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October 12, 2017

LAST FLAG FLYING — NYFF 55

Colesmithey.com2“Last Flag Flying” is a huge disappointment. Co-written by Darryl Ponicsan (“The Last Detail”) and Richard Linklater, this episodic drama plays like a misguided cross between “Grand Theft Parsons” and “In The Valley of Elah.” Even so it feels like a movie in search of a story.

Although the film lurches toward condemning the U.S. Military for its systemic brainwashing and capitalist-based murder of friends and foe alike, the movie wraps up with a fantasy-is-better-than-truth message that reneges on its premise. Add to that the equal miscasting of its three leads (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell) and you end up with an excruciating viewing experience. Here is a movie that scores less than zero, in case you didn’t know that were possible from such a reputable bunch.

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Darryl Ponicsan is no longer floating on the cred he earned for “The Last Detail” (1973), about a Navy soldier (played by Randy Quaid) being escorted by two Officers to a Naval prison for trying to steal $40 from a collection box. The author is however still stuck in a no man’s land mindset about whether or not the U.S. military is worth a damn. It’s similar to Martin Scorsese’s overriding career theme regarding the existence of God, and the value of organized religion. I’ve got a short answer to both quandaries, but that’s another story for another time.

Ponicsan is clearly obsessed with the U.S. military’s methods of indoctrination that turn grown men into pap-spewing fraternity bros. Any mention of the Marines incites a knee-jerk response of ‘hoo ra” or “semper fi do or die” from Laurence Fishburne’s character, Pastor Richard Mueller, a veteran who substituted religion for military service after going civilian. Mueller doesn’t necessarily believe in either, but it’s a way for him to big-dog everyone he comes in contact with via his connection to the bible, or to the Marines if need be. He is an insufferable person, and a phony.

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Next up in our trio of unbearable, and inauthentic, human beings is Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon, a bar owner who talks and acts like Andrew Dice Clay’s brother. Cranston hams up the role past 11. That Richard Linklater allowed Cranston to overplay his character to such an outlandish degree only emphasizes Linklater’s failings as a director. Cranston mugs and twists his made up accent into an acting clinic on things not to do as a thespian. I don’t suppose he ever watched Michael Caine’s lessons on film acting. You’ll never think of Bryan Cranston the same way again.

The same goes for Steve Carell, the most miscast member of Ponicsan’s reprobates. Carell’s milquetoast character, Larry “Doc” Shepherd took the fall for Sal and Richard after a vaguely told episode of wartime negligence. Doc did hard time for his fellow comrades, I mean soldiers. Still, Doc isn’t holding a grudge; he’s got other, more recent, wounds to lick. His wife died of cancer, and now he has to bury his soldier son who died under mysterious circumstance in Baghdad. So it is that Doc recruits his military bros to join him on a road trip to his son’s funeral. That is until the guys discover the real story of how the kid died from Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a soldier who witnessed the deadly incident. Oddly, J. Quinton Johnson upstages his fellow, more experienced actors, with this film’s only believable performance. Remember his name, J. Quinton Johnson has a bright acting future ahead.

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You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more inept movie, much less one coming from the pedigree that this one does. In hindsight, the film’s title seems to signal a career-ender for all those involved except for J. Quinton Johnson. The icing on the cake is that “Last Flag Flying” was chosen as the centerpiece for the 55th New York Film Festival. Entropy with a whimper is everywhere you look.  

Rated R. 124 mins. (F) (Less than zero stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 11, 2017

THE SQUARE — NYFF 55

Colesmithey.comJust because a film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes is no reason to assume it is any good. Ruben Östlund’s ham-fisted, but also cheesy, attempt at self-aware social satire is in keeping with his overpraised [debut] parlor-trick drama “Force Majeure.” Ruben Östlund aspires to be a cross between Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl but is in fact closer to Yorgos Lanthimos, another enfant terrible wannabe.

“The square” of the film’s title represents an art instillation outside the X-Royal Museum, a prominent nouveau arts center run by Christian (Claes Bang), a Scandinavian everyman imperiled by the people around him. Is society breaking down? Perhaps. The lighted square represents a safe communal place where people help each other.  

Christian’s troubles begin when he’s robbed while walking to work by a creative group of seemingly unrelated people. As Christian walks across a plaza a woman comes running towards him, shouting about being killed by a man chasing her. Another bystander protects the woman, and Christian joins in to defend her from the approaching brute. Only later does Christian realize that his watch, wallet, cell phone, and cuff links have been stolen. The entire episode was an act of carefully orchestrated thievery not unlike that which Christian’s overblown museum commits with works of art such as a room with many piles of rocks.

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Christian’s entitled status doesn’t prevent him from doing some stupid things. At the advice of his minority employee Michael (Christopher Læssø), Christian prints out a bunch of incendiary flyers that he personally puts in the doors of a low-income high-rise where his phone is tracked.

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After being interviewed by Anne, a loose-screw American TV journalist played by the now ubiquitous scientologist actress Elisabeth Moss, Christian makes the mistake of bedding her. In the film’s most cringe-inducing scene, Anne engages Christian in a tug-of-war for the freshly used condom that could provide her with innumerable legal options, aside from the obvious motivation of impregnating herself with his semen. You have to hand it to Östlund for typecasting Moss to play such a bad-animal character; Christian is no judge of character. He’s also not very good at tug-of-war.

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“The Square” fails as a social satire because Östlund isn’t capable of completing any of his slow-moving trains of thought. He creates provocative situations that he isn’t prepared to pay off on. Östlund got away with pulling the wool over many critics’ eyes with “Force Majeure” because the narrative rested on one blink-and-you-miss-it element. At two hours and 22 minutes, “The Square” puts its many weaknesses on flagrant display. Here is a lazy satire unworthy of a sneeze from such masters of the form as Lars von Trier. Perhaps one day Ruben Östlund will make a competent film; don’t hold your breath.

Rated R. 142 mins. (D) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)   

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October 07, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Blade_runner2049All spectacle and no substance describes Denis Villeneuve’s predictably overwrought yet lightweight sci-fi snoozefest. Even Ryan Gosling comes across as phoning in his performance as K, a smug replicant blade runner who finds the remains of a female replicant that was at one time pregnant with a capital P. Robots aren't supposed to get pregnant. K’s assignment is to track down the offspring and destroy her.

Robin Wright’s presence is squandered as K’s LAPD boss Lieutenant Joshi. Equally wasted are Jared Leto’s efforts as Niander Wallace, the head of a replicant manufacturing company. Nothing connects in Villeneuve’s dirge tempo of unmotivated storytelling. There isn’t enough storyline to follow, much less any sense of immediacy given to the thin narrative at hand. You don’t care about any of the characters, much less the overall story.

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Absent is the vital social context of Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film, which initially suffered from a theatrical release version larded with ridiculous voice-over narration. It was years later that Scott’s director’s cut corrected the mistake, exposing “Blade Runner” for the great film that was buried beneath a layer of narrative static. 

“Blade Runner 2049” is all visual noise lacking in subtextual depth thanks to co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher (“Blade Runner”) and Michael Green (“Alien: Covenant”). The film doesn’t have enough satirical meat on its bones to be a proper “sci-fi” story, or a “neo-noir” that the filmmakers wish it could be. Gone is the anti-corporate political stance of the the original. Philip K. Dick is rolling over in his grave. The movie makes a limp gesture toward the backlash of slavery against slave owners, but you’ll have a hard time staying awake enough catch it when such undertones waft across the screen.

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At two hours and 43 minutes, “Blade Runner 2049” is a chore. Film editor Joe Walker (“12 Years a Slave”) could have excised 45 minutes and this movie would still be too long for its sketch of a storyline. If you suffered through Walker’s other recent films (“Arrival” and “Sicario”), you know you are not in able hands.

The movie almost shifts into gear when Harrison Ford finally makes his reliable appearance as Deckard in the film’s last half-hour. The only other compelling element is Ana de Armas’s comically named Joi (see porn slang “jerk off instruction”), K’s virtual-reality girlfriend. Even here the filmmakers drop the ball during a sci-fi threesome wherein Joi inhabits the body of a prostitute for an act of lovemaking with K that goes missing from the movie.

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Just as with “Dunkirk,” here is a lackluster big-budget movie with no social points of relevance to modern global reality. You’ve heard of “fake news,” well these are phony movies doted over by phony critics who don’t know good from bad. But don’t take my word for it, go see “Blade Runner 2019; it might provide you with some of the best sleep you’ve had all year.

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Rated R. 163 mins. (D+) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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September 16, 2017

mother!

Colesmithey.comDarren Aronofsky cribs liberally from the Old Testament for allegorical inspiration toward a mind-blowing social satire disguised as a psychological thriller. You might not recognize Adam and Eve in the guise of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, but you’ll probably pick up on the Cain and Able metaphor when it arrives.

Jennifer Lawrence is the 20-years-younger wife to Javier Bardem’s grumpy poet, suffering from a bad case of writer’s block in spite of the couple’s idyllic life in their newly renovated Victorian home in a remote wooded area. Yes, Bardem's spirit animal is none other than God.

The home’s octagonal design presages the nefarious battleground that the house is doomed to become as a stream of uninvited guests start to arrive. Luis Buñuel's surrealist masterpiece "The Exterminating Angel" was another touchstone.

In Jennifer Lawrence, Aronofsky has found his most invigorating muse to date. The result is the performance of a lifetime from Lawrence (Aronofsky’s real-life love interest), doing her due diligence as a corporeal stand in for Mother Earth.

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Overpopulation, a lazy world-governing egomaniacal Patriarchy, militarized police, and self-obsessed millennials come together en masse to rip out shreds of a Mother Earth on the verge of collapse.  

There will be plenty of complaints about “mother!” being a “confusing” film, from dim-witted audience members that Aronofsky refuses to talk down to. Good for him, and good for audiences willing and able to tune in for the wild and witty cinematic ride on display. Those viewers will savor meticulous storytelling, terrific ensemble performances, and brilliant editing in a cinematic masterpiece comparable to anything Polanski has done.

If you get a waft of Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” during this film’s explosive climax, rest assured it is by design.

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Eschewing background music proves a masterstroke in a stylized work of far-reaching thematic ramifications. The lack of a score adds to this film’s creepy atmosphere as it builds toward an apocalyptic crescendo produced by sheer narrative force. This is eco activist cinema on par with the politically charged dramaturgy of the famed Group Theater.

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Here is Darren Aronofsky’s most powerful film to date, and the same goes for Jennifer Lawrence. “mother!” could well be the best film of 2017; it certainly is the most haunting one so far.   

Rated R. 121 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 10, 2017

RUDE BOY

Colesmithey.comHowever fraught with behind-the-scenes controversy, “Rude Boy” is a priceless document of one of the greatest Punk bands in history. This music exploitation docudrama is the result of a co-directing effort by Jack Hazan and David Mingay set during 1978 and 1979 when The Clash were positioning to take over the world.

The film features recording sessions and live performance footage of songs that appeared on the first two Clash albums (“The Clash” and “Give “Em Enough Rope”). It’s obvious that the filmmakers haven't a clue about creating narrative structure, but they know they’ve got a tiger by the tail, and to their credit they don’t let it go.

Controversy arose when members of The Clash discovered a subplot woven into the storyline that denigrated young black men in London during the Thatcher era. The band distanced itself from the film, and never received any royalties from it. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers repeatedly return to “White Riot,” one of the band’s most misunderstood songs that the Nazi National Front adopted as their own.

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So it is with bitter sadness that any knowing audience should come to a film that so innocently captures the charismatic personalities of the band and of their raw musicality on full display. A highlight of the film arrives when Joe Strummer bangs out a couple of blues tunes on an out of tune upright piano in a small empty music hall. This scene alone is worth the price of admission.

What storyline there is arrives via Ray Gange (playing himself) a right-wing leaning punk who inexplicably loves fiercely leftist-minded Clash, so much so that he endears himself as an unpaid roadie. Ray works at a dirty book store and collects his weekly dole amount of less than $15 when he isn’t getting drunk and going on the road with the band. Ray exposes his aspirational motivation for aligning himself with the right-wing because he wants to ride in big black cars rather than walk everywhere.

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Here is a backstage and close-up proscenium look at The Clash shortly before they took America by storm with a stage act that still puts every other band to shame. Joe Strummer had the goods, and the perfect band to back him up. See the proof, and ignore the film’s spackled-on political subtext. Meet The Clash!

Songs to look out for include: “Career Opportunities,” “I’m So Bored With the USA,” “Stay Free,” and “I Fought The Law.” Wow.

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Rated R. 133 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 09, 2017

IT

Colesmithey.comThe direction, editing, pacing, and tone are so off in director Andy Muschietti’s filmic adaptation of Stephen King’s child-led psychodrama horror picture that the movie is more of a chore than a source of entertainment. The film’s by-committee screenplay is at once overwrought and under-polished. Three screenwriters is one too many. 

Gallons of corn syrup fake blood don’t help. Here is a glorified haunted house movie that doesn’t hold a candle to “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” or any of the other famous Universal monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Blame it on a lack of backstory for this hollow clown monster creation.

It doesn’t help that there are no likable (read reliable or responsible) adult characters to be found in or around the small Maine town of Derry, circa 1988 and 1989 where the action takes place. Blame Steven King for this aspect I suppose. Crucial plot holes abound.

When Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the first of our seven shared-child protagonists, loses his little seven-year-old brother Georgie to a whacked out clown living in a gutter drain, not even the woman who witnessed the savage attack from her living room window seems to give a damn. The house cat, however is bothered. Already, our suspension of disbelief is strained over a killer clown with a many-toothed vagina dentata where his mouth should be.

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The Riverdale neighborhood of Toronto subs for Maine. Missing persons signs adorn brick walls in a picturesque small town populated with teenaged reprobates, pedophiles, and racists. Naturally, there is Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a token black kid bullied and victimized by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the mullet-wearing son of the town cop. The subplot tips its hat to Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” by introducing Mike as a child slaughterhouse worker tasked with stunning sheep with a captive bolt pistol prior to their slaughter. Henry should know better than mess with a kid whose killer instincts are already awaken.

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Gratuitously, our motley collection of nerdy boys enjoy the company of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a local redhead smeared with the scarlet letter of slut. Sexual abuse victim is more like it. Beverly’s dad is the kind of bastard for whom you wish an especially hot version of hell. The kids rally together against all form of everyday and paranormal evil towards defeating the fear that invades their every waking moment. “It” is not an especially scary movie even for its intended youthful audience; for most part the film’s R rating is a ruse.

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“It” just doesn’t cut it. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” based on Stephen King’s novel, and enjoy a genuinely creepy movie that will give you nightmares.

Rated R. 135 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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WIND RIVER

Colesmithey.comWriter-director Taylor Sheridan (the screenwriter on last year’s “Hell or High Water”) draws first-blood during a year of failed American Cinema with a well-crafted crime drama that carries significant political and emotional weight. Here is the first Oscar-worthy contender of 2017.

“Wind River” is an understated police procedural set on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation where Native American women go missing as often as women in Juárez, Mexico. The film’s fraught political backdrop remains an opaque wall of silence, just as it does in American reality; witness last year’s disastrous protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, where corporate and government goons assaulted and attacked native people who have been victimized since the first settlers arrived on this continent. Systemic, if incremental, genocide of Native Americans continues.

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Frontier justice is the name of the game. For the oil company workers who sneak in and out of the region, the law is what they say it is. They have guns and brute force to back it up.

Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert is an outlier whose experiences marrying into the Native community has left behind a trail of tears. Cory shares custody of his 10-year-old son Casey with his Indian ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones). A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent by trade, Cory laments the mysterious death of his 16-year-old daughter a decade ago.

So it is that Cory’s heartbreak takes on more weight when he discovers the recently deceased corpse of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) in the snow of a remote region. Natalie’s bare feet, death by pulmonary hemorrhage, and evidence of sexual violence send up red flags for Elizabeth Olsen’s woefully unprepared rookie FBI agent assigned to the case.

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What follows is an exacting look at how such remote investigations are performed by a lose chain of command that extends from a tacitly involved FBI to Tribal Police, and to a rogue Fish and Wildlife agent with a sense of ethics.

Law and justice don’t reside in this place. “Wind River” represents an uncomfortable microcosm of America’s urban and rural landscape of wild west mentality that claims the lives of innocent people everyday. Men in authority with guns take what they want and kill at will, leaving behind shattered lives for people who don’t know where to begin to pick up the pieces. Where does Wind River end, and real life begin? This could well be the most important American film of 2017.    

Rated R. 107 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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