May 01, 2018

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON

A-poem-is-a-naked-personLes Blank’s mind-bending filmic document of music legend Leon Russell is a rare anthropological social study wrapped in the post-Watergate culture of [roughly] 1973 Oklahoma. Not one to distance himself from interacting fully with the people around him, Blank creates a living and breathing document that is at once beautiful, dirty, inspiring, and cynical.

Scantily clad hippie chicks, river people, locals, and members of Leon Russell’s band receive ample screentime between Russell’s energetic concerts, recording sessions, and interviews. Jim Franklin, the artist hired to decorate Russell’s swimming pool, provides sharp social commentary though his surreal painting and in an especially gripping scene involving his pet boa constrictor and a baby chicken.

Leon Russell

Criterion’s 2K digital restoration reveals the magic in Les Blank’s free-form approach to his subject matter. Although the film’s producers (Leon Russell and Denny Cordell) disapproved of Blank’s determinedly cinema vérité movie so much that they refused to release it, “A Poem Is A Naked Person” is a one-of-a kind masterpiece that draws the viewer into its wild musically-influenced ride.

Leon Russell

Not only is Leon Russell’s legacy as one of American music’s most vibrant composers and performers savored here, so too is Les Blank’s intuitive genius as a filmmaker of grit, soul, and heart. This is one artistic historic filmic record that stands. Dig baby, dig. 

Poem is Naked

Not rated. 90 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves) 

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April 24, 2018

POLICE BEAT

Police BeatA poetic character study etched in its primrose Portland, Seattle locations, “Police Beat” is a clear-eyed dissection of the immigrant experience in pre-smartphone America. Senegalese non-actor (and former Junior World Cup Soccer Team star) Pape Side Niang plays Z, a newly hired bicycle cop attempting to create a romantic life with an American white girl more interested in playing head-games than spending time with him. Barely into his 20s Z is a Muslim struggling with Western culture from the ground up. His motivations are unfettered. He saw an ad in the newspaper, passed the test, and became a police officer.  

Co-writer/director Robinson Devor (“Zoo”) frames the weeklong narrative in police procedural terms based on actual case files. As such, every day-to-day social encounter rings with an element of banal, unpredictable truth beneath Z’s running inner monologue that narrates the movie. Our protagonist deals with frequently stressful tasks by concentrating on things in his personal life. The device works well in keeping the audience engaged. Every scene has multiple layers of emotional and physical suspense inherently built in.   

Pape Side Niang

Z wants to be promoted to a patrol car. In the meantime he’s stuck patrolling downtown Portland on a mountain bike. His sometime partner (Eric Breedlove) is a heroin-addicted white cop whose girlfriend is a prostitute.

Pape Side Niang’s character is the same person in or out of uniform. He brings his own method of common sense in dealing deal with the normal, confused, irate, or outright insane (largely white) locals he comes into contact with. His exotic West African accent expedites rather than hinders.  

Police Beat

“Police Beat” (2003) is far from a perfect film, but its originality unites with its quietly charismatic lead actor and keen compositions to generate a haunting human experience brimming with truthful social commentary.

Sadly, Pape Side Niang passed away at the age of 25 with “Police Beat” as his only film.

Not Rated. 80 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)   

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April 22, 2018

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — CANNES 2017

You_were_never_really_hereIf only I had never really seen this atrocity of a movie I’d feel much better. That does it; I’m giving up on Lynne Ramsay for good. I loathed Ramsay’s last film “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011). Still, I was willing to give her latest effort a chance. Big mistake. I thought it possible that Ramsay had grown as a filmmaker. The complete opposite appears to be the case.

Ramsey steals a dozen little tropes from movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Taxi Driver” to piece together a baloney narrative that hangs together like wet seaweed on the beach. Some people might call it experimental, and I can see why. You certainly feel like a guinea pig being experimented on while watching this awful movie. Ramsey based her self-penned screenplay on Jonathan Ames’s novel, but you’d never guess that this movie had any formal underpinnings.

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hit man/cop killer who rescues underage girls from sex traffickers. A New York politician hires Joe to rescue his pubescent daughter. So topical, you think. Wrong. Ramsay treats the issue with such cavalier sloppiness that she trivializes sex trafficking into something so fake that it's no wonder so many people don't believe such a thing even exists. Judging from this film, it doesn't.

If revenge fantasy is your thing, Michael Winners 1974 “Death Wish” did it meaner and with real heart from the great Charles Bronson. Joaquin Phoenix just looks like he needs a good long nap. Joe suffers from delusions, so not everything we see is for real. Joe is a white dude sociopath whose chosen weapon is a hammer. If I never see Joaquin Phoenix with his shirt off, it will be too soon. 

Joaquin

If this set-up sounds like something you want or need to see for some imagined reason, just know that there is an underwater scene that is a very close copy of a similar scene in “The Shape of Water.” You could always stream “You Were Never Really Here” and turn it into a drinking game where you have to drink a shot every time you see a reference to another movie. The influences here are much more accessible than the arcane ones you find in a Tarantino movie. Then again Quentin Tarantino is a real filmmaker; Lynne Ramsey isn’t.

Rated R. 89 mins. (D-) Zero stars — out of five / no halves

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DEALT

DealtLuke Korem’s Cinema Vérité documentary about “card mechanic” Richard Turner is an exquisitely told story of an incredibly talented man’s journey toward becoming a stronger individual with the support of his loving family.

Turner practices with three to five decks of cards a day for 16 hours every day, as he has done for most of his life. He give performances where he demonstrates card cheat tricks used by dealers to control card games. Mr. Turner can cut a deck of cards precisely in half-stacks of 26 in a less than a second. True wizardry resides in Richard Turner's constantly moving hands that each endlessly manipulate decks of cards.

“Dealt” is a documentary of such deep human beauty that the less you know going in, the more fresh your experience will be when you watch the film. Stop what you're doing and stream this movie with your friends and family. I promise you’ll be affected in a positive way.

This is Luke Korem's second film. His first film ("Lord Montagu" —2013)," comes highly recommended.  

Richardturner

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

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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. 

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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