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July 31, 2017

AMERICAN PSYCHO — CLASSIC FILM PICK

American_psycho“American Psycho” (made at the turn of the 21st century) is a significant connecting link between the ruthless culture of corporate greed revealed in Oliver Stone’s seminal film “Wall Street” and the ascendency of Donald Trump to the throne of United States President. It’s notable that Stone was temporarily slated to direct “American Psycho,” with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play the lead, before Mary Harron won the gig with her more perfect casting choice of Christian Bale as the soulless Wall Street narcissist Patrick Bateman. Coincidentally, “American Psycho” is set in 1987, the same year that “Wall Street” was released on elite American males all to ready to mistake the film’s satire for economic and political doctrine.

With his perfect swimmer’s bod, Patrick Bateman masks his crippling inferiority complex with money and all of its commercially induced trappings. Patrick is a misogynist bully leaked from Donald Trump’s putrid mold.

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Something as simple as looking at the (superior) business card designs of his three-piece-suit-wearing Wall Street pals sends our obsessively groomed metrosexual Trump-admirer into a mental breakdown that makes up the meat of the movie. Patrick’s affinity for inane pop music allows Harron to ingeniously show the character’s fractured relationship with society and with his own identity. Before attacking his [perceived] biggest rival Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an axe, Patrick allows himself some editorial commentary in the form of a running dialogue with himself that could just as well be memorized lines from an unnamed music critic’s review.  

American Psycho

“He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Distorting reality is the name of the game. “Facts do not matter. Facts do not exist. Reality is a liar, and information is your enemy.” That quote, taken from a Zach Schonfeld piece for Newsweek about how Donald Trump distorts reality, exquisitely pinpoints the mindset of “American Psycho’s” anti-hero Patrick Bateman (Bale).

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More than anything, entitled Patrick wants to “fit in,” namely by inflicting his inflated sense of status on all people he comes in contact with. “His father practically owns the company” he works for. Bateman’s name is an obvious nod to Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Like Norman Bates, Patrick Bateman suffers from a dissociative identity disorder. At times he introduces himself as Pat, or as his perceived rival Paul Allen when opportunity serves him. He gets mistaken for his similarly blank-personality Wall Street associates.

Our reliably unreliable narrator/anti-hero isn’t a human being, he is a product, a false and invisible product of all that is wrong with America.

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Bale’s disconnected persona keeps a running inner dialogue of political correctness that enables him to speak up for defending Jews when a colleague makes an anti-Semitic remark. But deep down Patrick wants to humiliate, mutilate, and kill minorities and women in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Harron weaves feminist commentary through two female victims of Bateman’s deep seeded self-hatred. His secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny) and Christie (Cara Seymour), a street-walker prostitute, serve as opposite sides of the same oppressed female coin. The two women also represent the film’s true protagonists, allowing the audience to empathize in a narrative landscape seemingly devoid of compassion.

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Co-screenwriter/director Harron composes the film with Hitchcock-inspired compositions to charge the script’s paper-dry wit with a palpable combination of pulsing suspense and pitch black comedy. Like all great films, “American Psycho” is one you can discover something new in regardless of how many times you’ve seen it.

Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Mike picked up INDUSTRIAL ARTS POWER TOOLS IPA for our discussion of Mary Harron's unforgettable adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis's AMERICAN PSYCHO. Pull a chair up to the banquet table and join us for one hell of a feast for one hell of a movie!

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July 28, 2017

DUNKIRK

Softcore Pro-War Pap
By Cole Smithey

Colesmithey.comAt best, Christopher Nolan is a barely competent filmmaker. Still, he is far from being an adept storyteller, much less a great director. Not only is Nolan’s “Dunkirk” far from the “masterpiece” that every phony bandwagon-jumping “film critic” pretends it is, the movie is one of the worst war films ever made. Here is a cinematic peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with creamy p.b. and a ton of jelly so that it won’t stick in your throat. You’ll be reaching for a glass of milk rather than the stiff drink that you would be thirsty for if this war movie were any good. Let's be clear, this movie sucks.

Search all you want, there isn’t a protagonist to be found in "Dunkirk." There isn’t even an enemy. All we see of the faceless German troops is the exteriors of their warplanes. Talk about half-assed screenwriting, “Dunkirk” exists in a filmic bubble the size of your fingernail. 

Hans Zimmer’s relentless music pounds the film with 120 beats-per-minute of aural hamburger-helper; you may as well wear a blindfold, you’ll get the gist of every scene I promise. Nolan clearly knew he was in trouble deep that he needed to mask the film’s weaknesses with so much musical bombast. I can still hear Zimmer's pedantic music ringing in my ears.

Screenwriter Nolan splits up his jumbled film into three parallel plotlines twisted to represent the battle of Dunkirk from perspectives of the land, sea, and air. Nolan only names three of plotlines although there’s an extra thrown in for additional uncertainty. Most confusing is the fact that each plotline takes up a different amount of time, ranging from a single hour to one day, to one week. Christopher Nolan’s faulty foundation for “Dunkirk” is doomed to be taught in film schools for decades as an example of what not to do.

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There’s “The Mole” plotline about Tommy, a young British soldier who we are led to believe is mute because he doesn’t utter a single word for the first half of the movie. While taking a dump on a French beach, Tommy meets Gibson, a similarly mute soldier busy burying a fellow soldier in a shallow grave of sand. The “mole” refers to the wood and stone pier that Tommy and Gibson traverse in order to board a U-boat (while opportunistically carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher) that they hope will take them to safety from the gathered masses of German troops who have 30,000 soldiers backed onto the beach.  

From the pier, Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) mumbles dialogue as though he has marbles in his mouth along with Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who seems to have even more marbles in his own maw. Christopher Nolan clearly didn’t care too much about the dialogue in these scenes since the audience will barely catch a word of it.  

Another story thread follows fighter pilot squadron leader Farrier (Tom Hardy) running low on fuel as he dogfights German “bandits” in the skies over the English Channel. There are two other fighters in Farrier’s squadron, but their subplots are so glossed over, you’ll barely notice they’re there. One thing you get is that Christopher Nolan has a fetish for making Tom Hardy act from behind a mask. “You’re not eating enough strawberries.”    

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The “sea” aspect of the narrative follows the adventures of a British dad traveling on his family boat with his two teenaged sons in an attempt to rescue soldiers from the French beach. Their rescue of a British soldier played by Cillian Murphy backfires when the shell-shocked soldier flips out because he doesn’t want to be taken back into the line of fire. The subplot does allow for the film’s best performance from the ever-reliable Cillian Murphy.

Nolan's most egregious sin arrives as an anticlimactic punchline to his supposed "fact-based" story when roughly a dozen small craft boats "rescue" a fraction of the 30,000 soldiers stranded on the French beach. I wonder what the other 29,920 doomed soldiers would have thought of Nolan's rendition of Dunkirk. 

As for as the lack of filmmaking technique on hand, all you need do is compare any scene from “Dunkirk” against any scene from a film made by Polanski, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Klimov, Linklater, or Tarantino to discover the blatant weaknesses in Nolan’s uninspired, and unschooled, approach to composition and atmosphere. Nolan wouldn’t know an “axial cut” from a hole in the ground. To pretend that Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker of any consequence is pure folly. Not only does Nolan not know where to put the camera, he hasn’t a clue about what to show and what not to show. There simply isn’t any logic or continuity to his use of filmic language.

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All war films should be anti-war films by definition. If you take Elem Klimov’s bar-setting “Come and See,” for example, you’ll see what I mean.

“Dunkirk” seems to say that there are no heroes in war, only victims, suckers, survivors, and assholes. Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s movie has a point after all.

Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)

July 17, 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)

July 15, 2017

ENDLESS POETRY

ENDLESS POETRYThe second installment in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s promised five picture cycle of filmic memoirs harmonizes with the theatrically heightened tone and style of “The Dance of Reality” (2013). This succession of films marks Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking after a 23 year hiatus after his 1990 film “The Rainbow Thief,” a film he disowned due to conflicts with the film's British producers. 

“Endless Poetry” continues the narrative line of “The Dance of Reality.” A pubescent Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is growing up with his parents in Santiago, Chile. While the mother Sara (Pamela Flores) operatically sings all her lines, Alejandro’s brutish father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) accuses his poetry-obsessed son of being gay when he discovers him reading aloud from Federico García Lorca’s poem “For the Love of Green.” You'd be hard pressed to find a more lovely poem. The die is cast that Alejandro must escape the clutches of his parents if he is to follow his dream of becoming a poet.

The casting seamlessly shifts to a twenty-something Alejandro (played by Jodorowsky’s younger son Adan) fearlessly taking a running start at his chosen profession of words by following his red-wigged muse Stella Diaz (also played by Pamela Flores in dual roles). Stella insists on holding Alejandro’s crotch whenever they go out in public, but not allowing “penetrative sex” because she is awaiting an unknown mystic to descend from a mountain to part with her dubious virginity. Rejection and suffering are to be celebrated.

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The episodic narrative tears a page from John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” when Alejandro and his latest poet friend go on an adventure walking across town in a straight line that takes them through people’s homes. The effect is an operatic trail of personal growth informed by visits from Jodorowsky himself where he advises his younger incarnations about the big picture of life. “I’ve sold my devil to the soul.”

"Life does not have meaning, you have to live it!”

Such is the pragmatic nature of Jodorowsky's nurturing, if poetically expressed, ideologies. Pedantic perhaps, but filled with undeniable passion. 

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Alejandro Jodorowsky is the most euphoric filmmaker of our time. His transgressive artistic sensibilities form a focal point of pure artistic intentionality that the viewer can either accept or reject, embrace or shed. Either decision will lead the viewer to a personal place of artistically directed balance. You don’t get that from watching the latest “Spider-Man” movie.

Endless Poetry

Not Rated. 128 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

July 05, 2017

OKJA

OkjaBong Joon Ho’s family-friendly political satire could well be the most important film of 2017. Without addressing this film’s canny political statements about corporate-controlled food production, “Okja” was preemptively ostracized at Cannes by Pedro Almodóvar who feigned indignation over “Okja’s” Netflix release because it wasn’t being played on big screens in France.

Almodóvar’s pre-festival comments most certainly queered the film's chances of winning the Palme d’Or, for which it was in competition. The Spanish filmmaker’s public statements during a pre-festival press conference at Cannes were pointedly overstated considering that there is already a French law that prevents VOD releases occurring until three years after a film’s theatrical run. Never mind that Pedro Almodóvar’s career has been on the wane since 2011 when he made “The Skin I Live In.” There were a lot of sour grapes at this year’s festival.

Bong Joon Ho’s mother country of South Korea blocked “Okja’s” release due to Netflix’s simultaneous theatrical and online release, which should be standard operating procedure by now to begin with. However much the cards seem to be stacked against “Okja,” the film is destined to go down in history based on its merits as an international satire with teeth.

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Director Joon-ho co-wrote “Okja” with Jon Ronson (“The Men Who Stare At Goats”) based on Ronson’s original script. While the film is not without its kneejerk clichés, it clocks editorial punches that connect regarding genetically modified food and ways in which corporations, and the corporate media, spin the sins they are guilty of committing. Think Exxon or Monsanto.

Tilda Swinton plays dual roles as good/evil siblings Nancy/Lucy Mirando, granddaughters of a corporate raider whose sins they are professedly correcting through ethical means. Sound familiar? Lucy gives a press conference announcing the breeding of a “super pig” which will be used to feed the world 10 years down the line.  

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Jump 10 years. Mija (An Seo-hyun) is a young girl living an idyllic life in the mountains of South Korea with her grandfather and her docile super pig Okja, that she has been given to raise. Naturally, the Mirando Corporation wants their prize pig back. They send in Johnny Wilcox, a goofball television animal expert to take Okja away from Mija. The film goes on a full frontal attack when it employs the Animal Liberation Front (referencing an actual international [leaderless] group committed to “engaging in illegal [nonviolent] direct action in pursuit of animal rights.” Paul Dano plays Jay, the group’s sensitive leader.  

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“Okja” is an effective piece of filmic political satire that can now only be viewed in the context of the pressures mounted against it. As is life, it’s good to know who your enemies are.

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Rated TV-MA. 118 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)


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July 02, 2017

THE BEGUILED

The-Beguiled-PosterSofia Coppola’s thoughtful reworking of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil” is a provocative study in feminine mores of the Civil War era. That catty jealousies between women, and pubescent girls, vying for the romantic attention of a fetishized male figure doesn’t mesh with the current overstated trend discounting anything that doesn’t meet the Bechdel test is beside the point.

Jessica Chastain took it upon herself to backhandedly insult Coppola’s film during the closing press conference at Cannes last month, but the millionaire actress doth protest too much. I dare say that none of Chastain’s performances in films such as “The Help” or “The Martian” compare favorably against those of Nicole Kidman or Kirsten Dunst in “The Beguiled.” Sour grapes.

Where Don Siegel’s 1971 film version (starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page) came off as a clunky sexploitation popcorn movie, with some slave exploitation thrown in for good measure, Coppola’s artfully nuanced picture delights in seductive patience. Coppola lets the haunting wartime atmosphere of a rural girls’ boarding school in southern Virginia speak volumes. This is the doomed South after all. Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies is a Southern mansion lacking in slave labor. Homespun music and bible readings fill the empty hours. Boredom abounds.

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Coppola holds back her use of light to generate an unsettling sense of claustrophobic suspense so that when the narrative moves beyond the school’s candle-lit interior walls, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Nature brims with dangers real and unseen.

While not a minimalist film, “The Beguiled” turns on subtle twists of emotion and things left unspoken.    

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The story ignites from the discovery of Colin Farrell’s wounded corporal John McBurney, a deserter whose dabbling in mercenary work has proved less profitable or satisfying than he imagined. The Dublin-born McBurney sports a politeness and polished sense of humor that he uses to protect his status as a less than welcome guest in a house kept under strict order by Nicole Kidman’s haughty Martha Farnsworth. McBurney senses that Miss Farnsworth is a rival not to be taken for granted. He adopts a submissive approach. She masks her seething romantic attraction with a stoic hostility that plays into the film’s tragic escalations.

Still, McBurney can’t resist falling for Kirsten Dunst’s hidden charms as Edwina, the school’s second in charge. He is a spy in a hot house of simmering lust. While it’s reasonable to suppose that Farrell’s character is nothing more than an opportunist attempting to seal safe passage into the next chapter of his life, he is also a man unable to defend against sexual overtures presented to him. Elle Fanning's bedtime kisses prove especially problematic. As for Colin Farrell’s understated performance; it rates as one of the most finely restrained portrayals by a male actor in recent memory, and matches beat for beat the fine work that Dunst and Kidman perform alongside an estimable ensemble that includes Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice.

Beguiled

“The Beguiled” is problematic inasmuch as it plays against clichés as much as it embraces the necessary lusts of its horny female characters. Finger-wagging feminists such as Jessica Chastain will dismiss the film as playing into Virginia Woolf’s 1926 complaint, which cartoonist Alison Bechdel reframed in 1985 with the help of her friend Liz Wallace; call it the Bechdel-Wallace test.

For the record, the test simply states that a given work of fiction must “have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.” Shocking, I know. I suppose Upper East Side ladies who chat primarliy about shopping would make for better, or more politically correct, entertainment fare by such a standard. Absurd, I know.

If that narrative shorthand denies Sofia Coppola’s film, then I suppose I don’t care. “The Beguiled” is a beautifully executed picture full of erotic tension amid historic context, made by one of America’s more gifted female filmmakers.

Some male audiences will likely find the film emasculating if not threatening. So what. 

Colin-farrell-the-beguiled

I think it’s a mug’s game for any critic to judge a film or any work of art for that matter on a premise as flimsy as what characters discuss. American media still chooses to cover Donald Trump when they should ignore him with a vengeance.

I wish cats didn’t always sharpen their claws on furniture, but they do. If they scratch you, it can leave a scar or get infected. I’m still always happy to see a cat in a movie, regardless of whether or not the film is any good. And I'm glad they have claws to sharpen it's part of what makes them cats.    

Rated R. 93 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)


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June 17, 2017

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE — CLASSIC FILM PICK

"My Beautiful Laundrette" is a milestone of British cinema. Stephen Frears's stylish and confident handling of Hanif Kureishi's London-set gay love story, between a first-generation Pakistani and a British neo-fascist punk, is an accomplishment. Volatile social issues of Margaret Thatcher's early '80s England are ripe opportunities for imaginative examination in a fantasy atmosphere of unfettered homosexual romance. Here is an anti-plot narrative that works because of its unpredictable nature.

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In his breakout film role, Daniel Day Lewis plays Johnny, a homeless dyed-hair thug who squats in whatever empty house he can access. Second-story windows are not a problem for the agile petty criminal. Johnny's childhood friend Omar (Gordon Warnecke) lives with his ailing Marxist father Hussein (Roshan Seth), who wallows in alcoholic depression over his wife's recent train-track suicide. The offending train runs just outside their apartment window as a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Omar's unconstrained love for Johnny sets the film's tempo. It also explains away any questions that might pop up in Johnny's mind about why he's with Omar. Stephen Frears's tender gay sex scenes inspired a new generation of young filmmakers to be more daring in their films. There might not have been a New Queer Cinema without “My Beautiful Laundrette.”

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Omar's caring dad wants his son to go to college to get a well-rounded education. As a former respected leftist journalist, he values knowledge over wealth. Still, Omar gets other ideas about his capitalist future after his rich uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) gives him a job working in his parking garage. Uncle Nasser wants Omar to marry his daughter. However, Nasser is too busy with his English mistress to notice Omar's obvious relationship with Johnny.

Omar quickly moves up in the business world to take over a rundown launderette in a dicey South London neighborhood. He's not above doing some drug running for Nasser's crime-connected brother. Omar gives Johnny a job renovating and helping run the launderette. The joint's washing machines hum with a musical gurgling sound that Frears uses to send auditory romantic messages to the audience in an abstract Morse code. Frears’s abstract cinema language sings. In reinventing the launderette as a glamorous social gathering spot, Omar establishes a micro utopia to support his economically sensible yet sensuously exotic ambitions.

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The filmmaker’s ever-moving camera lens cranes and dollies to show the abysmal state of Margaret Thatcher's England. There is both fantasy and hope in the relationship between Johnny and Omar. The pair exists beyond the rampant racism and economic desperation that surrounds them. They represent England's future. Our future.

Rated R. 97 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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