April 08, 2017

WAKE IN FRIGHT — CLASSIC FILM PICK

WAKE IN FRIGHTTed Kotcheff’s “Wake In Fright” is an unsettling, if perverse, psychological thriller unlike any other film ever made. It captures the complete mental breakdown of a character in surreal yet viscerally physical terms, while encompassing economic conditions, prejudices, and the ruthless mindset of men in Australia's lawless Outback environment.

You might detect a tinge of anti-alcohol propaganda at the core of the narrative’s existential crisis in this unpredictable adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel. Nicholas Roeg’s Cinema is the closest thing you compare to Kotcheff’s fraught social study of Australia in the late ‘50s. Desolation of the human soul comes complete with senseless killing of kangaroos.  

Gary Bond’s John Grant character is a grade school teacher chomping at the bit to escape his Government-delegated job in the remote town of Tiboonda. School is out for Christmas. A reunion with his girlfriend in Sydney promises a return to civilization.

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The problem is that our unreliable protagonist gets sidetracked during a night of drinking and gambling in a mining town populated with reprobates. Grant imagines winning enough money gambling to pay off the education bond that has him teaching in the middle of nowhere. No such luck. Grant’s poor choice leads him on a bitter path toward many more decisions he soon comes to regret.

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John Grant becomes a refugee in his own country, surrounded by alcohol-fueled maniacs who usher him down a spiral of destruction. “Wake In Fright” is a masterpiece of energized social satire. The team of kangaroo hunters who take Grant along for the ride represent the same patriarchy that carry on constant wars and shove guns in civilians’ faces just to see how they handle fear. “Wake In Fright” can be taken as a command or a condition. Either way, this classic picture will make you squirm in fear.

Ted Kotcheff led a varied career that spanned four decades and many genres and styles. "Fun With Dick and Jane" (1977), "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe" (1978), "North Dallas Forty" (1979), and "Weekend at Bernies" (1989) were each box office hits. Although "Wake In Fright" died at the box office, it is a truly staggering film that represents an artistic pinnacle for Ted Kotcheff. You can see why it's his favorite of all of his films; this one is special. 

Rated R. 108 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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April 01, 2017

NERUDA — CANNES 2016

Neruda posterDirector Pablo Larraín’s filmic love letter to Pablo Neruda (Chilean poet and politician) works better than it should considering the nature of Guillermo Calderón’s objectively baroque screenplay. The screenwriter manages to paint a wildly exotic (partially fictionalized) brief biopic that fleshes out colorful aspects of Pablo Neruda’s life in exile.

Neruda’s complex relationship with his wifeDelia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) reveals layers of emotional, intellectual, and ideological determination on both their parts. Here is a great example of literary license being taken with graceful precision.

Potentially damning voice-over narration from Gael Garcia Bernal’s uncultured but determined detective Óscar Peluchonneau creates a sleek stream of consciousness subplot from the viewpoint of the man (or kind of man) tasked with tracking down and capturing the Communist Senator and beloved poet after Neruda goes on the lam with his wife rather than let himself be arrested by Chile’s fascist element after Communism is outlawed. Neruda plays a game of cat-and-mouse with the detective for whom he leaves behind copies of a book.

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Significant credit goes to Luis Gnecco’s wonderfully underplayed portrayal of Neruda as a man of earthy desires and ethical responsibility. If Gnecco’s performance comes across as a breakthrough, it is a premiere act more than three decades in the making. Nothing is wasted, and nothing is held back in a performance that is Oscar-worthy regardless of your global perspective. Mercedes Morán empowers Gnecco’s efforts with a caring femininity that balances the couple’s power dynamic of unconditional love.

“Neruda” is a fascinating movie for any number of reasons. Although it doesn’t articulate as much of Pablo Neruda’s heartbreakingly sublime poetry as the film could have, it provides valuable insight into a man whose gift for words was equal to his lust for life.

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Rated R. 107 mins. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)

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March 26, 2017

STATE OF SIEGE — CLASSIC FILM PICK

State Of SiegeCosta-Gavras is an exquisite leftist filmmaker because he is too much of a pragmatist to fall into idealistic traps of the left or the right. His unique upbringing, as the son of a Pro-Soviet (Communist) Greek Resistance fighter in the Greek Civil War, meant that attending university in Greece or in the United States was out of the question. France offered the perpetual outlier an education in law in 1951, that paved the way for a switch to film school and apprenticeships with directors Jean Giono and Rene Clair.

Celebrated in critical circles for his groundbreaking film “Z” (1969), Costa-Gavras made fresh tracks across the backs of America’s power-grabbing military pawns of capitalist exploitation (think The United Fruit Company) with “State of Siege.”

The efforts of the radical left are just as dimwitted as the vastly more effective methods of rightwing corporate raiders; the difference is that one has all the money and guns. Living by the sword always means dying by the same blade regardless of who is doing the carrying and who is doing the cutting.

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Not Rated. 120 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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MULTIPLE MANIACS

Multiple ManiacsThis run-up to “Pink Flamingos” shows John Waters working out transgressive themes of sexual and social perversions with his stable of regular performers, led by the incomparable Divine. “The Cavalcade of Perversion” is Divine’s warped traveling circus of perverts and drug addicts that enables her life of crime that includes having lesbian sex (involving a rosary) in a church. Who needs superheroes when you’ve got multiple maniacs?

Multiple Maniacs is the ultimate filmic and political palate cleanser. Divine can’t help but enjoy being seduced into anal play with Mink Stole (a.k.a. the religious whore) within religious walls ("Think about the stations of the cross"), but that doesn’t mean she owes her new lover any more respect than she gives any of the other people she treats like disposable fetish objects. John Waters cuts to a deeper social quick than any other American filmmaker because he understands the innate beauty of all people, regardless of how they look, much less how wild their imaginations run. “Multiple Maniacs” wallows in perversion for perversion’s sake because that’s what it’s there for. You can fight the ideas, but you can’t fight the feelings that John Waters puts out there because his respect for filth runs so deep. Dirt is good for you even when it tastes like spinach pulled from manure. “Multiple Maniacs” is dirtier than that. Get filthy.

Multiple Maniacs

Rated X. 91 mins. (A+) (Five stars out of five / no halves)

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MOTHER KUSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN

Mutter_kusters_fahrt_zum_himmelFassbinder is the German version of Lou Reed if Lou had been a German filmmaker.

Although the version of “Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven” currently being shown on FilmStruck does a fake-you-out move by spelling out, and including, two different endings, this movie presents a compelling case for autonomy of the individual. In an age when the NSA utilizes the same data that social media crunches to decide the plot of the next Hollywood movie you sit through like a hungry cat sniffing fresh tuna in the air, “Mother Kusters” puts the media, politics, and familial trust in same trash bin. Brigitte Mira’s elderly matriarch is a postfeminist every bit as complex as the outsider character she played in Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” Heaven is what you make it.

MOTHER KUSTERS

Not Rated. 108 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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ALWAYS FOR PLEASURE

Always For PleasureLegendary documentarian Les Blank’s roughhewn social study soaks up New Orleans’ vibrant culture of traditions, parades, music, food, and joyful people in 1978. Learn the proper way to eat a crawfish, and dig the festive vibe in a doc that is a little bit history lesson and a lot of fun.    

Les Blank’s intuitive sense of documentary filmmaking is purely organic. His films allow for a natural symbiotic exchange to occur between the viewer and the work at hand. You can feel it happening when “Always For Pleasure” gets into the Second line musicians and partiers at a funeral procession.

Irreverent joy overflows into Blank’s wanton absorption of a melting pot made up of Black, White, European, French, Native American, Caribbean, Spanish, Mexican, Appalachian, and West Indian influences. Outside of society, and yet minted within primal human instincts for shared communal experience, the Second line musicians and their followers give back all that has been taken away from most of America’s citizens. You can guess the rest, with a smile on your face.

Always For Pleasure

Not Rated. 58 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves) 

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March 22, 2017

PUNCH DRUNK LOVE

Punch Drunk LovePaul Thomas Anderson has done the impossible; he has written a romantic leading role for Adam Sandler that functions well on a dramatic level. Sandler’s on-the-spectrum character Barry Egan is a bundle of social anxiety thanks to a long history of abusive treatment by his seven sisters. He has a furious temper thanks to his sisters’ relentless bullying about a childhood episode wherein he broke a plate glass door with a hammer in response to their repeatedly calling him “gayboy.”

Note Anderson’s reference to Lina Wertmuller’s film “Seven Beauties” (1975), which follows the wartime adventures of Pasqualino (Giancarlo Gianini), a henpecked Italian dandy who murders one of his sister’s lover. Audiences can have a field day picking out Anderson’s subtle nods to films by other directors (“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” “The Bandwagon,” and “The Graduate” for example), as well as to his own (“Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”).

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“Punch Drunk Love” is a squirmy love story about a guy with a good heart in need of romantic rescue. Anderson’s inspired casting of Emily Watson as Sandler’s savior works like a charm for a minimalist character study with a dash of magical realism. It may only be a minor chamber piece, but “Punch Drunk Love” sticks with you.  

Rated R. 95 mins. (B) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves) 

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