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.  

Isle-of-dogs

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)

March 31, 2018

CHIEF ZABU

ZABU-THE-CAR“Chief Zabu” is a fascinating cult comedy for an odd collection of reasons, not the least of which is the punchy comic chemistry that flows between died-in-the-wool New Yorkers Zack Norman and Allen Garfield.

Garfield plays Ben Sydney, a slimy New York real estate developer angling for an economic foothold on Tiburaku, a tiny Polynesian (recently independent) island nation. Ben falls for conman George Dankworth’s (Allan Arbus) pie-in-the-sky promises about an island known for its proximity to French nuclear testing. Naturally, Ben wants to pitch Dankworth’s $5000 buy-in to his pal Sammy (Norman). Dankworth has gone so far as to ship over a phony diplomat Chief Zabu (Manu Yupou) who is supposedly attempting to gain admission of Tiburaku into the United Nations.

Lucianne Buchanan

The comedy is all about tone and irrational gags, as when Sammy has adulterous [loud] sex with an investor’s wife (Lucianne Buchanan) much to the dismay of his neighbors.

“Chief Zabu was completed in 1986 but yanked after negative previews. Nonetheless, for nine years, Zack Norman took out a weekly ad in Variety that featured his face with the line “ZACK NORMAN As SAMMY In “CHIEF ZABU” in the hope of finding a distributor for the movie. It took until 2016 for a newly-edited cut of “Chief Zabu” to be publicly presented. If you ever have a chance to see it, don’t pass it up. Here is a rare comic artifact worth savoring.   

Zack Norman & Allen Garfield

Rated R. 174 mins. (B) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves)

March 22, 2018

THEY ALL LAUGHED

They_all_laughedPeter Bogdanovich’s underseen romantic comedy is an unabashed love letter to 1980 Manhattan. Storyline and plot take a welcome backseat to an attractive if iconic cast portraying characters digging each other and the summer midtown New York vibe they inhabit.

Frank Sinatra’s songs of the era (“New York, New York”) contrast against country music tunes to give the movie a surprisingly effective musical lilt. It is a picture about love and joy that celebrates its own purpose for being. Knowing nods between characters acknowledge the film’s open secret. We’re constantly watching characters admiring or spying on one other from afar.

You can’t help but stumble over yourself as an audience member watching Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Colleen Camp, Patti Hansen, Blane Novak, and former Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten goofing around as the least believable private detectives and subjects you could dream of.  

They-all-laughed-

There may not be much dramatic conflict, but that’s the point. Colleen Camp’s request from a street vendor for a “very large orange juice” is rewarded with a small half-filled Styrofoam cup. New York culture is crammed into every frame.  

Bogdanovich takes inspiration from Arthur Schnitzler’s often-adapted play “La Ronde” to create this lighthearted comedy of manners that never strays from the shallow end of the screwball comedy pool. Pratfalls come with the territory but “What’s Up Doc” this is not. Still, nobody falls down funnier than John Ritter.

Algonquin

“They All Laughed” is as breezy as its title suggests, but there are so many tiny elements that make you want to revisit the picture. Patti Hansen’s guileless smile, scenes filmed in and around Manhattan’s legendary Algonquin Hotel, and Dorothy Stratten’s stunning charisma contribute to the film’s friendly appeal.

John Ritter

If you’ve ever wanted to take a time machine vacation back to 1980 New York where you can do no wrong, this fun-loving movie makes it possible. We’re all in the mood for love.

Rated PG. 115 mins. (B+) Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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March 19, 2018

POSSESSION — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Possession1One of the most diabolically indecipherable films ever made, Andrzej Żuławski's disturbing psychological thriller juxtaposes Cold War era West Berlin against an exploding relationship between a warring married couple played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Exceptionally convincing performances rise to the ferociously jealous nature of Żuławski's fever-pitched script, co-written with Frederic Tuten. Supporting turns from Margit Carstensen and Heinz Bennet keep the dramatic heat high.

If ever there was an incompatible couple, Mark and Anna are it. It doesn’t help matters that they have an adolescent son named Bob who Mark unwisely turns over custody to his mentally unstable wife. Mark works as a spy for shady corporate bosses. He carries briefcases filled with cash and vials of nondisclosed liquids. This is no stay-at-home dad.

Żuławski plays with emotional, physical, mental, social, and political spaces amid West Berlin’s guarded walls. Ominous danger and grotesque discoveries lurk everywhere. The city’s simultaneously modern and ancient architecture creates a menacing sense of queasy unrest. The city’s subway allows for a shockingly violent episode of bodily expression that contributed to Isabelle Adjani’s Best Actress win at Cannes in 1981. The deeply troubling scene is one of the most frightening episodes ever captured on film.  

Possession2

The duality of female nature gets thrown into forced perspective when Mark meets Anna’s [kind and sane] doppelgänger in the form of his son’s school teacher Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani).

The division between the couple is as pronounced as the gigantic wall that divides the city. “Possession” skewers capitalism’s eternal methods of skullduggery along with the animal nature of human sexuality that, in this film, finds its level when Mark catches his wife having sex with a giant octopus.

Possession

The Polish filmmaker has famously called his movie “autobiographical,” which adds to the confusion of his only English language movie. “Possession” holds the watermark for the most bizarre cinematic experience you will ever have. No other film begins to approach the madness of romantic obsession and political oppression that this film does.

Rated R. 124 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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In episode four, Mike Lacy and I drink Flower Power IPA (Ithaca Brewing Co.) and discuss Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 psychological thriller POSSESSION. Bon appetite. 



POSSESSION

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March 16, 2018

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Call_me_by_your_nameEasily the most unintentionally camp movie of 2017, director Luca Guadagnio’s goofy gay romance drama betrays its oh-so-earnest attempts at being a European art film at every turn. If only this movie had half the ebullient joy of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” then perhaps there would be something for its audience to savor.

Without regard to its blatant pedophiliac underpinnings, “Call Me By Your Name” sets up a hopelessly phony and lightweight romance between Armie Hammer’s Oliver and Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 16-year-old classical pianist who likes to transgress the demands of the classical cannon. So daring.

Call-Me-By-Your-Name

Never mind that a 32-year-old Hammer plays the 24-year-old Jewish American graduate student spending a summer in 1983 Italy with an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who sure knows how to set a Euro-styled lunch table. Elio’s bookish dad may as well be pimping his son out to Oliver in order to vicariously experience a clandestine homosexual connection he was never brave enough to execute when he was younger. Mr. Perlman’s movie-closing monologue is a thing of guffaw-inducing grandeur. You want creepy dialogue, you've got it. 

Armie-hammer-timothee-chalamet

Even if the whole [overwrought] “call me by your name” thing doesn’t hit your funny bone, the eating-a-peach-filled-with-semen will. You’ll laugh at the wrong moments and you’ll wince at the whole wrongheadedness of this petite disaster. If only the actors and filmmakers had been in on the joke.    

Rated R. 132 mins. 

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February 19, 2018

CACTUS FLOWER

Cactus_flowerBased on a Broadway play that was based on a French play (“Fleur de cactus” by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy), this is a 1969 romantic comedy with style, wit, charm, sophistication, and several delightful moments of women’s lib in action. The women in the story set the ethical and moral standards even if by default.

The movie also happens to be a great time capsule of late ‘60s fashion, music, and culture in Manhattan. Check out all of those Beatles albums on the wall of the record store where Goldie Hawn works.

Guggenheim lovers look out for a date scene with Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn in the green-lit museum where there turns out to be a very pronounced echo.

Gene Saks (“The Odd Couple”) again directs Walter Matthau, this time as Dr. Julian Winston, a Midtown dentist in love with Toni (Goldie Hawn in her feature film debut), a hippie chic half Julian’s age. Julian’s lies to Toni, about having a wife and three kids, catch up with him when he decides to pop the question. Keep in mind that Toni is suicidal, and is being watched over by her doting neighbor Igor (Rick Lenz), who saves Toni’s life. Igor is on the prowl for Toni even if it means stealing her away from Julian. 

Cactus flower
Julian’s loyal nurse and secretary Stephanie Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman) suffers an awful indignity when Julian invites her out for a drink only to plead for her to pretend to be his wife while meeting Toni. Julian is naturally oblivious to the torch that Stephanie carries for him. She makes him chicken-and-egg-salad sandwiches for crying out loud.

Mattheu & Hawn

Goldie Hawn uses her large expressive eyes and effortless physicality to great visual effect for her slinky character. There's more than a little Edie Sedgwick in Goldie Hawn's appearance. In return, the straight-laced Matthau walks a fine line as a reprehensible liar you can’t help but adore even if he is a dentist. “The Bad News Bears” was yet to come as another milestone performance in a long and treasured career.

Ingrid Bergman, however, is this movie’s secret weapon. Bergman proves to be a crafty comic presence that links the film’s bawdy humor to darker emotional colors. She get laughs too. The international movie star of “Casablanca” and “Spellbound” savors the driest dialogue with naturalism, depth, and a whiff of magic dust. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is just delightful. This is as good as Cinema gets, a genre film with all of the ideal elements in place.

Ingrid Bergman

“Cactus Flower” is a hidden gem. The scene between Toni and Stephanie, in the record shop where Toni works, is worth the price of admission alone. Bergman and Hawn are so much fun to watch. A dance floor duet between the actresses also pays off on the film’s entertaining premise of star-crossed lovers finding their way toward one another.  

Rated M. 103 mins. (A-) (Four stars out of five / no halves)

February 15, 2018

VIVRE SA VIE — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Vivre Sa VieIn 1962 French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard shifted stylistic filmic gears as lucidly as Miles Davis revolutionized music. Artistic experimentation was in the air. For his fourth feature Godard took Marcel Sacotte’s book about prostitution in Paris as inspiration to create a fascinating cinema vérité styled character and social study. Godard’s groundbreaking camera techniques add intimacy, suspense, and mystery to his documentary approach to sensitive subject matter. The dramatic effect is memorable as it is meaningful. Every aspect of the movie is effortlessly iconic, not the least of which is the stylish personality profile that Anna Karina fulfills. 

Anna Karina

Never before had the backs of heads and shoulders been exploited to such a delightfully dramatic extreme. Hair styles express nuances heretofore unknown. Broken into 12 chapters, “Vivre Sa Vie” takes a non-judgmental view of a character who is nonetheless doomed.

Godard’s wife at the time Anna Karina is transfixing Nana, a lovely young French actress driven to take up prostitution after meeting a pimp. Forth-wall-breaking moments allow the audience to connect with Anna Karina’s guileless yet fragile beauty in support of her aspirational character. The emotion and intellectual nature that Karina transmits is every bit as affecting as Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” from 1928. Indeed, Godard references Dreyer’s masterpiece in “Vivre Sa Vie” when Nana goes to a screening at a Parisian cinema.

Anna Karina

“My Life to Live” has just as much social currency today as the day it was released even if its gangster trope ending lets Godard off the hook all too easy. Here is a unique film that takes daring chances while rooting itself in neorealist filmic soil. You can feel its grounded sense of immediacy and truth.  

Anna Karina

Not rated. 85 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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Jean-Luc Godard's fourth film features Godard's wife-at-the-time Anna Karina as an actress-turned-prostitute in this ground breaking example of the French New Wave. Stone Delicious IPA seemed like the perfect beer to go along with this equally attractive film. 

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February 13, 2018

BREAKING THE WAVES — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Breaking the WavesIt's impossible to know when you are watching film like "Breaking the Waves" that you are witnessing the high watermark of a filmmaker's career. Made shortly after Lars von Trier (he added the "von" himself) co-authored with Thomas Vinterberg the strident "Dogme 95 Manifesto" for low-budget filmmaking, "Breaking the Waves" comes with a clarity of vision and social urgency that is an assault on the senses and the intellect. Von Trier leaves no stone unturned.

In her breakout performance Emily Watson plays Bess McNeill, a simple-minded Scottish, Calvinist churchgoer who marries Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard), and oil rig worker who suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed. Bess McNeill's worldview is hampered by the religious indoctrination she has gone through. Intimate conversations with God, in which Bess takes on both roles, provide insight into her sincere but ill-conceived thought process. Nonetheless, the love that Jan and Bess share is real as her imagination brings her to God. 

Emily Watson

When Jan urges Bess to go out and have sex with other men and report back to him her carnal experiences, she takes Jan's wishes beyond the realm of common sense. In her mind Bess is helping cure Jan from his dire circumstance.

Cinematographer Robby Muller’s documentary shooting style favors intimate close-ups to reveal characters’ inner emotional lives. Muller captures Scotland’s rugged atmosphere as a supporting character to the Shakespearian tragedy on hand.

Breakingthewaves

Although fiercely criticized for its shaky handheld camerawork, the technique gives the film an ungrounded sensibility of floating on roiling waves. Naturally, film and television industries coopted von Trier’s technique so much so that it doesn’t stand out at all. The film's seven-acts are marked by colorful postcard chapter headings accompanied by songs such as Mott The Hopple's "All the Way From Memphis" for Chapter One — Bess Gets Married or Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to announce Chapter Six.

Jan and Bess

Lars von Trier makes a clever attack on organized religion that resonates with Bunuel's famous line, "I'm an atheist, thank God." Emily Watson gives an angelic if earth-shattering performance that is transgressive, cathartic, and viscerally painful. Here is a film that makes you feel like you've read the novel, seen the movie, and lived the life of a protagonist more empathetic than any other. You just might need a stiff drink afterward but you will have witnessed one of the best films of all time. 

February 10, 2018

THE DEATH OF STALIN

Andrea RiseboroughWhile not as bawdy as it could or should have been, Armando Iannucci’s (director on "In The Loop," scriptwriter on television's "Veep") determinedly British send up of the Russian political structure at the time of Joseph Stalin’s death is a satisfying political spoof.

With no German accents anywhere in earshot, the satire kicks in with Adrian Mcloughlin’s death (as Stalin) while listening to a freshly minted radio recording by Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a symphony pianist who sends Stalin a hate note along with the vinyl record for the Russian leader to mull over. A puddle of pee surrounds Stalin's [is-he-really-dead] corpse. Not pretty. 

This goofy cinematic vantage on petty jealousies, backstabbing, and political maneuvering of Russia’s Central Committee gives the audience a not so unrealistic sense of how politicians operate regardless of their country of origin.

Jeffrey Tambor is delightfully insufferable as Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov who wrangles to take command of Russia now that Stalin is out of the way. Malenkov has stiff competition in the likes of Lavrentiy Beria (exquisitely cast with Simon Russell Beale), the head of NKVD (Russia’s secret police called the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Steve Buscemi is predictably watchable as Nikita Khrushchev. Especially delicious is Michael Palin’s turn as Foreign Minister Vyachaslav Molotov. The former Monty Python actor and contributor hasn't lost his razor-sharp comic timing. 

Death of stalin

The Death of Stalin” plays lighter than its subject matter projects. While another trip through the editing process could have helped, this is a movie that audiences will happily discover as time goes by. It doesn’t hurt that the film was banned in Russia. I wish it had been more transgressive to warrant such an action, but it’s got plenty of laughs as it is. Motherland or Home Land, it's all the same. 

The-death-of-stalin

Rated R. 106 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)


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