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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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September 22, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT — NYFF 55

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Although the editing could be tighter on Sean Baker’s dramatically infused [ethnographic] study of poverty in Kissimmee, “The Florida Project” remains a moving encapsulation of an escalating human crisis in America.

More neo-realistic than forcefully dramatic, the episodic narrative follows the daily travails of residents of the Magic Castle, a purple week-to-week three floor motel catering to people living on society’s margins. Willem Dafoe underplays his role as Bobby, the motel’s seen-it-all manager with a heart of gold. Dafoe’s character anchors the film with a responsible adult who looks after the community he oversees with personal investment. 

Four all-access wristbands to the nearby Walt Disney World looms as a distant fantasy in the nearby background where the ramshackle remains of a failed suburban housing development mocks the amusement park’s [unshared] financial success.

Four all-access Walt Disney World wristbands will run you $1,7000. Weekly rent at the Magic Castle is $38. Paradise is a toxic place. Here is a cultural dead zone that oddly mirrors the sterility of Disney World. The local culture is car shops and reduced price tourist item stores.  
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After losing her stripper job, tough-as-nails Halley (Bria Vinaite) hawks cheap perfume in upscale hotel parking lots with her six-year-old daughter Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) in tow. Moonie is tough too. She runs free around the suburban area, stirring up troubles big and small with her similarly aged pals Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

These little roustabouts give as good as they get when it comes to cursing out authority figures. The filmmakers let the realism fly during wryly funny outbursts of blue insults from the mouths of babes. This is how kids in these circumstances talk because it gives them a sense of control over their precarious realities.

The kids stop by a local diner every day to receive a free food handout from Halley’s downstairs neighbor, Ashley (Mela Murder). They effortlessly commit criminal acts with the potential to endanger the community.

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So it is that Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch peel back the layers of creeping social conditions that corner Halley into more desperate choices. “The Florida Project” is far from a perfect film, but it functions well on a visceral level via its fearless ensemble of child and adult actors. The ending is appropriately upbeat in the face of such repressive social conditions. There is something to be said for fantasy realities.  

Not Rated. 115 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 21, 2017

THELMA — NYFF 55

Cole SmitheyJoachim Trier’s paranormal-inflected lesbian coming of age thriller zigs where it should zag. Eli Harboe plays the title character, a hard-bitten Christian girl from the country who tells her strict father “everything.” Never mind that he once wanted to kill Thelma when she was young. 

Now at college, Thelma experiences bizarre seizures seemingly set off by close proximity to Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Love at first sight isn’t such a good thing for Thelma who returns home after receiving a series of medical tests to diagnose her condition which has an ill effect on birds.

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It turns out that Thelma’s paranormal control of objects and people has a malicious history. Still, Trier never gets specific in a narrative that demands specificity. What exactly are her powers and why does she have them? She doesn't seem to be a moral or ethical person in spite of her religious upbringing. Why does her father want to kill her, and why does she want to kill him? So many questions arise, but answers to not.

The performances are competent, but “Thelma” is a movie of ill-defined genre intentions. It fails as a love story, it fails as a thriller, it fails as social satire, and it fails as horror. What’s left is a two-hour hole where your life was before you watched this unsatisfying film from Norway.

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Not Rated. 116 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 20, 2017

Mrs. Hyde — NYFF 55

Mrs-hyde-real
Not even Isabelle Huppert’s ever-reliable craftwork can elevate this overwrought and underachieving pro-education, sci-fi drama. The film’s unbalanced (linear) three-act story crumbles during a last gasp act that falls horribly flat. Third act failure is one thing, but to have a narrative with such rich, if ghastly, possibilities reduced to a muted, half-hearted, satire just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The black comedy needed to skew closer to the tone of  "An American Werewolf In London" rather than its current François Ozon knock-off qualities. 

Director/co-writer Serge Bozon's movie is presented as a "comedic thriller" but ends up neither funny nor sufficiently exciting. The screenwriting isn't up to par. 

Huppert plays Mme Géquil, a newly hired French engineering school teacher constantly humiliated and challenged by a classroom full of misfits led by Malik, a crippled Arab student. Mme Géquil has a lovely home life with her caring husband whose teaching advice she doesn’t grasp. A shock of electricity alters Mme Géquil into a super-teacher, capable of setting objects, animals, and people on fire.  

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The mannered story never shifts gears after establishing a dramatically loaded line where we await Huppert’s transformation into the monster of the film’s implied title.

Although the film fails to pay off, Isabelle Huppert is fascinating as ever. Ignore the oh-so-precious subtext about education, and focus on every dramatic beat that Huppert plays as a master drummer of emotion, thought, and intent.

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Not Rated. 95 mins. (C+) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

What to Watch at the 55th New York Film Festival from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

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