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July 03, 2018

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Sicario_day_of_the_soldadoScreenwriter Taylor Sheridan cut his teeth on this film’s unimpressive prequel but his slack effort with a mucky melodramatic sequel is still no bueno.

Anyone looking for an equal amount of truth as you get from an episode of Hugh Laurie’s television-pleaser “House,” will be disappointed. This is agitprop junk politics in the interest of normalizing hellishly violent acts, frequently involving children, in the context of America’s raging border war against immigrant refugees. Exploitation is the genre at play, but not the cool one (see "Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!" for that). 

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Soldado is Spanish for soldier. You can guess which of this film’s four ostensible leading characters (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez) is the subject of the title. Keep in mind that two of the four are teenaged children.

Naturally, it is Josh Brolin’s square-jawed mercenary Matt Graver whose “day” involves kidnapping a teenage girl (Isabela Moner), dragging her through a series of grotesque episodes of war violence because that’s just how Matt rolls, deadly style. Never mind that the poor girl will probably never be able to speak again. That’s normal. Or so this movie wants you to believe.

Don’t go looking for continuity between this movie and the first film. Any matching details are purely coincidental. In this nightmare view of the ongoing real-life nightmare of America’s self-imposed border crisis, U.S. President James Riley (Matthew Modine) is a warmonger nut job. President Riley has a sit-down with Josh Brolin’s roid-rager mercenary Matt Graver that births a plan to kidnap the teenage daughter of a prominent Mexican drug lord, sticking the blame on another cartel, and letting shite hit the fan. Stupid is as stupid does. War is the goal, endless wars and the fat military, mercenary, and prison price tags that come with it.

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We’re in an age where it’s a given that the U.S. Government deals strictly in corrupt activities. Suicidal body-bomb terrorists from New Jersey are rebranded as Cartel terrorists so the U.S. military can have carte blanch, as if they didn’t already have it before. Just to be clear, Mexican drug cartels are supposedly transporting Islamic terrorists across the border to the country that Mexico’s desperate immigrants are seeking safety within.

Graver and his team (including Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro) kidnap Isabela Reyes in the false flag operation.

Miguel, a start-up teen gangster (played by Elijah Rodriguez) is looking to come up fast in the local cartel when he spots Alejandro after nearly being run over. Miguel’s memory later sparks a shark-jumping double climax that lets its audience know this drawn-out melodrama of lawyers, guns, and money has its tongue firmly in cheek. Sure, there’s even a bloody hole in the cheek, just to prove it.

Rated R. 122 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

May 27, 2018

FIRST REFORMED

First_reformedHow refreshing it is to be reminded of the mortal shocks that valid Cinema can deliver. When audiences first saw “Taxi Driver” (written by Paul Schrader) they couldn’t wait to talk about it. It was an experience they had to get off their chests. Audiences were confused but intuitively informed by “Taxi Driver’s” dire provocation. Here was a film that captured the fall out of the Viet Nam War in a stark portrayal of a [racist] veteran’s psychological, and existential, crisis in the midst of an American culture shock.

For all of its mis-readings by audiences who also misunderstood Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” or Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” (both ingenious filmic satires), “Taxi Driver” remains a cinematic touchstone that refuses to submit to the ravages of time. So too will “First Reformed” stand as a bellwether film for the ages.

First Reformed

Culture shock plays a role here too. As Paul Schrader did with “Taxi Driver,” he transplants God’s lonely man of Thomas Wolf’s indispensable essay into the modern world. However, this time it is not Manhattan’s urban cesspool that ignites the mind and body of our searching protagonist, but rather a perfect storm of globalized political, corporate, and religious corruption that infects Ernst Toller, a war vet (military Chaplin) turned small-town minister. Missing are any visual trappings and sexy locations that would distract from Schrader’s formally composed character study. Small-town America is the hotbed environment where a toxic chemical dumping ground releases vapors of social unrest and rage. This film’s formal compositions seethe with restrained silence and nostalgic dignity.

Although Schrader retains the voice-over narration approach he effectively utilized in “Taxi Driver,” this time he puts a diary in our protagonist’s hand. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller (named after the Jewish German left-wing playwright exiled by the Nazis) is the not-so glorified caretaker of the First Reformed Church in a fictitious town in upstate New York. Sick with an internal disease for which he refuses to seek medical care, Toller sets out to keep a handwritten journal that he will “shred and burn” at the end of one year. Empty whiskey bottles pile up in his weekly trash. Ethan Hawke’s performance is exquisitely transparent.   

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Having lost his son to the Iraq War that he insisted his boy enlist, against his wife’s wishes, Toller squandered his marriage. His salvation came from Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the leader of a large institutional church that guards its corporate funding with a vengeance. The church will soon celebrate its 250th anniversary at a “re-consecration” event to be held in the well-preserved “souvenir shop” church that Toller oversees.  

Reverend Toller embraces the challenge of faith brought to him by Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant newlywed who has recently moved to the area with her ecological activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael doesn’t believe Mary should give birth to their 20-week old fetus due to the impending dire effects of climate change that will ravage human life in the coming years and decades.

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What follows is a concise thesis on how Christian ideology is co-opted by corrupt forces, and how the religion’s “washed in the blood of the lamb” imagery feeds into radicalizing those who are most committed to its precepts. Far from the “thriller” genre that some are attempting to pigeonhole “First Reformed” into, the film is a transcendent drama built on a rigorous filmic foundation.

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There are two sequences of romantic affection in the film. Each one arrives as a dangerous if not outright radical act. How and why is it that we the audience can be so provoked by something as natural as a kiss when the violence that we see or expect to witness seems more inevitable, if not natural?

As Thomas Wolf pointed out in his essay, Christ’s primary teaching was that “loneliness could be destroyed forever by the life of love.” You don’t have to be religious to see the truth in that, but you should see “First Reformed” a couple of times to understand how Paul Schrader shows you what connects us in the kingdom of heaven that we all possess and share. Is "First Reformed" a perfect film? Yes, yes it is. 

Rated R. 113 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Dramatist and LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) regular Phil Holt returns to the podcast to discuss PAUL SCHRADER'S FIRST REFORMED over a glass of BUNKER'S BROWN ALE. Bon appétit!

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First Reformed

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May 11, 2018

OH, RICK!

Oh  Rick2The coolest comic you’ve [probably] not heard of, Rick Crom is a comic legend among stand-up comics. The Chicago-born stand-up comic of legendary New York City status gets his just deserts in this loving documentary from co-directors Dustin Sussman and Aaron Rosenbloom.

Rick Crom performed in the full run of the hit Broadway show “Urinetown.” His downtown fans include Wanda Sykes, Louis C.K., Hannibal Burris, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, and the list goes on and on. Rick’s musical abilities are no small trifle. He’s a natural behind a set of 88s as he’s comfortable with a guitar in his hands. Rick Crom’s knack for emceeing has gotten him more NYC stage-time than seems humanly possible. He's a composer, teacher, and the kind of no-nonsense human being you'd be proud to introduce to your family at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or your budding-comic kid's birthday party.

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It’s not every day that someone as skilled and natural as Rick Crom (pronounced "chrome") lights up your day, or night, or wee hours of daybreak. Full disclosure, I had Mr. Crom on my podcast series LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) to talk about Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein,” and about his experiences in comedy. A finer gentleman I’ve not had the pleasure, and honor, of sharing time. See this inspiring movie; you'll be glad you did. I just wish it was 15 minutes longer. 

Not rated. 78 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

Chicago-born, and NYC stand-up comic legend, Rick Crom (pronounced chrome) joins the Feast to talk about Mel Brooks's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and OH, RICK!, a great documentary about him. No craft beer on this episode, just some chewy chat about funny stuff. Bon appetite. 

Rick Crom

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Young frankenstein

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PATREON BUTTON

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 26, 2018

THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH

Devil_and_father_amorthWilliam Friedkin’s audio-enhanced documentary about an actual exorcism is a lukewarm flop. At just 68 minutes long, “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a filmic amuse bouche that leaves behind a sour taste. It’s sad that the director of such amazing films as “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “Sorcerer” has chosen to leave behind this paltry cinematic footnote.

Friedkin narrates, informing us that there are more than 60 million people in Italy. “500,000 Italians see an exorcist every year.” Somehow I don’t think those figures will do much to encourage tourism there. Introductions are made regarding Christina, a 46 year-old architect with bad skin who suffers from demonic possession, or so her wild fits and bizarre screams seem to evince. More on that bizarre screaming later. Christina’s affliction is so debilitating that it prevents her from working. She has had nine exorcisms, and seems destined for many more. Father Gabriele Amorth is a 90 year-old priest known as the best in the [exorcism] business. And oh what a biz it is. Amorth’s signature exorcist move is to thumb his nose at the Devil, or rather the person he is treating, at the start of each exorcism. That would have been a fun detail for Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin to have included in his volatile interactions with Linda Blair’s Regan back in 1973 when Friedkin made “The Exorcist.”

Father Amort

The exorcism takes place during the day in a room filled with Christina’s friends and family members. Father Amorth’s tranced subject rocks in nodding agreement as he administers the rights that he reads from a card. A cheap photo of the current Pope hangs loosely on the wall behind Christina as two men hold her in the chair from which she writhes and struggles. And then it happens; Christina screams unintelligibly with a blood-curdling sound that has clearly been amped up in Friedkin’s audio editing. You can clearly tell that Christina’s guttural exhortations have been enhanced because they so effectively block out any other voices in the room, especially Father Amorth’s words whenever she shouts. Friedkin’s cinéma vérité goes out the window. The case for atheism gets stronger.  

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Our not-so-sincere filmmaker sets about playing a video of the exorcism for medical experts and other priests, none of whom catch on to the filmic illusion they're viewing. They all want their moment of fame too after all.

It’s clear that William Friedkin wanted to extend the legend of “The Exorcist,” but going to such overreaching, but small-minded lengths results in a pshaw moment. At 82 there’s no telling how many more films William Friedkin has left in him. I only hope he is able to make one that will redeem him from this mistake.

Not rated. 68 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)    

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 23, 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 (read lazy) 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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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 18, 2018

A QUIET PLACE

A Quiet PlaceDon’t believe the hype. “A Quiet Place” is a plot-hole filled waste of time. Scary? Not even close. All respect for John Krasinski (making his directorial debut) and his real-life wife Emily Blunt aside, the performances in this film leave much to be desired.

As Graham Parker sings, “Children and dogs will always win, everyone knows that. I won’t work with either one again.” Wise words. Deaf child actor Milicent Simmonds (“Wonderstruck”) seemingly couldn’t act wet in a rain storm. This film’s flaws however reach much further than shoddy portrayals.

A by-committee minimalist script from three writers (Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski) drops the audience into day 89 of an alien invasion. The premise is simple, alien monsters with acute hearing, and poor vision, track humans by sound. Sneeze loudly and you’re toast. Needless to say there is very little dialogue in the film. This is not a good time or place for characters to be having babies considering the inevitable cries that will cost you and your would-be infant its life. More on that later.

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Our four-person family unit consists of Blunt and Krasinski playing parents Evelyn and Lee Abbott to adolescents Beau (Cade Woodward), Regan (Simmonds), and Noah (Marcus Abbott). These parents aren’t winning any awards for their responsible parenting skills. The number of children drops to two early on in the action before the remaining kids go missing. Where most parents would be worried sick, Evelyn and Lee are cool to a fault. "The kids will be fine." If the parents don’t care, why should we. Not only that, Evelyn has a fully-baked bun in the oven who, when he’s born, is the quietest baby you’ve ever seen or not heard.

The tail-chasing narrative comes down to a couple of irresponsible parents searching, or not, for their two missing young kids while bringing another one into an inhospitable world where it will most certainly be eaten within a matter of days if not hours. I suppose you could read the text (and subtext) as a poorly formulated parable about overpopulation in a capitalist society that hears everything you do, but that would be giving this boring film far too much credit.

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So while the groupthink virus continues to consume so-called critics, “A Quiet Place” is on par with M. Night Shyamalan’s (a.k.a. M. Night Shyamalamadingdong) insultingly mediocre post “Sixth Sense” overwrought, underdeveloped, and meepy films. Your disappointment awaits.     

Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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PATREON BUTTON

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 10, 2018

LAST TANGO IN PARIS

Last_tango_in_parisBorn of one of Bernardo Bertolucci's fantasies about carrying on a purely sexual affair with a complete stranger, Marlon Brando's Paul and Maria Schneider's Jeanne meet regularly in an empty Parisian apartment for unbridled sexual trysts. Paul insists that neither one reveal their names or express any elements of their lives outside their insular world. Theirs is a relationship built purely on carnal intention and experimentation. The stark atmosphere that Bertolucci creates allows for sensual realism to thrive.

Jeanne doesn't know that Paul is coping with his wife's recent suicide. Paul knows nothing of Jeanne's obsessive filmmaker boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is on the brink of proposing to Jeanne.

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Written with assistance from Franco Arcalli and Anges Varda, Bertolucci plays liberally with dualities to address deep-seeded emotions that can only be expressed indirectly. Even the filmmaker’s noir-influenced image system plays with angles.

For the first time, Paul drinks with Tom, his wife's neighbor and former lover, who wears the same robe as Paul. The over-enthusiastic Tom represents an outwardly preoccupied inversion of Paul, who tests Jeanne's temperamental boundaries in similar but altered ways.

After revealing his identity and troubled situation, Paul tells Jeanne, "When something's finished, it begins again." He breaks the carefully guarded code the lovers have adhered to up until now. Paul's sudden turn from cynic to optimist (late in the story) must be punished. His refusal to adhere to his own rules is unacceptable. Not everything is permitted.

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For all of the critical and public controversy about “Last Tango” being a pornographic film at the time of its release, the movie is a painstakingly theatrical mood piece that relies heavily on judiciously coded musical cues from Gato Barbieri's repeated motifs.

Significant is Philippe Turlure's bold art direction that draws on the work of the artist Francis Bacon. Two of Bacon's paintings introduce the film during its opening credit sequence. They influence the look of the movie’s saturated color scheme for the interior of the apartment where much of the story takes place. A two-foot high rust colored waterline surrounds the interior walls as if to suggest that the apartment had been submerged in a mixture of blood and water for an extended period during its storied past. The ravages of wars fought have left their mark here.

“Last Tango in Paris” is a masterwork of post-modern existential angst that attempts to reconcile a depth of social existence through its sexually liberated characters.

Mike broke out Wavy Tropics Guava Pale Ale from Kills Boro Brewing for our discussion of Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS even if we had planned to do Lars von Trier's MANDERLAY for this, our 99th episode. Check out my silent shout-out to THE STRYPES if you go to ColeSmithey.com. Bon appetite!

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and follow us on SOUNDCLOUD. And tell your friends! 

Cole and Mike

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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