missions Force as he fights to save the world. The film stars Tom Cruise as Hunt with supporting turns from Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson.

I have seen some of the previous five Mission Impossible films, I do not actually remember how many of them I have seen as they all blend into one gigantic ball of action, but I know for sure I saw the first (which was decent) and second (which was dreadful), and then the one where Tom Cruise interminably runs along canals in China. I would have skipped this newest member of the franchise except for two things....one - I have MoviePass so I could basically see it for free...and two - I had a conversation the other day with a friend and he said that he heard that it was a really good movie and was the "Dark Knight" of the series. This was high praise indeed, for Dark Knight is the Everest of superhero movies. So...for those reasons I ventured out to the cineplex to see Tom Cruise ply his trade.

Mission Impossible - Fallout is a weird movie and that is evident from the get go. During the opening credits they play the highlights of the movie that they are about to show you...this strikes me as incredibly, incredibly strange. I mean, why in the hell are the filmmakers basically showing us a commercial for the film we already bought a ticket to? Also...why are they showing us everything that happens in the entirety of the movie during the first five minutes?

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These weren't the only questions raised by Mission Impossible - Fallout. Other questions I had were...what the hell is Tom Cruise doing and why the hell is he doing it? Cruise isn't so much an actor anymore as a professional athlete/stunt man at this point in his career. The plot of Fallout is nothing more than just an excuse for Tom Cruise to run, jump, fall, fly, drive, crash and fight with his usual over-the-top aplomb and as he is the first one to tell the world over and over again...Cruise does his own stunts...each more insane than the next. The marketing campaign for M.I.-Fallout is basically Tom Cruise doing interviews talking about all the stunts he does...which is all he has to talk about because the movie is so stupid that actually talking about it with a straight face is...ironically...an impossible mission.

Some of Cruise's stunts (did I tell you that Cruise does his own stunts?) are certainly daring...like Cruise doing his own skydiving and hanging from a helicopter, but the problem is, as challenging as those stunts were for Cruise to perform, they simply aren't very visually or cinematically interesting or satisfying. It is cool for Cruise to be able to say "hey I did this!" but it seems more important to me for those feats of derring-do to be filmed in a way to maximize their cinematic impact.

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Cruise used to be the biggest move star in the world but now the world is sans movie stars and Cruise is reduced to jumping out of planes or zipping around Paris in a motorcycle or hanging off of a cliff or helicopter or whatever is in reach for him to grip. But if you are Tom Cruise...why the hell do this junk? It isn't like he needs the money or help getting women (or men or whatever he is into). It isn't like MI-Fallout will garner him respect from his peers or awards. So why do this soulless, mindless crap?

Of course the answer to that might just be that Tom Cruise is not an actual person but a business entity, and the flesh and blood Tom Cruise is subservient to Tom Cruise Inc. which is as soulless and mindless a venture imaginable and which leaves the person Tom Cruise less a human being and more an automaton...which is why Cruise fits right in as the Christ of Scientology.

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What makes Cruise's absorption into the dead-eyed entity that is Tom Cruise Inc. is that there was a time in his career where he was a decent actor who strove to be better at the craft of acting. Cruise sought out great directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Kurbick and PT Anderson in order to try and become a great actor. These directors took Cruise out of his comfort and control zone and forced him to get better in films like Born on the Fourth of July, The Color of Money, Magnolia and even Eyes Wide Shut. It seems that Cruise threw in the acting towel after having not won an Oscar and now just churns out the worst sort of second rate action junk he can get made. This is a bad career decision as Cruise's time as an athletic action star are diminishing with every passing day...as any athlete will tell you, the older you get the harder it gets...and Cruise ain't getting younger. I think Cruise would be wiser to pursue the Magnolia approach, meaning he works with superior directors in smaller roles or smaller films in order to try and regain some artistic mojo before the lights go out on his career when he can't take the pounding of doing his own stunts.

Regardless of the Tom Cruise questions...the bottom line is this...Mission Impossible - Fallout is a terrible movie. I guess all things are relative, but calling this the "Dark Knight" of the franchise is sort of like telling a guy who stands three foot high that he is extremely tall for a midget. The Mission Impossible franchise has devolved into a parody of itself and the ever expanding absurdity of the films were highlighted by the resounding guffaws by audience members at my screening.

Fallout follows the tried and true formula of the other films in the series as there are a series of double and triple-crosses usually involving masks that are also accompanied by cheap fake out dream sequences, flash forwards and flashbacks and of course, to top it all off, Ving Rhames wears a hat.  

Two things stood out to me in Fallout...the first is that there is a climactic sequence that I have titled "The Longest Fifteen Minutes in Human History" that is so inane that the audience in my screening laughed out loud multiple times during the endless, allegedly fifteen minute sequence. Secondly, Alec Baldwin does one scene in which he does the worst acting of his entire career and maybe in the history of the artform. I found it incredulous that Baldwin didn't burst out laughing as he was saying his eye-rollingly awful dialogue and look to the camera and wink to let us know he was in on the joke that was this script.

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There were some brights spots for me regarding Fallout...but I had to look very hard to find them. The first was Vanessa Kirby as the White Widow. I liked Kirby on Netflix's The Crown where she played the Queen's party-girl sister. I was pleased to see she is able to adequately fill the big screen...something television actors can at times struggle with...in Fallout. The other thing is actor Sean Harris who plays the bad guy Solomon Lane. Harris isn't particularly great in the movie but I just like him as an actor and was happy to see him getting a paycheck.

In conclusion, I found Mission Impossible - Fallout, to be repetitive, boring and entirely forgettable. Even though Tom Cruise puts himself through the ringer for this movie...have I mentioned that he does his own stunts?...the whole endeavor is for naught. Mission Impossible - Fallout will no doubt make a tsunami of dollars, but my recommendation is that you withhold your money from that green tidal wave.

ADDENDUM: WARNING - THE FOLLOWING SECTION HAS SPOILERS

And finally, another thing I found interesting about the movie is that in some ways it plays into my Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory. Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt, symbolic of the neo-liberal world order, with his puffy, bloated cheeks, a result of his narcissism in the form of bad plastic surgery to, just like that tired old political philosophy, try and look young and vibrant again, is literally hanging by his fingers to stay alive and maintain the current world order. The bad guys...Solomon Lane and company...are fighting to take down that world order and only preposterous movie magic can stop them. Add in the fact that Cruise's character, Ethan Hunt, works for the IMF, which is supposed to be the Impossible Missions Force, but is also the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is the flagship of the neo-liberal world order, and you have a perfect storm for my wave theory.

The neo-liberal world order of the IMF (both the real one and the movie one) is hanging by a thread, and the likelihood of it surviving gets more and more unlikely with every passing second. Solomon Lane, the red headed anarchist...sound familiar (Donald Trump)?... has his heart set on destruction as the first act of creation "the greater the suffering, the greater the peace"...which sounds a lot like the best case scenario for the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Henry Cavill, who plays August Walker (is he a cross between August Wilson and Walker Percy...symbolic of the outcast modern man?), a CIA assassin. Cavill also famously plays Superman, and here he also represents the Nietzschean Superman. Walker (he is a White Walker...sort of like the villainous army in Game of Thrones) is the White Working class seduced by the red headed Solomon Lane/Trump...and does his bidding to destroy the world order.

I assume Fallout will be in the top ten in terms of box office this year, so its narrative/sub-text about a charismatic anarchist leader using his minions to destroy the world order is something that resonates in the collective unconscious right now and will continue to do so in the near future.

©2018

 

 

 

Leave No Trace: 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 understated but well acted and directed film that speaks quietly but says volumes.

Leave No Trace, written and directed by Debra Granik (based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock), is the story of a father with PTSD and his teenage daughter who live off of the grid in the woods of Oregon.. The film stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as the father Will and the daughter Tom.

Leave No Trace is not a spectacular film riddled with dazzling camera work or explosive dramatic gems, instead it is a deliciously understated and subtle movie exquisitely acted and masterfully directed.

Director Granik's last film was 2010's Winter's Bone which was Jennifer Lawrence's coming out party as a major talent and movie star. Lawrence was nineteen when she shot Winter's Bone, and her performance was so transcendent it garnered her an Oscar nomination and catapulted her to the A-list.

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Leave No Trace's teen star is Thomasin McKenzie, and while she won't be on the express train to the A-list just yet, she certainly proves she will have a very bright future with her genuine work in the movie. McKenzie is a much more reserved actress than Jennifer Lawrence (and at 17, younger than Lawrence when she worked with Granik), but she shares the same vibrant inner life and grounded humanity that JLaw possesses.

What is so endearing about McKenzie's work in Leave No Trace is that, like a fawn taking its first steps, she carries the awkwardness of a teen girl with both a compelling mix of insecurity and bravado that is a joy to behold. When a scene arises where a typical actress would be trying to cry, McKenzie takes the wise and inspired choice to try and NOT cry. Watching her contain her emotions and only allow them to sneak through in the most understated of ways, like a quivering chin, made my acting coach heart burst with joy.

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Teaming McKenzie with Ben Foster, one of my favorite actors and also one of the most underappreciated actors working today, makes for a dynamic pairing. Foster is blessed with both a gravitas and air of combustibility that makes him a magnetic and uneasy screen presence. Foster is, like McKenzie, understated in his performance in Leave No Trace, but the less he does the more mesmerizing he becomes in the role. Foster's layered and subdued work, sans his usual fireworks, is a testament to his skill and mastery of craft.

Speaking of mastery of craft, director Debra Granik takes the same subtle route as her actors. Leave No Trace is a straight forward film, and Granik shows her craftsmanship with her impeccable pacing, letting the narrative take its sweet time. Never in a rush, never showy, never over the top or even nearing it, Granik's proficient direction is proof that being able to tell a story without dramatic pyrotechnics and camera acrobatics is a dying art form.

Granik's Winter's Bone was a similarly directed film and proves that Ms. Granik is a throwback type of director from a fading cinematic era, the 1970's, when story and characters were the most important part of the film making process. I hope Granik becomes more prolific as a director in the coming years as her style and approach to the art form are a breath of fresh air in a sewer of over-the-top, look-at-me conformity.

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While Granik's film is deeply poignant for many reasons, as a coming of age story, as a story of a wounded parent, I found it most poignant of all as an unwitting epitaph for the American male. Our society and culture has been emasculated and is feminized beyond recognition. All we are left with is a distorted masculinity (think of Trump or hip-hop culture) that no longer nourishes the society that contains it, but rather is a cancer that is toxic to all that come into contact with it. Real men...defined as self-sufficient, independent, individualistic, rugged, rough, straight-forward and trustworthy, are reduced to being either outlaws (echoes of writer/director Taylor Sheridan) or phantoms left to wander the wilderness but never be seen...like the mythical Sasquatch. As father to a young son, this is the reality that disturbs me to my core. In modern day America men like me and the man I am raising my son to be, are dinosaurs post-comet, a dying breed playing out the string while waiting for our extinction to become official.

As evidenced by the work of Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell of High Water, Sicario), women cannot survive in the world of men, but as Granik shows in Leave No Trace, men cannot survive in the world of women either. Containing the unruly beast of man is no easy task, as evidenced by Tom, who enjoys being able to control her toy horses and who learns to lose her fear of bees and enjoy handling them even though they could kill her (but would die in the process), but she realizes that man (her father) is a hell of a lot more difficult and dangerous to control than honey bees.

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The film also highlights the broken promise of America, especially to men. Leave No Trace peels back the band-aid that covers the bullet wound of America's forgotten. The dark underbelly of America, populated by men sold a bill of goods and exploited for their misplaced sense of duty and patriotism, is a striking indictment of the vacuousness of American culture and political rhetoric.

As the film shows us, America is dying because the American male is dying and with him the American dream. An entire generation of American men are being corporatized and neutered, thus left without any sense purpose or meaning in their lives. This America of eunuchs is a nation that simply will not survive for very long as it will collapse under its own pretensions.

In conclusion, I really loved Leave No Trace. I found the acting and directing to be top notch and the storytelling and sub-text to be truly fascinating and insightful. I recommend you go see Leave No Trace in the theatre, not because it is the type of film that demands the big screen, but rather to send a message to Hollywood that smart, well-crafted, understated and character-driven stories can garner an audience and make them some money.

Whether you are a man or woman, I believe that Leave No Trace will move you, as it reveals that the painful wound currently afflicting America is ultimately fatal...and that there is no turning back and walking away. Go see it now.

©2018

 

 

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: A Review

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

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT: Skip it in the theatre (unless you have MoviePass) but due to terrific acting you should see it on cable or Netflix.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is a dramedy bio-pic based upon the memoir of the same name by quadriplegic cartoonist and recovering alcoholic John Callahan. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, with supporting turns from Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black.

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I have been to rehab more times than I can even remember...maybe it's because I was in a booze-fueled blackout during those years...who knows? The thing that I do remember from my various rehab stints was that at every single one of them they were so bereft of ideas on how to help us degenerate drunken sons of bitches that they would always, at some point, resort to having us watch a movie. The movie they ALWAYS showed at every single rehab was the 1988 film Clean and Sober starring Michael Keaton.

The showing of Clean and Sober was preceded by comments from counselors as to what a "great movie" it was...which only further undermined my trust in them. Clean and Sober is a decent enough teaching tool for a rehab...but it sure as hell is not a "great" movie.

I thought of my seemingly endless rehab days often as I watched Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, and couldn't help but wonder if this film could morph into the new cinematic entertainment/teaching tool for rehabs across the country. 

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You never know what you're going to get with director Gus Van Sant. Sometimes he rolls out a total impressionistic arthouse piece of cinema (Elephant) and other times he'll give you a rather solid but conventional movie tinged with some arthouse flair (Milk, Good Will Hunting). With Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, he falls decidedly into the former category, as the film is a surprisingly standard and conventional "sobriety" bio-pic.

Van Sant does mess around with some less than linear storytelling, but that only confuses matters, as it is at times hard to tell where Callahan is in his recovery or non-recovery as the case may be.

As a recovery story the film works but for all the wrong reasons, namely the incoherent timeline mimics the confusion inherent in addiction, but also makes for a discombobulating cinematic experience. It is frustrating to the point of infuriating watching Callahan consistently get in his own way and stumble and stagger his way from bar to bar and AA meeting to AA meeting and back again and not knowing if we are in "real time" or a flashback or flash forward.

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The cycle of alcoholism and addiction is highlighted in a cartoon by John Callahan which shows the evolutionary scale from an amoeba in a swamp all the way up to a man accepting an award at a podium. Watching someone on screen so convincingly go through that heart breaking, gut wrenching and shame-filled struggle from the drunken swamp creature to the victorious award winner is uncomfortable for anyone like me who has made a similarly arduous journey.

In this context, Van Sant's less than coherent narrative is effective in relaying the psychological and spiritual vertigo that accompanies addiction, which is like a hall of funhouse mirrors where up is down, left is right and right is wrong. It is a horrifying and soul crushing experience to endure (and for loved one's of the afflicted to endure as well) the climb up and then falling back down of Callahan's evolutionary scale. The climb to sobriety is much like Christ's gauntlet to his own crucifixion, but at least Christ had the benefit of a clear path to Golgotha where he wasn't constantly taking one step forward and two steps back.

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John Callahan's struggle for sobriety is doubly difficult because of how painful and hopeless his unique situation is in regards to his spinal injury. Being unable to literally run away from his demons is an added burden that makes his climb all the steeper and also gives him a built in self-pitying excuse. Addicts love to self-pity and embrace the victim archetype...whining "poor me, poor me, poor me...pour me another drink". Callahan's victimhood is valid, but that doesn't make it useful in trying to ease and transform his feelings of emotional myopia, abandonment, betrayal, self-loathing and rage that can strangle recovery in its cradle.

I don't know if Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot will be embraced by rehabs in the coming years as it is a little too realistic in showing how sobriety is a series of very small victories floating in an ocean of abysmal failures. That cold, hard reality might be too much for the newly sober to grapple with in such a fragile and delicate stage of their very long journey up and out of the muddy pit of addiction and onto the terra firma of an "ordinary" life.

As far as the particulars go, the film is definitely elevated above the likes of Clean and Sober because it boasts two top notch performances, one from lead Joaquin Phoenix, who I believe is the best actor in film today, and Jonah Hill, who plays sobriety guru Donnie Green.

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Phoenix's Callahan has a festering wound eating away at his soul that is only heightened when he (literally) cannot run away from it any longer. Phoenix is a combustible talent, but his skill and mastery of craft is equal to his prodigious talents, and watching him imprisoned in a motionless body for two hours is a masterclass. At once charming and infuriating, self-destructive, self-absorbed, self-pitying and yet always magnetically compelling, Phoenix does Callahan justice by pulling no punches in his complex portrayal of him. . 

Phoenix uses his breath to great effect to simulate Callahan's sensation of suffocating as his body struggles simply to inhale and exhale as he is born again in a useless body. He speaks so softly at times you lean forward in your seat to hear him, and at times explodes in such a visceral rage that you recoil from his inner ugliness being vomited upon the scene.

Phoenix is the best acting going right now, and his work in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, is just another monument to that fact.

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Jonah Hill is tremendous as Donnie, a sort of new age aristocrat and golden haired Dr. Phil. Donnie is definitely a character, but Hill never pushes or gets showy with him, he keeps it grounded and contained and so fully inhabits Donnie that he disappears into him. Hill is an actor you never would have guessed would end up being so good. As a comedian and a comic actor he is pretty predictable and rather mundane, but as a serious actor he has developed a solid base of skill and craft along with the courage to abandon his ego and persona and lose himself completely in roles...and it is a joy to behold.

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Rooney Mara is such a luminous screen presence in the film that I kept expecting her to be revealed to be an angel or a figment of John Callahan's imagination at some point...but she isn't, she is a real person...well...sort of...her character Annu is so thinly written she is little more than a sparkle of sunshine dancing ever so briefly on a butterfly's wing.

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In terms of the hidden sub-text of the film...there was one little gem that I discovered and was surprised by...namely that John Callahan is symbolic of Donald Trump. Yes, I know, maybe I, like the rest of America, am seeing Trump in every Rorschach test, but bear with me, I think this is valid as the similarities are striking. For instance, Callahan is an orange-haired cripple and Trump is an orange-haired emotional cripple. Both men are victims of an absent mother who abandoned them to either a cruel world or a cruel father. And both men vented their shadow by flouting political correctness and finding validation by offending other people. They also both claimed to be merely "saying what everyone is thinking" when they disregarded political correctness. Trump, like Callahan, is a shameless liar who is able to deceive nearly everyone, including himself. And finally both men have a thing for beautiful European women.

In regards to Callahan's evolutionary scale cartoon in relation to Trump, both men think they are on top of the scale, when in reality they are just at the top of this cycle of the scale, and will frequently devolve back into the swamp of their own tormented psychology, only to rise again over time.

Trump's presidency is a sign that America is in a stage of devolution right now (and frankly a much needed devolution). We are returning to the swamp in order to purge ourselves of everything but our most basic survival needs. As the cycle dictates, we will return to the mountaintop eventually and will stand at the podium to accept our award...only to be followed by our neck breaking dive head first into the swamp once again...and so goes the circle of life.

In conclusion, overall as much as I loved the performances, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot was slightly underwhelming and dare I say it disappointing due to structural flaws in the narrative that prove dramatically fatal. Van Sant was definitely off his game with this film because the second half loses momentum and also Callahan's drawing ability seemingly comes out of nowhere and is never satisfyingly explained.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is worth seeing on cable of Netflix for free (or in the theatre's with MoviePass if you like), but even with the great cast it doesn't rise to the level of paying full price to see it at the theatre. So there is no need to run, walk or crawl to the cineplex to catch Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot...but if you they show it at your rehab be thankful, it is much better...and more honest...than Clean and Sober.

©2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado - 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. No need to see this film in the theatres, just wait to see it on Netflix or cable if you are interested.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Stefano Sollima, is the sequel to the highly acclaimed Sicario (2015) that tells the story of U.S. black operators fighting drug and human trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. The film stars Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, with supporting turns from Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine.

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When I went to see Sicario: Day of the Soldad in the theatre on the morning of its opening day, something odd happened. After an usher introduced the film and showed patrons where the exits were in case of emergency, sort of like a cinema flight attendant, a crotchety old man sitting by himself in one of the first few rows of the second section of the theatre barked to the female usher to "COME HERE". This boorish old man's antics greatly displeased many patrons, mostly for its rudeness but also because of the racial dynamics at play, as the attendant was a young Black woman and the old man was White. As voices of resistance spoke up against the old man he proclaimed very loudly to everyone in the theatre to "mind your own business".

The theatre attendant gave a dismissive laugh and walked over to see what the man wanted. He then said very loudly... and to my great amusement considering Sicario: Day of the Soldad is about Mexican drug dealers..."get me a Mexican Coke". This old guy was obviously an ultra-asshole, but his "Mexican Coke" demand was even more insulting and bizarre than his order of "come here"...are movie theatre ushers waitresses now too? The attendant gave the guy a cursory answer along the lines of "I have something else to do" and stormed off with a laugh...leaving the tension filled theatre in a hurry.

After this rather strange and unsettling incident, I sat back and tried to enjoy my popcorn and root beer which I had, like the grown man that I am, gotten all by myself at the concession stand. At the concession stand I was, coincidentally enough,  served by a fellow who worked crew on a film I shot years ago. We exchanged pleasantries and caught up with each other while he rang me up for my popcorn and root beer. In hindsight, I wish I had sternly told him to get me a fucking Mexican Coke...but sadly I didn't.

Needless to say my movie going experience up to and including the post-old man Mexican Coke incident had been a roller coaster ride, first the pleasantness of catching up with an old comrade followed up by the ugliness of an old man demanding Mexican Coke...and the feature presentation hadn't even started yet. I could not figure out if all of these strange happenings were good or bad omens for my seeing of Sicario: Day of the Soldad...then the movie started.

In my vast cinema experience I have learned that sometimes you go to the theatre and the popcorn is stale and the root beer is flat and it ruins the whole movie for you. Other times, you go the the theatre and the popcorn is fresh and the root beer fizzy, but it is the movie that is stale and flat. Sicario: Day of the Soldad falls into the latter category and is sadly the cinematic equivalent of stale popcorn and flat root beer and all of the accompanying disappointment that goes along with them.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado has some very big cinematic shoes to fill as its predecessor, Sicario, was one of the best films of recent years that boasted Mickey Award® wins for Best Actress - Emily Blunt and Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins and Mickey® nominations for Best Director - Denis Villeneuve, Best Screenplay- Taylor Sheridan and Best Picture.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado does not in any way live up to the high standards of Sicario. The reasons for this are numerous and obvious, the most glaring being the drop in talent among the filmmakers. Day of the Soldado is directed by Stefano Sollima, and he is certainly no Denis Villeneuve. The new film also replaces famed cinematographer Roger Deakins with Dariusz Wolski, and Wolski cannot hold a candle to the grand master Deakins. And finally the movie replaces Emily Blunt with...well...no one.

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Day of the Soldado's failure to replace Blunt isn't just a matter of star power or performance, it is a matter of structure. Sicario 2 has no main protagonist and therefore is so structurally unsound as to be useless, like a rudderless ship lost at sea. Blunt's performance in the original was exquisitely sublime, but even more importantly was the fact that the story was propelled forward by her character. Day of the Soldado has multiple narratives, one of an assassin out for revenge, another of a CIA agent who'll do anything to protect America, one about a teenage trafficker and finally one about a cartel princess, but none of them carry any dramatic or emotional resonance or are compelling enough to keep our interest. 

Taylor Sheridan is the best screenwriter working in Hollywood today, his scripts for Hell or High Water, Wind River and the original Sicario are truly fantastic and speak to the crisis of America and the American Male better than any films of the last quarter century. But Sheridan's screenplay for Day of the Soldado suffers from a stark lack of narrative focus and dramatic power, and is extremely poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. I was absolutely shocked at Sheridan for having written such a dilapidated script that lacks a coherent narrative, dramatic impact and cultural insight.

Director Sollima is simply ill-equipped to tackle the unwieldy beast that is Sheridan's script. Unlike his predecessor Villeneuve, Sollima seems more at home making a "cool" action type movie rather than a powerful drama. Day of the Soldado is littered with "cool guy" moments and one liners that feel more like something from a high-end Liam Neeson shoot-em up movie than an Oscar contender.

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Benicio del Toro does solid work in reprising his role of assassin Allejandro Gillick...but he too falls into the "cool guy" mode of acting to fit the improbable script he is given. Gillick has morphed into a sort of Mexican Dirty Harry or a Charles Bronson character or something. Del Toro is a captivating screen presence but in Day of the Soldado his invincible Gillick jumps the shark into the incredulous.

Josh Brolin also does solid but unspectacular work in reprising his role of CIA black operator Matt Graver. Brolin has grown into a substantial actor and is having a particularly fruitful year, having co-starred in both Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War. In Day of the Soldado, Brolin is hamstrung by Sheridan's limp script that gives his character an arc that is simply not dramatically believable.

Other actors in the cast do not fair as well as del Toro and Brolin. Catherine Keener is atrocious as government bureaucrat Cynthia Foards. Keener's lack of verbal rhythm combined with her scattered performance, are so clueless as to be uncomfortable to watch.

Matthew Modine plays Secretary of Defense James Riley and is laughably bad. Modine tries as hard as he can to convey gravitas but it is like getting blood from a stone.

Sicario: Day of the Soldad is littered with time and logical inconsistencies as well as a flaccid narrative. None of the motivations of the characters makes sense and none of the conclusions are dramatically satisfying.

Instead of being a taut and tightly wound drama like its predecessor, Sicario 2 is a limp, poorly paced, confusing dark action movie that falls decidedly flat. Even though it has all the trappings of a great movie, it lacks the artistic courage to actually be one, and seems more interested in building a franchise than in telling a compelling story.

In conclusion, I was greatly disappointed by Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and I think you will be too. There is no sense in paying to see this film in the theatres, but if you really want to see it, buy your own root beer (or Mexican coke), make your own popcorn and  watch it when it comes out on Netflix or cable.

©2018

 

 

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - A Review

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

My Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars                   Popcorn Curve Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No reason to see this movie. Another regurgitated rehash of a retread from the creatively bankrupt studios of Hollywood.       

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, written by Colin Treverrow and Derek Connolly and directed by J.A. Bayona, is the story of genetically resurrected dinosaurs being rescued from their now shuttered island park in order to save them from extinction via a volcanic eruption. The film stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard with supporting performances from Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daneilla Pineda and James Cromwell.

I, like most children big and small, like dinosaurs…I admit it. Now, do I like them enough to pay $12.50 to see them run around and cause havoc on the big screen? No. But do I like them enough to use MoviePass to basically see dinosaur inspired chaos for free? You betcha. It was in this state of mind that I ventured out to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom which is the fifth film of the Jurassic Park series and the second film in the Jurassic World trilogy which began in 2015 with the film Jurassic World. The good thing is, if you have seen any of the other four Jurassic Park films, you have basically seen this one. The stories in this franchise are all, ironically enough, clones of one another, with characters making idiotic or nefarious decisions that lead to a plethora of carnage when dinosaurs are unleashed and end up behaving like…well...dinosaurs. 

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In regards to the specifics of Fallen Kingdom, the good news is...that Chris Pratt has developed into a totally serviceable movie star, sort of a poor man's Harrison Ford. Another bit of good news is that Bryce Dallas Howard is an appealing screen presence who is able to carry the weight of a big budget action movie, which is no small feat. That is the end of the good news section of this review. 

Now for the bad news…writers Colin Treverrow and Derek Connolly, who wrote Jurassic World (2015) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as well as the next Jurassic World film, are maybe the worst screenwriters working in Hollywood. Treverrow and Connolly are remarkably inept at writing a cogent and clear narrative, instead deciding to embrace a multitude of flaccid story lines that completely lack originality and drama . Treverrow and Connolly are so devoid of talent, skill and craft that one has to wonder what compromising material they have on Hollywood big wigs that allows them to have careers…it must be a substantial bit of dirt considering how awful they are at what they do.

The screenwriter's failures are only overshadowed by another bit of bad news…director J.A. Bayona's inability to piece together an even remotely coherent film. Bayona's failure is even more disturbing as unlike his screenwriters, he at least showed some signs of promise with his film A Monster Calls (2016). Sadly, with Fallen Kingdom, Bayona churns out a piece of ham-fisted garbage that is riddled with such egregiously poor editing that it is stunning. Bayona's decidedly anemic storytelling combined with Treverrow and Connolly's wretched script, make for a predictable and dull cinematic affair. 

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is basically a satire of itself, cannibalizing other better films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or every other Jurassic Park film, for second rate thrills that are so familiar as to breed contempt. For example, Fallen Kingdom repeatedly tries to recreate Spielberg's original iconic scene from Jurassic Park where a T-Rex gives a dominant roar to proclaim his resurgence…so much so that I felt like I was watching auditions for a new MGM lion. Then there is Chris Pratt going full Indiana Jones when he runs away from a volcanic explosion with dinosaurs chasing him just like Indy ran down a hill with natives chasing him in Spielberg's original action/adventure gem…the shots are nearly identical. 

The writing, directing and editing aren't the only things wrong with Fallen Kingdom, it also boasts some truly atrocious acting. James Cromwell plays some old guy in a wheelchair, but his legs aren't the only thing that don't work as Cromwell's dreadful British accent falls in and out so much I thought he was playing a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. Cromwell has been around forever and is a consistently terrible actor, but he has been doing it for so long we've just become accustomed to his awfulness. 

Speaking of terrible acting, Rafe Spall plays some other guy that no one cares about or believes and is totally forgettable in every single way. His compatriot Toby Jones plays what I assume is supposed to be an evil auctioneer or something which is exactly as moronic as it sounds. You could've cast cardboard cutouts and had stage hands dressed in black bodysuits move them around and you would've gotten more genuine performances.

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To no one's joy but his own, Jeff Goldblum took time away from his work on apartment.com commercials to reprise his role of Dr. Ian Malcolm from earlier Jurassic Park films. Goldblum is a total mystery, why he has a career and people think he is interesting is beyond me. His performance in Fallen Kingdom is noteworthy though mainly because he is able to maintain continuity by meticulously repeating his earlier abysmal performances from the other Jurassic Park films. The only person who thinks Jeff Goldblum is giving an intriguing performance in this film is Jeff Goldblum…and he is damn sure of it.

Fallen Kingdom is so riddled with inconsistencies and illogic the film couldn't help but collapse upon itself. For instance, the prices for the dinosaurs, of which there are only a dozen or so left on the planet, run around $10 million each…which will buy you a decent, but not extravagant, house here in Los Angeles. When a four bedroom, three bath house costs as much as a Tricerotops, you know our economy has gone to hell in a hand basket. The economics of Fallen Kingdom are obviously as illogical as the characters actions and as shitty as the storytelling. 

Another equally inane thing about Fallen Kingdom are its politics. As long time readers know, my Historical Wave Theory posits that the arts, and in this day and age cinema in particular, can be leading indicators for the mood of the collective unconscious. With that said, there are films that are lagging indicators…and Fallen Kingdom falls into that category at least as far as its surface/conscious politics are concerned (the dominant color scheme of the film, green - both dark and light - and vibrant orange, and the archetypal narrative at the foundational core of the film, actually say a great deal more about what's happening in the collective unconscious than the movie's politics, but that is a very long discussion for another day) . 

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Fallen Kingdom's politics are decidedly neo-liberal, with government seen as a benign or benevolent force. Every villain in the film is a White man, and one of them even utters the Trumpian phrase "what a nasty woman" in regards to the film's feminist character Zia, who is quick to say she is a doctor and is not as delicate as men think. In one scene, Zia's actions (I won't describe them in order to avoid spoilers - but her particular act is important to note for its symbolic meaning) lead to numerous villains getting their comeuppance, all of whom are the vilest of creatures…the generic White male. 

Keeping with the lagging indicator theme, there is one bad guy singled out who is a Russian oligarch. He is the baddest of the bad guys, no doubt because he is Russian and we all know Russians are pure evil…and may not even be human they are so barbaric…at least that's what Hollywood has taught me. The Russian bad guy, the Trumpian dino-hunter and the generic woman-hating, patriarch enforcing White men are all such obvious and blatant bits of pandering it is cringe-worthy.

It is interesting to note that Steven Spielberg is Executive Producer of Fallen Kingdom, and he was also director of last year's The Post, another lagging indicator film that was well behind the times in regard to the collective unconscious. It is telling that Spielberg is no longer in touch with the collective unconscious, but that is the fate of all propagandists who try and control collective consciousness rather than connect with it. By trying to manage and manipulate audiences or to "give them what they want", Spielberg has detached from his artistic muse which is how he connected with the collective unconscious in the first place. Spielberg's quest to manipulate audiences has thus rendered his films, even those he only produces, as being culturally irrelevant at best, and at worst insidious propaganda. 

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In conclusion, even if you are looking for just a little bit of summer movie escapist fun, Fallen World would seem to fall short on that account too as at the screening I attended, more than half of the audience checked their phones periodically throughout the movie, so much so that it looked like random fireflies lighting up on a hot summer's night. Apparently these folks (many of whom were retirees and middle aged people, not the usual cell phone suspects - teenagers and millennials) wanted to escape from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as much the dinosaurs wanted to get off that volcanic island. Me…even though I dig me some dinosaurs, I would rather be stuck in hot lava with a T-Rex chomping on my groin than ever watch another Jurassic World movie. 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a repetitive, moronic mess of a movie that's only justification for existing is as a commercial for the accompanying Universal amusement park ride and the inevitable mindless sequels coming in its wake, therefore…there is absolutely no need to see it…ever.

©2018