17 posts categorized "Film"

April 10, 2018

ISLE OF DOGS

SpotsSince peaking with the infectiously goofy “Fantastic Mr. Fox” back in 2009, Wes Anderson has worn out his welcome to all but those in tune with his repetitive and redundant stylistic method of reducing drama to a steady faucet leak of warm but strange-tasting liquid.

Gone is the polish of Anderson’s dry but doting wit that gave “Fantastic Mr. Fox” its juice. I suppose "Moonrise Kingdom" is equal to "Mr. Fox" but "The Grand Budapest Hotel" borders on the unwatchable.   

For “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson adopts a Japanese style and setting that gives his post-apocalyptic story, about an island of abandoned (virus riddled) canines, its transposed (read obfuscated) political and ideological agenda. “Isle of Dogs” is no “Team America when it comes to targeting its satire. For a movie with so many dogs, this movie has no discernible teeth. Everything feels sterile, especially the human aspect of the story.  

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Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) is the 12-year-old orphaned ward to Kobayashi, Megasaki City’s corrupt mayor. A viral dog flu causes Kobayashi to banish all dogs to Trash Island, and that plan includes Atari’s own dog “Spots” (voiced by Live Schreiber). Naturally, Atari is a skilled pilot able to crash-land on the squalid isle to track down and rescue his beloved dog.  

Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student (read radical leftist) activist, investigates a cure for the rampant dog flu epidemic. Some audiences have accused Anderson of taking low-hanging-fruit by reusing the old “white savior” trope, but the bigger issue is the film’s lack of cinematic zing and emotional connection with its audience. “Isle of Dogs” is a cinematic amuse bouche that is not all that amusing. Dog lovers might go for it, but I liked Anderson’s foxes a whole lot better.

Rated PG-13 101 mins. (C) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

February 10, 2016

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

Duke of BurgundyWriter/director Peter Strickland (“Berberian Sound Studio”) explores the power dynamics involved in a lesbian sadomasochistic relationship. This is an erotic drama for adults. Leave “50 Shades of Grey” to the kiddies.

Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Cynthia, a butterfly expert who resides alone in a lush country mansion somewhere in Europe. Cynthia’s fulltime maid Evelyn (wantonly played by Chiara D’Anna) seems to take payment for her frequently spotty work, in staged punishments that her mistress doles out with stern deportment and appropriately black fetish attire. A purposely-unwashed pair of Cynthia’s soiled panties gives cause for a human-toilet golden shower session behind closed doors that leaves Cynthia hungry for more.

Strickland’s visual touches of stylistic homage to softcore masters such as Jess Franco give the film a sustained sense of erotic and dramatic tension, but he allows the racy narrative to go flat. Evelyn’s outré desire for humiliation drives the relationship. The coquettish submissive seems to gain more pleasure than her older dom from their sessions together. Sad. 

Duke of Burgundy

The film’s hook rests with the couple’s bottom-topping paradigm, which proves to be the key to the women's complex sensual connection. Evelyn leaves specific handwritten instructions for Cynthia to fulfill. The submissive is calling the shots. This self-scripted method for Evelyn to achieve her desired fetishistic scenarios has intrinsic limits. Although it’s clear that Evelyn is working up to serving as a full-duty human-toilet to her more mature mistress, Strickland inexplicably reneges on the dirty motivation. What could have given the film a truly shocking aspect evaporates when romance deposes the fetishistic elements of the women’s unique bond. Rather than a toilet chair, Evelyn has to settle for a trunk where she is imprisoned overnight.  

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“The Duke of Burgundy,” with its perfectly disguised title, could serve as a compass-marker for other (more daring) filmmakers to follow in the footsteps of. Mainstream cinema and pornography continue to overlap.

Neither entirely frustrating nor satisfying, here is an enjoyable erotic film populated with only women. As such, it affords the audience a much-needed break from male influence, albeit from the director himself. It would be interesting to see how a more daring [female] filmmaker would follow the story’s fetishized elements toward their logical trajectories. Perhaps then, Evelyn could achieve the transformation into a human-toilet that she desires. What then?

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Not Rated. 104 mins. (B-) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves)


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January 19, 2014

BAD LIEUTENANT — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Bad-LieutenantAlongside "Reservoir Dogs," Able Ferrara's 1992 tour-de-force crime drama provides an epic showcase for Harvey Keitel's impressive acting abilities. Keitel’s no-holds-barred performance sets the high watermark for how much commitment any actor can ever hope to devote to a role.

Similar in tenor to Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," this tragic story of suicidal redemption follows anti-hero Keitel as a nameless police lieutenant addicted to all forms of vice — which, as an officer of the law, he is supposed to be combating. He spends his days doubling down on bad baseball bets, extorting sex from random women, stealing cash from crime scenes, and numbing himself in the company of prostitutes with copious amounts of cocaine and heroin. Ferrara's brilliant direction captures a raw '80s-era Manhattan in which crime is king on its economically distressed streets.

Episodic in form, the movie lurches from one hazy scene of reckless debauchery to the next, each examining Keitel's inner monologue of social and religious dysfunction. Steeped in old-school Catholicism, the tragically flawed “bad” lieutenant endures something akin to a nervous breakdown inside a church where a Catholic nun has just been raped. Ferrara based the story on an actual Harlem rape that local powers that be tried to keep out of the news.

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After seeing a vision of Jesus in the church, Keitel’s wayward cop furiously begs for forgiveness of his countless sins. Soaring to a Marlon Brando level of dedication, Keitel's performance is nothing short of earth shattering. Co-written by Paul Calderon and Ferrara-regular Zoë Lund ("Ms. 45"), "Bad Lieutenant" arrives at an inspired dual climax that aspires to — and achieves — a Shakespearian quality of catharsis.

"Bad Lieutenant" is a microcosm of a crisis moment in New York existence and a unique view of masculine self-destructiveness. It marks a high point for Abel Ferrara's career. Despite its dated place in time, the movie resonates with a daring urgency that is as genuine today as when the film was made.

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Rated R. 90 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)  


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January 14, 2014

RIFIFI — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Rififi

However much associated as a classic film noir, Jules Dassin’s adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s pulp novel serves more accurately as the premiere caper film. John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) was a telling precursor to “Rififi,” but Dassin’s unforgettable centerpiece safecracking sequence — devoid of any music or dialogue — gave birth to a new subgenre of movies, the heist film. The Paris-set “Rififi” still serves as inspiration for just about every modern assemble-the-team caper movie you can name, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Oceans Eleven” included.

Its distributors abbreviated the film’s original slang-referencing title ”Du Rififi Chez les Hommes” (roughly translates as ‘some trouble between men’). The shorter designation is stylishly delineated during a cabaret performance at a gangster-operated nightclub called L’Age d’Or; the Luis Buñuel film title reference comes from the film’s art director Alexandre Trauner who worked with the surrealist filmmaker on the 1930 masterpiece. The club’s resident chanteuse Viviane (Magali Noël) sings the title song “Rififi” as an ode to the “rough and tumble” underground lifestyle where “streetwise guys” in fedoras are just as likely to fire a “rod” as light up a smoke.

Rififi

The underground joint provides a central meeting place for the aging Tony (played by the rugged Jean Servias), an ex-con recently released after a five-year stretch, to meet up with his fellow accomplices in preparation for the jewelry heist they are planning at Mappin & Webb, a real-life jewelry store on the Rue de Rivoli. The filmmakers put the audience in the middle of the action. 

Jules Dassin’s seemingly French name — he was Russian Jewish — may have fooled some audiences into believing he was making films from his mother country, but this was not the case. Having been named as a Communist during a House on Un-American Activities hearing in 1948, the Connecticut-born Dassin hadn’t worked in film since being kicked off of directing “Night and the City” in 1950. At the time Dassin had nearly a dozen American movies under his belt, including such respected noir films as “Brute Force” and “The Naked City.” After stumbling around Europe for a couple of wayward years — he had been kicked out of Italy — film producer Henri Bérard gave Dassin the opportunity to adapt “Rififi.”

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Jules Dassin’s status as an exiled victim of the Hollywood Blacklist informs the movie in a myriad of subtle ways. Honor among thieves is the thematic through line that underpins the action, and allows Dassin to comment judiciously on the toxic nature of America’s toxic social atmosphere.

“Rififi’s” criminal anti-heroes are made up of outliers who, like Dassin, are struggling to squeak out a living in a foreign land. The gang members have names with an attribution that separates him from the local Parisian culture. Jo le Suedois (or "the Swede") is the father of Tony’s godson, and the thief Tony went to jail to protect. Tony is referred to as “le Stéphanois,” an allusion to the Saint-Étienne region of eastern central France from which he hails.

Acting under the pseudonym Perlo Vita, Dassin himself plays Cesar le Milanais, the gang’s well-dressed safecracker whose secret theft of a diamond ring during the robbery inadvertently tips off a rival gang.

Tony has the pitiless task of imposing justice against Caesar for his imprudence. In the scene, Dassin plays a humble version of his fellow filmmakers who testified against him at the HUAC hearings. He embodies their frail humanity with a compassionate understanding of their transgression, and accepts the punishment that only his film’s protagonist can deliver.   

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Not Rated. 122 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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January 10, 2013

Barbara

BarbaraDespite the limited scope of its predictable narrative, “Barbara” remains a compelling character study thanks to Nina Hoss’s enigmatic performance in the title role. ‘80s era Iron Curtain Germany is the setting for co-writer/director Christian Petzold’s pedestrian tale of attempted escape into Western Germany for Barbara Wolff, a pediatric doctor. Demoted to a small rural hospital from a prominent position at an East Berlin for requesting an exit visa, Barbara secretly plots with her boyfriend on the outside for her to escape. However desperately she wants to leave East Germany’s repressive atmosphere, Barbara still gravitates to caring for the young patients that she cares for. Hans Fromm’s (“Jerichow”) precise cinematography lends itself to the film’s compressed sense of apprehension. Still, “Barbara” runs its course too soon and with little to no surprise for the viewer. Here is a rainy day movie to appreciate the skills of a refined German actress elevating a mediocre script to something entertaining if not wholly satisfying.

Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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June 19, 2010

COLE SMITHEY RESPONDS TO "TOY STORY 3 DEFENDERS

Cole776After beating Armond White to the punch of upsetting "Toy Story 3's" perfect 100% RottenTomatoes score I realized how militantly fetishistic RT [RottenTomatoes.com] readers are about such ridiculously innane things as protecting a "perfect score" for a movie. 

You can't make this kind of stupidity up; it is real. 

What's more surprising to me is how few "critics" exercise the demands of their job description. 95% of the people who claim to be film critics, aren't; they are pandering sycophants placating a bunch of publicists so they can see movies for free. 

There isn't a film I can think of that doesn't have detractors, so why should "Toy Story 3" be any different? That I had to come along behind 150 "critics" (a.k.a. sheep) to be the first to point out about this film's weaknesses — and they are many — speaks volumes about the feeble state of film criticism in 2010. Based on this example, you might surmise that film criticism barely exists anymore. Well, it doesn't. 

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Personally, I have young nieces and nephews with responsible parents who are sensitive to what their kids see. I could not in good conscience endorse "Toy Story 3" as a G-rated film that meets the criteria of a G-rated movie. Check out "2001: A Space Odyssey" for a more appropriate example of the rating than TS3. The ever-lessening number of G-rated movies is indeed a worrisome trend.

On top of that, Hollywood is currently changing the game on what audiences should, or can, expect from a "3-D" movie in order to charge higher ticket prices across the board on all theatrical releases. As a critic, I've had the luxury of seeing many "3-D" films, and know what that medium should deliver on a consistent basis. Again, I cannot endorse the watered-down version of "3-D" that Disney/Pixar is selling with "Toy Story 3." See my article on 3D Breaking the Window: What You're Not Supposed to Know About 3D.

As for all of the personal attacks — some including death-threats — that readers make in their nasty emails to me, I understand that people need to let off steam, especially in these difficult economic times. It goes with the territory of being a critic who takes his job seriously. Sticks and stones. I'm not going away.

TS3

By definition, being a critic means it is my job to "criticize." I wrote this review just as I approach writing any piece of criticism — with honesty, patience, sincerity, and a singular mission to express my ideas as clearly and briefly as possible. 

I gave "Toy Story 3" a C+, and I stand by that grade, although it probably deserves a "C-" because it is a "disappointing" movie. A masterpiece like Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" only has a "96%" rating on RT, but I don't think anyone's losing sleep over the fact that it isn't a perfect "100%." It's still a far better film than "Toy Story 3." If you doubt me, I challenge you to watch them back-to-back. There is only one right answer. Not only does TS3 not belong in anyone's list of the top 10,000 films of all time, it is clearly the weakest film of the franchise trilogy — by far.

To feign indignation over such a trivial issue as an aggregate website's score is a sign of ulterior motives from people pandering to some imaginary form of lowest common denominator. It's the same kind of intellectual virus that has ruined journalism and the media in America. You came to me for my opinion, and I freakin' gave it you. You're on your own from there. 

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May 12, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Killer_inside_me_ver2 Although it falls apart before the final credits, Michael Winterbottom's shamelessly erotic (from a hardcore S&M perspective) "The Killer Inside Me" is a compulsively sadistic take on the 1952 pulp novel by Jim Thompson. The film strives to be a racy post modern noir but falls short, a failure for which Curran's script adaptation is more to blame than Winterbottom's concise and graphic direction. Casey Affleck turns in yet another star-making performance, this time as Lou Ford, a polite and unassuming deputy sheriff in the town of Central City, Texas. Everybody thinks they know Lou  as well as their own kin. They don't. Acting on orders of his alcoholic boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), to run local prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) out of town, Lou instead falls for the tramp, because she arouses his violent sexual urges (after she slaps him a few too many times). Lou returns the favor in spades. After a union leader confides that Lou's adopted brother died while working on a building site run by big dog businessman Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), Lou dives into a cycle of murder that threatens his relationship with his intended bride Amy (well played by a full-figured Kate Hudson). While some audiences will find the film's sexual brutality excessive, these scenes of acted-out dominance and submission expose the intimate psychological aspects of characters who would otherwise remain inscrutable. Like many cult films, "The Killer Inside Me" is destined to become a touchstone in spite of its glaring flaws.

Rated R. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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May 08, 2010

Furry Vengeance

Furry Vengeance Seemingly written to the tastes of underachieving five-year-olds, director Roger Kumble ("Cruel Intentions") is hamstrung to create an even mildly entertaining children's comedy. A doughy Brendan Fraser attempts to milk the last drop of his outdated Boy Scout charm as Dan Sanders, a gag prone real estate developer who moves his wife (played blankly by Brooke Shields) and son to a "model home" in the middle of a protected Oregon forest. Blind to his capitalist pig boss Neal Lyman's (Ken Jeong) long term plan to rape and pillage the verdant land, Dan becomes enemy #1 to the area's woodland creatures who constantly assault him with a barrage of animal-made booby traps--like a crew of skunks that wait in Dan's "hybrid" SUV for the chance to ruin his day. Although the animals are a "live action" collection of raccoons, birds, and bears they don't speak in a language audiences will understand. This dropped comic opportunity, along with obvious cost-cutting production techniques, combine to present a thoroughly unsatisfying movie for which audiences should demand a refund. It's time Brendan Fraser grew up and stopped making kids' movies.

Rated PG. 92 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no stars)

March 31, 2010

HE RAN ALL THE WAY — CLASSIC FILM PICK

He_ran_all_the_wayBy the time he finished directing this notable addition to the film noir cannon in 1951, John Berry had become the eleventh member of the Senator Joe McCarthy's "Hollywood Ten" blacklist. He earned the career-wiping title. Berry directed a 15-minute documentary about the screenwriters and directors singled out by the House on Un-American Activities Committee's communist witch-hunt.

The supportive short film documented the "ten" film artists stating their ethical positions on their dilemma. When FBI agents appeared at the door of his Los Angeles home to serve him with a subpoena, Berry climbed out the bathroom window and headed straight to the airport, where he bought a ticket to Paris. It took years before he was able to look back at the country where he built a career he could never fully return to.

For the next 12 years John Berry continued to work as a filmmaker in France, but he did not thrive as he once had in America. He eventually returned to the States in 1963 to piece together what was left of his career. But by then, too much time had passed. Too many things had changed.

Fellow blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for “He Ran All the Way,” based on a novel by Sam Ross about Nick Robey, the cynical product of a broken home who shoots a cop while trying to escape (after killing a guy over ten grand in cash). In an attempt to blend in with the local crowd, Nick (played by John Garfield in his last film role before his untimely death) goes to a nearby public swimming pool, where he meets Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), a bakery worker living at home with her parents and little brother. Nick escorts Peg home, and then loosely holds her working-class family hostage while initiating a troubled relationship with the emotionally needy Peg. 

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"He Ran All the Way" marked the end of John Garfield's once-promising acting career — one that significantly influenced Marlon Brando's naturalistic style of method acting. Garfield's refusal to name names in the HUAC hearings left him without work; a heart attack finished him off a year later. As such, the bloodbath of the movie reflects the political scapegoating going on at the time the picture was made.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe's vivid use of deep focus shots contributes to the film's lushly saturated photography, effectively conveying Nick's imminent doom. Shelly Winters and James Garfield play their characters' charged emotions and wavering degrees of trust and romantic attraction with a potent sense of urgency that is startling to witness. The tragedies behind the heartbreak on the screen are real.

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Not Rated. 77 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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