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November 10, 2017

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Murder_on_the_orient_expressKenneth Branagh should have stuck to his stated mission of adapting as many of Shakespeare’s plays to films as he could. Choosing to remake an Agatha Christie novel that has been already done to crisp-roast perfection (by Sidney Lumet in 1974) was a mug’s game from the start. The least Branagh and company could have done would have been to set a bright tempo for a movie that succeeds more at inducing sleep than entertaining its audience.

If you don’t already know the who-done-it payoff from Christie’s book, your movie-watching hours will be better filled surveying Sidney Lumet’s favored 1974 version. For one thing, Lumet’s movie has a more watchable, and enjoyable, cast going for it.

In Lumet's version Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York present an undeniable wall of talent as compared to Branagh’s motley crew of mismatched, and largely unknown, thespians.

Here, Johnny Depp adds an odd spin as Edward Ratchett, the one who will be done in whilst riding on the train of the film’s title. Needless to say, Depp’s presence is barely felt even if sorely missed once he’s gone. We are left with Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi to do the heavy lifting as Branagh proceeds over the dramatically limp ceremony as the world’s most renowned detective, Hurcule Poirot.

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For his self-directed role Branagh creates a character whose tight-lipped way of speaking emphasizes his moral compass. Branagh’s uptight portrayal is intriguing enough but never leans far enough into the realm of self-deprecating humor that seems appropriate for such a golden opportunity. Poirot needs to borrow some from Hulot (see Jacque Tati’s Monsieur Hulot movies).  

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Aside from a couple of sight gags and a pinch of slapstick, Michael Green’s script never dredges up comic riches that seem to lurk at the bottom of Agatha Christie’s source material. Aside from a few impressive set pieces and scene study fodder for acting students, this “Murder on the Orient Express” is a paper dry mystery at best.

Rated PG-13. 114 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 02, 2017

JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD — NYFF 55

Colesmithey.comGriffin Dunne’s elegant documentary about his aunt, celebrated author Joan Didion, presents an intimate portrait of the tragic literary figure but doesn’t always satisfactorily communicate the emotional, thematic, and political takeaways of her writings.

We get that Didion saw through the Central Park Jogger case for the gigantic lie that it was right from the start. Footage of ever tone-deaf political figures Donald Trump and Ed Koch show the idiot side of a coin that should never be turned over from the intellectual rigor that Didion represents for humanity.  

Didion foresaw Dick Cheney and the Bush brigade for the war criminals they would become via a doublespeak of “professional insiders attuned to a pitch beyond the range of normal hearing.” However, the film glosses over Didion’s coverage of the war in El Salvador — revealed in her book-length essay. Yes, El Salvador was the most dangerous place Joan Didion ever hoped to be, but we don’t get the gist of her essay or the opportunity to digest her editorial voice from the horrors she witnessed while there.    

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The documentary isn’t as polished as it could be. A lack of chyrons makes identifying interview subjects, such as New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, difficult. What the viewer does get is a sense of Joan Didion, the person, as a fearless and fierce force-of-nature who could walk into a room occupied by hippies in San Francisco where a five-year-old girl was tripping on acid, and amorally view the incident as “pure gold” from a writer’s perspective.

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At 82, the waifish Joan Didion expresses herself with dramatic hand gestures that emphasize her thoughts and ideas with indelible articulation. Her poise is flawless. She’s Jackie O, Anna Wintour, and Susan Sontag rolled into one. When President Obama expresses surprise over the fact that Joan Didion had not previously received the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal during the 2013 ceremony, it puts a fine point on how Joan Didion should have received the award before she was so frail. The center has not held, but Joan Didion is still with us as of this writing. Cheers to that.   

Not rated. 94 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)


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October 23, 2017

WONDERSTRUCK — NYFF 55

WonderstruckAs I watched Todd Haynes’s latest film I kept asking myself, who is this movie for? It is not a children’s movie even though the story is split between the journeys of two preteens 50 years apart. The nostalgic tale doesn’t seem to tilted toward adult audiences unlikely to recognized themselves in the bi-polar storyline. Everything about this film is a disappointment. It is, by far, Todd Haynes’s weakest effort to date.

The movie is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by author and illustrator Brian Selznick, who also authored the film’s screenplay.

Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a 12-year-old deaf runaway on the mean streets of New York City circa 1927. Still Rose’s expression never wavers from that of a satisfied Cheshire cat. She seems emotionally and intellectually vapid. Rose wants to meet her silver screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who she watches in a silent film entitled “Daughter of the Storm.” Haynes sets Rose’s half of the film as a black-and-white silent movie in contrast to that of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy in search of his missing father. As it turns out, even Ben’s mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) is gone from his life. All Ben has to show for his familial history is a bookmark from “Kincaid Books,” a New York City bookstore. On the back of the bookmark is written, “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.”

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So, what seems to be a not-so romantic mystery dissolves into a puddle of unearned sentimentality. The film’s overwrought production design is fussy to distraction. There isn’t enough narrative substance to withstand the overwrought time periods on display. It’s easy to blame the bland source material for this film’s complete and utter failure, but a burning question remains about why the filmmaker behind such instant classic works as “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There” would go down such an obvious rabbit hole.

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Rated PG. 117 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)     


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October 09, 2017

ARTHUR

ArthurThis long forgotten romantic comedy represents a perfect storm of comic talents coming together for an enjoyable Manhattan-centric movie that sticks with you. Writer/director Steve Gordon had worked for years as a television comedy writer on series such as “Barney Miller” before crafting the only film he would ever make; Gordon perished a year later from a heart attack.

Dudley Moore had accumulated a career’s worth of success doing British comedy with the “Beyond the Fringe” group in the ‘60s. His comedy partnership with Peter Cook had given way to films (“Bedazzled” and “Monte Carlo or Bust”) and sought-after (nearly banned) comedy albums. Moore’s comic performance in the 1979 Blake Edwards film “10” catapulted him into the Hollywood orbit that led to his role as Arthur Bach in “Arthur,” for which he received an Oscar nomination.

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A romantic comedy about a filthy rich, womanizing drunk might not sound like much on paper, but the dynamic chemistry between Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, and Liza Minnelli gave audiences something to savor. The movie was a box office hit.

A plethora of high-profile Manhattan filming locations (such as Central Park, the Plaza Hotel, and the Carnegie Mansion) create a perfect time capsule of '80s era New York City that the film’s sticky valentine theme song seems to mock. Never mind that “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” was co-written by Burt Bacharach, and won an Oscar for Best Original Song. 

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The narrative is straight as an arrow. Wealthy alcoholic man/boy Arthur Bach can only receive his part of the family fortune if he marries the family’s pre-approved Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry). Arthur doesn’t like anyone, least of all himself, until he runs across Linda Morolla (Liza Minnelli) stealing a tie for her dad’s birthday from Bergdorf Goodman. It’s not so much that Linda stirs a shift to sobriety for Arthur as that we start to see the anti-hero through her eyes. Dudley Moore’s effortless, self-deprecating, knack for slapstick exposes Arthur’s warmth and wit in spite of the chaos he causes.  

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“Arthur” is a much better movie than you’d expect it to be, and certainly far better than the film’s inept trailer portends. Keep an eye out for Geraldine Chaplin's hilarious performance as Arthur's take-no-guff grandmother.

That sappy song ("When you get stuck between moon and New York City") will be wedged in your head for days, but “Arthur” is worth every minute of the torture.

Rated PG. 97 mins. (B) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 02, 2017

THE ANDERSON TAPES

Anderson_tapesChristopher Walken has his breakout performance as a recent ex-con on a mission with his former prison mate (Sean Connery) to rob the tenants of “1 E 91st Street” — namely the Otto Kahn mansion.

Quincy Jones’s score is no bueno, but the film’s goofy sci-fi sound effects are cheesy beyond belief. Here is a movie that could be made 10 percent better by deleting its sound effects and updating the score.

Nonetheless, “The Anderson Tapes” provides the most up close and personal tour of the beautiful Kahn mansion that you could hope for. This lush building shows up in a lot of movies, but none so explored as the mansion is here. 

Dyan Cannon provides sexy window dressing as Connery’s girlfriend who belongs to the sugar daddy who owns her apartment in the mansion.

Kahn Mansion

Keep an eye out for great supporting turns from Margaret Hamilton (“The Wizard of Oz”) and from the great Garrett Morris — who went on to fame with Saturday Night Live during the program’s salad days in the ‘70s.

Sure the heist is full of plot holes — how does Christopher Walken get in the van inside the Mayflower moving truck?

For all of the narrative’s focus on the mansion’s high-tech surveillance, the plot point is nothing but a ruse. Although one of Sidney Lumet’s minor efforts, “The Anderson Tapes” functions as a cool retro caper movie full of nostalgic details. The film’s car chase climax is no joke. Did I mention Dyan Cannon is in the movie? Sparks fly from hard and soft surfaces in this kooky heist flick with a great cast. The contrasts between Connery's and Walken's acting styles creates a buoyant effect of character dynamics. This is fun stuff. 

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Rated GP. 99 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 24, 2017

DUNKIRK

Softcore Pro-War Pap
By Cole Smithey

Colesmithey.comAt best, Christopher Nolan is a barely competent filmmaker. Still, he is far from being an adept storyteller, much less a great director. Not only is Nolan’s “Dunkirk” far from the “masterpiece” that every phony bandwagon-jumping “film critic” pretends it is, the movie is one of the worst war films ever made. Here is a cinematic peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with creamy p.b. and a ton of jelly so that it won’t stick in your throat. You’ll be reaching for a glass of milk rather than the stiff drink that you would be thirsty for if this war movie were any good. Let's be clear, this movie sucks.

Search all you want, there isn’t a protagonist to be found in "Dunkirk." There isn’t even an enemy. All we see of the faceless German troops is the exteriors of their warplanes. Talk about half-assed screenwriting, “Dunkirk” exists in a filmic bubble the size of your fingernail. 

Hans Zimmer’s relentless music pounds the film with 120 beats-per-minute of aural hamburger-helper; you may as well wear a blindfold, you’ll get the gist of every scene I promise. Nolan clearly knew he was in trouble deep that he needed to mask the film’s weaknesses with so much musical bombast. I can still hear Zimmer's pedantic music ringing in my ears.

Screenwriter Nolan splits up his jumbled film into three parallel plotlines twisted to represent the battle of Dunkirk from perspectives of the land, sea, and air. Nolan only names three of plotlines although there’s an extra thrown in for additional uncertainty. Most confusing is the fact that each plotline takes up a different amount of time, ranging from a single hour to one day, to one week. Christopher Nolan’s faulty foundation for “Dunkirk” is doomed to be taught in film schools for decades as an example of what not to do.

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There’s “The Mole” plotline about Tommy, a young British soldier who we are led to believe is mute because he doesn’t utter a single word for the first half of the movie. While taking a dump on a French beach, Tommy meets Gibson, a similarly mute soldier busy burying a fellow soldier in a shallow grave of sand. The “mole” refers to the wood and stone pier that Tommy and Gibson traverse in order to board a U-boat (while opportunistically carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher) that they hope will take them to safety from the gathered masses of German troops who have 30,000 soldiers backed onto the beach.  

From the pier, Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) mumbles dialogue as though he has marbles in his mouth along with Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who seems to have even more marbles in his own maw. Christopher Nolan clearly didn’t care too much about the dialogue in these scenes since the audience will barely catch a word of it.  

Another story thread follows fighter pilot squadron leader Farrier (Tom Hardy) running low on fuel as he dogfights German “bandits” in the skies over the English Channel. There are two other fighters in Farrier’s squadron, but their subplots are so glossed over, you’ll barely notice they’re there. One thing you get is that Christopher Nolan has a fetish for making Tom Hardy act from behind a mask. “You’re not eating enough strawberries.”    

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The “sea” aspect of the narrative follows the adventures of a British dad traveling on his family boat with his two teenaged sons in an attempt to rescue soldiers from the French beach. Their rescue of a British soldier played by Cillian Murphy backfires when the shell-shocked soldier flips out because he doesn’t want to be taken back into the line of fire. The subplot does allow for the film’s best performance from the ever-reliable Cillian Murphy.

Nolan's most egregious sin arrives as an anticlimactic punchline to his supposed "fact-based" story when roughly a dozen small craft boats "rescue" a fraction of the 30,000 soldiers stranded on the French beach. I wonder what the other 29,920 doomed soldiers would have thought of Nolan's rendition of Dunkirk. 

As for as the lack of filmmaking technique on hand, all you need do is compare any scene from “Dunkirk” against any scene from a film made by Polanski, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Klimov, Linklater, or Tarantino to discover the blatant weaknesses in Nolan’s uninspired, and unschooled, approach to composition and atmosphere. Nolan wouldn’t know an “axial cut” from a hole in the ground. To pretend that Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker of any consequence is pure folly. Not only does Nolan not know where to put the camera, he hasn’t a clue about what to show and what not to show. There simply isn’t any logic or continuity to his use of filmic language.

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All war films should be anti-war films by definition. If you take Elem Klimov’s bar-setting “Come and See,” for example, you’ll see what I mean.

“Dunkirk” seems to say that there are no heroes in war, only victims, suckers, survivors, and assholes. Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s movie has a point after all.

Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 23, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

Colesmithey.comIt’s a given that Emma Stone would seamlessly slip inside Billy Jean King’s skin. It’s equally predictable that Steve Carell would embody aging tennis star and gambling addict Bobby Riggs with a portrayal that walks a fine line between a comic and tragic figure. But what impresses most about co-directors’ Jonathan Dayton’s and Valerie Faris’s equality-focused time capsule is how Andrea Riseborough’s lesbian hairdresser Marilyn Barnett encompasses emotional, political, and social issues being put through a cartoon media blender regarding a tennis match in 1973.

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“Battle of the Sexes” is a rebellious movie set during the confusion of the Watergate conspiracy that witnessed President Richard Nixon's resignation from office a year after Billy Jean King played Bobby Riggs. Upset by the much higher pay awarded to male tennis players over their female counterparts by the USLTA (under Jack Kramer – Bill Pullman), Billy Jean King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) break with the USLTA to start their own women’s tennis tournament. Ironically, it’s a tobacco company that takes on sponsoring the Virginia Slims Womens’ Tennis Tournament.

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Andrea Riseborough is this film’s secret weapon. The romantic chemistry between Stone and Riseborough give the audience something to root for other than an exploitation tennis match promoted by three-time Wimbledon champion who could teach boxing promoter Don King a thing or two.

The tennis match scenes are well-crafted even if the movie doesn’t end on the strongest note. Pamela Martin’s editing is this film’s biggest stumbling block. The movie could lose 15 minutes and achieve a greater effect. Goofy secondary plot elements, such as Fred Armisen as a vitamin guru, go nowhere. There is a better movie hiding inside the one you see.

Rated PG-13. 121 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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