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January 14, 2018

GOING PLACES

Valseuses -LesFor his second feature, Bertrand Blier based the film on his novel “Les Valseuses” (French slang for “the testicles”). The swinging balls of the film’s provocative French title refers to 25-year-old Jean-Claude (Gerard Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere), his 23-year-old partner in crime. The two roustabouts are petty criminals on a constant bender of robbing women, stealing cars, and sexually assaulting women if not each other. Indeed, there is a scene in which Jean-Claude buggers his friend after breaking into an unoccupied beachside home because “it’s only natural.”

So it is that Bertrand Blier presents a transgressive outlaw mentality unchallenged by any would-be authority figures in France. Crime is merely a way of life.

Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou) serves as the film’s [hijacked] anti-protagonist after being taken against her will by our thugs du jour. Marie-Ange’s primary objective becomes achieving orgasms, much to the dismay of the sexually adventurous Jean-Claude and Pierrot who find themselves woefully unprepared for the task at hand, try as they must.

Valseuses

The two male characters represent an opposite but equal affront to capitalist ideologies. Neither man is intellectual enough to act with any informed nihilist or anarchist agenda, rather these are cartoonish hippies in search of immediate gratification without regard to social norms. They are punks before the Punk movement took hold, albeit with a more focused approach that found expression though music.

Going places

Jean-Claude and Pierrot seem to briefly relate on a humanist level when they help Jeanne Pirolle, a recently released prison convict played by Jeanne Moreau. Still, their financial generosity and sexual attention backfires when Jeanne sneaks off to fulfill her own fantasy of psychological and physical escape.     

Miou-Miou
 
Although inscrutable to any mainstream reading, “Going Places” succeeds due to the film’s refusal to provide easy answers for its characters’ irredeemable actions. Here is an unapologetic, if infuriating, cinematic provocation that dares its audience to rationalize the orgiastic behavior on display. John Waters could do no better. Governments, politicians, soldiers, and police are busy committing far greater systematically generated crimes as you read these words.

Rated R. 117 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

January 13, 2018

MOLLY'S GAME

Mollys_gameScreenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is a polished medium-budget adaptation of Olympic-skier-turned-poker-queen Molly Bloom’s book of the same title. Jessica Chastain is well cast as the title character, a business-minded entrepreneur who became the target of a legal attack from the F.B.I. after running a high-stakes poker in Southern California and midtown Manhattan.

Molly lucks out when she secures Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) as her legal counsel. Sorkin's creative narrative structure plays as a courtroom drama in reverse. The fun lies with watching an intelligent, independent-minded woman launch a highly profitable business while learning on the fly in the company of big male egos trying to outdo one another.

MollysGame

Sorkin uses tightly composed scenes, packed with lean dialogue, to form volatile sequences that unite exposition with motivation and visual panache. On-screen graphics embellish poker sequences to telegraph inside information about the hands being played with a voice-over bump. This is quality cinematic storytelling. If only Hollywood made more films in the vein of “Molly’s Game.”  

Molly's Game

Rated R. 140 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves) 

JANE

JaneDocumentarian Brett Morgan (“The Kid Stays In The Picture”) utilizes roughly 100 hours of previously-believed lost footage (taken by Jane Goodall’s husband Hugo van Lawick) of Goodall’s exploits in Africa’s Gombe region to craft a documentary that stalls as much as it reveals. The result is a limited but significant window into Jane Goodall’s bold mission to study and organize the behaviors and habits of chimpanzees in the wild without having any formal education to inform her research or approach to the mysterious subject at hand.

The film tells of Goodall’s early exploits in 1960 Africa after being hand-picked by Kenyan archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees based on a six-month grant. With her weak chin, blonde hair, and eternal curiosity, Goodall fearlessly sets about creating systems for cataloguing the behaviors and experiences of a group of chimpanzees to whom she becomes a de facto family member.

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Romance attends her remote jungle when National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick falls head-over-heels in love with his subject. Still, the film skips over too many details of the couple’s experiences raising their son Grub in the heart of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Africa.

Goodall narrates much of the film. Her calm demeanor belies the danger and discomfort she surely endured on a minute-to-minute basis in the jungle. Missing are answers to many burning questions about such things as Goodall’s mother (who attending the initial expedition with her daughter). Morgan also passes up the opportunity to elucidate Goodall’s methods of collecting data, and the specific information she was collecting.

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Philip Glass’s musical score provides a comfortable soundscape for a documentary that plays it too safe, considering the dangerous nature of its environment. “Jane” is nonetheless an informative documentary about a truly revolutionary woman whose work as a primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, continues to this day.

Rated PG. 90 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD

Colesmithey.comJerry Seinfeld caps off his comedian’s masterclass web series (“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee”) with a beautifully conceived, and executed, performance of the exact jokes he told while climbing his first stairs of stand-up comic success back in the mid ‘70s. Manhattan’s Comic Strip comedy club, located at 1568 2nd avenue between 81st and 82nd streets, provides the original venue where a teenaged Jerry Seinfeld honed his first bits and comic chops.

Many of the jokes are from Jerry’s childhood. He tells about being a kid and admiring adult men’s habit of checking their pockets for objects they clearly don’t possess. We get a glimpse of Jerry’s “Superman” bookends he’s had since his boyhood, exhibited on the back of the piano of the Comic Strip’s tiny stage.

The hilarious stand-up performance switches periodically to docu-styled narrated sequences that take us to locations where Seinfeld built his early reputation as a world-class comedian. We see him sitting in the same department store window at Madison and 57th street where he ate his lunch every day when he was 21, and dreamed of being able to live off a loaf of bread as a professional comedian.

Jerry Before Seinfeld

“Women need a constantly expanding of cotton balls, while men require none.” Funny stuff.  

Jerry takes questions from audience members as he flashes through performing his early jokes with exquisite timing, phrasing, and physical embellishments. His material is so sturdy, clean, and quick that Jerry Seinfeld’s stream-of-thought reveries hit you with a seamless logic of inevitable laughter. A more polished comic performance you will likely never witness. It’s no coincidence that Michael Bonfiglio (“Oprah’s Master Class” television series) is the filmmaker behind this perfect example of stand-up comic entertainment.   

Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld is currently running victory laps in overdue response to his legendary career as one of history’s most popular comedians. “Jerry Before Seinfeld” (a reference to the “Seinfeld” television show that ran for nine seasons) is a thoroughly enjoyable comic romp with a ton of historic context thrown in for fun. Here is a comic performance that’s from the ages, and for the ages. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Seinfeld

TV-14 62 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

December 21, 2017

HAPPY END

Happy-endMichael Haneke’s run of making increasingly better films has come to an abrupt halt. The provocative auteur behind such gems as “Funny Games,” “The White Ribbon,” and “Amour” (an undeniable masterpiece) turns a regressive corner in a failed attempt at comedic satire posited as a familial drama simmering with racial discontent.

Social media and cell phones (used as video cameras) play into Haneke’s dubious story about Eve Laurent, a matricidal teenaged girl sent to live with her remarried dad Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) after carrying out her devilish deed, which Eve videotapes for her own satisfaction.

Although “Happy End” is not without its brief comic charms, the film’s tone is off, the ending unsatisfying. It seems as though Haneke is stealing too much from himself. In layman’s terms, he has jumped the shark.

Happyend

Eve’s murderous scheme (believed by her family to be a successful suicide attempt) plants the young psychopath in the lap of French luxury since Thomas and his wife Anais (Laura Verlinden) live in a large mansion in Calais with Thomas’s ailing grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and Thomas’s mistress-of-industry sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her twentysomething son (business partner) Pierre (Franz Rogowski).

Hidden familial problems abound. Thomas carries on an affair with a local cellist with an articulate if raunchy habit of expressing her outre sexual desires for him on direct messaging on Facebook. Naturally Eve breaks into daddy’s laptop and discovers his secret life. Eve discerns that her dad is incapable of love, at least "love" on her youthful romanticized terms.

The shark-jumping kicker arrives when Grandpa George realizes that Eve has the same killer instinct that enabled him to smother his ailing wife five years ago, a not-so offhand reference to “Amour” where Trintignant’s character did just that.

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Michael Haneke has had an amazing run; he just wasn’t able to avoid falling into one of the many traps the befall most creative filmmakers if they’re fortunate enough to keep making films into their 70s. It’s not too late for Haneke to make another masterpiece on the level of “Amour” or “The White Ribbon,” but it doesn’t seem as likely or certain as it once did.

Rated R. 107 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

December 06, 2017

THE POST

PostSteven Spielberg’s nostalgic celebration of the heyday of American journalism offhandedly gives deserved praise to such brave patriots as Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning for their part in speaking truth to power via newspaper institutions (i.e. The Washington Post). However, much gets lost in this film’s meandering script that takes far too long to kick into gear before settling on an overleveraged climax that is underwhelming at best.

The film focuses on events surrounding President Richard Nixon’s attempts to legally quash American newspapers from publishing extracts from The Pentagon Papers, which revealed a decades-long cover-up regarding truths behind America’s failures in its senseless war in Viet Nam. The script (by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) is sophomoric. “All The President’s Men” this is not.

Meryl streep

Meryl Streep, as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, runs circles around Tom Hanks in his role as Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. Not since “Papillon,” where Steve McQueen upstaged Dustin Hoffman, has such obvious head-cutting between actors been so glaring. They might just as well have titled the film Meryl Streep’s Washington Post. Hanks fails to craft a believable character, while Streep’s portrayal is utterly convincing. There is no comparison.   

“The Post” isn’t an awful movie; it just isn’t very good. Sure, you’ll come out of it feeling all fuzzy about a time when newspaper editors fought the good fight with everything in their arsenal of editorial responsibility, but those days are long gone. American media panders to the public to do their job for them as they use every clickbait trick they can think of while denigrating their already dumbed-down content with distracting online ads and video ads that autoplay as soon as you start to scroll.

The-Post

Every time you see a rhetorical-question lede (“Has Elway broken the flawed Broncos’ championship window?”) or hear an NPR host or guest say “sort of,” realize that there is no such thing as responsible editorial reporting in the American media anymore. That’s something “The Post” doesn’t tell you. In the words of John Wesley Harding, “you don’t get to read the news in U.S.A. Today.”  

Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (C+) (Two stars — out of five / no halves) 

November 26, 2017

LOGAN

LoganIf indoctrinating child audiences into accepting, and enjoying, brutal deadly violence was the intent of the filmmakers responsible for making “Logan,” then their mission is accomplished. Audiences not wanting to be party to such a disgusting cause will want to avoid this cinematic abomination like the plague.

How much senseless killing can an audience member be expected to endure? You’ll be asking yourself that question when “Logan’s” third act slips into gear after a black family are brutally murdered in their plantation-posited home after they have the bad luck of receiving charity from Hugh Jackman’s Logan and Patrick Stewart’s Charles during a runaway horse episode on a local highway.

Logan2

As superhero movies go, this one seems poised to put a final nail in their overdue coffin. In 2029, long suffering mutant Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) cares for his wheelchair bound mentor Professor X (a.k.a. Charles) in a fenced off compound somewhere near the Mexican border. Logan drives a limo to provide a meager financial backing for the ailing Charles, whose weird episodes can have far-reaching negative effects on the people and atmosphere around him when they strike. Things get especially strange when Logan takes over caring for a similarly hand-blade equipped child, the [seemingly mute] mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) who desperately wants/needs to be transported to the Canadian border where “Eden” awaits. The “Antichrist” reference seems apropos as there is far more graphic violence in this film than there is in Lars von Trier’s psychological thriller. Breaking character is etched in stone as a rule of dramaturgy to never cross, and yet it occurs in this movie like a fart that can't be held in. Screenwriting teachers take note. This is a sure-fire way to make your cinematic cake fall. 

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Naturally our of trio limo-ensconced travelers are pursued by a militarized gang of soldiers overseen by an evil doctor (played by Richard E. Grant). Chase scene after redundant chase scene gives way to repetitive sequences of decapitating violence. Blood spews, characters yell in monstrous glee after bringing mutilation and death to their victims. There are more murders committed by a child (Laura) than in any film I can think of.

Logan speaks the film's theme when he says, You have to learn to live with hurting people." How anyone could think this is a responsible message to teach young people is beyond me. 

Logan

“Logan” is a film that will scar your psyche. I cannot in good conscious recommend that any peace-loving person expose yourself or your children to viewing “Logan.” There is nothing to be gained; it’s not entertaining, and it will leave you with memories you don’t need to have rolling around in your brain.  

Rated R. 137 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 24, 2017

VAGABOND — CLASSIC FILM PICK

VAGABONDAgnes Varda’s sturdy neo-realistic social study of a fiercely individualistic young woman, who happily lives a hobo’s life on the road in France, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Here is Varda inventing Cinema before our eyes. The gifted filmmaker of the French New Wave plays with style and form via a reverse bookend narrative about Mona (featuring a guileless early performance from Sandrine Bonnaire), a loner leading a makeshift lifestyle based on the people she comes across.

This touching film can rightfully be considered a feminist think-piece of the first water. Documentary techniques add to “Vagabond’s” humanist appeal as a timeless artifact of French womanhood in the ‘80s, and the social conditions of the time. Some men who Mona meets are more dangerous than others, but she soldiers through predictably unpredictable situations with the full force of her corporeal nature and abilities.

Vagabond (1)

“Vagabond” achieves and effortless sense of social currency and filmic transparency. Everything rings true.

Not rated. 105 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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VICTIM — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Colesmithey.comMade in 1961, six years before homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK, director Basil Dearden’s brave filmic treatise on the subject contributed to a sea change of public opinion. Here is a movie that is more riveting than necessarily entertaining, although it is that too.

Dirk Bogard gives a brilliant portrayal of Melville Farr, a London barrister living as a closeted gay man to his loving wife Laura (played by Syliva Syms). Farr becomes connected to a blackmail investigation related to the death of a young man with whom Farr had an ongoing affair.

Victim

Written by the husband-and-wife writing team of Janet Green and John McCormic, “Victim” is a love story, a who-done-it mystery, and a gripping social drama. Rich details in the narrative‘s social settings — a gay character’s chic apartment, a local pub, or that of a used bookstore — accurately place the political climate of the day. Freedom hardly exists for gay people whose sexual identities are under constant attack from all sides. "Victim" is an essential addition to the LGBT cannon that has the ability to put its audience in a cold sweat. The sense of fear on the screen is palpable.     

Not rated. 90 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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