"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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

Never Look Away: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars

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

Run Time: 3 hours 8 minutes

German with English subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©201

Blackberry Smoke - Fonda Theatre : A Review

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BLACKBERRY SMOKE - FONDA THEATER - THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2019

There is nothing quite so exhilarating as seeing great music performed live, so this year I made a resolution to venture out and see more music. And since I am going to be seeing more music I thought I would expand my writing to encompass not just cultural criticism and film criticism but occasionally music criticism too. So sit back, relax and enjoy my first foray into that genre.

I stumbled upon the first concert on my 2019 agenda in a round about way. Nearly four years ago I saw The Waterboys at the Fonda Theater here in Los Angeles. Mike Scott and the gang put on a terrific show that was accentuated by the exquisite surroundings of the Fonda. With quality acoustics, general admission and terrific sight lines, the Fonda is a fantastic music venue. So in searching for music to go see, instead of searching for bands I like, I went and searched the Fonda’s schedule to see if anything intrigued me. Two shows did, the first of which was last Thursday February 6, when the southern/country rock band Blackberry Smoke came to town to promote their album Find a Light.

I am not a Blackberry Smoke “fan”, I own none of their music and really didn’t know much about them prior to seeing them. But my good friend and walking music encyclopedia, the inimitable Fire Thorn, highly recommended them to me. So, since the tickets were $40, the venue is great and Fire Thorn rarely misses the mark musically, I pulled the trigger and got tickets.

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I listened to some Blackberry Smoke’s albums in the weeks leading up to the show and found the Atlanta natives to be a solid, throwback band with a surprisingly deep catalogue of well crafted and accessible songs. The Whippoorwill (2012) is a particularly strong record, and its follow ups, Holding All the Roses(2015) and Like an Arrow(2016) revealed a palpable musical and creative momentum.

Find a Light, which came out April 6, 2018 is their newest release and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as their earlier work, I still found enough gems on it to be a worthwhile listen, and have found that it grows on you, for I have grown to like it more and more the more I listen to it.

After my two-week crash course in the Blackberry Smoke’s discography, I braved Los Angeles rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later was outside the Fonda ready to rock and roll. With a growling belly and a little time to kill, I made my way across the street to the Shake Shack restaurant, my virgin voyage into the much discussed Shake Shack universe. After devouring a double SmokeShack burger (double cheeseburger with bacon), I was officially baptized into the religion of Shake Shack and am now a devout true believer.

Joyful and bloated from my feast I stumbled back across the street to the Fonda, thinking my sumptuous all-American meal had precluded me from catching the opening act, of whom I had never heard. As I walked into the Fonda I realized I was wrong…and boy am I ever glad I was.

Country rocker Nikki Lane was early into her set when I arrived and she instantly mesmerized me. If Taylor Swift and a rattlesnake had a baby, and weened it exclusively on whiskey, it would be the raven-haired Lane. Lane has a beguiling and confident stage presence and an effortlessly powerful and gloriously weathered voice that drips of character that heightens and accentuates her storytelling songs.

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My date, the irrepressible Dr. Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf III, a trained singer and music afficionado in her own right, was even more enamored of Ms. Lane than I, as we both fell deeply under her hypnotic spell. While I did not know any of Nikki Lane’s songs, it didn’t matter, she sold them to us with an undeniable verve that was impossible to refuse. It also helped that her band, made up of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums and steel guitar, were impeccable.

After my delectable Shake Shack experience and Nikki Lane’s intoxicating set, this night was already a stirring success chock full of newfound favorites…and then Blackberry Smoke hit the stage. The band, made up of the Turner brothers Richard and Brit on bass and drums respectively, Brandon Still on keyboards, Paul Jackson on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and Charlie Starr on lead vocals and lead guitar, hit the ground running with the song “Nobody Gives a Damn” and never looked back.

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I was positioned in the second row right in front of rhythm guitarist Paul Jackson, and what I noticed right away was that Jackson was beaming. I have never seen a musician, or anyone else for that matter have so much fun in my entire life. This guy’s exuberance and sheer pleasure at playing was infectious and impossible to deny. The band are road warriors and true professionals and what was most apparent was not only how proficient and cohesive they are musically, but how much they love what they do, which is contagious and makes them a joy to behold.

While Jackson’s bliss was charming, it is lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr that is the straw that stirs the drink of this band. Starr carries the show and his, at times, blistering guitar work is very impressive. Starr’s vocals are strong and seamless amidst the tight band even though his range is a bit limited. Starr is not a wannabe rock star, as there is no posing or preening, just good old fashioned, grind it out, blue collar musicianship.

The train of the Turner brothers rhythm section was never late to the station and always left on time, and lay a reliably healthy foundation upon which Starr and Jackson’s guitars and Still’s keyboard juked and jived with sweet Georgia abandon.

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The band played a plethora of songs off of their new album, Find a Liight, and mixed in with it a healthy dose of their strongest material from earlier records, along with some covers that were aided by special guests. One of the joys of seeing a show in Los Angeles is that because it is such a Mecca of the music industry, the streets are flowing with talent who are always there to lend a helping hand to whatever tour comes to town. On this night, guitarist and founder of Buckcherry, Keith Nelson (who also co-wrote some of the songs on Find a Light) hopped on stage for a song. Second generation legend Duane Betts (Dickie Betts’ son and the namesake of Duane Allman) also jumped on stage to cover his birthright material from The Allman Brothers, a scintillating version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. And finally, in the encore Butch Walker joined the band for a rousing cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl”.

The highlights of the show for me were The Cult/Billy Duffy inspired raw guitar power of “Waiting for the Thunder”, the crisp perfection of “Crimson Moon”, the soulful melancholy of “Whippoorwill”, Bett’s virtuosity on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, the Springsteen-esque desperate country soul of “One Horse Town” and the radio-friendly infectiousness of “Ain’t Much Left of Me” which morphed into a bluesy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, which itself was a cover of a song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

The audience at the Fonda were an older crowd, mostly made up of middle aged music connoisseurs well read in classic rock and country who definitely admired the craftsmanship of Blackberry Smoke. The show was not sold out and was probably 75% capacity but the audience was exuberant without being unruly or dangerous. (Blackberry Smoke is a most definitely a “safe” show to attend…no worries about fights or anything like that.

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Blackberry Smoke are road warriors, playing over 200 shows a year, because they have to be, this is how they make their living. Radio has devolved to the point where a band like Blackberry Smoke, which isn’t pure enough country for country radio and isn’t old enough to be classic rock, can’t find an outlet for audiences to discover them.

Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands stuck in the wrong time. If this band came along 40 years ago they’d be staples of classic rock right now and we’d all have heard of them. They are sort of like Lynyrd Skynyrd and sort of like The Black Crowes, but really not exactly like either one of those bands. I would classify Blackberry Smoke as a southern rock band with a country sensibility. The difficulty in defining their concise genre and to clearly label them may also contribute to their relative obscurity with the wider public.

The music business conundrum that Blackberry Smoke finds themselves in where they are limited in ways of finding an audience, is bad for them as it puts a ceiling on their success, but good for people like me who are lucky enough to catch them at a great, small venue like the Fonda for $40, as opposed to paying $150 for shitty seats to see them at the Staples Center if they were a bigger, more successful band.

In conclusion, Blackberry Smoke is a cohesive and solid southern/country rock band with visceral chemistry that shine in live performance. While the band are not a transcendent act, they most certainly are an entertaining one. If you like live music and you have the opportunity, you should definitely go check them out as they give a great show and will be the best and most professional bar band you’ve ever witnessed in your life. And if Nikki Lane comes to your town, go out and grab some Shake Shack before hand and see her too, you will most definitely be glad that you did.

SETLIST

Nobody Gives a Damn

Fire in the Hole

Feel a Good One Coming On

Waiting for the Thunder

Crimson Moon

Let it Burn

Medicate My Mind

Sleeping Dogs

Holy Ghost

Whippoorwhill

Payback’s a Bitch

Ain’t Got the Blues

Run Away

Flesh and Bone

In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

One Horse Town

I’ll Keep Ramblin

ENCORE

American Girl

Ain’t Much Left of Me

©2019

On the Basis of Sex: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. This piece of HERstory is a Hallmark movie sold as Oscar bait and is so cinematically underwhelming it should be stripped of the right to vote and forever kept in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, where it belongs.

On the Basis of Sex, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for women’s legal equality as she ascends from Harvard Law School all the way to the Supreme Court. The film stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg with supporting turns from Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterson and Kathy Bates.

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I knew nothing about On the Basis of Sex before I saw it, but as a red-blooded American male anytime I see the word “sex” in a sentence everything else goes out of focus, so when I saw the title it read as “__ ___ _____ __ SEX”. With a title like that how could I not be interested? But then the movie started…and I have bad news for you…there is no sex at all in On the Basis of Sex…there isn’t any nudity either. This revelation was most disconcerting to me and left me feeling as if On the Basis of Sex was the most misleading film title since The Never-Ending Story. What a rip-off!

The truth is I actually had no interest in seeing On the Basis of Sex as I had seen the trailer and it looked pretty abysmal, but thanks to MoviePass, it was my only film option the other day so I took the plunge. MoviePass has altered its service and now only offers very few films in my area, which has made the service rather useless to me. In its current form MoviePass is like fishing off of the Venice pier, the odds of catching something are very slim but then if you do catch something in those sewage infested waters, you get one look at it and wish you hadn’t….which perfectly sums up my experience with On the Basis of Sex.

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On the Basis of Sex is a trite, saccharine, paint-by-numbers, made-for-tv bio-pic that is just dreadful to behold. From the uneven performances to the lackluster cinematography to the cliche-ridden script to the cloying music, everything in this movie is so predictable and dull as to be insipid.

On the Basis of Sex thinks of itself as Oscar bait, and I can see why, it is about an iconic female figure during our current “women’s moment/movement”, and is also directed by a woman, Mimi Leder. No doubt the studio and producers thought they were striking at the right time with the right story to cash in and gather some awards. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscar podium…a few people saw this movie and realized it was atrocious.

One of the big problems with the movie is that Mimi Leder is a hack of a director. Leder has had great success directing in television but television and film are two very different animals. Add to that the fact that the script, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, is painfully pedestrian and you have one giant piece of Oscar bait that never even gets a nibble.

Regardless of your political perspective, there is no denying that On the Basis of Sex is a piece of propaganda, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with it being such rudimentary and ill-executed propaganda. Leder’s direction is stale and uninspiring and the script is painfully vacuous and remarkably paper-thin. There are some scenes where I audibly laughed, much to the irritation of the middle-aged ladies sitting in front of me. The scene where Ginsburg and her teenage daughter are caught in a rain storm in New York City and her daughter fends off catcalls from construction workers and hails a cab at the same time, was so contrived, absurd and artistically obtuse it made me spit up my root beer.

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Felicity Jones is a fine actress, but she brings little to the table as Ginsburg besides steely-eyed righteousness and occasionally pronouncing the word lawyer as “lawyuh”. Ms. Jones’ struggle to give genuine life to the suffocatingly dull script is a quixotic undertaking and never amounts to much of anything.

The rest of the cast do not fair well either. Justin Theroux is a dead-eyed caricature as a hotshot ACLU lawyer and Kathy Bates misfires as a curmudgeonly attorney and…well…we also need to talk about Armie Hammer.

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Armie Hammer is so awful in this movie he made my teeth hurt. Granted, Hammer is given nothing to work with in the abomination that is the script, but still…he somehow uses his terrible acting super powers to make the movie even worse. Hammer plays Ruth’s husband Martin, and from what I can tell Hammer’s Martin is a perfect cross between his character in Call Me By Your Name and a perpetually gently smiling saint. Hammer is so fake and so phony in the role it feels like your watching a two hour long toothpaste commercial sans the gravitas and character development.

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Hollywood tried for years to make Armie Hammer into a movie star, and once they realized that wasn’t happening they shifted gears and have tried to make him a viable “actor”, and I have news for Hollywood…that isn’t working either. Maybe Armie should do us all, himself included, a favor and just go enjoy life and forget about acting for a while…or forever.

There is one scene in On the Basis of Sex that does unintentionally hit upon something mildly interesting, and that is where the villain, James Bozarth (portrayed by Jack Reynor), a dastardly lawyer for the government, talks to his collegues about how gender equality will change American culture. Bozarth is made out to be a one dimensional, misogynistic bad guy, but in the scene he says something fascinating. The two other government lawyers basically lay out gender equality to be as absurd as cats and dogs living together, but then Bozarth says that if equality happens then “wages go down and the divorce rate goes up”. I found it intriguing that this statement was mixed together with the other ludicrous statement because what Bozarth said isn’t ludicrous…it is true. Since women joined the work force en masse in the 70’s, divorce has gone up and wages have gone down. Which is not to say that women should not be treated equally, just that the law of unintended consequences is an unstoppable force regardless of how noble your cause may be…which might have been a more interesting theme to create a movie around.

In conclusion, On the Basis of Sex is a suffocatingly conventional, rather poorly made film that looks and feels more like a Hallmark or Lifetime movie than a major cinematic venture. I know Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a beloved figure and has been turned into a cultural celebrity, but the cinematic story of her life falls decidedly flat and needed a much more skilled and deft directing hand to make it worthwhile. Do not waste your time and energy seeing the chaste On the Basis of Sex, even if you can see it for “free” on Netflix or cable or using MoviePass. Speaking of MoviePass…since the pickings are so slim and I wanted to throw the stinky, rotting catch of On the Basis of Sex back into the water, I am going to cancel my subscription. I’d rather eat bait than the garbage MoviePass is currently sending my way.

©2019

Vice: 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: SEE IT. Although a cinematic misfire of sorts, it is worth seeing for the extraordinary performances and for the civics lesson.

Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, is the story of the meteoric rise of former Vice President Dick and his Machiavellian use of power. The film stars Christian Bale as Cheney, with supporting turns from Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell.

Vice is another one of those films of 2018 for which I had high hopes. I absolutely loved director Adam McKay’s last film, The Big Short, which brilliantly dissected the 2008 financial meltdown and I hoped that when he set his sights on Dick Cheney he would be equally effective in his vivisection of that worthy target. McKay proved with The Big Short that he was more than capable of turning a dense, intricate, complex and complicated topic into an entertaining and enlightening movie, a skill that would be desperately needed for a film about Dick Cheney.

Watching Vice was an odd experience as I found the film had multiple great parts to it, but on the whole, while I liked it, I didn’t love it and ultimately found it unsatisfying. I was so confounded by my experience of Vice that I have actually seen it three times already to try and figure out specifically why I feel that it missed the mark and is not the sum total of its parts. And yes…I realize that seeing a movie I don’t love three times makes me sound insane.

Why am I so interested in figuring out why Vice is not great, you may ask? Well, the reason for that is that Vice desperately needed to be great because it is such an important film for the times in which we live. Trump did not come out of nowhere…he is a fungus that grew out of the shit pile that was Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush/Cheney and Obama…and as we all know, past is prologue, so if we don’t fully understand and integrate the lessons of Dick Cheney’s nefarious political career, we are doomed to stay stuck in the tyrannical rut in which we find ourselves.

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Dick Cheney was a pivotal, behind the scenes player in American politics for four decades (70’s through the 00’s) and so bringing his sprawling yet mundanely bureaucratic career successfully to the screen is a massive and difficult undertaking. It is also an vital undertaking as the argument could be made, and Vice makes it, that Cheney’s underlying cosmology and his political and bureaucratic success are what has brought the U.S. and much of the world to the brink of collapse.

Sadly though, Vice is so structurally unsound as to be nearly untenable. McKay cinematically stumbles right out of the gate and makes some poor directorial decisions that lead to a lack of narrative coherence and dramatic cohesion that diminish the impact of this important movie.

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I could not help but think of Oliver Stone as I watched Vice. Stone’s Nixon is an obvious cinematic parallel to Vice in that it is a bio-pic of a loathed political figure whose career spans multiple decades. The problem with Vice though is that McKay not only lacks Stone’s directorial skill and talent, he also lacks his testicular fortitude and artistic courage.

In Nixon, which is a terrific film you should revisit, Stone and his cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson, go to great lengths to show us Nixon’s point of view and perspective, and it works in drawing viewers into the man who otherwise may have repulsed them. Stone and Richardson occasionally used the technique of switching film stocks and going from color to black and white in order to distinguish Nixon’s point of view and to emphasize flash backs and time jumps. (Vice certainly could’ve used this sort of approach to make the time jumps it uses more palatable and cinematically appealing)

Of course, Stone was pilloried for his dramatic speculation in Nixon by the gatekeepers of Establishment thinking, but despite the critical slings and arrows, it was the proper creative decision. Stone turned Nixon into a Shakespearean character and we knew him and understood him much better because of it, which turned the film about his life into fascinating and gripping viewing.

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Cheney, like his one-time boss Richard Nixon, is also cold and distant figure in real life, but McKay never emulates Oliver Stone and bridges that distance by using dramatic speculation in telling his story. McKay makes the fatal directorial error of only on the most rare of occasions allowing viewers into Dick Cheney’s head and giving them his distinct perspective and point of view. For the majority of the film the audience is forced to be simply spectators to Cheney’s villainy and not participants or co-conspirators, which undermines the dramatic power of the film.

The most interesting parts of the film are the two parts where we are actually given Cheney’s perspective and inner dialogue. The first time that happens is when we hear a voice over of Cheney’s thoughts as he meets with presidential candidate George W. Bush to talk about the Vice Presidency. In this scene we are given access to Cheney’s Macchiavellian musings about the man, Dubya, that he will use as an avatar to bring his dark vision to life, and it is intriguing.

McKay’s brief speculation of Cheney’s inner thoughts in the Bush scene propels the audience into Cheney’s head…which is where we should have been all along. We are then ushered out as soon as we arrive and are left with only a bird’s eye view of Cheney’s world until the final scene. Vice would have benefited greatly from McKay throwing the audience into Cheney’s head from the get go, but instead we get a rehash of Cheney’s greatest hits, or worst hits, depending on your political point of view, which is neither illuminating nor gripping. ( to be fair, McKay’s refusal to speculate on Cheney’s inner thoughts and motivations could be a function of the fact that Cheney is still alive and able to sue, but regardless of the reason, it does a terrible disservice to the cinematic enterprise)

McKay was obviously going to great lengths trying to be “historically accurate” in this bio-pic, but he falls into the trap of many, if not most bio-pics, in that he tries to recreate history instead of creating cinematic drama. McKay simply shows a series of well-known events in Cheney’s life (hey…remember that time Cheney shot somebody in the face!) without any new or interesting insights into them. In this way, Vice is less a drama/comedy than it is a docu-dramedy that merely skims the surface of its subject and re-tells history for those who already agree with its political perspective.

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The biggest hurdle though in telling the story of Dick Cheney is…well…Dick Cheney. When your film’s lead character suffers from an egregious charisma deficit and has created a persona of impenetrable banality, you have quite a hill to climb. Besides mastering the art of dullness, Cheney is also an unlikable and politically despicable person, which only adds to the burden that this film must carry. Unlike in The Big Short, where McKay was able to use multiple characters to propel the narrative, each one different and interesting in their own right, in Vice, McKay is forced to have Cheney be the sole focus and driver of the narrative.

As vacant a character as Dick Cheney is, Christian Bale makes him a genuine human being. Bale disappears into Cheney and crushes the role to such an extent that he solidifies his place amongst the best actors working today. Bale’s confident use of stillness and silence is volcanically potent. There is no wasted motion with Bale’s Cheney, and it is when he isn’t saying anything that he is saying everything. Bale fills Cheney with very specific and detailed intentions that radiate off of him and penetrate his intended target with deadly precision.

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The rest of the cast do outstanding work as well. Amy Adams is simply one of the best actresses on the planet and her work in Vice is a testament to that fact. Adams’ first scene as Dick’s wife Lynne is so dynamically compelling I nearly jumped out of my seat. Right out of the gate Adams tells the viewer everything we need to know about Lynne, she is smart, tough and will not put up with any bullshit. Adams’ Lynne is insatiable when it comes to power, and she is the Lady MacBeth behind Dick’s throne. Amy Adams has given a plethora of great performances over her career, but she has never been better than she is as Lynne Cheney in Vice.

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Sam Rockwell is also outstanding, playing the cocksure but dim-witted poseur of a president George W. Bush. Rockwell plays Bush as an unwitting moron and dupe who is so stupid he doesn’t know how stupid he really is. Cheney’s manipulation of Bush is seamless and entirely believable with Rockwell playing the insecure second generation President. Rockwell never falls into caricature with his Dubya, and fills this empty man with a delightful and at times poignantly meaningful nothingness.

Steve Carell is also great as the enigmatic Don Rumsfeld. Carell morphs into the irascible political climber Rumsfeld with ease and shows a deft touch in making Rummy a genuine human being, a sort of arrogant fly boy whose wings never get permanently clipped.

All in all, the entire cast do great work with Bale, Adams and Rockwell all deserving Oscar nominations for their work, and Bale and Adams very much deserving of the trophy.

As much as Adam McKay won the casting room, he did have other failures when it came to filmmaking. I am sure it is no coincidence that McKay hired editor Hank Corwin to work on his film, as Corwin edited Stone’s Nixon as well. Surprisingly since he was so good on Nixon, Corwin’s editing on Vice lacks a cinematic crispness and is one of the weak spots of the film. Corwin repeatedly uses a black screen for transitions which I found broke the pace and rhythm of the film and scuttled any dramatic momentum. Of course, this is not all Corwin’s fault, as McKay may have demanded that approach, but regardless of why it happened, it happened and the film suffers for it.

Another issue with the film was the use of a narrator. Well, to be more clear, it wasn’t the use of a narrator, but the choice of the narrator and how that character fit into the story. Jesse Plemons, a fantastic actor, plays the role of the narrator but it never quite comes together. Plemons is fine in the part, but considering the amount of information that needed to be passed along to the audience, a more direct and straight forward narrator would’ve been a better choice. Once again, Oliver Stone comes to mind and his mesmerizing opening to his masterpiece JFK, where Martin Sheen (and phenomenal editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing) masterfully set the complex stage for everything that follows.

As much as I was frustrated by McKay’s direction, there were some moments of brilliance. McKay’s use of Alfred Molina as a waiter explaining the crimes of the Bush administration was absolutely magnificent. His expanded exploration of the idea of the “Unitary Executive” was smart and well done too.

Other sequences by McKay that were simply sublime were when McKay would show the global and life altering power of the Presidency. In one sequence we see Nixon and Kissinger having a discussion about their Vietnam and Cambodia policy…and then we see the catastrophic results of that policy on regular people. The same thing occurs in relation to Bush and Iraq in one of the finer cinematic moments of the movie, where all of the power politics in America reduce people half way around the world to cower under a table in fear for their lives.

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There was one other scene that is worth mentioning, and not because it is so great, but because it reveals something nefarious about the film itself. In one scene where the principals of the Bush administration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice etc., are debating whether to invade Iraq or not, there is a bit of dialogue which states in essence that Israel is opposed to the U.S. invasion because it will destablize the region. This is historically completely inaccurate and entirely at odds with reality. Why would Adam McKay put this bit of Israeli misinformation into his film that purports to tell the truth about the Bush administration? I think I know the reason why…but that is an uncomfortable discussion for another day.

In conclusion, as much as I wanted to love Vice because it shares my vision of the world and of the Bush administration, I didn’t love it. Cheney, like Nixon before him, should have been prosecuted and imprisoned for his crimes, instead of having his lackeys turned into exalted talking heads on MSNBC and CNN. If Vice were better made, if it were more coherent, cohesive and effective in its storytelling, it could have done to the Bush/Cheney administration, what The Big Short did to Wall Street…exposed them bare for the repugnant, amoral and immoral criminal pigs that they are.

Sadly, Vice doesn’t rise to the challenge, and so the historical myopia that pervades our current culture will persist and prosper. Liberals will continue to think everything was great before Trump and that Trump is responsible for all that is wrong in the world…and thus they doom themselves to repeat the cycle that brought us Trump in the first place. Just like Nixon gave us Reagan and Reagan gave us Clinton and Clinton gave us Bush/Cheney and Bush/Cheney gave us Obama and Obama gave us Trump…Trump will birth us another monster and it will devour us all unless we wake up and understand that it isn’t the individual that is rotten, it is the system that is rotting.

With all of that said, if you get a chance I do recommend you go see Vice, it is worth seeing for the exquisite performances of Bale, Adams and Rockwell alone. It is also worthwhile to see Vice to understand that as much as we’d like to blame others, be it Russians, Republicans or Democrats for all of our troubles, the truth is that Cheney bureaucratically maneuvered to give us the fascist tyranny for which we were clamoring. The fight is simply over who gets to control it the beast that is devouring us, and to see how much we can make selling rope to those who wish to hang us. My one solace to this national existential crisis is revenge, and the hope that I will get to see Dick Cheney and the rest of his gang at the end of one of those ropes before I die.

©2019

Aquaman: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A real bore of a superhero movie that is as odious as week old chum.

Aquaman, written by David Leslie Johnson and Will Beale and directed by James Wan, is the origin story of DC comic book superhero Aquaman, who is the bastard son of a queen from the underwater empire of Atlantis. The film stars Jason Mamoa as Aquaman with supporting turns from Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson.

Having spent the last few months almost exclusively at the art house and reeking of its pretentiousness, I decided to head out to the cineplex in search of some mindless fun. Aquaman is putting up Black Panther-esque numbers at the box office as it has made nearly a billion dollars since its release in late December and has come in first in the money tally for three straight weekends, so I figured it would be a good choice for my descent back into the cinema of the unwashed hoi polloi.

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The problem with Aquaman is not that it is mindless fun, the problem with it is that it is so mindless that it is absolutely no fun. The film is so chock full of nonsense it feels like a parody of a superhero film. This version of Aquaman made me feel as if the dead eyed Vincent Chase from HBO’s faux-Hollywood sexploitation show Entourage really did get to make his Aquaman movie in real life.

A few weeks ago I saw a headline that read “Director James Wan Says to Blame Him if Aquaman Fails”. It is nice to know who to blame. I am sure that Wan was referring to the film’s box office and not its artistic merit when he spoke of failure, but since I judge a movie on its merits and not its finances, I’ll still point the finger at Wan. Although to be fair, Wan is not the sole owner of blame for Aquaman’s stinkiness. The suits at Warner Brothers and their DC point man Goeff Johns are just as guilty if not more so than Wan. I mean, who thought up this monstrosity and more importantly, who thought it would be a good idea?

Aquaman is such a derivative and unoriginal bore it is like a sea serpent that wraps itself around you and slowly suffocates you to death over two and a half long hours. It is so unrelenting in its imbecility that the harder you fight against it the harder it squeezes the life out of you until you simply acquiesce and let it drown you in its inanity.

The film is basically trying to turn Aquaman into King Arthur of the Sea or something but is so convoluted and tone deaf it ends up being less an homage to that myth than a vomiting up of a rancid cliche fish stew of every other super hero movie. The pacing and the tone are all over the place, the narrative structure is distractingly serpentine and the film lacks any and all thematic and dramatic depth.

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On the bright side, Jason Mamoa is a very likable actor and to his credit, at the very least, proves himself worthy of carrying a big budget action film for two and a half hours, which is no small feat. But even his charms wear pretty thin as he has to repeat the same old tired superhero moves over and over again. In the opening fight sequence, I counted at least three times that Momoa’s Aquaman did the standard superhero three point landing along with three superhero “gonna kick some ass” looks with accompanying music cues, and that was just in the first 5 minutes of Mamoa’s screen time. So much posing, so little time…how exhausting that must have been.

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As I said, I like Jason Mamoa, and frankly it is to his credit that I cannot imagine anyone else playing the part anymore. Mamoa has a natural charm and charisma on screen and combined with his surfer dude/biker gang persona, makes his Aquaman palatable. Although to be fair, I probably like Jason Mamoa because we look so much alike. If it weren’t for the fact that he is a little bit shorter and has a slightly higher body fat percentage than me, we could be identical twins.

As for the rest of the cast, they pretty much embarrass themselves by being stuck in this dull and ridiculous farce. Having worked with coaching clients on roles like these, I know how hard they can be. I have clients rolling around on my office floor fighting imaginary monsters all the time, and let me tell you, it is one of the most difficult things for an actor to do. Buying into this sort of nonsense, especially when the script is so hackneyed, takes a Herculean effort and a great deal of self-confidence and commitment. That is why I felt so bad for poor Willem Dafoe, who deserves so much better than this mess, or Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson, who had to do all of this foolishness with a straight face. I also felt awful for Amber Heard, who is absolutely dreadful in her role and seems like a puppy lost on a highway.

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To the actor’s and film’s credit, it is not only a tremendous filmmaking accomplishment but a tremendous evolutionary accomplishment just to get this film made at all. I mean, how all of these actors were able to hold their breath underwater for such long takes is literally a miracle. Add to that the fact that they were able to speak all of their dialogue so clearly and engage in very complicated fight choreography despite the lack of oxygen and under the massive pressure of the ocean, is a staggering achievement for humanity. And then to think that it wasn’t just the actors under water for hours on end for days, weeks and months, but the crew as well. I shudder to think of the poor hair and makeup people and how they kept everyone beautiful at such cold, pressure filled depths.

Another group that deserves credit are the animal wranglers on the set. I had no idea that sea creatures, from great white sharks to giant squid to octopus to giant crabs, could be so tamed and controllable. To see Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark with such aplomb is not only a testament to the death-defying skill of Dafoe, but to the professionalism of the shark as well. I know the Academy Awards scuttled the Popular Film category this year, but I hope they consider a Best Non-Human Acting category in order to reward the fish cast of Aquaman, because they sure as hell deserve it!

In conclusion, Aquaman didn’t make me angry because it was so bad, it simply made me tune out very early on because of its repetitive and stultifying dullness. As someone who is one of those rare people who actually liked DC’s Batman v Superman and mildly approved of Justice League, I had no use for the mess that is Aquaman. Even if you love superhero movies, you can skip this one in the theatre and see it on Netflix for free. If you are even remotely less than a superhero uber-fanatic, there is no reason to ever waste your time watching this stinky and decaying fish tale.

©2019

Destroyer: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Cold War: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 our of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Happy as Lazzaro: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

Bird Box: 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 supernatural thriller that holds little to no cinematic appeal.

Bird Box, written by Eric Heisserer (based on the book of the same name by Josh Malerman) and directed by Susanne Bier, is a supernatural thriller about a woman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The film stars Sandra Bullock with supporting turns from John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes and Sarah Paulson among many others.

During my recent daily online reading routine I kept coming across headlines saying that the Netflix film Bird Box was racking up prodigious amounts of views. Falling prey to the Netflix marketing campaign, which included those sure to be bogus view numbers and the plethora of manufactured stories about said bogus numbers, and also being the mindless lemming that I am, I decided I too should watch Bird Box to see what all the fuss was about.

Upon seeing the film I can now report that the fuss is phony. Bird Box is a glorified made for tv film that is an amalgam of other not very good movies, and some downright awful movies. If M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, one of the worst movies imaginable, had sex with its first cousin that was a cheap knock off of A Quiet Place, and then gave birth to a six-toed simpleton that had a regional theatre’s version of Sophie’s Choice’s next door neighbor’s friend from high school’s sister as its wet nurse, you’d get Bird Box.

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Bird Box, and the online hype surrounding it, reminded me of when I was a kid and one of the networks (there were only three back then) would hype an apocalyptic movie of the week where killer bees or fire ants turn on humans, or something equally absurd. I was always a sucker for such movies, but being young was never allowed to stay up and watch them, thus they got to maintain their mysterious power over me even as I grew into an adult (or whatever I am now). Of course those killer bees/fire ants movies were awful and everyone who wasn’t twelve or younger at the time knew it, even the poor local newscaster who would tease a story during a commercial break and then try and stay solemn and professional as he uttered with liquor fueled indignation the classic phrase, “stay tuned for that story and sports with Champ and Brick with the weather on the 11 o’clock news at the conclusion of the movie”.

Like those movies of the week, Bird Box does have an interesting, if not entirely original, premise, that for some mysterious reason there are waves of mass suicides taking place. This post-apocalyptic world is ripe for exploring numerous philosophical questions on the meaning of life, God, humanity and purpose, but instead of serving a rich feast of cinematic questions, the film takes dramatic shortcut after shortcut and ends up being a thin gruel of regurgitated pablum with no value whatsoever.

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Bird Box’s alleged success is really a result of the marketing team cashing in on having Sandra Bullock as the movie’s lead actress. Bullock does commendable work in the film, and I am assuming/hoping she received hefty remuneration for her duties because all of those views Netflix is bragging about are because she is still “America’s sweetheart”….a less grating version of Julia Roberts.

Bullock carries the film from start to finish and does so with her usual down to earth, approachable aplomb, but that doesn’t mean the acting is top notch, it isn’t. The cast includes some big name actors like John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong and Sarah Paulson, none of whom distinguish themselves bringing their paper thin characters to life.

Bullock and Paulson play sisters and their interactions early in the film are so forced and wooden it is stunning. To be fair, the dialogue in these exchanges is so laden with exposition it would be difficult for any actor to find signs of life within that barren wasteland.

As the film progresses it becomes populated by a rainbow of caricatures, the bitter drunken asshole with a heart of gold, the gay Asian guy with a heart of gold, the Black Iraq war vet with a heart of gold, the nerdy conspiracy novel writing guy with a heart of gold and on and on and on.

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The internal logic of the film is pretty tenuous as well, with a lot of instances where you stop and go, “wait a minute…that doesn’t make sense!”…like when the Black guy with a heart of gold takes the time to put his pants on before he runs over to pick up a walkie-talkie that is signaling the first glimmer of hope for the survivors since their ordeal began, or the cavalcade of other illogical oddities that you just have to shrug at and go with if you want to keep watching.

Besides the shallow script and uneven performances, the visuals of the film are pretty lackluster. Considering that sight is a main plot point in the film, you’d think a cinematographer or director worth their salt would find a way to exploit that fact with some artistic flair, but alas with Bird Box it is not to be. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino delivers a very flat and cinematically dull film that looks like episodic television, and that is not a compliment in the slightest.

Director Susanne Bier fails to adequately draw the viewer in with either the look of the movie or an interesting perspective on the story. Once the histrionics of the collapse of society take place, the film is reduced to a stage play of stereotypes that is terribly predictable and devoid of much tension or drama.

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The one thing the film does have going for it is that Sandra Bullock is a pleasant person to spend two hours with, which is really the secret to her very successful career. Bullock is always Bullock, but that is what makes her a movie star. She is a charismatic and compelling screen presence and while the film that surrounds her is derivative and trite, her presence elevates the material to at least being tolerable.

In conclusion, Bird Box is a mish-mash, fish stew of old Hollywood tropes, cliches and caricatures that never rises to its slightly alluring and intriguing premise. It fails to adequately explore the multitude of philosophical, social and/or political questions it alludes to and never successfully builds enough tension or drama to be worthwhile. It is for these reasons that I cannot recommend Bird Box in the slightest…but if you want to see a similar thriller but one that is original, skillfully made and riddled with quality performances, then wait until A Quiet Place comes out on Netflix and watch that, it will be a much better use of your limited free time.

©2018

22 July: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. Not the best film of the year but maybe the most important film of the year.

22 July, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, is based on the book One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and Its Aftermath and tells the true story of the infamous 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway committed by right wing extremist Anders Breivik which killed 77 people. The film stars Anders Danielsen Lie as Brevik and Jon Oigarden as his lawyer Gier Lippestad.

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I have been a fan of director Paul Greengrass since I first saw his film Bloody Sunday in 2002. Greengrass’ direction on Bloody Sunday was extraordinary and his frenetic cinematic style made that film a viscerally unnerving movie to experience. As a first generation Irish-American, my attachment to the Irish people protesting against the British in Bloody Sunday was already entrenched, but Greengrass’ innovative visual approach made the film and the horrific slaughter it depicts so emotionally jarring that I had difficulty containing myself as I watched.

Greengrass has tackled other emotionally raw material besides Bloody Sunday, as he also made the 9-11 film United 93, which told the story of the passenger rebellion against the 9-11 hijackers on that ill-fated flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. On United 93 Greengrass’ signature mixture of documentary-style realism combined with a hectic stylized hyper-realism through manic camera movement made that already emotionally combustible story all the more charged.

Grenngrass has used his style on other films such as Captain Philips and three of the Bourne franchise movies to good effect even though those stories were not so emotionally imperative and volatile as Bloody Sunday or United 93.

Which brings us to 22 July. 22 July is a very emotionally potent story even without Greengrass’ cinematic maneuvers, as it deals with children and young adults being in mortal peril. Any story dealing with the violent targeting of children is bound to arouse an emotional response from viewers, especially parents. I don’t know this for sure, but I would assume that the response of being revolted and unsettled at the sight of children being harmed is hardwired into the human brain. (and this biological auto-response is a useful tool for propagandists, as I have written before).

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As I watched 22 July for the first time, as a father I found my reaction to be similar to my reaction to Bloody Sunday, I was shaking with emotion, projecting my son onto the children in peril in the film. But I also noticed something peculiar about the film, namely that as much as I was shaken by it, Greengrass actually seemed to be pulling his visual punches in telling the story. The scenes of Breivik’s attack on youth campers was jarring, but the way Greengrass shot it actually felt a bit watered down. The violence was palpable and garnered a visceral reaction from me but it was not even remotely explicit. Even Greengrass’ shaky camera seemed tamed down a bit.

I don’t blame Greengrass for being more strategically sensitive in his depiction of such an atrocity, but that decision to soften the blow of the tragedy a bit seemed to permeate the rest of the story. The more I watched the more I felt as though the drama Greengrass was trying to build was being undermined by the earlier decision to spare the audience of the grueling physical aspects of Breivik’s carnage.

After the attack sequences, which as I stated, were emotionally effective if visually subdued, the film struggles to maintain a compelling pace and narrative, as it focuses on the struggle of the survivors to come to grips with Breivik’s destruction.

The action skips between the Rocky-esque physical, mental and emotional recovery story of a young man and the story of Breivik’s attorney, who accepts the thankless job of defending this monster.

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The survival story is uncomfortably trite and feels as though it is from another movie altogether as it is paced differently and thematically is out of rhythm. Jonas Strand Gravli plays the wounded young man, Viljar, and he gives a good effort to a very difficult role, but he never quite moves beyond indicating and graduates to experiencing. Viljar is not as multi-dimensional a character as he needs to be, whether that is Gravli’s fault or the fault of Greengrass’ script is open to debate, but regardless, the film suffers because of it.

The lawyer story though, is fantastically compelling, and is in many ways the best part of the movie. The lawyer, Gier Lippestad, is precisely and exquisitely portrayed by Jon Oigarden, who is a fantastic actor. Oigarden plays Lippestad as an understated hero, an archetypal Knight in Invisible Armor who does his duty because it is the right thing to do even if he doesn’t want to do it.

For those not familiar with the Norway Massacre upon which the film is based, which is probably true of most Americans, 22 July will be a startling and unnerving revelation. Breivik accurately foretold of the coming populist and nationalist wave that is currently engulfing the entire planet. In some of the darker corners of the web, Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people, 69 of them children, is referred to as St. Breivik because he is part prophet/part martyr for the cause of European ethno-nationalism. Breivik told Europe, the U.K. and the world what was coming, and no one listened to him. Breivik may be evil, he may be mentally ill, but he certainly wasn’t wrong.

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The Lippestad character is the one that viewers should focus on if they are looking for a way to quell the call of St. Breivik upon their countrymen and the equally thoughtless reaction of liberals to Breivikism. Lippestad does not embrace emotion, he does not embrace revenge, he does not embrace reactionary measures to silence dissent. What Lippestad does is pledge his loyalty and his life to the law. Lippestad understands his place in Norwegian civilization, and his critical role in keeping it afloat. Lippestad’s courageous decision to defend the heinous Breivik, despite what it costs him personally and professionally, make him a hero not just for Norway, but for all of Western Civilization.

The U.S. is well beyond repair now because it has long lacked people like Lippestad, most strikingly in the wake of 9-11. The Patriot Act, the expansive surveillance, the torture, the illegal wars…all of it…were a result of America and Americans embracing myopic and emotionalist vengeance. As is always the case, when emotion is your guide and an eye for an eye is your philosophy, everyone ends up blind.

Besides embracing the Lippestad ethic, viewers would be wise to not label Breivik as an irrational loon or outlier and should focus more on answering the legitimate questions he asks and the problems he raises. Breivik was not created in a vacuum, and while it would be comforting to simply try and eliminate or ignore him and his far right acolytes, the idea that propels them is uncontainable and on the loose, you ignore it or try to banish it at your peril. Liberal’s tactic of reducing their opponents to nothing more than irrational “racists” not only doesn’t solve the problem, it greatly exacerbates it. Stifling debate, delegitimizing serious concerns and ignoring observable reality is a sure fire way to radicalize opponents even to the point of violence. If liberals shut down the immigration debate with cries of “racism”, that doesn’t mean they’ve won it, or changed people’s minds, it just means they’ve abandoned the debate and shoved the resentment of their opponents into the closet, thus turning it into a shadow element that grows in power and intensity in the dark. Breivik is a fungus that grew in that shadow darkness…and he won’t be the last.

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Breivik is a monster, but he was also right. Immigration is a major problem in Europe. European cultures are under siege and attack and Breivik’s logic was pristine when seen through that lens. Ignoring these realities doesn’t make you an enlightened liberal, it makes you a damn fool. When a people or culture are under attack one of two things can happen, these people can either capitulate or they can fight. Throughout human history the usual response has been for people to fight. You can see this in recent history, from the Middle East to Britain. Not surprisingly America was not welcomed as liberators in Iraq…or Afghanistan…or Syria…or Yemen…or Libya…or anywhere else. Just like the waves of African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants have resulted in Brexit, Viktor Orban, the Five Star Movement, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Trump and every other anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist movement on the rise in Europe.

As I have written before, when an invasion occurs, war breaks out. Whether that invasion is of military troops or migrants makes no difference. And when war breaks out, always bet on the home team…that is why the U.S. has lost in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. And that is also why the nationalist surges in Europe and even in the U.S. are the favorites to prevail.

An example of why this is can be seen in the behavior of my liberal friends out here in Hollywood, where everyone likes the idea of diversity, but once it costs them a job, or their children an opportunity or puts their children at risk, diversity goes out the window. People either fight or they capitulate. Here in Los Angeles, a very diverse city, many of my liberal friends who literally say that “diversity is the most important thing” to them, don’t send their kids to the very “diverse” public schools, but rather move to a tony neighborhood where the diversity isn’t “so diverse”. Either that or they send their kids to extremely expensive private schools in order to embrace “diversity” but just not too tightly. Like most things, diversity is great in theory, but more difficult in practice. In most cases when it comes to Hollywood liberals, “diversity” is deemed mandatory but only for those “racist” other guys, which is just like the Hollywood liberal approach to immigration, which they wholeheartedly support just as long as it doesn’t negatively effect them.

In conclusion, while 22 July is not the best film of the year, it is among the most important ones. I urge people to steel themselves and watch it, especially because you can see it on Netflix for free. 22 July asks viewers very uncomfortable questions that we all need to find the courage to deeply and honestly ponder, as we might not like the truth that presents itself when we look deep enough to find the answer. For me, the greatest takeway from 22 July is that Breivik was a prophet of doom and Lippestad is the needed antidote to Breivikism. The unsettling reality is that the Breivik infection has spread while the Lippestad antidote is in very short supply.

©2018

Roma: A Review

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

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

The Mule: 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. An underwhelming dramatic misfire from Clint Eastwood that never lives up to its intriguing premise or its cinematic promise.

The Mule, written by Nick Schenk and directed by Clint Eastwood, is the true story of Leo Sharp, a war veteran in his late 80’s who becomes a drug courier for a Mexican drug cartel. The film stars Eastwood as Leo, with supporting turns from Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia.

Clint Eastwood is royalty out here in Hollywood, and rightfully so. The reasons for his kingly status are pretty obvious, it is because he has been a huge box office star, a cultural icon and an Oscar winning filmmaker as well as the fact that he has been around forever and has made lots of people lots of money, something which Hollywood REALLY likes.

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As esteemed as Eastwood’s career has been, it is his longevity that has afforded him the ability to be alive while the industry lauds his career accomplishments. For instance, Eastwood won his Best Director Oscar for his genre defining and closing western masterpiece Unforgiven at the age of 62, it felt like the final chapter of a remarkable career. But then Eastwood won Best Director again in 2004 at the age of 74 for the less than award worthy Million Dollar Baby in what most definitely felt like a lifetime achievement award, a gold statuette from Hollywood to say thank you to Clint one more time before he died. But then the unexpected happened again…Clint Eastwood didn’t die. He didn’t fade away. He didn’t retire. To his credit, he kept making movies…and he kept making people money because he was always on time and always on budget, which is the true secret to Tinseltown success.

As great as Eastwood’s Unforgiven was, and it is truly one of the great pieces of cinema, the truth is that this Emperor of Hollywood has no clothes in regards to his later works, which have been decidedly sub-par and shoddy. Yes, he and his movies have won awards and made money, but the bottom line is this, Eastwood’s late career movies haven’t been good films. A good test of this is that you can watch Unforgiven a dozen times over and still come away with something new each time, but if you try and watch any of Eastwood’s later films, like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper, more than once, you are struck by the glaring lack of craft, skill and artistry on display. His late career films, even ones with a lot of accolades and box office bang, are cinematically tenuous and artistically shallow. All of Eastwood’s golden years movies are paper thin, and upon closer examination reveal themselves to be really shoddy pieces of work.

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A hysterical example of that shoddiness is the infamous fake baby in American Sniper, but the problems with Eastwood films runs much deeper than using a fake baby, it is why he used a fake baby that causes the problem. The fake baby came about because the two babies lined up to shoot that day fell through, so instead of shifting on the fly and rescheduling the baby scenes, Eastwood stubbornly stuck to schedule and budget, and shot with a doll instead of a live baby. What this silly little example shows is that Eastwood is more interested in getting it done (on time and on budget) than getting it done right.

Now, the uninitiated and/or “regular people” might think, “hey, why is getting something done on budget and on time bad?” Well, it isn’t bad in and of itself, and it is a wise move in terms of making a living and making a lot of powerful friends in Hollywood, as a minimal talent like Ron Howard has learned, the problem is when it is craft that is the victim of a strict adherence to budget and time. Think of it this way…what if a construction company building the bridge you drive over every day cared more about being on time and on budget than getting it done right. In that case, cutting corners means the bridge will be structurally unsound and will, over time, collapse…which is a perfect metaphor for Eastwood’s later films, as they are structurally unsound and collapse over time and repeated viewings. You wouldn’t want to drive on that bridge, just like I don’t want to suffer through a shoddy Eastwood film.

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Another problem born out of Eastwood’s adherence to tight schedules and budgets is his preference for doing a minimal amount of takes of each scene. This approach works on a film like Unforgiven because you have a murderer’s row of old pros like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself carrying the film. This approach works less well on films like Gran Torino, where Eastwood cast non-actors and amateurs, or American Sniper, where much of the cast were less experienced, less talented and less skilled actors.

Actors with less experience need direction, and direction comes about over the course of a few takes. Eastwood’s hands off approach may keep his schedule and budget in tact, but it also makes his movies feel second rate and amateurish.

What is so frustrating to me is that Eastwood’s films all feel like they SHOULD be good, and in theory they are good as they have good ideas, good stories and often times good actors, but the problem is not in theory but in the execution and in the attention to detail, and that falls on Clint.

The Mule is a perfect example as the story of a 90 year old man working as a drug mule for a cartel is certainly intriguing, and so is the idea of a cultural icon, Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name, playing the role, but it is in the execution where the film stumbles and staggers.

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In The Mule, Eastwood’s weaknesses are on full display, with a notable addition, Eastwood himself is so old at this point, that he himself is not much of an actor anymore, and that is a problem when he is supposed to carry this movie not only as an actor but as a director. It is asking quite a lot for an 88 year old to walk around the block, nevermind muster the energy to act in front of the camera and direct from behind it.

It is for these reasons that The Mule is a bit of a conflicted and underwhelming hodge-podge of a movie. To be fair, The Mule could have been a whole lot worse, but that certainly doesn’t mean it was great or even good. The frustrating thing for me is that The Mule could have been great. Maybe if Eastwood just acted in it and there was a more visionary director at the helm, then it could have risen to worthy heights, but as it is, the film is a disappointment.

Eastwood’s acting is painful to watch. There are moments when he flashes back to being the Outlaw Josey Wales (another great movie) or Dirty Harry for a second, but those glimpses quickly fade into oblivion and are replaced by an actor pushing too much or not enough. Clint never firmly grasps the character, which could be due to the script, and so he staggers around from comedy to tragedy and back again.

Eastwood isn’t helped by the script or by his own directing, both of which leave a lot to be desired. There are some scenes with painfully obtuse exposition, like where Leo, out of the blue, tells a stranger that he has driven all over the country and never…NEVER got a ticket or pulled over. Leo shares this bit of information about five times in less than thirty seconds and then the stranger propositions him to be a drug mule. Yikes.

Leo’s relationship with his wife, kid and grandkid are so hollow their dialogue could echo. There is not a single, genuine, grounded human emotion or encounter in the entire film. Not one. Every interaction rings false and forced.

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The characters are one dimensional card board cutouts, but that would make sense since the plot is equally thin. There are all the usual bad movie tropes in there, the interrogation scene where tough guy cops get a bad guy to flip, the drug lords living their decadent and lavish lifestyle, scantily clad women included, and the family drama of a bitter ex-wife and daughter, and the hope of a new beginning with a granddaughter. The whole movie is painfully predictable and is sort of like a amalgamation of every bad drug movie and family turmoil movie ever made.

Besides Clint, the rest of the cast are less than stellar. Bradley Cooper does the best of the bunch, but even he is hamstrung by a nebulous character. Dianne Wiest does her best, but the script does her no favors. The rest of the cast are pretty dreadful, from the tattoed tough guys to the non-tattoed tough guys to the granddaughter with a heart of gold, none of them seem even remotely believable.

There is one thing that stood out to me about The Mule, and that is that it contains the single worst scene I’ve witnessed in a film this entire year. The scene is not only remarkably poorly executed in terms of the writing, directing, acting and editing, but it is remarkable because it doesn’t need to be in the film at all. I won’t say what scene it is, but I will tell you that it comes very near the end, and you’ll know it when you see it. I audibly groaned when I saw the scene, so much so that my fellow movie goers probably thought I was having a stroke…I should have been so lucky.

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As hard as I am being on this movie, it actually could have been worse, and while a cinephile like me disliked it, people who aren’t quite the film snob I am, will probably enjoy it. For instance, old people love to go to the movies, and they love to see other old people in movies. So old people will probably like this movie since they get to watch someone who is most likely older than they are star in a movie. In fact, as I entered the theatre for my screening, a decrepit old lady, probably in her late 80’s, grabbed my arm as I walked past her and stopped me just to tell me “you’ll love the movie…it’s really great.” I didn’t know this woman and had no idea why she needed to share that with me or why she felt it was ok to grab my arm, but obviously she felt strongly about the film. I would love to share my review with her and hear her counter argument, but sadly, even after passionately and expertly making out with her for the majority of the movie, I never once thought to get her name or number….such is the glamorous life of an internet film critic.

In conclusion, The Mule is a formulaic film that looks and feels more like a made for tv movie than a piece of serious cinema. I am a fan of Clint Eastwood, and he is one of the all-time greats in this business, but his acting and directing fastball left him long ago, so much so that he is basically throwing a slow-pitch meatball up to the plate with The Mule. The movie is so rough around the edges and so soft in the middle that it ultimately fails to deliver much drama or any cinematic punch. If you are curious about it or are an avid fan of Eastwood, feel free to check out The Mule when it comes out on cable or Netflix for free, but avoid paying to see it at the theatre because you’ll end up feeling like The Mule kicked you in the head and stole your hard earned money if you do.

©2018

If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

Shoplifters: 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. I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate yet deeply profound and philosophical film, but be forewarned, this is a foreign, arthouse film, so those with more conventional cinematic tastes should stay as far away from this movie as possible.

Shoplifters, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is the story of a poor family in Tokyo who rely on shoplifting and petty crimes in order to make ends meet. The film stars Lily Franky as Osamu - father of the family, and Sakuro Ando as Nobuyo the mother, with Kairi Jo playing their son Shota and Miyu Sasaki their daughter Yuri.

Shoplifters is a distinctly foreign film in that on its surface it may seem to the less cinematically sophisticated to be innocuously mundane and even boring, but to those patient enough to peer beneath that veneer of the ordinary, they are rewarded with the discovery of a sublime universe teeming with human drama and intrigue.

Shoplifters is an original and fascinating film that explores the meaning and purpose of truth, knowledge, family and the need for human connection. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, Shoplifters appears to be one thing, but once you look inside another and another and another layer is revealed, and everything you’ve previously seen takes on a different meaning in hindsight.

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On the surface, Shoplifters is a rather deliberately paced story of an ordinary family as they endure the suffocating nature of working class poverty in modern day Tokyo. This social/cultural narrative is insightful enough all on its own, as it is a profound statement on the cancer that is 21st century capitalism, where everything is commodified, including our humanity. But as the story progresses and more truths are discovered and revealed, the viewer’s perspective shifts, and the foundation upon which you’ve made assumptions about this seemingly simple family sways uneasily under your feet.

As more truth is revealed, the social commentary of the film doesn’t lose its impact, but quite to the contrary, it becomes even more profound. The film’s cultural critique gains a staggering degree of power and profundity as it adds narrative dimensions in the second half of the film.

Shoplifters forces us to question all of the assumptions we have about the things we know…or more accurately…the things we think we know. As the film shows, the rock upon which our own moral, ethical and intellectual beliefs are built may very well be sand. Shoplifters shows us that we are swimming in a deep and mysterious ocean and yet, as the saying goes, “fish don’t even know he’s wet.”

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After I watched Shoplifters I kept thinking of the line from Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece JFK, where one of the characters, frustrated with the challenge to his conventional thinking, shouts in retort, “but you only know who your Daddy is because your Momma told you so!” And so it is in our world of manufactured consent, incessant propaganda and unlimited marketing and manipulation where we are led around by our nose and suffer from an interminable myopia and narcissism. Like subjects in Plato’s cave watching shadows dance upon the wall, we all think we know what we know, but when we walk outside the cave we realize we know nothing…and have known nothing all along. In that way, Shoplifters, although it is the polar opposite in most ways as it contains no action and is very slow and plodding, is a philosophical cousin to The Matrix films.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has directed such notable films as Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, has a deft and confident directorial touch with Shoplifters, as he never pushes the pace but rather lulls the audience into a false sense of security and suckers them into projecting their own bourgeois assumptions onto the story and characters.

Kore-eda’s masterful camera movement and shot composition draw the viewer into the family at the center of the story, as we share their intimate world we too become members and collaborators in their life of petty crime.

Kore-eda creates a stultifying sense of claustrophobia and a lack of personal freedom in this darker side of Tokyo, where much like in our current techno-dystopian world, privacy is a fleeting luxury. For example, Shota is forced to sleep in a small closet more akin to a coffin than a bedroom, Aki (a pseudo-Aunt) makes a living anonymously exposing her private life to strangers, and Osamu and Nobuyo can’t remember the last time they shared a moment alone together.

Kore-eda is one of the masters of Japanese film working today, and Shoplifters is a testament to his cinematic skill and storytelling prowess as it uses the intimate and unique working of this one family to tell a philosophically serious and politically insightful story of our troubled times.

The acting in Shoplifters is solid across the board. Sakuro Ando is exquisite and transcendant as the mother of the family, Nobuyo. Ando’s Nobuyo is at once pragmatic and ruthless but also gentle, kind and loving. Ando imbues Nobuyo with a deep and palpable wound (symbolized by a burn scar on her arm) that is forever a mystery but always lurking within her soulful eyes, that are keen enough to see the same wound in Yuri.

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Lily Franky as Osuma is terrific as a man who desperately tries to be a father, but whose road to hell is paved with good intentions as he is only capable of, at best, making it all up as he goes. Osuma is a fascinating and compelling character, and it is a testament to Lily’s talent that he is simultaneously both a deplorable and sympathetic character.

Mayu Matsuoka brings a sense of wounded allure and innocent danger to the role of Aki, that in lesser hands may have been lost in the wash. Aki is the one of the group most naturally equipped to survive but also the one most vulnerable to being a victim to her own weakness. Unlike Nobuyo, Aki’s wound has no scar over it. Matsuoka does a wonderful job of creating a sense of melancholy and ennui about Aki that at times feels both dangerously combustible and also self-destructive.

The child actors, Kairi Jo and Miyu Sasaki also give excellent performances that feel genuine and grounded because they don’t feel like they are acting at all and the same is true of the grandmother, expertly played by the late Kirin Kiki.

In conclusion, Shoplifters is a film that subtly morphs and changes with every second you watch it, and as I have learned since seeing it, with every minute that passes after its over too. It is, in its own way, mesmerizing and hypnotic, enticing viewers into a story that appears to be one thing but ends up being another. I loved the film, but I love foreign films in general, and Japanese films in particular. If you are not a devout devotee of the arthouse, and in this case, the Japanese arthouse, Shoplifters’ deliberate pace, cryptic dialogue and unusual narrative will be much too much to endure. But if you love Japanese cinema or have a taste for the art house, definitely go check out Shoplifters as it is a fascinating ride, one that I’m not sure I have fully completed.

©2018

Green Book: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.8 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A finely crafted, classic Hollywood, feel good tale that is worth seeing either in the theatre or on Netflix or cable.

Green Book, written by Nick Vallelonga, Bryan Curry and Peter Farrelly and directed by Farrelly, is the true story of the relationship between African-American Jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga during a concert tour of the deep south in 1962. The film stars Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony.

If I am being honest, I have to admit that I had little interest in Green Book prior to going to see it. The film looked like a slight twist on the stale Driving Miss Daisy idea and seemed a bit too mainstream and, dare I say it, simple and saccharine, for my tastes. Even after I heard from a few people that it was good, I was still hesitant. But, since I have MoviePass, I figured what the hell, so I rolled the dice and went to the theatre with low expectations.

As is often the case in life, my low expectations were greatly exceeded. To be clear, Green Book is not a great or original film, but it is a good one, mostly because it is well crafted, which as a film critic, I can tell you is a rare thing nowadays.

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Green Book is a traditional Hollywood film in its structure and genre. It is at once a road picture, a relationship/friendship comedy and a Christmas movie all at once, that touches upon a deeper social issue…in this case, racism. If Green Book came out ten or twenty years ago, it would be pure Oscar-bait, and would no doubt win a handful of prizes and maybe even the big prize, Best Picture, because of its classical structure, “social consciousness” and optimism. But those days where nice movies about coming together across racial lines can bring home Oscar gold are long gone. Green Book will not win any Oscars in 2018, in fact, as our politics and racial politics have become more and more tribal, even liking Green Book somehow leaves you open to charges of being racist.

In our current age where “Diversity and Inclusivity” are the most holy of religions, and racism the most common and scurrilous of charges, Green Book makes for an easy target. The biggest issue some people have with the film is that it is a story about American racism told through the eyes of a “White” man (White is in quotes because depending on the severity of your racism, some folks do not consider Italians to be White. Personally, not only do I not consider Italians to be White, I don’t even consider them to be human…of course, I’m kidding…sort of). White men are currently atop the Most Unwanted list among the cultural elite at the moment, and when the topic of racism is involved, then White Men’s perspectives are most definitely anathema. To some people, telling a story about racism from a White man’s perspective in this day and age is akin to making Schindler’s List from Amon Goth’s (Ralph Fiennes Nazi character) point of view.

Green Book, to its credit, doesn’t shamelessly pander on issues of prejudice and race as some of the most interesting scenes in the film are when Tony argues that Dr. Shirley is just as bad as he is because Dr. Shirley holds the same prejudices against Italians (or other Whites) as Tony does against Blacks. These scenes are pretty uncomfortable on one level because Tony is saying aloud what you aren’t allowed to say anymore, and also because they are logically and rationally right on the money and cut through the subjective experience/ victimhood identity that so skews and soils the politics and racial politics of today.

What makes the film interesting to me though are not the racial dynamics, which have been examined ad nauseum in other films over the years, but rather the class dynamics. To me, Dr. Shirley is less a symbol of the Black man than he is the rich, effete intellectual while Tony is less a symbol of the White man than the poor/working class brute. As the film shows, the two men have a much easier time overcoming their racial differences than their class differences, and that to me, makes Green Book an interesting film.

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Regardless of how you feel about the politics of the film, Peter Farrelly does a solid job of walking the line between comedy and drama. Farrelly wisely goes the Odd Couple route and makes Tony the slovenly fool and Dr. Shirley the prim and proper, tight-assed snob. This contrast works for laughs and also helps to build a genuine relationship between the two men.

Farrely’s greatest achievement is in the pacing as he keeps the film tight, and there are no wasted scenes just for comedic effect. The narrative drives efficiently through the entire story, and while it is all pretty predictable, it is never done predictably.

Mahershala Ali does simply stellar work as Dr. Don Shirley, the uptight musical genius in need of protection from the more nefarious elements of White America in the South. There is a speech Dr. Shirley gives early in the film where he speaks on the need to always maintain dignity, and that speech very clearly elucidates Dr. Shirley’s cosmology and character and his survival mechanism in a hostile world.

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Ali masterfully inhabits Dr. Shirley, most notably with his commitment to the character’s distinct physicality. Ali’s Shirley maintains his dignity and decorum under all circumstances and it is reflected in his impeccable posture. It is when Dr. Shirley starts to lose his grip though, where Ali really shines, letting the turmoil that boils just beneath the veneer of controlled perfection break through the surface to reveal the conflicted and tormented storm raging inside him.

Viggo Mortensen deftly brings the Tony character to life with a combination of grounded humanity and comedic aplomb. Mortensen does a lot of heavy lifting with this role and he runs the great risk of falling into empty caricature (the big-hearted, Italian lug), but he uses his craft and skill wisely to avoid that trap by making Tony both earnest and wily, and rigid yet flexible. While Tony is certainly a simple character on one level, Mortensen never fails to make him morally and ethically complex and compelling.

Maybe I liked the film because Tony, the Italian meathead from the Bronx, reminded me of my Irish working class uncles from Brooklyn. My uncles all had the same prejudices and all threw around the same casual racism as Tony, but they too were still decent human beings….not perfect by any stretch…but very decent. My uncles, and Tony, are, like all people of all races and ethnicities, complicated in that way.

Linda Cardellini plays Tony’s wife Dolores, and she reminded me of some of my Irish uncle’s wonderful Italian wives (I know…the scandal!!…an Irishman marrying an Italian!! Talk about a mixed marriage!!) from Brooklyn. Cardellini turns what could have been a throwaway role into a real gem, giving Dolores multiple dimensions and palpable intentions that enhance the film a great deal.

In conclusion, Green Book is a classic, traditional, mainstream Hollywood film that in an earlier age, rightly or wrongly, would be much more highly regarded than it is now. The film boasts two winning performances from its leads and a terrific supporting performance from Cardellini, and is at times genuinely funny and profoundly moving. Green Book is not the greatest piece of cinema you’ll ever see, but even a cynical cinephile like me found it thoroughly entertaining and at times even insightful, and that is why I recommend you check it out, either in the theatre or on Netflix/cable when available.

If in our current tumultuous and contentious age, you find yourself feeling nostalgic, not for the early 1960’s when Black people were invisible and discrimination was rampant and violent, but rather for a time when finding common humanity wasn’t seen as weakness or betrayal of your tribe but rather as a sign of enlightened evolution, then Green Book is definitely for you…and you and I have a lot in common.

©2018

Mary, Queen of Scots: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. You would be better served getting your head chopped off than ever seeing this movie.

Mary, Queen of Scots, written by Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, is the story of Mary, the young Catholic Queen of Scotland in the 1500’s, and her struggle for power in her native land amidst her rivalry with England’s Queen Elizabeth. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth.

Recently, in the midst of a magnificent hurricane of my own cleverness, I came up with a stunning new maxim that feels decidely old when, after weeks of fasting and meditation in a cold and windowless room, I declared to myself that “Wokeness Kills Art”. For proof of the veracity of my maxim, one need look no further than Mary, Queen of Scots.

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As a first generation Scotsman (and an outspoken supporter of a Independent Scotland), a Catholic, and a classically trained actor, a period piece/historical drama about Mary, Queen of Scots starring Saiorse Ronan, who is one of my favorite actresses, and Margot Robbie, another top-notch actress, should be right up my alley. I was pretty excited to see Mary, Queen of Scots, so much so that I actually went and saw it the day the film opened in theatres. Once I actually saw the movie, my excitement was left dead-eyed, with its decapitated head rolling down the aisle of the theatre.

It is difficult to succinctly state how absurdly awful this movie is…but my best attempt would be to say that Mary, Queen of Scots is a narratively incoherent, cinematically obtuse and historically vapid piece of painfully progressive propaganda.

Director Josie Rourke, who comes from the London theatre world, is so cinematically illiterate I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting her watch a movie, nevermind make one. Ms. Rourke’s inability to even comprehend the most rudimentary aspects of storytelling in film is remarkable to behold.

Rourke’s take on Mary is that she is a symbol for social justice warriors everywhere due to her anti-patriarchy, pro-feminist, pro-gay, pro-trans and pro-diversity views. Ms. Rourke should have renamed the movie, Mary, Queen of Woke. This film has all the cinematic craftsmanship and political subtlety of a Dinesh D’Souza movie combined with the historical veracity of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Lord Thomas Randolph

Lord Thomas Randolph

Adding to the tsunami of historically inane things thrown into this film to fit a modern liberal agenda, Ms. Rourke uses some bizarre and frankly, distractingly ridiculous color blind casting. So viewers are supposed to be woke enough not to notice that Adrien Lester, who is Black, is playing Lord Thomas Randolph, who was so pasty white in real life he bordered on transparent. Ms. Rourke doesn’t stop there, as she casts Asian actress Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwick, again, a very, very, very White woman who was decidedly NOT Asian.

The guy playing Lord Thomas Randolph

The guy playing Lord Thomas Randolph

Color blind casting in a historical drama is more complicated because “people of color” back then had their own history and back stories. Seeing a Black man as Lord Randolph begs the question…how did a man of African or Caribbean descent, who back then was more likely to be a slave or a servant, rise to the upper echelons of the aristrocracy? The same is true of an Asian women playing Bess of Hardwick. Asian women existed in the 1500’s, obviously, but not in the Royal Court or in the halls of power or among the blue blood families of England. So when audiences see an Asian women or a Black man in such a prominent role in English society in the 1500’s, they have questions, and when the film never addresses or answers those questions, audiences feel deceived and betrayed.

In addition, Bess of Hardwick and Lord Thomas Randolph are real people from history and they were very White…why is it ok for them to be played by non-White actors? Would it be alright for a White actor to play Jesse Jackson in a film about MLK or Louis Farrakhan in a film about Malcolm X? Of course that Whitewashing wouldn’t be acceptable, so why should it be ok for the opposite to occur here? It seems with the Woke Brigade, diversity and inclusivity top authenticity and the evil of cultural appropriation is something of which only “other” people are guilty.

The rest of the cast is also littered with token “people of color”, “token” being the operative word, no doubt to fulfill some wondrous “inclusivity rider”, but that doesn’t make it any less distracting or any more palatable or even remotely believable.

I understand that color blind casting is more acceptable in theatre where the threshold of believability is considerably lower, and while I find it and the reasons behind it distasteful there as well, I accept it as an unfortunate reality. But film is not theatre and the dynamics between film audiences and screen, and theatre audiences and stage, are very dramatically different. Film audiences are much less inclined than theatre audiences to suspend their disbelief over such things as colorblind casting, no matter how well intentioned it is, especially in a historical drama.

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In film, audiences want to feel like they are watching the actual events as they take place, and they make a bargain with the movie maker, ‘you make it seem real and we’ll go along for the ride’. But when the Royal Courts of Scotland and England in 1500’s, which were obviously lily white, are populated with a cornucopia of minorities, then audiences just roll their eyes and tune out thinking the whole thing is little more than politically correct nonsense…which it is…because it doesn’t reflect the reality of the time.

Added to the absurdity of the film’s rainbow coalition in Royal Court, was the notion that Mary was a proud champion of gay and trans people. There is a scene where Mary forgives her gay/trans best friend for an act of stunning betrayal simply because she is so accepting of his homosexuality and thus excuses his awful act. This is so historically illiterate as to be absurd. The fact that Mary was a Catholic Queen in a Protestant land, and yet would not divorce or convert in order to save her skin or take the throne, is maybe a strong indicator that her religion IS PRETTY FUCKING IMPORTANT TO HER…and her religion at the time was quite clear in how they felt about “Sodomites”. But for Ms. Rourke, religion means nothing to Mary, it is her modern progressive values that really matter.

In keeping with the vacuous wokeness of the film, the overarching theme of the entire enterprise is that Mary and Elizabeth were feminist sisters, but it was those damn men who ruined everything. Of course, Ms. Rourke and her ilk are too ignorant to understand that taking the agency away from these two historically powerful women and reducing them to victims of the evil patriarchy doesn’t make them iconic, it makes them unconscionably weak…not exactly the girl power message the filmmaker intended.

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Ms. Rourke, and her equally abysmal screenwriting accomplice, Beau Willimon of the execrable House of Cards fame, go so far as to have Elizabeth claim that she is “now a man and not a woman”, therefore making sure that when Elizabeth does something bad…and anyone who knows history knows she does something bad to Mary…masculinity is to blame! See…even when women do something terrible to another women it isn’t their fault! Damn you patriarchy because women have no agency!

I went to the film with a decidedly bleeding heart social progressive, the Honourable Rev. Dr. Lady Pumpernickle - Dusseldorf Esquire, and even she thought the cavalcade of suffocating political correctness in the form of colorblind casting, pro-LGBTQ and anti-maleness on-screen was way too much, and to an eye-rollingly ridiculous degree.

As for the actual making of the movie, Ms. Rourke is terribly ill-equipped as a visual artist. With the luscious green Scotland as a backdrop, Ms. Rourke somehow manages to make a visually dull, flat and stale film. Ms. Rourke’s inability to even do the most basic of blocking for the camera, as opposed to the stage, makes for some very stodgy sequences, not the least of which is a poorly executed battle scene that is staggering in its incompetence.

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The aforementioned Beau Willimon’s script is equally inept. Willimon starts out trying to balance the Mary narrative with the Elizabeth narrative, but then just scraps that idea altogether and throws in a myriad of betrayals and counter-betrayals that end up only muddying the already murky historical waters. Willimon’s script is a key component in making the film such a garbled, incoherent mess, but it is Ms. Rourke’s weak direction that ultimately sinks the ship.

As for the acting, the majority of the cast is so poorly directed that they end up with lots of theatrical histrionics but very little genuine humanity. There is a lot of light but absolutely no heat from the cast that pushes too hard, too often to make something out of nothing.

Ms. Ronan is a compelling figure on-screen but her talents are entirely wasted on this disaster. It certainly would be a treat to see her play the role under the eye of a different, more competent, director though, as Ronan is very well equipped to play such a demanding and complicated character.

Margot Robbie is both out of place and under utilized as Queen Elizabeth. Robbie’s Elizabeth is such a listless and lifeless figure that she is no match for the dynamic Mary, which is maybe why they just, of the blue, stopped comparing and contrasting the two of them mid-way through the film.

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The climactic scene of the film, which is at best historically dubious, has Mary and Elizabeth facing off. This sequence is so poorly shot, blocked and executed it was stunning to behold. Rourke uses fabric hanging from the ceiling to build a maze that the two actress…and the camera, must navigate until they finally come face to face. I get what Rourke was trying to do there, using the fabric to symbolically show the layers of barriers between the two women that they must wade through in order to actually see one another, but this is just another example of a theatre director trying to make a movie. This sequence is so visually ineffective and cinematically impotent that it boggles the mind. While Ms. Rourke intended this sequence to be a metaphor speaking volumes about the world Mary and Elizabeth inhabit, what it really does is perfectly highlight Ms. Rourke’s filmmaking ineptitude.

On the brightside, some of the costumes look nice.

In conclusion, Mary, Queen of Scots is a bitter disappointment because it tries to turn this historical drama into a piece of woke propaganda. As a historical drama it fails miserably both as history and as drama. As propaganda it also fails miserably because of the heavy handed incompetence of director Josie Rourke. If I could go back in time and had a choice between having my head chopped off or having to sit through this movie, I would gladly go under the executioners axe than suffer through this cinematic abomination.

If you want to see an exquisitely crafted and highly entertaining period piece and historical drama, do yourself a favor and go see the deliciously sublime The Favourite and skip the putrid cinematic detritus of Mary, Queen of Woke.

©2018

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 turn 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 effective.

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 Olivia 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 and everything 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) Academy Award 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 and perspective wisely was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the point of view 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 staggering and 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 imbues 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