January 12, 2017

MARTIN SCORSESE'S SILENCE: THE VIDEO ESSAY

SILENCE: THE VIDEO ESSAY from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

January 03, 2017

AND GOD CREATED WOMAN — CLASSIC FILM PICK

And God Created WomanThe term “sex-kitten” was coined for Brigitte Bardot for her sexually liberated role as Juliette in her [then] husband Roger Vadim’s 1956 debut film. Bardot’s exotic nubile beauty is in sync with her orphaned character’s rebellious disavowal of social mores in the seaside town of St. Tropez.

Never before in Cinema had a female character exhibited such an honest reflection of wanton feminine hunger with the goods to back it up. When an old Frenchman describes Bardot’s ass as a “song,” the commentary comes across as apt poetry rather than the vulgar expression it might otherwise seem.

A 22-year-old Bardot plays 18-year-old Juliette, an orphan living with an older disapproving provincial couple intent on returning her to the orphanage where they got her. The house matriarch freely calls Juliette a slut, which seems a stretch considering she doesn't have sex (at least on screen) until after she is married. Then the gloves are off.

Generational battle-lines are drawn, and the war is on. A nudist by nature, Juliette enjoys sunbathing in the raw in her backyard. Male suitors abound. Eric Carradine (Curd Jurgens) is a millionaire powerbroker pushing 60 who wants to build a large hotel in the undeveloped Riveria town of St. Tropez. A capitalist exploiter of all he sees, Carradine has Juliette in his sights, along with a family-owned shipyard run by a couple of brothers (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Christian Marquand) who also desire Juliette. It doesn’t take Carradine long to effect a plan that puts the shipyard in his possession, with Juliette as an inevitable consequence. Juliette becomes a lightening rod for social upheaval as these men with divergent agendas, leverage their positions using her as a bargaining chit.

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Vadim cannily puts Bardot’s vibrant physicality to pointed narrative and thematic use during the film’s music-inflected climax. Bardot dances an impromptu mambo with a band of black nightclub musicians who play off of her carefree dance movements while joining in with her. The lively sequence presages the ‘60’s go-go dance craze by more than half a decade. Things get steamy when she reflexively dances in front of a full-length mirror. You could argue that Brigitte Bardot ushered in the ‘60’s era of sexual liberation in this one scene.

Although condemned by some cultural gatekeepers and critics as scandalous — "And God Created Woman" was heavily edited, and dubbed, for his its U.S. release — Bardot’s portrayal of a freethinking young woman became the celebrated subject of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay “The Lolita Syndrome.” In it, de Beauvoir described Brigitte Bardot as a “locomotive of women’s history.” The petite but curvy actress captured the communal global imaginations of women and men alike. The film adds up to more than Brigitte Bardot’s obvious charms and headstrong attitude about the essentials of life. Here is a social document of the ways that a woman’s allure can fuel, destroy, and build the dreams of men who fall under her spell.

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Rated PG. 90 mins. (A) (Five stars - out of five / no stars)

December 10, 2016

LA LA LAND

La La Land“La La Land” has two very good things going for it, namely Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. This duo’s legendary onscreen chemistry (see “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) reaches emotional highs and lows in counterpoint to a musical fantasy that almost brings home the bacon.

Fear not musical-film-haters, the genre isn’t about to explode with “La La Land” copycats. Gosling and Stone might be great together, but this movie leaves much to be desired.

You know you’re in trouble from its mad-mad-world opening song and dance centerpiece, which occurs around and on top of cars stuck in a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam. Squeeze the millennial cheese please. It feels like a Dr. Pepper television commercial from the early ‘80s. The craned-camera sequence has colorfully dressed dancers doing backflips from cars in an attempt to cram as much hoop-la as possible onto the screen. The gaudy 10-minute sequence is more Baz Luhrmann than Bob Fosse. Easily pleased audiences will be sated but this is music video dross. The overblown set piece values presentation over representation.    

Jazz prodigy boy meets young actress who hates jazz. Red flag. Stone’s Mia sits in her car, running lines for the movie audition she’s on her way to. Gosling’s jazz pianist Sebastian honks at her to get moving. Fear not, they won’t be enemy rivals long.

Cut to Emma Stone’s struggling actress Mia going on endless tryouts. She does great acting work, but still doesn’t get gigs. It’s tough out there, even writer-director Damien Chazelle’s fantasyland.

Sebastian can’t hold down a regular solo piano gig because he chooses to work at venues that don’t allow him to play the improvisational jazz that excites him. Sebastian seems to thrive on rejection.

Chazelle gives an inside nod to his last film “Whiplash” by casting J.K. Simmons as the disapproving owner of the restaurant that (re) hires and (promptly) fires Sebastian for his wandering fingers on the 88s.

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For all of the colorful costume changes and tightly choreographed dance sequences between Stone and Gosling, “La La Land” meanders when it should glide. “La La Land” is long way from “West Side Story” or “Cabaret” — two great (determinedly tragic) musicals that this film tries to emulate. By reneging on the film’s opening tone of screwball romance, the filmmaker hangs the audience out to dry. 

Most egregious are two distinct episode involving alarms (one is a smoke alarm) that break this film apart. For a filmmaker ostensibly in love with music, these jarring aural events fly in the face of responsible moviemaking. Musicians are notorious for having sensitive ears, and any that I know — myself included — say that these abrasive segments of violent soundscape manipulation are beyond the pale. But don't take my word for it; you'll know what I mean when you hear them. Rather than coming out of this musical humming a tune — the Broadway litmus test for what constitutes a good musical — you will only be thinking of these sustained sonic assaults aimed right at the audience.

Damien Chazelle wants to bring jazz back into America’s cultural conversation but he unintentionally cheapens the idea with saccharine sentimentality that the director attempts to conceal with a downbeat ending. Any jazz musician or fan knows that be-bop’s intrinsic element of syncopation relies on the upbeats.

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Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (C+) ( Two Stars — out of five / no halves)

December 02, 2016

JACKIE

Jackie-Gross political exploitation is not a label I apply lightly, but it fits for this terribly disappointing film. The term applies to a picture that, however well meaning the intents of its producers (including Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker I deeply respect and admire), misses its mark by a mile rather than by degree.

I hadn’t yet written this review when I spoke candidly with Mr. Aronofsky about what I view as an ill-conceived movie further hobbled by an inarticulate script (by newbie screenwriter Noah Oppenheim), ineptly executed by miscast actors.

It might not be his fault, but Peter Sarsgaard’s abysmal portrayal of Bobby Kennedy (complete with an utter disregard for Bobby’s unmistakable accent), breaks this pseudo brief biopic hopelessly in half.

Peter Sarsgaard

Oppenheim leaves no hackneyed screenwriting trope behind. Billy Crudup plays “The Journalist” (that's right, Oppenheim couldn't be troubled to give this character a name) tasked with interviewing Jackie Kennedy shortly after that fateful day in Dallas when America lost all veneer of innocence that the country’s collective subconscious imaged it possessed in the post McCarthy era.

Composer Mika Levi’s sad-trombone score sets an obnoxiously self-aware and saccharine atmosphere of melancholy for this film’s tone. Talk about simultaneously dull and heavy-handed; you'll be rolling your eyes and sighing a lot. 

In the days following JFK's assassination Jackie and the writer sit on the spacious back porch of her lakeside mansion in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Crudup’s character, like that of the priest (played by William Hurt) is but a cardboard narrative place-keeper.

Our uncomfortable reporter is here to enable Jackie’s immediate recollections of the horrific experience of having her husband’s brains blown out as she sat beside him in the back of a limo passing through Daly Plaza.

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Cut to Jackie rehearsing with her acting coach for the famous 1961 CBS television tour of the White House that gave the American public a stiff if ostensibly personal look at Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to beautify the White House in her own style. If the film weren’t already sinking, this overwrought sequence of imitation throws the anchor that will pull it toward the ocean’s bottom.

Jackie tells the reporter that she “loved that house and wanted to share it with the American people.” How is it that mere hours after her husband’s death, she is fixated on physical possessions in a place that she will soon be denied from entering? This burning question hovers over the film, and paints Jackie Kennedy as a petty woman consumed more with grief over her loss of a fantasy lifestyle she calls “Camelot,” than over the hope for her country’s future that John Fitzgerald Kennedy promised to the American people, and to the world.

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Aside from director Pablo Larrain’s gratuitous insistence on repeatedly showing gory details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, because “that’s what really happened,” the filmmaker punishes the audience with shrill scenes of Jackie dressing down Bobby Kennedy as if she hated her husband’s brother. Peter Sarsgaard’s already unlikable, and unrecognizable, portrayal of the charismatic Bobby Kennedy and Natalie Portman’s bitchy portrayal of Jackie turn the movie into a weird hate-fest.

One of the first things I told Darren Aronofsky was that, “if my last name were Kennedy, I would be livid” over this film. He did say that older generation audiences had posited similar complaints. I didn’t say what an injustice I thought the film did to Jackie Kennedy, but I should have. He assured me that the members of the Kennedy family who had seen the film were not insulted as I was. I said I was relieved to hear such a response. 

However, that still doesn’t change my opinion that this film misrepresents every character it displays against a backdrop of misappropriated artistic license that leverages gore and infighting to make its muddy points.

I only lived through the last four months of John F. Kennedy’s administration, but I have always considered that period as the most fortunate of my life. There is no aspect of this film that I find recognizable to the Kennedy administration, or to Jackie Kennedy. I deeply regret having watched it.

Rated R. 99 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

November 23, 2016

LA CEREMONIE — CLASSIC FILM PICK

LaCeremonieMoviePosterThe revolution comes from the inside in Claude Chabrol’s exquisite adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 leftist novel “A Judgement In Stone.”

Not since Luis Bunuel has any filmmaker come so daringly close to enunciating the ideological, ethical, and soulful rift between the bourgeoisie and the rest of us as Chabrol does in this fascinating, if darkly sensuous, picture. Lesbian fires ignite between two would-be murderess[s].

Rituals such as family dinners or private parties allow for characters to interact, impregnate, and divide. As with Bunuel’s films, food plays a significant part in these daily rites.

The story unfolds in the northwest coast of France where art gallery director Catherine Lelievres (Jacqueline Bisset) lives in French countryside splendor with her recent (opera-obsessed) husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and his two teenage children (Melinda and Gilles) from a previous marriage.

Catherine hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as her latest live-in maid to keep her lavish home tidy and cook the family meals. 

Sophie keeps secrets close to her chest. Her illiteracy means that she can't order the weekly groceries because she can't read the list. Help arrives in the magnetic tomboy form of Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a local postal clerk with a murderous past. Jeanne knows that Sophie was accused of murdering her handicapped dad but was let go due to a lack of proof. Threat of prison is a mutual experience since Jeanne was accused of killing her four-year-old daughter, but was found innocent. 

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21st century audiences may be surprised to learn that there was such a thing as a “boy-bun” long before there was a “man-bun” as evidenced by Catherine’s adopted son Gilles (Valentin Merlet).

Addressing Gilles's freshly budding smoking habit, Catherine tells her adopted son, “It’s easier not to start than it is to quit.” Naturally, she offers him a cigarette later on when it suits her. She decrees that Gilles can only smoke in her presence. Careful social coding comes through in every sequence involving the family. Their limited (stereotype) attitudes clash against the intimate (female outlaw) romantic reality that Bonnaire and Huppert share. Their mutual attraction is real. 

Claude Chabrol deftly uses television as an implement of reality displacement that Sophie learns to use to deny demands that are placed on her, such as when Georges calls requesting that she retrieve a file from his desk. She becomes a robot to the TV in same way that audiences all over the world are. 

“La Ceremonie” is a film that is ahead of its time, just as much as it is of its time. Isabelle Huppert’s determined (read lesbian leftist activist) character speaks the film’s theme lines with sinewy authority.

Regarding Sophie’s discovery of Melinda’s (Virginie Ledoyen) pregnancy, Jeanne says, “It’s no problem for them [the Lelievres), anyway. Keep it or get rid of it, no problem.”

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Indeed, Jeanne’s brief summation of Melinda’s dilemma coincides with the teenaged girl's blasé attitude in the face of her next day's scheduled abortion. Charming Melinda sits happily on the sofa with her snobby family watching a VHS-recorded opera. Virginie Ledoyen is the embodiment of privileged nubility. Incredible, and contemptible.  

Regardless of how much elites (in any country) attempt to buffer themselves from the lower classes, they must always remain at the workers' mercy in the form of service industry jobs. Poison comes in many forms.

Chabrol’s dream-team cast comes together in a once-in-a-lifetime event. I could wax poetic about Jean-Pierre Cassel, who delivers such a wonderfully bland rendition of veiled white supremacist viewpoints that you could blink and miss it. Jacqueline Bisset reaches microcosmic degrees of restrained emotion like you can’t believe.

Don’t get me started on cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann’s dynamic formalism that works like guitar in a jazz trio, playing against Monique Fardoulis’s snappy editing. This film is a flawless example of French Cinema. Look. There it is.

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October 29, 2016

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Manchester by the Sea posterOver the course of the past 20 years since Casey Affleck made his feature film debut in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” this disarmingly original actor has quietly put together a body of work worthy to represent the finest film actor of his generation, if not America’s most gifted actor. He’s in a class with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis. Ben may be the big earner, but Casey Affleck runs circles around his brother when it comes to creating character. Stanislavski would be impressed.

Casey Affleck came into his own with his outstanding performance as Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik’s underrated masterpiece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in 2007. Since then, his estimable work in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Killer Inside Me,” and “Out of the Furnace,” bares out Affleck’s ingenious ability to inhabit a range of characters with an unassailable attention to his craft. Where most film actors go from [dramatic] beat to beat, Casey harmonizes complex emotional overtones that create an otherworldly influence on the characters he interacts with, and also the larger social context of the material. This is as good as it gets. Don't bother looking for more, you'll find all dramatic truths at play in this incredible torch song of a film.  

The proof of Affleck’s mastery arrives bare and exposed in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s momentous drama about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man whose emotional scars will never fully heal because he won’t allow himself the luxury of recovery. Told using precise time-flipping sequences, the film allows the audience to digest the human drama on display with a building sense of the last shred of integrity that Lee Chandler hangs on to.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams compliments the depth of Casey Affleck’s full embodiment of his role with her equally committed performance as Chandler’s wife Randi. There is a scene between Williams and Affleck that arrives late in the film that is as magnificently heartbreaking as any other in the history of Cinema. This is the model that Hollywood should be seeking and developing, rather than the endless stream of lowbrow pap the industry reflexively cranks out.  

Notable too is relative newcomer Lucas Hedges’s inspired portrayal of teenaged Lee Chandler’s nephew Patrick. Here is an actor with a promising future ahead of him. Patrick is the narrative's solid symbol for a better future, and Hedges nails his determined character with a contrasting sense of goofy humor and steely irony. 

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This is a movie you need to discover with as little information as possible. It’s enough to know that Kenneth Lonergan’s poetically told tale of tragedy and emotional endurance is set in the New England town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. This is a movie to see as soon as it comes out, before you’ve heard anything about the story.

As is appropriate for a picture of such powerful emotional and gutsy substance, you might want a stiff belt after seeing it. One thing’s for certain; “Manchester by the Sea” is a film that makes you feel things deep to your singular human core. This is one of the top five films of 2016 alongside Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE, Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, and Barry Jenkins's MOONLIGHT.

Rated R. 135 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

SNOWDEN

SnowdenOliver Stone achieves his obvious, if straightforward, motivations at telling Edward Snowden’s journey from Coast Guard brat to grand scale whistleblower.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt fulfills his thorough portrayal of Edward Snowden with an easy meticulousness that is comforting in its confidence. This is Oscar-worthy stuff. Shailene Woodley gives a serviceable performance as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, even if the chemistry isn’t what could have been with a better cast actress.

Stone takes dramatic liberties to fill the screen with richly stylized sets, such as the artistically lit NSA location where Snowden smuggles out a boatload of classified information. We take these artificial environments on their own merits as places where inorganic computers [run by robot-like men] dissect every second of every person’s life on the planet, from cradle to the grave. Anyone looking for a 100% factual depiction of Edward Snowden’s complex journey is playing a mug’s game. Glossy though this rendition of Snowden's ongoing path to justice is, this movie runs like a Swiss watch. 

There is no question that Edward Snowden exhibited a rare brand of bravery that deserves a good dose of character study at the movies. “Snowden” manages to be as entertaining and informative as you would expect from the filmmaker responsible for “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “JFK.”

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“Snowden” fits into to fact-based political thrillers like “All the President’s Men.” What makes it different is that this is the story of one man, a computer genius with a deeply rooted sense of integrity and responsibility. This is a personal story about one man, whose brave disclosures effect all of humanity. The unspoken hook of the film is why the NSA hasn’t been shut down since Snowden’s leaked documents prove this unconstitutional surveillance of our global citizenry is going on.

I have no idea if this film will change anyone’s mind about whether Edward Snowden is the greatest patriot of the 21st century. That isn’t the goal of this movie.

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Rated R. 134 mins. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)

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