"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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

BlacKkKlansman: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

Eighth Grade: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This films never rises to the level of being worth the effort to go see it in the theatre, but if you stumble across it on Netflix or cable it is worth checking out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

 

 

Mission Impossible - Fallout: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDENDUM: WARNING - THE FOLLOWING SECTION HAS SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

©2018

 

 

 

Leave No Trace: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An understated but well acted and directed film that speaks quietly but says volumes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

 

 

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

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

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado - A Review

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

My Rating: 2.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to see this film in the theatres, just wait to see it on Netflix or cable if you are interested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

 

 

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

 

Hereditary: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars                     Popcorn Curve Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A decent but not great horror movie that boasts two strong performances. Worth seeing for free with MoviePass or on Netflix/cable if you have a chance but not worth paying full price at the theatre.  

Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, is the story of the Graham family who experience strange happenings in the wake of their reclusive grandmother's death. The film stars Toni Colette with supporting turns from Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff and Millie Shapiro. 

Horror films are not usually my thing but the ones I find to be the best and the scariest, The Shining, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby all deal with existential threats from the spiritual/supernatural realm. Hereditary falls into the same type of horror film as those three classics, but while it is entertaining and has many quality elements, it fails to coalesce into a cinematic whole that lives up to the high standards of the unholy trinity of films mentioned above. 

In execution, Hereditary falls short of being what I consider truly noteworthy cinema, but with that said, the subtext of the film is absolutely mesmerizing and for that reason alone I was glad I used my MoviePass to go see it. Hereditary, intentionally or unintentionally, is a metaphor for Trump's America (the lead character even says "I am the only one who can fix this") and an ominous warning for what lies ahead for us all…but more on that at another time.

Beyond the fascinating themes bubbling just under the surface of Hereditary, the film also boasts two exceptional horror film performances from Toni Colette and Alex Wolff.

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Colette is stunning as Annie, the mother of the cursed Graham family. Watching her simultaneously be wrapped too tight yet also wildly unraveling is a disturbing pleasure. Colette's Annie is perpetually containing a deep and pulsating wound that at times manifests so powerfully it jumps out of her mouth and cruelly strikes the ones she loves. Colette's ability to vividly portray Annie's spiral downward and descent into shadow is a testament to her deft skill and enormous talent.

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Alex Wolff also gives a powerful performance as the families teenage son Peter. There is a sequence, which is pivotal to the film, where the camera stays in close up on Wolff's face without cutting away for a very extended period of time. Wolff absolutely crushes this very difficult sequence, never once hitting the slightest of false notes. Director Avi Aster obviously knew the gem he had in Wolff, for he effectively uses him in numerous extended dramatic close ups and Wolff is seamless every time. Wolff is an impressive actor and his future is bright indeed. 

Gabriel Byrne is one of my favorite actors and he plays Steve, the Graham family father. years ago I had a transcendent experience sitting in the front row for Byrne's performance on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. The staging of the play left Byrne about four feet from me for almost the entire second half of the production, and as he sat there weeping and wailing and emotionally contorting himself in all sorts of ungodly O'Neill-ian ways, I felt as if he was bringing to life my own tortured Irish sub-conscious. Byrne is an under appreciated actor and sadly, in Hereditary, Byrne is criminally underused, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why, as the film suffers because of it. 

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Milly Shapiro plays the Graham's odd daughter Charlie. There is something wrong with Charlie, she may be autistic, or mildly retarded or something along those lines. Shapiro does well to embody Charlie's discomfort with being in the world in the state she is in. Shapiro is also pretty fearless as she let's the filmmakers make her look as distorted and odd as possible, which benefits the film a great deal but couldn't have been easy. 

Director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski do solid work in using the camera to heighten tension and fear. Pogorzelski's use of shadow is particularly effective in raising the creepy factor throughout the film, and he also pulls off some unconventional camera maneuvers that work surprisingly well.  

Pogorzelski's cinematography combined with Colin Stetson's music and the film's sound effectively set a very creepy mood and tone to the film. Stetson's music is particularly unsettling as like the film's foreboding sub-text, it dramatically haunts from just below the viewers conscious attention. 

Ari Aster is a much more polished director than he is a writer. I felt Aster, much like his lead character Annie, was unable to keep control of the film for the duration. As the story expands and becomes more unwieldy, Aster loses his grip on it and the film loses much of its power. But to Aster's credit, even though the ending feels a bit out of place in the context of the rest of the film, I did find it well conceived and executed. 

As for the sub-textual themes that I found so engrossing and insightful for our time and for what lies ahead...I will write a separate piece about that this coming week because it would be much too difficult to get into it here without giving some spoilers away. 

In conclusion, Hereditary is a decent horror movie but it falls well short of being a great film. While I was glad to see it, I was even happier that thanks to the joys of MoviePass, I didn't technically pay full price to see it. If you like horror films in general, definitely see Hereditary in the theatre, as you will most likely love it. If you are lukewarm on horror films (and don't have MoviePass), then you can wait to see it on cable of Netflix and not be any worse for wear. 

©2018

 

American Animals: 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

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A good but not great film, that insightfully diagnoses the American condition. 

American Animals, written and directed by Barry Layton, is based on the true story of a heist of rare books from the Transylvania University library in 2004. The film stars Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan. 

American Animals is a good, but not great film, that is fascinating because it accurately diagnoses and portrays what ails men in late stage American empire, namely the lack of meaning and purpose in their lives. 

Director Barry Layton takes this bizarre, real life story, and twists and turns it into a pseudo-Rashomon-eqsue documentary fiction piece of cultural criticism that resonates more thematically than in execution. 

Layton's sprinkles interviews with the actual people at the center of the real-life heist at Transylvania University in 2004 though out the film, which is a daring and interesting approach that works well. Cutting from the real Warren Lipka to Evan Peters playing Warren Lipka, makes for captivating cinema, and the truth is the real people often times seem more compelling than their fictional counterparts. 

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Layton deftly weaves in all sorts of cultural commentary throughout the film, including a beautifully executed swipe at the Ocean's Eleven movies, which was so spot on in every single way I could barely contain myself. The fact that the female version of Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Eight, was playing in the theatre right next door, only made Layton's jab all the more effective. 

The cast all do solid work, with Evan Peters and the always intriguing Barry Keoghan carrying most of the weight. Peters and Keoghan are, just like the real Warren Lipjka and Spencer Reinhard, an interesting pair as they are so mismatched one wonders why they would ever come together in the first place. 

Keoghan's penchant for playing odd ducks (he was marvelous in last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is on full display in American Animals. Keoghan's Reinhard is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, surrounded by desperate American angst. 

Peters' Lipka is a combustible concoction of resentment, arrogance and misplaced rage, who, unlike Reinhard, seems to have "Born to Lose" tattooed on his chest. Lipka might be the brains of the operation, and he also might be the balls of the operation, but the problem is he is severely deficient in both brains and balls. 

Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson play Chas Allen and Erick Borsuk respectively, and they do terrific work as well. While their characters are under written compared to Peters and Keoghan, both actors make the most of what is given them and add to the oddball mix of would-be heisters that seems so ill-conceived.

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American Animals is less a heist movie, and more a commentary on the culture that loves and needs heist movies. For instance, both Reinhard and Lipka scour Hollywood heist movies in order to learn how to pull one off. While the heist is the main attraction, the more salient point on display in American Animals is the total lack of meaning in the lives of American men that lead them to be attracted to "heists" in the first place. 

Layton masterfully cuts to the bone of America and reveals the rot at its core. America is desperately and irreversibly in decline, and the American male is dying on the vine. One of the books the American Animals gang is trying to steal is written by Charles Darwin, which is ironic since these young men are symbolic of the fact that the American Male has evolved beyond his usefulness and is in fact, in a state of rapid devolution. As Layton exquisitely shows through the use of another of the books targeted by the heist, this one a collection of the works of John James Audubon, our current decadent age of the Flamingo has deluded American men away from their archetypal Hawk, resulting in a loss of connection with their true masculine nature.

In the end, as American men are taught to be Flamingos, they find that the Flamingo archetype does not resonate in their primal psyche, and so they try and reorient to their genetic, animalistic nature by overcompensating, which takes the form of violent or sexually aggressive behavior, in order to prove they indeed are not Flamingos, but really birds of prey…like the American Eagle. But the bad news is, that bird don't hunt anymore. The American Eagle has landed, had his wings and balls clipped and now clucks like a chicken and preens like a peacock. 

The American Animals on display in the movie American Animals are representative of the current state of the American Male and the desperate yearning for the a return of the endangered and nearly extinct Real American Man®™. The current American Male has been deconstructed, domesticated and emasculated. This is why gun violence (with gun as totem phallic symbol) is so prevalent, as are the use of viagra and pornography.

Masculine Nature has been overcome by too much Feminine Nurture, and when that balance goes out of whack the end the result is what is on display in American Animals, a bitter malaise  leading to a misguided angry ambition, which will only further frustrate the American Male because he is now ill-equipped to express his rage in a healthy and cathartic ways. 

For example, the real life events of American Animals take place in 2004, as the Iraq War raged half a world away. America lost that war because we are no longer the type of country that wins wars (we haven't won a war in over 70 years)…only the kind that talks loud enough to get ourselves into them. 

Lipka and Reinhard's motivation for the heist was the same thing that motivated men from Achilles to Chris Kyle over the centuries, they were ultimately searching for glory. Unlike Achilles and his ilk, Lipka and Reinhard also wanted a short cut to gaining wealth, which has become the new God of our age…and people think it will give meaning and purpose to their lives just like the old Judeo-Christian God gave meaning and purpose to people for two centuries. 

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Enlisting and fighting in Iraq would maybe get Lipka and Rienhard some barstool glory, or a "thank you for your service" from some narcissistic poseur, but it could also get them killed or maimed for absolutely nothing, and it sure as hell wouldn't get them rich. So Lipka and Reinhard took another route…which is a much more typically modern American route than seeking glory on the battlefield, they took the route of Wall Street and Washington, they became thieves. The fraud/conman/thief is the archetype that resonates in our collective psyche right now, which is why we have the president, the politics, the economy, the media and the country we do. 

American Animals is fascinating for the themes it conjures and investigates, and although, like its characters, its artistic eyes are a bit bigger than its stomach, I found it to be a worthwhile cinematic endeavor. I thoroughly enjoyed American Animals and thought it was a very smart and insightful film, although never rising to the level of being a great one. 

If you want to see an accurate diagnosis of what drives late stage empire America, with its rampant opioid addiction, suicides, militarism, fraudulent economy, crumbling institutions, and spiritual decrepitude and dis-ease…then check out American Animals. If you prefer to be like a frog in boiling water and be oblivious to the growing heat around you…you might enjoy Hearts Beat Loud a whole lot more.

©2018  

Hearts Beat Loud: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THERE ARE ZERO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!!****

My Rating: 1.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Absolutely no need to see this frivolous and flimsy film. 

Hearts Beat Loud, written and directed by Brett Haley, is the story of widower Frank Fisher and his teenage daughter Sam as they they make music in Brooklyn while she prepares to leave for college in Los Angeles. The film stars Nick Offerman (Frank) and Kiersey Clemons (Sam), with supporting turns from Ted Danson, Blythe Danner and Toni Colette.

Hearts Beat Loud is the type of film that I would usually never see, but due to the joys of MoviePass, I decided to roll the dice and check it out. Now having seen it, I realize that there is a reason I do not see movies like this…and that is because they are completely and totally frivolous in every single way. 

Hearts Beat Loud is not a drama, it is not a comedy, it is not anything. It is not good, it is not bad, it is ninety minutes of absolutely nothing. Totally forgettable…literally…I remember next to nothing about the movie. It is the equivalent of a cinematic lobotomy. You may think I hated the movie, I didn't, but out of my love for cinema I do feel an aggressive indifference to Hearts Beat Loud

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The film feels like an extended, single camera, HBO sitcom set in a progressive utopia with all of the requisite indy music and emphasis on diversity. For instance, Frank Fisher is White but his daughter Sam is Black, and just to check off one more inclusivity box, Sam is also a lesbian. None of this is cause for the least bit of drama, God forbid, and it all passes with a consciously evolved non-comment to signal that the film is totally and completely "woke". To add to the diversity festival, Frank's best friend Dave, played by Ted Danson, is a gay stoner…but to the film's great shame he is, sadly, White. 

Hearts Beat Loud is so soaked in progressive wokeness that it is little more than a liberal version one of those saccharine, Kirk Cameron, 'The Baby Jesus saved the farm on Christmas' type of movies that only the most philistine right-wing true believers go see.

The multiple narratives at play in Hearts Beat Loud all feel excruciatingly manufactured and are testament to Brett Haley's ineffectual writing and deficient direction. For instance, there is a B story about Frank's mother, Marianne, played by Blythe Danner, that is so idiotically useless it seems like a form of workfare for Ms. Danner, either that or she was collecting on a bet.

The secondary story of Sam's relationship with her new girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane) is ridiculously rushed and therefore devoid of all drama. As is Frank's weird relationship with Leslie (Toni Colette), which is the most absurd narrative in the whole film. Leslie "likes" Frank, but not really, but sort of, but he is an asshole, but she is his landlord, and maybe his partner…and on and on in a hurricane of dubious nonsense. 

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Beyond being a diverse utopia, Hearts Beat Loud is also set in a sitcom-ian economic dreamworld as well. We are repeatedly told that Frank is stone cold broke and yet Frank and Sam live in a very sweet loft in Brooklyn's hip Red Hook area. I would be willing to wager that apartment costs at least $3,000 a month, and when you add in the fact that Frank's retro record store is perpetually empty…BECAUSE IT'S A FUCKING RECORD STORE…the only conclusion you can make is that this story is taking place on Fantasy Island and not in the actual Borough of Brooklyn. 

To add to the economic absurdity of the movie, Frank is constantly buying things, like musical equipment, food, and a lot of alcohol at a bar, that he cannot afford…sort of like his daughter's tuition at UCLA. Frank's consequence less spending makes the movie feel more like an episode of Friends than a reality based independent movie. 

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As for the performances, well…Nick Offerman is sort of a cult figure due to his role as Ron Swanson in NBC's Parks and Recreation but I never watched the show so I am apparently immune to his droll and quirky charms. Offerman is a pleasant enough screen presence, but he is an extremely limited actor with the range of a drugstore wooden Indian, and so he is unable to adequately carry the film. 

Kiersey Clemons is an extremely charming and likable actress but again, also very limited in her acting range, which makes for an uncomfortable pairing with Offerman. The two of them seem less like father and daughter and more like two strangers chatting at a sweltering bus stop. I noticed that the two of them barely, if ever, actually touched one another.

I do not know if Clemons sings the songs in Hearts Beat Loud, but if she does she has a great voice. The problem with the musical sections though are that they feel as fake as the rest of the movie. It frustrates me no end when a film is attempting to take place in reality and then someone sings and it sounds like they are in a recording studio as opposed to live. Hearts Beat Loud has Clemons lip-synch to the flawless vocals and I felt like I was watching an episode of Saved by the Bell when the gang gets a band together. 

Ted Danson as bartender Dave, a sort of gay Sam Malone, is, like the rest of the film, forgettable, as is Toni Colette in an incoherently written character that does nothing but add to the detritus floating in the vacuous puddle that is this movie. 

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The preview for Hearts Beat Loud claimed that "this is the feel good movie we need right now". Hearts Beat Loud as a sort of salve for the brutality of our times speaks volumes about the vapidity of our current culture. This is indeed the movie we need right now if we want to stay anesthetized  and comfortable in our pleasantly delusional bubbles and echo chambers. This film is unintentionally saying a great deal about the unique allure of the soft pillow of opioids here in America, which hold the promise of never having to feel the rough edges of life…or actually feel anything, good or bad…ever again. 

As incoherent as the script and as flaccid as the direction, the worst thing about Hearts Beat Loud is the title. It should have been titled "Ain't Just A River in Egypt", because this movie, and anyone who likes it, is living in a suffocating and stultifying state of denial. 

Hearts Beat Loud is symbolic of the emaciated state of our culture and the superficiality of we the people. If you are that desperate to shut off your already comatose mind, then wait for Hearts Beat Loud to air on cable or Netflix. Under no circumstances should you actually pay money to go see an amateur-hour shlock-fest like Hearts Beat Loud in the theatre, because it has no heart, it is not beating and it sure as hell isn't loud. 

©2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story - A Review

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

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars           Popcorn Curve* Rating: 3.5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An enjoyable and well paced movie. Not Oscar material, but a good old fashioned bit of big budget entertainment. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story, written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard*, is the origin story of that lovable and charming rogue, Han Solo, from the original Star Wars films. The movie stars Alden Ehrenreich as Solo with supporting turns from Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson and Donald Glover.

As I have stated many times before, I am more a Planet of the Apes devotee than a Star Wars guy, and so I would consider myself to be, at best, a marginal Star Wars fan. I do thoroughly enjoy the underlying mythology of the franchise but have often found the cinematic execution of that mythology to be a bit lacking at times. My moderation when it comes to all things Star Wars can be both a blessing and a curse, as it means I never get too excited over a new Star Wars movie, but I also never get too downtrodden if it fails to be transcendent. 

With all of that said, before I saw Solo my starting point was that I had very, very low expectations. Those low expectations were born out of the swamp of bad press the film has been receiving for well over a year now. The whispers of problems turned into a scream last June when Dear Leader Mickey Mouse fired the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, six months into shooting.

The Disney politburo then followed up this stunning move by bringing in the ultimate vanilla studio hack Ron Howard to do reshoots and finish production. Hollywood was abuzz over the beheading of Lord and Miller by Disney hatchet woman, Obergruppenfuhrer Kathleen Kennedy, and news of very costly re-shoots bloating the film's budget only fueled the spreading wildfire of bad buzz that can cripple a big budget movie. 

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That bad buzz came to fruition when on opening night, a good friend of mine, let's call him Doug, who is a stalwart Star Wars nerd, went to a 10 pm showing (in costume, of course) with his wife here in Los Angeles, and they were the only ones in the theater. Another friend of mine went to opening night in Minneapolis and suffered the same fate sans costume. 

Empty theaters on opening night for a Star Wars movie was a strong indicator that Darth Mickey had a big bust on his hands with Solo. The subsequent box office numbers were underwhelming, at least when compared to other Star Wars movies, and so the media narrative was now set in stone…Solo was a bomb. Headlines abounded on the internet questioning if Solo was the beginning of the end for the Star Wars franchise, some articles pondered if audiences stayed away because the film wasn't diverse enough (Good Lord!). 

It was in the midst of this negativity storm that out of a sense of duty to my vocation as a film critic, I snuck off to see Solo. I was so sure that Solo would be awful that I was trying to come up with a clever little spin on the old joke about the bad singer who is implored to "sing a solo…so-low we can't hear you". 

But then I ran into a problem…I went and saw Solo and lo and behold I ended up really enjoying it. Midway through the film I actually thought to myself, "you know what...this is an entertaining romp". Why I was using the term "romp" is a mystery to me as is makes me sound like some hackneyed reviewer like Rex Reed or something, but the truth is…Solo really is a fun romp!

As someone who loathes Ron Howard films, it is difficult for me to give him credit for Solo's success, so I will simply say it is to the credit of all three directors on the film, Lord, Miller and Howard, that the pacing of the movie is so well-done. There is virtually no wasted time or energy in Solo, and it never loses steam and moves at a very compelling clip. 

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Another reason why the film is so darn entertaining is the lead actor Alden Ehrenreich.  Ehrenreich is in a tough spot, recreating an iconic role, Han Solo, created by Harrison Ford, but having to devolve the character into an earlier iteration of itself. Ehrenreich tactically increases the swagger and the snark to near adolescent levels at times which ends up being quite effective. To his credit, Ehrenreich posesses the sheer charisma and charm to carry the entire Solo enterprise, which is a talent you simply cannot teach a young actor, they either have it or they don't. 

Being a movie star is a tough gig, as you must have the energy, stamina, force of will, ambition and dynamic magnetism to carry the weight of a major motion picture, all while being continuously beautiful and charming. When I first noticed Ehrenreich it was in the Warren Beatty directed film Rules Don't Apply. The film is abysmal and I only watched maybe a half hour of it on cable, but in that brief time Ehrenreich made me sit up in my seat and say "who is that?" For whatever reason he just jumped off the screen, and no doubt casting people had the same reaction as he made quite a leap going from Rules Don't Apply to the iconic title character in Solo. (as a side note the actress playing opposite Ehrenreich in Rules Don't Apply also jumped off the screen at me, she was beautiful and talented, her name is Lily Collins, and after looking into her I discovered she is famed pop star Phill Collin's daughter...keep and eye out for her)

Ehrenreich's skill is impressive in Solo as he never falls into the trap of caricature when playing Han Solo. His Solo is a real life human being, trying to make his way in the world and find out who he really is, or at least what identity he will adopt. This may be blasphemy to Star Wars fans, but I am telling you, Ehrenreich's Han Solo is a considerably more complex and better acting job that Harrison Ford's version ever was. 

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As for the rest of the cast, for the most part they all do solid and steady work. Emilia Clarke is her usual luminous self as Qi-ra. Clarke is both alluring and approachable and she imbues Qi-ra with an unspoken mysterious wound that makes the character very compelling.

Woody Harrelson continues his streak of doing quality work in big budget franchise films by playing Tobias Beckett in Solo, a sort of criminal mentor to the young Han Solo. Harrelson has really evolved into a superb actor, and while he doesn't have a hell of a lot to work with in Solo, he makes the very most of what he does have. 

Donald Glover plays the young Lando Calrissian, and while he often feels like he is simply doing a spot-on Billy Dee Williams impersonation, he does it with enough panache and style to make it enoyable. 

The one dour note on the acting is Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos. Vos is a big time crime lord and Bettany simply lacks the gravitas and menace to be able to pull off the character with any believability. I later learned that Michael K. Williams was originally cast in the role and shot the majority of it but when Howard was brought aboard to direct Williams was replaced by Bettany because his schedule conflicted with re-shoots. This is a shame as Williams is a far superior actor to Bettany, and in this role I can only imagine how fantastic he would've been. 

Besides Solo himself, the two best characters in the film are the droid L3 and Chewbacca. Both of these characters have very intriguing and poignant story lines that loaded rich with political and cultural meaning…so much so that I would love to see a stand alone film about either character or both. I doubt that will ever happen, but it SHOULD happen. 

Solo is still getting a lot of bad press and the box office is only going to continue to disappoint its voracious Disney overlords, but in my opinion it was an entertaining movie. It is more akin to Chinese food than Filet Mignon, as it ultimately doesn't stay with you long after you see it, but that doesn't mean it is an abject failure. Solo entertained me, and to me that makes it a success.

If you want to lose yourself for two hours of big budget Star Wars fun then Solo is the film for you..and if you have no one to go see it with you, then do what I did and see it solo!! (See what I did there? That is a play on words…the film is titled Solo and I said to see it solo…just one more bit of evidence proving how clever I am!!). If you want a transcendent cinematic experience that will give deeper meaning and purpose to your life…better to sit this one out. 

*The Popcorn Curve judges a film based on its entertainment merits as a franchise/blockbuster movie, as opposed to my regular rating system which judges a film solely on its cinematic and artistic merits.

©2018

First Reformed: 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. A serious art house meditation on religion and politics and the politics of religion. A flawed but worthwhile film for the religiously, spiritually and cinematically inclined.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is the story of Toller, a protestant pastor and former military chaplain, struggling with his faith amidst environmental and personal concerns. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Toller, with supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. 

First Reformed is a fascinating film that, like Jacob with the angel, wrestles with complex issues of faith and politics (and a fusing of the two), with a deft and insightful passion. I can't tell you what a joy it is for me to see a film that takes seriously matters of faith and genuinely grapples with religious issues without falling into either a display of saccharine christianity or reflexive anti-religiosity. 

When Ethan Hawke's character Toller mentions iconic 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and later has a small debate with a fellow pastor over Merton's work, I knew this was no ordinary movie about religion, but rather a serious contemplation of complex spiritual issues. Spiritual questions, such as whether in the search for a vibrant religious life should one engage with the world (and its politics) or retreat from it into a monk-like existence, and the perils of both approaches, are at the forefront of First Reformed

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Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for being the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. While Schrader is an infinitely more talented writer than director, he did on one occasion make exquisite film, his 1997 examination of familial rage, Affliction. That film resonated so deeply with me that I frequently contemplate it even twenty years later. Affliction aside, Schrader's films usually suffer from his less polished direction. 

I think, in keeping with Schrader's history, First Reformed is infinitely better written than it is directed, but Schrader's direction is strong enough to put it in second place in his directorial cannon behind Affliction. There are certainly some pacing problems with the narrative, not that it goes too slow, but rather it makes dramatic leaps that the story hasn't quite yet earned, which left me feeling that the final third of the film was a bit dramatically rushed. In addition, the transition from the realism of the first two thirds of the film to the final third's deep dive into symbolism and the metaphorical, might be jarring to some, but I encourage you to make the leap as it is worth the effort to suspend your disbelief (which may very well be the brilliant sub-text of the entire film). 

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Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do paint an intriguing picture with First Reformed, particularly with their framing. There are some shots that are absolutely delicious, such as when Dynan turns a rather mundane shot of Toller's entrance into a church into a visual masterpiece by simply shooting from above (God's perspective) down onto a rug with the church's logo on it upside down. It is a dizzyingly glorious shot that, like all great pictures, speaks a thousand words. 

The religious and spiritual dimensions of the film are surprisingly nuanced and complex. Toller is representative of a traditionalist (old world) faith, his church is one of the oldest in America, but that faith is dying. His church is nicknamed "the souvenir shop" because people don't go to actually worship there, only to stop by for historical tours and to buy trinkets. 

Toller's "old religion" is contrasted with the new wave mega-church of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle). Toller deems Pastor Jeffers house of worship more akin to a corporation than a church but he still tries to off-load his counseling duties to its abundant staff. This religious clash between Toller and Jeffers in First Reformed is playing out in real time here in the U.S. as evangelical mega churches sell a corporatized, flag waving, prosperity gospel under the veneer of Christianity while more traditional churches get more and more marginalized in the culture and their pews are more and more empty. 

The Toller character is not only representative of the old church, but of God's green earth. Not only is Toller's faith and church dying, but so is the planet, and Toller's body comes to symbolize the earth. Toller fills his body with toxic trash and refuses to change his behavior even when doctors tell him he must in order to save himself. First Reformed makes the case that the same is true of corporate America (and the world), who constantly ignore existential environmental concerns in favor of myopic capitalist ones. 

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As the film plays out, Toller turns into a Christ-like figure, battling demons within and without and trying to save his soul in the process. Like Christ, Tollermust choose between a dizzying array of archetypes…is he a warrior, a martyr, a savior, a devil or all of the above? Is Toller an activist or a terrorist? An evangelist or a monk? As Toller's goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit's hole in search for the meaning and purpose of his life (and maybe all life), spiritual vertigo sets in, at which point viewers are asked to take some leaps that may be a bridge too far for some, but which I found to be challenging yet deeply rewarding. 

Ethan Hawke does some of his best work as Toller. Hawke's Toller has a world weary gravitas about him that fills the character with a troubled present, past and future. Hawke gives Toller a palpable cross to bear, and his skillful performance lures the viewer in to help him carry it. Toller's metamorphosis and awakening in the film is compelling and is a testament to Hawke's talent and mastery of craft. 

Amanda Seyfried plays Mary and is meant to be symbolic of hope and potential. While at times Seyfried performance feels a bit out of rhythm with the film, and feels unconscionably lightweight next to Hawke's burdened Toller, she does do enough to fulfill the character's dramatic purpose. Treating Seyfried's Mary as less a real-life character and more a totem of spiritual hope and redemption makes her performance much more digestible. 

Cedric Kyle, who is better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is unrecognizable from his comedic persona as Pastor Jeffers. I had no idea that is who the actor really was as Kyle looks the same but is energetically unrecognizable to Cedric the Entertainer. Kyle gives a seamless performance that is shocking because it is entirely without any artifice. 

In conclusion, First Reformed is a very interesting, if somewhat flawed film, that I found well worth worth my time and money. If you have minimal or no interest in matters of faith and religion, this film will be too much for you. And if you are allergic to the art house, then stay well clear of First Reformed. But if you are a cinephile, a religiously minded or faithful person, and can make the leap from taking the film literally to taking it figuratively, First Reformed is the film for you. It certainly won't give you any easy answers, but it will definitely ask you some very difficult and profound questions. 

©2018 

 

Deadpool 2: A Review

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

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars                 Popcorn Curve* Rating - 3.9 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An entertaining anti-superhero movie superhero movie. 

Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch and written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and the film's star Ryan Reynolds, is the story of the foul-mouthed, snarky, former Special Forces soldier turned superhero immune from death, Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds stars as Deadpool with supporting turns from Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller and Julian Dennison. 

Deadpool 2 is the aptly titled sequel to 2016's surprise success Deadpool and is considered the eleventh film in the X-Men series but it really only has a very passing and peripheral connection to that cinematic universe. The first Deadpool came out of nowhere in 2016 to rake in $783 million at the box office.

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I have always liked Ryan Reynolds as an actor…well…not always…but I did used to like him. He looks and acts like my best friend who died twenty years ago, and so I always rooted for Reynolds to succeed. But then he churned out a cornucopia of shitty movies, with the apex, or nadir, being 2011's crap-tacular Green Lantern, which was so mind-numbingly awful as to be miraculous. 

Hollywood had been trying to turn the handsome, charming and affable Reynolds into a star for years and after repeated misfires he perpetually failed upwards. With Green Lantern, I finally washed my hands of the Ryan Reynolds experiment, and I thought Hollywood had done the same. Then in 2016 Deadpool came out with Reynolds in the lead and I thought, "what sort of compromising material does Reynolds have on studio big wigs that they keep giving him so many shots at the brass ring?" I had zero interest in seeing the film and so…I didn't. 

After a plethora of friends raved to me about Deadpool I still had no interest, and only ended up seeing it for free on cable. Seeing it was like witnessing the resurrection…of Ryan Reynolds moribund career. If ever there were a role perfectly suited for a specific actor, it was Deadpool and Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds' sharp wit and deadpan humor combined with his athletic physique made for the perfect match as Deadpool. 

The original Deadpool was a fantastic superhero movie for two reasons, the first is Reynolds and the second is that it had the perfect tone and original approach to the genre at exactly the right time. Deadpool was the antidote to the tsunami of Marvel and DC films over the preceding decade, and decades to come, that either took themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. 

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By breaking the fourth wall Deadpool broke conventions, and by winking at the audience Deadpool got to have his cake, making fun of superhero contrivances, and eat it too, using those same superhero contrivances to entertain. Deadpool was the most unique superhero film in recent memory and it succeeded both as an action movie and a comedy. 

Deadpool 2 is not as good as Deadpool, but how could it be? With the first film audiences had no expectations, but with the sequel expectations are definitely heightened. The weight of those expectations does drag down Deadpool 2 a bit as the comedy seems a little more forced and less free flowing than in the first film. But with that said, Deadpool 2 is still an excellent superhero movie and in parts is explosively funny. It even made me, someone who almost never laughs aloud at movies, actually laugh out loud, or as the young people say "LOL", multiple times. Even the post-credit scenes made me guffaw heartily.

In Deadpool 2 Reynolds is at his sarcastic best as Deadpool once again and carries the film from start to finish. A big key to Reynolds success in the role is that we usually see his face covered with a mask and if not, then it is scarred from the burns received during the characters origination. Reynolds detachment from his handsome boy face allows the actor to release a volcanic amount of energetic cynicism that makes Deadpool…well...Deadpool. Reynolds doesn't do any movie star preening, he just fully embodies the dynamic character and seems to be having a helluva lot of fun, which in the hands of a lesser talent would result in disaster, but here it becomes contagious with the audience. 

The supporting cast are good, and in the case of Josh Brolin's Cable, very good. Brolin does the impossible and never breaks while being on the opposing end on Reynolds relentless shenanigans. Brolin brings a palpable melancholy and gravitas to Cable along with a grounded physicality that translates well and is a worthy counterbalance to Deadpool.

Zazie Beetz is a revelation as Domino, whose super power is "luck". Beetz is a charming, magnetic and compelling actress who seems right at home on the big screen with Reynolds and Brolin. My guess is that Ms. Beetz has a very bright future ahead of her. 

Julian Dennison is the teenager "Firefist" and is definitely the weak link in the cast. Dennison's New Zealand accent leaves his speech a bit difficult to decipher and out of rhythm with the rest of the cast which undermines his performance. In addition he has the least fleshed out character and least interesting material with which to work. 

The action sequences in Deadpool 2 are pretty spectacular and never fail to deliver excitement and a lot of laughs. The "X-Force" sequence, from start to finish, is uproariously funny and boasts an A-list cameo for which to keep an eye out. 

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The Deadpool films are a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stiflingly homogenous superhero cinematic universe. Now that Deadpool has been unleashed in two films, the character will only bring diminishing returns as audiences become more and more accustomed to him and therefore more resistant to his charms. As the new car smell of Deadpool wanes, the danger Reynolds faces is that audience familiarity with his style will breed contempt. As the Deadpool films go forward, the bar gets ever higher for Reynolds to pull off the character with the same cheeky aplomb as he did in the original and first sequel, and that is no easy task. 

In conclusion, Deadpool 2 is a bit underwhelming in terms of the storytelling and coherent narrative, but in terms of pure entertainment value, it is definitely a success. If you want to be entertained for two hours, I recommend you go see Deadpool 2 in the theatre. If you enjoy comedy and superhero movies, this is the film for you. If you are lukewarm on superhero movies but want to laugh at them, this might also be the film for you. If you dislike raunchy humor, hate Ryan Reynolds and loathe superhero movies…then I recommend you go shove five Skittles down your dickhole and then play with yourself until you ejaculate a rainbow, because you are absolutely impossible to please. 

*The Popcorn Curve judges a film based on its entertainment merits as a franchise/blockbuster movie, as opposed to my regular rating which judges a film solely on its cinematic merits.

©2018

 

A Quiet Place: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW.

A Quiet Place, written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck and directed by John Krasinski, is a horror/thriller about a family that must live in silence in order to avoid being killed by creatures that hunt exclusively by sound. The film stars Emily Blunt and John Krasinski with supporting turns from Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. 

As a general rule, I am not a fan of horror/thriller films, they just aren't my thing and since I have to be judicious with my limited movie going time, I rarely if ever go see them in the theatre, instead I'll wait to see them on cable or Netflix. But since I just got MoviePass, and since MoviePass is probably going out of business very soon, I decided I better use it before I lose it, so I made my virgin MoviePass journey to go see a film I otherwise never would have seen in the theatre...A Quiet Place. Boy am I ever glad that I did.

A Quiet Place is an absolutely phenomenal motion picture. It is a perfect combination of independent movie aesthetics with conventional Hollywood horror structure. The film is a riveting and engrossing piece of work by first time director John Krasinski (aka Jim from The Office), and is highlighted by a staggering performance from Emily Blunt. 

Krasinski's direction borders on Hitchcockian in its sheer brilliance and deft use of craft. The film is, at times, reminiscent of (and pays tribute to) such great films as Ridley Scott's Alien, Spielberg's Jaws and Shyamalan's Signs, but yet remains a very unique and original vision. 

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Krasinski skillfully trims all the fat from A Quiet Place and what is left is a tense, taut and harrowing thriller of sinewy cinematic muscle and dramatic bone that is at times unnerving to experience. Krasinski so expertly raises the tension throughout the 90 minute movie that when it ended I surprised myself when I audibly exhaled a breath of air I wasn't even consciously aware that I was holding.

Krasinski masterfully uses good old fashioned fundamental filmmaking - camera movement, framing, lighting, sound and music (things often overlooked in special effects laden films) to build and heighten tension and drama throughout the movie, and yet he also expertly deploys top-notch Hollywood CGI creatures to further enhance the story. 

John Krasisnki also stars in the film as the father of the family and does very solid, subtle and sturdy work. Krasinski's character in A Quiet Place is a long way from his lovable incarnation as Jim on The Office, and this character's gravitas and complexity is a testament to Krasinski's versatility as an actor.

Emily Blunt is absolutely stunning as the wife/mother of the vulnerable brood that are desperate to stay silent and therefore stay alive. There is a sequence, which I won't give away, where Blunt is so remarkable in expressing yet containing her pain, fear and anguish that it is sublime and artistically transcendent. Blunt's performance is further buttressed by Krasinski's exquisite direction which makes the most of her truly dynamic talents. 

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Millicent Simmonds plays the pre-teen daughter of the family and does excellent work in the film. Simmonds brings a palpable and visceral isolation to her character that is a cornerstone of the film. Simmonds character is extremely well-written, and she brings all of its complexity to life with a compelling awkwardness and discomfort.

Cinematographer Charlotte Brus Christensen does exquisite work in A Quiet Place and her use of red light, bare lightbulbs and distant fires creates a sparse but effective visual aesthetic that is cinematically and dramatically effective in propelling the narrative and fleshing out the sub-text of the film.

The sound design and sound editors do remarkable work on the movie as well, and without their magnificent contributions this film would not succeed. The same with the special effects team that created the creatures, which are as unique as you could ever hope and put the movie over the top.

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A Quiet Place is a film that excels on multiple levels, it is an entertaining and compelling horror/thriller that will have you squirming on the edge of your seat, but it is also a film of much deeper meaning with a political/cultural sub-text pulsating just beneath its surface. In order to avoid spoilers, I will avoid speaking of the metaphor at the heart of A Quiet Place, but will do so below. Needless to say, I found the sub-text to be absolutely fascinating and have been thinking about it and the film non-stop since I left the theatre.

One word of caution though, if you are a person who is uncomfortable with "children in peril" types of narratives in a film, I recommend you skip A Quiet Place, as it is basically 90 minutes of children in peril. I usually dislike the use of children in peril as a narrative device myself, but I thought A Quiet Place did it very effectively and not in a cheap way, but that being said, as a father it was very, very difficult to watch.

In conclusion, as someone who was reticent to see the film due to its genre, I must say A Quiet Place handily won me over and impressed the hell out of me. I highly recommend A Quiet Place to anyone who wants to see a well-crafted and original film that happens to be a horror/thriller, it is well worth your time and effort to go see it in the theatre. Just remember...don't buy popcorn, as your loud munching will break the hypnotic silence of the film...and also draw the attention of the creatures…like me! So…BE QUIET! The life you save could be your own!!

 

FILM COMMENTARY - WITH SPOILERS

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****WARNING- THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS!!****

****THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD!!****

There is a lot to get to in terms of the deeper meaning, metaphor and sub-text of A Quiet Place. As the film ended I was overwhelmed with thoughts and was frantically jotting down as many notes as I could in order to remember. Here are some of those thoughts...

1. A Quiet Place is a metaphor for our current politics and culture. In the film, a White "traditional" family, who live on a farm in rural upstate New York, must stay silent in order to stay alive. If they speak up, if they raise their voices, the creatures will come and devour them.

Obviously, this speaks to the current climate of suffocating tribalism, political correctness and lack of diversity of thought in our culture. The rural "traditional" White family in the film represent not only the White majority in America who feel "under siege" by "cultural elites" who despise, belittle and chastise them at every turn, but also anyone who dare speak up and out against their own tribe's rigid dogma.

As America changes, the traditionalist Whites (even liberal ones) feel they cannot speak up for themselves, their country, their religion or their ethnicity or they will be brandished as racist, xenophobic or worse by the ever vigilant PC police in the media and online that attack anyone who dare challenge liberal establishment orthodoxy. A Quiet Place gives voice to this anxiety about the pitfalls of speaking freely. 

An emphasis on racial, ethnic and sexual diversity is bringing change (some believe much needed change) to America, and A Quiet Place speaks to the discomfort of White traditionalists with that change.

Even the casting of A Quiet Place speaks to the changing face of American culture, as it is startling that there are only White actors in the film, "diversity" and "inclusivity riders" need not apply here, and it actually felt refreshing and oddly subversive that no one felt the need to do any token casting of minorities in order to elevate liberal establishment sensibilities above storytelling.

It is even more oddly subversive that the family in A Quiet Place actually prays. It is only one brief scene, and there are no other overt displays of religiosity, but it is striking that this brief scene is in the film because prayer and religion is so rare in cinema nowadays (except of course in those God-awful - pun intended - super Christian movies that are so sugary they cause an intellectual cavity). 

The film's metaphor seen through the eyes of Christians in America (or the west) gives voice to their anxiety over the decline of Christianity in the west, hostility in the public square towards Christianity and the perceived threat of expansionist Islam. Christianity's fears and feelings of persecution may seem unreasonable to nonbelievers, but it is a genuine sentiment among many in the pews, and A Quiet Place is an effective tool metaphor for expressing it. 

2. Rockets symbolically play a key role in the film. To open the film a young boy draws a rocket on the floor and says "this is how we will escape". Another little boy reaches precariously for a toy space shuttle on a shelf and nearly falls over making a loud noise (which would lead to death at the hands of the creatures)...but is saved by his sister. The older son is told to go do "rockets" which is code for shooting fireworks in order to distract the creatures when they are attacking the family farm. 

What does this rocket symbology mean? Well...rocketry and space exploration are from an earlier time in our history, a time when the the traditional White majority ruled unabashedly…post WWII 1950's and early 1960's. Kennedy's call to go to the moon, and America's successful journey there, were the height of human achievement, and the height of traditional "White" American accomplishment.

Pride in that accomplishment, and pride in White American heritage, gets the youngest son killed when he smuggles the toy space shuttle out of the store and turns it on during his walk home. The toy makes a noise...and draws the attention of the creature...who quickly runs and kills the boy. In other words, any display of pride in what America used to be, or pride in White achievement or heritage, will get you devoured by the creature/PC mob.

The Space Shuttle is symbolic of Reagan's vision of America…which is has now become diminished to just a small toy on a dusty shelf in a nearly vacant store. The little boy is attracted to Reagan's appeal to traditional White America…an 80's version of MAGA, a throwback to the glory days of post WWII 1950's and early 60's. The boy is destroyed by the PC watchdogs because he dares to be attracted to and celebrate the Reagan/traditional White American legacy of his forefathers. 

In terms of the older son launching rockets/fireworks to save his mother, the family(traditional White America), the father in particular, thinks strategically and studies all he can about the creatures and their strengths and weaknesses, and thus is smart enough to learn/know how to distract the creature/PC attack dogs in order to buy time for the next generation to be born safely, so that they can have a chance to stem the tide of the anti-traditional, anti-White "outsiders".

The rocket/fireworks...think of the tradition of the Fourth of July, a brazen celebration of America...is like red meat to the PC attack dogs in that it drives them crazy and makes them react instinctively. The fact that this leads to a fall, fight and near death in a silo (missile silo - rocket symbology again), is representative of the same thing...America's former post WWII might and 1950' and 60's missile/rocket development. This silo is filled with corn, symbolic of the farmland/heartland of America and the roots of America's beginning, and this is where a battle is fought and important lessons learned in how to defeat the creatures. The two children almost drown in traditional White America's abundance, symbolized by a tidal wave of corn, but are able to work together to stave off the pc attack dog. 

Anytime you see or hear rockets in the movie, think of it as a giant American flag and being symbolic of the height of traditional White American power back in post WWII 1950's and early 60's.

3. The father in the film is symbolic of the traditional White male in America. He is smart, resilient, reliable and handy. He sacrifices himself so that his children can live and maybe win the war against the barbarian hordes who literally eat their enemies, children included. Unbeknownst to him, he actually develops in his basement lab the technology to defeat these vicious "outsiders"/PC attack dogs. The traditional White American male saves his family, his race and his country through his ingenuity, skill, brains and sacrifice. 

He passes along his knowledge to his son…not his daughter, who is not allowed into his lab. He takes his son, not his daughter, on a fishing trip and teaches him about being able to yell…raise your voice and say what you want behind a wall of water (water being symbolic of the unconscious and transitions). 

It is his daughter, who is deaf, whom he tries to help literally to hear (the Truth), and in so doing she is able, along with her mother's shotgun, to defeat the invading beasts who threaten to devour them all. 

The father, in truly traditionalist form, is tasked with defending and protecting his family by his wife/mother to his children. He does so when he sacrifices himself, in front of his wife's eyes, thus making himself a sort of a martyr for the traditionalist cause. She, witnessing her husbands sacred sacrifice, is then transformed, and she is able to use his male energy and power after he dies, just like his daughter is able to use his hearing aid invention in order to defeat the monsters. In the end it is women who must step up in the absence of men and win the final victory. 

4. Considering all the above, there is an obvious parallel to immigration in America and traditional White America's anxiety over it. Also the stifling of dissent (particularly by establishment Democrats), which is at epic proportions over the last bunch of years, and has resulted in many negative thoughts and ideas being suppressed into the collective unconscious, and from this suppressed shadow place, these thoughts have grown and strengthened until they finally came out in spectacular fashion in the form of the beast Donald Trump. 

Trump is undoubtedly the American Shadow incarnate in all its vainglory.  

I hope to write more in the coming weeks about A Quiet Place as I think it is an extraordinarily important film in revealing the sentiments swirling around in our collective consciousness. 

©2018

Avengers: Infinity War - A Review

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

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars                   Popcorn Curve* Rating: 3.9 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. If you love or are even lukewarm for super hero movies, then definitely see Infinity War in the theatre. 

Avengers: Infinity War, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen Feely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, is the story of the famed superhero cooperative The Avengers, as they try and stop super-villian Thanos from taking control of the universe. The film stars…well...just about everybody, including, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany, Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldana, just to name a few. 

Like all red-blooded Americans, over the years I have paid my fare share of Disney taxes to our Mouse eared overlords presiding over us from their lair at the Happiest Place on Earth®. Just in the last year alone I have already paid hard earned cash to Mickey Mouse to see The Last JediSpider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther and now Infinity War and will no doubt see Solo: A Star Wars Story when it comes out at the end of the month. I have usually been underwhelmed by Mickey's moviemaking prowess and at the end of the day have felt cheated by the Disney tax man. That trend was reversed with my journey to the theatre to see Infinity War.

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Infinity War is the nineteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the third of the Avenger films, and is the first of the bunch to not feel like a complete commercial for itself. Having sat through the majority, but not all, of the previous Marvel movies, I have to say that Infinity War is easily head and shoulders above all the rest, and is worlds better than the previous two Avenger films. 

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What I appreciated about Infinity War was that unlike all the other Marvel movies it had a villain, Thanos, who is a complex character that is not only worthy of The Avengers as an adversary, but of my attention. Thanos embodies an existential struggle that is much more complicated than just wanting the world to bend the knee to him, which is a refreshing change from previous Marvel ventures.

To the film's credit, Thanos may appear at first glance to be the embodiment of all evil, but upon closer inspection through the lens of Josh Brolin's CGI enhanced performance and the character's motivations, he is revealed to be less a villain of epic proportions than a misunderstood hero who has taken an unbearable burden upon his muscular shoulders out of noble if misguided intentions. 

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Unlike Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and the rest who reside in a Manichean world of black and white, Thanos must make hard decisions from the moral and ethical grey area in which our reality truly exists. Unlike his alleged "good" adversaries, Thanos does not get to cut corners or have happy endings, he is only left with the burden of his calling and the consequences of his choice which make him a multidimensional and pretty fascinating character. 

Infinity War also succeeds because it challenges our conditioning and embraces the notion that there are no easy Hollywood answers to be found, and I found that extremely refreshing after having sat through over a dozen predictable, world destroying, sense assaulting Marvel movies over the years. 

To be clear, I don't think Avengers: Infinity War is a great movie, but I do think it is a very good super hero movie. It, like all other super hero films, pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan's masterful Dark Knight Trilogy, but that is so high a bar I doubt anyone will ever reach it, never mind exceed it. 

The problems with Infinity War are less specific to this film than they are systemic to the genre, and they include too much cringe-worthy dialogue, too much snark, too much mindless destruction and in general…well…just too much.

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And yes, I know I am nitpicking here, but some of the performances in Infinity War are so bad as to be distracting. Mark Ruffalo may very well be the best actor in The Avenger movies but his performance in Infinity War is so abysmally wooden and out of sync as to be startling. I was actually embarrassed for Ruffalo watching him half ass his way through the movie, spewing out his dialogue with such vacuity he seemed more like an extra in a community theater production than an multiple Oscar nominee. 

Another issue I had with the film is an issue I have with all Marvel movies and that is that I find the cinematography to be pretty lackluster. These Marvel films all appear so flat and visually dull to me, and their failure to use of color or shadow to further propel the narrative or reinforce the sub-text is a cinema sin. Infinity War, like almost all big budget studio films, relies heavily upon CGI, which I feel is not quite where it needs to be in terms of visual quality and dramatic realism.

But besides Ruffalo, the hackneyed dialogue and my cinematography snobbery, Infinity War kept me captivated for the entire two hours and thirty minutes, which is no small accomplishment. It did so because the fight scenes were, for the most part, interesting, original and well-choreographed and the storyline was dramatically compelling due to a sense of the good guys being in genuine peril. 

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I also must say that even though the preceding Marvel movies were entirely underwhelming, you could not have made Infinity War without them. The rather boring, paint by numbers, eighteen pieces of manufactured Marvel cinematic junk preceding Infinity War did effectively introduce all of the relevant characters to the audience, and so since we know them, we have at least a minimal investment in them heading into Infinity War, which excels at dramatically exploiting our connection to its characters. 

It is no small achievement what Disney has pulled off with their Marvel money making machine. Infinity War has pulled in nearly a billion dollars in just its first week in theaters, which will add to the incredible $15 billion haul (on a $4 billion investment) thus far for the Marvel franchise films. For Disney to keep the franchise coherent, interwoven and so fantastically financially successful is an incredible Hollywood achievement (even if it may be killing the movie industry and cinema in the process…but that is a discussion for another day), especially when you compare it to the more mundane results of the DC Comics/Warner Brothers collaboration.

In conclusion, I was genuinely surprised how much I liked Infinity War, especially considering how much I disliked most of the previous Marvel movies. If you are even a lukewarm fan of super hero films, I recommend you definitely go see Infinity War in the theatre. If you despise super hero movies then it stands to reason that you'll despise Infinity War because it packs more super heroes per capita than any other movie of which I can think. 

One word of warning though for parents, I do not think Infinity War is suitable for kids. I would put the cutoff at maybe 12, but your mileage may vary. The reason being is that there are some pretty heavy themes presented and also there is some surprising cursing. As for adults who like acting like kids, go see Infinity War in the theatre, it is well worth the time and energy of super hero fans. 

*The Popcorn Curve judges a film based on its entertainment merits as a franchise/blockbuster movie, as opposed to my regular rating which judges a film solely on its cinematic merits.

FILM COMMENTARY

****WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!!****

 

****THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING…MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!****

 

In 2016 Captain America: Civil War came out and its themes and color palette made my take notice. The reason I was so intrigued by Civil War, was not because it was a good movie, I didn't really think it was, but because it was a remarkable piece of evidence in support of my Isaiah/McCaffrey Historical Wave Theory. 

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Civil War's poster was a vibrant battle of red versus blue, Iron Man versus Captain America. The theme of the film was that The Avengers were torn apart (due to an overseas misadventure) and divided into separate factions, globalists versus nationalists, and they went to war with one another. The film was obviously conceived, written and shot well before the 2016 election, but it was the perfect film to represent the struggle going on in America's, and the world's, collective consciousness. 

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Added to Civil War, was the fact that another big blockbuster superhero movie had similar themes and color palette…Batman V Superman. The posters for BvS were also a striking blue versus red, Batman (blue) versus Superman (red). While the words civil war were not in the title, civil war was the best way to describe the theme and sub-text of BvS

The third film of 2016 which resonated with the McCaffrey Wave Theory was X-Men: Apocalypse. That film also highlighted a civil war-esque level of infighting between different faction of mutants aka X-Men, although its poster and its box office made it much less relevant. 

When all three of these films came out in the same year as our very contentious presidential election, it was proof positive that the Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory was an accurate way to measure the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface of the masses. (The Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory accurately predicted in the face of much scorn Trump's and Brexit's victories in 2016). 

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The reason for this quick look back at super hero movies as they relate to my Wave Theory, is that watching Infinity War through the prism of my Wave Theory, was very unsettling. The themes present in the film are pretty obvious to any cinephile with the will to look, namely globalists, in the form of Iron Man and his crew, are able to convince the nationalists, Captain America and his crew, to fight an external enemy that is an existential threat to the status quo and the world order…Thanos. 

To see it another way is to see it as globalist capitalism (Avengers) versus a sort of nationalist post-capitalism (Thanos). Thanos wants to wipe out half the population of the universe because of dwindling resources, so that the other half can live and prosper in peace and harmony. Thanos is not choosing who lives or dies based on their race, creed, class, power or religion, it is totally random who is to be eliminated and who is to live. 

Iron Man and the rest of The Avengers see that as immoral, unethical and evil, and they fight with all they have to make sure that the status quo, where questions of resources, class and social power are never addressed, reign supreme. The sub-text of Infinity War is a sort of Sophie's Choice, with Thanos choosing and The Avengers refusing to choose, which ultimately is a moral and ethical conundrum due to the fact that, like iconic Canadian arena rockers Rush tell us, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice". 

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Late stage gloablist capitalism is equivalent to a cancer upon the planet, devastating and exploiting natural resources and human populations as it spreads across our world. Like cancer, this form of capitalism can only survive if it is expanding, therefore stasis is death, and it must devour everything in its path, which eventually will include the planet we all live on. 

Iron Man is the face of multi-national corporate power (Stark Industries), and he must keep American capitalism alive at all costs, because if it dies, he dies. Captain America's nationalist impulses are very quickly co-opted and overridden in the face of a threat to the globalist capitalist order. Although it is never articulated that Iron Man and the globalists have defeated Captain America and the nationalists, it is very clear this is the case when Captain America and company come out of hiding to fight side by side with the globalists to defeat the establishment destroying power of Thanos. 

The fact that the "good guys" in a Disney film are fighting to save American "free market" capitalism is not the least bit shocking…especially when Disney is on the verge of acquiring 20th Century Fox which will give them a 40% market share of the domestic film market, which is astounding. Disney undoubtedly is the height of globalist corporate power in media, and in Infinity War they have recruited The Avengers to fight their ideological battle to the death. 

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Thanos on the other hand, may have a very bad solution indeed, mass exterminations, to the resource scarcity issue, but at least he is addressing it, which none of the The Avengers dare do. The Avengers only solution is for them to fight tooth and nail for the right to close their eyes and whistle past the graveyard, in other words to make sure that things stay the same, which is untenable and will eventually result in the death and destruction of the human race and the planet earth. When comparing those two solutions, Thanos versus The Avengers, as cruel as Thanos' solution is…the chilling reality is that it is the only one that is viable long term. And the even more complicated and unsettling thought is that as unconscionable as Thanos' solution is, it may be the most moral and ethical if the choices are do nothing and do something awful. 

Thanos is symbolic of the uncomfortable questions that America, and the world, desperately ignore, and they do so at their own peril. If Thanos were a presidential candidate, he certainly would not be a centrist Democrat or Republican (or in Euro terms, a Merkel or Macron) like Iron Man and Captain America, no, Thanos would not be part of the centrist establishment at all. Thanos would be a sort of "independent" (meaning he defines himself in opposition to the old establishment) authoritarian (for example- a sort of amalgam of Xi, Mao, Putin and Stalin), who would have harsh, cold-hearted and brutal answers to the questions of immigration, income inequality, global warming and empire that would come at a very high cost to humanity…but he would also bring a solution to the problem of terrorism, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and resource-fuled wars. 

In regards to the Wave Theory, Infinity War is what I consider a level 6 force on the Wave Scale because it is not as dynamic and distinctive visually in terms of color palette (for example, its poster is rather visually mundane without any dominant colors never mind something as obvious as red versus blue) as say Civil War or BvS (both level 9) and also because it not only has no other big budget film buttressing its theme as Civil War did with BvS, but DC's Justice League and Marvel's Black Panther have optimistic narratives that counter it a bit. That said, the reason Infinity War is intriguing is because it portends an ultimate end/destruction to the status quo, and that in and of itself is a staggering statement in a mainstream blockbuster, never mind the fact that so many iconic, archetypal characters vanish before our eyes in the film's final scenes.

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Much like The Empire Strikes Back, the best of the Star Wars films, hit theaters in 1980 and was a sign post for the rising American empire of the coming Reagan years whose laissez-faire, trickle down, Wall Street friendly economics has dominated the globe for the past 38 years, Infinity War is hinting at the end of that system, and the coming of a new one. What that system is, be it a Chinese style-authoritarian controlled capitalism, a neo-Marxism, an authoritarian nationalist socialism, or something else, I have no idea, but if history is any guide, it will be a fierce backlash to the greed fueled corporate globalism of the Reagan era (1981 to now). And if Infinity War, which is quickly eclipsing at the box office and in the cultural consciousness the thematic optimism of Black Panther (not to mention that Black Panther himself, and all he represents, is obliterated in Infinity War), is any guide, the transition to this new system will be tumultuous to say the least. 

Another similarity between Infinity War and The Empire Strikes Back is that main characters symbolizing "good" are "killed". In Infinity War there are a plethora of super heroes turned to dust, and in Empire, Han Solo is frozen. But just like Solo was unfrozen in the Return of the Jedi, I have no doubt that all of the now vaporized superheroes will return in the next Avengers movie (Disney ain't turning off the Marvel money machine just to maintain narrative integrity!). But just because the actions in Infinity War, just like those in Empire Strikes Back, are cinematically reversed, does not mean that they do not hold the secret to what lies ahead for our collective consciousness. The trying point genie is out of the bottle, and reviving a coterie of evaporated superheroes will not change that fact in the wider consciousness. 

Think of it this way…if, for example, there is another 2008 level meltdown in our economy, then the political and financial establishment are toast. Apres the unbridled corruption of Reagan era (Bush/Trump/Clinton etc.) American Capitalism, le deluge. The deluge is Thanos. Prepare accordingly while you can. 

©2018

Ready Player One: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. If you like Spielbergian action movies, see it in the theater. If you are lukewarm or want some deeper meaning, there is no reason to see this movie even for free on cable or Netflix.

Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based upon Cline's book of the same name), is the science-fiction adventure story of 17 year-old orphan Wade West, a skilled gamer living in the slums of Columbus, Ohio who takes on a powerful technology company in a virtual reality game titled The Oasis. The film stars Tye Sheridan as Wade along with Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance and TJ Miller in supporting roles. 

I admit that I was less than enthused about going to see Ready Player One because I tend to find Steven Spielberg to be insufferable as a filmmaker. Spielberg's pedophiliac addiction to recreating child like wonder always feels contrived, formulaic and frankly, a bit creepy to me. It hasn't always been thus, as I think both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are utter masterpieces, but as the 1970's receded so did Spielberg's balls along with his artistic and aesthetic originality. 

It was in this rather negative frame of mind that I went to see Ready Player One. When the film opened with the iconic keyboard introduction to Van Halen's 1984 mega-hit "Jump" off of their aptly titled album 1984, I have to admit, it got me. You see, as a teenager in the 80's I was a huge fan of Van Halen (and to be clear I was a fan of Van Halen, NOT Van Hagar…so do NOT bring any of that weak-ass Van Hagar shit in here…DO.NOT.DO IT.), so much so that my best friend Keith would routinely play the opening notes on his keyboard, which was my cue to find the nearest chair, couch or table from which I would do my flying split jumps David Lee Roth style. While this usually happened in the midst of a Jack Daniels induced haze, foggy memories remain and they are among the fondest of my young adulthood. 

The signature sound of Eddie Van Halen's keyboards was a striking synchronicity for me that did not just recall good times though, but also something much more existentially unsettling. The darkness recalled was the fact that this month, April (April 17 to be exact), is the 21st anniversary that my "Jump" playing friend Keith was killed. And so when I heard the start of that classic Van Halen song at the opening of Ready Player One, the overwhelming feeling that surged through me wasn't the giddy pulse of nostalgia that Spielberg anticipated, but a profound melancholy and emotional fragility. 

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It is somewhat ironic that I should be triggered to recount the crippling grief of losing a loved one at the beginning of a film where life is entirely disposable and when it is over just get a to hit a button and start over. The existential questions that boil up to the surface when attempting to contemplate the incomprehensible are ultimately unanswerable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask them. Great artists and great art exists to ask those questions, and to let the silence of the eternal void be their answer. Ready Player One mimes asking big questions, but all it really does is provide easy answers, which renders it a sort of philosophical and artistic fool's gold wrapped in the shallow glitz of pop culture.  

As "Jump" played on, Eddie Van Halen's keyboard is supplemented by David Lee Roth's Spielbergian lyric which perfectly captures the 1980's ethos and quickly becomes the perfect anthem for Wade West, the protaganist of Ready Player One,

"I get up, and nothing gets me down, you've got it tough? I've seen the toughest soul around. And I know, baby just how you feel, you've got to roll with the punches, to get to what's real"

Spielberg's camera follows Wade as he makes his way through "the stacks", a maze of mobile homes piled on top of each other to create a ghetto of makeshift apartment buildings. This opening sequence is not a particularly skilled piece of filmmaking, in fact, it is pretty standard moviemaking, but it does effectively set the stage for the story, the myth and the subtext that lies ahead. 

The choice of Van Halen's "Jump" is not coincidental, and it reminded me of a quote that Joseph Campbell often used to repeat and which I have often repeated throughout my life. 

A bit of advice, given to a young Native American, at the time of his initiation: "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think."

The story of Ready Player One is that of Wade West and his Oasis alter ego Parzifal (paging Joseph Campbell and the Holy Grail!), finding the courage to "Jump". Wade West is being initiated from boyhood into manhood and he must pass the tests presented to him…sort of like in a video game…and in the case of Ready Player One…exactly like a video game. 

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Ready Player One is also an unabashed tribute mostly to the pop culture of the 80's (although other decades get slight nods as well), hence the use of Van Halen's "Jump", which is the quintessential 80's anthem from the quintessential 80's band. The movie is populated by, and littered with, the pop cultural remnants from that shoulder padded decade that gave us such cinematic signposts as Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and a cornucopia of John Hughes movies. Ready Player One is also Steven Spielberg's tribute to himself, as he was as much a shaper and creator of the pop-culture of the 1980's and beyond as anyone living or dead. 

Of course, Spielberg sees Ready Player One as an homage, but I see it more as an indictment, or to be even darker, a cinematic eulogy. Spielberg's overall impact on popular culture has been detrimental in deeply cataclysmic ways. As Spielberg ushered in the blockbuster era of moviemaking in the 1980's, he struck a death knell for the artistic renaissance of the Easy Rider-Raging Bull era of the 60's and 70's where auteurs flourished and quality cinema thrived. 

Spielberg's corporatized moviemaking was meant to reinforce the establishment, not rebel against it, as fellow filmmakers of his generation were often trying to do. Spielberg turned from a potential 1970's revolutionary artist to an 1980's establishment Praetorian Guard who churned out pop culture meant to embolden the status quo, appease those in power, anesthetize the masses and fatten his bank account. Spielberg has been a malignant force shaping popular culture for the last forty years, and because of that he is as much to blame as anyone for the artistic, intellectual and cultural decay that is besieging the American soul and which comes to life on screen in Ready Player One. Seen through this perspective, Spielberg's Ready Player One feels like a film about lung cancer made by The Marlboro Man. 

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As evidenced by my reaction to "Jump", I found Ready Player One's 80's nostalgia to be very manipulative, but as someone who grew up in that era, I can attest that it is at times very effectively deployed. But again, it is the end to which that nostalgic means is used with which I have an issue. Much like Trump's Make America Great Again was a nostalgic clarion call for the antisepticism of the 1950's, Spielberg's Ready Player One's nostalgia yearns for a decade just as suffocatingly conformist as the 1950's but even more toxic, the 1980's. 

Ready Player One's mythology, like the mythology of Reagan, Oprah and Spielberg's Baby-Boomer Corporate America where all life is commodified solely for profit, is one that contorts the human heart and psyche in order to make avarice and narcissism virtues and not vices. The form of cheap pop culture grace found in Ready Player One is meant to obfuscate our true humanity and maintain our delusional, money and celebrity centered society. 

Interestingly, Spielberg plays Van Halen's "Jump" for its entirety throughout the film's opening, which is rather striking as he is not a filmmaker, like Scorsese, known for utilizing pop or rock music to great effect. Spielberg's use of pop and rock music in Ready Player One though is done very well, and like the recent spate of television shows mining the 80's for music that can manipulate middle aged and younger generations simultaneously, Spielberg is wise to do so. 

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As much as watching Ready Player One is like watching someone else play a video game, the cavalcade of pop culture and musical references make it a much more palatable and intriguing experience than I imagined it could be. That is not to say that there aren't downfalls to watching a video game movie, there are, such as the characters looking weird and un-relatable and the action being way over the top. 

Like all Spielberg films, there are certainly moments that are so contrived and hackneyed as to be cringe-worthy. Spielberg has always struggled dealing with grounded, genuine human emotion and interaction, and so it is in Ready Player One, but he is aided in that dilemma by two charismatic and compelling performances from his leading actors, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke. Both Sheridan and Cooke make lemonade out of the lemon of a script they are given that in the hands of lesser actors would have been disastrous. 

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TJ Miller and Mark Rylance both give quirky and interesting performances that I thoroughly enjoyed. Miller is an acquitted taste as an actor but I confess I have acquired it. Rylance is his usual, odd, enigmatic and intriguing self as James Halliday, the creator of The Oasis, and the film is better for it. Both actors are able to elevate the rather mundane material they are given. 

On the down side, Ben Mendelsohn plays corporate bad guy Nolan Sorrento and he never quite musters the focused energy and gravitas needed to play such a pivotal villain. Lena Waithe, Phillip Zhao and Win Morisaki are all pretty underwhelming as well in supporting roles that feel terribly under written and reek of tokenism. 

Another issue I had was that there are some scenes that are "flashbacks" but they use the same actors to play themselves younger and it doesn't work at all. The actors all look like old people dressed differently and pretending to be younger. For a film that is so heavily invested in technology, the inability to perfect the age in flashbacks is embarrassing. I know it is a hard thing to do, but it isn't like Spielberg doesn't have the money to get it right, an example of getting it right being Robert Downey Jr. in the "flashback" sequence in Captain America: Civil War

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And one final issue I had with the movie was that Spielberg uses a Stanley Kubrick film as a narrative device (So as not to spoil it I won't name which one). This is not a crime in and of itself, but when Spielberg "Spielberg-izes" Kubrick's work, like he did with the irritatingly inept A.I., he always ruins it. Spielberg does the same thing to Kubrick in Ready Player One, where he takes a great idea, tinkers with it, turns it into a theme-park ride, and instead of Kubrickian filet mignon all we are left with is a very fragrant Spielbergian shit sandwich. I found this sequence to be so very frustrating because all of the pieces were in place for a stunning and extremely clever cinematic success if Spielberg hadn't screwed it all up. 

But with all that said, as someone who is generally less than enamored with Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker, to his credit, my very low expectations going in to Ready Player One were exceeded. Ready Player One is not a great movie but it held my attention and entertained me for two hours and twenty minutes, and that ain't nothing.

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In conclusion, even though I find the very deep seeded spiritual, political, psychological and mythological message that underlies this entire film (and the majority of Spielberg's work) to be equally vacuous, insidious, nefarious and mendacious, I very tentatively admit that I was mildly entertained by it all. I think if you grew up in the 80's and a vapid, nostalgia laced Spielberg action movie intrigues you, then you should go see Ready Player One in the theaters, as it should be experienced on the big screen.

But be forewarned, as I found out the hard way, a nostalgic "Jump" to the past doesn't just conjure up pleasant memories, but can open old wounds as well. Ready Player One inadvertently opened up an existential wound in me that the movie and its filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, were metaphysically incapable of comprehending, never mind healing. This is why, unlike master filmmakers like Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, P.T. Anderson and Kurosawa, Spielberg can only ever aspire to be a creature of style over substance and a purveyor of pop culture, as he is wholly incapable of ever being a transcendent artist due to the fact that he makes movies that give easy answers, but that never dare to ask the real question. 

©2018

 

The Death of Stalin: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT.

The Death of Stalin, written and directed by Armando Iannucci, is a dark comedy about the power struggle in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Josef Stalin's death. The film boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Michale Palin and Jason Isaacs.

2018 has thus far been a less than stellar year for cinema. Granted, it is only March and prior to my most recent jaunt to the theatre I had only seen three other films, Black Panther, Red Sparrow and Annihilation, all of which were entirely underwhelming. But ever the optimist, I picked myself up from the bootstraps of my disappointment and made the journey to the local art house to try and break out of the rut of banality that had been the hallmark of my recent trips to the cineplex. 

Thankfully, The Death of Stalin was just what the doctor ordered as it was a powerful antidote to my bout of cinema blues. The Death of Stalin is a comedically taut, deliciously funny and masterfully paced film riddled with exquisite performances from an impeccable cast.

I knew nothing about The Death of Stalin prior to seeing it, except that I assumed that it was a comedy about the death of Stalin…and unlike that great cinematic fraud The Never Ending Story, The Death of Stalin is indeed a case of honesty in advertising. After seeing the film I read a little bit about the director, Armando Iannucci, and discovered that he is the creator of the HBO series Veep, which makes sense because The Death of Stalin is sort of like a super-dark version of Veep set in Stalin's Soviet Union. If you like Veep, you will enjoy The Death of Stalin.

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The cast of The Death of Stalin is fantastic across the board, but Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi are particularly good. Beale, who plays Beria, the Head of State Security, is a British actor whom I had the great fortune to see masterfully play Iago at the Royal National Theatre twenty years ago during my London days. Beale is a meticulous chameleon of an actor who, much like his equally gifted Shakespearean peer Mark Rylance, has been a master of the London stage for the majority of his career. I hope Beale gets the same level of recognition from a wider audience that Rylance has in his later career, as he is most deserving. Beale's Beria is a study in paranoid entitlement, bemused viciousness and the banality of evil that even at its most heightened never rings false.

Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Kruschev with his usual humorous flair and delivers an phenomenal performance. Alongside the comedy of Buscemi's Kruschev is a palpably frenetic desperation to save himself, and Russia, from falling out of the frying pan of Stalin and into the fire of some other brutal tyrant. Buscemi wraps Kruschev in a cloak of bitter cynicism that hides a rabidly patriotic soul. 

The supporting cast all give specific and technically precise performances filled with masterful comedic timing that they are an absolute joy to behold. 

Jeffrey Tambor, fresh off the abysmal atrocity that is/was Transparent, which was easily the worst and most repugnant television show I have seen, does a nuanced and hysterical turn as Malenkov, a member of Stalin's inner circle. Tambor is at his most insecure best as Malenkov, who is living proof that Stalin wanted to surround himself with only those considerably weaker than himself.

Andrea Riseborough is terrific as Stalin's daughter Svetlana who must navigate life without her powerful father, as warring factions try to use her as a pawn in their chess match. Svetlana is not as weak and delicate as she pretends to be, but she isn't nearly as strong and resilient as she thinks she is. Riseborough has the least flashy of all of the roles in the film but her comedic subtlety and dramatic chops make her Svetlana a vital part of the film's artistic success. 

Rupert Friend plays Stalin's drunken, hockey-team losing son Vasily with aplomb. Friend nearly steals the entire show with his volcanic drunken tirades that seem to have no end and no discernible beginning.

Jason Isaacs masterfully plays famed Soviet General Zhukov. Isaacs' Zhukov is a pitbull in a parade uniform and he has little time, and less tolerance for the political machinations of the backstabbing politburo. Isaacs brings a force and energy to the film that elevates the comedy and the drama to an even higher level. 

The rest of the cast, including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko and Adrian McLoughlin all do stupendous and seamless work that keep the film right on track. 

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An interesting note regarding the acting is that the entire cast never uses a "Russian" accent. Nor do they all use a coordinated "British" accent which some films use to signify a foreign language without alienating American audiences. Instead in The Death of Stalin all of the actors speak in their disparate native tongues, accents included. This is a very wise choice since comedy, and this type of specific verbal comedy in particular, is difficult enough in an actor's first language, adding any accent and most especially a Russian one, would make it nearly impossible. What is so interesting about this languid language/accent approach is that it comes across as so coherent, effortless and comedically harmonious as to be unnoticeable. 

Director Iannucci plays to his comedy strengths in The Death Of Stalin even more so than he does in his stellar HBO show Veep. Veep is a heightened comedy that refuses to acknowledge any connection to a real world or actual human behavior. In The Death of Stalin on the other hand, Iannucci has made a very funny comedy that is propelled by genuine human behavior. The Death of Stalin, as absurd as it can be, is still based on a solid realism despite its being so funny.

A very effective tactic by Iannucci is how he deftly handles the rather glaring issue of the brutality of Stalin's Great Terror by only giving the audience the perspective of those in Stalin's inner circle. Viewers are unconsciously connected to the protagonists like Beria and Kruschev in the inner circle and Iannucci never explicitly shows the violence and savagery for which these men are responsible. It isn't until we are fully on board and rooting for the good guys to win that we see what the good guys (and we) are capable of, and it isn't a pretty sight. 

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It is impossible to watch The Death of Stalin and not relate it to the politics of our day. For instance, the backstabbing paranoia and positioning of Stalin's inner circle before and after his death certainly resembles the daily drama emanating from the Trump White House. The Trump purges of cabinet members is less bloody than Stalin's, but the impulse behind them is the same. Trump instinctually surrounds himself with people that are intellectually, and even physically, smaller than he is because, like Stalin he wants to be The Big Man. Beria, Kruschev, Malenkov and the rest of Stalin's ass kissing brigade have counterparts right here at home in Trump's cabinet, and could easily pass as Bannon, McMaster and The Mooch. 

Even Stalin's kids are reminiscent of the Trump children. Svetlana, the doe-eyed beauty trying to manipulate her "royal" standing for all it is worth, is Ivanka plain and simple. And speaking of simple, Stalin's son Vasily is as if Don Jr. and Eric Trump were morphed together into one drunken ball of entitled moronity. 

The Death of Stalin is also relevant in the context of the headlines of today due to the plethora of anti-"Russia" news. Russia is currently the enemy du jour and is blamed for everything that could, did or will go wrong in the world. The Death of Stalin is, like the recent Red Sparrow, a rather shameless piece of anti-Russian reinforcement propaganda meant to buttress people's preconceived negative feelings about those conniving and brutal Russians.

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I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of The Death of Stalin, but the fact that Stalin and Russia were the subject of a film at all is indicative of the wave of anti-Russian resentment and hysteria fomented by a calculated Russo-phobic propaganda campaign. For instance, would this film have been made if it were about the machinations behind the scenes when Ariel Sharon was in a coma? Or about when FDR died? or Mao? or JFK? No…of course not. American audiences have been primed to accept that Russians are a particularly loathsome and untrustworthy bunch, so it is acceptable to laugh at them and highlight the worst of them when they are at their worst. 

That is why The Death of Stalin is in theaters now, because it buttresses and reinforces the anti-Russian madness by reminding people that Russia, at its core, is only Stalin's Soviet Union during the Great Terror, and nothing else. Nuance need not apply when it comes to the Russia of today, just tune in to MSNBC or read the Washington Post for proof of that. 

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You may be asking what difference does it make if there is anti-Russian propaganda? Well, the biggest issue is that it makes Americans gullible to any anti-Russian story thrown out there. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK? Must be Russia, and no proof or evidence is needed to back up that claim. Same with the claims of Russian "hacking" of our elections, voting machines and even our power grids…all unsubstantiated but accepted as Gospel Truth by the opinion shapers in the establishment media. Unproven claims that Russia started a war by invading Ukraine, shot down MH17 and rigged elections in Crimea are treated the same way.

The propaganda campaign against Russia is not just dangerous because people are primed to believe any outrageous claim against that country, but because of where that belief will inevitably lead…a catastrophic war. The biggest problem with the anti-Russian hysteria and hatred that has become mainstream here in America, is that it is lead by the people who would usually be anti-war, liberals and Democrats. With incessant rhetoric being spouted by liberals about how Russia has "attacked America" or "committed an act of war", there will be no speed bumps on the road from a cold war with Russia to a hot one…and that will not end well for anyone. 

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The real lesson of The Death of Stalin is the corrupting influence of authoritarianism on the soul. With authoritarianism on the rise across the globe and in our collective consciousness, The Death of Stalin is now compulsory viewing. The important thing to remember is that authoritarianism isn't just on the rise in the form of Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Xi…but in the hearts and minds of regular people…even those who may share your ideological beliefs. For instance, there has been a spate of people silenced or exiled for daring to question Democratic or liberal orthodoxy. I know this because I am one of them. I was exiled by numerous friends who did not like what I wrote about the last election, and instead of talking to me about it, or God forbid debating it, they exiled me…and my family…from their circle. This is metaphorically just like Stalin's Great Terror where he eliminated those who dare think for themselves or speak truth to power. 

The great danger of our time is not so much Trump, who is a bumbling buffoon of a man and an even worse president, but rather our authoritarian response to him. #TheResistance has proven itself to be a hypocritical outlet for the authoritarian impulses of establishment Democrats. Watch these alleged liberals discard history down the memory hole and contort themselves in all sorts of illogical ways in order to embrace the intelligence community (CIA, NSA, John Brennan, Michael Hayden and John Clapper) and the FBI (and James Comey, Robert Mueller and Andrew McCabe) all in the hopes of destroying Trump and regaining power. With authoritarians, Truth and actual history have no meaning in the quest for power and revenge, and so it has become with establishment Democrats and certain sections of the left. If you can watch The Death of Stalin through the prism of liberal authoritarianism, it will be a very enlightening experience indeed, especially if you're a liberal who likes to banish people with opinions that challenge your own. 

In conclusion, even though The Death of Stalin is yet another piece of anti-Russian propaganda, it is a finely-crafted, exquisitely made piece of propaganda, and that is to the credit of its remarkable cast and director Armando Iannucci. I recommend you put in the effort to see The Death of Stalin in the theatre as it will most assuredly entertain you as it did me. And if you are able to look past the surface of the film and see it not just as another Russo-phobic hit piece, but as a clarion call against all forms of authoritarianism…especially the authoritarianism that lives inside your own heart…and mine, then it might just make you more than laugh, it might even make you think…and cry in despair.

©2018

Annihilation: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT in the theatre. SEE IT on Netflix or cable.

Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland and based upon the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is the story of Lena, a biologist who ventures into a mysterious and ominous anomaly dubbed "The Shimmer", in order to find out what happened to her husband. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, with supporting performances from Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.

Alex Garland, a Mickey™® Award-winning writer, is one of my favorite screenwriters and his directorial debut, Ex Machina, was simply stellar, so I was very excited to see his sophomore directing effort, Annihilation. Sadly, Annihilation pales in comparison to the science fiction masterpiece that is Ex Machina, and although it is a nobly ambitious film, Annihilation is ultimately unsatisfying because it is so terribly uneven. 

Garland is usually a masterful and original writer, but his script for Annihilation resorts to a lot of ungainly exposition, sci-fi/horror film tropes and central casting caricatures instead of complex characters. 

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There are some errors of logic in the film that are absolutely maddening as well, for instance, why set up a guard post on the ground at night, with a light on in it directed inward not outward (thus blinding the guard), when everyone else is safe in a tower inaccessible to any dangerous elements. Or why run after a comrade dragged away by something mysterious but not take your weapon with you? These logical errors make it difficult to get absorbed into the reality of the film and thus keep viewers at an arms distance when they should be getting pulled ever closer. 

The film also suffers because it is, at times, little more than a hodge-podge of the usual horror movie scare tactics, some taken directly from classics like Alien. There is also the rather lame and predictable war movie standard of giving brief background on each of the diverse women making up the group that heads into The Shimmer. There is the tough chick from Chicago, the nerdy physicist, the bitter and grizzled older woman and the wounded soul that everyone likes. You can see these same characters in their male form in any war or sci-fi film you can think of…from Saving Private Ryan to Predator

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The film also struggles with its pacing and never really hits its stride until well into its final third. That said, the third act is Alex Garland at his best. The themes and philosophical ideas tackled in the final act are fascinating, but the journey to get to them so conventional as to be frustrating. In many ways, it felt to me like the film should've have started at the beginning of the third act, as the ending of the movie could propel you into another intriguing drama entirely.

Natalie Portman does solid but unspectacular work as the protagonist Lena. Portman carries the narrative through its twists and turns with enough movie star magnetism to keep your attention but she never rises to any great acting heights, which is not a knock against her as her job here is to be solid and steady and she does that.

The rest of the cast though, does surprisingly sub-par work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a terrific actress, but she feels disconnected from the material and oddly subdued. Oscar Isaac is particularly bad in his role as Kane, a Special Forces soldier. Isaac lacks the quiet gravitas and physically imposing but understated menace of a believable Special Forces operator. He also gives his character a southern accent, and does it so incredibly poorly that it further undermines his believability in the role. Not only does Isaac's accent slip in and out at random, but when he does focus on it, it is so over the top as to be laughable and absurd. Isaac is an actor I have been giving the benefit of the doubt to for some time now, but after an uninterrupted string of really poor performances, I am ready to declare that Oscar Isaac is in fact, not a good actor. All of the other performances in the supporting cast are rather forgettable due to their one-dimensionality.

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On the bright side, Rob Hardy's cinematography in Annihilation is truly outstanding. The film is beautifully shot and is a thoroughly proficient exercise in technical filmmaking as both the visuals and the sound are extremely well done. Hardy's framing in particular is superb and his use of vibrant color and crisp contrast turn "The Shimmer" portion of the film into a sumptuously magnificent Ayahuasca fever dream. This dazzling Shimmer effect is further enhanced by Hardy's subdued palette and tones in the "regular world" portions of the film. 

In conclusion, Annihilation is a visually beautiful, philosophically ambitious film that stumbles out of the gate and never quite reaches its stride until its fascinating third act, but by then it is too late. Thin character development, clunky dialogue and poor pacing scuttle what could have been a truly impressive film. If you are a connoisseur of cinematography, you may want to venture to the theaters to see Annihilation on the big screen, as it is gorgeous, but if you are more interested in the overall quality of a film, or in simply being entertained, I recommend you wait to see this film on Netflix or cable for free, and arm yourself with a hearty dose of low expectations.  

©2018

 

Red Sparrow: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to see this movie. If you are mildly intrigued by the premise or by the opportunity to see Jennifer Lawrence in her birthday suit, then watch it on Netflix or cable, but arm yourself with very low expectations.

Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Justin Haythe (based on the book of the same name by Justin Matthews), is the story of Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina turned Russian intelligence officer who uses her seductive charms to try and uncover the identity of a mole. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, with supporting turns from Joel Edgerton, Mary Louise Parker, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons and Matthias Shoenaerts. 

When I first saw the trailer for Red Sparrow I was intrigued because I am a fan of Jennifer Lawrence and respect her work as an actress. In addition, I enjoy a good spy story (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of my sneaky favorite movies of the last bunch of years) and am a bit of a Russophile as well. My Russophilia mostly manifests itself in my choice of literature as I am a sucker for Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov and the rest but I can also appreciate a good Russian narrative in film as well. 

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Days before I went to see Red Sparrow, a friend of mine, the venerable Spyder Le Frenchy, who is an incorrigible pervert, alerted me that he saw Jennifer Lawrence on 60 Minutes say that she appears naked in Red Sparrow. Spyder hasn't been to a movie in a decade, but with Ms. Lawrence's revealing revelation Red Sparrow became a must see movie event for him. I went to see the movie for reasons other than Ms. Lawrence's exposed flesh, but that being said, her nakedness was not something that would deter me from seeing the movie. 

Perversion aside, as a cinephile I found Red Sparrow to be mind-numbingly banal and completely underwhelming. In terms of perversion, I texted Spyder Le Frenchy after the movie and told him that if he is aroused by tedious, boring and incoherent things, then Red Sparrow is definitely the movie for him. 

I understood what Red Sparrow was trying to do, it was trying to be a sexy star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence. Wrapped in a cloak of Hollywood celebrity (Ms. Lawrence) and allegedly timely drama, the film is also surreptitiously a piece of propaganda meant to reinforce the Russophobia of our age. The truth is, the pieces are all in place for Red Sparrow to be a smash hit, it has the highest paid actress in the world, a stellar cast, and a relevant and potentially compelling story based on a successful book, but in execution, Red Sparrow is a lifeless and stale mess of a movie. 

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Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress, dynamic screen presence and a luminous beauty, but she is so burdened by the guttural Russian accent she uses in Red Sparrow that her magnetism seems to evaporate right before your eyes. Ms. Lawrence's accent also occasionally goes in and out seemingly at random, so much so that there were moments where I wondered if her character were doing it intentionally for some secret spy reason…rest assured, she wasn't. 

Ms. Lawrence's performance is ultimately shallow, hollow and rings flat throughout. It felt to me like she was a movie star mailing it in the majority of the time. Ms. Lawrence is certainly a beautiful woman and the camera loves her, but for an actress playing a professional seductress, she struck me as the opposite of smoldering, in fact she came across as remarkably frigid and unsexy. All of the supposedly steamy romance in the film is suffocatingly dull, tedious and entirely devoid of allure, passion or eroticism. 

The cast of Red Sparrow is a group of acting heavy hitters, but every single one of them gives sub-par, entirely forgettable performances. Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Mary Louise Parker and Charlotte Rampling are, like Jenifer Lawrence, good actors who do bad work in this ice-cold clunker. 

Besides the cast's flaccid work, Red Sparrow's script is also a disaster area. Incoherent is the most pleasant way to describe the numerous twists and turns that all go nowhere at a monotonous snails pace. All of the characters are written as flat, one-dimensional stereotypes, and the narrative is a dull maze of standard spy movie tropes. 

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The film is also a pretty heavy-handed piece of anti-Russian propaganda. Russia is presented as a bitter, monolithic, Orwellian tundra populated by equally cold, conniving and vicious human beings. Every single Russian man in the film is an irredeemable degenerate. Some are rapists, or pedophiles, or killers, and some are all three, but all are reprehensible. Russian women don't fare much better in Red Sparrow. According to the movie, Russian women are uniformly lying, manipulative, cold-hearted vengeful whores devoid of genuine human emotion who are proficient only at sex, violence…and occasionally ballet.

The Russia of Red Sparrow is decidedly Cold War era even though the film is set in the present day. Vladimir Putin is never mentioned by name, although a "Russian President" looms over the film's proceedings like a chemical weapons cloud. Red Sparrow's "Russian President" is portrayed in conversation as a cross between Stalin, Sauron and Scrooge…sans the charm. 

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Interestingly enough, actor Matthias Shoenaerts plays a pivotal role in the film, and he is a dead ringer for Putin. Casting a Putin look-a-like in the film's most nefarious role did not happen by coincidence, that I can assure you. Shoenaerts is intentionally meant to represent Putin and his character's actions are meant to embarrass and humiliate him. 

The propaganda of Red Sparrow is what I would deem Reinforcement Propaganda, which means that it is not meant to instigate negative feelings toward Russia, but to reinforce and solidify previously planted negative feelings already in the collective. The most recent round of  Instigative Propaganda (not to be confused with Provocation Propaganda) against Russia started in the U.S. media in earnest in 2014 and has been relentless ever since.

Red Sparrow takes the foundation developed by this round of Instigative Propaganda (2014) and makes it manifest by simply dramatizing what the viewer has been taught to assume is true. That is the beauty of Reinforcement Propaganda, it builds upon Foundational and Instigative Propaganda and solidifies preconceived assumptions among the indoctrinated. In this case, the current coordinated propaganda war against Russia was built upon the much earlier Foundational Propaganda of the Cold War and anti-communist movements, which was heightened with the newest round of Instigation Propaganda started in 2014 (media coverage of the Sochi Olympics and Ukrainian Coup being notable examples). Now Red Sparrow is part of the Reinforcement Wave, that normalizes and buttresses the layers of disinformation that was preceded by normalizing it through entertainment. 

All of that said, just because a film is propaganda doesn't mean it is automatically bad. Some propaganda, the most effective kind, is encased in a superior film. To be clear, Red Sparrow is not a bad film because it is propaganda, it is a bad film because it is a bad film. 

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As for the specifics of why Red Sparrow is a bad film, I think it is because director Francis Lawrence lacks any vision whatsoever and…is not good at directing. A strong directorial hand may have been able to reign in this unruly film, but the clueless Mr. Lawrence is ill-equipped for such duty. A quality filmmaker of skill would've been able to, through mastery of craft, at least build tension and suspense with this story, but the cinematically impotent Mr. Lawrence is entirely incapable of such a task. Besides poor direction, the film also has no distinctive look to it and the cinematography of Jo Willems is so common as to be listless.  

In conclusion, Red Sparrow is little more than a poorly crafted, middle of the road, bland piece of Hollywood studio junk. Jennifer Lawrence may be a big movie star and the highest paid actress in the world, but even her star power is unable to keep this film's head artistically or financially above water. Red Sparrow could have been at least a halfway entertaining, if not a downright good movie, but due to weak direction and a horrendous script the film is ultimately a wasted opportunity, and a complete waste of your precious time. If you really want to see some creative and imaginative espionage drama involving Russians, my advice is to tune in to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC ( or any cable news talking empty-head) any night of the week, she'll have enough speculative, evidence-free, cloak and dagger Russo-phobic red meat to satiate all of your deepest xenophobic desires.

©2018

 

 

4th Annual Mickey™® Awards: 2017 Edition

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes in Heaven

The ultimate awards show is upon us…are you ready? The Mickeys™® are superior to every other award imaginable…be it the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony, the Grammy 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 exceptional one for cinema with a multitude of outstanding films being 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 fourth annual Mickey™® Awards!!!

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Shape of Water - Dan Laustsen : Laustsen uses a cinematic palette of red and green to sumptuously create the look and most importantly, the feel, of The Shape of Water. Laustsen's masterful use of color is exquisite and elevates The Shape of Water to the cinematically sublime.  

Phantom Thread - PT Anderson and Co. : Director Anderson allegedly doubled as his own DP because his usual cinematographer Robert Elswitt was unavailable. Anderson's framing is divine and he paints Phantom Thread with a lush and crisp cinematic brush.

Blade Runner 2049 - Roger Deakins : Deakins is an all-time great and his work in Blade Runner 2049 is magnificent. Deakins masterful use of shadow and moving light, in addition to his visual homage to A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now, make Blade Runner 2049 a transcendent cinematic experience. 

War for the Planet of the Apes - Michael Seresin : Seresin's deft use of color and textural contrasts in War for the Planet of the Apes creates a dynamic and vibrant visual experience. Add in the complication of special effects and the cold weather and Seresin's degree of difficulty was off the charts, but he wildly  overcame these difficulties and succeeded in making a fantastically shot film. 

Song to Song - Emmanuel Lubezki : Lubezki, like fellow nominee Deakins, is a previous winner of a Mickey™® Award and is an acknowledged master of his craft. Teaming once again with Malick for Song to Song, Lubezki's camera dazzles as it dances and twirls through the natural light of the Austin sun.

Dunkirk - Hoyte van Hoytema : Astonishingly well shot, Hoytema gives Dunkirk such a specific and tangible texture that you can feel the film. A vivid and vibrant piece of work that had an exceedingly high rate of difficulty considering the subject matter. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TODUNKIRKHoyte van Hoytema - Hoytema beats out Deakins, Lubezki and Anderson in a close race. Hoytema's ability to create a visceral cinematic texture while showing both the vast and the intimate of war, puts him over the top in this prestigious category. 

 

BEST SCREENPLAY

War for the Planet of the Apes - Matt Reeves & Mark Bomback : Reeves and Bomback turn what could have been a paint by numbers action movie sequel into an exquisite, intricate, mythic and archetypal epic filled with more humanity than almost any other film I saw this year. Their choice to surreptitiously pay homage to Apocalypse Now was a master stroke. 

Wind River - Taylor Sheridan : Sheridan is a previous winner of a Mickey™®, so he is obviously a master of his craft. He continued to elevate his work this year with his pulsating yet poignant script for Wind River that insightfully diagnosis the disease of deformed masculinity.

Phantom Thread - PT Anderson : Anderson's script for Phantom Thread is so delicious it makes me delirious. Cutting, funny, insightful and mythically rich, Anderson's script is full of insightful and incisive dialogue that translates into a compelling and mesmerizing film.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgis Lanthimos : Lanthimos, a Mickey™® nominee last year, is as original as we have working in film right now. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a breathtakingly unique and mythically satisfying story that never fails to surprise. 

A Ghost Story - David Lowery : The most simple yet ambitious film I saw this year, A Ghost Story is a testament to the talent and skill of its writer/director David Lowery. Heartbreakingly original and devastatingly poignant, Lowery is able to reduce the expanse of time and space onto the head of pin, where it dances with all of those who have gone before, and after, us. A serious masterwork from a filmmaker to watch. 

Personal Shopper - Olivier Assayas : Assayas script for Personal Shopper tells both the story of a supernatural thriller and a deep spiritual seeking. Confidently paced and deftly layered, Assayas script is a powerful foundation for this ever intriguing film. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TOWAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES - Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback - Reeves and Bomback combine A Bridge Over the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now and The Great Escape with the Old and New Testaments and mix them with the Planet of the Apes mythology and they end up with an epic masterpiece that is deeply moving and highly entertaining. Their Mickey™® is earned by just edging out PT Anderson and Taylor Sheridan, and is just reward for their superlative work. 

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Lesley Manville - Phantom Thread : As an acting coach, the two things I have found that actor's struggle with the most, and yet need so desperately to master, are silence and stillness. Manville gives a masterclass in silence and stillness in Phantom Thread. Her every look and every movement are so filled with specificity of intention that she owns every scene she inhabits. A truly wondrous performance that devotees of the craft of acting should study and learn from. 

Allison Janney - I, Tonya : Janney's performance in I, Tonya is more than just the scene-stealing antics that have been highlighted in the film's trailer and commercials. Janney certainly is entertaining as LaVona, but what makes her work all the more impressive is the delicate undertone of genuine humanity which courses through characters inner life. 

Elizabeth Olsen - Wind River : Olsen plays a fish out of water FBI agent from Las Vegas stuck on an Indian reservation in the colds of Montana to perfection. Full of false bravado that covers a delicate core, Olsen convincingly embodies the feminine archetype trying to survive in a world where it is surrounded by characters at the mercy of their toxic and violent masculinity. 

Octavia Spencer - The Shape of Water : Octavia Spencer always brings a humanity to every character she plays, and her work in The Shape of Water is no exception. A woman trapped by her suffocating station in life, Spencer's character overcomes her fears and listens to her heart in trying to live the myth of her life. 

Karin Konoval - War for the Planet of the Apes : Konoval plays Maurice, an Orangutan who is the heart to Ceasar's spirit. Konoval imbues Maurice with such a deep humanity that it is palpable even though on screen she is a stunningly gorgeous CGI Orangutan. An exquisitely sublime piece of acting work that is criminally under-appreciated. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO.LESLIE MANVILLE - PHANTOM THREADManville edges out Konoval by a nose in a tight competition. Manville's commanding performance is the type of acting work that the Mickeys™® simply adore.

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Paul Walter Hauser - I, Tonya : Hauser is so good as the dimwitted Shawn Eckart, that it is stunning. It is almost as if they used some of Eckart's DNA to replicate him just to use him in this movie. Hauser avoids the perilous pitfall of playing for laughs and makes his Ekchart stupid but not dumb. Both gut-bustingly funny and heartbreakingly human, Hauser's Eckart is a gem.

Richard Jenkins - The Shape of Water : Jenkins delivers a solid and thoroughly compelling performance as Giles, Elisa's gay neighbor. In the hands of a lesser actor, Giles would have been a maudlin and melancholy character of one dimension, but Jenkins makes his Giles a complex and conflicted man desperate for a deeper meaning and purpose to his life. 

Woody Harrelson - War for the Planet for the Apes : Harrelson had a hell of a year with his superb work in War for the Planet of the Apes along with his solid work in Three Billboards. Harrelson's Brando-esque Colonel McCollough is an ominous and magnetic presence throughout the film and makes for a formidable foil to Andy Serkis' Ceasar. Harrelson's last few scenes as McCollough are the best things he has ever done on film without question. 

Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards : Having just re-watched Three Billboards, I was even more impressed by Rockwell's performance than I was the first time I saw it. Rockwell's Dixon is a menacing fool at war with the world and himself. The character's greatest attribute, which is a testament to Rockwell's talent, is that he evolves from being an know-nothing who thinks he knows it all to being know nothing who knows he knows nothing. 

Steve Zahn - War for the Planet of the Apes : Zahn plays chimpanzee Bad Ape to perfection. As both comic relief and yet as a genuinely touching reminder of the cruelty of humanity, Bad Ape overtly embodies the fear that drives the violence at the heart of mankind. A truly remarkable and noteworthy performance from Zahn. 

Tom Hardy - Dunkirk : Hardy's face is covered for the overwhelming majority of his screen time in Dunkirk, and yet he is so magnetically compelling that you cannot take your eyes off of his eyes. A masterfully specific and detailed performance that few, if any, other actors would have been able to pull off. 

AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TOSTEVE ZAHN - WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESZahn's skittish and war-weary Bad Ape is like a chimpanzee version of Dennis Hopper's photographer character in Apocalypse Now. Part comic relief and yet also the reminder of the savagery and brutality of war, Zahn's Bad Ape is a wonder and a joy to behold because it is such a beautifully crafted and vibrant piece of acting work. 

 

BREAKOUT PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR

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Florence Pugh : Ms. Pugh brings a compelling charisma and smoldering sensuality to the terribly flawed Lady MacBeth. Pugh's talent and skill are undeniable s she is reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for the intriguing Ms. Pugh.

 

 

 

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Margaret Qualley : Qualley's performance in  Noviate is considerably better than the film itself. She is a remarkably refined actress bursting with a subtle magnetism that accentuates her incandescent beauty. Ms. Qualley is a beguiling and formidable screen presence and I am optimistic that her future is bright. 

 

BEST ACTOR

Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread : Lewis is maybe the greatest actor of all-time, and Phantom Thread may very well be his greatest performance. In a performance bursting with specific and distinct internal intentions, Lewis' Woodcock is a powerful, magnetic and thoroughly dynamic force of nature. Watching him succumb to another force of nature is a wonder to behold. 

Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour : Oldman is one of my all-time favorite actors, and his career has ben filled with combustible performances for the ages. In Darkest Hour he confines his volcanic dynamism in the mythic figure of Winston Churchill. Oldman's Churchill is a character study in self-doubt and frantic self-preservation. Always on the verge of defeat to the impending storm clouds of not only Nazism but depression, Oldman's Churchill is always scanning every scene desperate find salvation. A truly terrific performance. 

Colin Farrell - Killing of a Sacred Deer : Farrell won a Mickey for his work director Lanthimos in last year's The Lobster. he is nominated again this year for his equally impressive and contained performance as a heart surgeon trying to come to terms with his sordid past. Farrell spends his entire time on screen at war with himself, trying to keep his deeper demons at bay while trying to appear to be as normal as possible to the outside world. Farrell has turned a corner in his once moribund career and found his artistic rhythm…and it is a joy to behold…hopefully he can keep it up. 

Andy Serkis - War for the Planet of the Apes : Serkis has carried all of the recent  Planet of the Apes movies as Ceasar, the central character in Apes mythology. In "War" Serkis saves his best and most complex work for last. At once a compelling movie star performance, but also a delicately nuanced piece of acting work, Serkis brings all of his formidable talents and skills to bear in the greatest performance of his unique and remarkable career. 

Hugh Jackman - Logan : Jackman, or as I call him "Jazz Hands", has never impressed me as an actor…until now. Jackman's work in Logan is so far superior to anything else he has ever done, including his multiple times playing the same character, Wolverine, that it is astounding. In Logan, Jackman's Wolverine is an aging and bitter superhero who has no interest in any of the usual superhero bullshit. Jackman is able to fill Wolverine with a physical and spiritual ache that is uncomfortably visceral. An impressive and stirring piece of work from Jackman, who I really hope keeps it up going forward. 

Jeremy Renner - Wind River : Renner gives an exquisitely nuanced, layered and intricate performance as Cory Lambert, a Fish and Wildlife Agent in Wyoming. As a symbol of wounded masculinity, Renner imbues Lambert with a deep wound and profound melancholy that pulsates through his every pore that he struggles to contain. A tremendously rich and subtle performance from Renner, easily the very best of his career.

Casey Affleck - A Ghost StoryAs crazy as this sounds, Casey Affleck is absolutely fantastic at acting with a sheet over his head. I know, it is insane, but like an extended mask exercise, Affleck in A Ghost Story is able to project and magnify not only his intentions but his emotions through a ghost sheet. If you understand the art and craft of acting, you understand who magnificent and amazing Affleck's work in A Ghost Story really is. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO…DANIEL DAY-LEWIS - PHANTOM THREAD - Day-Lewis unleashes a performance of such refined and exquisite power in Phantom Thread that it is simply staggering. An overhwhelmingly charismatic and magnetic performance of such skill and craft as to be remarkable. If this is Day-Lewis' last performance, then he goes out on the very height of achievement, as this one Mickey™® award easily eclipses his three Oscars in the prestige category.

BEST ACTRESS

Vicky Krieps - Phantom Thread: A powerful premiere for Kreips on the big Hollywood stage, her work in Phantom Thread is absolutely stellar. An undeniable mark of her talent and skill is on display in a scene where she actually blushes on cue, which is such a hard thing to do it seems impossible. Adding to her impossible feats, she goes toe to toe with Daniel Day-Lewis, in her second language, and entirely holds her own. Alluring, magnetic and always compelling, Kreips is a wonder to behold

Rooney Mara - A Ghost Story/Song to Song : Rooney Mara had a hell of year, as both of her performances in Song to Song and A Ghost Story garnered Mickey™® Nominations. Mara gives tantalizingly intimate performances in both films that exude a powerful and rare delicate humanity. With the ability to at once compel viewers to lean in to her she simultaneously keeps them at an arms distance. Both magnetically charming and intoxicatingly skilled, Mara is one of the best actors in the world at the very top of her game. 

Kirsten Stewart - Personal Shopper : Kristen Stewart gives an unbelievably fantastic performance as the "psychic" at the heart of Oliver Assayas' fascinating supernatural horror-thriller. Awkwardly dynamic and skittishly erotic, Stewart owns every second of Personal Shopper. She masterfully crafts a conflicted, charismatic and sensually forceful character that carries the film through uncharted territory but never loses its way. 

Jennifer Lawrence - Mother! : Mother! is a failure of a film, but Jennifer Lawrence's performance is strikingly magnificent. I cannot think of another actress as skilled, talented and above all else, confident, enough to spend the majority of her time in close-up for a claustrophobic two hours and be able to pull it off. Lawrence's charms are undeniable, but her skill and mastery of craft are what I find so incredibly impressive. 

Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water : Hawkins never utters a word in The Shape of Water, but she says more than most other actresses could with two hours of dialogue. Impressively expressive and vivaciously alive, Hawkins' Elisa is no woman-child, but rather a real, fully formed, honest too goodness woman who is driven not only by her heart, but by her sexual drive. A delightfully nuanced performance that in lesser hands would have been a down right disaster. 

Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird : Ronan is a terrific actress, who at only 23 already has two Mickey nominations under her belt, and her stellar work in the sub-par Lady Bird is a testament to her undeniable talent and mastery of craft. An exquisitely dynamic performance that overcomes a trite script and lackluster direction. 

Meryl Streep - The Post : The Post is awful…Meryl Streep is not. As high as expectations are for Meryl every time she gets in front of a camera, she is still able to bring all of her powers to bear and deliver astonishingly specific performances like she does in The Post as Catherine Graham. never a false or pushed note, Streep contains Graham, giving her a soft power that turns steely when the time is right. Streep didn't become the Grand Dame of American acting by accident, and in The Post she proves why she holds the title, and that she is not relinquishing the crown anytime soon.  

Margot Robbie - I, Tonya : Robbie is spectacular as the trailer trash Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Robbie's performance is a sublime revelation that never fails to surprise or impress.

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO…ROONEY MARA - A GHOST STORY/SONG TO SONGMara ekes out the narrowest of victories over the strong challenge by wondrous newcomer Vicky Krieps. Mara was aided by her being transcendently fantastic performances in not one but two top-notch films this year. An actress blessed with a mesmerizing grace and astounding level of skill, Mara is finally ushered into the most rarified of company with her first Mickey™® award.

BEST ENSEMBLE

Wind River : A superb cast across the board with standout performances from Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene and a short but particularly effective piece of work from Jon Bernthal. 

Dunkirk : While it may seem like a bunch of nondescript White guys struggling to survive Dunkirk, the cast is actually made up of terrific actors giving outstanding performances. Led by Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance, the film also boasts outstanding performances from Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh and of all people Harry Styles. 

War for the Planet of the Apes : Cloaked in motion capture magic, this cast does some of the most stellar and sublime acting seen on screen this year. Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval and Michael Adamthwaite are among the many stand out actors. 

Phantom Thread : On the top of the bill is Daniel Day-Lewis who is absurdly great, and he is joined by the luminous Vicky Krieps and the intrepid Leslie Manville. A staggeringly supreme cast carry the day in this off beat romantic drama. 

The Shape of Water : With a ludicrously talented cast, from Sally Hawkins to Octavia Spencer to Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water is buoyed by the unbelievably sublime work of its exquisite coterie of actors.

Song to Song : Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman along with the ever luminous Cate Blanchett give Malick's Song to Song its heart and soul and never miss a beat. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO…THE SHAPE OF WATER - The Shape of Water just beats out Phantom Thread in squeaker. The Shape of Water was aided by the fact that there was a larger cast that across the board did spectacular work, whereas Phantom Thread had three, and only three, sublimely phenomenal performances. 

 

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson - Phantom Thread : Anderson is arguably the greatest director on the planet and his Phantom Thread is an exquisitely delectable piece of cinema as intricately woven as the fashion at the film's heart. 

Guillermo del Toro - The Shape of Water : Del Toro is a ravenous talent with an extraordinary imagination who always brings a visual originality and cinematic flair to his every endeavor. The Shape of Water is a worthy monument to his massive abilities. 

Christopher Nolan - Dunkirk : Nolan brings all of his formidable talents to bear in Dunkirk and he turns what could have been a typical war movie into a transcendent cinematic experience. A technical masterpiece the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. 

Matt Reeves - War for the Planet of the Apes : Reeves is a massive talent who not only reinvigorated the Planet of the Apes franchise after the calamity of Tim Burton taking a gigantic shit on it, he infused a high level of cinematic mastery into the Apes films, the likes of which we have never seen. 

Taylor Sheridan - Wind River : Wind River proves that Sheridan isn't just one of the best writers working today, he is also a directing talent to be reckoned with. A confident film that resonates with viewers because it accurately diagnosis what is wrong with our culture.

David Lowery - A Ghost Story : A staggeringly powerful film of incredible vision and insight. Painstakingly human and heartbreakingly effective, Lowery's cinematic ambition comes to fruition in an understood but spectacular way. 

Terence Malick - Song to Song : The esteemed Terence Malick already has a Mickey under his belt, but that hasn't deterred him from continuing to make daring, experimental, deeply personal, archetypal and mythically intriguing films that are cinematic pieces of pure gold. 

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AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO...CHRISTOPHER NOLAN - DUNKIRKNolan wins this extremely close category, edging out Anderson, Sheridan and Reeves by mere percentage points because he masterfully turned the standard war picture on its head by messing with perspective and time while pulling off a masterpiece in cinematic technical precision. Nolan has never won an Oscar, but now that he has a Mickey™®, he can laugh at the lowly Oscars for ignoring his genius.

 

BEST PICTURE

10. Logan : The best superhero movie of the year, James Mangold's Logan was a gritty and grueling look into the decline of Wolverine and of America. Easily the best of all of the X-Men movies and it isn't even close. 

9. Killing of a Sacred Deer : Yorgos Lanthimos follows up his fantastic The Lobster, with another dark, off-beat film that is jarring to the psyche. As unsettling but mythically satisfying a film as you could hope to see. 

8. Personal Shopper : Olivier Assayas follows up his terrific Clouds of Sils Maria with another masterful and beguiling film. Who knew a supernatural horror-thriller could be so sensual, scary and spiritual all at once? 

7. The Shape of Water : Guillermo del Toro is a visionary artist and he brings all of his talent and skill to bear in the wondrous Shape of Water. A religious and political allegory that says so much but never raises its voice. 

6. A Ghost Story : a philosophical and cinematic gem that is so unique and original that it is hypnotically mesmerizing. Terrific performances and Lowery's wondrous direction make A Ghost Story a remarkable movie going experience. 

5. Song to Song : Terrence Malick continues to push and prod his audience into deeper and deeper religious, spiritual, philosophical, mythical and archetypal  cinematic waters with his avant-garde, autobiographical films. Enjoy Malick while he is making movies, for he is a true genius the likes of which we may never see again. 

4. Wind River : A gruesome look into the heart of darkness that resides in the soul of American men, Taylor Sheridan's Wyoming murder mystery is a taut, tense and heartbreaking glimpse of the world we'd just as soon not see, but cannot turn away from. 

3. Phantom Thread : PT Anderson's brilliant, demented love story is a masterpiece. World-class acting combined with gorgeous cinematography, set and costume design and exquisite direction, make for a glorious piece of cinema.

2. Dunkirk : Christopher Nolan's heart-pounding and magnificent war drama is a sublime and exquisite movie-going experience. It is as technically proficient a film as you will ever see and is a monument to the skill and talent of Nolan and his crew.

AND THE MICKEY™® GOES TO

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1. War for the Planet of the Apes : All Hail, Caesar!! Some people scoff at the idea of a Planet of the Apes movie being the best film of the year…but I am dead serious…War for the Planet of the Apes was a perfect saga that tied together not only the trilogy of recent Planet of the Apes films, but also the original set of films from the 60's and 70's, which is a remarkable achievement. "War" is biblical and mythic in scope and epic in scale, and yet, ironically, it never loses its humanity or its intimacy. War for the Planet of the Apes is a staggering achievement in both technical and popular moviemaking. A smart, insightful and deeply moving film that refuses to be contained into the big-budget, action movie sequel box. All Hail Caesar!!

MOST IMPORTANT FILM OF THE YEAR

TIE - Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Wind River, Phantom Thread

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The reason that Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are so important is because they have the same archetype at their center…the Churchillian archetype. This archetype is one of stern but slavish resistance to…something, which when faced against a foe so clearly evil as the Nazi's is a blessing, but against a more nebulous one or against oneself, it is a curse. Churchill was great at grand pronouncements and inspiring others to fight on, but he was not so great at nuance or understanding the "other".

As evidenced by Dunkirk, Darkest Hour and The Crown, the times we live in are begging for the Churchillian archetype to not only be made conscious but be made actual. We are pleading for a Churchill to lead us out of the dark age which is descending upon us at a frightening pace. 

The problem though is that, as Wind River shows us, there is a disease of malformed and deformed masculinity that is ravaging men across the globe. When men are so distorted and twisted as to not recognize what true masculinity even is, then how can we expect the Churchillian archetype to manifest in anything but a malformed man? Thus, to some, Trump is seen as a Churchill…standing up to the elites. Russia has it's own Churchill…Vladimir Putin. The Phillipines their Churchill in Duterte, Turkey's Churchill is Erdogan, China's is Xi,  and so on and so on and so on. 

Men have been forced to grow in a toxic environment that distorts and demeans true masculinity while simultaneously our institutions have been proven to be fraudulent, thus we have no fertile ground from which the "good/light" Churchill can grow and prosper, and we are left with a vacuum from which only the "bad/dark" Churchill grows and prospers. (Godwin Law violation!...to state something obvious, the "light" Churchill had a shadow…that shadow was Hitler. And so what we have in our current culture is the rise of the Shadow Churchill…aka…Hitler.)

Shadow Churchill is the unrepentant colonialist and racist who was an agent of chaos around the world and in Great Britain. Shadow Churchill is the one who had something to prove and mistreated and abused the "other" to prove it. Shadow Churchill is currently alive and well and thriving across the globe. 

For whatever reason we are under the spell of the Churchill archetype at the moment, whether it be the light or shadow version makes no difference to us. Being under the spell of the Churchill archetype results in, even among those who oppose Trump, people being unable to think of anything or anyone else but Trump. The same with Putin, Erdogan, Duterte and Xi. The Churchill archetype captivates the minds of everyone, friend and foe alike, and by doing so, maintains its hold on power just as it maintains its hold on our imagination and psyches. 

Phantom Thread, the film by the greatest auteur of the bunch, may show us a way out of the Churchill shadow conundrum. In Phantom Thread, a domineering and abusive powerful man, is incapacitated and brought to his knees by a woman who refuses to be diminished. The woman also refuses to try and emasculate the man, she simply wants him to put down his armor and re-engage with the feminine occasionally. This woman also does not try to be a man, she does not try to emulate a man or usurp masculinity, she is entirely and completely feminine, and understands the power that comes with that. 

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Phantom Thread shows us that the road of say...Hillary Clinton and her parade of faux feminist supporters for instance, is a dead end, as these fools are spitting in the wind of the shadow Churchillian archetypal hurricane, and can and will never be truly victorious. The biggest problem with these women is that they are blind to the power of their own feminine energy, and instead try and corrupt, co-opt or minimize the masculine energy of their male opponents. This approach is doomed to fail in the face of the Churchillian archetype, be it light or shadow. 

Only the Anima, the wily and witchy woman, the uber-feminine, with all of her truly feminine power at her disposal, can become equals to the Churchill shadow beast, and thus bring him to heel. Once this beast is somewhat tamed (it can never be fully tamed), then there can be an age of relative peace and prosperity where anima and animus live momentarily under a truce. But we are a long, long way from that age. 

Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Wind RIver and Phantom Thread are the most important films of the year because they reveal our collective truth when they accurately diagnose the psychological, mythological, archetypal, political and cultural disease that is killing us all. They also subtly but insightfully point the way out of the deep and perilous cave of the Churchill shadow in which we are currently stumbling around in the dark. I don't know if we will make it out of the throes of the Churchill shadow alive, but at least these films are a sliver of light that teach us there is, in fact, a way out, it is now up to us to find the wisdom and the courage to head for that light. 

And thus ends the 4th Annual Mickey™® Awards!! To all the winners I say congratulations and enjoy your immortality!! To all the nominees I say…see you at the after party!! And to all my readers I say…thanks for sticking around and for all the support!!

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