"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

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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©2018

 

90th Academy Awards: The 2018 Oscars Prediction Post

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes 66 seconds

As February has come and gone without the Academy Awards happening, March now roars in like a hungry Oscar lion. Due to the Winter Olympics monopolizing Sunday night television for the last two weeks, the Oscars were pushed back to the first week of March, and now our interminable wait for the most important night of the year is finally over. 

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The Oscars are the most Holy of all the High Holy Days here in the People's Republic of Hollywood and are the culmination of thousands and thousands of years of human evolution which will reach its apex this Sunday night. From the first time a million years ago when ape-men tossed their animal bone weapons into the sky in the shadow of giant black monolith, to Steve Guttenberg inventing movable type and printing the first bible in 1450 to Andy Kaufman being the first Man on the Moon, we have been hurtling towards the evolutionary perfection of Sunday night's Oscar ceremony.

The anticipation for this year's Oscar's is palpable, especially after last year's Moonlight - La La Land Best Picture fiasco, everyone is tingling with anticipation over what will happen this year. It is my duty as a card carrying member of the People's Party of Hollywood to express my thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding this most glorious of events, the Oscars, so I have written my predictions for the awards below.

Last year I had an uncharacteristically bad time in predicting the awards. The reason for my off year was because last year was the first year of the "New Academy"…you see after the #OscarsSoWhite nonsense of 2016, the Academy exiled a plethora of older White members and brought in a cavalcade of younger members who were non-White and female. With no history and voting trend data for me to analyze and base my predictions upon, I struggled to keep up my usual stellar prediction standards (I have never lost an Oscar pool…ever, including last year…although I did tie with somebody once in the dark year of 1998). 

This year I have the benefit of one year New Academy data under my belt, so hopefully I won't be as dreadful as I was last year…but old habits die hard and I am no doubt prone to falling back into the ways of the traditionalist thinking of the Old Academy. We'll see. 

Back in the dark days of the Old Academy, the rule of thumb regarding categories that you had no idea about like best documentary, documentary short or short films was a cynical formula that everyone knew about but no one was comfortable saying out loud. The formula was basically this…if any film dealt with the Holocaust, pick it to win. If there were no Holocaust movie to choose, then the Oscar winners would be, in descending order of likelihood, films about gay issues, particularly the AIDS epidemic, or films dealing with civil rights/race issues.

In this current era of identity politics, the New Academy has a formula to its choices as well, the hard part is figuring out what it is. For instance, does the New Academy lean toward Black films and gay films over other issue movies, and therefore if you have a Black-gay film like Moonlight...you can win Best Picture?

Due to the powerful sway of identity politics in the New Academy, I have decided to make a new and somewhat uncomfortable addition to my Oscars predictions article, I will not only tell you who should win, and who will win, but also will handicap the "New Academy" and how they may see the Oscar race. Some may deem my blunt talk of the harsh reality of identity politics in the New Academy as insensitive or "racist" but I feel if I were to ignore this blatantly obvious issue I would be doing my readers a disservice. 

It is important to remember that these new Academy members who are mostly people of color and women (or women of color!!), were brought in to nip #OscarsSoWhite in the bud, and so last year they did just that by giving Best Picture to Moonlight and awarding two African-American actors statuettes. The New Academy people understand that the only reason they are in the Academy is to reward artists of color and women, and that is important to keep in mind when trying to guess how they will vote. My "Handicapping the New Academy" sections may seem terribly cynical, and they are, but that doesn't mean they aren't based on the reality of Hollywood in general and the New Academy in particular.

With all that said…it is time…are you ready? I hope so! I ask that you please sit back, relax…and remember that The Oscars are a Holy endeavor so no wagering please…now dive head first into the shitshow that are my blind guesses as to who will win the most coveted prize in the history of the universe…THE OSCAR!!

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary J. Blige - Mudbound: I have bad news for you…I haven't seen Mudbound. I think this may mean I am a racist, I'm not sure…but I hope not. I promise I will see it though…soon. You know who else probably hasn't seen Mudbound…Oscar voters. 

Allison Janney - I, Tonya : Allison Janney devours every scene she inhabits in I, Tonya. Her performance is not all flash and no bash though, as she crafts a genuine human being out of what could have been a caricature in lesser artistic hands.

Lesley Manville - Phantom Thread: Leslie Manville's work is simply stunning in Phantom Thread. Her mastery of stillness and specificity of intention is staggering and her performance a marvel to behold. Young actors would be wise to study Ms. Manville's Phantom Thread performance and steal as much of it as they can carry.

Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird: Metcalf has received many accolades for her work as Lady Bird's mom, but I felt her performance was one note and rather shallow. A lot of the problems with the character are probably due to the script, but I felt Metcalf was a bit underwhleming in the role regardless.

Octavia Spencer - The Shape of Water: Octavia Spencer is as solid and reliable an actress as you'll find working these days. She has the innate ability to create genuine and grounded characters of multi-dimensions and deep humanity that never fail to enhance any film in which she appears.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Lesley Manville - I think Manville's work is technically superior to every other actress nominated. Manville's work is less showy, but more technically proficient and precise than any of the competition and it isn't even close. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: The New Academy would want to reward Mary J. Blige or Octavia Spencer, but Ms. Spencer has already won the award and Ms. Blige appears in a Netflix film, which is something even the New Academy hasn't figured out how to properly judge. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Allison Janney: Ms. Janney has won all the other awards leading up to the Oscars, and her performance is crowd pleasing…so I think she walks away with the easy win here. It also helps that Ms. Janney is very highly regarded and well liked out here in Hollywood. 

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project: I really like Dafoe as an actor, but I thought his role in The Florida Project was not Oscar worthy. It is not that he does a bad job, just that there isn't much for him to do in the movie. 

Woody Harrelson - Three Billboards: I thought Woody Harrelson was fantastic in Three Billboards, or as I keep calling it Three Dildos, creating a complex character of real depth. Harrelson has matured into a top-notch actor in his middle age and Three Dildos is proof of his undeniable skill and talent. That said, he was even better in War for the Planet of the Apes this year

Richard Jenkins - The Shape of Water: Jenkins is phenomenal in The Shape of Water, as he never falls into the trap of caricature or maudlin preening. Jenkins is always a terrific actor, and The Shape of Water may be the best work of his stellar career.

Christopher Plummer - All the Money in the World: I haven't seen All the Money in the World…I know, I know, I am a terrible person. Plummer is an old pro and he no doubt got this nomination simply because the Academy wanted to send a signal of disgust to Kevin Spacey who originally shot the role but was disappeared down the memory hole by director Ridley Scott. 

Sam Rockwell- Three Billboards: Rockwell makes lemonade out of the one dimensional lemons the script hands him. Rockwell plays his racist, dim bulb character with aplomb and is able to subtly turn a shallow potential caricature into more than just a punch line. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: Richard Jenkins - Jenkins work in The Shape of Water is simply superb and far and away the best in this category. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: This is a weird category as there are no minorities nominated, that said Jenkins does play a gay man, which in the Old Academy would have given him a leg up on the competition, but not now. Rockwell has gotten some heat because his character is an irredeemable racist, which could spell trouble for him even though he is the front runner. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Sam Rockwell - Rockwell has won all of the other awards leading up to the Oscars, and I think the campaign against him revolving around his character being a racist will ultimately fail. I think the biggest reason it will fail is because there are no minority actors who could potentially supplant him. 

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Big Sick - I haven't seen the Big Sick…and yes, I am well-aware that makes me a really bad person. It is funny as I have gotten more marketing material in the mail from the Big Sick than any other film this past year, including a screener of the film, and still haven't watched it. Just more proof that I need to budget my time much better. 

Get Out - I finally saw Get Out about a month ago and was entirely and totally underwhelmed by it. The idea that this movie, script, director and lead actor are nominated for an Oscar is a joke. It is a moderately entertaining horror-comedy…like Scream…not exactly the stuff of Oscar gold. 

Lady Bird - Lady Bird is a poorly written film that is more akin to a CBS sitcom along the lines of The Big Bang Theory, than an Oscar worthy movie. But the Academy loves their manic pixie dream girl Greta Gerwig for some mysterious reason…so she has a real chance. Hell, Woody Allen has won numerous Oscars and he sucks…so Greta has a good chance. 

The Shape of Water - Del Toro's script is a masterfully layered piece of work that never diminishes it's characters by going down the road of the simple and easy. Del Toro also successfully weaves political and religious themes throughout his unconventional love story, proving his skill as a screenwriter.

Three Billboards - Three Dildos is a script that shows a foreigners distorted view of what they think America is, filled with caricatures and one dimensional, simplistic characters. It has all the nuance and subtlety of a Kid Rock song about France. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: The Shape of Water is the best script in the bunch and it isn't even close. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: In the old days, Three Dildos would be the favorite because it is written by a successful playwright and the Old Academy loved them some playwrights. But the new academy is either going to go with Jordan Peele for Get Out or Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird. The question becomes will gender trump race or race trump gender…hmmmm…it'll be a nail biter. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Get Out - I think Peele will get the trophy as a sort of condolence prize since they won't give him Best Director…but that said…don't be shocked if Gerwig gets the win because unlike Jordan Peele, she has been out beating the bushes and campaigning hard for votes.

 

 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Call Me by Your Name - A dreadful movie and a dreadful script that is at the very least morally questionable…but Hollywood never considers morals in the moment, only in hindsight, i.e. #MeToo.

The Disaster Artist - Not a great script, and the fact that James Franco is on the #MeToo shitlist means that this movie is persona non grata on Oscar night. 

Logan - A terrific adaptation of a graphic novel. Logan was a terribly under appreciated last year but was one of the better films of the year and the script is the major reason why. A truly fantastic piece of writing.

Molly's Game - I haven't seen Molly's Game, but it is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's writing is difficult to direct, and frankly, I am willing to bet that ironically, he is not a good enough director to master directing his own script.

Mudbound - I haven't seen Mudbound…yeah, yeah, I'm an incorrigible racist…but I do look forward to seeing it, so there's hope for me yet.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Logan - The best script of this bunch by a mile. Logan turned the moribund X-Men franchise on its head and created a dark, grounded and stunning world in which Wolverine becomes a fully fleshed out character and not just a simple super hero. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: Mudbound should appeal to the New Academy because the writer, Dee Rees, is an African-American lesbian woman, but the problem is that it is a Netflix film and even the New Academy is struggling to embrace the Netflix model. Call Me By Your Name is the next best option for the identity politics of the New Academy though, as it is a story of homosexual love written by an older gay man. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Call Me by Your Name - I think Call Me by Your Name ekes out a win over Mudbound here. I think the Netflix thing hurts Mudbound, and the fact that James Ivory has such a stellar resume filled with prestige films will put him over the top. 

 

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Christopher Nolan - Dunkirk: Nolan's Dunkirk is a master class in technical proficiency in the art of filmmaking. Dunkirk was inarguably the most difficult film to make of all the nominees and Nolan proved himself a brilliant craftsman. Sadly, I think Dunkirk will be overlooked in the more popular categories, but I think it will win multiple technical awards, most specifically the sound awards.

Jordan Peele - Get Out: This nomination is a complete mystery to me. Get Out is a decent if unremarkable directorial debut for Peele, but the film and his direction are so below the classic standard for Oscar material that it is absurd. 

Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig's direction and writing on Lady Bird are the two worst things about the film…which is a pretty big deal. Manic Pixie Dream Girl Gerwig is adored by the New Academy though and so she is poised to potentially win big on Oscar night. Gerwig has won points with the New Academy by being so vocal against Woody Allen, which is ironic because she is a quirky, female version of Allen…and that is not a compliment.

Paul Thomas Anderson - Phantom Thread: Anderson is far and away the greatest auteur of his generation and the greatest filmmaker working today. Phantom Thread is a staggeringly fantastic piece of cinema. I fear though that PT Anderson, like fellow genius of cinema Stanley Kubrick, is destined to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time who will not win an Oscar.

Guillermo del Toro - The Shape of Water: Del Toro is a true visionary, and his work on The Shape of Water is a testament to his originality and his unique artistic vision. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: Anderson/Nolan- If either PT Anderson or Christopher Nolan won, it would be sweet justice, since neither of them have ever won an Oscar for directing, which is a crime. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: In the Old Academy, Nolan would be a slam dunk here because they loved them some intricate war movies. But the New Academy has zero interest in Nolan, or PT Anderson. Del Toro would, in theory, satiate the identity politics thirst of the New Academy, but oddly enough, Latino men winning the directing Oscar is something that is commonplace, they have won three of the last four awards, and that doesn't seem to quell the cries of Oscar favoritism to White men. Peele and Gerwig are not worthy of their nominations, but they are serious threats to win, Peele because he is African-American, and Gerwig because she is a woman. The fact that Gerwig has been very vocal about the #MeToo issue and has spoken out about Woody Allen, give her an advantage on Peele in this category. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Del Toro. I know I am being foolish, traditionalist and hopelessly optimistic, but I think that talent wins out and del Toro gets the win. There is a very good chance though that Peele and Gerwig split the Best Screenplay and Best Director awards…stranger things have happened, and with the New Academy, anything is possible. Do not be shocked though if Gerwig wins for, ironically, being a female Woody Allen. Yuck.

 

BEST ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water: Hawkins is stunning as the mute cleaning lady at the center of The Shape of Water. An intricate and detailed performance that us a testament to Hawkins talent. 

Frances McDormand - Three Billboards: I found McDormand's work in Three Dildos to be rather shallow, vapid and one-note. Her perpetual anger may resonate with women at the moment, but artistically it is a vacant and foolish performance. 

Margot Robbie - I, Tonya: Robbie crushes it as Tonya Harding in this unique bio-pic. Robbie proves she is much, much more than just a pretty face as she dives into the deep end of a character that in lesser hands would have been vacuous at best. 

Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird: Saoirse Ronan is a good an actress as we have working in film at the moment. She is virtually the only thing worth watching in the otherwise mundane Lady Bird. Her work in the film is a monument to her extraordinary mastery of craft, skill and enormous talent. 

Meryl Streep - The Post: It is old hat that Meryl Streep is nominated for an Oscar, but the truth is that she is spectacularly good in Spielberg's limp, piece of crap movie about the Pentagon Papers. Streep is the one and only reason to see this movie at all because she proves herself to be the real deal and still one of the greatest actresses to have ever lived. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: Sally Hawkins - Hawkins should win as she carries The Shape of Water without ever speaking a single word, which is an amazing achievement. 

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HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: Frances McDormand gets the leg up in the New Academy because she embodies the angry, fighting woman that the #MeToo movement in Hollywood perceives itself to be. 

WHO WILL WIN: Frances McDormand walks away with it…undeservingly so. 

 

BEST ACTOR

Timothee Chalamet - Call Me by Your Name: I have no idea why this kid is nominated. None. The film is awful, the performance unremarkable in every way. 

Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread: Daniel Day Lewis is allegedly retiring from acting and this is his final performance. What a way to leave the stage! Lewis is at his very best in PT Anderson's enigmatic film about fashion and love. Lewis imbues his character with a specific internal intentionality that radiates off the screen. An undeniable master gives a masterful performance. 

Daniel Kaluuya - Get Out: Another mystery nomination. Kaluuya isn't bad in Get Out, but he isn't noteworthy either. Kaluuya's nomination, along with the film's other nominations, is a testament to how low the New Academy has sunk in their quest for the holy grail of diversity in the age of identity politics. 

Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour: Oldman is one of the great actors we've had over the course of his career. Oldman defies stereotype and plays Churchill as a man plagued by self-doubt and ruled by fear. A truly terrific performance that is undermined by a rather lackluster film. 

Denzel Washington - Roman J. Israel, Esq. : I have not seen Roman J. Israel, Esq., but you can never go wrong with Denzel Washington, who is maybe the Best Actor/Movie Star we have had in Hollywood over the last thirty years or so. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: Daniel Day Lewis/Oldman- If either of these guys win then you cannot complain as they are great in these films but have also been great over the course of their esteemed careers. 

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: The New Academy is definitely leaning towards Kaluuya in this category. He is young, new blood and he is Black, all things they are desperate to reward. Kaluuya has a legit shot at winning, but I think the fact that he is a total newcomer may end up scuttling his attempt at Oscar gold. 

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WHO WILL WIN: Gary Oldman - I admit that I am falling into the trap of traditionalism again, just as I did with the Best Director category. I could be wrong here, but I think Oldman is rewarded not just for his work in Darkest Hour but also for his long and outstanding career. I think Kaluuya is a legitimate threat to take the crown though, but in the end the campaign against Oldman will fall short. 

 

BEST PICTURE

Cal Me by Your Name: A boring and morally questionable mess of a movie. If this were the Old Academy, it might have a chance…but no way, no how, this year. 

Darkest Hour: In the Old academy Darkest Hour would be a serious threat, but the film is simply not good enough or original enough to hold the interest of the New Academy. 

Dunkirk: A staggering achievement in filmmaking, that sadly has been forgotten this awards season because it has nothing to do with identity politics. 

Get Out: A beneficiary of the "Leg Up" program of the New Academy that judges on a curve when it comes to minority films. Get Out is a mildly entertaining popcorn movie that has no business being nominated for anything. The greatest irony of all is that Get Out is a movie about White Liberal Guilt and the film is only nominated for so many Oscars simply because of White Liberal Guilt. Pretty funny. 

Lady Bird: Another beneficiary of the "Leg Up" program, Lady Bird is simply not a good movie. As my friend, a famous Hollywood big shot filmmaker dubbed Mr. X said to me, "Lady Bird is a watered down Napolean Dynamite for women". Ouch! 

Phantom Thread: Another of PT Anderson's masterpieces. Phantom Thread is a remarkable film  that is a monument to the undeniable talent of its director. 

The Post: Spielberg's usual shitty "serious" movie that is more proof that Spielberg can't make a real movie unless there are aliens or dinosaurs in it. It is unbelievable how poorly made this movie is. 

The Shape of Water: A fantastic and original piece of art that is mesmerizing from start to finish. A complex and complicated religious and political metaphor that says more than most other films without ever opening its mouth. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: If you want to see what foreigners think America is like, watch Three Dildos. It is inaccurate, cheap and one dimensional. A dark comedy that isn't funny, and a comedic drama that has no drama. 

WHO SHOULD WIN: Dunkirk, Phantom Thread - If either of these movies win it will be a miracle, but they richly deserve it as they are far superior to any of the other films except for maybe The Shape of Water

HANDICAPPING THE NEW ACADEMY: The Shape of Water in old times would runaway with it without question as its subtle politics are what would usually be embraced by the Old Academy. But the Old Academy is gone, and the New Academy is an unpredictable beast. I think in the New Academy it is a battle between Get Out (race) and Lady Bird (gender). In conversations out here in Hollywood all I ever hear people say is that they want Get Out to win and the film seems to have serious momentum. I think Get Out, because it is more overtly political than Lady Bird, is the favorite in the New Academy.

WHO WILL WIN: Get Out - The Shape of Water?

I have gone back and forth on this one over the last few days. Old habits are hard to break and so my traditionalist, Old Academy side keeps pulling me to The Shape of Water, while the clues from the New Academy/Identity politics crowd all seem to be pointing to Get Out. This reminds me of the lead up to the 2016 presidential election where Hillary was presumed to be the winner and yet I saw something completely different happening. I followed my instincts back then and was right. But that was just a stupid presidential election…THIS IS THE OSCARS!!

As much as I want The Shape of Water to win because it is a superior film and is much more deserving of the award than the fool's gold of Get Out, that doesn't mean The Shape of Water will win. As my father used to say, "wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up faster".  Moonlight's upset win last year has to teach me something…and if I don't learn from it I will be no better than the Hillary Dead Enders who have learned nothing from Trump's win in 2016. 

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Therefore…as much as it pains me to say it…my pick for Best Picture is…The Shape of Water!!! No…no…no…I'm so sorry, I typed the wrong title…the actual winner is Get Out

I am not going to be happy when Get Out wins because I think it will diminish the meaning and prestige of the Oscars, as dumb as that sounds…but if, as some are predicting, Three Dildos wins, I might just chop my own head off and throw it in the Ocean.

And one final note regarding the New Academy and #MeToo and all the rest. The proof that the New Academy and Hollywood is full of shit is that in the Animated Short category, Kobe Bryant has a film that is a self-serving, homage to himself titled, Dear Basketball, which is going to win the award. Hollywood loves Kobe…Kobe can do no wrong. Apparently Kobe's rape of a woman in Colorado and his treatment of that woman and others by his legal team, doesn't count in the eyes of the #MeToo gang. I always found it intriguing that OJ is so universally hated out here in Hollywood, just utterly despised, but when Kobe was accused of rape everyone came to his defense. Kobe is OJ in training…and is further proof of the rank hypocrisy of Hollywood and the New Academy. That is the end of my rant. 

And thus concludes yet another glorious Oscar prediction piece. I think that for the second year in a row the New Academy will, for good or for ill, shake things up. Get Out doesn't deserve any Oscars, but I believe it could be primed to have a big night this Sunday. Maybe…or hopefully…I am wrong and The Shape of Water or Dunkirk or Phantom Thread has a big night…one can dream…this is Hollywood after all.

Just think, a year from now we'll be having this same argument over another shitty movie that is getting too many accolades just because it satiates the New Academy's thirst for identity politics…ladies and gentlemen your front runner for the 2019 Best Picture Oscar is…Black Panther! Yuck. 

 

UPDATE: 3/2/18

I got an email from a reader asking me to expand my Oscar picks into the technical and lesser known categories. Here are my very brief picks for other Oscar categories...

Foreign Language Film - A Fantastic Woman or UPSET PICK: The Square

Cinematography - Roger Deakins Blade Runner 2049

Animated Film -  Coco

Documentary - Icarus

Animated Short - Dear Basketball

Original Score - Phantom Thread

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing - Dunkirk

Hair and Makeup - Darkest Hour

Production Design - The Shape of Water

Costume Design - Phantom Thread

Editing - Dunkirk

Visual Effects - War for the Planet of the Apes

Those are my best guesses…good luck!!

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©2018

Black Panther: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars                 Popcorn Curve* Rating: 2.5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Unless you are a superhero fanatic, there is no reason to see this movie. If you really want to see it, don't feed the Disney beast, wait and watch it on Netflix or cable for free. 

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, is the story of T'Challa, a prince of the technologically superior African nation of Wakanda - who is also the superhero Black Panther, as he rises to the throne of his native land and struggles to keep his nation safe. The film stars Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa with supporting turns from Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong'o and Angela Bassett.

Black Panther is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which includes but is not limited to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and all of the Avengers film. What makes Black Panther noteworthy among the rest of the myriad of Marvel properties is that Black Panther is the first of the Marvel films to have a Black lead actor and a Black director. 

As a White man, a member of the demographically dominant culture here in America, I am afforded the luxury of not caring about the race of a film's director or lead actor. The only thing I care about in regards to a film is its quality, not its diversity. I am mildly self-aware enough to understand that not everyone thinks like me or has the same perspective on the importance of quality in cinema. 

With all of that said, I understand that my experience as a cinephile watching Black Panther is going to be very different from, say, a young African-American boy's experience of watching Black Panther. An example of which was told to me recently by a friend (who is White) who recounted taking his 8 year-old African-American son to see the film and as they left the theatre his son said to him, "I didn't think superheroes could be Black!"

That anecdote highlights the fact that Black Panther is undoubtedly culturally important and is a remarkable achievement for African-Americans in film, but sadly, that doesn't make Black Panther even remotely close to being a decent film. And while social/political importance and relevance might trump cinematic quality for other viewers, it does not for me. 

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Black Panther is bursting at the seams with all sorts of dramatic and cinematic potential, but like most of the Marvel superhero films, it never lives up to its robust source material. Stan Lee created the character Black Panther back in 1966, and it is a fascinating myth. The idea of Wakanda, an African nation that was never touched by colonialism or slavery, is so brilliant as to be ingenious. And naming a Black superhero Black Panther, after the revolutionary and iconic civil rights activists The Black Panthers (Members of the Black Panther Party), was another stroke of genius. Black Panther is not a terrible film, but it definitely is a disappointing one mostly because it only briefly skims the surface of the rich archetypal material percolating beneath its feet. 

The biggest problem with Black Panther is also the reason that it is getting so much attention…namely that it is a Marvel/Disney movie. Marvel/Disney movies all make billions of dollars at the box office but they are also all pretty bland and derivative ventures in shameless self-promotion, and sadly, so is Black Panther.

Ryan Coogler is considered by some to be a great director, his Fruitvale Station is fantastic, but like every other director of a Marvel movie, he is handcuffed by the process and the system which churns out these movies from the money-hungry Disney assembly line. The bottom line is this, Black Panther is a pretty shoddy movie that fails because it is so suffocatingly claustrophobic and looks unconscionably cheap. To be fair to Black Panther, all Marvel movies are just as visually flat, dull and devoid of cinematic vibrancy as Black Panther. I don't know if the plethora of failings of Black Panther are entirely Ryan Coogler's fault or not, but I do know that if Ryan Coogler is a such a great filmmaker and artist, then why isn't he making movies that matter artistically and not swimming in the retread pool of Rocky films and Marvel movies.

The rich themes at the core of Black Panther, nationalism vs. neo-liberalism, the generational scars of colonialism and slavery, the psychological plight of African-Americans who live with a psychological/historical void, are only touched upon briefly and never with very much genuine insight. The debate over whether to fight for Black people across the globe, or to preserve the sanctity of Wakanda is the most fascinating and relevant discussion in the film in my opinion, but like all the other potentialities in the movie, it too gets short shrift. 

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The character that carries all the weight of these heavy issues is Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger is a potentially phenomenal character that is so ripe with archetypal and mythic meaning I was hoping we'd see much more of him in the film. The problem with Killmonger though, and why we probably see less of him than we should, is that Michael B. Jordan, for all of his acting capacity, is a huge disappointment because he is unable to harness the character's immense power. I remember the first time that I saw Michael B. Jordan, it was in an episode of Friday Night Lights, and I sat up and said, "who is that?" He reminded me of a young Denzel Washington back in the day when he was on the tv show St. Elsewhere. Jordan, like Denzel, oozed charisma and had an innate star quality about him that was undeniable. As the years have passed though, Jordan's growth as an actor seems to have been stunted and he has not evolved past being that charismatic but one-dimensional teenager. 

The problem with Jordan's performance in Black Panther is that his voice scuttles the work his ridiculously sculpted body is meant to be doing. Jordan's voice is that of a child in a man's body, which results in Killmonger's menace and gravitas, which are vital to the narrative, being undermined. Jordan should be a palpably charismatic screen presence, but he ends up being rather wispy and inconsequential because his voice is too high pitched and not grounded in his belly, where he could connect with the character's (and his) rage. Killmonger should speak in a guttural, nearly primal growl that reflects the torment and suffering of those stolen from and locked out of the Garden of Eden (Africa/Wakanda), not in the high pitched whine of a petulant teenager preening and posing for effect. 

Besides Jordan's voice being not grounded or connected, he also suffers mush mouth, which might be a result of the fake gold teeth he has to wear, that further disconnects Killmogner from his primal fury. Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Jordan is not confined by an African accent which can be emotionally limiting or stifling due to its vocal formality, but he is still unable to use this freedom to viscerally connect with the existential animosity that fuels Killmogner.

Jordan also fails to embue his character with a specific and detailed intentionality that would fill his silence and stillness, and focus his intensity. The result of Jordan's failure to create a vivid inner life for Killmonger is a dissipation of the character's volatile energy because it has nothing to contain it, which means it has nothing to enhance and increase it. 

It was also odd to me that Killmonger is such a highly educated man, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and got graduate degrees from M.I.T., and yet Jordan has him speak in a watered down, ghettoized and not just casual but intentionally improper, American English that feels forced, posed and phony. At the end of the day, Killmonger is a character I wish could have been explored much more deeply and honestly, but due to Jordan's frivolous performance, it would need a different actor to play him, and a different movie in which to do it.

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Chadwick Boseman stars in the film as T'Challa/Black Panther, and he suffers from an egregious charisma deficit. Boseman is a decent actor, but in a Marvel movie you need more than a decent actor, you need somebody to carry a movie for two hours, or in this case two hours and twenty minutes. Boseman is no Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and that is no crime as few actors are as skilled and charismatic as Downey…but Boseman isn't even as magnetic as that dead-eyed dope Chris Evans who plays Captain America…and that is a major problem.

I found Boseman to be intensely dull and devoid of any magnetism whosoever. In the story T'Challa and Lupita Nyong'o's character Nakia, are supposed to have a history and chemistry between them, but the scenes between them are so wooden and lifeless as to be comically stultifying. Boseman has a pleasant energy about him, of that there is no doubt, but he certainly doesn't have a compelling one. 

The rest of the cast are all fine but none of them stand out. Nyong'o's Nakia feels under developed to me, as does Danai Gurirra as Okoyo, T'Challa's bodyguard. Angela Basset is always a compelling screen presence, as is Forest Whitaker, but both of them are not exactly doing much heavy lifting in the film. 

Martin Freeman plays CIA officer Ross and feels entirely out of place. Were there no American actors available to play the American Ross? Because Freeman's butchered American accent is abysmal and is totally distracting. Not to mention the obvious, which is that a CIA officer being a "good guy" to any African peoples at anytime is such a fairy tale as to be absurd. 

The audience clapped at the end of the screening I attended, but it feels to me like this was an entirely manufactured cultural moment where people think they are supposed to love this movie, so they choke on their disappointment and, like with Black Panther's super suit, they use the kinetic energy of that disappointment and turn it into vocal support for the film.

As these philistines clapped I wondered, did they watch the same movie I did? Did they see the shoddy and lethargic fight choreography? Did they notice the poor cinematography, especially in the night shots which lacked any coherent contrast or texture? Or how in the day shots there was not any use of shadow or light to propel the story or tell deeper dramatic truths? Did they not notice how thin and cinematically tinny the climactic battle scenes were and how subpar the special effects? 

Reading headlines even before the film was released it was easy to see that the marketing machine at Marvel was already into hyper drive as Black Panther was declared not just a great super hero movie but one of the best movies of all time. Good grief…it reminded me of Wonder Woman last summer, which was held up as being akin to Citizen Kane because a woman directed it. I liked Wonder Woman but Citizen Kane it is not…that said, Wonder Woman is so vastly superior to Black Panther that in comparison it IS Citizen Kane. Neither Wonder Woman nor Black Panther are even in the same ballpark as Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which is a masterpiece, but they pale in comparison to last year's Logan, which is a terrific movie. 

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I was reminded of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, when I was finished watching Black Panther. The Last Jedi received the same sort of critical hype that Black Panther received before its release, all due to the fact that the film was a bastion of diversity. I attended a Christmas party this year and at the dinner table The Last Jedi came up and a woman asked me if I liked it and I said no, I thought it was junk. The woman was very distraught at my opinion which I voiced in front of many children, and so as to not make a scene in front of these impressionable youngsters she leaned in and sternly whispered to me in retort "yeah, but it had a really positive message". I bit my tongue, for what I wanted to say to her but didn't out of social delicacy was that I don't give a flying fuck if a movie has a "positive message". What I care about is cinema…that is it. I don't care who stars in a movie, or who wrote it or who directed it, I only care that it is at least good, if not great. 

If you like a movie, like Black Panther, simply because it conforms to your preconceived social or political views, that is fine, but don't confuse that with the film's quality and don't confuse it with film criticism. It would be nice if film critics were professional enough to be able to discern between those things as well. 

The woman who was horrified at my honest opinion of The Last Jedi, would no doubt be even more horrified by people who loved American Sniper because it had a "positive message" in their view. Me…I am going to tell you the truth about a movie…and the truth about The Last Jedi, and Black Panther and American Sniper for that matter, is that those movies are not good. You may "like" those movies because they conform to your belief system, but that STILL DOESN'T MAKE THEM GOOD

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The problem with film criticism today is that social/political views are overwhelming critic's judgment of cinema. This results in the "ground breaking" Black Panther benefitting from what I call the "leg up" program where cinematic standards are reduced in order to fulfill some sort of social/political requirement. This reduction in standards is how we end up with a mind-numbingly average popcorn movie like Get Out being considered an "Oscar worthy film" simply because it is written and directed by a Black man, Jordan Peele. If Get Out were written and directed by a White man, and were titled, oh…I don't know…Scream...would it be Oscar worthy? No, not in a millions years, because it simply is not that good…which is why it isn't an Oscar worthy film! 

Look, again, let me reiterate this...I do not care about an actor's, writer's or director's race, gender, color, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation…I only care that they make a good movie. I am not sure, as I haven't spoken to anyone about the movie, but I think I may not be alone in my opinion of Black Panther, or The Last Jedi for that matter. I say that because I looked and saw that both films received incredibly high Rotten Tomato critical scores and a plethora of positive press, but when push came to shove, audiences seemed not to believe the hype and had much lower opinions of the movies than critics, which is odd as it is usually the other way around. For instance, Black Panther is currently at a 97% critical score at Rotten Tomatoes, but has a 77% audience score, which is an anomaly compared to any other film in the Marvel Universe. Other Marvel films all have critical scores and audience scores that are within just a few points of one another.

The Last Jedi is an even more telling example, as that film currently has a 91% critical rating but a dismal 48% audience score. It might be that people, unlike film critics, are judging these films critically for what they really are REGARDLESS of whether it conforms to their social/political beliefs, and the Rotten Tomatoes audience score reflects their disappointment at what is actually on the screen. 

Film critics may think they are helping African-American artists with their paternalistic benevolence when it comes to judging Black film, but they aren't. What they are doing is lowering the standard for quality for Black film which will only hasten to alienate audiences who are only interested in seeing something good, not seeing something "important" and then pretending it is good. 

Look, the reality is that Marvel movies in general are usually pretty awful, and Black Panther in particular is entirely underwhelming. Not only does Black Panther not live up to its enormous hype, it doesn't even live up to the low bar of Marvel movie standards, as I would place it in the bottom half of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the general vicinity of a film like Dr. Strange.

For me, the truth is I would rather watch a movie about the actual Black Panthers and how the FBI, which liberals have now grown to love, adore and trust, systematically infiltrated, decimated and assassinated the group and its revolutionary message into extinction. Unlike the actual Black Panthers, which were revolutionary in both thought and deed, Black Panther the movie may somewhere deep down be revolutionary in aspiration, but in deed is so mundane and banal as to be little more than a piece of distractionary establishment propaganda.

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There were three White, sixty-something year-old women sitting near me at Black Panther who clapped once the movie ended and then, and I am not shitting you here, they literally clapped through the end credits for any and all of the Black actors and actresses as their image and name appeared on the screen, but only the Black ones. The silence for the White actors like Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman was deafening and frankly, hysterically funny to me. These women, who no doubt have never seen a Marvel movie in their lives, were partaking in a form of cheap "woke" grace with their ovation for Black Panther, and honestly, I find it utterly appalling. (These same woman were probably among the throng of dopes who cheered at the end of the truly abysmal The Post because it pushed all the proper Establishment Democrat Party buttons.)

If these White women want to "do" something "woke", they shouldn't cheer at a shitty superhero movie because it has a Black cast and director…instead they should sift through the bullshit they are being continuously fed on a daily basis by the mainstream media and understand how they are being manipulated into seeing oppressive entities, like the FBI for example, as American heroes. Instead of virtue signaling their "wokeness" to strangers in a theatre, why not go educate themselves about genuine American heroes like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, or the Black Panther Party free breakfast program that J. Edgar Hoover once described as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the nation". Or go read about the charismatic young Black Panther Fred Hampton who was assassinated in Chicago by the Chicago police, the assault led by Sgt. Daniel Groth, who admitted under oath that his team of heavily armed cops executed their attack on Hampton at the behest of the FBI. (and as an aside go read about Groth's connection with the curious case of Thomas Arthur Vallee, a heavily armed, disgruntled former Marine who had previously been stationed at a U2 base in Japan (just like another three named disgruntled former Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald) who was living in Chicago and who worked at a factory that overlooked the motorcade route that JFK was supposed to take in Chicago just weeks before he was killed in Dallas…it is a fascinating tale that James W. Douglass' touches upon in his great book JFK and the Unspeakable

Regardless of whether you look into the real Black Panthers or not, what you shouldn't do is waste your money going to see Disney's Black Panther, and then post on Facebook about how #woke you are. The Mickey Mouse corporate monster ain't "woke", and he ain't going hungry and he sure as shit doesn't doesn't need your hard earned money, so trust me when I tell you that this movie is definitely not worth your time and effort. But if you do go and see it, all I ask of you is that you try to honestly judge the film for what it actually is, and not for the movie that you desperately want and hope it to be. 

*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.

©2017

American Bloodlust: Projecting the Shadow and the Hunter Myth Cycle

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 7 minutes 14 seconds

In continuing to try to make sense of the senseless massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida yesterday (February 14, 2018), I thought I would re-post portions of an article I originally wrote in September of 2016 titled Jason Bourne, Projecting the Shadow and the Technological Hunter: A Review and Commentary. That article was a review for the film Jason Bourne starring Matt Damon but after reviewing the film, I veered into the topic of our violent and bloodthirsty culture and the Hunter Myth Cycle. I am re-posting the article but have edited out the sections that death solely with reviewing the Bourne film. I believe the ideas expressed in this edited version are very salient to the discussion of violence in America in the wake of our most recent tragedy and speak to the cultural and archetypal forces at work in our violent nation. 

THE HUNTER MYTH CYCLE

Coincidentally enough, right after seeing Jason Bourne I read the book, Projecting the Shadow : The Cyborg Hero in American Film by Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz. The book is wonderful and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in cinema, myth and Jungian psychology. In the book, the authors examine from a Jungian perspective, six films and their relationship to the evolution of the archetypal hunter myth, from The Indian Hunter to The Frontier Hunter to The Technological Hunter as seen through the modernist, post-modernist and "trans-modernist" view. The six films they look at are JawsThe Deer HunterThe Manchurian CandidateBlade RunnerTerminator and Terminator 2. The book was published in 1995 so the Bourne films weren't "born" just yet, but I couldn't help but think of them in terms of the authors intriguing premise. 

According to Hocker and Frentz, there are three types of hunter myths, the Indian Hunter, the Frontier Hunter and the Technological Hunter. The Hunter Myth Cycle is seen as circular in that it evolves from one myth (I.E. Indian myth) to another myth (I.E. Frontier myth) to another myth (I.E. Technological myth) and then back to where it started (Indian myth). It is interesting to examine the character Jason Bourne in relation to this hunter myth cycle. The Bourne character is a weapon used by men in suits in offices back in the Pentagon and C.I.A., so he is a no different than a drone, or a smart bomb. He was created, much like the man/weapons of The Manchurian Candidate, to do the killing from which the post-modern man wants to consciously dissociate. The Bourne character is also similar to the Manchurian Candidate, in that he is a human but has had his true identity and memory, markers of his humanity, taken from him in order to make him a near perfect robotic killer.

Bourne's personal place on the archetypal Hunter Myth scale is that of The Frontier Hunter, yet he is also just a weapon of his C.I.A. overlords who are Technological Hunters, thus giving the film two myths in one. Rushing and Frentz describe the Frontier Hunter in part, "Since Indians as well as wild beasts occupy the land he wants, he slaughters both indiscriminately, gaining a decisive advantage over his human prey because of…his sophisticated weaponry, and his lack of spiritual restraint. Although his frontierism converts "savagery" to "civilization", the white hunter himself cannot reside in society without losing his individualistic heroic status and thus does not return from the hunt…". Things always get interesting in the Bourne films when Jason Bourne must fight against another one of the human weapons of the Technological Hunters in the C.I.A. in the form of an opposing Frontier Hunter. Two men/weapons with "sophisticated weaponry and lack of spiritual restraint" fighting each other is a key to the successful Bourne formula.

Rushing and Frentz describe the Technological Hunter Myth as follows, "…Because he is so good at making machines, he now uses his brains more than brawn, and he prefers to minimize his contact with nature, which can be uncomfortable and menacing. Thus he creates ever more complex tools to do his killing and other work for him. Having banished God as irrelevant to the task at hand, the hero decides he is God, and like the now obsolete power, creates beings 'in his own image'; this time, however, they are more perfect versions of himself - rational, strategic, and efficient. He may fashion his tools either by remaking a human being into a perfected machine or by making an artificial "human" from scratch. "

In cinematic terms the Bourne character falls somewhere between the dehumanized human weapons of The Manchurian Candidate, "remaking a human into a perfected machine", and the humanized robot-weapon "replicants" of Blade Runner, "making an artificial 'human' from scratch". The replicants in Blade Runner are tools and weapons for humans, just like Bourne, but they also yearn to be human, as does Bourne, who aches for a return to his long lost humanity while his Technological Hunter overlords yearn to make him ever more robotic, or more accurately, devoid of humanity. The problem with both the replicants and Bourne, is that their humanity, their need for love and connection, is their greatest weakness and their greatest strength.  Bourne and the Blade Runner replicants, yearn to Know Thyself, which is what drives them toward freedom from their makers and yet also makes them erratic and at times vulnerable weapons for the Technological Hunter. This inherent weakness of humanity, the need for love and connection, is removed entirely in the later films that Rushing and Frentz examine, Terminator and Terminator 2, where humans have created super weapons, cyborgs, that are completely inhuman, and of course as the story tells us, turn on their creators like Frankenstein's monster and try to hunt and torment mankind into oblivion.

In many ways, Bourne is the perfect post-modern hero in that he is so severely psychologically fragmented. He was intentionally made that way by the Technological Hunter Dr. Frankensteins at the C.I.A. because eliminating his humanity (past/memory/love and connection) is what makes him so effective as a weapon. Originally in the story, the people in power calling the shots back in Washington are using Bourne to clandestinely hunt their enemies. But now that Bourne is off the reservation and out on his own, he has become the archetypal Frontier hunter, searching for his soul/memory which was stolen by those D.C. Technological Hunters. This is the normal evolution in the hunter myth cycle…the weapon turns on its creator, as evidenced by both Blade Runner and the Terminator films, and now by the Bourne films.

LIVING IN THE AGE OF THE TECHNOLOGICAL HUNTER

What does this talk of post-modernism and the technological hunter have to do with anything? Well, in case you haven't noticed, we live in an age of the post-modern technological hunter. The films examined in Projecting the Shadow show us the road that may lay ahead for our culture. Our inherent weakness in being human, both physical and emotional, and our intellectual superiority has forced us to become technological hunters. From the first caveman to pick up an animal bone and use it to bash in another cave man's head (hat tip to Mr. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), to the drone pilot who sits in an air conditioned office in Nevada and kills people half a world away with the touch of a button, we have removed ourselves from the direct conscious responsibility for killing because it is too psychologically and emotionally traumatic for our fragile psyches. Or at least we think we have removed our psychological responsibility. Like consumers of meat who would rather not know where it comes from or how it is treated, we as a society have removed our direct conscious involvement in the killing done in our name by creating a cognitive dissonance (cognitive dissonance is defined as  a "psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously") and an emotional distance from it. Whether it be the drone pilot who goes home for lunch with his wife and kids after having killed dozens, or the politicians and citizens who cheer at the shock and awe of "smart bombs" and munitions dropped from miles overhead on defenseless human beings, we have become Technological Hunters all. Rushing and Frentz describe the Technological Hunter as one who…"prefers to minimize his contact with nature, which can be uncomfortable and menacing", that is us. The "nature" we want to minimize contact with is the killing we have done and our moral, ethical, psychological and spiritual responsibility for it. That is why we create "ever more complex tools to do our killing". We need those tools to give us an emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual distance from the the killing we do. 

The distance between thought, impulse and deed in regards to killing is shorter than ever for the technological hunter, it is just the push of a button away, but with our cognitive dissonance, we are able to consciously detach from the results of those actions and make them feel ever more remote. While they may feel consciously remote, the unconscious ramifications of those actions are felt deeply and personally in the psyche of the collective and the individual. The drone pilot may believe he is merely playing a realistic video game when he kills people half a world away, but his psyche and soul are being torn to shreds without his conscious knowledge of it, as is our collective psyche and national soul.

PROJECTING THE SHADOW

The U.S. soldiers and Marines, Frontier Hunters all, sent to the middle east to be the weapons of their Technological Hunter superiors in the Pentagon, continuously come back psychologically, spiritually and emotionally fragmented beyond recognition, perfect symbols of the post-modern age in which they fight. This psychological fragmentation brought about by the trauma of these wars leaves these soldiers and Marines wounded and maimed in invisible and intangible ways and often times leads to them killing themselves. The suicide rate of U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars is that of 22 a day. This horrendous torment, and the desperate suicides attempting to get away from it, are the price paid for the cognitive dissonance we as a culture enable and embrace in regards to the killing of other people done in our name. Since we as a culture cannot embrace or acknowledge our killing, we stuff it into our collective shadow, or as I call it the "killing shadow", and force the less than 2% of the population who serve in our wars (and even fewer who kill in those wars) to carry our killing shadow for us. The psychological shadow in general and the killing shadow in particular, brings with it an enormous amount of powerful psychic energy, which is why it does such tremendous damage to those who bear its burden, and why it is imperative for us as a culture to reduce that burden on the soldiers and Marines carrying our killing shadow energy.

As our Technological Hunter culture evolves, in order to remove the psychological and emotional cost on the human beings sent to fight these wars, we won't decide to stop fighting future wars, but we will decide to stop using humans to fight them. No doubt at this very moment, somewhere in the Pentagon they are developing robotic, amoral, emotionless warriors who will do all our dirty work for us. The problem will arise of course, when that same amoral, emotionless warrior technology figures out that they are stronger, faster, bigger and better than us. And once they realize they can replicate themselves, we weak humans will become entirely unnecessary. This is the story told in the Terminator films. This will just be another form of our culture ignoring their killing shadow and projecting it onto another, in this case our cyborg weaponry. Except our shadow will not be ignored, and it will lash out at its deniers by any means necessary, in this case by using our technological weapons to strike out at us to force us to acknowledge our own killing shadow.

SHOCK AND AWE - MUST SEE TV

Until we can create these perfect, robotic killers though, we are left to wrestle with our own spiritual and psychological weaknesses, namely, our thirst to kill and our desire to not feel the emotional and spiritual turmoil that comes with killing. It is interesting to notice how in our time we fully embraces the technological hunter myth completely unconsciously. An example of this was the overwhelmingly giddy joy and exuberance shown for the first Gulf War in 1991 and its made-for-tv technological bombardment with smart bombs upon Iraq. Never before had war been brought into the living rooms of Americans as it was happening, and yet, here was the war in all its technicolor glory except without any conscious connection to our responsibility for the devastation and death that we were watching unfold.

The same occurred with the start of the second war in Iraq in 2003 when the U.S. unleashed the cleverly marketed "shock and awe" bombardment. The dizzying display of devastating munitions were a sight to behold, like the greatest fireworks display imaginable, but our conscious connection to the devastation being wrought was minimal. This is another example of our culture being unwittingly under the throes of the Technological Hunter Myth. In contrast, our cultural shock and visceral disgust with the terror attacks of 9-11, where barbarians used primitive box cutters to kill innocents and then turn our technology (airplanes) against us, were signs of our unconscious detachment from the Indian Hunter myth and more proof of our deep cultural connection to the Technological Hunter Myth.

Another example of our cultures post-modern Technological Hunter Myth is the fetish among the populace for Special Operations Forces (SEALs, Special Forces, Delta force, Army Rangers and Marine Force Recon). These Special Ops forces have become the favorite go to for any talking head on television or at the local bar or barbershop, to proclaim who we should get to handle any military issue. ISIS? Send in the SEALs!! Al Qaeda? Send in the Green Berets!! Not long ago I saw everyone's favorite tough guy Bill O'Reilly opining on his Fox news show that we should send in ten thousand Green Berets into Syria and Iraq to wipe out ISIS. I guess Bill isn't aware that there are only 11,000 Special Operators deployed around the globe at any moment in time, not to mention that most of those Special Operators are not Special Forces (Green Berets). This sort of thing happens all the time where people see a problem and say, 'well let's send in these Special Operations supermen to deal with it.' This is more proof of the Technological Hunter Myth in action, as Rushing and Frentz describe it, "...the hero (the technological hunter) decides he is God, and like the now obsolete power, creates beings "in his own image"; this time, however, they are more perfect versions of himself - rational, strategic, and efficient. He may fashion his tools...by remaking a human being into a perfected machine". We as a culture are Technological Hunters who have made these Special Operations forces in "our own image", but only better. The Special Operations forces are "more perfect versions" of ourselves, "rational, strategic, and efficient." We believe we have remade these ordinary men into "perfected machines" for killing, and then we have projected our killing shadow (our responsibility and hunger for killing) onto them.

In our current Technological Hunter Myth, these Special Operators are, like Jason Bourne, nothing more than extensions of ourselves in the form of weaponry, no different than the drone or smart bomb, or in the future the cyborg, and looked upon as just as mechanical. And we have no more genuine connection to them or their work or the massive psychological toll it will take for them to carry the burden of our shadow than we do that of the drone or the smart bomb or any other machines we created.

HERO OF THE DAY

When we examine our Technological Hunter Myth in the form of Special Operations forces, we can see why our culture is drawn to certain things and repulsed by others. For instance, the greatest hero and biggest symbol of our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cultural militarism surrounding them has been Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle, who alleged to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, wrote a best selling book, "American Sniper" and the movie of the same name based on that book broke box office records. People went absolutely crazy for the story of Chris Kyle. In terms of the Hunter Myth Cycle, Chris Kyle was a weapon used by the Technological Hunter. And interestingly, he was a sniper, a man who kills his enemies from great distances. This is not to diminish the skill it takes to be a great sniper, or the utility of that skill, but it is to point out that a sniper being the heroic symbol of a post-modern war speaks volumes to where we are as a culture. The reason people could admire Chris Kyle is because on an unconscious level they could symbolically and mythologically relate to him. Chris Kyle, like the rest of the culture, killed people from a distance and removed the conscious emotional and psychological responsibility for those kills from himself and from the culture.

The act of looking through a scope mounted on a sniper rifle gives the shooter much needed psychological and emotional distance from his killing. In the case of the sniper, he is twice removed from his kill, once by the scope and once by the weapon itself. The psychological distance of the sniper with his scope is in some ways similar to the emotional distance and cognitive dissonance created when people sitting on their couches watching CNN see smart bomb after smart bomb eviscerate some Iraqi city. Whether it be the sniper scope or the television camera, seeing something through a lens or screen gives the viewer a detachment from what they see, and with that detachment comes the ability to maintain a cognitive dissonance from the horrors seen and any moral or psychological responsibility for them.

In thinking about our current age, and our evolution from the age of the Frontier Hunter Myth of World War II, where our soldiers fought the savagery of the Nazi's and the Imperial Japanese in order to preserve western civilization, to the post-modern, Technological Hunter Myth of today, it is easy to see why an accomplished sniper like Chris Kyle became such a celebrated symbol of the wars we are waging. In comparison to our current culture's example of "The Sniper", Chris Kyle, being the hero for the Iraq war, think of World War II and the hero and symbol of that war, Audie Murphy. Murphy became revered and beloved in his time just like Chris Kyle did in our time, and like Kyle, Murphy also had a successful film about his combat exploits. Murphy, though, fought and killed his enemies in close quarters, without the scope and distance of the sniper. Back then, Murphy was fighting under the predominant myth of the time, The Frontier Hunter Myth, while Chris Kyle fought under our current myth of the Technological Hunter Myth. This doesn't make Murphy better than Kyle or vice versa, it just shows how cultures unconsciously choose their hero's based on the myths they currently embrace.

Another point of note showing how we are currently under the spell of the Technological Hunter Myth, is that there are other warriors who could've become the cultural icons and symbols of our current wars, but didn't resonate quite as much with the public as much as sniper Chris Kyle did. The late Pat Tillman, the former NFL football player who became an Army Ranger, is one example of someone who easily could've become the iconic hero of the war on terror but didn't.  Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL of the book and movie Lone Survivor fame is an even better example. Luttrell did became famous for his story, but, for some reason, he didn't resonate anywhere near as much with our culture as Chris Kyle did. I believe the reason for this is our cultural and collective unconscious attachment to the Technological Hunter Myth. Simply put, Luttrell and Tillman were just as worthy of adulation as Kyle, but they weren't snipers. The sniper is the perfect symbol of the emotional and psychological distance we as a culture like to keep from the people we are killing. The current cultural celebration of the sniper also enables us to maintain our cognitive dissonance with relative ease and keep any conscious psychological and emotional turmoil brought about by the killing we do at bay.

The need for psychological and emotional distance between the person wanting to kill and the actual killing is a signature of the Technological Hunter Myth. At the behest of his superiors in Washington, the drone pilot in Nevada pushes a button and kills dozens in Yemen or Pakistan. The drone pilot is, through his drone, twice removed from the actual killing, once by the button he pushes and once by the missile fired,  and is also detached from it by the screen he watches it on, thus giving him a conscious distance from the killing. His superior in Washington is thrice removed, once by his phone used to call the pilot, once by the pilot himself and once by the missile used. The B-2 pilot, who at the behest of those same Washington superiors drops his payload from a mile up, never sees the people he is obliterating, enjoys the same distance and assures himself of the same cognitive dissonance as the drone pilot. The Special Operations forces that are covertly sent to Pakistan to assassinate a terrorist leader under the dark of night and the cloak of secrecy are the closest yet to the actual killing, but even they are twice removed from their kill because of the weapon they shoot, and the night vision goggles they see through, creating that technological hunter myth distance for which western man yearns. The conscious distance from the killing through the use of technology is vital in creating and maintaining our cognitive dissonance and the illusion of conscious emotional and psychological well being.

In contrast, think of the terrorists in ISIS who behead their captives. They kill directly, no distance between them and their victims. The act of beheading, like the atrocity of 9-11, gives us in the west a visceral, guttural reaction, one of pure revulsion. There is something utterly barbaric, savage and repulsive about cutting a defenseless persons head off. Yet if innocents are decapitated by drone strikes or smart bombs we somehow aren't quite as repulsed by that. What this speaks to is our current enchantment with the Technological Hunter Myth. For in western culture, we have created technology which gives us a safe distance from the barbarity of the acts done in our name. Decapitation by smart bomb feels much less barbaric to us because our technology gives us a moral, emotional and psychological distance from that barbarity and aids us in maintaining our cognitive dissonance. 

I HAVE BECOME COMFORTABLY NUMB

In American foreign policy killing has become something other people, or things, do, and anyone who directly kills, like ISIS, are reprehensible savages. In our post-modern age and the Technological Hunter Myth which has come with it, the extensions of man are his weaponry in the form of machines (drones/smart bombs) and human machines (special operations forces). Either way, whether with a manufactured machine or a human one, our culture is able to consciously detach and distance itself from the violence it perpetrates, regardless of the righteousness of that violence, and this is a recipe for a cultural and psychological disaster as we numb ourselves to the damage we do others and our selves.

In bringing this back to Jason Bourne, the Bourne films have resonated with our culture to such a great extent because Bourne is the perfect human weapon in the age of the Technological Hunter Myth. Like we imagine our Special Operations Forces, Bourne is " made in our own image", but is a 'more perfect version of ourselves - rational, strategic, and efficient."

We can watch Bourne kick-ass in a world that is just like ours thanks to the franchise's trademark hyper-realism, and so we are able to project ourselves onto him and live vicariously through him. The Bourne character gives us one more lens, like the snipers scope, or the camera, or the television screen, through which we can see the horror of our world, that lens is the mind's eye…our imagination. This added lens of imagination means we can watch actual, real-life civil unrest in Athens on our television and not only detach ourselves from our responsibility for that unrest, but also create even more distance by imagining the drama going on underneath the surface of that unrest, and imagining how we would, like our "perfect version of ourselves" Bourne, thrive under those circumstances. This is the final stage of the Technological Hunter Myth, where the technological hunter is so far removed from the actual killing that he/she is forced to use their own imagination in order to envision how they themselves would really behave if they were actually in the scenario where the killing took place. The end stage of this type of evolution, or devolution as the case may be, would be The Matrix trilogy, where humanity is reduced to being prisoners of their own imagination and being used as little more than captive batteries to their shadow, the Technology they once created to fight for them. Once that Technology became self aware and understood that humans were intellectually and physically inferior, it simply conquered and enslaved humanity for its own benefit. 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, at the current stage of the Technological Hunter Myth we find ourselves in, we have been so far removed from our primal instincts and detached from our collective psychological shadow, that the tide may turn and we may eventually begin to yearn for an acknowledgment of our most ancient and primitive psychological drives. The need not just to eat an animal, but to kill it, courses through the deepest trenches of our psyche. The need not just for our enemies to die, but for us to feel their last breath on our faces, is alive and well and living in our killing shadow. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, these type of instincts are the gateway to a return to a respect for the earth, respect for life, respect for our enemies and respect for killing in general.

Killing and war will never cease to be, they are eternally part of the human condition, but one can only hope that the anti-septic form of war/killing currently enjoyed by the west, where we shove our darker impulses and our unequivocal guilt and responsibility into our shadow, where it festers and grows as we ignore it, will be transformed back into the more simple, if equally brutal form of killing of the Indian Hunter Myth, where respect for prey, enemy and the act of killing return. What I am saying is that if we are to kill we must do it consciously, take full responsibility and be fully aware of what we have done. If we continue to psychologically fragment and cognitively dissociate from the killing we do, that impulse will become our killing shadow, unconscious and angry. When those impulses are cast into the shadow they do not disintegrate, they only disappear from consciousness and grow more and more powerful until they simply refuse to be ignored. When the killing impulse is ignored and forced into the shadow, it eventually will strike out with a vengeance, often destroying the fragmented and cognitively dissociated psyche which ignores it. Twenty-two veteran suicides a day is the damning proof of the consequences of our cognitive dissonance from the killing we do and our moral and ethical responsibility for it. 

Our only hope for the healing of our fragmented psyches, and the reclamation of our humanity is to make our killing impulses and acts conscious.  We must take full mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual responsibility for the killing that we do.  Sadly, with our culture thoroughly numbed through technology and medication, this seems terribly unlikely. The more likely scenario? Go watch the Terminator and Matrix films to see what happens when humanity is unable to carry and acknowledge its killing shadow. And if you really want to spend your time wisely, I highly recommend you go read Projecting the Shadow : The Cyborg Hero in American Film.

©2016

Call Me by Your Name: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. There is no need to ever see this mess of an art house poseur. 

Call Me by Your Name, written by James Ivory (based on the book by Andre Aciman) and directed by Luca Guadagnino, is the story of 17 year old Elio as he comes of age in a northern Italian town in 1983 and deals with his attraction to Oliver, an American Grad student. The film stars Timothee Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver and has garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Chalamet).

There are times when film critics, in a conscious or unconscious bit of virtue signaling, confirm their bias by endorsing a movie for what it represents culturally or politically rather than for what is actually there on the screen. Such is the case with Call Me by Your Name where many critics desperately yearn for the film to be an artistically poignant, deeply romantic, gay coming-of-age story and therefore declare it to be so (the film has a 96% Critical Rating on Rotten Tomatoes)…when the stark reality is that Call Me by Your Name is a mannered and pretentious art house charlatan that instead of being romantic is stultifyingly pedantic. It is also a breathtakingly dull, overly long, flaccid, trite and abysmal cinematic affair that fails on every single level. This film is only remarkable for being completely devoid of drama, substance or craft.

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In a story that should be chock full of external obstacles for the star-crossed lovers to overcome, all obstacles have been removed and with them go any hope for drama. An example of a missing obstacle is that there is absolutely no prejudice on display towards the gay lovers, only overflowing and unquestioned acceptance by everyone on-screen. The film should have opened with Mr. Roarke and Tattoo dressed all in white, welcoming Elio and Oliver to Fantasy Island, at least that would've made the fact that there are no threats from the old-school Italian town folk or from protective parents or jealous girlfriends at least somewhat believable.

What these obstacles would have provided the film were higher dramatic stakes. If the love between these two men is forbidden or dangerous, then every look, every gesture, every-thing between them requires more and more courage and every slight detail takes on greater and greater significance. With the removal of all obstacles between the two lovers, all we are left with is two guys pondering whether they should sleep together or not. The film attempts to make this back and forth sexual questioning a slow, sensual burn, but it ends up feeling more like a botched execution where everyone is wincing waiting for the condemned to stop twitching and hurry up and die already. 

A logical issue that arises with the absence of obstacles is why set the film in 1983 in the first place? The context back then was that the AIDS epidemic was starting to take off and coming out as gay was a bold, Herculean task of courage and being exposed as gay a perilous threat? If the filmmakers are just making a "hey...should we fuck?" movie about two gay men, why not just set it in 2013 instead of 1983 where those threats are greatly reduced to the point of being dramatically insubstantial just as they are in the film? 

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In terms of the story having no conventional drama due to a lack of external obstacles, I can be all in on an unconventional narrative or dramatic structure like that, for proof look at my reviews of Terrence Malick's films…but the difference between a Malick film and Call Me by Your Name is that Malick's films are exquisitely crafted and overtly carry a much deeper metaphorical and archetypal meaning than just the libidinous and romantic yearnings of a horny 17 year-old. Call Me by Your Name has no deeper meaning and is cinematically rather listlessly and shoddily patched together.

For instance, visually the film is as tepid and flaccid as the storytelling. Never has the northern Italian countryside looked so flat, muted and devoid of texture…which to the film's unintended credit, does match the drab drama and characters inhabiting the plot. Add the dismal cinematography to the cloying and insipid soundtrack and you have a rather unpleasant cinematic experience churned out by director Luca Guadagnino. 

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As for the acting, Timothee Chalamet plays Elio and does…fine. I didn't find his performance to be earth shaking or even very remotely noteworthy never mind Oscar nomination-worthy, but it certainly isn't terrible. Chalamet is comfortable on-screen and to his credit doesn't shy away from the sexual situations presented him in the film. The problem with Chalamet though is he is not exactly a commanding and powerful on-screen presence, and his lack of magnetism and dynamism makes him a tough sell to carry a movie with a run time of over two hours. In some ways Chalamet's Elio feels like the boy who wasn't there, like a ghost wandering through a movie set, which isn't actually a knock against him as an actor, only one against him as a leading dramatic figure who has to carry an entire film. To be fair, Chalamet is young and certainly holds the potential to grow into a more powerful and dynamic actor in the years ahead.

Armie Hammer plays the older grad student Oliver and never quite captures the essence of the role. Hammer's Hollywood history is interesting, at first they tried to make him into a movie star with The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE…that failed miserably. Now they are trying to make him an "actor" with The Birth of a Nation and now Call Me by Your Name…and that is failing too. Hammer is certainly a movie-star handsome guy, but his biggest issue is that he either suffers from a charisma deficiency or he underwent a quadruple charisma bypass, either way…he has less charisma than a Cigar Store Wooden Indian. Hammer just never feels entirely at home on-screen in his films and that continues with Call Me by Your Name

Hammer has no doubt gotten numerous opportunities in the film business due to his family connection and his passing visual similarity to another blond haired idol, Robert Redford, but what Hammer desperately lacks is Redford's command and mastery of craft. Hammer is at a crossroads of his career, and if his performance in Call Me by Your Name is any indication, he has a long and bumpy road ahead of him. 

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Since I found the film to be so monotonous and dull, my mind wandered throughout the viewing. At one point I stopped to consider that in our current #MeToo moment with all of the accompanying sexual politics that go along with it, would this film be so well received by critics and Hollywood if Elio was a 17 year old girl having sex with Oliver the older man? I couldn't help but think there is some weird double standard in play here where a film celebrates what basically amounts to statutory rape of a teen boy just because it is a homosexual relationship. The fact that no characters in the film, or critics or people in Hollywood, felt that there was something at the very least morally questionable, if not downright disturbing, about a man who looks to be at least ten years older, having sex with a 17 year old, which in some jurisdictions is Statutory Rape, is pretty alarming. I can't help but think that if this story were between an older man and a 17 year old girl than it would have been attacked and shunned.

In conclusion, Call Me by Your Name is a film that suffers from comparisons to other gay-themed films like Brokeback Mountain and last years Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight. Both Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight are such vastly superior films it is ridiculous to even think of Call Me by Your Name in the same category, but the subject matter lends itself to comparisons. If you want to see extremely well-made films about homosexual love and desire, please skip Call Me by Your Name and go watch the masterful Brokeback Mountain or the flawed but compelling Moonlight.

And no matter what any other spineless, virtue signaling film critic says, trust me when I tell you that not liking Call Me by Your Name does not make you a homophobe, it makes you an honest connoisseur of film with impeccable taste. Call Me by Your Name is critical fools gold, and is a total waste of any true cinephile's time, money and energy. Not only should you skip this lethargic, lackluster, lifeless, listless and languid sack of apricot shit in the theatre, you should skip it on Netflix or cable as well. To Call Me by Your Name and the critics who adore it I simply say…"Later".

©2017

The Florida Project: A Review

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

My Rating: NO RATING

My Recommendation: Sorry...I have no recommendation on this one. 

The Florida Project, written and directed by Sean Baker, is the story six-year old Moonee who lives in debilitating poverty with her young mother Halley in the shadow of The Happiest Place on Earth®, Disney World. The film stars Brooklynn Prince as Moonee with supporting turns from Bria Vinaite as Halley and Willem Dafoe as Bobby Hicks the manager of the rundown motel Moonee and Halley call home.

I have to be upfront and say that due to personal reasons, The Florida Project is a difficult film for me to critique. Further complicating matters is that I am not at liberty to discuss with readers the specific reason why I struggled to watch and review this movie. As frustrating as that may be for readers, I feel it is important for me to present that information up front so that this review can be read with a properly jaundiced eye. 

With that unpleasantness out of the way, let's take a look at The Florida Project. To start, The Florida Project is a bold film that unapologetically and without the usual sentimentality, explores the curse of poverty in America, for that it should be lauded. Part of what made the movie so difficult to watch was the suffocating and infuriating sense of desperation that infects every pore of this film. I liked what it was trying to do, but was so uncomfortable throughout the film that I simply cannot say whether it was effective or not. 

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The working poor portrayed in The Florida Project are a hopeless and hapless lot who are unwittingly condemning their children to the same fate or worse by passing down to them the culture and mindset of poverty. Across the board, with Dafoe's Bobby Hicks being the lone exception, every character in this film ought to have "Born 2 Lose" tattooed on their forehead. The delicious irony that these folks all live in the shadow of Disney World only heightens the notion that the American dream is, in reality, a waking nightmare and you have to have the intelligence and imagination of a six year-old to be dumb enough to believe in it. 

What The Florida Project expertly shows is that poverty is not born not out of a specific race but out of a distinct culture. White, Black and Latino characters all make the same bad decisions and all inflict upon their children the same disease of instant gratification and myopic idiocy from which they suffer. It is from this culture of instant gratification and myopia that the type of poverty seen in The Florida Project takes root and thrives. 

The other positive about the film is that it shows these characters all live in dehumanizing poverty despite the fact that many of them work extremely hard. It is due to structural and systemic reasons though that even the hard workers can never even remotely get their head above water. The system is most definitely rigged against all of them and is meant to thoroughly exploit them from cradle to grave.

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I kept thinking of the Latino family in the film The Big Short while I watched The Florida Project. If you'll remember, that "Big Short" family is evicted from the home they are renting because their landlord defaults on his mortgage and they are left living out of a van. There is a scene in The BIg Short where that Latino family is at a gas station and one of their little children runs away from them towards a busy road. The parents quickly catch him but the inherit peril of their situation for them and their children is made visceral in that brief scene. That "Big Short" family most likely would have ended up living in the same rundown, nowhere motel that Moonee and Halley and their hopeless comprades reside. 

The Florida Porject is well-shot in a psuedo-verite type of style by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The film maintains enough cinematic shot structure to be visually coherent, but it certainly maintains a verite feel throughout. This approach to filming enhances the performances of the unknown cast, who all excel with the raw and improvisational approach. Zabe does really solid work with framing and in exploiting the rainbow of vibrant colors like pink and light blue that naturally inhabit Florida.

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Brooklynn Prince is the young girl, Moonee, who is the protagonist of the film and she basically acts just like a kid running around on her own in Florida would act. That is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because it feels very natural and matches the filmmakers style, but it is bad because some kids her age, and her character in particular, are absolutely obnoxious. If you have children, even though you love them with all your heart, you are still probably watching a movie to get away from them, so spending two hours of your free time with an irritating and abrasive beast of a brat like Moonee and her equally horrible friends may not be very appealing. If you don't have children, this movie is a two hour public service announcement for abstinence or abortion, depending on your religious and political persuasion. 

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying Brooklynn Prince is an incorrigible brat, I am saying her character Moonee definitely is, and it is tough sledding watching her run wild in the blistering heat of Orlando. That said, in the one scene that matters above all else in the film, Prince crushes it and knocks it so far out of the park it lands somewhere in Cuba. Does her humanity and emotional vulnerability in that one scene make the other hour and fifty minutes of her incessant obnoxiousness bearable? That is definitely open to debate. 

Bria Viniate does excellent work was Moonee's very young and chaotic mom Halley. Halley is pretty unbearable as well and is every bit the obnoxious child that Moonee is, but her toxicity pulsates with a palpable wound that at times is very compelling. Halley is a train-wreck, and yet even though she is an abysmal mother and a terrible human being, there is never a moment when you doubt that she loves her child. 

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Willem Dafoe's Bobby Hicks is the lone steadying and sane influence in the entire hotel of hopelessness. Dafoe's Hicks has a certain smoldering kindness to him that at times burns so hot as to be a fury. Hicks qualifies as being the one-eyed man in the hotel complex of the blind, and he tries his very best to be a benevolent leader even when his tenants conspire to make his life a living hell. Hicks is the character that proves that the plague of poverty is cultural because he is not a victim of his impulses or desires, he controls them and therefore has a semblance of order and predictability in his life. Hicks certainly has impulses, like wanting to smash a predators head in or telling his disgusting tenants or his blowhard boss to go to hell, but he has impulse control and therefore, unlike the poverty stricken surrounding him, he is not a victim to his desires or an accomplice in his own demise. This makes Hicks the one bright light of aspirational hope in an otherwise irredeemably demoralizing story.

To its credit, The Florida Project succeeds in exposing the brutal working class poverty that is engulfing America and spreading like a plague. Once you are infected by this disease of poverty, it becomes chronic, generational and fatal. In the throes of this poverty, marriages fail, mothers and fathers abuse and neglect themselves and their children, and aimless children are left to their own devices and exposed to predators and dangers of all types, thus ensuring the infection of poverty continues to feed off its host for generations to come. 

Rarely does a film dare to so unflinchingly inhabit such an uncomfortable and unpleasant existence as The Florida Project, for that it is to be acknowledged and praised. That said, due to my previously mentioned personal issues, I found the film to be, frankly, unbearable, so much so that I found myself checking out emotionally and even intellectually pretty early on. The reason for my inability to stay emotionally invested in The Florida Project may be because it was simply too realistic or maybe because it was poorly made…to be honest, due to my issues, I am frankly not sure.  

In conclusion, I cannot in good conscience recommend or not recommend The Florida Project. All I can do is ask you to see it for yourself if you have interest in the subject matter, and make up your own mind. I apologize for my inability to concisely and clearly offer you any advice regarding this movie, but just like America when it comes to the topic of poverty, I seem to be entirely emotionally, psychologically and intellectually ill-equipped to be of any use on the matter, and instead am left puzzled to the point of paralysis. If I weren't so paralyzed, I would frantically run away to Disney World, where the Happiest Place on Earth® might make me forget all the things from The Florida Project that I simply don't want to remember. 

©2017

I, Tonya: 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. See it in the theatre or at the very least on Netflix/cable. 

I, Tonya, written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, is the biographical story of infamous American Olympic figure-skater Tonya Harding. The film stars Margot Robbie as Harding with supporting turns from Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan and Juliette Nicholson. 

Bio-pics are notoriously hard to make with any sort of artistic originality. They usually fall into the same trap of simply showing the main events in the protagonists life so everyone can go, "oh yeah, I remember that", and then the movie is over and no one cares or learns anything they didn't already know. What is worse is that these films are usually a cinematic exercise in the dramatically mundane, with nary a daring or artistic vision to be found. 

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Well, if you are looking for a bio-pic with some cinematic flair, I, Tonya is the movie for you. I, Tonya avoids all of the well-worn traps of the bio-pic by utilizing multiple perspectives and shamelessly embracing the idea that not only is it impossible for all of the differing perspectives it tells to be true, it is most likely that none of them are. I, Tonya is an unabashed lie of a movie about liars telling THEIR truth…and that is what makes it so utterly fascinating and so relevant to our current age of subjective truth. 

In execution, I, Tonya isn't quite a great film, but it certainly is an entertaining one, and I truly admired the movie for its ambition. Director Craig Gillespie takes the tabloid saga of fallen white trash princess Tonya Harding and turns it into a scathing indictment of America and the illusion and delusion of the American dream. Gillespie successfully pulls the scab off of America's festering class wound and exposes the cancerous rot at the center of American capitalism that threatens to kill its host via class and cultural warfare. 

The entire cast does fantastic work, with lead actress Margot Robbie leading the charge. Robbie does solid and at times spectacular work as Harding. Robbie, for all of her obvious beauty, disappears into the rapacious inelegance of Harding with vivacious aplomb.

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Robbie's Harding is, like Donald Trump, a compulsive liar who confuses her truth with "the truth". Robbie embues Harding with a deep-seeded yearning that is encased in a cover of defiance and petulance. In one of the more fascinating scenes in the film, Harding sits alone before a mirror and like Jake LaMotta in Scorsese's Raging Bull or Dirk Diggler in PT Anderson's Bogie Nights, this is when her true, tortured, disfigured self emerges from behind the mask, if only for a moment. This mirror scene is a subtle bit of brilliance, and is the best work of Robbie's young career and reveals an artistic depth that I hope she is able to thoroughly mine in her career.

Allison Janney plays Tonya's mother, the incomparable LaVona Fay Golden. Janney devours every scene she inhabits with the ferocity of a grizzly bear in a honey factory. When I originally saw the trailer for I, Tonya I was turned off because they made the film, and Janney's performance in particular, seem completely comedic and over the top. Thankfully, Janney's work in the film is much subtler, more nuanced and much more genuinely human than it appears in the trailer. 

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Janney's work as Tonya's mother has been compared to her Oscar competitor Laurie Metcalf for her work in Lady Bird as the protagonist's difficult mother. I will tell you right now, there is no comparison between the two. Janney gives a far superior performance because she is able to fill her abrasive, peculiar character with a grounded inner life that is vibrant and humanizing. Janney's LaVona is definitely a monster, but there is a pained and tortured person buried within that monster, whereas Metcalf's distant, dead-eyed mother is a one-note performance that rings more and more hollow with her every appearance on screen. 

Sebastian Stan plays Tonya's husband Jeff Gillooly and does excellent work. Stan masterfully disappears into the nothingness that is Jeff Gillooly and at the center of his being places a primal scream that echoes throughout his inner void and reveals itself in Gillooly's impotent frustration. 

Paul Walter Hauser nearly steals the entire film with his portrayal of Shawn Eckhardt, one of Gillooly's friends and Tonya's "bodyguard". Hauser deadpans with such skill it is nearly miraculous. Eckhardt is a character that in lesser hands than Hauser's could have been an over-the-top buffoon, but Hauser turns him into a fascinating, compelling, hysterical and heartbreaking figure.

As I watched I, Tonya other films kept popping into my head. The first film I thought of was Goodfellas, not because I, Tonya is anywhere near as great a work of cinema as Scorsese's classic, it isn't, but because the film uses similar techniques to break the rather stale mold of the bio-pic, like breaking the fourth wall and showing multiple perspectives. If you look closely at the film poster above, you'll notice I am not the only one to have recognized the similarities between Goodfellas and I, Tonya

Another film that came to mind was The Post, which I had just reviewed a few days before seeing I, Tonya. The reason I thought of The Post is because that movie and seemingly every single critic and media person who writes or talks about it, always refers to The Post as "timely". In my review I pointed out how I felt The Post was rather untimely…but you know what is a "timely" film? I, Tonya. Unlike The Post which was shot in a hurry in June of 2017 in response to Trump's presidency, I, Tonya was conceived before Trump was even elected and began shooting before he was inaugurated…and yet, I, Tonya is considerably more prescient and insightful in terms of political relevance than Spielberg's flaccid ode to the establishment because it highlights class warfare and the elite versus working-class American divide. As opposed to The Post, and all of Spielberg and Hanks' films, which portray America as it wishes to see itself through the heavy gauze of its delusion, I, Tonya strips Trump's America bare and exposes the nation for what it TRULY is, not what it wants to be.

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The third film I thought of was this year's critical darling, Lady Bird. The reason I thought of Lady Bird is because it is a sort of Disney channel lite-version of I, Tonya. Lady Bird playfully attempts to show the struggle of a lower middle class/working class young woman yearning to break free of her creatively suffocating world whereas I, Tonya shows a creative young woman, Tonya Harding, whom Lady Bird would ridicule, fighting for her literal survival in a country full of liars who despise her for not telling them the truth they want to hear. Unlike Lady Bird, I, Tonya shows real American poverty and the accompanying hopelessness that is strangling our country and is the birth mother of Trumpism. The obstacles Lady Bird must overcome are all imaginary and are the result of her selfishness and sense of entitlement. In I, Tonya, the obstacles facing the generationally poor in America are revealed to be the result of systemic causes that are baked into the American cake that result in self-destructive impulses and idiocy that knows no bounds. Lady Bird is a movie by an elitist about the world she's glad to have escaped, whereas I, Tonya is a movie about the type of dead-end people Lady Bird left behind, or more accurately, doesn't even know exist.

The hopelessness of the left behind dead-enders is fertile ground not only for the desperation that gave us Trump, but for the desperation that has given us the Opiod epidemic. I, Tonya is a funny movie in many ways because it has to be, for if it played itself as a straight drama it would be far too depressing to bear, the proof of which is played out over large swaths of America where Opiod-addicted zombies roam the streets and the stench of death and Narcan fills the air over vast swaths of the country all because people cannot face the meaninglessness of their lives and the emptiness of their reality. 

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Another film that came to mind while watching I, Tonya, was The Florida Project, which I have seen but have yet to review. The Florida Project is about a little girl growing up in numbing poverty in the shadow of Disney World. The film is difficult to watch, not because it is poorly made, but because it tells such uncomfortable truths that I, and maybe most people, would rather forget or never know about in the first place. The protagonist in The Florida Project is basically a young Tonya Harding without the skating talent…which is a chilling thought for her, and America's, future. 

As for I, Tonya, the biggest drawback of the film for me was that it isn't shot particularly well. The film is a bit flat visually and lacks the cinematic vigor and camera panache of say, Goodfellas, but that hardly disqualifies it from being worth seeing. In some ways, the less than polished and professional feel of the film enhance the movie's working class appeal.

In conclusion, I, Tonya's ambition extends beyond its execution but in my eyes that it is a noble failing at worst. I encourage you to go spend your hard earned money and time to go see I, Tonya in the theatre because its courageous telling of the real story of class in America is not flattering, but it is revealing as to how we all ended up imprisoned in Trump's America. The real America, the America of I, Tonya and Trump, that Lady Bird and the rest of the Elites want to pretend doesn't exist, is a Reality TV, celebrity obsessed, subjectively-truthy, Opiod-addicted, vapid, hopeless, white trash, fast-food nation. Trump is now King of I, Tonya's America, but twenty some-odd years ago, Tonya Harding was its Crown Princess, and she was a harbinger of the vacuous plague to come. I, Tonya is reminder of the warnings we have failed to heed, and the depth of the pit into which we have dug ourselves. 

©2017

The Post: 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 film except for the wonderful performance of Meryl Streep, so maybe catch it on Netflix or cable if you are so inclined.

The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor of the Washington Post respectively, as they guide the newspaper through the Pentagon Papers controversy. The film stars Meryl Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as Bradlee. 

In case you aren't aware, The Post is one of Spielberg's "serious" movies, which the Spielberg-worhsipping Amen chorus in the media tells us means that it should only be spoken about in most hushed and reverent tones. The Post has been self-consciously selling itself as being very "timely" because it is allegedly a story about freedom of the press in the face of tyranny. The film is obviously meant as a nobly defiant gesture in the face of Fuhrer Trump, who goes unmentioned in the film but is an ever ominous presence lurking beneath the movie's surface, sort of like the Great White shark that terrorized one of Speilberg's actually good films, Jaws

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Speilberg made The Post not only after Trump became president, but because he became president. The film was hurried into production in June of 2017 in order to strike while the anti-Trump iron was hot in an attempt to convert Trump hate into dollars and awards. The political problem for The Post is that it comes across as entirely, overwhelmingly and painfully reactionary. Being reactionary is not a crime in and of itself, but the mark of a great artist is that they are ahead of the curve. The true artist dances between their individual consciousness and the collective unconscious and are able to sense things they can only articulate and express artistically (even when though they may not be intellectually or "consciously" aware of them) before they come to surface in the wider collective consciousness. With The Post, Speilberg's reactionism feels like merely a symptom of the disease of artistic fraudulence and bankruptcy, which is a malady from which he has long suffered. The film is also a result of his shameless and clumsy attempt to be politically relevant in order to be further admired by those in the political and media establishment.

The truth is I saw The Post over a month ago and was so underwhelmed by it on every single level I haven't been able to muster the creative energy to review it until now. The film is a stale and suffocatingly conventional piece of predictable moviemaking that feels as if a propaganda unit for the Hillary Clinton campaign made an after school special that was a sequel to their smash hit "Love Trumps Hate"…or as America heard it, "Love Trump's Hate".

On the most basic level, The Post is extraordinarily poorly structured cinematic venture and is so numbingly bland as to be unremarkable in every single way. The Post is just one more bit of incontrovertible evidence that Spielberg is simply not that great at making "serious" movies, and that he needs aliens or dinosaurs at the heart of his story in order to be proficient at his craft.

In The Post, just like in his other "serious" films Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg seems completely unaware of how to create a cohesive and palatable narrative rhythm to a film. As with many of his previous "serious" films, Spielberg chooses to encase The Post in the most useless and clumsy preamble and coda, which renders any sort of dramatic tension or revelations that can be scrounged up in between them entirely moot and ineffective.

There are some sequences in The Post that are so cinematically inept, amateurish and heavy-handed it is difficult to not laugh out loud at them. Of all of the cringe-worthy scenes scattered throughout, none makes the colon twinge quite so much as the scene where Streep's Katherine Graham exits the Supreme Court to a soaring soundtrack amidst a sea of young, bright eyed women who part for her like the Red Sea and then gaze with awe and astonishment upon her as if she were the Goddess coming down from the heavens victorious having slain the patriarchal dragon. This scene is so awful it actually made me unintentionally groan aloud in the theatre. There are also some ridiculous scenes of Nixon in silhouette at the White House that are the absolute height of unintentional comedy.  

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Meryl Streep stars in the film as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, a woman trying to make her way in a man's world. Streep is simply the very best at her craft that we have seen and her work in The Post is testament to that. With a flaccid script, she is able to turn Katherine Graham into an honest to goodness, multi-dimensional human being, the only one in the entire film. Streep's Graham never rings false, which is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions on the part of the Grand Dame, due to the emotionally and intellectually infantile script from which she has to work. 

Tom Hanks co-stars as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Hanks has proven himself over the years to be a decent movie star but at the end of the day he turns out to be a pretty shitty actor. Hanks's shallow portrayal of Bradlee, with his spray on tan and affected grumble of a voice, would be better suited in an SNL sketch than in a feature film. Seeing Hanks on screen opposite Streep is very illuminating, as Hanks is exposed as being a smoke and mirrors huckster of a performer, and Streep is revealed to be the consummate actor.

The narrative of The Post is meant to cover as many politically correct bases as possible. There is the story of the tyrannical president and the noble press fighting for American ideals and freedoms. There is also the story of female empowerment where a woman must overcome the horrors of the patriarchy that conspires to keep her down. With all of the shamelessly, not-so-subtle Hillary love and admiration for the mainstream press imprinted in the DNA of The Post, a more apt title for it may have been "The Establishment Strikes Back".

One of the things that bothered me about The Post, even more than the sub-par storytelling and ham-fisted directing, is why tell this particular version of the story in the first place? The Pentagon Papers is an important story, of that there is no doubt. Daniel Ellsberg is an important story and The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers in an important story, but Spielberg doesn't tell any of those stories. Instead, he tells the story of the Washington Post's part in the Pentagon Papers, and that probably isn't even in the top ten of stories surrounding the Pentagon Papers that should or need to be told. 

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The trick that Spielberg manages to pull off in his version of the Pentagon Papers is he manages to smear Daniel Ellsberg and belittles and demeans what he risked and accomplished in exposing the Pentagon Papers. It is remarkable that Spielberg could make a movie about the Pentagon Papers, one of the biggest whistleblowers stories in U.S. history, and yet completely diminishes and disrespects that whistleblower. Spielberg turns Ellsberg into a long-haired, hippie malcontent and narcissist driven solely by his self-aggrandizing instinct and ego. This would not be such a big deal except that it is entirely at odds with the reality of who Daniel Ellsberg truly is and what he did. 

The other thing that bothers me are the lies of omission committed by The Post. Ben Bradlee is portrayed as not only a truth teller in the face of power, but also the quintessential journalist who was a thoughtful and passionate man who cared deeply for his profession. The reality is that Bradlee was the consummate Washington insider and his tentacles were everywhere in The Swamp. It is shown in the film that Bradlee was a friend of JFK and a frequent guest at the White House for private dinners with JFK and occasionally Jackie, which is true. What the film doesn't dare mention is that Bradlee was married to wealthy socialite Toni Pinchot during Kennedy's presidency. Toni's sister was Mary Pinchot Meyer, a divorcee who was having an affair with JFK during his presidency and would frequently go to the White House with Ben Bradlee and Toni in order for them to cover for her and JFK's affair. Also of note is that Mary Pinchot Meyer wasn't just any divorcee, she was divorced from Cord Meyer, a powerful CIA official who was Head of the Covert Action Staff of the Directorate of Plans during Kennedy's administration, and also became the principle operative of Operation Mockingbird, which was an massive operation that was used to secretly influence U.S. and foreign media. 

Another bit of info kept out of The Post about Bradlee is this, that almost one year after Kennedy was assassinated, on October 12, 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer was assassinated, gunned down in broad daylight, while walking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath near her Georgetown home. Why is this important? Well, it is important because Mary Meyer had kept a very thorough diary of her time with JFK, which included not only the usual Kennedy sexcapades, but JFK's use of both marijuana and LSD. To make the Meyer case all the more intriguing, Mary Meyer was convinced that JFK was murdered by a conspiracy involving U.S. intelligence agencies, of which she was intimately familiar, and she was determined to bring it to light.

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After she was murdered some very strange things occurred, the first of which is that someone in the CIA called Ben Bradlee on the day of the shooting to tell him of Mary's murder. Why is this strange? Because Mary Pinchot Meyer was still lying in the morgue and had not even been identified by the coroners office, she was just a Jane Doe. Mary's family didn't even know anything had happened to her at this point, but because of a mysterious source in the CIA, Ben Bradlee did. Bradlee then went to Mary's house and scoured the pace and found her JFK diary and instead of doing the journalistically honorable thing of reporting on it, he instead kept it secret and turned it over to none other than James Jesus Angelton who destroyed it. Who is James Jesus Angelton? Well, James Angelton was just the Chief of Covert Counter-Intelligence Operations for the CIA. 

To make the Meyer story all the more intriguing is what happened when Bradlee was called to testify in the 1965 murder trial against a young Black man charged, and later acquitted, of the crime of killing Mary Meyer. On the stand Bradlee lied, in other words committed perjury, when he failed to mention his interaction with Mr. Angelton of the CIA and about the existence of Mary's diary. How do we know he lied? Because years later when he wrote his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, he told the truth about what actually happened and how he conspired with Angelton to find and destroy Mary's diary. 

Bradlee's back story is pretty remarkable, but so is Katherine Graham's. Graham's husband, Phil, was the publisher and co-owner of the Washington Post. In late 1962, Phil was having an affair with a young woman from Australia and told Katherine about it. A short time later in 1963, Phil got himself into a boat load of trouble when he got stinking drunk at a newspaper publisher's convention in Phoenix and stood up and told a room full of reporters that President Kennedy was having an affair in the White House with...Mary Pinchot Meyer. Mrs. Graham was alerted to her soon to be ex-husbands behavior and flew out to Phoenix with their doctor and Phil was sedated, put in a straitjacket, and flown to Washington where he was quickly hospitalized at Chestnut Lodge, a hospital in Maryland well-known to be used by the CIA for various unsavory psychiatric activities. 

After his initial release five days later from Chestnut Lodge, Phil left Katherine and told friends he was going to divorce her, take sole control of the Post, and quickly remarry with his Australian girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, in June of 1963, Phil was again placed in Chestnut Lodge and treated for "manic depression". Chestnut Lodge then released him in early August 1963 to his ex-wife Katherine's custody for a weekend break because she claimed he seemed to be doing much better. Phil stayed with Katherine at their Virginia farmhouse, and that is where he allegedly shot himself with shotgun. Against the wishes of Phil's will, which Katherine challenged, Katherine Graham then inherited the Washington Post which became a powerful mouthpiece for the intelligence community on all matters.

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Ben Bradlee was also a key part of the intelligence community's control over the Post and of American political discourse. The best way to describe Bradlee is that for the duration of his Washington Post career, he was a useful asset to the intelligence community. Katherine Graham was less an asset and more of an insurance policy for the intelligence community. They got her power over the Post, and she gave them access and unquestioned loyalty. Remember the previously Operation Mockingbird, well the Washington Post is the flagship newspaper for Operation Mockingbird, and remember who ran Operation Mockingbird…none other than Cord Meyer, Mary Meyer's ex-husband. (If you want to read more about the very tangled and incredibly fascinating story of Mary Meyer, JFK, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, I wholly encourage you to go read Mary's Mosaic by Peter Janney, it is a page-turner well worth your time if you have the interest.)

Now, don't those stories sound much more interesting and dramatically charged than the limp, third-rate Washington Post - Pentagon Papers nonsense that Spielberg conjures in The Post? Wouldn't those backstories make for at least a modicum of intrigue and drama when trying to fully flesh out who these dramatis personae really are and what actually happened at the Washington Post during the Pentagon papers incident? 

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But Steven Spielberg has no interest in telling that kind of truth in his movies, he is only interested in telling a certain kind of truth, the same kind of truth that Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham are interested in telling, namely...the manufactured, "safe" truth. If you look at the length and breadth of Spielberg and Hanks' career you notice something very troubling, they are both only interested in telling that sort of manufactured "safe" truth. Hanks and Spielberg are anything but artistic truth-tellers, they are Rockwellian myth-makers and star-spangled Riefenstahls who consistently and exclusively pump out agitprop for the Establishment and American Empire. I realize that I will be tarred and feathered as a tin-foil hat wearing kook for saying this, but it doesn't take a genius or a madman to figure out that upon closer inspection, Hanks and Spielberg are just like Bradlee and Graham, they are well positioned assets useful in disseminating disinformation propaganda for the American Intelligence community (and maybe some other nations Intelligence communities as well) in order to subtly indoctrinate the gullible and unaware masses.

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Bradlee and Graham were so well positioned to be assets for Operation Mockingbird one cannot help but wonder if they were "assisted" in their rise to such pivotal and prominent roles on the American political stage…and the same can be said of Hanks and Spielberg, who have proven time and again that they seem to have risen to heights in Hollywood well beyond their artistic abilities and use their positions of power to inundate the public with most insidious of propaganda. (For further reading on Hanks desire to alter history to appease the American Intelligence community, check out James DiEugenio's book Reclaiming Parkland, it is not a particularly well-written work, but it is does contain some fascinating ands insightful information.)

When you look at the question I posed earlier about why Spielberg would make THIS film about the Pentagon Papers, instead of investigating other more potentially interesting angles of that story (Ellsberg bio-pic, NY Times angle etc.), through the prism of his job as a propagandist for the Establishment and the intelligence community, then The Post makes a helluva lot more sense.  

Spielberg could not make a film with Ellsberg as a hero because Ellsberg is a whistleblower and whistleblowers cannot be perceived as heroic especially in this day and age because they could potentially reveal the crimes of American empire and the intelligence community. Hanks and Spielberg both said as much in doing interviews regarding The Post. When asked if Ellsberg was a hero they both said, "yeah sure", but when asked if Snowden was a hero, they both declined to answer and said it "was complicated". It isn't complicated, it is only complicated if you are a propagandist interested in obscuring truth, not exposing it. The reason they can sort of say Ellsberg is ok is because his revelations are ancient history with no impact on today's world, whereas Snowden is making a brave Ellsbergian stand today, and to make things worse in Hanks and Spielberg's eyes, Snowden did so while Obama was president. 

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Think of it this way, Spielberg can make any movie he wants, but he chose the safest route imaginable and made The Post. He could've made a Snowden movie, or a Chelsea Manning movie, both of which would tell the truth to power story and even the freedom of the press story that The Post pretends to tell. He could've made a film about John Kiriakou which would be immensely more interesting than The Post, but he didn't. Spielberg could've still played it safe and made a straight up, paint-by-numbers Ellsberg bio-pic…but he didn't. Hell, Spielberg could've made a Trump bio-pic, Oliver Stone made one of George W. Bush while he was still in office for goodness sake, but he would never do something so ballsy. Instead, Spielberg made the impotent and insipid The Post, with all of its narrative quirks, historical omissions and sub-textual dishonesty.

What I found even more damning than the shitty filmmaking and predictable script on display in The Post, was the audience with whom I watched it. The screening I attended was pretty crowded and at various times throughout the showing, the crowd whooped and cheered for the "good guys" (Hanks and company), and when the film ended there was a rapturous round of applause. I can easily surmise that none of these cheering people voted for Donald Trump, and that they felt their cheering was a brave and courageous act of "resistance".

What all the cheering from the audience proved to me is that this anti-Trump audience deserves that know-nothing buffoon as their president, because just like him they are dim-witted ignorami who only want to be told what they want to hear and are incurious, ill-informed and easily manipulated.  

These cheering ninnies are blissfully unaware of Ben Bradlee's connection to the intelligence community or his duplicitous relationship with JFK's affairs and Mary Meyer's murder. They are also blissfully unaware of Katherine Graham's equally nefarious connections to the intelligence community and the mystery surrounding her husbands downfall and supposed suicide and her subsequent rise to power at the Washington Post. These same simpletons probably confuse Snowden with Assange, and recoil at the truthful and accurate revelations of those two men and Chelsea Manning, but ignorantly cheer the charade of The Post as a metaphor for speaking truth to power and the battle for the freedom of the press today, just because Spielberg tells them to. These fools are Spielberg's bread and butter, for they are the worst kind of fools, they think they are savvy, well-informed, serious people, but they are simply dupes and dopes, and these vacuous, vapid and vacant numskulls have gotten the country, the president and the movie they so richly deserve. 

In conclusion, The Post is certainly not worthy paying to see in the theatre. If you stumble across it on cable or Netlfix you can watch it to see Streep's marvelous performance but that is about it. The Post is fools gold for those looking for powerful stories of the struggle for freedom of the press and speaking truth to power. Viewers would be much better served avoiding the historical revisionism of The Post and seeking out the stories of Edward Snowden (the documentary Citizenfour or Oliver Stone's flawed Snowden), Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Daniel Ellsberg (the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America) and yes, even the much-maligned Julian Assange, if they want to understand the current fight for freedom of the press and the battle against tyranny, where information and the truth are the greatest weapons of war.

©2017

Downsizing: A Review

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

My Rating: 1.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to ever see this movie. 

Downsizing, written and directed by Alexander Payne, is the story of Paul Safranek, a midwestern physical therapist who chooses to undergo a new procedure that will shrink him down to being only five inches tall in order to start a new life in an experimental, eco-friendly mini-world. The film stars Matt Damon with supporting performances from Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau and Kristen Wiig. 

Downsizing is one of those movies that is rife with possibilities, but in execution ends up being  a disaster. Alexander Payne can be hit or miss for me as a director, for instance I loved About Schmidt, and was lukewarm about Sideways and Nebraska and loathed The DescendantsDownsizing falls into the frustrating The Descendants category in the Alexander Payne catalogue for me. 

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What is so troubling about Downsizing is that the original idea, about shrinking people down in order save the environment, is bursting with a myriad of dramatic potential and yet not only does Payne not realize these possibilities, he seems to be entirely oblivious of them. Payne suffocates the creative prospects of the premise in its crib and instead churns out a very blasé, bland and boring product that is bungled from start to finish. 

While Downsizing portends to be an important "issues" film, the movie labors under the strain of its own delusional sense of self-importance. The film never actually tackles any difficult subjects, only strikes a concerned pose and then walks away. Like a eunuch in a whorehouse, Payne only seems to be vaguely aware of what he is missing. 

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For instance, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the idea that if people shrink themselves, they immediately become vulnerable to the Tyranny of the Big. Once people are shrunk, Big people could crush little people and their worlds with little effort at all. The result of that would be that little people become entirely reliant on the kindness of the big for their survival. To me it would be fascinating to investigate in Downsizing the idea of people choosing to make themselves weaker and subservient to a giant class of humans, to me that sounds like a metaphor for people's relationship with Big Tech like Facebook, and their acquiescence to massive surveillance programs. To explore the theme of "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide", would be an interesting one, but Payne never even contemplates it. 

The Tyranny of the Big theme also could've have been used to explore political issues staring all of us in the face…like American empire, or authoritarianism rising across the globe. But Payne chooses to make a limp non-point by having the "shrinking" technology used by only one government for nefarious reasons…that government…Vietnam. A plot point in the movie is that Vietnam, of all countries, shrinks a group of protestors. Why Vietnam? Of all the countries you could use to show authoritarianism in the world you choose Vietnam? 

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The reality is that Payne chose Vietnam because it is a safe choice, not because it is a relevant or interesting one. Vietnam is a "communist" country, and Payne knew he'd get no pushback from anyone, especially here in America, by attacking them. If Payne had any balls…which it is very obvious he doesn't, he would've used China instead of Vietnam. Calling out China as authoritarian by having a storyline where they "shrink" some Tibetan human rights protestors would be a gutsy and dramatically interesting thing to do, but Payne would never do that because China is a market where he wants his movie to play and make money. So China is a no go. The U.S. is another no go for the same obvious reason, calling out American empire is a non-starter for a milquetoast filmmaker like Payne. How about Israel? Why not have Israel "shrink" down Palestinians protestors in order to be able to reduce Palestinians in the West Bank to living in a shoe box so Israeli's can take even more of their land? Payne would never, ever, ever do that because…well…you and I both know why that would never happen.

The lack of testicular fortitude on the part of the director is not the only issue with the film. Downsizing suffers from some of the most basic of filmmaking and storytelling errors imaginable. For instance, there is scene near the end of the film where a bible is used as a critical dramatic device, the problem with that, is that is literally the first time that bible has ever appeared or been mentioned in the entire film…it is a bizarre and glaring bit of amateurish filmmaking. Structurally the film is no better,  as the movie is so fundamentally flawed it teeters the whole time you watch it until it ultimately collapses onto itself. 

The acting is also uneven and disconnected as well. Matt Damon is a fine actor, but he never feels genuinely connected to the material or the character and instead appears to be going through the movie star motions. I read that Paul Giamatti was originally supposed to play the lead role but for some reason was replaced by Damon. I think Giamatti would have been a far superior choice to embody the sad sack character of Paul Safranek. 

Christoph Waltz is an actor I admire, but his character is so poorly written he is entirely incoherent. What Waltz's Dusan Mirkovic is even doing in the film is beyond me, and it seems, beyond him as well. 

Hong Chau's character Ngoc Lan Tran, is difficult to watch. Chau does a good job acting, in fact she delivers a flawless monologue at a dining room table that is worth seeing, but her pidgin english is unbearable and the character feels more like comic relief than a fully fledged human being. Having an Asian character speaking pidgin English used as comedy comes across as terribly tone deaf and at best uncomfortable, and at worst incredibly racist. 

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Downsizing's running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, yet the movie feels unconscionably much longer. By the time the final act of the movie begins I could not have cared less about any of the characters involved at all. Everything seemed forced and manufactured and totally devoid of any genuine human emotion or understanding. 

 

Downsizing boasts a top-notch cast and an intriguing premise but fails to properly utilize either of those things. Alexander Payne's failures as a director and writer scuttle what could have been a truly fascinating ship, and instead we are reduced to watching the equivalent of no one of interest floating on a dingy in a kiddy pool.  

Downsizing is so insignificant and unremarkable that even though I saw it for free while sitting in my living room, I still almost got up and walked out. The only thing Downsizing did was downsize my patience for this stupid movie…oh and hopefully it also downsized Alexander Payne's cache in the film industry. My recommendation is that you skip Downsizing, there is absolutely no need whatsoever for you to see this film at anytime or anyplace. If you stumble across it on cable late one night, turn the television off and go watch a dog take a dump on a dollhouse, it will be time better spent than watching this miniature mess. 

©2017

Phantom Thread: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE. For those who have more sophisticated taste in cinema, this is a true gem. For those with more conventional tastes, this might be enjoyable but a bit difficult. 

Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is the story of Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer in 1950's London, and his unlikely relationship with a young waitress. The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, with supporting turns from Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps.

Phantom Thread is, like most of director PT Anderson's films, one of those movies that successfully operates upon multiple levels simultaneously. On the surface, the film is a dark relationship story, but just below that surface there is a seething underbelly that is glorious in its insightful complexity. While the surface story is entertaining and compelling, the real riches are to be found in the underbelly, where the treasure chest of psychological marrow resides.

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That marrow is the psychological story of a man attempting to integrate his anima. The anima is archetypal feminine energy and men spend their lifetimes trying to resolve their anima issues, just as women spend their lives attempting to resolve their animus issues, both in the pursuit of psychological wholeness. The true narrative at the heart of Phantom Thread is that of the artist (Woodcock - who is probably a stand in for the artist PT Anderson himself), first recognizing, then reconciling with his anima. All artists are in a lifelong dance with their anima, at times immersed init and other times repulsed by it. While the twists and turns in the narrative of Phantom Thread can at first glance seem a bit much, when viewed through the prism of this psychological lens, they are entirely appropriate and quite remarkable. 

PT Anderson is the preeminent auteur of our age. He is one of the rarest of rare filmmakers who is equally masterful directing actors as he is directing the camera and the narrative. Darren Aronofsky is similar filmmaker to Anderson in this respect but is not quite up to his level. What immediately struck me about Phantom Thread and brought Aronofsky to mind is that the anima narrative at the core of Phantom Thread is almost identical to the core of Aronofsky's last film, the much maligned and debated Mother! (not to mention a very similar narrative structure). I certainly do not think either director intentionally stole the idea or that they were even conscious of the similarities, but it is very striking to me when two artists of PT Anderson's and Darren Aronofsky's caliber are moved by the same muse. Whenever that happens my Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory alarms go off and I immediately sit up and take notice. Now…to be clear, Phantom Thread is a vastly superior film to Mother!, of that there is no doubt, but the similarities of their DNA are worth noting.

Daniel Day Lewis gives what may very well be his greatest performance in Phantom Thread, and considering his stellar career, that is saying a lot. Lewis gives his Reynolds Woodcock a vivid inner life filled with specific and detailed intentions that are palpable on screen, such as when he sets his sights on the young waitress Alma. While Woodcock is a meticulous study in contained fury, it is when he reveals his magnetic and seductive charm that the true force of his power is seen. 

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Lewis is always an intoxicating actor to watch, a master craftsman with a commanding and innate dynamism that is so compelling as to be nearly hypnotic, and so it is in Phantom Thread. Lewis has said that this is his last performance, and that would certainly be a terrific loss for the acting world, but going out with such a tour de force as he gives in Phantom Thread feels like a wonderful Daniel Day-Lewis-ian thing to do for the always enigmatic master. 

Vicky Krieps bursts onto the acting scene as Alma Elson, the waitress who catches Reynold Woodcock's eye. Krieps is an alluring and luminous screen presence. She has an understated power to her that is impressive to behold. There is never a moment where she seems overwhelmed opposite the Greatest Actor in the World®, Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Krieps has an earthy, beguiling sexuality about her that is captivating and enchanting. Watching her Alma navigate the treacherous waters of her relationship with Woodcock by using different tactics and strategies was a joy to behold simply due to Kriep's unabashed talent. 

Lesley Manville plays Reynolds sister Cyrill to perfection. Cyrill is the brains and structure behind Reynolds talent, without her the entire fashion dynasty they have built would crumble. Manville's command of stillness and steely glare make her Cyrill a sort of Lady MacBeth of the House of Woodcock, as she is unsexed and the true power behind the throne. 

Even though he is a highly skilled fashion designer, Reynolds is still a man in every sense of his being. Although he may not appear to be, he is a man ruled by his appetites and his very specific and unique tastes, whether it be in food or women. 

Cyrill is the one who has learned to remain still so that Reynolds hungry animal nature does not devour her, but the intrigue of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and figure out how to tame Reynolds beast and satiate his appetites without sacrificing herself in the process. 

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Besides being filled with superior acting, Phantom Thread is a gorgeous film to look at as well. Anderson's usual cinematographer, the always fantastic Robert Elswitt, was unavailable to shoot Phantom Thread, and rumors are that Anderson shot it himself, although he claims it was a collaborative effort on the part of multiple people. Whoever shot it though deserves accolades as the framing, in particular, but also the color palette and the sheer beauty of the lighting, some of it with just candles, are remarkable. 

The fashion on display is also a wonder to behold. I am not someone who usually notices that sort of thing but I was overwhelmed with the beauty and intricacy of the wardrobe in the movie. I assume Phantom Thread, which is nominated for six Oscars, will at the very least get a win for Costume Designer Mark Bridges, who richly deserves the award.

In conclusion, I loved Phantom Thread and think it is one of the very best films of the year. Like PT Anderson's other films There Will Be Blood and The Master, it may be a bit impenetrable for  those whose tastes are not inclined to the art house. For cinephiles or those with more ambitious movie going tastes though, Phantom Thread is a delectable cinematic feast. I highly recommend you spend your hard earned dollars and sparse free time to go see it in the theatre. 

©2017

ADDENDUM:

****WARNING- THIS ADDENDUM CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!****

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- I just wanted to write a brief analysis of the film to add to my review for those who have seen the movie already. The thing to watch for in Phantom Thread is Reynolds obvious controlling and power hungry nature. Notice how he has very specific tastes in food and how he controls his environment. 

Reynolds, who, like most artists, is estranged from his anima but like a flame is constantly drawn to it and then repulsed by it, which is why he goes through so many different muses…just like the writer character in Mother!

The fascinating thing to me is that Alma uses mushrooms to sicken Reynolds. Mushroom are grown in the shadow…symbolic of the psychological shadow. She surreptitiously gets Reynolds to digest his shadow material and it makes him ill. It is when he is ill, weakened, that his "male armor" comes down and he is helpless and is able to appreciate Alma once again. 

When caring for the sick Reynolds, Alma takes on the role of his late mother…mother being the ultimate anima figure (hence Aronsofky's film titled Mother!). Reynolds even has a fever dream where he sees Alma and his dead mother in the room with him and they sort of blend into one another. This is the beginning of Reynolds integrating his anima, which is hard and painful work, but ultimately not only necessary but vital. 

As time goes on and their relationship twists and turns, Alma returns to the mushrooms, this time even more of them. Reynolds understand why this is, and that he must turn himself over to the shadow material (mushrooms), even risking his life, in order to have the anima experience he so desperately needs to "survive" as an artist and to continue on his journey to wholeness. 

In some ways, Alma is a witch, using nature to brew up a concoction in order to weaken Reynolds and remove his masculine armor in order to make him more susceptible to the spell of the animus. 

I know that this interpretation might be a bit much for some people, but it makes for a fascinating and in my opinion, ultimately satisfying, way to watch the film. 

©2017

The Shape of Water: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT IN THEATRE

The Shape of Water, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, tells the tale of Elisa, a mute janitor, and her relationship with a mysterious humanoid-amophibian creature being held in a secret government facility in Baltimore in 1962. The film stars Sally Hawkins and boasts supporting performances from Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlberg. 

I had zero expectation when I went to see The Shape of Water. I really enjoyed director Guillermo del Toro's earlier film Pan's Labyrinth, which was a dark and hypnotic fever dream of a film, but had not ventured to see his more Hollywood friendly, commercial films like Hellboy or Pacific Rim, as they held no interest for me. All I knew of The Shape of Water was what I had seen in the trailer, which was that it was some weird intra-species romance movie. Having seen the film, I can attest that it is that…but it is also so much more. 

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The Shape of Water is a glorious film and is easily one of the best movies of the year. Director Guillermo del Toro has created a truly original and unique piece of cinematic art that drips with rich religious, political and mythological symbolism. Del Toro masterfully delivers a deliciously subversive take on an unconventional love story by paying homage to the storytelling conventions of Old Hollywood by turning them on their ear.

Del Toro is well-known as a visual virtuoso and The Shape of Water is no exception. His collaboration with Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen results in a cinematic symphony where nearly every shot could be hung in an art museum. Del Toro and Laustsen's delicate use of color and shadow create a lush texture for the film that is palpable. Laustsen's brilliant use of varying shades of green and a sparing but vibrant red do not just create a visual feast but also convey the deeper psychological and political sub-text of the film.

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Del Toro also coaxes outstanding performances from his noteworthy cast. Sally Hawkins gives an exquisitely sublime and bravura performance as del Toro's mute leading lady. While Ms. Hawkins character Elisa never utters a single line of dialogue, she speaks volumes with her entire being, never wasting a single moment of screen time. Ms. Hawkins uses specificity and intentionality to imbue Elisa with a tangible yearning that is breathtaking in its earnestness and tenderness. To Hawkins (and del Toro's) great credit, Elisa is never reduced to a child-like state of innocence where the audience would pity her, but instead she is a capable and sexually aware full-fledged woman struggling to find her voice, which makes the film very topical if not downright prescient.  

Richard Jenkins gives an absolutely magnificent performance as Giles, Elisa's friend and next door neighbor. Giles is at once both pathetic and defiant, ferocious and forlorn. Jenkins is a consistently fantastic actor and his work as Giles is a testament to his extraordinary talent, skill and commitment to craft. 

The rest of the cast, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlberg and Michael Shannon all do exceptional work in their supporting roles. It is difficult to single one of them out above the others, but if forced to I would only mention that Michael Stuhlberg's work as Dr. Hoffstetler is a complex and subtle piece of genius that is a pleasure to behold. Stuhlberg is an often overlooked actor but he is devastatingly good.

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Ms. Spencer and Mr. Shannon are too great actors as well and their work in The Shape of Water is, as always, stellar. Ms. Spencer is such a master craftswoman that her acting always feels like it is entirely effortless and so it is with her portrayal of Elisa's friend Zelda. And Michael Shannon, who plays Colonel Strickland, is like a volcano on screen, even when he is dormant, he emanates a dynamic combustibility that is unnerving. It was a true pleasure to watch such a superior ensemble work their magic in The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water isn't just an entertaining and moving film, it also surreptitiously and masterfully comments on American capitalism, empire, Russo-phobia, McCarthyism, the feminine, love, psychological and spiritual evolution and the human urge to know God and thyself. (see Addendum below - warning it has spoilers in it). Del Toro and his superb cast are all able to tell multiple layers of the same story without ever being obvious or preachy. Watching the myriad of themes and layers of the film be expertly woven together is a joy to behold an drakes for a  compelling and magnetic joy movie going experience. 

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In the sea of cinematic brilliance that is The Shape of Water, what stood out to me the most though, is that this is a bit of a weird fantasy film, set in a different time period, and yet is pulsates with a genuine and tender humanity that is completely absent in other more contemporary and "reality-based" films like Three Billboards and Lady Bird. Those films are devoid of the true, genuine human experience that is the dramatic heart of The Shape of Water and that is a monument to the impeccable artistry of Guillermo del Toro and his superior cast.

In the final analysis, The Shape of Water is a lush and luscious film that is an artistic feast for the eyes and the psyche. This film speaks to both cinephiles and cine-peds (my new word for people with more pedestrian tastes in movies), I highly recommend you dive in deep into The Shape of Water and spend your hard earned money and invaluable free time to go see it in the theatre. 

©2017

 

ADDENDUM

****WARNING: THIS ADDENDUM CONTAINS SPOILERS!!****

The spoiler free review is above, but I had written a few thoughts in an earlier draft on the deeper meaning of the movie and realized they may constitute a violation of my claim that this was a spoiler free review, so I figured I would excise them from the review and haphazardly share them in an addendum for those who were interested. If you haven't seen the film yet, and want a "virgin" experience, then skip the following sections entirely. 

- The film's political and religious symbolism is there for those who wish to find it. The movie is again prescient in that it recalls the Russo-phobia of the early 1960's and the McCarthyist impulse which accompanies it and which is rearing its very ugly and dangerous head once again now. The film also subtly and gracefully reveals the moral rot at the core of American empire and American capitalism.

Del Toro masterfully exposes American capitalism as being a cancer on the soul of humanity (a great example is Colonel Strickland and his perfect yet loveless family and his new car which is green…with envy…and his hand which is gangrene…as he is, like America, rotting from within), and reveals the American dream to be the result of a fever that will eventually drown/suffocate us all. Like George Carlin says, "they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it".  In the case of The Shape of Water, in order to awake from the nightmare of the American dream, one must evolve, or maybe the better word for it is…devolve…and return to the depths of our truer selves where we live from our heart and can become gods. 

- Not surprisingly due to the title of the film, the symbolism of water is throughout the movie. In a Jungian context, water is symbolic of the human psyche, and to dive into the deep waters is to explore our sub-concious. Keep this in mind whenever water is present in a scene in The Shape of Water. Understand that in order for the individual and the collective to evolve, dipping our toe into the pool of our minds is a must if we ever hope to dive into the depths of our deeper meaning and purpose. Integrating the knowledge found in the depths of our psyche occurs when we integrate with a creature from the depths. So in The Shape of Water, when Elisa is trying to understand the creature, she is really trying to understand herself. True integration…the melding together of the old knowledge with the new, occurs when Elisa and the creature have sex…in water. 

Also note that Elisa is only connected to her sexuality in water…her ritualistic bath and masturbation are her "dipping her toe" into the pool of her psyche. It is also, in a religious sense, like going to Mass. But Mass is only a simulation of the God experience, when Elisa is in the water with the creature and they have sex, that is the ultimate integration/God experience. Only with the God experience can humanity and/or Elisa's psyche develop. 

There are also obvious symbols of the creature being a Christ like figure. He has a wound on his side for example, and he is chained to a central spot, like a mandala, and is tortured and beaten by a guardian of the American/Roman Empire. The creature also has mysterious and miraculous healing powers for himself and others. 

The egg is also is a pretty interesting symbol in the film. Obviously the egg is a symbol of fertility and birth, and also of the universe. Elisa feeding the creature her egg is symbolic of her offering her feminine energy to him, he devours it and integrates it and thus is not just a male, but like a god is both male and female. This is also why the question of his genitals comes up and Elisa explains that it is contained within him but is revealed at the right moment, almost like his body is a tabernacle and his genitals the god housed within. 

If you look carefully throughout the film, you will see lots of religious Catholic symbolism. if you can, notice the shape and positions the characters are in when they are in water. There are memento when they look as if they are hung on a cross, or are in a Pieta pose. 

Alright…those are just some brief and scattered observations on the film. I really loved the movie and I wholly encourage you to see it, or to see it again. If you do see it again keep your eye out for the when, where and how del Toro uses the color red and the color green. And also take note of water!!

©2017

 

Justice League: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT: See it in the theatre if you are a comic book/superhero film fan, it is worth the effort. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about comic book/superhero films then feel free to skip it in the theatre and see it on Netflix or cable. 

Justice League, written by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder (with re-shoots directed by Whedon), is the fifth film in the D.C. Extended Universe, is a sequel to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and is the completion of the origin story of the Justice League, which is a collection of superheroes who join together to fight evil. The film stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller and Henry Cavill. 

My experience of Justice League was very similar to my experience of 2016's Batman v. Superman (BvS). I did not see Batman v. Superman until very late in its theatrical run, therefore even though I do not read reviews, I had seen enough headlines to understand that the film was not widely loved…or even mildly liked. With my expectations very low I went and saw Batman v. Superman and much to my shock and amazement I joined the rarest of groups, the handful of people who actually enjoyed Batman v Superman a great deal. It wasn't a perfect movie but it was certainly better than all of the negative buzz that was floating around about it.

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When Justice League came out last month on November 17th, I once again avoided reviews but was still exposed to a deluge of negative buzz surrounding the film before I saw it on December 19. And just like when I saw Batman v. Superman, the theatre for Justice League was deserted except for the three other people.  And…just like with Batman v. Superman, my expectations were in the gutter for Justice League and either in spite of or because of that, the movie was able to greatly exceeded them leaving me most pleasantly surprised. 

Justice League is supposed to be DC's attempt (at Warner Brothers insistence) at "lightening things up" from the dark themes and tone of BvS and being more "audience friendly". While I am not a fan of "lightening things up" in general and was attracted to the darkness of Batman v. Superman, I was not turned off by the more approachable tone of Justice League. Would I have liked a much darker version? Most definitely…but Justice League held onto enough darkness that it maintained a certain superhero gravitas that I found compelling. 

It has been my experience that while the rest of the world adores the Marvel franchise, I am more temperamentally suited for the brooding DC universe. The DC films have on the whole been pretty uneven, with Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League being pretty good and Suicide Squad and Man of Steel being abysmally bad. What I liked about Batman v. Superman and Justice League are that they are both cloaked in a very heavy, existential angst that regular folk may find boring and impenetrable, but which I find very philosophically intriguing and creatively courageous. In contrast, I find the Marvel films to be much too light hearted and frivolous and to be lacking in visual and narrative texture. Marvel films are made for kids while DC films, at least Batman v. Superman and Justice League, are made for tormented kids who've grown old. While Justice League is definitely not a great film, it is probably at best an average cinematic venture, but it is still considerably better than any of the Marvel/Avenger movies. 

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Justice League benefits greatly from Zack Snyder's visual style that gives the film a distinct look and feel that the flat and cinematically dull Marvel films lack entirely. Snyder's Justice League world looks like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, which is only heightened by its being populated  by hordes of villains, para-demons, who may very well have flown out of a Bosch painting. Snyder has always thrived when it comes to giving a film a distinguishing and original look, and so it is with Justice League.

On the other hand, Snyder has always struggled with narrative clarity and cohesion and while he doesn't excel at that in Justice League, he doesn't entirely flounder either. Justice League is more coherently structured than Batman v. Superman and flows better, that comes at the expense of dumbing things down and settling for a standard and generic approach over a more complex and challenging one.

I had a chance to see the extended directors cut of Batman v Superman and thought it added a great deal to the film and I hope that Warner Brothers releases an extended Zack Snyder cut of Justice League as well at some point as I think that Snyder can be at his best when he is free of the restraints of running length and focus groups. 

Justice League is greatly enhanced by a top notch cast that all do solid if not spectacular work. I realize I am in the minority here but I think Ben Affleck does a terrific job as Batman. Affleck's caped crusader is a grizzled, aching and aging icon struggling to keep up with his more supernaturally endowed colleagues and keep the undefeated father time at bay. Affleck is not an actor whose work I have been impressed with over his career, but his brooding Batman is second only to Christian Bale, and it isn't a distant second either.

Gal Gadot is simply sublime as Wonder Woman for the second time this year. Gadot is such a charismatic, magnetic and dynamic power it is impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she is on screen. Gadot's commanding screen presence never feels forced or disingenuous, but always feels grounded, earthy and forceful.  

Jason Mamoa and Ezra Miller do solid supporting work as Aquaman and Flash. Their roles are used to good comedic effect in Justice League (they do most of the previously mentioned "lightening up") but they could have been greatly bungled in the hands of lesser actors. Both Mamoa and Miller never push too hard and they make specific choices for their characters while never settling for half measures when bringing them to life. I don't know if Aquaman or the Flash will be able to carry a film on their own, but we shall see soon enough. 

As for my biggest issues with Justice League…the first and most pressing issue was that the CGI seemed to be rather sub par. Steppenwolf was the arch villain in the film and instead of using a human actor, they made him entirely of CGI. The CGI simply did not look real or believable and so it felt like the members of the Justice League were fighting a really evil cartoon character. 

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Another example of bad CGI is such a remarkable tale it demands retelling. The opening scene of the film shows a flashback of Henry Cavill as Superman being interviewed on a video phone by some local kids. Cavill, who is impossibly handsome, looks very...weird in the scene. I couldn't place it at first, but there was something wrong with his face. As I looked closer I could see his mouth was deformed. I started wondering if Henry Cavill in real life had an accident or been sick and was left with some sort of facial paralysis or something. I noticed the same issue at other points in the film featuring Cavill as well and was completely distracted by it every time. When I got home I searched the internet and found out the story behind the bizarre look of Superman. 

The story goes that Cavill was signed on to shoot Mission Impossible 6 (God help us all) once he wrapped shooting Justice League. Justice League director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film in post-production due to the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon stepped in to replace him. The studio wanted Whedon to do a plethora of re-shoots to change the tone of the film which they feared was too dark like Batman v. Superman. Whedon complied and did a great deal of re-shoots to the sum of $25 million. Bringing back Cavill for Superman was tricky though because he was currently shooting MI6 and had grown a mustache for his role and was contractually obligated to not shave it off for the duration of that shoot. So Warner Brothers, the studio of Justice League, which had a budget of $300 million, was at the mercy of Paramount, the home studio of Mission Impossible, in regards to their star Superman. Paramount, not surprisingly since they are not in the business of making life easy for their competition, wouldn't let Cavill get rid of the mustache. So billion dollar company Warner Brothers, who was spending $300 million on Justice League, was not allowed to walk down to CVS and get a Bic razor for 99 cents in order to shave the face of the star of their movie. The movie business is completely and utterly insane. 

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Superman and Steppenwolf's faces aren't the only missteps in Justice League. The enormity of the plot was a bit burdensome as well. All of these superhero movies now revolve around end of the world cataclysms that seem to me to be overkill. Whether it is the Justice League or the Avengers or anyone else, the threat of global annhilation is so overplayed as to be ridiculously redundant. And as much as I think Steppenwolf in theory is an excellent villain (although as stated he didn't look right in the film) and his minions the para-demons are quality Miltonian/Boschean foils, the scenario presented by their assault on Earth felt much too similar to The Avengers plots with Loki or Ultron. In execution I think Justice League pulled that scenario off better than The Avengers, but that doesn't make their lack of originality any less of a creative sin. 

The political subtext of Justice League is pretty interesting. Steppenwolf is a Putin-esque, power hungry warlord who begins his quest for total world domination in what is alleged to be a small Russian town but looks an awful lot like Chernobyl in Ukraine. Justice League accurately captures the divided mess that is our current world as we stagger and stumble from a uni-polar world protected by Superman/U.S. to a multi-polar world reigned over by God knows who, that acts like a bi-polar world. 

The Justice League itself is obviously a metaphor for the United Nations or the defunct League of Nations, in which the good guys protect the globe from the bad guys. Of course, life is never as clearly defined as that, and in our world it is becoming more and more difficult to discover who is good and who is bad. To Justice League's credit, the good guys aren't always so good and they struggle to find their place in the world.

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After seeing Justice League I did something I rarely do, which is go read other reviews of the film. Critics have savaged the film with an unabashed glee and seem to have a pre-disposition against the movie. While it was never stated, I think that predisposition to critical displeasure with Justice League (and Batman V. Superman) may have to do with critics subconsciously comparing the film to the last "Batman" movies which were Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy which are a far, far superior collection of films. Any superhero films compared to the Dark Knight Trilogy will pale in comparison as Nolan has raised the superhero bar beyond anyones reach with those phenomenal films. To be extremely clear, Batman v. Superman and Justice League are not The Dark Knight series, not even remotely close, but that doesn't mean they are completely devoid of any redeeming value.

The mythic and archetypal energies at the core of all of these these superhero stories, be they DC or Marvel, is the same, it is just the window dressing that changes. The core archetypes at the heart of superhero stories are what resonate with our collective psyches. Just as the Greeks told stories of their Gods, we tell stories of our mythic gods…Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Flash. These comic book characters and the Greek gods are the same archetypes but are only wearing different masks. 

In conclusion, I found Justice League to be a pleasant surprise of a movie that wasn't great, but was certainly better than its buzz would indicate. Justice League is a solid companion piece to Batman v Superman and in fact enhances that film a great deal in hindsight. If you love superhero films then I recommend you go see Justice League in the theatre while it is still there. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about superhero films then you can definitely skip it in the theatre and catch it at your leisure on cable or Netflix. And finally, in this holiday season when we anticipate a bounty of gifts beneath the Christmas tree, let Justice League be a lesson to us all, that low expectations are the golden key to a happy existence. 

©2017