"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

Parasite: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A fantastically original film, gloriously directed and acted, that is both dramatically potent and politically insighftul.

Language: Korean with English subtitles

Parasite, directed and co-written by Bong Joon-Ho, is the story of the Kim family, who live at the bottom rung of Korean society and try to connive their way out of poverty. The film stars Song Kang-ho as father Ki-taek, Jang Hye-jin as mother Chung-sook, Choi Woo-shik as son Ki-woo and Park So-dam as daugher Ki-jong.

Parasite is an exquisitely crafted film that, although it is in Korean with English subtitles, speaks as eloquently and insighftully about the perils of American capitalism and the growing resentment and rage born out of astronomical wealth disparity, as any film in recent memory. In this way Parasite is reminiscent of last year’s Shoplifters and this year’s big movie Joker. All three of these movies tap into the pulsating dissatisfaction of the working poor who are being left further and further behind, and growing angrier and angrier about it, with every passing day.

Whenever certain themes recur in films that capture either the critical or commercial imagination (or both), my antenna stand on end because as my studies have shown, cinema can be prophecy, and these films are red flags as to what is percolating just beneath the surface in the collective sub-conscious. One look around America, and the world, gives credance to the theory that these films, all of which give voice to the emotional pull of populist uprisings, are trying to warn us of what lies ahead.

Parasite is a brilliant examination of the frustration and fury that accompanies being at the bottom of the social rung in a corrupt and rigged capitalist system. The only way to get ahead and get out of the prison of debt, and it is a prison, is to lie, scheme and cheat. If that means throwing other poor people under the bus, then so be it.

Director Bong Joon-ho has tapped into these ideas of class struggle before, most notably in his film Snowpiercer (which starred Chris Evans aka Captain America), which was a remarkably innovative and original film. Bong’s class consciousness in both Parasite and Snowpiercer is fueled by anger and fear… namely, fear for what will result when the anger from below is righteously unleashed upon those at the top when the house of cards crumbles. Bong, either consciously or unconsciously, understands that the current world order sits atop a super volcano that is growing more and more unstable and combustible, and his film’s reflect the emotional and political fragility of our time.

In Parasite, the poor are vermin, roaches, who are either being pissed on or drowned, as poverty is a deluge that imposes upon them indignity after indignity until it suffocates them. The poor are forced to stay in their place and warned not to “cross the line” into familiarity with the rich. The prison of poverty has walls, both real and imagined, that are impenetrable…even when you repeatedly bang your head against them…like Arthur Fleck does in Joker (wink).

The rich family in Parasite, the Parks, are the picture of decadence, detached from the ability to see the poor as even human. The Parks are repulsed by the poor, who they see as more akin to animals than people, as evidenced by their disgust at the literal smell of poverty. The Park’s revulsion at the poor does not stop them from fetishizing poverty, much like Americans fetishize Native Americans but make sure they stay on the reservation (wink)…just one more way for the rich to exploit the poor for their personal gain.

Parasite’s politics and psychology are as insightful as its drama is enrapturing. The film never shies from the difficult or the desperate, nor does it wallow in it. Instead Bong Joon-ho has made a socially relevant, dramatically explosive film that is deliriously entertaining in every single way.

Bong’s direction of Paradise is fantastic, as the film’s dramatic and physical geometry is spectacular. His use of straight lines, differing levels (symbolic of class status) and long journeys upward and downward (very similar to Joker, where Arthur Fleck makes those trudging journeys up the long flight of stairs, and the victorious dance down it) is proof of a master craftsman and artist at work.

Bong’s ability to meld together comedy, suspense, elements of thriller, as well as social commentary is extraordinary. I never knew what was coming next in Paradise and was always surprised, sometimes shocked and never disappointed.

The cast of Paradise are outstanding. Song Kang-ho in particular gives a dynamic performance that is consistently rich and layered. And both Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam do stellar work that is both magnetic and subtle. Park in particular has a charm and presence about her that is intriguing and compelling.

Parasite is one of the very best film’s of the year and most certainly will garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Picture, if not a win, and may even sneak in a Best Picture nod. The film is expertly made, wonderfully acted, politically prescient and dramatically potent, for these reasons, Parasite is required viewing for cinephiles and regular folk alike. My recommendation is to go as quickly as you can to the art house and see Parasite…it is that good. And after that, head to the cineplex to see Joker…again, and then when you get home watch Shoplifters (I see it is now available on the streaming service HULU)…because they are that good too. If you want to know what is coming for America and the world, and why, go watch those three movies. But make sure you go see Parasite as quickly as you can…it is truly a fantastic film and well worth you time and money.

©2019

Greta Van Fleet - Hollywood Palladium: A Review

GRETA VAN FLEET - HOLLYWOOD PALLADIUM - OCTOBER 6, 2019

Greta Van Fleet are a hard rock band from Michigan currently on tour in support of their album Anthem of the Peaceful Army. I ventured out solo on Sunday night to catch their second of two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Palladium.

Greta Van Fleet are comprised of the three Kiszka brothers, Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar) and Sam (bass/keyboards) along with Danny Wagner on drums. The band came to prominence by making some waves in the stagnant rock genre with the release of two popular EP’s in 2017, Black Smoke Rising and the double EP, From the Fires.

Greta Van Fleet has been both praised and maligned as being a Led Zeppelin clone. The main reason for the Led Zeppelin comparisons are that singer Josh Kiszka has a Robert Plant-esque, high pitched singing voice that often emulates Plant’s signature wail. That said, the comparisons to Zeppelin are entirely unfair to Greta Van Fleet because Zeppelin is one of the handful of all-time great rock bands ever to strut the earth. Greta Van Fleet are not Led Zeppelin and never will be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good in their own way. Of course, when expectations are set so high by Zeppelin comparisons, let downs or resentments are sure to follow, and sure enough Greta Van Fleet has, I think unfairly, been ridiculed by many.

I was alerted to Greta Van Fleet back in ‘17 by my friend Red Dragon, who is a music afficionado exrtraordinaire. I thought the band’s songs Black Smoke Rising and Highway Tune, which are featured on both of their EPs, stood out as quality songs and much-needed solid rock hits.

The band’s debut LP, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, came out in October of 2018, and was a top-selling album upon its release. I checked out Anthem and while I liked some of it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did their EPs. I got my first glance at Greta Van Fleet live when they played Saturday Night Live in January of 2019. I was excited to see them on tv, but their performance was…underwhelming…to say the least. I found singer Josh Kiszka’s vocals to be pretty grating live and his overall rock star presentation to be at best sorely lacking, and at worst embarrassing.

Despite my lukewarm feelings about the band’s SNL gig, when I saw they were playing the Hollywood Palladium I quickly snatched up a general admission ticket. The ticket was moderately priced, after all the fees and such I think I paid 60 something bucks for it, and in my opinion it is always best to err on the side of going to concerts than skipping them.

Since I was flying solo, I did not , much to my chagrin, have a pre-show Shake Shack meal. Instead I waited until pretty late before heading out to the venue. When I got to the Palladium at 7:15 for the 7:00 show, the line to get in was around the block. The line went quickly though and the general vibe from fans was one of good will. In fact, a young couple waiting in line in front of me didn’t even have tickets and were trying to buy them online when an older couple walked past asking if “anyone needed free tickets”. The young couple said yes and this older couple took a few minutes and actually texted them two free tickets. Apparently the older couple’s two kids didn’t want to go to the show so they just gave the tickets away. It was an incredibly kind act and the couple in front of me were giddy with karmic bliss for the rest of our wait together.

I had never been to the Palladium before and was interested to see the space. The first thing that stood out to me was that the Palladium staff were exceedingly polite and good-natured. Both the security staff who worked the metal detectors, and the guy checking tickets, were very pleasant and warmly told me to “enjoy the show”. This may not seem like much, but considering the treatment you usually get from staff at concerts, this was extraordinary.

It was a general admission show so I scanned the area inside the Palladium and then made my way to about the 12th row of bodies from stage left. People were pretty tightly packed in and it was very warm, but the atmosphere was easy going.

The opening act, Shannon and the Clams, went on at 8:05 and the crowd received them with a subdued applause. I had never heard of Shannon and the Clams and was curious as to what they were all about. The band is made up of Shannon Shaw (vocals/bass), Cody Blanchard (vocals/guitar), Will Sprott (keyboards) and Nate Mahan (drums). The band looked coolly disheveled, as the three men wear slightly mismatched, vintage suits, with Blanchard sporting a bow tie and Mahan sporting a cowboy hat and bolo tie. Shannon, a buxom, Rubenesque blond, wore a classic mini-skirt.

Shannon and the Clams played a crisp set for about 35 minutes. The set was a driving mix of original Buddy Holly-esque retro rock, rhythm and blues and garage punk all with beautiful and precise doo-wop backing vocals. Their songs were strong and the musicianship impressive, especially that of drummer Mahan who never let the band’s momentum lag.

Shannon may be the named headliner in the band, but the straw that stirs the drink is Cody Blanchard. Blanchard’s guitar playing is a mix between Buddy Holly and Dick Dale. His singing voice is higher than Shannon’s, who possesses a gritty, lower register growl, but it is superb. Blanchard also possesses an ease and welcoming confidence on stage that is very appealing. That said, he does boast what may be the worst haircut of recent memory, a sort of thinning bowl cut/mullet combo that could stop traffic with its hideousness.

Shannon Shaw is a solid bassist and has an earthy power and undeniable charm about her. Sadly, the sound mix at the Palladium was not quite as crisp as it should have been and so her lower pitched vocals often got lost. That said, the band ended their set with a truly fantastic cover of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit with Shannon on lead vocals, and she just crushed it.

Shannon and the Clams made a new fan on Sunday night, and I look forward to getting to see them again.

After Shannon and the Clams left the stage, the road crew went to work and the crowd started to swell. As the crowd swelled, some tempers flared and a near scuffle broke out near me but quickly subsided with some drunken bro-hugs and high fives.

The crowd was a very eclectic mix in terms of age. There were a lot of middle aged and old people, but a substantial number of millennials. My rough estimate would be that the crowd broke down as 40% middle-age/old and 60% teens and twenties. I did see a few moms and dads with their pre-teen kids as well.

Greta Van Fleet hit the stage at about 9 with When the Curtain Falls and were greeted with raucous cheers. What is immediately apparent upon seeing Greta Van Fleet live is that the musicianship of Jake (guitar) and Sam(bass) Kiszka and Danny Wagner, is really impressive. They are a tight trio and Jake is an absolutely filthy guitar player who plays with a demonic intensity.

The second song of the night was Edge of Darkness, and this is where things started to get interesting. The song is a rather mundane bit of rock and roll, but the rendition of it on Sunday night turned into an absolute bombshell. Seemingly out of nowhere Jake just erupted with a dynamic guitar solo that went on a combustible and entertaining odyssey. The band barely stayed with him as he just torched the Palladium and left it in a smouldering pile. He then followed it up with even more explosive playing on their hit Black Smoke Rising. These two songs combined confirmed that Jake Kiszka is the sun around which the rest of the band orbit.

Equally impressive were the rhythm section of Sam Kiszka and Danny Wagner. These guys grabbed a hold of the tiger that is Jake’s guitar playing and held on for dear life as it rampaged across Los Angeles. The chemistry between the two Kiszkas and Wagner is terrific and they are musicians to take very seriously.

The stage set up for Greta Van Fleet was pretty basic and relied a great deal on an overused smoke machine and very poor light design. The band played an, at times, uneven 11 song set, ending on a high note with a quality rendition of Highway Song. They then took an extended break and returned with a two song encore.

If you’ll notice, I have not mentioned singer Josh Kiszka yet, which is a bit unusual in a concert review. The reason for my apprehension regarding Josh is that I really, really wanted Greta Van Fleet to be great. I really want a rock band to come along that will drag the genre kicking and screaming back into relevance. Sadly…Greta Van Fleet is not that band, and the reason for it is Josh Kiszka.

Josh does hit some very high notes with authority, but he is no Robert Plant. Hell, he isn’t even David Coverdale. The reason Josh fails as a singer, and he does fail, is that his voice is totally lacking in any texture and nuance. Josh sings at a very high pitch, but that is all he is able to do. He doesn’t so much sing songs as yelp them out. He is unable to tell a story, connect emotionally or just break up the monotony with his voice. It is all one thing all the time. This was never so apparent as when the band, in tribute to the late Ginger Baker, did a cover of White Room by Cream. Josh’s vocals on that song were actually painful to listen to they were so bad.

The other issue with Josh, and I wish it wasn’t an issue worth mentioning, but it is, is that he is painfully uncool. Josh’s style is atrociously awful and only accentuates his uncoolness. Josh is a diminutive guy who looks like a Hobbit wearing a Leo Sayer wig who raided his hippy grandmother’s closet and stole the clothes she meant to burn rather than donate to Goodwill.

Josh also lacks any and all stage presence. Every single time he came on stage, which was numerous as he often disappeared off-stage for some reason, he would return by walking out and waving both hands over his head. He looked like a second grader getting off a school bus desperate to be welcomed warmly by his parents at the bus stop.

Josh has no rock star energy about him at all. He is not physically connected and can’t move well, and therefore he wanders the stage like a kid lost at the mall. When brother Jake is off on one of his meteoric guitar solos, Josh grabs a tambourine and flamboyantly plays it totally out of rhythm and looking ridiculous as he awkwardly and aimlessly, but energetically, gallivants around.

Some people, like Jim Morrison for instance, are born with “it”, while others, like Mick Jagger, have to manufacture “it”. Whether you are born with “it” or manufacture “it” doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you possess “it”. Josh Kiszka does not possess “it”. What he possesses is an “anti-it”, which is a shame because his brothers Jake and Sam definitely have “it”. These two aren’t just great musicians, unlike their singing brother, they are great showmen.

Maybe the stars will align and with experience Josh will grow and gain some stage presence, a stronger persona and identity, get a better stylist and then learn the finer nuances of singing and the vocal instrument. I certainly hope that happens and that the band become a huge success and revitalize the moribund world of rock and roll….but I’m not optimistic.

Sadly, it feels right now like Greta Van Fleet will have minimal staying power with Josh Kiszka as their front man. They can certainly grow as a band, and no doubt will over the next two or three albums…but with Josh as their singer they have a very clear and limited ceiling. Of course, since the band are three brothers and another guy, and the problem with the band isn’t the other guy, they aren’t going to replace their brother. So it seems that the Greta Van Fleet problems of today could be set in stone sans major development by Josh.

In conclusion, Greta Van Fleet are not Led Zeppelin, and hopefully they aren’t even Greta Van Fleet yet. Despite the band’s sterling musicianship, the vocals and presentation of lead singer Josh Kiszka are an albatross around its neck. The bottom line is this, the lead singer of Greta Van Fleet needs to be cooler than Greta Van Susteren, and he isn’t. Maybe in another year or two Josh Kiszka and his voice will have matured and will blossom into the rock star we truly need right now. I was rooting for him to succeed on Sunday night, and I’ll be rooting for him to succeed going forward.

SET LIST

When the Curtain Falls

Edge of Darkness

Black Smoke Rising

The Music is You (John Denver cover)

You’re the One

Age of Man

Black Flag Exposition

White Room (Cream cover)

The Cold Wind

Mountain of the Sun

Highway Tune

ENCORE

Flower Power

Safari Song

©2019

Joker: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill, down on his luck clown-for-hire and stand up comedian, who transforms into Batman’s arch-nemesis, the super-villain Joker. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Fleck, with supporting turns from Robert DeNiro, Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz.

Early Thursday night I put my life in my hands and made the dangerous trek to the local art house to see Joker in 70mm. Thankfully, no angry white incels were laying in wait for me, so I lived to tell the tale of my Joker cinematic experience…here it is.

I went to Joker with very high hopes, but paradoxically, because I had such high hopes, I assumed I’d be disappointed by the film. My bottom line regarding Joker is this…it is a brilliant film of remarkable depth and insight, a gritty masterpiece that is a total game-changer for the comic book genre, and a staggering cinematic achievement for director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix.

Joker is the cinematic bastard son of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece of 1970’s New Hollywood, Taxi Driver. Beyond being an homage, it is more an updated bookend to that classic, engineered for the corporatized Hollywood of the 21st century.

The film’s Taxi Driver lineage is hiding in plain sight, as it has similar music, shots, camera angles and even re-purposes the famed finger gun to the head move. Joker’s Gotham, is eerily reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s New York City of the 1970’s, which Travis Bickle aptly describes as “sick and venal”. I couldn’t help but think of my Los Angeles neighborhood when seeing Joker’s dilapidated Gotham, with its garbage piled high on every sidewalk and a layer of filth covering the city. In “sick and venal” Los Angeles, we are much too evolved to have garbage piled high on our sidewalks, no, out here in La La Land, even in million dollar neighborhoods, people are disposable and so we we have them piled high on the sidewalks instead, as homelessness is epidemic. Joker’s Gotham, Bickle’s New York and my Los Angeles also share a deep coating of grime as well as a thriving rat population that is disease-ridden and increasingly bold, both in and out of public office.

Joker’s depiction of Gotham as a Bickle-esque New York is fascinating bit of sub-text, as it is a throwback to a time before Manhattan was Disney-fied and Times Square turned from degenerate porn hub to hub of capitalism porn. Joker is also a throwback to a time before cinema was corporatized/Disney-fied, a pre-Heaven’s Gate age, when filmmakers like Scorsese could flourish and make movies like Taxi Driver, unhindered by suits blind to everything but the bottom line.

Joker ‘s genius is also because it is a “real movie”, a Taxi Driver/The King of Comedy covertly wrapped in the corporate cloak of superhero intellectual property. Unlike the sterile Marvel movie behemoths, which Scorsese himself recently described as “not cinema" and which are more akin to amusement park rides than movies, Joker is, at its heart, a down and dirty 1970’s dramatic character study, for this reason alone the film is brilliantly subversive and a stake into the heart of the Disney Goliath.

It is astonishing that Todd Phillips, whose previous films are the comedies Old School and The Hangover trilogies, was able to conceive of, and execute, Joker with such artistic precision and commitment. Phillip’s success with Joker is reminiscent of Adam McKay’s astounding direction of The Big Short (2015). Previous to The Big Short, McKay had basically been Will Ferrell’s caddie, making silly movies well, but they were still silly movies. McKay’s long term film making prowess is still in question, as is Phillip’s, but that does not diminish their mastery on The Big Short and Joker.

Phillip’s direction really is fantastic, but he is also greatly benefited by having the greatest actor working in cinema as his leading man. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker is an astonishing feat. Phoenix famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) lost a great deal of weight to play the role, and his wiry, sinewy frame at times seems like a marionette possessed by a demon outcast from American bandstand or Soul Train. Fleck/Joker’s madness is seemingly chaotic, but Phoenix gives it an internal logic and order, that makes it emotionally coherent.

Phoenix is a master at connecting to a volatile emotionality within his characters, and of giving his character’s a distinct and very specific physicality. What is often overlooked with Phoenix is his level of meticulousness and superior craftsmanship in his work. Joker is no exception as his exquisite skill is on full display right alongside his compellingly volcanic unpredictability. Phoenix’s subtle use of breath, his hands, as well as his attention and focus are miraculous.

Phoenix is a revolutionary actor. He is so good, so skilled, so talented, that he is reinventing the art form. His work as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) was a landmark in the art form, and his performance in Joker is equally earth shattering. If he does not win an Best Actor Oscar for Joker, whoever does win the award should be ashamed of themselves for stealing the statuette from its rightful recipient.

Contrary to establishment media critical opinion, Phoenix does not make Arthur a sympathetic character, but he does make him an empathetic one, and one with which we empathize. We don’t feel sorry for Arthur, we feel kinship with him as he struggles to maintain some semblance of dignity in a society allergic to compassion.

Joker was described by its detractors as being “dangerous”, and I can attest that the film is indeed dangerous, but not for the reasons laid out by its critics. Joker is dangerous because it dares to do something that corporate controlled art has long since deemed anathema…it tells the very ugly truth.

Joker has the artistic audacity to peel back the scab of modern America and reveal the maggot infested, infected wound pulsating in agony just beneath our civilized veneer. Joker’s chaotic madness is a perfect reflection of the sickness of our time. Think Joker is too “nihilistic” or “negative”? Turn on a television, read a newspaper or take a cross-country flight, and you’ll see that the nihilism and negativity of Joker are nothing compared to the madhouse in which we currently live.

Arthur Fleck is America, as the country, populated by narcissists, neanderthals and ne’er do wells, has devolved and self-destructed, rotting from the inside out after decades of decadence, delusion and depravity. America is rapidly degrading and devolving, and that devolution is mirrored by Arthur Fleck has he transforms into Joker.

Joker is unnerving to mainstream media critics because it shines the spotlight on the disaffected and dissatisfied in America, who are legion, growing in numbers and getting angrier by the hour. As I have witnessed in my own life, the rage, resentment and violent mental instability among the populace in America is like a hurricane out in the Atlantic, gaining more power and force as every day passes, and inevitably heading right toward landfall and a collision with highly populated urban centers that will inevitably result in a conflagration of epic proportions.

Joker, the consummate trickster, is devoid of politics and ideology and exists only to feed and satiate his own voracious madness. Fleck is an empty vessel and the Joker archetype co-opts and animates him. Fleck, born again as Joker, is adopted as a symbol for the struggles of the angry and the desperate, in other words, Joker is the archetype of our times, a Trumpian figure, who unintentionally inspires others, friend and foe alike, to release their inhibitions and unleash their inner demons. Joker is dangerous because he is an avatar for the rage, resentment and desperation of millions upon millions of Americans who have been forgotten and left behind and are utterly despised by the elite. Joker is both apolitical and all political. The populist Joker is both Antifa and the Alt-Right. Joker is everything and nothing to everyone and nobody all at once. The media in the movie, and in real life, make Joker into a monster, an icon and an iconic monster for the dispossessed, elevating him in the eyes of those desperately seeking a savior.

In a perverted and brilliant way, Phillips and Phoenix make Fleck into a Jesus figure, who as he transforms into Joker, becomes an unwitting Christ/anti-Christ. The line between messiah and madman is a thin one, and depends almost entirely on projection and perspective.

Arthur Fleck, like Jesus, is literally someone who is repeatedly kicked when he is down. Like Jesus, society ignores and despises him. Like Jesus he is berated, belittled and beaten…and yet all he wants to do is make people smile. Like Jesus, Fleck’s birth story is convoluted and lacks coherence.

What makes Phoenix’s portrayal so chilling is that his Fleck earnestly desires to bring joy to the world just like Jesus…and just as Jesus is actually a good magician/miracle worker, Fleck is actually a good clown, filled with energy and purpose. But Arthur soon realizes that there are two jokes at play in the universe…the one where he is the punchline, and the one in his head, of which he is self-aware enough to realize regular people “won’t get it”. Jesus makes the same sort of discovery during his temptations, he hears a “joke” in his head too, but it is the voice of God, and he comes to realize no one else will “get it” either. Fleck and Jesus are presented the same two paths, Jesus takes the one of self-sacrifice and becomes the Christ, and Fleck takes the road of human sacrifice, and becomes The Joker/Satan.

At its core Joker is a character study, and so there is not a lot of heavy lifting among the cast besides Joaquin Phoenix. That said, Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beets all do solid work with the material they have.

The film is shot with an exquisite grittiness by Lawrence Sher. Sher pays adoring homage to Taxi Driver by using certain specific camera shots and angles throughout the film. Sher also uses shadow and light really well to convey Fleck’s/Joker’s perspective and his tenuous grasp on reality. Sher, like Phillips, does not have a resume that would make you think he was capable of doing such substantial work, but in the case of these two men past was not prologue.

Joker is one of those movies that reminds you why cinema matters, as it uses the tired and worn comic book genre to draw viewers in, and then sticks the knife of brutal cultural commentary deep into their chests.

Joker has been at the center of of a cultural storm ever since it premiered to a raucous ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September. The film won the Golden Lion (Best Picture) at Venice and was quickly catapulted into the Oscar discussion, which created a fierce backlash against the film from certain American critics and woke twitter. The common refrain from those critics who saw it at Venice, and those who hadn’t, was that the film was “dangerous” because it would incite disaffected white men to become violent. In researching an article I recently wrote about the controversy, I came across a stunning number of articles with the imploring and weak-kneed headline, “Joker is Not the Movie We Need Right Now”. Of course, the converse is true because Joker is exactly the movie we need right now.

The critical opinion of Joker, especially among the critics at influential media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Time, is aggressively negative and dismissive, riddled with a belittling and condescending commentary. The criticisms leveled at the film from these effete establishment critics are obviously contrived, petty, personal, political and entirely predetermined. The amount of intentional obtuseness on display about Joker, its cinematic sophistication and its artistic merits, by these supposed important critics is stunning and revealing.

The critical malevolence toward Joker is undoubtedly fueled by a need to virtue signal and pander to woke culture, and is born out of personal contempt for the filmmaker (who dared defend himself against “woke culture”) and manufactured anger at the subject matter. The poor reviews of Joker by these American critics says considerably more about those critics, their dishonesty and lack of integrity, than it does about Joker. Make no mistake, Joker is a masterpiece in its own depraved way, and the critics who succumb to the myopic social pressure and cultural politics of the moment by reflexively trashing the movie as immoral and artistically and cinematically unworthy, will be judged extremely harshly by history.

In looking at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Joker currently has a critical score of 69 and an audience score of 91. The disconnect between critics and audience on Joker is similar to the disconnect on display regarding Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix stand up special Sticks and Stones. Chappelle’s show was pilloried by critics who were horrified by the comedian’s “unwoke” and decidedly politically incorrect take on the world, as the critical score is currently at 35, while the audience score is a resounding 99. It would seem that in our current age, bubble-dwelling, group-thinking critics in the mainstream media, are no longer interested in artistic merit, cinematic worthiness, skill, craftsmanship or talent, but rather in personal politics, woke ideology, political correctness and conformity, and are dishonest brokers when it comes to judging art and entertainment.

Joker is a watershed for the comic book genre. In the future film historians will look back on this time and say that there comic book films pre-Joker and comic book films post-Joker. There is no going back for the genre. That does not mean that Marvel will immediately crumble and fall into the sea, but it does mean that the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no getting it back in. Jason Concepcion and Sean Fennessy at The Ringer recently pondered if Joker is to the superhero genre what The Wild Bunch was to westerns back in 1969. They are not so sure, but I certainly think is as genre redefining or killing as The Wild Bunch. The Disney/Marvel model, post-Endgame and post-Joker, will only see diminishing cultural resonance and relevance, as well as financial returns, from this point forward. The superhero genre will not disappear overnight, but it has begun its long retreat from its apex, and God only knows what will eventually replace it.

In conclusion, Joker is a mirror, and it reflects the degeneracy, depravity and sheer madness that is engulfing America. Joker is an extremely dark film, but that is because America is an extremely dark place at the moment. Joker is unquestionably one of the very best films of the year and should be, but probably won’t be, an Oscar front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. I highly recommend you go see Joker in theatres as soon as you possibly can, as it is must-see viewing for anyone interested in cinema, art or in understanding what is rapidly coming for America.

©2019

Ad Astra: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A profound meditation on masculinity that boasts an Oscar worthy Brad Pitt performance in one of the very best films of the year. But be forewarned…this film is more art house than blockbuster.

Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ethan Gross, is the story of Roy McBride, an astronaut who goes to space in search of his father. The film stars Brad Pitt as Roy, with supporting turns from Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler.

I have not been to the movies in quite a while, the reason being that there has been nothing playing that I considered worthy of paying $15 to see. Ad Astra was one film that I was aware of and which intrigued me so I thought I’d take the plunge. I did not have particularly high hopes for the movie because the director, James Gray, has consistently turned out beautiful misfires of movies. I have seen all of Gray’s movies, which include The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, The Yards, Little Odessa, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, and he is certainly gifted at making moody, cinematically gorgeous films with solid performances that should be good but just never are. Gray’s films have consistently failed to resonate with me because the narratives are always so unfocused and his film’s structures so fundamentally unsound.

Ad Astra, which for some reason I keep inadvertently calling Ed Asner, actually means “through hardships to the stars” in Latin, and that is an apt description not only of the film’s story, but of Gray’s cinematic ambition and Pitt’s performance. The bottom line is this, Ad Astra is an intimately profound and profoundly intimate film that is absolutely stunning.

While Ad Astra is, like all of Gray’s films, deliberately paced, it is very well put together and flows seamlessly and effortlessly along its journey. The film never lags and has a forceful emotional and narrative momentum to it that makes it thoroughly compelling.

The film is set in the near future and the plot is about an astronaut going into space to track down his highly revered space exploring father. Ad Astra is similar to two other recent “space” films, First Man and High Life, that use space as a narrative device for the compartmentalization, isolation and emotional frigidity of manhood. I loved both First Man and High Life, and Ad Astra is a quality finale to this makeshift thematic trilogy.

At its core Ad Astra is a mediation on masculinity, its accompanying rage and the afflictions passed down from fathers to sons. I was deeply moved by this film because these themes have been the existential epicenter of my entire life. As a father, I am trying not to pass on the afflictions that were passed onto me by my father, down to my son. The tragedy of the masculine life though, and of my own life, is that men are often consumed by the flames of their afflictions, and no matter how hard they try, they fail in stopping the transmission of their wounds onto their male offspring. As Ad Astra tells us, “the son suffers the sins of the father”, and I know in my case I fail in the endeavor of sparing my son from my own affliction the overwhelming majority of the time. My only feint hope in redemption would seem to be my son being strong enough and resilient enough to eventually forgive me for my failings. I only hope I live long enough to see that happen…but there are no guarantees.

As I watched Ad Astra I couldn’t help but think of the 1997 Paul Schrader film Affliction, as that movie, which was set in the forbidding cold of New Hampshire which seems as isolating as the cold of space, was also about the madness of wounded masculinity being passed down from father to son like a genetic disease. Seeing Affliction for the first time rattled me to my bones, whereas Ad Astra moved me to my soul.

Ad Astra is also reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now (there are a bunch of small clues paying homage to Apocalypse Now in this film…from Brad Pitt’s voice over to his answering a question by saying “that’s classified”, to a detour with a brief but distinctly surreal musical number…among many others), as the demanding evolutionary journey of the main character is not only outward but inward. McBride’s journey deeper into space is like Willard’s journey down the river in Apocalypse Now. The compulsion, bordering on madness, to make that journey, is akin to Hamlet’s musings on the “undiscovered country, from whose bourn, no traveller returns”. Put another way, you never go back up the river (if indeed you are even able to go back up the river), the same man you went down, and the same is true of space.

2019 is turning into the year of Brad Pitt. This past July, Pitt garnered raves and Oscar buzz for star turn in Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That movie, and Pitt’s charismatic performance in it, put Brad Pitt squarely back in the center of the cultural zeitgeist, with women swooning over his shirtless antenna repairs (a weird connection between Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Brad Pitt repairing antennas! What does it mean?!?!?!) and men wanting to be cool like him.

Pitt has always been more a pretty face than an actor of any heft, but as he enters his late middle-age, he seems to have settled into himself and found a more grounded place from which to build his characters and to be genuine on screen, and that has never been more evident than in his powerful performance in Ad Astra.

Pitt’s work in Ad Astra is a thing of subtle beauty and genius, and is easily the greatest work of his long career. Pitt’s Roy McBride is a layered creature, wrapped tight enough to control the volcanic, primal rage that courses through his veins, and to regulate his own heart beat, but that control is a tenuous thing when McBride’s inner wound pulsates. Pitt’s once flawless face is now weathered, and his every wrinkle and every slight movement of his facial muscles in Ad Astra, tell epic stories of the emotional pain suffered and psychological crosses borne deep within McBride.

Pitt, the charismatic, eye-candy movie star, was on full display in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and his star power carries Ad Astra from start to finish too, the difference here though is that Pitt also gives an exquisitely precise and detailed acting performance that gives his character, and the movie, depth and profound meaning.

The rest of Ad Astra’s cast all do splendid work, with Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland making the utmost of the rather small roles they inhabit.

The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema is simply gorgeous. Hoytema’s use of shadow and light is stunning as he creates a precise, austere yet visually vibrant background upon which the emotional journey of the film takes place. Hoytema, who won the prestigious Mickey©® award for his spectacular work in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, is among the best cinematographers working today, and Ad Astra is among his greatest work.

The entire aesthetic of the film is superb as the visual effects of the film look fantastic, as the near futuristic world in which the story takes place is entirely believable, and the script also enhances the authenticity of the film, as the minute details of the future world seem mundanely accurate, as does the science. The soundtrack, made by Max Richter, is brilliant as well, and helps to create an unnerving and ominous mood that flows through the film like a river, inevitable and occasionally swelling.

In conclusion, Ad Astra is the film where James Gray’s peculiar talents, aesthetic and style finally come together in a supernova of cinematic brilliance, and the result is a psychologically insightful and poignant film that speaks profound truths about the affliction and isolation of masculinity as it struggles to find its place in our cold, forbidding modern world.

As to whether I can recommend this film to people or not, I find myself in a conundrum. Ad Astra, which is definitely more art house than blockbuster, resonated so deeply and personally with me that I do not know if it will do the same with other people. I think women in particular might have a hard time connecting with the film, which has a paucity of female roles and minimal female dialogue, only because it is exclusively focused on the masculinity. That said…maybe women, who often bear the burden of the wounded masculinity of the men in their lives, will find solace and understanding in the film. I honestly do not know…all I know is that Ad Astra was one of the very best films I have seen this year, and spoke eloquently and astutely to the seemingly endless war that forever rages within me. If a war rages within you or within someone you love, maybe you should go see this movie, it might be a salve for wounds unseen, or better yet, an impetus for a much needed cease fire.

©2019

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This film is mildly amusing but lack any and all insight into it’s subject.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, directed by Ben Berman, chronicles the difficulties of making a documentary about the moderately famous magician/prop comic, Amazing Jonathan, as he mounts a comeback while suffering from a terminal medical condition. The film is currently streaming on Hulu.

Jonathan Szeles, otherwise known as The Amazing Jonathan, is a third rate, c-level comedian who hit it big and became a Vegas mainstay with his relentless and hackneyed magic-comedy. From 2001 to 2014 he was a year-round headliner in the City of Sin and made a nice fortune for himself doing so. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a heart condition and given one year to live…so he retired from performing. Four years later he was still alive and so decided to head back out and do some more shows, and director Ben Berman decided to document it all.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is a film about desperation, the desperation of Jonathan to find meaning and purpose in the last years of his life, and the desperation of Ben Berman not only to find a story to tell when the truth is elusive, but to make a name for himself.

The Amazing Jonathan is an amusing persona, and getting a glimpse into this character’s supposed reality is often-times chuckle-inducing. Amazing Jonathan is, to put it mildly, detached from objective reality, and our brief jaunts through his subjective reality are certainly revealing of the oddity of his peculiar head space.

The problem though is that documentarian Ben Berman only gives us ever-so-brief glimpses into the persona of The Amazing Jonathan, but never breaks through the armor of that veneer and gives us the Jonathan Szeles living deep with in it. In this way the film is little more than a reality tv show that gives viewers canned and manipulated “performances’ and considers them to be “truth”.

In addition, Berman must deal with a series of absurdities regarding the actual film making process, and thus must scramble to adapt to new circumstances and try and cobble together a coherent narrative. Berman fails to overcome these obstacles for a variety of reasons, the most glaring is that instead of keeping the film focused on Jonathan, he makes the film about himself.

Berman switches mid-way through the film to using ham-fisted attempts at personal poignancy, psychological profundity and displays of artistic despair, in order to fill in the gaps of the story due to his inadequacies as a documentarian. These Berman performative sequences all ring hollow, manufactured and exploitative and radiate with an odious shamelessness. In short, Berman comes across as a very bad actor, and yet he tries to make himself the star of his movie because he thinks he is so interesting despite his obvious lack of charisma and likability.

Berman’s attempt at participatory documentary film making feels painfully self-serving and narcissisticly masturbatorial. In order to pull off this style of documentary film making, the director must be a unique yet pleasant character, think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, not a nebbish desperate for attention, which is how Ben Berman, who is neither unique nor pleasant and is no Michael Moore or Morgan Suprlock, comes across. Berman goes to such great lengths to make a spectacle of himself in this film that when it isn’t painfully embarrassing it is plain annoying. The film devolves to become such a self-serving enterprise that Berman basically turns it into a blatant job interview.

The behind the scenes, movie making insider stuff, will no doubt resonate with anyone who has ever made a movie, particularly a documentary. Jonathan is an erratic nightmare of a subject, and Berman being stuck in his house of horrors does deliver some comedy, but that doesn’t make it even remotely insightful or worthwhile. Watching Jonathan torture Berman is satisfying on a sadistic level for the viewer and a masochistic level for Berman, but we came here to try and understand Jonathan, and none of that stuff gives us any deeper understanding of who he really is or what drives him.

What is so frustrating about The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is that Berman’s narcissistic focus distracts from Jonathan, and leaves his story, in essence, untold. I was left with a nagging feeling after watching this movie that, as difficult a nut as Jonathan is to crack, a more talented, more skilled, more dedicated and less vain film maker would have been able to break through and expose the actual truth about Jonathan. In essence this film is a documentation of Berman’s utter failure to do his job, which is to peel back the layers of The Amazing Jonathan and reveal the complexity and truth at the core of this strange and twisted man. Instead Berman gives us his reactions and responses to dealing with a difficult and temperamental performer…oooh…how groundbreaking….we’d get better insights watching The Bachelorette.

In conclusion, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is an occasionally intriguing, but ultimately underwhelming documentary experience. Sadly, while the film is amusing in parts and absurd in others, it all feels a bit too self-serving and contrived to be of any genuine value. That said, if you work in the entertainment industry or on documentary films, you will probably appreciate the movie a bit more than the average Joe only because you will have had, at least once, similarly bizarre experiences with obliviously entitled talent.

©2019

Rojo: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An exquisitely well-made and deliriously insightful film that, although set in Argentina in the 1970’s, tells an uncomfortable truth about our current time.

Language: Spanish with subtitles in English

Rojo, written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat, is the story of Claudio, a small-town lawyer navigating the moral and ethical maze of 1975 Argentina. The film stars Dario Grandinetti as Claudio, with supporting turns from Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro and Diego Cremonesi.

I knew absolutely nothing about Rojo when I made the trek to the local art house to see it the same week I saw Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. After suffering through the abysmal cinema of the first half of 2019, it was an absolute joy to stumble upon this hidden foreign gem the same week Tarantino’s surefire Oscar nominee hit big screens.

Rojo is an exquisite piece of cinema and art that boasts as impressive and compelling an opening scene as any film in recent memory. The movie sinks its teeth in early, but then wraps itself around you so slowly, and seductively, you won’t notice until it is too late and you are deep in its grip. Once captive to its unflinching exploration humanity, its subtly haunting sub-text, and off-beat charm, you are gifted a brilliant mix of psuedo-Lynchian oddities, and a plethora of unnerving personal, psychological and political insights.

What makes Rojo so exquisite is that it is most definitely THE film for our time. Set in the 1970’s in Argentina, the film tells the story of how fascism thrives in the moral and ethical vacuum in our hearts and souls. Even the most minute moral or ethical corruption can give authoritarianism a foothold in our hearts, from which it, like the film itself, wraps itself around us and squeezes not only the life, but humanity, out of us all. Rojo reveals that all of us are complicit, either explicitly or implicitly, with the brutality of authoritarianism, and are so easily seduced through selfishness or laziness to aid and abet in horrors we think we are incapable of committing.

Rojo beautifully uses symbolism to tell a much deeper story, such as the castration of a bull to show how primal masculinity must be isolated and neutered in order to eliminate true threats to any fascist movement, or a recurring theme of flies to show how authoritarianism treats an incessant but weak resistance…by tiring it out so that it is too exhausted to be a threat. Under authoritarianism, exhaustion is a major issue as we the people are reduced to nothing more than flies, buzzing from one instigation to another, and ultimately are left with nothing but a carcass or a pile of shit to feed upon.

Besides being a compelling and insightful story, the film is fascinating to look at. Cinematographer Pedro Sotero shoots the film so that it looks like grainy film stock from the 1970’s, which enhances the feel of authenticity. Sotero shows himself to be a master craftsman as he uses some delicious 70’s era zooms, camera movement and optical tricks (like my old friend the split diopter!) that create both a familiarity and an overall sense of uneasiness that permeates every shot in the film. .

The cast is spectacular, with lead actor Dario Grandinetti gives a nuanced, intricate, subtle, magnetic and thoroughly captivating performance. Grandinetti’s Claudio is at once arrogant and petulant but also insecure and fragile. Grandinetti’s ability to make Cluadio so painfully ordinary, yet unaware of his ordinariness, is a testament to the complexity of the character and the enormity of the actor’s talent. Grandinetti is a special actor and he is at his very best as Claudio.

As for the rest of the cast, Andrea Frigerio does solid work as Claudio’s wife, Susana, as does Diego Cremonisi who plays a mysterious stranger. The most interesting, bizarre and entertaining character though is Detective Sinclair, played by Alfredo Castro. Sinclair is like a cop from a David Lynch movie, and his unstoppable persistence and insistence is comically unsettling, as he is a wonderful representative of the rabid relentlessness of fascism.

With Rojo, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat proves himself to be a cinematic force with which to be reckoned. One of Naishtat’s greatest skills is his ability to create such a believable sense of place (he is greatly aided by his cinematographer, and his set and costume designers) as well as his thorough understanding of human nature and psychology. Naishtat uses cinema to tell greater and important truths not just about his characters and Argentina in the 1970’s, but about us and America today, and that is a rare and precious skill.

In conclusion, I was absolutely captivated by this somewhat off-beat, but entirely insightful foreign film that, even though it is set in Argentina in the 1970’s, spoke more clearly about America and the American people than most Hollywood movies could ever imagine.

I thoroughly encourage any and all cinephiles to make the effort to go see this film if they can find it. I also encourage non-cinephiles who have a bit of an adventurous mind, to seek out and give this movie a chance either on cable, Netflix or any other streaming service where you can find it. The reason I am imploring people to give this movie a chance is not only because I want more movies like it to be made, but also because this movie is a warning to all of us that we need to be ever vigilant to the growing menace of authoritarianism and fascism…not just in the world, but in the one place where it can do the most damage…in our own hearts.

©2019

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood: A Review and Commentary WITH SPOILERS!

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!****

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

My Recommendation: SEE IT.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is the fictional story of fading television star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, as they navigate Hollywood during the turbulence of 1969. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dalton and Brad Pitt as Booth, with supporting turns from Margot Robbie, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell and a cavalcade of other actors.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s 9th feature film and like all of his other movies it is a cultural event. With two of the biggest movie stars in the world on the marquee, and one of the most recognizable directing talents in the business at the helm, this movie was bound to stir up interest. Add in the fact that it is an unabashed homage to Hollywood history that also mixes in the toxically intriguing Manson family and you have a recipe for drawing a lot of attention. While I have loved some Tarantino films and loathed some others, I recognize his genius, and part of that genius is making movies that stir controversy and attract enormous amounts of both good and bad attention.

I went to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the Friday morning of its official opening. The 10 AM screening was pretty full…full enough that I had to endure not one but two elderly couples sitting on either side of me talking throughout the movie like they were sitting in their own living rooms. Even after very politely and delicately asking them to please not talk, they continued anyway. As my buddy Steamroller Johnny astutely observed, “at some point old people think the rules of the world no longer apply to them”. Despite the incessant and idiotic yammering of these old fools, the likes of which included such gems as “remember Mannix? Oh yeah…I remember Mannix!” and “Where did Leo go? Why don’t they tell us where Leo went?”, I soldiered on to the end of the movie and much to my broke lawyer’s chagrin, never once smashed anyone’s head in.

I must admit that my first impressions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were not overly positive. Besides the distracting moronity of the decrepit couples around me, I thought the film looked and sounded sub-par. The visuals were terribly imprecise and muddled, and the sound was atrociously bad, with Tarantino’s constant use of music suffocating the dialogue. The visual darkness and audio messiness made me feel I was watching the movie underwater. Even though I saw the movie in a high end art house theatre, I blamed the projector for the technical mess as the screening I attended used a digital projector which is how most movies are displayed nowadays. After leaving the theatre I shook my head at the sad state of film projection in America and what a crime it is to demean the art of cinema in such an egregious way.

Another first impression I had was that this movie was two hours and forty minutes long but ultimately did not do much considering it is historical fiction and could have done absolutely anything it wanted. I sort of felt like…is that all there is? Is that all you can come up with? it felt really…limited…at least in terms of the story.

Needless to say, while I didn’t hate the movie, I didn’t love it either, and felt it landed somewhere in the bottom half of the Tarantino canon, ahead of The Hateful Eight and behind Inglorious Basterds. Then, out of both frustration and curiosity, I decided to see the film again, except this time to see it in 35mm…as it was intended to be seen. 35mm screenings are pretty rare nowadays but Tarantino usually sets up special screenings where you can see his movies either in 35 or 70mm. It took some effort as I had to track down the theatres and special screening times for the 35mm print, but I did it and then went and saw it once again on Monday at noon.

Let me tell you…the difference between digital and 35mm is like night and day in every single way. In 35 the film is gorgeous to look at, the colors and contrast are distinct, and the visuals precise and specific. As much as the look of the film improved, the sound made an even more gargantuan leap. In 35mm the sound is astounding, as the music really pops and the mix is as clear as a bell…no more dialogue pulled under the tide of music.

The second viewing, much to my delight, also gave me a much clearer perception and understanding of the narrative and the sub-text. It certainly helped that I didn’t have to listen to elderly conversations about Mannix and could focus on the action on screen, but I was also aided by just being able to let the film wash over me as opposed to figure out what will happen next.

My second viewing changed my entire opinion of the film…and it quickly skyrocketed out of the bottom tier of Tarantino movies and into the upper echelon if not the Mount Rushmore of his canon.

Tarantino has always gotten great performances from his cast and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. The entire cast is stellar, with Margaret Qualley (a 2017 Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award Winner!), Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Al Pacino and Julia Butters doing terrific supporting work.

As for the leads…Leonardo DiCaprio is at his very best in this movie. DiCaprio perfectly embodies the self-destructive, self-absorbed desperation that is epidemic in Tinseltown. His Rick Dalton is a star who is fading fast who represents an era and archetype that is under siege. DiCaprio’s Dalton is barely able to keep his mind and body in tact as he tries to navigate the minefield of semi-stardom in an entertainment business going through as much upheaval as the rest of the country in 1969….which is eerily similar to 2019.

DiCaprio gives Dalton a subtle but very effective stutter and stammer that reveals a mind deteriorating after years of alcohol abuse. Dalton’s stutter and stammer indicate he is no longer able to speak his mind and do it clearly. His stutter/stammer show a man second guessing himself and his entire life.

Dalton is also in a perpetual state of cough and spits up gallons of phlegm as he is metaphorically dying on the inside. Dalton smokes and drinks like a condemned man…which is what he really is. Dalton is the archetypal American Male…the Cowboy…and in 1969 that version of American Male was losing its standing and its balance, and in 2019 it is an outright villain. It isn’t until Dalton describes a novel he is reading about a cowboy who has outlived his usefulness and grows more and more useless as everyday passes, that his plight goes from being unconscious to conscious, and it devastates him.

DiCaprio has had moments of greatness in his acting career, most notably as a mentally challenged teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and as a depraved slave owner in Django Unchained, but Rick Dalton is by far his most complex and frankly, greatest acting accomplishment, and he is deserving of not only a Best Actor nomination but a win.

Brad Pitt plays the stuntman Cliff Booth with all the movie star aplomb he can muster. Pitt’s work is much more straight forward than DiCaprio’s, but no less effective. Booth is an enigmatic character…at once cool but also combustible. Pitt’s charisma oozes off the screen and he and DiCaprio have an interestingly uneven chemistry that is compelling to watch. Booth seems like a combination of the cult 1970’s Native American action hero Billy Jack (one of my favorites) and Burt Reynolds character Lewis Medlock from Deliverance. He is, unlike DiCaprio’s Dalton, unambitious, but also unlike Dalton, he is the genuine article in terms of rugged, old school masculinity. Booth is no faux tough guy, he is an actual tough guy…the epitome of a real man in that he will kick the shit out of you if you deserve it, even if you’re Bruce Lee. And while Booth is a red-blooded man who is attracted to an alluring and eager teenage girl…his moral code won’t allow him to consummate such an ethically dubious act. And it is of note that the teen in question, named Pussycat, is at one point standing in front of a rainbow colored building, no doubt a strip club, named Pandora’s Box.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and there has been much made about the paucity of her dialogue. The usual suspects are crying misogyny due to her role being “less than" her male co-stars. I find this sort of thinking to be so tiresome and vapid as to be absurd. As for Robbie’s actual performance…it is utterly spectacular. Robbie’s Tate is bursting with life for every second she appears on film. Robbie has filled her Tate with such a powerful and specific intentionality she is like a supernova of magnetism.

The Tate character is the embodiment of life, potential and the archetypal feminine. Tate is bursting with life, literally and figuratively, and her effervescence cannot be contained. When she walks down the street she seems to float or bounce, the earth barely able to grasp her ebullient spirit.

Tarantino’s decision to use actual footage of Tate in the film is a masterstroke, as he successfully pays homage to her and humanizes her at the same time. Tarantino takes Tate out of the clutches of not only the Manson gang but of the culture that has turned her into nothing but a headline and symbol. Sharon Tate was a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and aspirations and the Mansonites snuffed that out…and Tarantino reminds us of the depth of that loss without ever being heavy-handed or maudlin.

The sub-text of the film is one of a battle between traditional masculinity and femininity and the assault upon them by “woke” culture. Tate and Dalton’s wife Francesca and Booth’s dog Brandy represent the traditional feminine archetype and Dalton and Booth are two halves of the traditional male archetype in the film…and the Manson family? They are representative of our new cultural wave…they are liberalism gone awry…they are “The Woke”. In a brilliant twist Tarantino makes this connection abundantly clear as he casts one of the most grating and loathed woke apostles, Lena Dunham, as one of the leaders of the Manson gang at Spahn ranch.

The gaggle of Manson women at Spahn Ranch are the neo-feminists of our age as they are little more than harpies who incessantly yap like neutered lap dogs in the presence of genuine masculinity (Booth). To quote Reservoir Dogs, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood asks modern day neo-feminists represented in the film as Manson women, “you gonna bark all day little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” Of course, these women do not bite when they first meet Booth…they sit and stay when told…and later when they do try to bite, the hounds of hell are released and these women serve as nothing but chum to the big dogs that do bite.

When the female Manson acolytes scream at Booth as he pulverizes a hippie dude at the Spahn ranch, they symbolize the nagging neo-feminists/woke brigade who say a lot but do nothing. They express their love for the weakling and cowardly Mansonite man getting the Booth treatment, but they don’t help him, they just touch their hearts empathetically and mouth their support. It is also worth noting that these woke women may softly proclaim their love for their hippy brethren, but they want to have actual sex with the real man…Cliff Booth. Ultimately when “the woke” women do trifle with Cliff Booth, he obliterates them. Booth and his faithful canine companion unleash a fury upon the woke and smash their heads into dust, no doubt because their heads are empty, as they are incapable of any thought…only regurgitation.

Speaking of dogs…maybe my favorite character in this entire film is Brandy the pit bull, who is Cliff Booth’s beloved pet. Brandy is occasionally a lap dog, but only because she wants affection, not protection. Brandy is a female…but unlike her Manson family/neo-feminist/woke counterparts, she is no bark and all bite. Brandy is the embodiment of loyalty and when unchained she opens the gates of hell upon anyone who would try to disrupt the order of her universe. Brandy may be subservient to Cliff, as he is the one who feeds her and directs her fury when necessary, but she also ferociously defends the traditional feminine in the form of Dalton’s young bride, Francesca.

At both of the screenings I attended, the audience cheered when the Mansonites get their comeuppance…and that is because it is so deliciously satisfying. In our culture The Woke are intolerant of intolerance but are totally intolerable. Tarantino is basically giving voice to people who are sick to death of the incessant woke posing in our culture by saying, “Hey assholes, you want equality…here it is…a can of dog food smashed in your fucking face”. The Woke are, in their own way, Nazis, and Tarantino treats them as such as he has Dalton torch them just like he does the Nazis in his hit World War II movie The Fourteen Fists of McCloskey, and just like Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds.

In a piece at The Ringer about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Alison Herman wrote “the Manson family aren’t Nazis, or slave owners, or even Bill (from Kill Bill); they were young, manipulated, drugged-out kids” and thus “…watching Rick take a flamethrower to one feels a lot less cathartic and a lot more uncomfortable”. One need look no further to find the vacuity of woke ideology than Ms. Herman’s quote. The young women and man (Tex Watson) getting their faces kicked in, bitten off and torched in the fantasy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in reality brutally murdered Sharon Tate as she begged for the life of the child in her belly, as well as Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and Wojciech Frykowski with the utmost cruelty, savagery and viciousness. They are not drugged up and confused girls anymore than the SS were noble patriots fighting for the German homeland. Ms. Herman’s woke inspired, insipid thinking is prevalent throughout our culture and is a leading cause of the epidemic of mental myopia verging on retardation in our nation. It is Ms. Herman’s thinking that Tarantino smashes in the face with a can of dog food, gets devoured by a pit bull and then gets lit up by a flamethrower…and deservedly so.

Tarantino also deftly plays with audience perception in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The film is obviously a fairy tale and another bit of historical fiction/wish fulfillment from Tarantino, and it plays with this fact throughout. Tarantino subtly but continuously keeps asking the audience what is real? Is it a blind man who watches tv? Is it a man who claims he’s never been to prison yet says he was on a Houston chain gang for breaking a cop’s jaw? Or is it a man who allegedly killed his lusciously-bottomed, nagging wife or is that just rumor/lie/legend too? What about Dalton, who hates hippies but looks a lot like Manson in his Lancer costume when he gives his great performance…or Booth, who is adversarial with the hippies too but partakes of an acid laced cigarette he buys from a hippie girl?

At times the movie is a daydream within a fairy tale within a nightmare….and that makes it a hypnotically compelling film. Tarantino expertly captures the dream state that is Los Angeles…and Hollywood…a dream state that is so bright during the day as to be blinding, and so dark at night as to be deadly. Hollywood during the day is, like Sharon Tate, beautiful and full of potentialities. When night descends on Los Angeles it becomes a city of menace…the city of Charles Manson, mass murderers, serial killers, street gangs, violent lawless cops…a shadow city of predators and prey.

The ending of the movie is a combination of the dream/nightmare that leads up to it. After the “real men” Booth and Dalton save the day, greatly assisted by the traditional females in the house, Brandy and Dalton’s wife Francesca, the movie shifts to what should be a happy ending, but which feels extremely unsettling.

As Dalton stands at the end of his driveway, he is greeted by Jay Sebring, who seems like a ghostly apparition at the gates of heaven, asking what happened. Sebring is reminiscent of a ghost stuck in the place of his death, in this case Cielo Drive, who is unaware of what happened to them. Sebring and Dalton are then joined by the haunting and ghostly disembodied voice of Sharon Tate over the intercom. Tate invites Dalton up to the house for a drink…and the gates slowly open for him to enter. This is Rick Dalton walking into the gates of heaven (Tarantino’s version of heaven anyway). Dalton…the symbol of the 1950’s all-American cowboy archetype…is dead and he is going to mix and mingle with Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and the others who did not survive the cataclysm of the 60’s.

Cliff Booth is technically alive at film’s end but physically injured (in the thigh…which in biblical stories/Jungian terms is symbolic of the genitals - which leaves Booth emasculated…just like Tex Watson who gets his balls chewed off by Brandy…and the hippie dude who Booth beats at the camp…who had no balls to begin with) and mentally altered from a hippie delivered acid laced cigarette. Although he avoided the moral trap of Pussycat, he ingested the poison cigarette willfully…like Adam eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge…for this sin he is banished from Eden. After Dalton declares his true friendship with Booth, Cliff is rushed away to a hospital…but in reality he too is gone…disappeared into the L.A. night never to be seen again.

The only ones left alive at the conclusion of the film are Francesca and Brandy…but they are sleeping in the bedroom, no doubt dreaming up the scenario played out over the preceding two and a half hours of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where real men/traditional masculinity saved the day and real women/traditional feminine got to appreciate them for it.

In conclusion, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a staggeringly rich, layered and thoughtful film that is entertaining both as art and as popular cinema. I highly recommend you see it and even if it takes more effort…see it in 35 mm. Tarantino is a polarizing filmmaker, and this movie will no doubt receive a great deal of enmity from politically correct critics and their woke minions in our culture. The bottom line is this, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a gigantic and well-deserved fuck you to The Woke, and that is what makes it so deliciously entertaining, but what makes the movie so poignant, insightful and exceedingly relevant is that it is aware that it is pure fantasy, and that in reality The Woke have won the culture war and cinema, and the rest of us, are all the worse for it.

©2019

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood: A Spoiler Free Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A rich and compelling film that highlights Tarantino’s singular genius and boasts exquisite performances from Leo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie. Make the extra effort and see it in 35mm if you can! A must see movie!

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is the fictional story of fading television star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, as they navigate Hollywood during the turbulence of 1969. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dalton and Brad Pitt as Booth, with supporting turns from Margot Robbie, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell and a cavalcade of other actors.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s 9th feature film and like all of his other movies it is a cultural event. With two of the biggest movie stars in the world on the marquee, and one of the most recognizable directing talents in the business at the helm, this movie was bound to stir up interest. Add in the fact that it is an unabashed homage to Hollywood history that also mixes in the toxically intriguing Manson family and you have a recipe for drawing a lot of attention. While I have loved some Tarantino films and loathed some others, I recognize his genius, and part of that genius is making movies that stir controversy and attract enormous amounts of both good and bad attention.

I went to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the Friday morning of its official opening. The 10 AM screening was pretty full…full enough that I had to endure not one but two elderly couples sitting on either side of me talking throughout the movie like they were sitting in their own living rooms. Even after very politely and delicately asking them to please not talk, they continued anyway. As my buddy Steamroller Johnny astutely observed, “at some point old people think the rules of the world no longer apply to them”. Despite the incessant and idiotic yammering of these old fools, the likes of which included such gems as “remember Mannix? Oh yeah…I remember Mannix!” and “Where did Leo go? Why don’t they tell us where Leo went?”, I soldiered on to the end of the movie and much to my broke lawyer’s chagrin, never once smashed anyone’s head in.

I must admit that my first impressions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were not overly positive. Besides the distracting moronity of the decrepit couples around me, I thought the film looked and sounded sub-par. The visuals were terribly imprecise and muddled, and the sound was atrociously bad, with Tarantino’s constant use of music suffocating the dialogue. The visual darkness and audio messiness made me feel I was watching the movie underwater. Even though I saw the movie in a high end art house theatre, I blamed the projector for the technical mess as the screening I attended used a digital projector which is how most movies are displayed nowadays. After leaving the theatre I shook my head at the sad state of film projection in America and what a crime it is to demean the art of cinema in such an egregious way.

Another first impression I had was that this movie was two hours and forty minutes long but ultimately did not do much considering it is historical fiction and could have done absolutely anything it wanted. I sort of felt like…is that all there is? Is that all you can come up with? it felt really…limited…at least in terms of the story.

Needless to say, while I didn’t hate the movie, I didn’t love it either, and felt it landed somewhere in the bottom half of the Tarantino canon, ahead of The Hateful Eight and behind Inglorious Basterds. Then, out of both frustration and curiosity, I decided to see the film again, except this time to see it in 35mm…as it was intended to be seen. 35mm screenings are pretty rare nowadays but Tarantino usually sets up special screenings where you can see his movies either in 35 or 70mm. It took some effort as I had to track down the theatres and special screening times for the 35mm print, but I did it and then went and saw it once again on Monday at noon.

Let me tell you…the difference between digital and 35mm is like night and day in every single way. In 35 the film is gorgeous to look at, the colors and contrast are distinct, and the visuals precise and specific. As much as the look of the film improved, the sound made an even more gargantuan leap. In 35mm the sound is astounding, as the music really pops and the mix is as clear as a bell…no more dialogue pulled under the tide of music.

The second viewing, much to my delight, also gave me a much clearer perception and understanding of the narrative and the sub-text. It certainly helped that I didn’t have to listen to elderly conversations about Mannix and could focus on the action on screen, but I was also aided by just being able to let the film wash over me as opposed to figure out what will happen next.

My second viewing changed my entire opinion of the film…and it quickly skyrocketed out of the bottom tier of Tarantino movies and into the upper echelon if not the Mount Rushmore of his canon.

Tarantino has always gotten great performances from his cast and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. The entire cast is stellar, with Margaret Qualley (a 2017 Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award Winner!), Bruce Dern, Mike Moh and Julia Butters doing terrific supporting work.

As for the leads…Leonardo DiCaprio is at his very best in this movie. DiCaprio perfectly embodies the self-destructive, self-absorbed desperation that is epidemic in Tinseltown. His Rick Dalton is a star who is fading fast who represents an era and archetype that is under siege. DiCaprio’s Dalton is barely able to keep his mind and body in tact as he tries to navigate the minefield of semi-stardom in an entertainment business going through as much upheaval as the rest of the country in 1969….which is eerily similar to 2019.

DiCaprio gives Dalton a subtle but very effective stutter and stammer that reveals a mind deteriorating after years of alcohol abuse. Dalton’s stutter and stammer indicate he is no longer able to speak his mind and do it clearly. His stutter/stammer show a man second guessing himself and his entire life.

Dalton is also in a perpetual state of cough and spits up gallons of phlegm as he is metaphorically dying on the inside. Dalton smokes and drinks like a condemned man…which is what he really is. Dalton is the archetypal American Male…the Cowboy…and in 1969 that version of American Male was losing its standing and its balance, and in 2019 it is an outright villain.

DiCaprio has had moments of greatness in his acting career, most notably as a mentally challenged teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and as a depraved slave owner in Django Unchained, but Rick Dalton is by far his most complex and frankly, greatest acting accomplishment. DiCaprio will definitely be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and would be very deserving of the win.

Brad Pitt plays the stuntman Cliff Booth with all the movie star aplomb he can muster. Pitt’s work is much more straight forward than DiCaprio’s, but no less effective. Booth is an enigmatic character…at once cool but also combustible. Pitt’s charisma oozes off the screen and he and DiCaprio have an interestingly uneven chemistry that is compelling to watch. Booth seems like a combination of the cult 1970’s Native American action hero Billy Jack (one of my favorites) and Burt Reynolds character Lewis Medlock from Deliverance. He is, unlike DiCaprio’s Dalton, unambitious, but also unlike Dalton, he is the genuine article in terms of rugged, old school masculinity. Booth is no faux tough guy, he is an actual tough guy…the epitome of a real man in that he will kick the shit out of you if you deserve it.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and there has been much made about the paucity of her dialogue. The usual suspects are crying misogyny due to her role being “less than" her male co-stars. I find this sort of thinking to be so tiresome and vapid as to be absurd. As for Robbie’s actual performance…it is utterly spectacular. Robbie’s Tate is bursting with life for every second she appears on film. Robbie has filled her Tate with such a powerful and specific intentionality she is like a supernova of magnetism.

The Tate character is the embodiment of life, potential and the archetypal feminine. Tate is bursting with life, literally and figuratively, and her effervescence cannot be contained. When she walks down the street she seems to float or bounce, the earth barely able to grasp her ebullient spirit.

Tarantino’s decision to use actual footage of Tate in the film is a masterstroke, as he successfully pays homage to her and humanizes her at the same time. Tarantino takes Tate out of the clutches of not only the Manson gang but of the culture that has turned her into nothing but a headline and symbol. Sharon Tate was a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and aspirations and the Mansonites snuffed that out…and Tarantino reminds us of the depth of that loss without ever being heavy-handed or maudlin.

The sub-text of the film is one of a battle between traditional masculinity and femininity and their upheaval by “woke” culture. Tate represents the traditional feminine archetype and Dalton and Booth are two halves of the traditional male archetype in the film…and the Manson family? They are representative of our new cultural wave…they are liberalism gone awry…they are “The Woke”. In a brilliant twist Tarantino makes this connection abundantly clear as he casts one of the most grating and loathed woke apostles, Lena Dunham, as one of the leaders of the Manson gang at Spahn ranch.

Tarantino also deftly plays with audience perception in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is obviously a fairy tale and another bit of historical fiction/wish fulfillment from Tarantino, and it plays with this fact throughout. Tarantino subtly but continuously keeps asking the audience what is real?

At times the movie is a daydream within a fairy tale within a nightmare….and that makes it a hypnotically compelling film. Tarantino expertly captures the dream state that is Los Angeles…and Hollywood…a dream state that is so bright during the day as to be blinding, and so dark at night as to be deadly. Hollywood during the day is, like Sharon Tate, beautiful and full of potentialities. When night descends on Los Angeles it becomes a city of menace…the city of Charles Manson, mass murderers, serial killers, street gangs, violent lawless cops…a shadow city of predators and prey.

In conclusion, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a staggeringly rich, layered and thoughtful film that is entertaining both as art and as popular cinema. I highly recommend you see it and even if it takes more effort…see it in 35 mm. Tarantino is a polarizing filmmaker, and this movie will no doubt receive a great deal of enmity from politically correct critics and their woke minions in our culture. The bottom line is this, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a gigantic and well-deserved fuck you to The Woke, and that is what makes it so deliciously entertaining, but what makes the movie so poignant, insightful and exceedingly relevant is that it is aware that it is pure fantasy, and that in reality The Woke have won the culture war and cinema, and the rest of us, are all the worse for it.

©2019

The Farewell: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This art house pretender is a conventional film through and through and not good enough to see on the big screen. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable it is worth watching though.

The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, tells the story of Billi, a Chinese immigrant living in New York, who returns to China to visit her beloved grandmother Nai Nai, who is terminally ill but due to cultural and familial reasons is kept in the dark about her condition. The film stars Awkwafina as Billi with supporting turns from Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Chen Han.

In a clever little twist, the tagline for The Farewell is, “Based upon an actual lie”. When that flashed on the screen to open the film I chuckled, but by the end of the movie I realized this was not a joke but a confession. The Farewell isn’t just based upon an actual lie…it is a lie.

The Farewell has pretensions of profundity, but the movie ultimately ends up being rather trite and frivolous. The film certainly has art house ambitions but they never fully coalesce and sadly end up crashed against the rocks of a painful conventionality.

I was excited to see The Farewell, I thought the trailer was good and the premise struck a chord with me. The reason the premise resonated so deeply with me was because I went through a very similar situation with my own beloved grandmother when she was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. My family decided not to tell her about the diagnosis, and, like Billi, I disagreed with that decision. In my mind Truth is always the best way to go, and people have the right to know if they are going to die. I believe it is healthy, vital even, for terminal patients to go through the stages of grief, but in terms of the decision about not informing my grandmother, I didn’t have a vote in the process.

When I went, as did other extended family, to visit my grandmother to say goodbye, I did not break down and tell her she was dying. The truth is that once I saw her I totally understood why the choice was made not to tell her and I grudgingly agreed with it. I think my grandmother knew she was dying…but the fact that no one said it out loud, somehow made it all bearable for her and allowed her to bask in the glow of being surrounded by her entire family without falling into a maudlin well of despair. Instead, the visit with my grandmother was a joyous one, a celebration of life instead of an acknowledgement of death.

It was with all of this in mind that I went to see The Farewell. I was ready to get very invested in the characters and story but the film was never able to generate enough dramatic intensity or momentum to carry me along with it. I ended up being a bit frustrated as the movie touches upon some really interesting themes, but lacked the artistic and intellectual heft and commitment to say anything of worth about them. For instance, there is dinner table scene where Chinese national, cultural and ethnic identity mix with toxic familial politics, and the result is electric…but the film never truly returns to that topic in any satisfying way and it suffers because of it.

The film also tries to throw out some art house stylistic stuff…but then undermines it all by being horrifyingly Hollywood in its resolution. That to me was the biggest error in the film, the lack of a stylistic and a thematic focus combined with the lack of artistic courage, as the film repeatedly takes the “easy” road instead of the harder and more artistically fulfilling one.

I thought The Farewell was going to be a culturally interesting examination of grief and death but instead it turns into a a rather tired “family” movie with the requisite wedding and zany relatives and silliness that accompanies it. The deeper and darker themes are left behind as the Hollywood friendly fluff takes center stage. Granted, it is Hollywood friendly fluff wrapped in a “different than usual” culture, but it is fluff nonetheless. This seems to be the new Hollywood formula, take the same old garbage but set it and cast it with a new ethnicity/race/gender and bask in the glow of critical love. Crazy Rich Asians is an example of this, as it was really just another shitty rom-com…but with Asians! The Farewell is better than Crazy Rich Asians, but it still isn’t good or even remotely original…it is just a rehashing of a tired old formula…but with Asians!

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and ensuing horrific massacre. The documentary was really interesting and it made me think the subject is ripe for a great feature film. Of course, a hard hitting film on that subject would never happen as Hollywood is scared to death of China and wants to curry favor with the totalitarian ruling regime in order to keep a critical and fertile market open so they can make hordes of cash by selling their shitty movies to Chinese audiences. In the current climate of the movie industry, if Hollywood ever were to make a Tiananmen Square film a successful pitch for it would most certainly be…imagine Schindler’s List...meets Friends…but with Asians!! No doubt Jackie Chan and Awkwafina would be tapped to star in it and the repressive government who committed the atrocity would have to be changed from China to Russia in order to ensure the film’s release and success in China. The film would be awful but critics would laud it for its “diversity and inclusivity” and it would end up with a 100% critical score at Rotten Tomatoes and a plethora of Oscar nominations. Sigh.

In terms of The Farewell, the very best thing about it is the character Nai Nai, wonderfully played by Zhao Shuzhen. Even though Nai Nai is Chinese, she not only reminded me of my wondrously Scottish grandmother, but actual somehow looks like her too. Shuzhen’s performance is extremely well-done, as she creates a multi-dimensional character where others would have gone for flat stereotype. I hope Zhao Shuzhen scores at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination this year because with her work in The Farewell certainly deserves it.

Awkwafina also does solid work in the film as the mopey lead. I am not really a fan of Awkwafina, the truth is I am not very familiar with her work, but I thought she did an exceptional job of manifesting her character’s emotional and cultural burden physically. Billi is a walking slouch, the cross on her back growing heavier and heavier with every step. Awkwafina really does have an undeniable, slightly off-beat charisma to her, and I hope she chooses to do more of these types of roles in the future.

Diana Lin and Tzi Ma play Billi’s mother and father respectively and they too do solid work. The couple have a palpable relationship fatigue about them that rings true. Lin’s sharp elbowed mother is a perfect foil for Ma’s down trodden father.

In conclusion, I felt like The Farewell was not just telling the story of a lie but telling a lie itself. it is not what it appears to be, and when the truth of it is revealed, its value greatly diminishes. I didn’t hate The Farewell, but I was disappointed in it, as it wasn’t what it pretended to be, and ultimately, thought it could have been so much more than it was. Unlike the family in The Farewell, I will not lie in order to spare feelings and so I say it as clearly as I can about this movie…it may not be dying…but it is definitely dead to me.

©2019

Midsommar: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A flawed, but creepy and symbolically rich horror movie that is both deeply unsettling and mythologically satisfying. If you love horror movies then go see it in the theatre, but for everyone else watch it on Netflix or cable.

Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, is the story of Dani, a young women in emotional turmoil who accompanies her lukewarm boyfriend on a trip to Harga, an isolated rural commune in Finland, for a once in every 90 years religious festival. The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, with supporting turns from Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter.

Midsommar describes itself as a “folk horror film”, which is an intriguing twist on the horror formula. In general I am not a fan of horror movies, the ones I do enjoy, like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, are more great movies of horror than they are great horror movies. Those movies deal with the occult and spiritual horror as opposed to just slasher or monster type movies, and that is probably why I appreciate them so much.

Midsommar is director Ari Aster’s second feature film, his first was last year’s Hereditary, another ambitious horror film. I liked Hereditary and even though it was flawed I thought Aster showed a great deal of potential as a filmmaker as he coaxed some terrific performances out of his leads Toni Collette and Alex Wolff and put together some really gripping sequences. Hereditary was also chock full of really rich symbolism and sub-text…so much so that I wrote an entire piece about it.

Hereditary’s biggest flaw was that Aster’s creative eyes were bigger than his directorial stomach…which is my way of saying that Aster is a better writer than a director as he was unable to entirely capture the entirety of his unique vision on film.

Midsommar is a worthy follow up to Hereditary, and is very similar in many ways as the film boasts a stellar female performance at its center and has a wildly creepy and unsettling story at its center. Midsommar is also bursting with insightful symbolism and sub-text that make it a very layered film. Hereditary and Midsommar are also twins in that they explore a dark occult underbelly to the rather benign settings of suburbia and a seemingly gentle Finnish commune respectively.

Sadly though, the similarities don’t end there as Midsommar also suffers from the same ailment that hampered Hereditary, namely that the narrative was too dramatically unwieldy for the director Aster to tame fully.

The very best thing about the film is the performance of Florence Pugh, who won a Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award in 2016 for the independent drama Lady MacBeth, and lives up to that promise in Midsommar. Pugh is so spot on in her characterization that it is at times uncomfortable to watch. Pugh’s Dani is deeply and specifically wounded and reeks of desperation, so much so that she relentlessly needs to accommodate others to an embarrassing degree. The camera adores Pugh as she is blessed with an exquisitely perfect face that is both stunningly gorgeous and approachable. Pugh’s magnetism and girl-next-door beauty are used to great affect as it makes Dani’s insecurity and low self-esteem a conflicting yet captivating mess.

Dani’s at best indifferent boyfriend, Christian, is played by Jack Reynor, who sort of looks like a slightly less douchebaggy version of Seth Rogan. Reynor’s Christian is a pitch perfect asshole, and he wisely never goes over the top with his asshole-ishness, but it is certainly a palpable presence. Reynor as an actor is a bit overwhelmed by Pugh though, as he currently seems to lack the charisma and skill to go toe to toe with his very formidable leading lady. That said, to Reynor’s great credit he proves is certainly game for anything and shows he has enough balls (literally and figuratively) to try and tackle a role that ends up being just a bit out of his reach.

Midsommar’s cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, does fantastic work as he captures the pseudo-David Lynchian creepiness beneath the quaint facade of the commune. Pogorzelski uses the midnight sun of Finland effectively to create a disorienting visual experience that is subtly alarming. There are psychedelic sequences where Pogorzelski shows his talent in not overwhelming the viewer with obviousness but rather makes the delirious experience so seamless as to be unnerving. There are also some deliciously well-done shots using the reflections from a mirror or a television set that I thought were glorious. Pogorzelski worked on Hereditary as well and his style and skill definitely elevate both films.

The thing I liked the most about Midsommar was the symbolism and sub-text. This film, just like Hereditary, is bursting at the seams with political and social commentary that is hiding in plain sight. The commune at the center of the story is an alluring combination of old world folk religion, New Age spirituality, modern day social progressivism and extreme environmentalism. It is easy to imagine that the divergent anti-Trump resistance could come together to form the alleged utopia that is Harga.

The character arc of Dani is that of the modern women who has put her needs second to those around her and has made herself small so that others feel big. As Dani goes through the odyssey of the commune she is forced to choose between the way things are now with her as a pliant caretaker to others, or the way things could be with a women in charge. In this way the film is, much like Hereditary, a commentary on the Trump presidency and the fall of Hillary and the rise of neo-feminism. While those things are potentially over-analyzed subjects in our current political and cultural climate, Aster does a magnificent job of deftly addressing these issues in an unconventional way and subtly layering the film’s inventive perspective throughout the film.

To be clear, I truly did enjoy Midsommar, just as I did Hereditary, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar does go a bit off the rails about two thirds of the way through and the film loses dramatic momentum. I think Aster’s biggest issue, in both films, is that the major beats of the story are not well placed in the narrative arc, and so the film feels a bit off in the final act.

In conclusion, while I think Ari Aster has slightly missed the mark with both Hereditary and Midsommar, I am very glad for his ambition and that he is out there making movies. I think he is a very original voice and his expansive ideas on horror and the nature of evil are remarkably insightful about the world in which we currently reside. I hope Aster keeps exploring the depths of that unique darkness that he shared with viewers in both Hereditary and Midsommar.

While Midsommar is not worth shelling out big bucks to see in a theatre, I do think it is worth seeing on Netflix or cable for “free” for Pugh’s performance alone. The movie is also genuinely creepy and not of the instantly forgettable horror movie formula that has grown so tiresome. Midsommar is definitely a flawed film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or that the message it sends isn’t right on the money. If, at some point, you have a chance to check it out I think you should…it will unsettle you…and we all need to be unsettled every now and again.

©2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A unique and original film that is beautifully shot, dramatically compelling and painfully insightful.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, based on a story by Jimmie Fails and written and directed by Joe Talbot, is the story of Jimmie, a black man trying to reclaim his childhood house, a beautiful Victorian built by his grandfather in the 1940’s, that sits in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood. The film stars Jimmie Fails as Jimmie, with supporting turns from Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover and Mike Epps.

Thus far, 2019 has been a pretty dismal year in terms of American film. Of the four lonely films I have recommended so far this year, all of them are foreign. Thankfully, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is like a tall, cool glass of cinematic water in the parched desert of American movies in 2019. The film, which is based upon a story created by its lead actor Jimmie Fails (who is black) and its director Joe Talbot (who is white), pulsates with a life, artistic vibrancy and intelligence that is an utter joy to behold.

On the surface the film examines gentrification in San Francisco and the consequences of it. What I really loved about the movie though is that it does not take the easy, emotionalist route in exploring this complicated issue. Although it is often lumped in as simply a racism issue, the changing face of a neighborhood is a result of a much more nuanced set of elements. For instance my white family (and extended family) were part of the white flight from Brooklyn in the 1970’s because the neighborhood was rapidly changing from Irish, Italian and Jewish to Haitian and Jamaican. It is easy to chalk this up as simply racism, but the reality is, regardless of race or ethnicity, people like to be around people who not only look like them, but have the same culture and relatively same belief system. This is why immigration is such a huge issue, it isn’t a function of racism but rather a function of cultural comfort. The same is true here in Los Angeles where black neighborhoods get really angry when white people move in because they feel the “essence” of the neighborhood is changing. That isn’t racism…it is human nature.

To the movie’s great credit it does not take the easy road in addressing this polarizing issue, but instead embraces the complexity and subtlety of it. Besides the maze that is gentrification, the film also dances through the minefield that is toxic black masculinity, black violence, myth and identity, the cancer of capitalism, self-deception, self-delusion and most especially…the importance of Truth.

Jimmie yearns to return to the house of his childhood, which has no doubt been sanitized in his own mind. His dream of a return is fueled by his tumultuous life since leaving the house and the myth that gives meaning to the structure, namely that his grandfather built the house from the ground up in a Japanese neighborhood. Unlike the greedy white people taking over San Francisco now and pushing out minorities, Jimmie’s black grandfather didn’t steal anyone’s house, he defied racial stereotypes and oppression and created one from scratch.

Jimmie’s journey is a fascinating one, and while the actor Jimmie Fails (playing a character with the same name) is not the greatest actor in the world, he is certainly likable and does Yoeman’s work as the protagonist. Fails succeeds at being a worthy host for his two-hour narrative journey.

The performance that I did find remarkable though was that of Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen, Jimmie’s best friend. Majors brings such a beautiful and delicate sense of humanity to Montgomery that it is mesmerizing. Montgomery is the consummate artist as he is a writer, director, actor, sketch artist, wardrobe…you name it, and because he is an artist he is motivated by only one thing…the Truth. Majors fills Allen with an off-beat but very specific and detailed intentionality that gives him an understated but undeniable charisma and power.

Danny Glover and Mike Epps have small roles in the film but do quality work in them and bring a certain level of professionalism to the cast. In general, the other supporting actors feel a little rough around the edges, but that aesthetic works well for the movie.

Director Talbot does a tremendous job of bringing what could have been a maudlin and middling story to life with a dazzling emotional and dramatic vitality. The movie is beautifully shot as Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra do an outstanding job framing their shots and even throw in some delicious 70’s, throw-back, long shot zooms. I loved those shots as they not only gave the film a distinct look and feel but were also imbued with a much deeper, archetypal meaning.

Talbot’s direction reminded me a little bit, just a little, of Spike Lee, in that he masterfully uses music, particularly jazz and/or classical, to build both dramatic and narrative momentum. Also like Lee, he populates his story with eccentrics who never fall into stereotype or caricature, no easy feat. Unlike Lee, and to his credit, Talbot wholeheartedly embraces a narrative complexity and subtlety that forces introspection rather than accusation, and is not afraid to tell the Truth even when the Truth hurts.

Even though the director Joe Talbot is white, the story is told exclusively from a black man’s perspective. What I found intriguing about this is that Talbot establishes this fact from the opening shot and makes clear that white people are aliens…literally…as they look like astronauts walking on a distant planet. What is so refreshing about Talbot’s approach is that he keeps white people as “alien” throughout…they are, ultimately, truly unknowable to black people. Of course the reverse is true as well, but in this movie we only see the black perspective and it was refreshing because it forced all of the issues and responsibilities back onto black characters. There are no one dimensional, white villains to blame or scapegoat (unlike, for instance, in some of Spike Lee’s films, or in last year’s If Beale Street Could Talk).

In conclusion, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gorgeous film that never takes any short cuts and never fails to challenge, captivate and illuminate. This is a smart, original, unique and extremely well made film that I highly recommend you take the time and effort to go see in the theatre.

©2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix - A Review

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

My Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Absolutely no reason to ever see this derivative and dull snooze of a movie.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix, written and directed by Simon Kinberg, is the the story of Jean Grey as she comes to grips with her mutant powers and murky past. The film stars Sophie Turner as Grey, with the usual X-Men suspects James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult along for the ride, as well as a supporting turn from Jessica Chastain. Dark Phoenix is the sequel to 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and is the seventh and final installment of the current main X-Men saga.

After I see a film I usually either sit in the theatre or go out to the lobby and write down my brief thoughts. After X-Men: Dark Phoenix I sat trying to think of something to write and was stumped. It wasn’t that I had no opinion about the movie, it is that I only had the most distant, passing and fading memory of what had just transpired on screen. Dark Phoenix is such a derivative, dull and middling movie that it proves to be instantly, and almost entirely, forgettable.

X-Men movies over the last 19 years have, in general, been aggressively mediocre, visually banal and dramatically mundane (the notable exception being 2017’s Logan). While some of the X-Men movies have been mildly entertaining and thematically intriguing, for the most part they have failed to live up to their extremely rich source material.

20th Century Fox came into the superhero market with a great deal of fanfare by handing the creative keys of the franchise to at-the-time esteemed filmmaker Bryan Singer, who directed the first film, X-Men in 2000, and four of the seven main X-Men films in total. But nearly twenty years after the X-Men’s cinematic debut, Fox leaves the superhero arena with barely an audible whimper. Dark Phoenix is a continuation of the downward trajectory of X-Men movies that was undeniable with 2016’s abysmal Apocalypse. It seems as though Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix were in a race to the bottom of the X-Men filmography…Dark Phoenix wins that race by a surprisingly strong margin, and is only notable for the fact that it is indeed the very dregs of X-Men movies.

For Fox to end their X-Men run with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix is a humiliation almost equal to everyone’s least favorite pederast Bryan Singer’s fall from grace. One can only hope that Disney, which purchased Fox and with it the X-Men, can reboot this wayward franchise with some fresh creative blood that can resurrect this moribund series.

As for the particulars of Dark Phoenix…where to begin? The movie is stultifyingly dull, thematically trite, lazily acted, dismally written, impotently directed and is as visually stale and flat as possible. Besides that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln? No doubt better than Dark Phoenix.

What is striking is that Dark Phoenix boasts a cavalcade of really top notch actors but is riddled with insipid performances. Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress and one of my favorites, but in her turn as Raven she so lifelessly mouths her lines it feels as if she is working the graveyard shift at the 24-hour Arby’s in Podunk, Kentucky. She seems genuinely embarrassed to be in the movie and entirely disinterested in being there.

Jessica Chastain is another quality actress who sleepwalks through Dark Phoenix. You can almost see the money signs in Chastain’s eyes as she vacantly goes through the motions.

Michael Fassbender reprises his role as Magneto and try as he might he simply cannot muster any mettle/metal in his performance…pun intended.

James McAvoy suffers even worse humiliations than the rest of the cast as in one scene, that is so ridiculous it made me laugh out loud, his Professor X is forced to “walk” on his crippled legs, to hysterical affect. This scene was like a bad Saturday Night Live skit, although that is something out of the Department of Redundancy Department.

Sophie Turner, last seen as Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones, is the film’s lead and she does not prove herself up to the task of carrying a feature film. Turner is a beautiful women but, sadly, as my life proves, beauty can only get you so far. Turner simply does not have the skill, charisma and magnetism to command audience’s attention for a feature length film. That doesn’t mean she will never be able to do that, it just means she cannot do it now.

The overwhelming feeling I had about the cast while watching this movie was that they were simply playing out the string and cashing in while they could. This is the last X-Men movie of this cycle, and these actors will most likely never play these roles again…so they need to get while the getting is good…and these performances felt more like a heist and a getaway than commitment to acting artistry. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, the mortgage isn’t going to pay for itself after all, but it definitely leaves a sour taste in the mouth of fans as the movie’s stars grab the money and hustle to get out of Dodge as fast as they can.

Simon Kinberg wrote and directed Dark Phoenix, proving that he is not even remotely good at writing or directing. Kinberg’s script is abominable and his miserable direction is a major reason why such a stellar cast turned in such horrendous performances.

Kinberg’s script is so shallow and empty that the biggest feeling I had at the end of the movie is…what is the point of it? Obviously the point is to make money, which it might, but on a more philosophical level the question truly is…what is the purpose and meaning behind this movie? What is the animating philosophical/psychological/spiritual principle of this movie? Yes, the film does have some of the usual Girl Power posing and preening, which has become de rigueur lately, sprinkled throughout. Lines like “since women are always saving the men around here you should change the name to X-Women"!” and “your mind has been poisoned by men with small minds” and “you’re not a little girl anymore” and my favorite exchange where the villain (a female) says to Jean Grey, “you’re emotions make you weak” and Jean replies, “no, my emotions make me strong!” give the impression of a philosophical foundation but are nothing more than vapid and vacuous bullshit meant to appease and patronize the neo-feminists in Hollywood and no one else. In reality the film has no philosophical, logical, dramatic or narrative foundation upon which to build itself, instead it is a soulless, paint by numbers exercise in vacant big budget franchise movie making and nothing else.

In conclusion, Dark Phoenix is a flaccid, unimaginative cinematic venture that is truly unsatisfying in every single way. Even if you are a super hero fanatic, there is absolutely no reason to see this movie in the theatres or anywhere else for that matter. Sadly, this Phoenix was engulfed in the flames of its awfulness and avarice but was never able to rise from the ashes of its own failings and should be condemned to remain forever alone in the Dark…where it truly belongs.

©2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. It isn’t awful, but unless you are an avid Godzilla and monster movie fan like me, there is really no need to make the effort to see this one in the theatre.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty and written by Dougherty and Zach Shields, is the story of the Russell family, Mark, Emma and Madison, as they come to grips with their grief and with famed monster Godzilla. The film stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown as Mark, Emma and Madison respectively, with supporting turns from a cavalcade of actors such as Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford and O’Shea Jackson, to name just a few. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the 35th film in the Godzilla franchise and is the third film in Legendary Entertainment’s Monsterverse (Godzilla 2014, Kong: Skull Island 2017).

As I have stated before, I am a confirmed Godzilla fan. As a kid growing up, as all the other kids were going crazy for Star Wars…I was obsessed with Godzilla and Planet of the Apes. During my childhood, if on a Saturday one of the local UHF channels just happened to be showing a Godzilla movie, it felt like Christmas. As a kid I also maintained a treasure trove of Godzilla toys and that compulsion has stayed with me well into adulthood. As a young and eligible bachelor living the high life in Brooklyn in the 90’s and 00’s, I had a circular table in my living room that was covered with Godzilla action figures which I proudly dubbed “Monster Island”. As you can imagine it was a huge attraction that brought many ladies into my lair and acted as a powerful aphrodisiac upon them. Nothing gets panties to drop quicker than a prominent display of Godzilla figurines.

It was during this time that Hollywood ventured into the Godzilla waters with Roland Emmerich’s accurately titled Godzilla (1998). Being the idiot fan that I am I rushed out to see this Godzilla reboot as fast as I could. The film, which I’ve since re-named Ferris Bueller’s Godzilla because it starred Matthew Broderick of all godforsaken people, was atrociously bad.

It took another 16 years, but Hollywood got back in the Godzilla business with 2014’s also aptly titled, Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards. Once again I rushed out to theatres to see my favorite monster and once again I left the theatre deflated after suffering through a truly terrible monster movie.

For further proof of my Godzilla nerd-dom bona fides, one need look no further than the fact that I actually wrote a very controversial and polarizing piece of Godzilla fan fiction and posted it to this website to coincide with the release of Godzilla (2014). This piece was so culturally radioactive it was met with an avalanche derision and scorn, up to and including death threats.

In 2016, much to my relief the Japanese studio and originator of the Godzilla franchise, Toho, released Shin Godzilla. I am such a fan of Godzilla (and Toho), that I actually waited in line early on a Sunday morning outside the Royal Laemmle Theatre to get tickets to see it. Thankfully, this was an enjoyable Godzilla movie experience.

In terms of the recent Hollywood Godzilla franchise, the 2014 Godzilla was the first film in Legendary Entertainment’s Monsterverse, and it definitely got that franchise off on the wrong foot. It was followed by Kong: Skull Island, starring the dead-eyed and empty-headed Brie Larson, which was so awful it made my teeth hurt. Kong: Skull Island was so bad it did the impossible, it made Godzilla (2014) look like Citizen Kane in comparison. Which brings us to the most recent film in the Legendary Monsterverse…Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

After my checkered Godzilla movie-going past, you might have thought I'd be hesitant to rush out and see Godzilla: King of the Monsters, well…you greatly over-estimate my intelligence. While I certainly did not have high expectations, in fact, my expectations were incredibly low, that didn’t stop me from going to see the very first showing of the film on opening day…which ended up being a 4 pm show on Thursday afternoon.

My basic takeaway from King of the Monsters is this…it isn’t good…but with that said I also must admit… it could have been a hell of a lot worse. The biggest problem with the Hollywood Godzilla movies is that they use Godzilla as a prop for human drama as opposed to using humans as a prop for Godzilla drama. These movies spend so much time trying to get us to care about stupid people doing stupid things instead of just giving us what we came to see…Godzilla. I mean, Godzilla’s name isn’t above the title…IT IS THE TITLE.

To King of the Monsters credit, it does give us much more Godzilla than its predecessor did…but that isn’t exactly a high bar as Godzilla (2014) had so little Godzilla it should have been titled Waiting for Godzilla. Why studios need to stick to the usual formula of spending time trying to get audiences attached to second rate actors like Kyle Chandler or Vera Formiga is beyond me. You can show them, and spend a wee bit of time developing them, but then just leave them to try and survive the ultimate god encounter…namely…Godzilla.

King of the Monsters goes through the motions of trying to be a real drama, and uses certain cliched narrative devices…over and over and over and over again…in an effort to give deeper meaning to the monster festivities, but this all rings monotonous and hollow. It is like the film gets stuck in a plot loop and can’t get out of it so it simply repeats the same dramatic pattern every half hour except with different characters.

The cast are all fine I guess. I mean, I totally get how difficult it is to act in such an absurd movie with such terrible dialogue, so I cut the cast excessive amounts of slack. That said…the ever-awful Bradley Whitford does his very best to ruin the movie all by himself. Whitford is so repellent a screen presence he needs to be thrown into a volcano and sacrificed to Rodan for the good of all humanity.

On the bright side, 15 year old Millie Bobbie Brown is a really good actress. Brown has hit it big after her captivating work on Netflix’s break out hit Stranger Things. Brown’s greatest asset is that she is alive on screen and pulsates with a palpable humanity. She is also very beautiful, and I have to admit I find myself very concerned for her well-being, as Hollywood is a tough town for anyone, nevermind young people, and it is riddled with predators who use their power to prey upon the young and the weak. It is disconcerting to see Brown being “sexxed-up” by the industry and her handlers, and I only hope she can keep her wits about her as success can be very disorienting at such a young age.

Another plus is seeing Ziyi Zhang in a prominent supporting role. Zhang, who you may remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a beguiling beauty and formidable actress and it is a shame she has been missing from American cinema for so long.

As for the monsters…well…the results are mixed. Godzilla looks great, really great, and we do get to see more of him and his rampages than we did in Godzilla (2014), but not enough of him. The other monsters, King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra are all just ok. I actually thought Ghidorah was pretty underwhelming visually especially compared to the dragons on Game of Thrones, which surprised me as you’d expect a feature film to have better effects than a tv show. Rodan also felt a bit off visually and that was a disappointment as he has historically been a good foil for Godzilla.

Mothra makes an appearance and is also not the most captivating visual presence. To be fair though, I have never liked Mothra at all. I always thought it was moronic to have a moth be this powerful being…I mean…it is a fucking moth for goodness sake.

The visuals of King of the Monsters are, much like its predecessor, decidedly dark, although this time around there is a higher level of clarity and coherence with the cinematography. We do get to see some clear shots of Godzilla and have a better idea of what is happening during his big fights, but I could use a hell of a lot more of it.

There are a few notable shots in the movie as well…including the usual iconic posing from Godzilla himself. There is one gorgeous shot of Ghidorah that is bursting with symbolic and thematic power, where Ghidorah spreads his wings atop a mountain with a cross in the foreground, that is really well executed. But then the impact of that shot was diluted when the filmmakers made the curious decision to literally show it about four more times.

The plot of King of the Monsters is riddled with illogic and inconsistencies and makes little to no sense. The movie also has little sense of time and space which can make it somewhat dizzying affair. The reality is that the film needlessly tries to explain everything and by doing so just confuses things even more.

In conclusion, if you love Godzilla movies you will find this one to be passable but not particularly great. If you are lukewarm on Godzilla movies and are looking for some mindless fun…stay away from this one as it is a little too mindless and a little short on fun. At the end of the day, Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t good enough to do anything more than preach to the most adamant of the Kaiju faithful.

©2019

The Souvenir: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to ever suffer through this meandering art house pretender.

The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg, is the story of Julie, a film school student who falls into a relationship with Anthony, a mysterious older man. The film stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie and Tom Burke as Anthony, with a supporting turn from Tilda Swinton.

Joanna Hogg (no relation to Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg or Sir Denis Eton-Hogg of This is Spinal Tap) is a British filmmaker who in the last decade has made a bunch of fringe art house films that have occasionally garnered some mild critical attention. I have never seen any of Ms. Hogg’s previous work, and after seeing The Souvenir, I don’t feel obliged to.

The Souvenir is a narcissistically indulgent art house poseur of a film that has pretensions of profundity but ultimately is nothing more than an exercise in cinematic futility and philosophical frivolity.

Ms. Hogg’s film school training is noticeable as she is proficient in the technical aspects of filmmaking, some of her shots of wonderfully framed for example, but she is totally devoid of even the most minute storytelling or character developing instincts. The Souvenir’s characters, relationships and narrative are so poorly constructed the film has no foundation upon which to build any sort of dramatic momentum.

The characters have absolutely no arcs to them at all, they start in one place and end in exactly the same place. No one goes anywhere or learns anything…things just happen and time goes by and then, mercifully, the movie is over. The movie is so devoid of any dramatic pace or rhythm, the film’s meandering two hour run time drags on and on. It seems Ms. Hogg’s greatest skill as a filmmaker is the ability to make two hours feel like eight.

The film is a semi-autobiographical story about a relationship Ms. Hogg was in during her film school days, and it shows. Ms. Hogg takes for granted the character’s motivations and their connections because she has lived them, but she never does the work of conveying those things to the audience, so we are left with no connection to anything or anyone on the screen.

The film not only has no answers, it has no questions, but instead spins its wheels in the muck and mire of its own emptiness. Nothing makes sense, nothing means anything, and nothing matters. I sat watching this film wondering why on earth Julie would spend time with this dullard and dope of a man Anthony who brings nothing to the table…nothing…he is not charming, smart, funny, good-looking or charismatic.

Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) is a pleasant screen presence as Julie but is not developed enough as an actress to be able to carry a film like this which, if made correctly, would need a complex performance at its center. Byrne may well grow and mature into a more formidable actress, but for now her charm and quirky, but undeniable, beauty can only carry her so far and do not make up for her lack of skill. That said, I do look forward to seeing where she goes from here.

Tom Burke as Anthony does as well as he can with the very little he is given. Anthony is a vacuous and vacant character, a cardboard cutout from Ms. Hogg’s perspective on her own history. Burke gives Anthony a distinct and precise manner but cannot give him any specific intentions because the character has none.

Tilda Swinton plays a small role as Julie’s mother and brings a noticeable amount of dramatic heft that is missing from the rest of the cast. Tilda Swinton elevates the proceedings a great deal but is not a miracle worker.

Seeing this film made me remember being in a play a few years ago. In the play I played a date rapist and had to simulate a rape on stage. My scene partner, who is one of the loveliest people I know, was also the writer and star of the production and she had written the play about her own personal experience. Obviously, rehearsing this scene was difficult because of the emotional minefield we were walking through. In one rehearsal I improvised by changing one small word in a line, and my scene partner/writer and her director friend got very upset. They said that I shouldn’t change the word, and when I told them that the way I changed it actually conveyed the emotional sentiments more clearly and with much more dramatic impact, they countered by saying with the utmost sincerity and earnesty, “but that isn’t what he said in real life”. Needless to say, I bit my tongue, I am not going to argue with that statement in that situation. But the reality was and is that it doesn’t matter how it happened “in real life”…what matters is how you convey it to the audience and how they perceive it. How does the audience receive and process the information you are giving them? By sticking to strictly “what really happened”, the essence of that rape scene, and its horror and emotional power, were diluted due to a sort of emotional narcissism more akin to psychotherapy than drama/art/entertainment. While that may benefit the actress/writer, it didn’t benefit the story or the characters and therefore the audience.

It struck me watching The Souvenir that Ms. Hogg seemed to be re-litigating an old relationship and using cinema as the vehicle for her therapy. While that may be good for her, that is not so good for us because her therapy is not dramatically sound, artistically worthy or even remotely compelling or engaging.

After seeing the film I thought to myself that, like her young star Honor Swinton Byrne, Ms. Hogg may well grow to be a formidable filmmaker as she matures and grows as an artist. Due to the film’s rather immature philosophical perspective and myopic artistic vision I assumed Ms. Hogg was a young woman in her twenties who was basically still trying to figure out who she is as an artist. Then I looked Ms. Hogg up and was dismayed to find that she is a 60 year old woman. If she doesn’t know who she is as an artist and a person or what she is doing as a director by now, she never will.

In conclusion, The Souvenir is a piece of art house fool’s gold that sells itself as a sort of artistic journey but is neither a piece of art nor does it go anywhere. Ultimately, the film is a frustrating, dare I say irritating, cinematic experience, and for this reason I contend that no one ever needs to see this film at any time or any place for any reason.

©2019

Final Thoughts on the Game of Thrones Finale - Alternative Ending Included

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 02 seconds

Game of Thrones has come and gone and after eight seasons of turmoil has exited with a whimper and not a bang. The final episode, in keeping with the final two seasons, was underwhelming at best. The narrative felt rushed and the drama forced, and so, a show that was a powder keg of possibilities ended with a fizzle.

The finale was lackluster and the last season lacking, and I think it is important to understand why that is and how it happened. The biggest issue, and this seems to be a consensus, is that the last two seasons were rushed, with the narrative being sped up and therefore the drama not earned. It is counter intuitive, but oddly enough the dramatic momentum of the show slowed precipitously when the pace of the narrative increased over the last two seasons. Without the requisite time and space to let the characters and story marinate, simmer and then stew over a warm but not hot flame, the drama was both under done and over done at the same time. This left the story tough on the outside, which made it difficult to chew on, and cold on the inside, which made it hard to swallow, and left an unpleasant taste in your mouth and a queasy feeling in your belly when it was over.

In the recipe for drama, time is a key ingredient and it seemed to be the most lacking in the last few seasons of Game of Thrones. For example, much more time was needed for Dany to be turned into as mad a Queen as she needed to be for the resolution of the story to make dramatic sense.

By increasing the pace of the drama over the last two seasons, and this half season most especially, the show lost its focus and became more about hitting plot points necessary to end it, than in having characters make believable choices in the circumstances they found themselves. When logistics of the production are the main driving point for the arc of the narrative, then the story will crumble under the weight of its dramatic falsity.

Of course, lots of people have lots of opinions about the show and its finale. People like to bitch about things…myself included. But it is important not to let the less than stellar finale and final season undermine the enormity of what the makers of Game of Thrones achieved with this show. As I have written before, we will not see anything like this again…and so while it is fun to nit pick the negatives of the final season, we must also tip our cap to those that got so many people invested in the show in the first place.

With that said…here are my thoughts on what should have happened. Of course, the question arises, who the hell am I and why should anyone give a rat’s ass what I think should have happened to end Game of Thrones? The answer to that is that I am most definitely a nobody and will remain one until the day I die…but…I do spend my time and make my living as an acting coach scouring scripts in a desperate search for drama. I read a ton of scripts and I work with lots of actors trying to dredge up the worthwhile drama in them. My alternative take on the Game of Thrones finale is an exercise based entirely on storytelling where drama takes precedence. Maybe my ending makes no sense in terms of the books (which I have not read), or the budget (which I am not paying for), or the fan base (of which I am not a member)….but it does make dramatic sense…and for me that is all that matters.

So…here it is…my broad brush ending to Game of Thrones.

ALTERNATE ENDING

Main Themes: Duty and Honor

The sacking of King’s Landing should’ve been the first big battle of the last season….with the Battle of King’s Landing and the Battle of Winterfell exchanging places in the story order. In a six episode season (which should’ve been 12 episodes) the Battle of King’s Landing should happen in episode three at the latest, two if possible, and the Battle of Winterfell against the Night King should have happened in the penultimate episode (#5). In a 12 episode final season, which i would prefer, I would have the Battle of King’s Landing at Episode 8 and the Battle of Winterfell at episode 11.

The Battle/sacking of King’s Landing would play out the same way in my version as the show’s actual version, with Dany going all Dresden/Hiroshima on the general population. My one tweak would be that Cersei and Jaime die in each others arms but by dragon fire when Dany sees them trying to escape the Red Keep. Dany and Cersei would look into each others eyes and then Jaime and Cersei would have their conversations “this is all that matters”, and then Dany would torch them. This sequence gives Dany agency in Cersei’s death and also makes Cersei’s death a punishment for all of her evil.

The burning of King’s Landing sets Dany up as a morally questionable character due to her torching of innocents. It also means that every character becomes morally compromised by the atrocity because they still need Dany on their side in the fight against the Night King. The Night King is the greatest existential threat to all of mankind, and so it means that everyone…even the mad Queen who kills innocent people, must be kept on board. Every character, from Jon to Tyrion to Arya to Sansa and on and on must bend the knee to one evil, Dany, in order to defeat another greater evil, the Night King.

The Battle of Winterfell then proceeds after the armies march north to Winterfell to meet the Army of the Dead. On this march there are lots of conversations about Dany and what are we going to do? She is mad? etc., etc.

The Battle of Winterfell is shot more clearly and with more coherence and clarity in my version. While I didn’t really dig Arya killing the Night King or the way she did it in the original…I will acquiesce and keep that sequence the same. But in my Battle of Winterfell many more characters are lost. Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm as well as the ones killed in the original all die.

After the end of the Battle of Winterfell and the Night King’s death, Dany embraces an exhausted Jon and they weep and cheer their victory together. Dany then tells Jon that since the threat of the Night King is over, “their child can be born into a world of peace.” Uh-oh…Dany is pregnant…and Jon is the father…the stakes just got even higher in Westeros.

In my alternative finale…Jon is, as always, ready to serve his queen…but Tyrion, Sansa, and Arya all implore him that something must be done about the Mad Queen who is talking and acting like a tyrant.

Jon then has a similar conversation with Dany that he had in the actual finale, and they go back and forth about what is good and right…and Dany asks Jon to join her in making this new world. Jon kills her. Dany being pregnant with Jon’s child as well as being his Queen and love…makes the stakes much higher, the gravity of his decisions much heavier and much more fraught than in the original finale. By killing Dany, Jon is actually sacrificing not just his love and self-conceived notion of his honor and belief system…but his lineage, his child, his everything that he yearned for throughout the story. Jon commits this heinous (in his eyes) act because it is the “right” thing to do for the people, the kingdom and the Starks…and these added narrative obstacles make the weight of that decision much much greater than was in the original finale.

The Lords of the Seven kingdoms then declare Jon, who is the rightful heir, to be king of Westeros. Jon declines and instead exiles himself to the North, to wander among the Wildlings far north of the wall…and to never marry or have children or take lands. His punishment is self-imposed….this gives Jon agency and makes his exile a heroic act and thus he begins his arc of redemption. Jon starts as a bastard longing for acceptance and he ends as a self-imposed exile…forgoing all he yearns for in order to do the right thing.

The council, after much debate and hemming and hawing, all, out of various Machiavellian maneuvers…choose Gendry Baratheon to be king. Gendry is chosen by some because they think he is an peasant who can be easily manipulated to thwart Stark power. But those anti-Stark machination are upended when Arya Stark, who has discovered she is pregnant with Gendry’s baby and thus cannot explore what lies in the West, accepts Gendry’s proposal. Arya thus becomes the Queen of Westeros, and due to Gendry’s rather uneducated background, Arya is now the real ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and eventual mother to a King as well.

Arya marrying Gendry and becoming Queen of Westeros fulfills her character’s arc too as she has thrown off the childish urges for adventure and revenge and instead grows up to accept “DUTY” above all else. Just as her mother and father before her sacrificed for her, Arya now sacrifices her dream of personal freedom for her child and for her family and kingdom. Arya starts as a tomboy repulsed by the trappings of power…and ends as a Queen, ruling over the Seven Kingdoms.

Sansa, assuming she is backed by her sister, then declares that the North will not kneel…and must be independent. Other kingdoms tart contemplating the same thing. Gendry and Arya, with an assist from Bran, decide that in order to quell the “independence” talk, Sansa must consummate her marriage to Tyrion and bear an heir if the North is to be granted autonomy. Both Sansa and Tyrion are horrified and vehemently against the idea.

This is the highest of drama considering Sansa’s history and also considering that it is her sister and brother who are asking this of her. After much hemming and hawing…Sansa does what both Jon and Arya do…she chooses duty…and she accepts her fate and the conditions under which she will become Queen of the North. Sansa chooses to put duty to her people and family above all else and agrees to the pairing. (A shot, through a doorway - like the iconic ending of Godfather I with Michael in a room and Kay watching through a door- of Sansa standing in a bedroom alone. Tyrion enters, they exchange a glance, he kisses her hand, then Sansa walks over and slowly closes the door on the camera, implying they are about to have sex, would be terrific.)

In order to soften the blow upon Sansa…Tyrion is named the Hand and will live in Kings Landing after Sansa is impregnated, leaving Sansa to rule the North on her own. Arya tells Tyrion that she will watch him with a keen eye and have his head if he so much as thinks of betraying her or Gendry. Tyrion looks over and sees Bran, who nods. Tyrion understands that Bran knows everything and that he must be unquestionably loyal to Arya and Gendry.

Bran is now the Three Eyed Raven…and serves as a sort Grand Maester who is part historian, part prophet, part wizard. Bran works closely with Samwell and they become the keepers of history and knowledge. Bran also searches far and wide with his powers to find Drogon and maybe even bring him under the Stark wing with his warging powers.

The show could end with the same Stark montage as the original finale…except this time with Arya sitting on her throne next to Gendry…ruling the kingdom through her husband, with Sansa sitting alone on her throne in Winterfell with her hand on her belly contemplating her soon to be born child, and with Jon riding alone in the cold and snow of the North, feeling the bitter wind of his exile.

So…that is what I think should’ve happened. If the show had gone one more full season they may have been able to pull it off…but alas…we will never know. I guess I better get started writing my fantasy novel masterpiece because that is the only way these ideas will see the light. And thus concludes my speculative Game of Thrones pseudo-fan fiction!

©2019

Shadow: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A wonderfully made, visually stunning and dramatically and psychologically satisfying Chinese action film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Shadow, directed by iconic Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou, is the story of Jingzhou who is trained from a young age to be a double/shadow for military leader Ziyu. The film stars Deng Chao in a dual role as Jingzhou and Commander Ziyu, with supporting turns from Sun Li and Zheng Kai.

Shadow is best described as a Wuxia film, which is a genre of Chinese fantasy/fiction that revolves around “martial heroes” in a world of magical realism. Notable examples of Wuxia films are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and House of Flying Daggers by the same director as Shadow, Zhang Yimou.

Yimou, who is one of the great directors of his generation, has a flair for unique fight choreography and paints his films with a striking palette and dramatic visuals. In Shadow, Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding use a muted grey, black and white as the dominant color scheme but the film’s visuals crackle with a stunning intensity. The film is beautifully shot, highlighted by Xiaoding’s gorgeous framing (just look at the poster above) and use of a crisp and clear contrast between the blacks and the whites, the shadow and the light. Yimou and Xiaoding’s masterful use of contrast creates a visual clarity and coherence that is a joy to behold.

Shadow is a psychologically and dramatically rich story that deeply mines the Jungian concepts of the shadow. The most obvious example of this is that Chao plays both Jing and Ziyi, who are essentially the same entity with two different elements of its psyche projected into the outer world, each vying for control. Jing “the shadow”, must be identical to Ziyi, and in a delicious bit of Jungian symbolism, must have the identical “wound” as Ziyi. Ziyi in turn must integrate his “shadow” in order to make himself whole again, or face the consequences of being overcome by his psychological shadow.

The shadow is a complex and dramatically potent psychological premise used to great effect by other film makers from the East, most notably Japanese master Akira Kurosawa in the terrific film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior). Like Shadow, Kagemusha also effectively used a single actor (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) to play both the role of the man of power and his shadow. Yimou dives even deeper into Jungian shadow psychology than Kurosawa though by emphasizing the anima (the feminine) and the imperative to also integrate that feminine power in order to become whole.

The ying and yang and wholeness are dominant themes throughout the movie (again look at the poster above) and Yimou emphasizes that battle/balance between the opposites not only visually with the black versus white color scheme, but dramatically with opposing masculine roles and opposing feminine roles. Just as Ziyi has Jing as his literal shadow (and vice versa), Ziyi’s wife, Xiao Ai has a symbolic opposite/shadow in Princess Qingping. That sort of balance in the narrative makes the film dramatically and subconciously very satisfying even while it maintains a pronounced assault and challenge upon our storytelling expectations.

Wholeness is also represented in numerous ways in the film, most notably by the umbrella. A circle is the symbol for wholeness and in Shadow, Jing integrates his masculine and feminine sides by using a circle, an umbrella, as a weapon not only of defense but of offense. Jing’s learning the use of the umbrella is an integration dance between the masculine and the feminine. The use of the umbrella is not only psychologically resonant but is visually striking as well.

The cast all do solid work with Deng Chao in his dual role and Sun Li as Ziyi’s wife being the most notable. Chao is really remarkable as both men and it is easy to forget the same actor is playing both roles. Sun Li’s work is incredibly layered and she brings a palpable humanity and fragility to the role that profoundly accentuates the drama.

The fight sequences are all so unique, original and compelling that they are a wonder to behold. Since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger became such big hits twenty years ago, slow motion martial arts moves have become passe, but Yimou fantastically turns everything on its head in Shadow and creates vibrant and vivid fights that are gloriously choreographed and cinematically mesmerizing. Yimou also wisely uses water and rain to further visually enhance the fight sequences.

While Shadow can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you go in unaware of the plot, once it hits its stride it is truly fantastic. I loved the film because it is such a dramatically, psychologically and cinematically rich example of the magical realism of Wuxia in action. If you are a fan of Wuxia or Yimou, rush out and see this movie in the theatres immediately. If you are less a Wuxia enthusiast, but enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Shadow may be a little tougher to penetrate because it isn’t as easily digestible or romantically sweeping as Ang Lee’s epic, but it is equally beautiful to look at. But with all that said, even if you are on the fence about going to see Shadow, why not give it a shot….the shadow you save might just be your own.

©2019

Tedeschi Trucks Band - The Orpheum Theatre: A Review

TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND - ORPHEUM THEATRE - THURSDAY, MAY 16TH, 2019

Last Thursday, May 16th, I continued my year of living musically when I ventured to downtown Los Angeles to see the Tedeschi Trucks Band play at the Orpheum Theatre. I was intrigued by the possibilities of this show as I had never seen Tedeschi Trucks play live before, nor had I ever been to the Orpheum.

The Grammy Award-winning Tedeschi Trucks Band are a blues jam band currently on tour in support of their fourth studio album, Signs, which was released on February 15 of this year. I discovered the band a few years ago through a client, who is a notable professional musician, and have been a fan ever since I explored their first album, Revelator(2011), and its scintillating follow up Made Up Mind(2013).

The band formed in 2010 when singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, a blues superstar in her own right, merged her band with her blues royalty/guitar prodigy husband Derek Trucks’ band, to form a sort of blues super group. Derek is the nephew of Butch Trucks, drummer for The Allman Brothers, and grew up playing with the band. By the time Derek was 13 he was already a professional touring musician who had played with such notables as the legendary Buddy Guy. Trucks became an official member of The Allman Brothers at the age of 20 and has recorded and toured with Eric Clapton as well and is widely considered one of the very best players of his generation.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is enormous, like a traveling circus, boasting 12 members, who are…Susan Tedeschi (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Derek Trucks (lead guitar), JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell (drums/percussion), Brandon Boone (bass), Gabe Dixon (keyboards), Kebbi Williams (sax), Ephraim Owens (trumpet), Elizabeth Lea (trombone), Mike Mattison/Mark Rivers/Alecia Chakour (harmony vocals).

I was flying solo on concert night so I did not have my usual pre-show dinner at Shake Shack even though there was one right next to The Orpheum. Instead I Ubered a little later than usual to the show in order to avoid L.A. traffic and got to the venue about 20 minutes before show time.

As I waded through the crowd on the sidewalk and just inside the theatre, I noticed that the average age of the audience was middle-aged or slightly above. Unless some of these people are going to live to be 130 years old, I don’t think it is accurate to describe them as “middle-aged”. The crowd was decidedly friendly and welcoming, no bad apples or attitudes among the multitudes.

I made my way to my seat, which was very good as it was located on the second row center of the mezzanine, and sat myself down to get a good look at my surroundings. The Orpheum is a truly gorgeous venue, at once opulent and luxurious but also lived in. The seats were very comfortable and there was plenty of leg room between rows and arms space between seats.

Sitting behind me were an older couple, probably in their 60’s, who started chatting me up. They told me they had seen Tedeschi Trucks numerous times before and never saw the same show twice. Another guy, a retiree from Minnesota, overheard the conversation and chimed in. He told me he follows the band around, going to all of their shows not just in Minnesota but in Iowa and to all of their shows in Chicago and at the Beacon Theatre in New York. He flew out to Los Angeles to stay with his nephew and attend both shows that the band were playing on back to back nights at the Orpheum. All of these people assured me that, as a Tedeschi Trucks virgin, I would be blown away by the band. These folks were very down to earth and I never would have pegged them as essentially the equivalent of Tedeschi Trucks Dead Heads.

The show was scheduled to start at 8 with no opening act. At about 8:15 the band haphazardly strolled onto the stage and after some brief discussion amongst themselves, began playing. The band opened with the rollicking “Do I Look Worried” off of Made Up Mind and in no time at all I understood why Tedeschi Trucks has such a loyal following.

Susan Tedeschi has a wondrous, bluesy voice that both soars but is grounded. She powers through her vocals with a steady aplomb that gives the music a rich and complex humanity. The rest of the band are exceedingly tight, highlighted by the double drum section of Johnson and Greenwell, who at times lead the band with drum duets and/or duels. The horn section and the backing vocals are terrific as well and always made the most of their opportunities to shine.

But with all that said, there is simply no doubt that Derek Trucks is the sun around which the other planets in the band orbit. Trucks is obviously the band leader and weaves the talents of his formidable band into a cohesive and magnificent whole.

Trucks’ guitar playing is beyond sublime, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do anything as well as Derek Trucks played guitar the other night. Trucks’ guitar is like a long bow, and his notes arrows launched deep into the night sky. These arrows float elegantly through the air and then, concisely and precisely, strike the bullseye some miles away in the darkness with a resonant boom. Other arrows float through the night sky and then, once they reach their seeming apex, cluster together to form a rocket, then ignite, and blast off beyond the bounds of earth, scorching out of the Milky Way, exploring the deepest reaches of the universe, sometimes slowing, sometimes speeding up, but never losing their vibrancy, vitality and originality. These rockets then come full circle, turning into a ball of flames as they reenter the atmosphere, and morph once again into pristine arrows as they, with cunning exactness, come to land ever so gently back from the place they originated, in Derek Trucks’ quiver, just as he intended, entirely in tact and none the worse for wear, only wiser.

Trucks’ playing is spell-binding, so mesmerizing as to be hypnotic. He is so good he isn’t just the center of the band, but for two hours every night, the universe tilts on its axis because Derek Trucks’ and his guitar become the undeniable center of it.

Guitarists often describe their instrument as an axe, and it would be easy to think of Derek Trucks as some axe wielding dragon slayer. But as I watched Derek Trucks annihilate the Orpheum on Thursday night, I couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones and the dragon Drogon obliterating Kings Landing. Derek Trucks is not the dragon slayer…Derek Trucks is the indestructible dragon..and his guitar wreaks a beautiful havoc and leaves those fortunate enough to witness its mastery and power, with mouths agape and minds blown.

The band played for a solid hour and then took a half hour intermission. My new friends, the older couple and the Minnesota man, quickly checked in on me to see what i thought, I was nearly speechless, and could only muster a “holy shit” in reply to their queries. They gave a knowing laugh, they too were once Tedeschi Trucks virgins.

After the intermission the band came out and picked up right where they left off with “I’m Gonna Be There” off of the new album Signs. Throughout the show various member of the band would took the spotlight, with back up singer Mike Mattison doing lead vocals on a few songs, as did Mark Rivers, both of them acquitting themselves extremely well. The horn section each got their solos, as did Brandon Boone on bass and Gabe Dixon on keyboards. The highlight feature though may have been JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell’s combined drum solo/duet/duel. These percussionists were masterful in playing off of and with each other and their skill is a driving force that keeps the band so tight.

After playing for another glorious hour and change, the band walked off to a raucous ovation, only to return for the requisite encore. Trucks’ then decisively tore into the distinct riff of “Made Up Mind” and the crowd erupted as the band tore through what may be their most signature song. Trucks and the horn section went back and forth with a volley of blues in a remarkable jam for a few delirious moments and then, with the audience spent, Tedeschi Trucks exited as they entered, with a slow saunter and an understated confidence.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band don’t put on a show, there is no posing and preening, no bells and whistles, instead the put on a master class in the blues. The musicianship on display at a Tedeschi Trucks show is the absolute height of artistry and craftsmanship. Even if you are not very familiar with the band, if you love music, go see Tedeschi Trucks…you will not be disappointed (you should also check out their albums, particularly Revelator and Made Up Mind). My ticket cost $105 (and came with a copy of their new album Signs) and my seats were very good and worth every penny and then some. I can tell you this, I now totally understand how middle-aged normies get sucked in by the band’s live music and end up following them around from city to city…as seeing Tedeschi Trucks is a truly transcendent experience. If you only see one concert a year, or every couple of years, do yourself a favor and make that concert Tedeschi Trucks.

SET LIST

Do I Look Worried

Part of Me

Don’t Drift Away

Somebody Pick Up My Pieces

High and Mighty

Down in the Flood

Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever

The Sky is Crying

Idle Wind

INTERMISSION

I’m Gonna Be There

Signs, High Times

Lord Protect My Child

Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’

Shame

Midnight in Harlem

Get Out of My Life, Woman

Show Me

ENCORE

Made Up Mind

©2019

Rival Sons - The Fonda Theatre : A Review

RIVAL SONS - FONDA THEATRE - THURSDAY, MAY 9, 2019


This past Thursday, May 9th, my year of living musically continued with a jaunt to one of my favorite venues, The Fonda Theatre, to see a local band on the rise, Rival Sons.

Rival Sons are a hard rock/blues band from Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, that is made up of Jay Buchanan (lead vocals), Scott Holiday (guitar), Mike Miley (drums), Dave Beste (bass) and touring member Todd Ogren (keyboards). The band are currently touring in support of their sixth and most recent album, Feral Roots, which was released on January 25th of this year.

Rival Sons formed in 2009 and even though they have put out a solid collection of rock albums into a rock starved world over the last decade, they have yet to “hit it big”. That all could be changing this year though, as the band performed on The Late Late Show with James Corden on the night before I saw them, are slated to co-headline a tour this summer and fall with Stone Temple Pilots and even have one of their earlier songs, Electric Man, featured on a Mountain Dew commercial. In the crazy, upside down, topsy-turvy world of modern rock music, being on Corden and in a Mountain Dew ad are signs of a band’s momentum.

I was turned on to Rival Sons a few years ago by my buddy Red Dragon, who is a walking encyclopedia of music past and present. Dragon sent me some links to a few songs off of the bands 2014 album Great Western Valkyrie, and I was hooked. From there I made the expedition through the band’s earlier work, which includes their self-titled EP as well as their first full length album, the self-released Before the Fire, both of which are outstanding. The band then signed with Earache and released Pressure and Time (2011), Head Down (2012), Great Western Valkyrie (2014) and Hollow Bones (2016) and toured extensively in support of those albums and as an opening act for bigger and more established acts like Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and Sammy Hagar. In 2018, Rival Sons left Earache and signed on with Low Country Sound, a division of Elektra Records…which brings us to today.

When I saw that Rival Sons were playing at The Fonda I snatched up two tickets ($40 each) the very first day they went on sale. I had long wanted to see the band live but had never had the opportunity until now so I didn’t want to miss it. It was a wise move to get my tickets as early as I did as the general admission show ended up selling out.

My evening of rock started out with my new beloved ritual of grabbing a burger from the Shake Shack across the street from The Fonda before the show. Shake Shack burgers are either God’s or the devil’s work, for they are much too delicious to be of this world. I also treated myself to a Root Beer, a treat which I have not indulged in for quite some time, and hoo-boy if that wasn’t a tasty beer of root. A Shake Shack burger and a root beer and the night was off to a good start.

M’lady, the incomparable Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf and I then headed to the venue to join the line that stretched down Hollywood Boulevard and around the corner. After a short wait we were let in through security and made our way to a good spot for the show.

The thing that stood out the most to me about the audience was that the vast majority of them were middle-aged men and women. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting that. It makes sense though as Rival Sons are a throwback, a sort of cross between Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, that would have been right at home in the world of 70’s rock. The graying crowd represents an under-served music market that is hungry for new rock and roll, and there are very few places where they can get it. Rival Sons, with their hard-driving, guitar driven sound, are an injection of high voltage energy into the genre, and they fill that “classic rock” void for those who were raised on that music before it was considered “classic”…to them it was just “rock”.

The opening act were The Sheepdogs, a Canadian band heavily influenced by The Allman Brothers and Creedance Clearwater Revival. I had never heard of The Sheepdogs, but as is often the case, seeing them play live turned me into a fan. The musicianship of lead singer/guitarist Ewan Currie and virtuoso lead guitarist Jimmy Bowskill, was jaw-droppingly impressive. Bowskill and Currie would often play in “guitar-mony” (guitar + harmony) with exquisite precision. While their songs were good, but not great, the showmanship, craftsmanship and vitality displayed by Bowskill was well worth the price of admission alone.

The Sheepdogs went on at 8 p.m. and played for about 45 minutes. After they departed the stage the roadies then broke down their equipment and set up for Rival Sons. At this point things got interesting, but not in a good way. The show was General Admission - no seats - so Lady Pumpernickle and I had been standing in the same spot, about five rows of people from the stage, for about an hour and change when two women, one in her 60’s but dressed like a teenager in a mini-skirt and halter top, and the other, her daughter, in her 20’s, came and stood right in front of Lady Pumpernickle. We rolled our eyes at the desperate attention-seeking slutty outfits and behavior of these hussies, and to avoid irritation Lady Pumpernickle simply moved over to the other side of me, using me as a wall between her and the harlots. Lady Pumpernickle could now see the show and not worry about getting crabs…well, at least not getting crabs from those two filthy tramps. But then the patriarch of the whore family, Senor Dicknose, came stumbling through the crowd, bumping into everyone yet miraculously keeping his two beers above his head. Senor Dicknose then made the potentially fatal error of nearly spilling the beer on m’lady…and tensions rose. Now…this guy was in his 60’s, and just like his whore wife, was dressed about four decades too inappropriately. His leather jacket and jeans looked freshly bought and, like his face, harshly creased, and his Ed Hardy t-shirt was like the waving flag of his home country of Douchebagia. This guy was such a gigantic twat it is difficult to fully and accurately describe him and his leathery, fake tanned, botoxed face and super-gelled hair. Think of it this way…if Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein had a 60 year old baby, it would be this useless cunt.

I am a large mammal, and the best way to describe me is that I look like an unfrozen caveman and a Hells Angel had a baby that the Aryan Brotherhood tried to abort by leaving in the woods to die but who miraculously survived when it was adopted and raised by a pack of rabid wolves and a pod of Sasquatch. The bottom line is this, I sort of look like trouble and maybe even the type of person who carries a battle axe hidden on his person somewhere. Senor Dicknose caught my vibe very quickly because he looked like a geriatric member of Circue du Soleil contorting himself to get around me without ever coming into contact with me. Of course, I wasn’t afraid of him because as the old joke goes, I’ve been beat up by guys half his size…and certainly half his age, so I didn’t help him out at all by moving out of his way because…well…fuck that guy. I was so irritated by this turd with feet that Lady Pumpernickle tapped my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “he’s not worth getting arrested over”. As always, Lady Pumpernickle was right…but that didn’t stop me from trying to figure out ways I could elbow this shitbag in the face and shatter his nose while NOT getting arrested.

Thankfully…sort of…Senor Dicknose abruptly left the scene after some rude words towards his streetwalker wife, and I had to listen to her babble on to her floozy daughter about what a prick he is…I guess it runs in the family. Then just as the show was about to start, another couple, the Douche and Douchess of Assholestan, squirmed there way right in front of me. Once again I was itching to go full on Hulk and smash, but Lady Pumpernickle’s calm and cool nature intervened and she reminded me that life isn’t Goodfellas and you can’t go around kicking peoples’ face in and burying them in a shallow grave upstate without dire legal consequences. I hate it when she’s right.

Right before the show started, the old floozy and her apprentice whore daughter, started literally kicking a big fat guy standing next to me. He was an older guy, there by himself, sort of a sad fellow, and they were kicking his legs and talking shit to him. It was insane. What the hell is wrong with these people? Then Senor Dicknose returned and was nudging the older, fat guy. The guy then turned to me and said apologetically, “hey, if I bump into you it’s because they pushed me.” I could see he was really unnerved, so I told him, “it’s a rock show, don’t worry about it.” He then said that if they push him into me, that he wanted me to push him back into them. I assured him I wouldn’t push him at all and then he told me he really wanted me to push him if they started it. I tried to ease his anxiety and said that I knew the patriarch of the whore family was a real piece of work, and he replied by telling me the women were “absolute cunts”…which I thought would make for an interesting Absolute Vodka ad. It is always fun to make new friends.

Then, surrounded by the House of Needledicks, Tarts and Hussys and the Douche and Douchess of Assholestan, the lights went down and, thank the good Lord, Rival Sons finally hit the stage.

When Rival Sons perform they aren’t so much a rock band as they are a street gang, and the show they put on Thursday night was less a rock show and more a tenacious rock and roll rumble. I mean that in the very best sense. Rival Sons absolutely dropped the hammer on The Fonda Theatre with the power and authority of a Norse god, and it was glorious to behold.

They opened the show with the song Back in the Woods off of the new album and the Fonda erupted and things took off from there. Unlike say, Muse, a band I saw a few months ago who put on a great and big spectacle of a concert, Rival Sons put on a down and dirty, stripped down fistfight of a show. With Rival Sons it is just them, their music and their attitude…and it is impressively forceful.

Miley and Beste’s rhythm section were relentless throughout, keeping a steady and bone crunching beat that was an anchor keeping the band’s soaring music firmly grounded on Mother Earth.

Scott Holiday’s guitar playing was Jimmy Page-esque in its majesty and dynamism. Holiday is a phenomenal player and is without question the musical center of the band. Holliday looks the part of the guitar hero, with his leather and leopard print outfit and handlebar mustache he was the cool ice regulating the temperature of a volcanically hot show.

Lead singer Jay Buchanan is the fire to Holiday’s ice, and he is definitely the straw that stirs the drink of Rival Sons. Buchanan is a charismatic front man with a magnetic stage presence who demands and commands the attention of the entire audience. Buchanan looks and moves sort of like a poor man’s Jim Morrison/Michael Hutchence, but his voice is more reminiscent of Paul Rodgers. Buchanan’s bluesy voice has a Tom Jones sort of foundational power to it, that originates deep in his soul and growls out upon the audience like dragon’s fire. Buchanan’s voice, which is so strong he actually filled the theatre on numerous occasions without a microphone, is distinct with a surprising range and level of emotionality, which is accentuated by the accompaniment of some good old fashioned rock screams.

Buchanan and Holiday are a potent and dynamic rock duo that play the role of rock star with aplomb. The two of them carry the weight of the show and their on-stage chemistry is compelling.

After the initial rush of the opening song, Rival Sons refused to let up as they cranked out four more hard driving songs that kept the energy high at the Fonda. Songs four and five of the set were the back to back combination of Electric Man and Too Bad, which brought the crowd to a dizzying frenzy.

The band then shifted gears a bit and played the soulful Jordan, off of the Heads Down album. Buchanan introduced the song as being about grief, and that it was dedicated to the people who needed to hear it tonight. The song and its performance were reminiscent of Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s version of People Get Ready in its emotional depth and nuance and revealed an impressive level of musical dexterity.

The band then stayed in the blues bin for the next few songs, keeping things more subdued as they and the audience caught their breath. That all came to a close with the explosive Torture off of their early career EP, and they followed that up with the pulsating Open My Eyes. From then on Rival Sons kept their foot on the pedal and never let up for an instant.

The band finished up the set with Do Your Worst and then took a momentary break while the crowd chanted for an encore. The encore was interesting because once again the band sort of shifted gears. They brought out The Sheepdogs and had them sing background on the less explosive, more radio-friendly, anthem-esque song, Shooting Stars, off of the new album. It was surprising that they went with a song that is somewhat less energetic for an encore, but it worked and the audience knew the lyrics by heart and sang along with Buchanan’s encouragement. Shooting Stars is an emotionally resonant song that speaks to our turbulent times and it carried a startling gravitas at the Fonda Thursday night.

The hour and forty-five minute show ended with irrepressible Keep on Swinging, which is ironic since I made the decision to not start swinging earlier in the night. When the song ended the drummer threw a drum stick into the area near me and a twenty something guy and a sixty something guy fell on the floor wrestling to get it. The older guy’s wife was knocked to the ground in the melee. It was insane as her husband was so desperate to have the stupid drum stick he never stopped wrestling to see if his poor wife was alright. As the deeply chivalrous man that I am, I was going to help her up but was too busy going through her pocket book which had fallen at my feet in the scrum. I did get $12, a Costco card and a hard candy out of the whole incident though so…I felt pretty good about how things turned out (relax…I’m just kidding). But this incident was emblematic of the type of band that Rival Sons are…they are so intoxicating and persuasive that a sixty year old man would throw his long time wife aside just for the chance to fight for one of their drum sticks.

While there was the downside of some in the crowd being typical L.A.-holes, overall the night was a stirring success and felt like being transported back in time to the 60’s or 70’s to see early Led Zeppelin or Bad Company play at one of Bill Graham’s famous venues The Wonderland or the Fillmore. The reality is that we aren’t living in the 60’s or 70’s, but some in the crowd certainly are in their 60’s or 70’s. It seems to me that the older audience is emblematic of that fact that Rival Sons are a very bright spot in our very bleak rock universe.

In conclusion, Rival Sons are a fantastic band who play with a mesmerizing fury and ferocity rarely seen nowadays. The band’s musical power, stellar musicianship and dynamic yet natural showmanship puts them in the upper echelon of rock acts working today. If you like hard rock music, I wholly encourage you to give Rival Sons a listen and to make the effort to go see them live, especially while they are still playing smaller venues at cheaper prices. Due to the current nature of the music industry and rock’s ever fading spot in the culture, Rival Sons will most likely never become as big a success as their rock forefathers like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Aerosmith or The Cult…but let there be no doubt…they do deserve to be a very big success, and their show at The Fonda was undeniable proof of that.

SET LIST

Back in the Woods

Sugar on the Bone

Pressure and Time

Electric Man

Too Bad

Jordan

Face of Light

Feral Roots

Torture

Open My Eyes

All Directions

End of Forever

Do Your Worst

ENCORE

Shooting Stars

Keep on Swinging

©2019

Avengers: Endgame - A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. If you like Marvel movies you’ll love this one. A satisfactory conclusion to the epic twenty-two film run of this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Unvierse.

Avengers: Endgame, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, is the story of the Marvel Avengers as they do battle with super villain Thanos. The film stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin and a plethora of other movie stars.

Avengers: Endgame is the fourth Avengers film and is the direct sequel to last years smash hit Avengers: Infinity War. Endgame is also the twenty-second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and marks the conclusion of this cycle of Marvel movies.

Just as super villain Thanos became a de facto god by acquiring the infinity stones, Disney, under the leadership of my dear friend Bob Iger, has turned into an all powerful entertainment industry god by acquiring over the years Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Now, with the additional purchase of Fox, Disney will hold an astonishing 40% market share of the box office.

The crown jewel, at least right now, in Disney’s empire is the aforementioned Marvel behemoth, which Disney bought in 2009 for $4 billion and which has brought in around $20 billion in box office gross alone over the last ten years. I have not always liked the Marvel movies, in fact, I’ve downright loathed a good number of them, but I readily admit that what Disney has pulled off with their Marvel Cinematic Universe is a stunning achievement in popular entertainment that will never be duplicated. To be able to roll out twenty-two different movies over a decade and weave all of the characters and story lines together into a coherent and cohesive whole that culminates in two gigantic movie events, Infinity War and Endgame, is a Hollywood miracle. One need look no further than the shitshow over at Warner Brothers and their inept handling of the DC Cinematic Universe (Batman, Superman etc.) post Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to recognize how remarkable Disney’s efficiency and acumen regarding the Marvel properties has been. No doubt Disney will be further rewarded for their corporate diligence by Endgame’s box office which will break all sorts of records as it rockets past the two billion dollar mark in two weeks with ease.

As previously stated, I have disliked some of the Marvel movies, the first two Avenger movies in particular were quite dreadful. The Marvel movie formula has always been geared more toward adolescent boys…even the middle-aged ones, with lots of light-hearted action, noise and destruction all with some witty one-liners and comedic self-consciousness thrown in. The Marvel universe is decidedly fictional, a piece of escapist fantasy…whereas something like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for example, is more grounded in a recognizable, but very dark, “reality”. Marvel’s lack of grit has always irked me because their line up of characters is chock full of archetypal riches which are begging to explored in a psychologically and culturally serious way.

But with that said, I have also loved a few of Marvel’s formulaic films, with Infinity War and Thor: Ragnarok being prime examples. Infinity War is easily the best film in the MCU and that is because its narrative is the darkest and most consequential of all the movies. While Endgame has a certain darkness to it, is not as nearly as good as Infinity War, but it isn’t awful either.

Endgame is really more an event than a movie, a culmination of the franchise that is the perfect embodiment of everything good and bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the plus side it has fascinating archetypal characters and great moments of poignancy and levity, but on the downside it also has some narrative incoherence, sense-assaulting battle scenes that are relentlessly vapid, and a heavy dose of cringe worthy “wokeness” and political correctness that is shameless in its corporate human resources level pandering.

All of that said, Endgame succeeds because it ultimately satisfies on an emotional, psychological and narrative level as a conclusion to the twenty-two film Marvel epic that has dominated popular culture for the last decade. The story leaves no loose ends or arcs unfulfilled, and that is really all you can ask from a movie like this.

The sun at the center of this cinematic universe is Robert Downey Jr, whose skill, charisma and charm have propelled the MCU forward from day one. Without Downey Jr as Iron Man, none of this stuff works…none of it. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo and all the rest do solid work as their respective super heroes, but none of them could carry this franchise like Downey Jr. has. When Downey Jr. stops being Iron Man, and that day will eventually come, Marvel/Disney is going to take a big hit…I promise you that.

The ensemble of Endgame all do decent if unspectacular work with a few notable exceptions. On the plus side, Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth are fantastic, as both of them fully commit and have impeccable comedy chops (who would’ve thought that Thor would be the comedy gold in the Marvel universe?). As for the negative side…good lord…Brie Larson is just dreadful. Now to be fair, I have not seen Captain Marvel…so maybe she is great in that, but in Endgame you could’ve replaced her with a cigar store wooden Indian and it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference. Larson is so dead-eyed it seems like she died on the table while undergoing a charisma bypass and we are left to watch her corpse be animatronically maneuvered throughout the movie.

There are also some issues with narrative incoherence in the film, mostly dealing with the topic of time travel. The lack of “time travel rules” clarity makes the whole enterprise pretty confusing and logically unstable if you try and follow it too closely. The best approach is to leave logic at home, where it is hopefully safe and sound, and just go with where the movie takes you. The logic/time travel issue though is a big reason that the film doesn’t soared like Infinity War did, which had a very clear and concise plot from which all of the action seamlessly flowed. In Endgame the plot feels more like a manufactured way for Disney to escape any commitment to what took place in Infinity War that could dare harm the corporate bottom line by taking away some cash cows.

While Endgame is the end of this phase of the MCU, Disney has a plethora of Marvel movies lined up for the next few years as they keep the assembly line going. As stated, the next phase is going to have a bumpy time of it as Disney is trying to transition to younger and more diverse stars to refill some roles. Disney is betting big that Brie Larson and Captain Marvel will be the female equivalent of Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, the new sun at the center of the Marvel universe. That is a bad bet, as Larson has big shoes to fill and very little feet with which to fill them.

Disney’s desire for more diverse Marvel movie characters, like a Black Captain America or a Latina Hulk, may (or may not) be a noble idea, but just as it did in comic book sales, it will negatively affect the bottom line at the box office. In my opinion it will also affect the artistic and cultural value of the films, for as I keep saying, “wokeness kills art”….but that is a painful discussion for another day.

In conclusion, Avengers: Endgame is a worthy finish to this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. The film has its ups and downs but ultimately is a satisfactory ending for the long journey we’ve all been on with these characters over the last decade. If your a fan of super hero movies, you should plunk down your Disney tax and help pad Bob Iger’s bank account by seeing the movie in the theatre. If you have just a passing interest in super hero movies, then wait for it to come out on cable or on Disney’s soon to be active streaming service, which will no doubt bring in even more gobs of money for Mickey Mouse. But Mickey should enjoy this ride while it lasts, because it won’t last forever. Just over the horizon there could be some some stormy weather waiting for Disney.

©2019

Peterloo: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019