September 20, 2017

FACES PLACES — NYFF 55

ColesmitheyThere is beautiful chemistry between the legendary 88-year-old French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, the youthful French photographer who cares for Varda as a loyal would-be grandson of artistic intentions. JR and Varda share directing credits for this disarmingly sweet and poignant documentary that plays more as a docudrama due to the circumstance of uncertainty regarding Ms. Varda’s health.

The movie is a nuanced sociological study of French culture. Needless to say, the amount of pretense on display is near zero. Think of it as neo-realistic French New Wave ethnographic study in B minor. The personal and artistic elements are articulated to their fullest — a rare cinematic, event to say the least. It doesn't hurt that JR and Agnes Varda are two of the most endearing human beings you'd ever want to spend two hours of your life with. 

The harmonious pair of inspired film-project pals travel to small towns in France in a Mercedes Benz truck decorated to resemble a giant camera. Already we are in a filmic world. The sides of JR’s fancy mode of transportation includes a photo booth where locals are photographed. The truck then prints out black-and-white portraits on gigantic sheets of paper that JR pastes to the sides of buildings to create dramatic personalized statements about the significance of human faces and truth.

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Although Varda’s vision is constantly blurry due to an eye condition, she complains about JR’s proclivity for always wearing sunglasses. She wants to see his eyes. But it is clear that JR separates himself as an artist from his subject so that your attention can focus on the art rather than the artist.

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“Faces Places” is a film you discover and revel in the joy of its simplicity, patience, and naturalistic discourse. Like all of Varda’s films, this one is special. It won this year’s L’Oeil d’or at Cannes for good reason. If you only see one film at NYFF55, “Faces Places” is the one to watch.

Varda&jr

Not Rated. 89 minutes. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 08, 2017

THE NEXT MAN

Colesmithey2.comDirector Richard Sarafian (famous for the 1971 car-chase classic “Vanishing Point”) helms this absurd and problematic political thriller elevated by the keen efforts of Sean Connery and Cornelia Sharpe. You will likely never witness a stranger conduit for mixed-signaled political intrigue, here involving an Arab minister of state’s attempts to admit Israel into OPEC during the height of the seething oil crisis of the ‘70s. However implausible it is that Connery’s Scottish persona be masked with that of such a died-in-the-wool Arab identity as that of Khalil Abdul-Muhsen, Connery works acting magic to make everything comfortable for the audience.

The film has one of the most disconnected and inert opening acts you will ever see. Sean Connery doesn’t even make his first appearance until a good 15 minutes into the story.

Still, the filmmakers do a very clever thing by establishing Cornelia Sharpe’s cold-blooded female assassin Nicole Scott as a cunning killer would put Mata Hari to shame. After completing a kill against her politically powerful “lover” from Nice — she poisons his drink and suffocates him while changing disguises — her Arab bosses send her to seduce and slay Connery.

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The movie is full of great shots of ‘70s era Manhattan, especially of the Lower East Side and of the World Trade Towers. The film’s shocking climax occurs at 92th and Fifth between the Carnegie and Kahn Mansions. The ending is a sucker punch that will leave many audiences more than a little confused. Nothing in this movie is what it seems.

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“The Next Man” falls during a fascinating period in Sean Connery’s storied career. He had stepped away from the James Bond franchise five years earlier. Connery enjoyed huge successes with “The Wind and the Lion” and “The Man Who Would Be King” (both 1975) when he signed on for what was to him second nature, playing an international diplomat reaching out to countries at the United Nations. Who doesn’t want to watch Sean Connery speaking at the U.N.? Here is a terribly flawed movie that earns its value via the style and grace of Cornelia Sharpe and Sean Connery. The twist at the end is a good thing too.  

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Rated R. 108 mins. (B-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 04, 2017

GHOULIES

Colesmithey.comMariska Hargitay makes an inauspicious feature film debut in this trashy little 1984 horror picture from co-writer/director Luca Bercovici. Michael Des Barres (the former singer of the New Wave super band Chequered Past) plays Malcolm Graves, a cat-eyed Satanic lord whose death isn’t as certain as his creepy mansion’s newest master (Peter Liapis) believes. Malcom's unkempt grave resides on the home's remote grounds.

The great Jack Nance, of David Lynch fame, barely gets any screentime as this cheesy film’s narrator. Between its ‘80s era trappings of ugly fashion and pot-smoking, goofy little ghoulie creatures, and “Time Bandit”-styled demon servants, “Ghoulies” is a misjudged throwback to the much better “Basket Case” franchise that inspired it.

Still, it’s fun to see Mariska Hargitay with her baby fat playing a disposable teen character in a tight red dress and big hair.

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Rated PG-13. 81 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

 

August 22, 2017

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD

RumbleThe most surprising aspect of Catherine Bainbridge’s inspired documentary about the contributions of Native Americans to popular music is that the story hasn’t been told until now. It seems fitting that rock guitar groundbreaker Link Wray’s hard-bitten image graces the film’s title and poster.

That Wray’s indelible influence on music and culture arrived from a swampy instrumental number so menacing that “Rumble” (from 1958) was banned from radio play in many regions of the country, speaks to the deep-seeded nature of Indian culture and its ability to affect action. It follows that the intrinsically rebellious “Rumble” incited musicians such as Iggy Pop and Pete Townsend to take up rock music as a way to make their way in the world.

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This documentary has its share of surprises as with the ‘30s era jazz singer Mildred Bailey whose influence on crooners such as Tony Bennett comes part and parcel to the rich musical narrative at hand. While the inclusion of Mississippi blues guitarist Charley Patton might present young viewers with a fresh musical history lesson, Jimi Hendrix’s presence as a child of Cherokee descent will seal the deal.

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The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Redbone’s Pat Vegas, gifted guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and Buffy Sainte-Marie are a few of the other essential Native America musicians whose stories get their due in this dynamic and loving documentary. Every course on American music should necessarily include “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.”

Not Rated. 103 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

August 20, 2017

LUCKY LOGAN

Logan-lucky-posterAside from one very cheesy subplot misstep involving a little girl (Farrah Mackenzie) singing “Country Roads,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Lucky Logan” is a rollicking heist movie with an appropriately greasy sense of slick humor. An ensemble piece in the vein of Soderbergh’s “Oceans” franchise, “Lucky Logan” pinballs between a litany of goofball characters with bell-rings and comic zaps.

Most enjoyable is Daniel Craig’s comic turn as Joe Bang, an incarcerated bomb specialist of the Appalachian persuasion. Craig’s sense of comic timing is every bit as sharp as his snappy determination in his typecast role as James Bond. There’s something deeply satisfying about hearing Craig chew on a West Virginia accent like a stiff piece of jerky.

First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt balances comic set pieces with no-nonsense action sequences as Channing Tatum’s blue-collar construction worker Jimmy Logan concocts a plan to rip off the freshly minted Charlotte Motor Speedway during a big race day. Jimmy is especially motivated due to his recent termination from helping build the raceway. The ever-versatile Adam Driver plays Jimmy’s bad-luck-plagued Iraq war vet brother Clyde whose fortunes are poised for a 180-degree turn.   

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As with any good heist movie, the joy is in the planning for the theft and the stuff that goes wrong during its execution. The movie wisely plays its narrative poker hand so that its closing reveal comes as a welcome surprise, albeit with a lurking plot element points to a sequel. Movie audiences could certainly do a hell of a lot worse than for Soderbergh’s Logan to get lucky twice, or more. This could be where Steven Soderbergh trades in one heist franchise for another. If so, sign me up for Luckier Logan now.   

Lucky Logan

Rated PG-13. 119 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

July 26, 2017

BITCH SLAP

Colesmithey.comWhile I enjoyed the overall tone of the movie, and especially the super committed performances of its talented three female stars (Julia Voth, Erin Cummings, and America Olivo), "Bitch Slap" is a mess. Rick Jacobson ("Ash vs Evil Dead" series) is a very skilled director, and his ability to rev up action sequences — ostensibly on a B-movie budget — is impressive, but his screenwriting skills leave much to be desired. Jacobson steals liberally from Quentin Tarantino for this over-the-top sexploitation romp but isn't much for creating a story that sticks. Punchy dialogue only goes so far in masking plot holes a plenty, but there is some snazzy dialogue to be had.

"I'm gonna booty-bang bitch slap your fucking ass until you're just this side of salvage. Then I'm gonna ram-ride girly's show tits asunder before I plow both of you bitches under!"

Ah, what poetry.

Jacobson's time flipping device of constantly showing what happened six months ago, or two weeks ago, or 10 hours ago, wears out its welcome quick.

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For all of its potentially 3D-appropriate use of flying objects and big boobies, "Bitch Slap" doesn't hold a candle to Russ Meyer's truly transgressive "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" — an obvious inspiration for this gutty little action film.

"Bitch Slap" is nonetheless ideally suited for a 3D treatment that would make it even more of a guilty pleasure. If you compare "Faster, Pussycat!" to "Bitch Slap" I think you'll find that Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams create a lot more sexy heat and psycho bitch drama in Russ Meyer's classic sexploitation flick. That said, this movie lays down plenty of the heavy-handed bitch slaps that the title promises.

Rated R. 109 mins. (C+) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

July 16, 2017

THE LITTLE HOURS

Colesmithey.comIf you’re the kind of person who likes to nap through summer movies in the air conditioned comfort of your neighborhood cinema then “The Little Hours” presents an ideal opportunity for a 90 minute nap. As comically flat as a glass top table, writer/director Jeff Baena’s would-be comic take on Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” is nothing but a snooze from start to finish.

This filmmaker wouldn’t know slapstick from satire. Baena sets a mordant tempo for inert comic set pieces that never come together to form a coherent storyline. Talk about someone in need of binging on Mel Brooks and Sacha Baron Cohen movies for a year or two, Jeff Baena requires some serious immersion in humor because he hasn’t got a single funny bone in his body. There isn't an inch of comic depth to be found. Even scenes that have obvious opportunities for layers of comic suspense and multiple pay-offs get a one-note treatment. It's as if there wasn't a director on the set.

The narrative setup of a bunch of horny bitchy nuns living in a medieval convent might sound like great comic fodder but you come away from “The Little Hours” scratching your head as to why anyone in their right mind thinks Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, or Kate Micucci has any gift for making people laugh.

Of course, if Baena had really wanted to liven up the humor factor of this snooze-fest he could have picked up the phone and called, wait for it, yes, the one and only Amy Sedaris. I can never understand why Amy Sedaris isn't in every comedy made since 1990. Sedaris is the funny sauce to any filmic Hamburger Helper. But I digress. Amy Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, Amy Sedaris! I feel better now. 

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Dave Franco fares little better as Masseto, a servant whose cuckolding services send him on the run and into the clutches of a nunnery where he must pretend to be deaf and dumb if he is to survive dominatrix-inclined nuns such as Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Fernanda is into verbal humiliation, knife play, and witch rituals involving male sacrifice. Plaza's twisted character comes across as too sincerely mean to laugh at. Too bad Fernanda forgot to wear a strap-on under her habit; that could have been funny.

This R-rated lame duck doesn’t begin to go far enough in its ostensible bawdiness. For that divine pleasure you’ll have to revisit Pier Paolo Pasolini’s far superior 1971 adaptation (properly entitled “The Decameron”). Talk about bringing "Kool-Aid" to the grown-ups party; there isn't even one comic gross-out bit in the whole movie. Remember "There's Something About Mary"? Now, there was one guffaw-inducing comedy.

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I chuckled once during “The Little Hours” in a cinema occupied by one other person. If only I could have let myself fall asleep like I wanted to.

Rated R. 90 mins. (D-) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)

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