"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Peterloo: 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 noble failure of a film, but a failure nonetheless. The cinematography of the film is, for the most part, exquisite, and cinephiles into that sort of thing should go see the movie in theatres, but ultimately for most everybody else the film is a misfire.

Peterloo, written and directed by British auteur Mike Leigh, tells the story of the events that culminated in the Peterloo massacre of 1819 in Manchester, England. The film’s ensemble cast includes Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley among many others.

Mike Leigh is well-known as being a master of realist, character-driven, intimate dramas such as Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, and Naked, whose use of prolonged rehearsal periods, which emphasize improvisation in order to develop character and narrative, is his signature directing style that often leads to stellar work from his actors. Peterloo is a bit of a different beast from his previous work though, as it is a historical drama that must accurately capture the grand sweep of history while accounting for the impact of that history upon regular folks.

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While Peterloo is a politically profound story for our times, the film suffers from a lack of both narrative coherence and character cohesion, and ultimately is never as good as it needs to be. Leigh’s direction on Peterloo lacks vigor and specificity and thus the film’s deliberate pace leads to aimless wandering and pronounced lags for numerous periods of time. The biggest problem of all though may be the fact that the film’s climax is poorly crafted and dramatically underwhelming and instead of being a crescendo it feels more like stumble across the finish line.

On the bright side, the film’s cinematographer, Dick Pope (A Mickey Award winner for his work on Leigh’s Mr. Turner), does stellar work for the majority of the film. His interior shots are so exquisitely lit and framed they are as beautiful and texturally rich as any Vermeer or Rembrandt, and could hang in any museum in the world. Added to this are Pope’s expansive shots of nature that pop with a crisp and delicious color, most notably a lush green, that are spectacular to behold. Pope’s framing and use of color, shadow and light throughout the first three acts of the film is sublime, but in the climactic battle scenes, Pope’s and Leigh’s work falls flat and is shockingly second rate.

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The staging and blocking of the actors and camera in the big climactic “riot” scene reveals both Dick Pope and Mike Leigh to be out of their element. These action sequences are clumsy, cluttered and so poorly executed that they sink any chances the film had to be worthwhile. It is asking a lot for a director and his cinematographer to be so versatile as to pull off such varying shots as intimate interiors and dynamic battle sequences, but this is what the story required and Leigh and Pope failed to fully deliver.

The cast of the film are all fine, but the film’s failure to generate any dramatic momentum leads to the cast’s work being lost in the shuffle. Rory Kinnear, who plays the rebel dandy Henry Hunt, gives his usual top-notch performance. Kinnear’s Hunt is both magnetic and narcissistic, and his complexities make the moral and political Manichaeism of the film more nuanced and compelling.

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Maxine Peak also gives a solid performance as Nellie, the cynical and skeptical wife and mother whose working class family gets caught up in the protest. Peak’s weathered face tells a story all its own about the injustice and unfairness of life in England in the 1800’s.

What frustrated me the most about Peterloo’s cinematic and dramatic failure was that it is such a vital story for our time. Peterloo focuses on the systemic exploitation of working people by ruling aristocrats, who view “regular” people as nothing but serfs to be exploited for profit or as cannon fodder in war for empire and resources.

The same underlying structural problems of government, economic and social injustice highlighted in Peterloo are the same problems that torment us now. The modern-day ruling elite, just like the English elite in Peterloo’s time, still squeeze regular people for everything they’ve got and yet are perpetually immune from any consequences from their actions. And when the modern day proletariat push back or organize against the injustice of our system, the Aristocrats crush them now just as effectively as they did in Manchester in 1819.

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The totalitarian, corporate police state in America is more subtle in its brutality than the one on display at the climax of Peterloo…but not by much…just ask the Yellow Vests in France who have lost eyes and fingers to the rubber bullets of the police. The same structural weapons used back in the 1800’s, debt, fear and intimidation are used today to keep the populace either paralyzed, placid or pliant. The brute force of government, in the form of the police, are used by the elite like a moat, to impose law and order upon the oppressed and to keep them at a distance. The law is the ruling class’s cudgel not to maintain order but rather to maintain “The order”…you know “The order”…the one where they are on top and the rest of us scrap and claw to eat their crumbs at the bottom. Any true challenges to “The order” result first in character assassination, followed by physical violence, prison or both if necessary. For an example of the Establishment’s playbook regarding threats see Assange, Julian.

The lesson of Peterloo is this, the system is rigged and the ruling class despise us, so we must decide to either live as their slaves by maintaining the status quo or arm ourselves and fight for our freedom. Sadly, the dramatically anemic Peterloo is not compelling enough to attract or maintain America audiences who desperately need to learn the vital lessons the movie teaches. At the end of the day, the cold, hard reality is that we are all Soma-addicted sheep being led to the slaughter and we have grown accustomed to authoritarian boots in our face.

In conclusion, Peterloo is a noble effort but a decided failure. Mike Leigh seems to have bitten off more than he can chew by trying to tackle this complex historical narrative. If you are a cinephile who has a distinct love for great cinematography, then I recommend you see Peterloo in the theatre, but everyone else should skip it because, sadly, it simply is not captivating enough to spend your hard earned money and sparse free time upon.

©2019

The Mustang: 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. Really no need to see this uneven film which thoroughly misunderstands the true nature of American masculinity.

The Mustang, directed and co-written by Laure de Clermont Tonnerre, is the story of Roman Coleman, an anti-social prisoner in a Nevada State prison who gets put into a program where prisoners train captured wild mustang horses to be sold at auction. The film stars Matthias Schoenearts as Roman, with supporting turns from Bruce Dern, Connie Britton and Gideon Aldon.

I like horses…I don’t own one or anything, but I have been known to wager a few dollars on one at Santa Anita. I also think horses are actually a wonderful archetypal storytelling device and am down for giving most any movie about a man and his horse a try.

All I knew about The Mustang prior to seeing it was that it was about a horse and it starred Matthias Schoenearts, an actor I like. I had some expectations about what kind of movie The Mustang would be, but none about whether it was good or not. That said…I certainly wanted it to be good…but sadly, it isn’t.

The story of The Mustang is about broken men trying to break horses but at its essence the film is really about the current state of masculinity, particularly American masculinity, which is deeply in crisis. This narrative and sub-text is right up my alley as it is something I think and write about a great deal, especially being a man myself and a father to a young boy.

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The problem with The Mustang though is that it is completely clueless about the true nature and experience of masculinity in general and American masculinity in particular. When the film ended and the credits rolled I quickly discovered why the film felt so foreign to me…the director was a French woman, Laure de Clermont Tonnerre. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with a French woman directing a film, hell, the last movie I saw prior to this was High Life directed by the fascinating auteur Claire Denis, a French women, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem with Tonnerre though is that she is biting off way more than she can chew about a topic of which she has no comprehension. Tonnerre writing and directing this movie about American masculinity is the equivalent of me writing and directing a movie about the experience of women in a remote Amazon tribe…that isn’t to say that I couldn’t do it, but maybe that I shouldn’t do it.

Mustangs are singular American archetypes, symbols of powerful wildness being harnessed as the country moved into the vast expanse of the west. The Mustang is a quintessentially American story set in the west about American masculinity trying to find its way in the modern world. The fatal flaw of the film is that writer/director Tonnerre has a deep and profound misunderstanding about the true nature of not only America, but about masculinity. Tonnerre brings little but surface assumptions and presumptions to the story which make profundity on her themes an impossibility. Tonnerre is telling a story of American masculinity through the eyes of French femininity and that was bound to fail. It is the equivalent of a tourist trying to pontificate on the finer points of a complex local issue…it brings no light to the topic but only succeeds in accentuating the foreignness of the tourist.

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Tonnerre is also never able to penetrate the subject of masculinity deep enough to discover what is in the DNA of the American male. It is no surprise that Tonnerre fails to grasp the intricacies of American masculinity, it is an unwieldy topic that most film makers, regardless of gender, fail to adequately understand.

Tonnerre also lacks any sort of understanding of the complexities and politics of the American prison system. Her ignorance of this very lethal form of brutal interpersonal politics undermines her story to a great extent. It seems like all Ms. Tonnerre knows about the American penal system is what she learned watching bad American television and old movies.

I couldn’t help but think of American screenwtiter and director Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water, Sicario) as I watched The Mustang, as he is one of the rare writer/directors who could have successfully tackled the subject matter of this film. Sheridan understands masculinity, particularly American masculinity, on a primal level, and is able to explore the psyche of man as a resident, not a tourist.

On a film making level, the film’s narrative is structurally and rhythmically unsound and there are numerous plot lines that are unclear, unneeded or unfulfilled. The lack of clarity and storytelling cohesion wears thin as the movie meanders without any significant or satisfying dramatic payoff.

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The movie does boast some decent acting, with Matthias Schoenearts giving a brooding and at times explosive performance as Roman, the combustible felon. Schoenearts certainly elevates the weak material he is given, but ultimately even his dark charisma is not enough to save the film.

Bruce Dern gives a quirky and engaging performance as Myles, the man in charge of the horse training. Dern is a compelling actor and he does his very oddball best in the role, but again, it isn’t enough to raise it from its depths.

The horse in the movie, Marcus, is a beautiful animal, but Tonnerre fails to adequately exploit the animal’s beauty with her middling camera work. Marcus’ natural power and grace are never captured enough to make the horse anything but a prop.

In conclusion, The Mustang was a disappointment because it tried to tackle a very important topic but did not have the requisite understanding of that topic to be able to conjure even the remotest amount of insight. The film feels like a terribly wasted opportunity to tell a profound story about the tortured state of American masculinity, which is a story that desperately needs to be told and understood. At the end of the day Ms. Tonnerre was unable to control The Mustang which, like the American Male, was just too powerful and wild a force to tame.

©2019

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley - A Review

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****THIS REVIEW REVEALS SOME MINOR INFORMATION FROM THE DOCUMENTARY!! NOTHING MAJOR - BUT YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!****

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. This documentary is mildly entertaining but lacks insight and depth. Not awful, but not transcendent either…if the subject matter intrigues you then check it out.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, directed and produced by Alex Gibney, is an HBO original documentary film that examines the meteoric rise of “inventor” Elizabeth Holmes and her health technology company Theranos.

There is nothing quite as enjoyable to me as a great documentary. I can watch truly great documentaries over and over as they feel like miniature master degrees in whatever subject they dissect. Film’s like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War or just about anything by Adam Curtis are films I revisit nearly every year and never regret it.

I was excited to see Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor, as he definitely has a knack for choosing fascinating topics. That said, Gibney, who won his Oscar for the profound Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and multiple Emmys for the stunning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, can be an uneven filmmaker who often explores intriguing topics in his movies but at times fails to adequately document his subjects to a deep enough degree to satisfy beyond a passing and surface interest.

The Inventor is one of those type of Gibney films that tackles an interesting topic but fails to do so in an in-depth enough and compelling enough way. The Inventor reminded me a little bit of his highly praised (it won 3 Emmy awards) film about Scientology, Going Clear. I liked Going Clear and found it to be engaging to a certain degree, but ultimately it fell well short of being an earth-shattering revelation. Similar to Gibney’s film on Wikileaks and Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets, a pretty shameless and embarrassing hatchet job on Assange, with The Inventor Gibney seems to be seeing his subject through a biased lens. With We Steal Secrets, Gibney’s was decidedly against Assange, but inThe Inventor he is most definitely biased in favor of Elizabeth Holmes….but more on that in a bit.

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With The Inventor, Gibney once again dives into a riveting subject, but only swims in the shallow water of it and fails to give viewers much to sink their teeth into beyond the headlines. Elizabeth Holmes is a character for the ages, but Gibney barely scratch the surface of who she REALLY is in this film. On top of that Gibney never gets deep enough into the weeds of what exactly Holmes was trying to create at Theranos and how she planned to do it, to ever make viewers feel like anything more than just another mark for her con.

The film, while entertaining to a certain degree, is problematic for a variety of other reasons as well. The most glaring of which is the blind spot the filmmaker has in regards to his subject. Yes, Gibney exposes Holmes’ fraud, but he never exposes HER for being a fraud. Instead, what Gibney does is cloak Holmes in a protective blanket which imbues on her with only the best of intentions and the inability to be consciously or maliciously deceptive.

In this way Alex Gibney is recreating the same psychological, mental and emotional gymnastics that Elizabeth Holmes’ targets did when they fell under her spell. Holmes weilded her femininity like a martial art against the patriarchal system within she worked. Holmes’ juijitsu turned the unconscious sexism and paternalism of the men she targeted against them. The paternalism, sexism and soft misogyny of the powerful men she conned, who are a Murderer’s Row of Hall of Fame assholes that include men like Bill Clinton, General Mattis, David Boies, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (who proves what a ass he is by siding with Holmes over his own grandson) among many others, caused them to fall for Holmes’ lies for two reasons. The first is that they overestimated her intellect and value because, ironically, they wanted to be seen supporting a women in order to quell their fear of being labelled sexist. The secondly, due to their paternalism and sexism, they underestimated Holmes’ ability for villainy, and she exploited the weakness of these men to her benefit.

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The irony of Holmes’ epic story is that these powerful men treated Holmes different and held her to a different standard BECAUSE she was a women. The reporters and writers who aided her rise to the status of media darling and science and business genius did the same thing, failing to adequately doubt and question her simply because they never considered she was capable of straight out lying to them. Even the reporters who spoke with her AFTER her scam became public, men like Sanjay Gupta and Jim Cramer, didn’t hold her feet to the fire like they would have with a man. Holmes was able to keep her scam alive for so long because these men treated her with kid gloves.

Interestingly enough, Holmes’s scam almost never got started because of a women, Professor Phyllis Gardner, her advisor at Stanford, who basically told Holmes her idea was scientifically impossible. Instead of trying to change her advisor’s mind, Holmes changed advisors…which is a perfect encapsulation of Elizabeth Holmes approach to life. In my eyes, at best, Holmes’ suffers from a the most acute case of cognitive dissonance on the planet, at worst she is a conniving and manipulative criminal mastermind. For director Gibney, who refuses to consider that Holmes was driven by greed for money, power and fame, Holmes is earnest in intent but misguided in execution. According to Gibney, Holmes’ greatest sin is being too much of a zealot for her noble cause.

The reality is that if Holmes were a man, the idea that she wasn’t anything but a greedy and evil con artist would never even remotely be considered…and rightfully so. Think of all the Wall Street snakes who scammed Americans out of their savings with the housing bubble, nobody thinks, “oh gee…they just wanted everyone to be able to own a home”…no…people think that those pricks were trying to get rich off the backs of working people…because that is exactly what they were doing.

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In the case of Alex Gibney’s film, he seems to suffer from an unconscious bias that makes him hold Holmes to a very different standard and lets her off the hook for her nefariousness activities. An example of this is that besides lowering Holmes intent and responsibility regarding fraud, he also lowers the standard for her regarding her sexual relationship at work. Holmes started dating Sunny Balwani, a tech entrepreneur twenty years her senior, when she was 19 and he was married to another woman. Balwani was a key advisor to Holmes in the early development of Theranos and after he got divorced from his wife, Holmes moved in with him. Balwani eventually became second in command to Holmes at Theranos but when the sham was exposed and things went bad for the company, she broke up with him and fired him. If a man had behaved the way Holmes did in her personal life, it would have been a much greater focus of the story of The Inventor, and would have been used to establish the lack of moral and ethical fiber of the person running the company. But in The Inventor, the fact of Holmes questionable conduct with Balwani is reduced to nothing more than a throw away line near the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Holmes captivates our imagination because she is so representative of the surreal age in which we live. Holmes is emblematic of our scam culture where style overwhelms substance, the subjective trumps the objective, where shortcuts are the only way to travel and truth is a punchline.

Holmes is similar to Trump in that her con is so obvious that it is stunning that anybody falls for it. Like Trump with his signature (and ridiculous) hair-do and his never buttoned blue suits with long ties, Holmes literally wore a costume, all black with a black turtleneck, a cheap imitation of her hero Steve Jobs.

Her use of story and language was also absurdly obvious as to her dishonesty as she simply regurgitated and repeated the same origin story over and over again and then used pseudo-scientific/tech marketing talk to cover her lack of any substance. Words like “inflection point” and “paradigm shift” or the use of “chemistry” as a verb were dead giveaways to her deceitful intent.

The most glaring giveaway though was her voice. Good Lord that voice. Her voice is so phony and put on it is remarkable no one did a spit-take in her face upon hearing it. But the voice gives away the game that she is an obvious fraud and walking lie…and those that fell for scam did so BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO FALL FOR IT. These people, and they were mostly men, wanted Holmes’ story to be true so they convinced themselves that it was.

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In this way Holmes is also the symbol for today’s neo-feminism, which alleges to want equality but only accepts the diminishing of standards and the lowering of bars for women. Neo-feminism loves to demand equal opportunity but also loves to shirk equal responsibility. That said, it is pretty amusing that Holmes used the patriarchy’s literal and symbolic desire for her and their shameless politically correct yearning to be seen as “allies” to women, to advance her scam and sucker investors and big names to support her fraudulent project.

None of these types of subjects, like Holmes as symbol for modern feminism, or the ingrained sexism of the men who fell for her, or the soft treatment she got because she was a women being integral to her scam flourishing, are ever broached by Gibney in his film. Instead Gibney sticks to a very straightforward and very forgiving narrative that never gets too deep or too insightful and the film suffers because of it.

According to Gibney’s movie, Holmes’ scam is just something that happened that is not indicative of anything else and is not symbolic of the age of fraud in which we live. The reality is very different, as one glance at the news will tell you that Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times. Our charlatan president, the Russiagate hysteria, the Fyre Festival nonsense, the college admission payola scam, Jussie Smollett’s shenanigans and on and on and on including our fraudulent economy and political system…are all hoaxes, scams and frauds. This is why Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times and it is a shame that Alex Gibney did not have the insight, self-knowledge and skill to bring that much deeper and more important story to light.

In conclusion, while The Inventor is entertaining on a certain gossipy level, it lacks the insight, depth of subject and profundity to be considered a great documentary. The film is currently airing on HBO, so if you want to spend two hours being mildly amused at the absurdity of it all, then you should check out The Inventor, just don’t expect transendance.

©2019

High Life: 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. But be forewarned, even though it is in English, it is a very “French” film and is definitely at home in the arthouse. If you have conventional tastes in movies, this one is not for you, but if you are a cinephile defintely check it out in the theatre.

High Life, written and directed by French auteur Claire Denis, tells the story of Monte, a young man who is caring for a baby on a mysterious voyage into deep space. The film stars Robert Pattinson as Monte with supporting turns from Julliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin and Mia Goth.

Claire Denis, the writer/director of High Life, is the critical darling of French cinema and the American arthouse. Denis has a distinctive film making style that appeals greatly to film critics but that the general public often finds impenetrable. A good example of this is that her last film, Let the Sunshine In (2018), which starred Juliette Binoche and could sort of be described as a French/arthouse romantic comedy, has an 86 % critical score and a 29% audience score at the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

Part of the problem with Denis work, at least for American audiences, is that if you market a film as a romantic comedy, Americans will expect a rather simple Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan cute fest and not the verbose philosophizing, existential thesis that is Let the Sunshine In. Expectations play a big part in audience perceptions and thus in the ultimate success or failure of a film.

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High Life may face the same marketing struggle as Denis’ other films, at least in terms of the general public. High Life is being sold as a sort of action-thriller, science fiction, space movie…in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Alien. High Life is a lot of things, but action-thriller is not one of them, and if audiences are aware of that and understand how to digest the film, they may come away with a greater appreciation for it…because there is a great deal to appreciate.

High Life is not Alien meets 2001, but rather is a beguiling, at times bewildering, dark, moody, existential and philosophical meditation on the meaning of life and what it means to be a human. The film is Claire Denis at her very best, using her signature style to create a deliberately paced, deliriously claustrophobic, non-linear dream/nightmare that is intentionally disorienting.

The film opens with Pattinson’s character Monte caring for baby all by himself on a space craft. The film then unwinds and reveals the who, what, when, where, why and how this strange combination of Monte, a baby, and deep space, came to be.

Being a parent is hard. Being a single parent is a Herculean task. Being a single parent in deep space is a circle of hell that Dante could never have dreamed up. Monte’s struggle to care for this baby is palpable, and as the child’s cries pierce through Monte’s space suit to his core, they also cut viewers to the bone. This scenario of the deep space single parent and the vulnerability of an infant, intensifies the suffocating sense of claustrophobia and heightens the ominous sense of foreboding that permeates the entire film.

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Pattinson’s work as Monte is extraordinary. Monte is a psuedo-monk, struggling to control his human desires in order to, ironically enough, stay connected to his humanity. Pattinson gives Monte a very specific internal intentionality that illuminates his every action and drives him through every scene. Pattinson is an actor I never would have given a second thought to after those dreadful Twilight movies, but his fine work in the not so good The Lost City of Z (2017) made me take notice. Here in High Life he commands the screen without ever demanding attention, in fact, it is Pattinson’s use of introversion bordering on camera shyness that make him so intriguing and compelling in this role.

The rest of the cast do solid work as well. Juilette Binoche as the witchy Dr. Dibs chews the scenery like a starving women hurtling through the universe looking for her final meal. Mia Goth also does notable work as Boyse, a destructive and self-destructive anima figure, the polar opposite of Monte.

Claire Denis knows what she is doing when it comes to making movies, and High Life is a testament to that. The film is technically first-rate, as the cinematography, particularly the framing and lighting, as well as the editing, are superb but never overwhelm the tone and theme of the movie.

High Life is deliberately paced, and may be too slow for more conventional tastes, but I found the film to be captivating to the point of hypnotic. Denis’ ability to disorient the viewer’s perception of space and time was a master stroke that simulates for the audience the psychological, emotional and philosophical vertigo that Monte must struggle with and through as he goes along his hero/anti-hero’s journey.

High Life asks a lot of questions but gives no clear answers, which is maybe why I liked it. There were no easy escapes from the void of space or the existential issues raised. Ideas as varied as human value, spirituality, morality, physical purity, incest, humanity, witchcraft v. science, and even cats v. dogs, all come up in the movie and propel the philosophical narrative forward, backward, up, down and all around.

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At the end of the day, High Life, like most space movies, is really an homage to, and imitation of, Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. High Life is no 2001, but to Claire Denis’ credit it is a very distant, but worthy enough, cinematic step-cousin, as it wrestles with the same question of human evolution and being born into, and cast out of, the Garden of Eden with nothing but our humanity to guide and protect us.

Space is cold and forbidding, and the struggle to maintain life amidst that black void is colossal, but not nearly as gargantuan (or heroic) as the struggle to maintain humanity. Monte’s evolution…which may result in being reborn the Starchild from 2001 or left to an eternity in the empty void of nothingness, lies on the other side of a black hole. He isn’t sure he is ready to make the trip…are you?

If you have the courage, and the open mind, I recommend you set aside your expectations and conventions and make that journey with Monte. Yes, there are some bumps along the way, the most noteworthy being a rather odd scene with Juliette Binoche (you’ll know it when you see it - it was the catalyst for two sixty-something women in my screening to make a hasty exit) that serves a certain and minor purpose but which goes on for a distractingly and interminably long time. But if you can simply get into the rhythm of the film, and not try and figure it out as it washes over you but rather experience it and all of the good and bad that comes along with it, I think you may find it as satisfying a cinematic experience as I did.

Again, this movie is not for everyone…even though it is in English, it is a very, very French film, and it reeks of the art house, so if you simply cannot or will not overcome your cinematic conditioning for clear narratives and resolutions, then you should skip this one. But if you are feeling adventurous and in the mood to contemplate the meaning of life and humanity amidst the unrelenting sea of darkness that is space, then gear up, strap in and take the plunge. You may find you enjoy the high life.

©2019

Us: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A visually and narratively muddled disappointment of a movie that tries to be everything and ends up being nothing.

Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is a horror film that tells the story of the Wilson family who are hunted by their shadow dopplegangers while on vacation in Santa Cruz. The film stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex.

Jordan Peele’s last film, 2017’s Get Out, was a horror/comedy that was also a social commentary on race and white liberal guilt that made a remarkable 255 million dollars off of a 4.5 million dollar budget. The film was a cultural phenomenon and critical darling that besides making gobs of money also garnered Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations and actually won the award for Best Original Screenplay.

The context in which Get Out became a “thing” is important to remember though, as the #OscarsSoWhite hysteria was at a fever pitch at the time and Hollywood and the media were desperate for any artist, actor or director of color to succeed. Jordan Peele was at the right place at the right time with the right type of movie to become a symbol for all of those hungry for a cinematic savior of color.

When I saw Get Out my response was, “what is all the fuss about?” I was entirely underwhelmed by the film and thought it was at best a pedestrian work with a clever premise and political perspective with which I actually agreed. I also thought that critics were, ironically considering the film’s spot-on theme of White liberal guilt, over-hyping the film and Peele’s filmmaking skill due to a “woke” agenda where all things related to diversity are wonderful. It seemed obvious to me that the incessant and exuberant critical love for Jordan Peele and Get Out was a function of grading on a diversity curve as opposed to on merit, which as a cinephile I find grating and frankly unethical.

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Which brings us to…well..Us… Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out. It might come as a surprise to some that despite my misgivings about Get Out, I was actually really excited to see Us. The reason for my anticipation was that the trailer is absolutely fantastic. The trailer makes the film look super creepy, scary and bursting with thematic and symbolic potential and possibilities. Add in the fact that it dealt with dopplegangers, which I equated to the Jungian concept of the shadow (which intrigues me as an amateur Jungian), and I am all in for Us. As proof of my excitement for the film, I actually went and saw it at a 10:30 AM screening on the Friday it opened.

Then the movie started and my excitement dissipated and diminished with every passing second that the film played until I was left completely bored and uninterested for the final hour of the nearly two-hour film. I was not the only one who was bored, as in my screening there were only four people, me and three Black men in their twenties or so, who came in individually and sat by themselves. The “phone check index” with Us was very high, as every single one of those men checked their phones at least ten times times throughout the screening.

The biggest problem with Us is that for a horror movie, it isn’t even remotely scary. There are no legitimate thrills or chills in this movie and there is a startling lack of tension.

Another problem is, much like Get Out, it is poorly shot and not very well-made. There are a lot of shots of darkness in the film, which is to be expected in a “horror” movie, but they are poorly executed and end up being little more than just a murky, dark screen. I know that sounds bizarre to the uninitiated, but there is a difference between darkness and a lack of light. “Darkness” is created by using lighting techniques to create a crisp contrast where you enhance the mood but maintain visual clarity and with it interest. For an example of cinematographic “darkness:, go watch The Favourite from last year and see how well they shoot with just a single candle as the lighting. On the other hand, “lack of light” is simply a lack of a light source and brings with it little to no visual structure and fails to create or enhance mood but only diminishes visual clarity and capacity.

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In addition, how is it that the filmmakers couldn’t figure out that you need to light people with darker skin tones differently from lighter toned people when you shoot them in low light? Besides being exquisitely beautiful, Lupita Nyong’o is very dark skinned, so why wasn’t there any subtle light used to reflect off of her in the shots with lower light? Lighting her properly would not only make her visible to viewers but highlight her powerful performance and accentuate her exquisite bone structure and features (like was done in the photo to the left). By not lighting her effectively in the film, Nyong’o gets washed out by the faux darkness/lack of light, and even in the light Peele’s camera often loses the detail of her striking features. Maybe I am simply going blind or maybe the projector at my theatre was sub-par (I saw it at the Arclight, a high end theatre here in Los Angeles) or maybe the cinematographer, like cosmetic companies, doesn’t realize you need to light differently and use a different color palate to accommodate different skin tones. Again…maybe this is an issue with my vision or with the poor condition of America’s projectors, both of which are very distinct possibilities, but then again so is cinematic malpractice.

And finally, another problem with the film is that while the trailer presented an intriguing premise, the film’s narrative ends up expanding too broadly and in doing so dilutes any potential tension. Instead of making a focused and intimate film about just one family and their personal/familial shadow, Peele expands his thesis and by doing so neuters the film of all its power. The trailer had me thinking this film was sort of a crazy combination of The Shining, Straw Dogs and Cape Fear or something like that…all of which show families/couples under extreme pressure from relentless evil foes.

In narrative, thematic, symbolic, mythical and even political terms, Us is ultimately kind of a mess of a movie that feigns both artistic and popular entertainment pretensions whilst spoon-feeding its political/social message with such unsubtle and cringeworthy lines as '“We are Americans.”

Us is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and tries to be everything and ends up being nothing at all. Is the film about capitalism? Racism? Collective guilt? Collective shame? America’s shadow? The film is sort of about all of those things all at once and thus ends up not really being about any of them. The film lacks narrative cohesion, thematic coherence and dramatic compulsion and it never commands your attention.

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On the bright side, the cast do the very best they can with the little they are given. Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the Winston family matriarch Adelaide, should be commended for picking the movie up and carrying it on her back. Nyong’o is a magnetic screen presence and it is impossible to take your eyes off of her, which is why it is so frustrating that she is so poorly shot and lit. Nyong’o gives her all but the film fails to live up to her strong work in it.

Winston Duke plays Adelaide’s husband Gabe, and is another top notch actor who is poorly served by the film. Duke is a charming presence but is terribly underused in Us, and his character often feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

The two younger actors, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, play the Wilson’s children Zora and Jason, give solid performances that get scuttled by the visual and narrative mess that is the movie.

In the lead up to Us’s release, the media has once again turned on the hype machine regarding Jordan Peele. There are some who are actually calling him the new Hitchcock, which is pretty stunning considering he’s only made two films and both of them are painfully mediocre. Trust me when I tell you that Jordan Peele is not the next Alfred Hitchcock…he isn’t even the next M. Night Shyamalan…at least not yet. Maybe Peele will grow into being a Hitchcock or will have a few more moderate hits then be exposed for being a cinematic fraud like Shyamalan…anything is possible…but the latter seems much more likely, especially after seeing Us.

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The critical love for Us is transparently, blatantly and shamefully a result of a “woke” cultural agenda held by film critics which holds diversity and inclusion in much higher regard than it does the art of cinema. I get the excitement around Peele, I genuinely do, but at the end of the day there is simply no there there. Peele, much like his films Get Out and Us, is cinematic fool’s gold, and anyone holding him up as an a formidable auteur is going to be left looking very foolish…the ham-fisted attempts at making on-the-nose social statements in Us are proof of that.

I remember decades ago Nicholas Cage was revered as some sort of acting genius, like the second coming of Brando except funny. Well…I knew back then he was a fraud and no one listened…and history proved me right and exposed Mr. Cage’s artistic vacuity. I think the same will be true of Jordan Peele. And to be clear, I don’t dislike Jordan Peele and I don’t want him to fail, in fact he seems like a good guy and I wish him success because I want SOMEBODY…be it Peele or anybody else, to be the next Hitchcock or Kubrick or Altman or whomever because I love cinema and cinema needs great auteurs. I wish there were more great film makers in the world not less, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and all the film critics in the world wishing Peele’s movies were great doesn’t make them any better and it certainly doesn’t make him a great filmmaker.

The hype machine is doing Peele no favors either, at least not in the long run. Yes, it will drum up business…hell, the hype and the great trailer had me so excited to see Us I trudged out to the theatre on opening day and I was really hoping it was awesome. The problem though is that it wasn’t…and that is sort of a big problem. The critical hype around Peele can only last so long before audiences tune out or get angry. This is what happened to M. Night Shyamalan, whose early films were considerably more financially successful than Peele’s. Once the bloom came off the Shyamalan rose his career plummeted and he has been struggling for years to try and get his filmmaking head above Hollywood waters ever since.

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Us currently has a 95 critical score, which is extremely high. In contrast, the film has a 69 audience score, which in my eyes, and probably the eyes of the other audience members at my screening who would rather look at their phones than at Us, is a much more accurate assessment of the quality of the movie. It is striking that in the crazy world in which we now live, critics adore a supposedly crowd pleasing, populist piece of entertainment like Us much more than the crowd it is supposed to be pleasing. As previously stated, I think the critical love for this film and for Peele is mostly powered by the White liberal guilt of film critics, which means that while the film is not philosophically or politically insightful enough to be worthwhile viewing, the hype surrounding it and Jordan Peele is much more instructive and insightful about the world we live in than anything found in the film.

In conclusion, Us could have been a really fascinating movie, but it ends up being a terribly boring disappointment because it is so poorly written and executed. Us is too visually muddled, narratively incoherent and cinematically flaccid for me to recommend you see it in the theatre, but if you really do want to see it I say wait until it is on Netflix or cable and see it for free.

©2019

Leaving Neverland: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. See it to see and hear the truth regarding one of America’s most famous icons.

Leaving Neverland, produced and directed by Dan Reed, is a documentary that tells the story of Michael Jackson’s child sexual abuse of James Safechuk and Wade Robson from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. The film is four hours long and is broken down into two, two-hour segments, which originally aired on HBO on March 3rd and 4th and are currently still available on that channel.

Leaving Neverland is one of those documentaries that takes a nebulous perception and turns it into an unavoidable reality. Michael Jackson, who settled a child sexual abuse lawsuit for a rumored $25 million in 1993 and was acquitted of child sex abuse involving another boy in a separate case in 2005, has long been assumed to be a pedophile…Leaving Neverland removes all doubt from that assumption.

The film is basically a collection of very long interviews with Safechuk and Robson where they describe in extremely explicit detail their sexual interactions with Jackson when they were minors, in Robson’s case as young as 7 years old. While the explicitness of their stories is uncomfortable to hear, it is very effective in shattering any illusions that might cloud the cold-hard reality of Jackson’s perverse sexual predilections. The explicitness of the language used is very beneficial, as terms like “molested” or “fondled” sound less damning and less evil than hearing the precise descriptions of what Jackson was doing to these little boys.

Director Reed wisely cuts back and forth between the explicit interviews of the grown men and footage of when they were young boys at the age when they were abused. This approach is highly effective in bringing home the point of Jackson’s disturbing depravity and the scope and scale of his evil.

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Safechuk and Robson come across as forthright and believable in the interviews. If they are lying about the nature of their relationship with Jackson then they are two of the greatest actors to have ever walked the earth. Robson is much more camera friendly and articulate than Safechuk, but Safechuk’s pure being, his posture, his energy, the look in his eye, is devastating testimony in and of itself, and is a searing indictment of Michael Jackson.

The film does not have any interviews from members of the Jackson family or any counter arguments to Safechuk and Robson, and some may see that as unfair, I do not agree. For thirty years we have heard the Jackson story while the children he abused have been silenced due to his wealth and power. We’ve heard enough from Jackson and company, and Leaving Neverland gives the side of the story we haven’t heard yet and that is what makes it so valuable.

What is so striking about the documentary is the news footage from the height of Jackson’s fame in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Jackson’s pedophilia was hiding in plain sight for all of us to see…in fact he was even flaunting it. The footage of Jackson gallivanting around the globe hand in hand with little boys is disgusting as he acts like a rock star parading around in public with a super model as arm candy and trophy girlfriend. And just like some rock star would want the status symbol of being seen in public with the latest and hottest Hollywood ingenue, Michael Jackson did the same thing with little boys, going public with his “friendship” with first Emmanuel Lewis (of Webster fame) and then later with Macaulay Culkin.

Jackson is just a despicable and deplorable human being, but his staff, family and enablers are equally repugnant for aiding and abetting his blatantly obvious sexual predation. As the documentary shows, Jackson’s staff members were actively recruiting boys to be Jackson’s companions and were complicit in keeping parents away while the abuse was happening.

Leaving Neverland is not just an indictment of Jackson, but of us all. His fans, the media and the public in general refused to see or believe what was right in front of our eyes because it was easier to ignore it, laugh about it or pretend it wasn’t happening. How Jackson did not get his head caved in by either a raging father of an abused child or by a security staffer with a conscience, is beyond me.

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The documentary is very effective in revealing how Jackson didn’t just seduce little boys but also their entire families. The interviews with Safechuk’s and Robson’s mothers are very enlightening and at times infuriating. These women, whose job was to protect their kids, fell for Jackson’s schtick hook, line and sinker and their boys paid the price for it. The mother’s, especially Ms. Robson, inability to take responsibility for their failure is mind-boggling, and the fact that Ms. Robson STILL doesn’t want to hear what happened to her son is astonishing. But this is what the allure of fame does to people, it distorts and compromises their soul, and they end up selling their son’s youth and innocence for a shot at the brass ring.

After the airing of the second part of the documentary, HBO aired a special interview with Oprah Winfrey and James Safechuk and Wade Robson. Considering Oprah herself has talked publicly about being sexually abused as a girl and the intracicies of that, you would think she’d be a good choice to host program…but you would be wrong.

Oprah is a terrible interviewer as she always makes everything about her and her opinion…but she is an even worse human being because she is so devoid of self-awareness yet is delusional enough to think that she is entirely self-aware. During the post-doc interview Oprah has the temerity to tell Safechuk that he hasn’t evolved as much as Robson, which if Oprah were half as “evolved” as she thinks she is she would understand is a really vicious thing to say to a survivor, especially one in such a vulnerable state as Safechuk.

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What was stunning to me is that Oprah spent the hour pontificating on how wise she is about abuse and how it is really seduction, but she fails to ever mention that she interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993…and it was a patty cake interview if there ever was one. During that interview Oprah never held Jackson to account or held his feet to the fire for his “bizarre” and curious behavior with boys. Oprah…like the rest of America and like Safechuk and Robson and countless other boys and their families…was seduced by Michael Jackson and the allure of his fame and power, which is saying quite a lot considering Oprah’s fame and power…and it would have been interesting for Oprah to talk about HER experience of that seduction and how she was either wittingly or unwittingly blind to Jackson’s depravity…instead of doing what she did and giving her opinion on other people’s experience of that.

The enormity of Michael Jackson’s fame and celebrity, especially back in the 80’s and early 90’s is difficult to fathom in this day and age of such a fractured and fragmented popular culture. Michael Jackson wasn’t just a superstar, he was a supernova. Jackson was the most famous and identifiable person on the planet back then and more people knew his name than any other person’s in the whole world.

When you look at Jackson’s discography and album sales it is unbelievable. Jackson was considered a performing prodigy and was a superstar with his family band The Jackson Five at the age of 11. After an awkward adolescent transition, Jackson returned to glory as a 21 year old with his 1979 hit album Off the Wall, which is a terrific album that sold 20 million copies.

The follow up to Off the Wall was Thriller, which sold an estimated 66 million copies and is the greatest selling album of all-time. Thriller undeniably made Jackson the biggest pop star in the world. No one has ever or will ever surpass Thriller’s sales numbers.

After Thriller Jackson could have sold 20 million copies of any piece of crap he threw out there, and that is kind of what he did with the awful Bad (1987) and the even more abysmal Dangerous (1991), which sold 35 and 32 million copies respectively.

The success of Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous gave Jackson enormous amounts of wealth and power and with that money and power Jackson could do whatever the hell he wanted…and sadly…what he wanted to do most of all was to have sex with young boys.

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After watching Leaving Neverland and the Oprah special I sat contemplating what I had just seen and I had two thoughts. The first thought was how striking it is to me that in the 1980’s, a decade of America’s alleged rebirth and renewal under Ronald Reagan, the biggest and most beloved music star was Michael Jackson and the biggest and most beloved television star was Bill Cosby. These two men were very similar in a lot of ways in that they were two Black men whose success crossed color lines, who cultivated personas that exuded a gentle kindness and moral purity, and who were sexual predators who preyed upon the defenseless, in Jackson’s case young children and in Cosby’s case drugged and unconscious women. I have no idea what that observation means in a broader sense, maybe something about masks and facades and how to succeed in America, I don’t know, I just thought it was very curious that these two men were so successful in their careers at that time period but also so successful at getting away with their sex crimes for so long.

The second thought I had was about Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s 2009 death from an overdose of propofol. Murray served two years in prison and was pilloried by the media for being responsible for “killing” Michael Jackson. After watching Leaving Neverland, I think Conrad Murray deserves a fucking medal.

In conclusion, Leaving Neverland is a difficult documentary to watch, but I highly recommend you do watch it because we must never look away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is or how uncomfortable it makes us.

©2019

Muse - The Forum: A Review

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MUSE - THE FORUM - MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2019

Last Monday night I ventured out among the hoi polloi to see the band Muse, whose Simulation Theory tour had rolled into town for a one night stand at the Los Angeles Forum.

Muse is a difficult band to accurately describe. The English power-trio made up of Matt Bellamy (lead vocals, guitar, keyboard), Chris Wolstenholme (bass, backing vocals) and Dominic Howard (drums) are sort of an amalgam of arena rock, prog rock, hard rock and electronica that over their twenty year career have consistently churned out a cavalcade of catchy alt-political anthems. If Roger Waters’ led Pink Floyd (Animals, Final Cut), Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust incarnation, Queen, Rush and The Who in their rock opera phase (in this case especially Tommy), were all thrown into a blender and mixed together, you’d get Muse. That is not to say that Muse is as good as any of those bands but just to give you an indication of their rock and roll DNA.

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Muse have released eight studio albums, all of them in one form or another specifically themed “concept albums”, that have examined everything from alienation in space to physics to conspiratorial militarism to propaganda and nearly everywhere in between. The band’s latest, Simulation Theory, is a synth-driven, pop-rock psuedo-opera exploring a manufactured video-game/matrix reality and political dysfunction that taps heavily into science fiction and 80’s pop culture. The album cover is reminiscent of the poster for Spielberg’s 80’s nostalgia film from last year Ready Player One, and the album touches upon similar themes.

Muse can be a polarizing band, some think they are one of the best rock bands in the world while others think they are a derivative, cheesy embarrassment. I understand the conflict even if I don’t agree with it. Muse are undoubtedly full of bombast and artistic ambition…I mean what other modern rock band has the confidence, if not arrogance, to continually make concept albums and rock operas? But with that said, this is rock and roll and a certain level of bombast and artistic arrogance is helpful if not required.

I am not a Muse cultist, but after discovering them when their 2006 radio-friendly album Black Holes and Revelations was in heavy rotation, I certainly became a fan. That album, which featured the hits “Take a Bow”, “Starlight”, “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Knights of Cydonia”, was like a guitar-driven breath of fresh air for rock…or the genre’s last gasp…depending on your perspective.

Black Holes and Revelations then led me to their earlier albums, Absolution (2003) and Origin of Symmetry(2001), both of which energetically lay the groundwork for their later breakthrough success.

The Resistance (2009), and its infectious call to arms “Uprising”, kept the bands momentum going by admirably following up Black Holes and Revelations. 2nd Law (2012) and Drones (2015) came soon after and were solid albums but failed to capture as much of the cultural imagination as their earlier work. Simulation Theory came out last year and even though it is more pop-oriented than the preceding albums, it too failed to get much attention from our rock-allergic culture.

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Which leads us to the Simulation Theory tour and Monday night at The Forum. I own the majority, but not all, of Muse’s albums but I have never seen them live. My friend, the music afficianado Fire Thorn, saw them on their last tour and highly recommended them to me, but I still hesitated to buy tickets. Then in a moment of weakness I recently noticed they hadn’t entirely sold out The Forum so I searched and found a good deal on some nice seats and I took the plunge.

The Forum is a terrific venue for music. My first experience there was thanks to a friend who is a big shot in the music industry who got me in to see Van Halen rehearse for their first reunion tour in 2007. Van Halen was one of my favorite bands when I was a kid, so getting to see a private show by the band at The Forum for me and 14 other people was a magical experience that emotionally attached me to the venue for life.

Getting to The Forum is pretty easy, but getting out of there after a show is a total traffic nightmare. My night got off to a good start though when I found a sneaky good place to park across the street from The Forum that only cost $5 more than the arena parking and helped us to escape quickly and unscathed after the show.

The opening act was the band Walk the Moon which I had never heard of, but then when they started to play I realized they had a song that my friends two year old daughter is crazy about titled, “Shut Up and Dance”. My first impressions of Walk the Moon were that I was not particularly impressed. As my date, the inimitable Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf noted, they are like if Flock of Seagulls and N’Sync had a baby….or as I added…had an abortion. To be fair, the band has talent, no doubt, but the songs were weak and it just wasn’t my thing. My one observation was that the lead singer has a decent voice but he is a little TOO good a dancer…and the general rule when it comes to lead singers is that they should move well (think Mick Jaggar or Jim Morrison) but not dance too well.

After Walk the Moon walked off the stage, which was followed by an interminably long wait that had John Carpenter music as its soundtrack, Muse hit the stage around 9 pm, and turned The Forum into ground zero in the war for rock and roll’s survival.

The band opened with the first song off of Simulation Theory, the mood setting Algorithm which brought the near capacity crowd to its feet. The audience was jumping and singing along from the get go and the energy ran high as they stayed on their feet for the entire two hour show.

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Rock is dead is a refrain I hear often, mostly because I am the one saying it, but I can attest that on Monday, March 11th, at The Forum, rock was alive and well and kicking…hard. Muse put on an astonishing show, one of the very best I have ever seen. That is the thing about Muse, they don’t just play music and play it exceedingly well, they put on a SHOW. The stage set, the costumes, the “dancers”…it was all a fantastic spectacle.

Any band that puts out concept album after concept album like Muse does is an artistically ambitious one, and that ambition was on full display at The Forum. Lead singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy, who at different times wore electronic goggles, an electronic suit, or both, was often accompanied by “dancers” that looked like a Kubrickian marching band of demonic robots. These dancers would sometimes hang from the ceiling in front of giant video screens, or bang large drums, or wear video face masks displaying an upside down American flag (the sign for distress), or would wield glowing light weapons.

In some ways the show that Muse put on could be interpreted as a parody of a rock show, with all the bells and whistles being a sign of decadence, but the one thing that stops that from happening is the impressive and impeccable musicianship of the band.

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Bellamy is a powerful singer whose voice maintains its strength and clarity even when he hits his falsetto, which is often. His guitar playing is spectacular as well, both muscular and precise, and rattles you to your bones. Bellamy is not the most charismatic stage presence on the planet, so he is greatly aided by the Greek chorus of techno-dancers from hell that amplify the story of each song.

Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is the hidden gem in the band. His bass playing is superb but it is his backing vocals that are even more impressive. Wolstenholme’s vocals perfectly bolster and mix with Bellamy’s, and give the band a rich vocal texture that elevates the material.

Drummer Dominic Howard is the heavy-handed beast who lays the foundation from which Bellamy’s voice and volcanic guitar blast off. Although the band is a power trio, they do have an added musician on tour, a keyboard/secondary guitar player, who is tucked next to Howard during the show and who adds to the gigantic tsunami of sound the band produces.

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The band played for two hours and not once did the energy in the building even remotely dissipate. Even though Simulation Theory has not sold very well, the audience absolutely loved the new material and much to my surprise knew the words to all of the new songs. My date Lady Dusseldorf had never heard Simulation Theory at all and even she got swept away by the tribal love for the new songs. In total, Muse played eight songs off of Simulation Theory and every single one of them was instantaneously met with rapturous cries of approval from the faithful.

The highlights of the show are almost too numerous to count as the whole thing was a supernova of highlights. But if I have to choose the best parts I would say Pressure and Uprising were the best songs in the first quarter of the show, with Mercy and the ferocious rebel anthem Time is Running Out being mid-show highlights. The climax of the show, from “Take a Bow” to the infectious “Starlight” to the ludicrously phenomenal encore medley to the closer, “Knights of Cydonia”, was deliriously and deliciously intoxicating.

Muse may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like hard arena rock music wrapped in a captivating rock and roll spectacle, then I urge you to go see Muse live, I promise that you’ll be impressed…I sure as hell was. Rock may be dying, but last Monday night at The Forum Muse proved that they won’t let it go down without a nasty fight.

SET LIST

Algorithm

Pressure

Psycko

Break it to Me

Uprising

Propaganda

Plug In Baby

The Dark Side

Super Massive Black Hole

Thought Contagion

Interlude

Hysteria

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable

Dig Down

Madness

Mercy

Time is Running Out

Houston Jam

Take a Bow

Prelude

Starlight

ENCORE

Algorithm

Stockholm Syndrome/Assassin/Reapers/The Handler/New Born

Knights of Cydonia

©2019

Transit: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT - Cinephiles should definitely check out this meditation on fascism, but be forewarned, this is a very “foreign” film so those not accustomed to such unconventional storytelling might want to skip it.

Language: German and French with English subtitles

Transit, written and directed by Christian Petzold and based upon Anna Segher’s 1942 novel of the same name, is set in modern times and follows the journey of Georg, a German trying to escape Fascists as their totalitarian reach stretches out of the Fatherland and across France. The film stars Franz Rogowski as Georg, with supporting turns from Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Barbara Auer, Maryam Zaree and Ronald Kukulies.

Transit is a fascinating and politically prophetic and potent film that masterfully creates the visceral experience of modern world where fascism reigns supreme. The film is based upon Anna Segher’s novel about the Holocaust, but in its more modern setting it is equally chilling. The suffocating sense of impending and unstoppable doom that permeates this movie makes setting this story in modern times all the more chilling because it seems so effortlessly believable. The archetypal energy currently on the rise across the globe (and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, in our own hearts) is that of the fascist, and in the long shadow of the fascist, fear, isolation and resignation grow like poison mushrooms. Transit tells the story of those under the boot of fascism and the attempt to balance primal instincts to survive against the spiritual need for human connection and love.

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Director Christian Petzold’s strength in this film is in making fascism feel tangible and palpable. The ominous sense of danger that Petzold conveys in this film, be it with a simple siren, screeching tires, a women on a street corner pointing or refugees refusing to look each other in the eye, is electric.

Petzold’s minimalism in respect to creating this menace is magnificent. By not physically transforming the world in which we live, but simply distorting our perception of it, Petzold makes the fascist threat feel immediate, intimate and personalized.

On one level, Transit reminded me of Michelangelo Antonioni’s intriguing film The Passenger (1975), in that it deals with a man stealing the identity of a dead man and having to face the repercussions of that act. In Transit, Georg assumes the identity of a dead writer in order to escape Paris as it comes under the perilous grip of the fascists.

Georg’s escape out of Paris leads him on a odyssey that reveals his external desperation to survive and his internal yearning to maintain humanity at all costs. The fascist menace forces Georg to fight this battle between his instinct and his humanity, where he must choose what kind of man he is and what kind of life he will lead.

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Transit, which is in French and German with English subtitles, is a decidedly foreign film in that it does not conform to Hollywood conventions. This eschewing of storytelling convention can be somewhat frustrating for the uninitiated or for those not prepared for it, so consider yourself warned. Understand that this film is really about the pressures of living, or trying to live, under the toxic cloud of fascism, and how the existential fear of obliteration at the hands of totalitarians turns people upside down to the point where they behave emotionally and in ways that seem irrational to those on the outside. Seeing the film through this lens will hopefully help make any moments in the film that seem unclear or unrealistic much more palatable.

As for the cast, Franz Rogowski does stellar work as the conflicted Georg. Rogowski is Joaquin Phoenix’s German doppleganger, cleft lip scar included. Rogowski even has the same energy as Phoenix and he carries that burdensome darkness and despair with him through this film like an iron cross on the road to his Golgotha. Rogowski’s intensity is heightened by his silence and stillness, which are filled with a vibrant intentionality that acutely convey his internal struggle.

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The ever luminous Paula Beer (last seen in the Oscar nominated Never Look Away) plays Marie, a mysterious beauty who keeps stumbling into Georg on his journey. Beer is a captivating and dynamic screen presence whose Maria is a compelling cauldron of regret, determination and despondency that never falls into caricature or fails to surprise.

The rest of the cast all do solid work, particularly Barbara Auer as a steely architect turned maid, in creating the atmosphere of maddening, dehumanizing and frantic fear that descends upon those under the thumb of a fascist threat.

In conclusion, Transit is not for everyone as its unconventionality can be at times unsatisfying, but for those who make the leap, they have the chance to be rewarded with a film that isn’t perfect but that is rich in psychological drama and political poignancy. My recommendation is for cinephiles who enjoy foreign film to definitely see Transit in the theatres. For those with less sophisticated film tastes, maybe start by watching Antonioni’s The Passenger, it stars Jack Nicholson and can be pretty challenging but is a good place to dip your toe into the water. If you like that then it is worth giving Transit a shot when it becomes available on Netflix/Amazon or Cable because even if you end up thinking the movie fails as entertainment, you may find that it succeeds as prophecy.

©2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse : A Review

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

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A well-made and fun exploration of the Spider-Man mythos that is original and unique.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman and directed by Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Bob Perischetti, is an Academy Award winning animated film that tells the mind-bending story of Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales and his introduction into Spidey-dom. The voice actors starring in the film are Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Bryan Tyree Henry, John Mulaney and Nicolas Cage.

This past Friday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day, so to celebrate this momentous occasion I tried to get as far away from women as I could, so I went to the movies. Much to my chagrin, when I got to the theatre I discovered that the female powered Captain Marvel had 36 showings going on that day and would no doubt draw a multitude of feminist harpies. Not wanting to get caught up in a tidal wave of man-hating and menses I instead chose to make a stand and rebelliously vote with my wallet, so I went and saw… Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse! Take that Girl Power brigade!!

Ok…to be completely honest, not everything is the previous paragraph is true. Yes, it was International Women’s Day. No, I did not go to the movies to escape being near women. Yes, there were 36 showings of Captain Marvel on the day at the theatre. No, I didn’t see Spider-Man as a form of protest. The truth is I figured Captain Marvel would be packed since it was opening day and I greatly dislike seeing movies in crowded theatres…so I chose Spider-Man because it had been out a long time already and probably wasn’t going to be crowded or in theatres for much longer. Sure enough, I was the only person at my screening for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I was extremely happy about.

As for the film itself, I don’t have anything against animated movies, it is just rare that I actually see one. For this reason i really had no expectations heading into the theatre, so it was a nice surprise to discover that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a really energetic and compelling bit of fun.

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Animation is very creatively freeing as it allows audiences to suspend their belief to a much greater degree than with live action which is a very useful tool with a superhero narrative and the directors use it to great effect in this movie. Animation also allows for interesting world-building and the New York City the film is set in is proof of that. The animated city is so vibrant and visceral it becomes a character all its own.

Animation is also useful when it comes to superhero movies in that it enables the action sequences to be much more “believable”. In Spider-Verse the filmmakers play this up by not just focusing on what their animated creations can do, but more importantly on what they can’t do. The world and characters of Spider-Verse have limitations, and that is what makes them so satisfying.

The lead character of the film is Miles Morales, a Latino teenager trying to navigate the perils of adolescence which in his case include a strict police officer father and a new and academically rigorous school. I am not a teenager, although absolutely EVERYONE says I look young enough to be one, but this film does a remarkable job of transporting the audience into the immediacy of Miles’ world. Miles feels like a very real kid trying to juggle all the demands placed upon him while hormones torment his body and the world barely acknowledges him.

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As I watched Miles Morales on screen I couldn’t help but think of my neighbor, who is also a Black Latino teenager named Miles. My neighbor Miles is just the nicest kid on the planet and is always very kind, patient and generous with my own toddler son even when he doesn’t have to be, and what I appreciated about this movie was that it gave me an impression of the world through his eyes.

Considering this is an animated movie I was stunned at how thorough and genuine the relationships were. The characters were all multi-dimensional, even the villains, and the world they inhabited felt entirely real. This dramatic foundation in human relationship is what allows the film to expand its narrative into more and more complex areas. The movie’s multi-dimensions and multiple realities colliding would seem like a muddled mess if it weren’t for the film’s grounding in genuine human emotion and its established reality.

To its credit, Spider-Verse does not ignore the oddity of its premise, and is also able to poke fun at the superhero genre and its formulas while also using them to its storytelling advantage. This is a delicate balancing act, but the filmmakers are able to acknowledge the absurdity of the superhero genre while also taking their subject matter entirely seriously.

The film has an undeniable charisma to it, which is a function of both the first rate artistry of the animators, as the film is beautiful to look at, and also the pulsating soundtrack which includes Juice WRLD, Post Malone, Swae Lee and Nicki Minaj among others. The popular music in the film is not my taste but it is undeniably infectious and extremely effective in developing Miles as a character and conveying his perspective.

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I hope the success of this film, it has made $366 million with a $90 million budget, will convince studios to create more high-end animated feature films of their superhero properties. The DC canon (Batman, Superman Etc.) has been flailing around in their most recent live action Justice League ventures, and it seems to me that Warner Bros. would be wise to try and package those characters in high end animated features like Spider-Verse. This would give Warner Bros. an opportunity to create dark live action films, like The Dark Knight Trilogy, and offset that darkness with animated features that are sophisticated yet fun and geared towards kids 10 and up.

Another idea would be to do the darker material in animated form and the lighter material in live action. For instance, the film Sin City was a very dark, neo-noir animated drama that made a solid $158 million in 2005. The market for high end animation geared either partially or in full towards adults exists, and the studios, be it Warner Bros. or Disney, would be wise to exploit it.

At the very least, making quality animated superhero features helps to connect younger audiences with the characters and expands the life cycle of fandom. In addition, as Spider-Verse and the upcoming live action Spider-Man movie proves, you can have simultaneous story lines, one in live action and one in animation, that creates a scenario where studios can double dip into the wallets of superhero fans. As long as the movies are well-made, it is a win-win for everyone involved.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is well-deserving of its Best Animated Feature Academy Award. While my son is far too young to go see a movie like this, when he gets older this is the type of film I’d want him to watch, not only because it is an example of well-made art, but also because it is a great myth for young adolescents to explore in order to help get them through the trials and tribulations of the teen years.

I don’t know how much longer this movie will be in theatres, but if you have a chance you should check it out, either at the cineplex or on Netflix/cable when it becomes available. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a joyous film that is perfect for kids 10 and up (your mileage for your kids may vary) that carries a message that even resonates with kids grown old…like me.

©2019

Birds of Passage: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A unique and original take on the drug lord narrative that is heightened by its setting among an indigenous tribe in Columbia.

Language: Spanish, Wayuu, Wiwa - With English Subtitles.

Birds of Passage, written by Maria Camilla Arias and Jacque Toulemonde Vidal and directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, is a story that chronicles the rise of an indigenous Wayuu family who are key players in the birth of the illegal drug business in Columbia from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The film stars Carmina Martinez and Jose Acosta with supporting turns from Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narvaez and Juan Batista.

Having just recently watched all three seasons of the Netflix show Narcos, which tells the story of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, I was intrigued to learn more about the origins of the drug business in Columbia. Birds of Passage is a fantastic companion piece to Narcos, as it goes back to the beginning when the drug trade genie was let out of the bottle In Columbia.

Birds of Passage is part biblical fable and part Homeric saga that teaches of the perils of avarice, ambition and the betraying of core familial and tribal traditions. If you mixed the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel (along with dashes of Noah and Exodus) with The Iliad and The Odyssey, threw in the Prodigal Son and a plague, mixed them all together in a bowl of Jungian and Shamanic dream analysis you’d get the mythic core of Birds of Passage.

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The story is structured in the form of a historical epic poem sung to life by one of the tribal word-keepers/historians and is broken into five cantos (songs) that tracks the trials and tribulations of the protagonist family. At the epicenter of the birth Columbian drug trade were the indigenous peoples known as the Wayuu, who are a collection of various large extended families and clans. The Wayuu are culturally shamanic and it is their ancient traditions that kept the peace between the clans and the tribe functioning.

When a prodigal son of the tribe, Rapayet, returns from time away working with the distrusted alijuana (Spanish Columbians) and wants to marry the daughter of the clan’s steely matriarch Ursula, who is against the union, this story takes its first fateful steps.

Birds of Passage is sort of like a Columbian version of The Godfather, except maybe would be better titled The Godmother due to the matriarchal power on display. Rapayet is a Michael Corleone character, bound by traditions and a conservative temperament but surrounded by those who are less controlled and more reactive than he. Ursula is like Don Corleone, a looming presence whose reputation is the real power behind the throne.

The film is also reminiscent of other famous drug lord/crime saga stories like Narcos and Scarface but what sets Birds of Passage apart is the setting of this character arc within the highly structured Wayuu shamanic tradition. As the tag line of the film eloquently and accurately states, “Generations of tradition. Consumed by greed.”

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Having spent centuries fighting off other tribes and colonialism, the Wayuu are distrustful of outsiders. This sort of nativism is a survival mechanism and as Ursula continually points out, the Wayuu ignore this tradition at their peril. The drug business is the Trojan horse that invites the outside world into the protected enclave of the Wayuu. The tight circle of trust around the Wayuus even excludes Rapayet, but once he is let in the walls become thinner and it is easier for the alijuana to follow and with them the Americans and all the trouble.

As the film points out, the drug trade is a direct result of America’s fight against communism and its evangelizing of capitalism. Without capitalism and American imperialism, the drug trade never metastasizes, and the drug war never becomes a permanent state.

Birds of Passage is a meditation on capitalism and how, for good or for ill, it is an acid that destroys everything it touches. The futility of the drug war is intentional and that becomes glaringly obvious whenever you watch any film about drug lords because what makes illicit drugs so profitable is the fact that they are illicit. Because the drugs are illegal is also why violence surrounding the sale of them is inevitable.

The film is also a contemplates shamanism, traditionalism, tribalism and the loss of cultural memory. The cost to the Wayuu for the easy money made growing and selling marijuana is for their entire culture to be dashed upon the rocks of American capitalism with their history and sense of self lost forever.

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Birds of Passage visually looks terrific and a big part of that is the setting. The region of Columbia where the Wayuu live is part desert and part lush forest so the contrasts of the washed out white of the desert and the lush green of the forests makes for a sumptuous visual feast, as do the wide open expanses. Directors Guerra and Gallego also wisely use a lot of animal symbolism and some cinematically striking dream sequences to further heighten the film’s visual style.

The acting is also solid across the board. Jose Acosta as Rapayet is particularly good going from a brash young man (hunter) to powerful tycoon (hunted) without skipping a beat. Carmina Martinez as Ursula is terrific too, embodying the power of her position with an exacting precision.

Beautifully photographed, well-acted and profoundly insightful, Birds of Passage takes a distinctly original path through the familiar territory of the drug lord narrative. The perilous journey from rags to riches and beyond on display in this film doesn’t just apply to greedy Columbian drug lords, but also to those who created them in the first place…Americans. It seems obvious that, like the Wayuu, America has sold its soul to the highest bidder and will soon enough come to the same end as the Wayuu…victims of their own success and to their own addictive greed.

©2019

5th Annual Mickey™® Awards: 2018 Edition

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Estimated Reading Time: The Mickey™® Awards are much more presitigious than the Oscars, and unlike our lesser crosstown rival, we here at The Mickeys™® do not limit acceptance speech times. There will be no classless playing off by the orchestra here…mostly because we don’t have an orchestra. Regardless… expect this awards show article to last at a minimum approximately 5 hours and 48 minutes.

The ultimate awards show is upon us…are you ready? The Mickeys™® are far superior to every other award imaginable…be it the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony, the Grammy, the Pulitzer or even the Nobel. The Mickey™® is the mountaintop of not just artistic but human achievement, which is why they always take place AFTER the Oscars!

This year has been an erratic one for cinema, but with that said there are still a multitude of outstanding films eligible for a Mickey™® award. Actors, actresses, writers, cinematographers and directors are all sweating and squirming right now in anticipation of the Mickey™® nominations and winners. Remember, even a coveted Mickey™® nomination is a career and life changing event.

Before we get to what everyone is here for…a quick rundown of the rules and regulations of The Mickeys™®. The Mickeys™® are selected by me. I am judge, jury and executioner. The only films eligible are films I have actually seen, be it in the theatre, via screener, cable, Netflix or VOD. I do not see every film because as we all know, the overwhelming majority of films are God-awful, and I am a working man so I must be pretty selective. So that means that just getting me to actually watch your movie is a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself…never mind being nominated or winning!

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The Prizes!! The winners of The Mickey™® award will receive one acting coaching session with me FOR FREE!!! Yes…you read that right…FOR FREE!! Non-acting category winners receive a free lunch* with me at Fatburger (*lunch is considered one "sandwich" item, one order of small fries, you aren't actors so I know you can eat carbs, and one beverage….yes, your beverage can be a shake, you fat bastards). Actors who win and don't want an acting coaching session but would prefer the lunch…can still go straight to hell…but I am legally obligated to inform you that, yes, there WILL BE SUBSTITUTIONS allowed with The Mickey™® Awards prizes. If you want to go to lunch I will gladly pay for your meal…and the sterling conversation will be entirely free of charge.

Enough with the formalities…let's start the festivities!!

Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin...

Ladies and gentlemen…welcome to the fifth annual Mickey™® Awards!!!

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Cold War - Lukasz Zal: Zal’s masterful use of a black and white with sharp contrast and his at times eye-popping framing make for exquisite visuals in Cold War that help to propel the narrative and tell the story in theri own right.

Roma - Alfonso Cuaron: Cuaron’s virtuoso camera work in Roma, which includes dazzling camera movements and remarkable framing, is a master class in the art. Any single frame from this movie could hang in a photography exhibit in any of the great museums of the world.

The Favourite - Robbie Ryan: Ryan deftly uses light and darkness, especially with candles, to illuminate the dramatic sub-text in The Favourite.

If Beale Street Could Talk - James Laxton: Laxton paints this film with a striking and lush palette in this film that is gorgeous to behold.

Widows - Sean Bobbitt : Bobbitt’s framing, particularly his use of mirrors, is simply stunning and elevates this rather sub-par material.

First Man - Linus Sandgren: Sandgren’s ability to contrast the claustrophobia of space travel to the vast expanse of the moon is breathtaking and aids in giving this film a visceral element.

You Were Never Really Here - Thomas Townend: Townend’s wondrous cinematography amplifies the fever dream feeling that envelops this entire film.

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And The Mickey Goes To….ROMA - ALFONSO CUARON - This was an absolutely stacked category this year but Cuaron’s masterful work on Roma takes the award. Cuaron's cinematography on this film is stunning as he pulls off numerous, extremely difficult maneuvers with an ease and subtlety that is staggering to behold. Is Cuaron winning a Cinematography Oscar this year a big deal? Yes it is. Is Cuaron winning The Mickey™® Award for best Cinematography a bigger deal? You bet your ass it is.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

First Man : A film more about grief than space travel, this script is able to take an expansive and historical subject and reduce it into a viscerally intimate and personal film.

The Sisters Brothers : An extremely well-written narrative filled with deep symbolism and genuine humanity that turns the western genre on its head.

Leave No Trace : This script perfectly captures the powerful relationship of a young girl coming of age with a damaged father, and never falls into the trap of sentimentality or caricature.

You Were Never Really Here: Intense and disturbing, this script grabs you and pulls you into its protagonist’s tortured mind and soul and never lets you go, even when you want it to.

The Death of Stalin: An uproariously funny script that is masterfully paced and wondrously smart.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE - Lynne Ramsay’s script drags us kicking and screaming into the mind of her kicking and screaming main character, Joe, and never lets us leave. A wonderfully woven nightmare of a movie that is both grotesque and gripping. Lynne Ramsay is now among the best of the best having won a Mickey™® Award.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Cold War: A narrative that stretches over decades and vast swaths of Europe but with an immediate pace that never loses its sense of intimacy.

Roma: A story of a simple woman that is anything but simple. Riddled with rich symbolism and moments of magical realism, Roma is a magnificent script.

The Favourite: Darkly funny and deeply insightful, The Favourite never fails to shock, compel or intrigue.

The Quiet Place: A fascinating story that transcends genre and speaks to the larger issues of our time without ever losing its horrifyingly entertaining value.

First Reformed: An extraordinary script that seriously grapples with matters of faith, theology, philosophy and eco-politics while also being a poignant and exacting character study.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…ROMA - Alfonso Cuaron masterfully weaves a precise and detailed story of harsh realism with mysticism in this slice of life/family drama that never fails to compel. Cuaron has already won more Mickeys™® in this ceremony than other mere mortals could dream of winning in their entire lives.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams - Vice: Amy Adams is stunning as Lynne Cheney, the Lady MacBeth who is the straw that stirs the drink of Darth Cheney’s nefarious political career. This is the very best work of Ms. Adam’s stellar career.

Sakuro Ando - Shoplifters: Ando gives a mesmerizing performance as the de facto mother of this rag tag family trying to make ends meet under the oppressive boot of capitalism. A powerful yet delicate performance that is simply wondrous.

Emma Stone - The Favourite: Stone gives a delicious performance as the ambitious social climber who will do whatever it takes to survive and thrive in Queen Anne’s court. A sexy, funny and compelling piece of work.

Emily Blunt - A Quiet Place: Best Actress Mickey Award winner (for Sicario) Emily Blunt proves once again that she is not just a movie star/pretty face, but one of the very best actresses working in film today. A kinetic, immediate and stunning performance.

Claire Foy - First Man: Foy imbues her character with a frenetic and unrelenting power that bubbles just beneath her calm facade. When that power boils to the surface it brings with it a magnetic intentionality that is palpable and mesmerizing.

Rachel Weisz - The Favourite: Weisz’s use of physicality to convey her character’s intellectual and political prowess is a master class in posture and stance and is something actors should study and steal from.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…AMY ADAMS - VICE : Adams’ very first scene in Vice is the best acting I have seen by an actress on film this year. Adams’ Lynne Cheney is a force of nature and when unleashed is a sight to behold. Adams’ Lynne has an insatiable hunger for power and an arrogant streak that drives the film even if it is from the backseat. Amy Adams is a hugely rich and famous movie star, but it wasn’t until now, when she won her first Mickey™® Award, that she finally “made it”. Congratulations m’lady!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Ben Foster - Leave No Trace: Foster is one of the great under rated talents of his generation and in Leave No Trace he gives yet another magnetic performance by imbuing his character with a palpable wound that torments and propels him to seek solace from it.

Sam Rockwell - Vice: Rockwell gives a delicious performance as Dubya, never falling into imitation or caricature, Rockwell turns Bush into a genuine yet damaged human being that is always compelling to watch and often times hysterically funny.

Thomas Hoult - The Favourite: In lesser hands, Hoult’s character in The Favourite, a sharp tongued and sharp elbowed dandy who plays to win the game of palace intrigue, would have been reduced to a punch line, but Hoult turns him into a dynamic presence that elevates the film considerably.

Joaquin Phoenix - The Sisters Brothers: Phoenix’s tortured character is a combustible mess who never fails to make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons but also never fails to be a compelling, unsettling and dynamic screen presence.

Jonah Hill - Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Hill creates an intriguing character in this film who is both a self-help bullshitter and a complicated and real human being. A subtle and finely crafted piece of acting that is a testament to Jonah Hill’s skill and commitment.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…BEN FOSTER - LEAVE NO TRACE: This is Ben Foster’s second Mickey nomination (Best Supporting Actor Hell or High Water) and first win. Foster has been known to be a rather explosive actor in the past and often thrives in roles where he is combustible, but in Leave No Trace he eschews his usual pyrotechnics for a more subdued, more nuanced and more subtle approach. Foster’s Will is an explosive character, but Foster takes all of that combustibility and stuffs it into a little furnace inside him. The furnace gets hot and even feels like it could explode, but Will fights to keep it contained and it is this struggle which makes for such a compelling and satisfying performance from Ben Foster…who rightly takes his place among the best actors of his generation with this Mickey™® award win.

BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

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Thomasin McKenzie - Thomasin McKenzie is so great in Leave No Trace it is miraculous. She masterfully brings to life a teenage girl struggling to make sense of her ever changing world and also her damaged father. A deft and subtle performance, highlighted by her ability to have the impulse to cry but the skill to not let herself, McKenzie proves her worth as a vibrant and compelling actress in Leave No Trace. Much like Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in director Debra Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone, which launched her career, McKenzie has an undeniable screen presence and a surprising level and command of craft for such a young actress. I look forward to seeing what her very bright future holds.

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale - VIce: Bale proves he is one of the very best actors working in film with his remarkable transformation into Dick Cheney. A master of physicality, Bale also is able to fill Cheney’s silences with a palpable intentionality that gives even the quietest scenes an unsettling air of menace.

John C. Reilly - The Sisters Brothers: Reilly gives the very best performance of his versatile and stellar career as the older and more sensitive of the Sisters brothers. Reilly’s well-crafted and nuanced work never falls into the trap of sentimentality and is a testament to his great talent.

Joaquin Phoenix - You Were Never Really Here: Joaquin Phoenix is may be the best actor on the planet right now and his volatile, magnetic and dynamic performance in You Were Never Really here stands as a monument to his towering talent and his mastery of craft. Phoenix creates an unsettling character suffering a Sisyphean wound that eats at his soul but never contaminates his pure heart.

Tomasz Kot - Cold War: Kot masterfully portrays a man who seems above the fray of life and then adeptly shows his unraveling and descent at the hands of love. A compelling and finely crafted piece of work that highlights Kot as both a movie star and a sublime actor.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…JOAQUIN PHOENIX - YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE: This is Joaquin Phoenix’s second nomination (Best Actor Inherent Vice) and first win. Joaquin Phoenix may be the very best actor working in film today. Phoenix is blessed with an undeniable talent and an interesting look, but what makes him so potent as an actor is his mastery of craft and exquisite skill. Phoenix never half-asses his way through a role, always committing fully to whatever is demanded. Phoenix’s work in You Were Never Really Here is as unnerving as it is glorious, as it reveals the tormented soul of a man on the edge and falling off of it. For this hypnotic and mesmerizing piece of work Joaquin Phoenix rightly takes his place atop the acting world with his much deserved Mickey™® Award.

BEST ACTRESS

Joanna Kulig - Cold War: Kulig gives an electrifying and explosive performance as an alluring Polish songstress. Kulig is like a Polish Jennifer Lawrence, charming, sexy and beguiling with a dash of danger sprinkled in. A truly mesmerizing performance.

Yalitza Aparicio - Vice: Aparicio makes her debut in Roma and could not have been better. Entirely genuine, present and grounded, Aparicio makes us feel as if she isn’t acting at all, but those of us in the know realize she is doing incredible and complicated work.

Olivia Colman - The Favourite: A deliriously delicious performance that is both funny and poignant. Colman won an Oscar for her dazzling work in the film, but being nominated for a Mickey trumps winning an Oscar…this is a fact.

Thomasin McKenzie - Leave No Trace: The winner of the presitgious Breakthrough award, McKenzie is one to watch as her work in Leave No Trace proves. A finely crafted and intricate performance that shows an actress with a refined skill set and in command of her craft.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…JOANNA KULIG - COLD WAR: This is Joanna Kulig’s first nomination and first win. Joanna Kulig is an intoxicating screen presence in Cold War and she expertly makes the audience fall in love with her even while keeping them at an arm’s length. This performance is so dynamic as to be glorious and is a pure joy to watch even when things take a darker turn. Masterfully crafted and palpably brought to life, Joanna Kulig’s work in Cold War gives her the highest honor an actress can ever receive…The Mickey™® Award.

BEST ENSEMBLE

Vice: Christian Bale and Amy Adams give career best performances in this uneven film and are joined in their sublime acting by Sam Rockwell and even Steve Carrell. Across the board this film is blessed with top-notch talent doing high level work.

The Favourite: A cornucopia of delectable performances make The Favorite a delicious joy to behold. Boasting four Mickey™® acting nominees, The Favourite is an actor’s delight.

The Death of Stalin: A cavalcade of talent lends their skill to this phenomenal dark comedy. Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough and Jeffery Tambor are among the multitude of actors who shine in this movie. A very skilled and very deep cast.

The Sister Brothers: The four actors in this film, John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed all give nuanced, layered and standout performances in this alt-western gem. Reilly and Phoenix in particular have a crackling chemistry that is a pure pleasure to watch.

Shoplifters: A wonderful cast which includes Mickey™® nominee Sanduro Ando, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka and the late Kirin Kiki. All of the actors in this film, including the child actors, do tremendous and very complex work.

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AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…THE FAVOURITE - Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult give stellar performances in The Favourite that are intoxicatingly funny and layered. When you put a collection of talent this strong with a director of such vision, great things happen…like winning a Best Ensemble Mickey™® Award!! I am truly looking forward to this cast claiming their award and joining me for a feast fit for a Queen at Fatburger!

BEST DIRECTOR

Pawel Pawlikowski - Cold War: A stunning piece of film making that is concise, precise and beautiful. An achingly beautiful yet complicated love story set in the shadow of European history that never takes a misstep.

Alfonso Cuaron - Roma: Cuaron’s masterpiece is a piece of virtuoso film making that is undeniably compelling and viscerally heartbreaking. At once a beautifully shot piece of magical realism as well as an earnestly told and acted slice of life. A simply stunning and unforgettable piece of work.

Hirokazu Koreada - Shoplifters: A finely crafted film that never lets you go and haunts you for weeks after seeing. An exceedingly well directed film that boasts top notch performances from a big cast of actors.

Lynne Ramsay - You Were never Really Here: This film is a disturbing and unrelenting fever dream and character study that draws you in and refuses to let you go. Both visually and dramatically dynamic, this movie is a testament to Lynne Ramsay’s talent and vision.

Yorgos Lanthimos - The Favourite: Lanthimos has been nominated twice before for a Mickey™® and is proving himself as one of the great and original filmmakers of our time. The Favourite is proof of Lanthimos’ great ability and intriguing style.

Debra Granik - Leave No Trace: Granik is one of those understated directors that often gets overlooked. She has the increasingly rare skill of coaxing terrific performances from actors without surrounding them with cinematic pyrotechnics. A highly skilled, old school director who puts character and drama before spectacle.

AND THE MICKEY GOES TO…ALFONSO CUARON - ROMA: This is a loaded category but Cuaron has made a personal film that is universal in its beauty and insight. A gorgeous movie to look at and a heart breakingly human story make for a glorious piece of cinema. Cuaron has established himself as the auteur of our times with this masterpiece and with his unprecedented 3 Mickey™® Awards tonight!

ACTOR/ACTRESS OF THE YEAR - JOAQUIN PHOENIX

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Joaquin Phoenix gives three stellar performances this year in the films You Were Never Really Here, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and The Sisters Brothers. All of these performances were intricate, delicate, dynamic and magnetic and show him to be a master craftsman as well as a transcendent artist. Few actors have ever churned out three performances of this caliber in their career, never mind in one year…and it is for this reason that Mr. Joaquin Phoenix wins the prestigious, and first ever, Actor/Actress of the year Mickey™® Award.

BEST COMEDY OF THE YEAR - TIE BETWEEN THE FAVOURITE & THE DEATH OF STALIN

Two dark and exceedingly hilarious films, that boast rapturously glorious and deep casts, and speak volumes about the corrupting influence of power in history and today. In dark times, these two films bless us with their morbid but enlightening humor mixed with drama that make for spectacular cinema.

BEST BLOCKBUSTER OF THE YEAR - A QUIET PLACE

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A Quiet Place came out of nowhere to dominate the box office and to open my eyes. Who knew that Jim from The Office, otherwise known as John Krasinski, could be such a great writer, director and leading man? A Quiet Place isn’t just a fantastically well-made, finely-crafted, heart pounding and stomach churning horror/thriller, it is also an insightful commentary on our current culture. A remarkable and entertaining film that is both scary and smart and that beat out other blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2 and Ready Player One, who all won the box office battle but lost the prestige war to A Quiet Place, the first ever Mickey™® Blockbuster of the Year award winner.

BEST PICTURE

10. HAPPY AS LAZZARRO - A magical movie that uses the mystical to peal back the scab of capitalism and exposes the gangrenous wound festering underneath.

9. LEAVE NO TRACE - This film poignantly reveals that genuine masculinity is dying in America. Subtly directed and marvelously acted, Leave No Trace is an understated gem.

8. A QUIET PLACE - A shockingly good movie that is extremely well-crafted. This movie was so well-made I exhaled a breath of relief when it was over…and I wasn’t even consciously aware I had been partially holding my breath the whole time.

7. THE DEATH OF STALIN - A masterful comedy with an exquisite cast that is perfectly paced and precisely acted.

6. THE SISTERS BROTHERS - A film that challenges conventions and overturns genres, The Sisters Brothers was an overlooked piece of gold.

5. SHOPLIFTERS - This movie is haunting as it stayed with me for weeks after seeing it. An insightful that challenges us to question what we think we know about our world and ourselves.

4. THE FAVOURITE - A top notch cast and a daring director combine to make a rabidly funny mediation on the intoxicating and corrupting sway of power.

3. COLD WAR - A gloriously shot, extremely well-acted and well-directed film that is so mesmerizing as to be hypnotic.

2. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE - This film is an electrifying and pulsating fever dream of a movie that transports us into its lead character twisted mind and never lets us go. A masterfully directed and acted film that shows the moral decay on the soul of America.

1. ROMA - A true masterpiece, impeccably shot and directed. Alfonso Cuaron brings his artistic vision to life with such originality and technical skill that it is a marvel to behold. Cuaron has a lot of Fatburger meals waiting for him after winning an unprecedented FOUR Mickey™® Awards tonight!

MOST IMPORTANT FILM OF THE YEAR - THE FAVOURITE, VICE, THE DEATH OF STALIN AND YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

What could these four seemingly disparate films have in common that could make them the most important films of the year? The answer is that they are all meditations or contemplations on corruption.

In The Favourite and The Death of Stalin we see those who get closer to power losing their minds and distorting or ignoring reality just to stay in close proximity to power. If this doesn’t reflect the current state of Washington and the establishment media, nothing does.

In Vice we see the full arc of corruption when the same type of sycophants on display in The Favourite and The Death of Stalin finally finagle their way into the top spot and unleash their power on to innocents across the globe.

And in You Were Never Really Here we see the how the moral and ethical cancer that infects those in the power structure, compels the ruling elite to seek out the innocent in order to satiate their depraved desires and pass on their sickness by devouring the purity of the next generation.

All fo these films high mirror back to us the sickened world in which we live. As far fetched as the narrative in You Were Never Really Here may seem, a cursory glance at the news will reveal that it is not as fictional as we would like to believe. Whether it be the Catholic church and its never ending sex abuse scandals or Bryan Singer and the pervasive pedophilia in Hollywood or Jeffrey Epstein and his Lolita Express that exposes Washington’s elite sexual abuse of young people, this issue is very very real.

These stories are not the whole ugly truth, they are but the tip of a repulsive iceberg. If you think the Catholic church is the only institution to sexually prey upon young people, you are a fool. If you think Bryan Singer is the only Hollywood power player to systematically sexually exploit young people, you’re an even bigger fool. And if you think the Lolita Express is the last word on Washington depravity, you are the biggest fool of all.

The moral and ethical corruption on display in these films and in these scandals are epidemic in American culture. Corruption doesn’t just infect institutions but also individuals. When the powerfully depraved and the depraved powerful control the levers of power then truth gets perverted and reality itself comes under assault….this is America in 2019.

The Favourite, The Death of Stalin, Vice and You Were Never Really Here shows us that the corrupting influence of power has made the world mad (crazy), which in turn has made the world mad (angry). This anger and this madness combine to create an unstoppable force, a vortex of spiritual, mental, emotional and political insanity, that will eventually gather more and more momentum until it destroys absolutely everything in its path.

We aren’t at this tipping point just yet…the despicable Dick Cheney is still allowed to live free and walk the streets of America without fear of someone bludgeoning his brains out with a hammer. Donald Trump, the Queen Anne of our times, still skates through life without a care. Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, act like a modern-day version of Beria, Khrushchev and Melenkov as scramble to hold up the illusion of democracy in the wake of America’s death, all while feeding at the corporate trough like the insatiable pigs that they are.

That said, it does become clearer and clearer as every moment passes that this shit house is a tinder box that is going to go up flames. So the time is fast approaching when we will have to grab our ball peen hammers and get to work...the ruling elite are a target rich environment…we will have a lot of smashing to do.

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On that upbeat note…WHO’S READY FOR SOME FATBURGER!!

And thus we conclude our 5th annual Mickey Awards™®!!! Thank you for reading. I appreciate all my readers, their support and openness to debate and discussion!! We’ll see you next year at The Mickeys™®!!

And tune in later this week for the shadow of The Mickey™®, the Slip-Me-A-Mickey™® awards!!

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©2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. One of the Coen’s very best films that is both disturbing and funny and distrubingly funny.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, is a six-part western anthology available on Netflix that stars Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan and Tom Waits.

Much like Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers are held up by some to be cinematic gods and geniuses who can do no wrong. Once again, I disagree with my cinephile brethren on this point but not to the same degree as I do regarding Soderbergh. That said, I am more agnostic on the Coen cult than I am an atheist.

I find the Coens to be at times brilliant and at times terrible, and rarely in between. For instance, No Country For Old Men is a phenomenal film, where as Burn After Reading is an abomination. For every Fargo there is a Hudsucker Proxy, for every A Serious Man there is a The Ladykillers.

The Coens are famous for their subversive dark comedy, but for me I much prefer them when they lean more towards the dark and less towards the comedy. Because of this, my moments of Coen appreciation and distaste are often at odds with popular opinion. Unlike most people, I am not a fan of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou, but love The Man Who Wasn’t There and Hail, Caesar!

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Which brings us to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is structured as six chapters that are not connected to each other in anyway except that they are set in the old west. This anthology approach behooves the Coens because it allows them to touch upon both the dark and the comedy without ever having to fully commit to either. It is also a benefit when watching it on Netflix because you can watch it smaller increments and not miss anything, which will benefit those with shorter attention spans (which seems to be all of us).

The first chapter in the film is titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and is easily my least favorite. I almost didn’t make it through this chapter because it is so forcibly “Coen” with its comedic sensibilities. It also didn’t help that Tim Blake Nelson is the lead actor in this chapter, as I find him to be a less than appealing screen presence.

This first chapter is an over the top send up of westerns and and for me bordered on the unbearable. This is just a matter of taste so others may appreciate it, but I almost turned the movie off and never returned. Thankfully I didn’t.

The second chapter, titled “Near Algodones”, is where the film starts to take flight. In this chapter James Franco plays a bank robber who gets taken on a twisting and turning journey. This chapter shows the Coens trodding their well-worn but well-played ironic existentialist playground.

Chapter three, titled “Meal Ticket”, which stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling is simply fantastic as it follows a pair of showmen traveling the old west. Melling dazzles as the showman and Neeson does his best Irish brooding in years. This chapter is almost peak Coens and it is a cinematic delight.

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Chapter four, titled “All Gold Canyon”, which stars Tom Waits, is the slowest paced of all the chapters, but it still delivers a powerful cinematic punch. Waits is fantastic as a gold miner who stumbles across Eden and lives out a biblical fable. The Coen’s use of animal symbolism in this section adds one more layer onto the usual mountain of old testament morality which they so frequently and effectively mine (pun intended).

Just when you think the film has peaked along comes Chapter Five, titled “The Gal Who got Rattled”, which stars Zoe Kazan as a young woman making the long journey west with a wagon train. Kazan dazzles as Alice Longabaugh, a delicate young woman who is forced to face a cruel world and an uncertain future. This chapter may be the very best thing the Coen’s have ever made.

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Kazan, the granddaughter of the iconic filmmaker Elia Kazan, gives a beguiling and compelling performance that never falls into caricature. Her ability to fill her character with a vivid inner life and intentionality allows her to be vibrant on screen even as she keeps herself tightly contained. I am not very familiar with Kazan’s earlier work, but I look forward to seeing how bright her future gets, I have a feeling it could be as bright as a supernova.

The final chapter, titled “ The Mortal Remains”, is interesting but not compelling enough and ends the film on a slight misstep. This chapter, which stars Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek, is similar in some ways to the prologue in A Serious Man. The existential and mystical blend in this section, not always to great effect. While I thought this was one of the weaker chapters, I also thought it was the one that held the most potential. Sadly it never lives up to its intriguing premise.

On the whole the film, shot by Bruno Delbonnel, looks great with a simple yet precise visual style. What I appreciated was that, unlike say Soderbergh’s recent Netflix film High Flying Bird, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks lush and crisp even on the smaller screen.

In terms of the acting, it is very good across the board. Neeson, Melling, Waits and Kazan give truly impressive performances that elevate the film to great dramatic heights.

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In conclusion, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is among the very best of the Coen Brothers filmography and I can’t recommend it to you highly enough. If you are a Coen brothers afficianado, you’ll love this movie, and even if you are lukewarm on them, you will find something to like in it. The film is dark, funny and darkly funny, but it also has a philosophy driving through it that gives it a narrative and mythic coherence.

The western genre is the most American of all film genres, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of epic fables that insightfully and accurately diagnose the American affliction. The American affliction that the Coens examine in this film is gaining in power and potency, and if we don’t understand its origins we will never survive this pandemic. A good place to begin to understand our affliction is by watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

©2019

High Flying Bird: 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 empty cinematic venture that ultimately means nothing.

High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McRaney and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the story of sports agent Ray Burke as he tries to navigate the perilous waters of an NBA lockout. The film is available on Netflix and stars Andre Holland as Ray Burke, with supporting turns from Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto and Kyle MacLachlan.

There are people in the world who love director Steven Soderbergh and claim he is a master auteur and cinematic visionary. I am not one of those people. I find Steven Soderbergh to be a middling talent at best and to be terribly overrated. To re-watch his filmography is to discover a rather shocking lack of any greatness whatsoever and an even more alarming lack of artistic instinct and sensibility.

Soderbergh skyrocketed to fame and acclaim with his first film Sex, Lies and Videotape, a daring and unique film that showed the director to be an edgy auteur. But then something funny happened on the way to cinema immortality…Soderbergh kept making worse and worse films with less and less artistic value showing himself over time to be remarkably artistically toothless for such an alleged avant-garde auteur.

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Oddly enough, Soderbergh, the poster boy for “independent film making”, has perhaps become best known for the highly successful, mindless popcorn chomping, Hollywood star-fueled, Oceans 11 trilogy that boasted George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon among many others in its cast. Those films are a perfect representation of Soderbergh’s abilities, as he elevates the below average material with a certain level of cinematic and visual professionalism but never pushes beyond formula and convention to find meaning under the veneer of Hollywood glamour. The truth is that the Oceans movies only succeed because of the stars that power it. But even with all of that star power and Soderbergh at the helm, the Oceans films at their very best are slightly above average Hollywood fair and never even sniff greatness.

Soderbergh’s Oscar winning film, Traffic, is another example where Soderbergh fails to soar. Upon a first watch the film is compelling and Soderbergh’s visual choices, such as using three different base color gels for each different narrative, keep you interested. But upon further viewings Traffic is exposed as being a shockingly mediocre and thin film with little meat on its Hollywood bones.

All of Soderbergh’s other films suffer from a similar lack of both narrative and cinematic substance. Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky are more mainstream Hollywood junk from this supposed master of independent cinema.

Which brings us to High Flying Bird. In recent years Soderbergh has experimented by shooting his films on an IPhone and High Flying Bird is one of those films. By shooting on an IPhone 8 (with a specially adapted lens) Soderbergh saves money, obviously, on camera equipment, but he also saves on production costs by not having to get a permit to shoot in New York City (a clever way to skirt the city’s production laws). It is in some ways an ingenious move, but the problem with shooting the film on an IPhone 8 though, is that the film looks like it was shot on an IPhone 8. To be fair to our Apple overlords, it doesn’t look awful…but it certainly doesn’t look good, nevermind great.

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The visuals of the film aside, what struck me about High Flying Bird is one of the same things that strikes me about most of Soderbergh’s films…it means nothing and has nothing to say except maybe deference to the status quo. There is no cinematic or philosophical depth to Soderbergh’s movies. In High Flying Bird there is a plot about an NBA lockout and the relationship between labor and management, but at the end of the day, Soderbergh scuttles any serious debate and resorts to the same tired formula he uses in the Oceans 11 films where he withholds information from the audience in a linear time frame but then does a time jump to explain the mystery of why things turned out the way they did.

So High Flying Bird is at its core a heist movie, where we see everything happen and it looks impossible but then the heist succeeds and we don’t know why until Soderbergh jumps back in time to show us a conversation that he chose to withhold from viewers in real time explaining it all.

I find this narrative style to be deeply unsatisfying because it strikes me as inherently dishonest. Deceiving audiences into buying into your story only to have a surprise “twist” that is purposefully kept from them isn’t clever, it is lazy, contrived and manipulative. This style isn’t a sign of film making genius, it is a parlor trick, ham-handed hackery and a cheap ploy.

In this way Soderbergh is in the same category of filmmaker as David Mamet…and that is most definitely not a compliment. Mamet likes to make “con” movies (that are awful) that con his viewers while showing them a con on screen whereas Soderbergh makes “heist” movies that steal from his viewers just as the characters pull off a heist in the story.

High Flying Bird is not on its surface a heist movie, but it really is, for it has the same structure, theme and intent as all of the Oceans films and the god-awful Logan Lucky. High Flying Bird is about deception…deception between the characters on-screen and the deception of the audience by the director.

The biggest problem I have with High Flying Bird and most of Soderbergh’s films is that it doesn’t mean anything. It has no cinematic higher purpose at all. Why make this particular film in this particular way? Why tell this story and why tell it now? At the end of the day there is no compelling answer to that question and that is damning.

As for the cast, Andre Holland struggles to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders. Holland, and most of the other actors in the film, all feel very mannered in their performances and I can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh directed them toward this style, which I found off-putting and disingenuous.

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The two bright spots for me were Zazie Beetz, who has a natural screen presence and an appealing magnetism to her, and Bill Duke who perfectly embodies the grizzled old coach archetype he portrays. Both Duke and Beetz felt like real people whereas the rest of the cast felt like actors and came across as very stilted and stylized and not grounded in a reality I recognize. Their dialogue felt like speeches and everything felt manufactured.

In conclusion, High Flying Bird is an absolutely forgettable piece of film making from Steven Soderbergh. The film serves little to no purpose and offers even less insight or genuine drama. Even though High Flying Bird is “free” on Netflix, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend you watch it because it will be a waste of your valuable time…I certainly felt it was a waste of mine.

©2019

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.

©2019

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