"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

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Souvenir: A Review

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

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Shadow: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Peterloo: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

The Mustang: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Really no need to see this uneven film which thoroughly misunderstands the true nature of American masculinity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

High Life: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.8 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Transit: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

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

Language: German and French with English subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Birds of Passage: A Review

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

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

5th Annual Mickey™® Awards: 2018 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

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

BEST ACTOR

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

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

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

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

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

BEST ACTRESS

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

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

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

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

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

BEST ENSEMBLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST DIRECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACTOR/ACTRESS OF THE YEAR - JOAQUIN PHOENIX

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

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

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

BEST BLOCKBUSTER OF THE YEAR - A QUIET PLACE

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

BEST PICTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©2019

Never Look Away: A Review

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

My Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars

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

Run Time: 3 hours 8 minutes

German with English subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Destroyer: A Review

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

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Cold War: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.5 our of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019

Happy as Lazzaro: A Review

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

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

Roma: A Review

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

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018