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November 19, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3The title “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” sounds like an oh-so-earnest independent movie based on [ostensibly] real life events that NPR would rally around as a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in the Midwest. And, indeed, that is exactly what NPR’s tone-deaf film critic Bob Mondello took away from this cleverly concealed pitch black comedy based on the age old thesis that “violence begets violence.” Of course, the movie is anything but a fact-based rendition of an actual location in America. Oh the beauty of a well-made allegory.

Well-crafted filmic satires, such as this one from writer/director Martin McDonagh, can sail over the heads of viewers such as Mondello, and still land heads-up every time because they subvert cinematic clichés and dyed-in-the-wool social mores that evaporate when put under proper inspection.

Martin McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature “In Bruges” made a splash for its self-referential setting — not unlike “Three Billboards” — that the sharp witted filmmaker utilized to maximum dramatic, and humorous, effect. Since then, McDonagh has made only one other movie (the over-cooked “Seven Psychopaths”) before creating a satire so scathing and cynical that many audiences will take the film’s sucker-punches without even knowing where, why, or even that they’ve been hit.

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A key element of McDonagh’s transgressive and subversive success lies in the equal balance he gives to his characters. Each one is revealed in fully formed ways that allow the audience to feel connected to his or her personal perspective without being expected to judge them beyond their immediate actions. 

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is a single mother to a teenaged son (played by Lucas Hedges) and to Angela (Kathryn Newton), a similarly aged daughter who was “raped while dying” seven months prior to where our story begins. Understandably distraught over the local police department’s inability to track down her daughter’s killer, Mildred decides to rent out three dilapidated billboards that sit 100 yards from her front door, on a rural backroad that few people travel on. A giant black font against a bright red background connects the three billboards in a unifying all-cap message of furious discontent. “RAPED WHILE DYING” leads to “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” before attacking Woody Harrelson’s local police chief with, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY.”

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We, the audience, are effortlessly drawn to empathize with Mildred whose outrage seems utterly justified. Chief Willoughby’s personal visit with Mildred exposes his certain fate with death due to a cancer that threatens to dismantle the search for Angela’s murderer even more. During the scene we get a taste of Mildred’s escalating bitterness. She doesn’t invite sheriff Willoughby inside her house, and when he discloses his medical dilemma she callously responds that everyone is dying. Tuned in audiences will start to pull back from empathizing with Frances McDormand’s unreliable protagonist.

After the town’s dentist attempts to extract a tooth from Mildred without anesthetizing her first, Mildred wrangles away the drill and buries it deep into the doctor’s thumbnail. For as funny as the scene plays, the violence is disturbing.

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Mildred’s mirror character is Sam Rockwell’s unhinged dumb-as-bricks police officer Dixon. Sam Rockwell’s performance is stunning for his ability to weave between slapstick and realism with deceptive grace. As the plot plays out the filmmakers shore up the seeming opposites that unify Dixon and Mildred. In the end we are able to access the victims and the abusers for the harassment and violence they attract and inflict on themselves and those around them. This is not a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in America; it is an allegory of Western culture’s ideology of revenge that permeates everything we do in a society overrun with brutality and violence. Figuring out when to laugh or cry, and why, is what this unforgettable black comedy is all about. 

Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 15, 2017

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Killing_of_a_sacred_deerGreek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthamos is, in the words of Blondie’s Debbie Harry, “a case of partial extreme.” Since making his overwrought and under-executed feature debut “Dogtooth” (in 2009), Lanthamos has veered into the mainstream via A-list actors. If you saw his 2015 film “The Lobster” (starring Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Rachel Weisz) then you have an idea of what I mean by partial extreme. An unsatisfying movie with a good cast is nonetheless a disappointing experience.   

Lanthamos’s visually drab film’s all begin with a promising high-concept first act that crumbles into an unrecognizable pile of filmic detritus by the time the third act grinds into gear. They represent a cinematic hoax. His 2011 film “Alps” is his best effort, but that isn’t saying much. Lanthamos is a self-styled auteur who drafts artsy screenplays infected with magical realism that he attempts to pawn off as surrealist in nature. Needless to say, Lanthamos's grasp of surrealism is vague at best. 

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Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”), Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”), and Ulrich Seidl (“Import Export”) are clearly Lanthamos’s idols, but he doesn’t possess the intellectual or practical rigor of those established filmmakers. Lanthamos’s films don’t even begin to step into the superior realm of surrealist allegory laid down by the great Mexican-Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a glacial revenge fantasy involving Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiothoracic surgeon with a wife (Anna — Nicole Kidman), his young son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a pubescent daughter who all come under attack by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a man who died on Steven Murphy’s operating table a decade before. Steven is a recovered alcoholic who very will may have been drinking on the day he operated on Martin’s dad.

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Martin is special. He has the ability to put a curse on Steven’s family that renders them unable to walk. Eventually the curse will cause them to bleed from the eyes before killing Martin’s entire family unless Martin murders one of them, hence the “sacred deer” of the film’s title. Clearly, we are in the genre land of a psychological thriller concealing a social satire (think Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”).

Whatever allegorical connection Yorgos Lanthamos is attempting to make regarding King Agamemnon’s experiences after killing a deer owned by Artemis, the polemic presented in this film is too abstract and drawn out to flourish. If you’re going to spend two hours of misery in a darkened cinema there had better be a thematic reward. The only just desert that this film deserves is being ignored with a vengeance by audiences who know better than waste their time. Pay your respects to Von Trier, Haneke, and Seidl rather than to this third-rate hack.

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Rated R. 121 mins. (D+) (One star — out of five / no halves)


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November 14, 2017

I LOVE YOU, DADDY

I_love_you_daddyLouis C.K.’s filmic send up of Woody Allen’s films, and [offhandedly] Allen’s reputation as a pedophile, would have been a bizarre act of public self-immolation even without the icon-shattering revelations about Louis C.K.’s sexual harassment of women that brought his legendary career to an abrupt halt.

Filmed in black-and-white (à la “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” etc.) “I Love You, Daddy” is every bit as exasperating as any Woody Allen film of the past 10 years because it isn’t funny. Visually, the movie looks just like a Woody Allen film. Even the segues are done in Woody Allen’s faux nostalgic style with similarly pitched musical cues. You can also see the similarity of this film's poster to that of Allen's one-sheet for "Manhattan."  

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If his father figure character in this movie is a tell, then Louis C.K. lost his comic mojo sometime after his enormously successful 2016 stand-up tour. Evidently, Louis C.K. had said and done what he came into the business to accomplish, and was ready to be sent to the gallows for his sins.

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As this film’s story goes, Glen Topher (Louis C.K.) is a filthy rich comedy television show writer and producer whose heart isn’t in his work anymore. Glen lets the little guy in his pants call the shots when he fires an actress scheduled to play the lead in his upcoming series, in favor of a [fetish alert] pregnant one (played by Rose Byrne). Glen’s midlife crisis is made all the more acute by his spoiled brat daughter China’s pending transition into adult hood. Having just returned from Spring Break, China (Chloë Grace Moretz) bullies daddy into flying her back to Florida to extend her vacation. It’s not that China isn’t already on a permanent vacation on the eve of her 18th birthday; she’s taking a gap year. China’s rudderless lifestyle makes her easy prey for John Malkovich’s author character Leslie Goodwin, a man famous for chasing underage girls.

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One especially frustrating aspect of the film is how good the actors are against C.K.’s awful script. Edie Falco, Chloë Grace Moretz, John Malkovich, Pamela Adlon, Rose Byrne, and Charlie Day all bring their A-game to movie that refuses to submit to their talents. I found one laugh-out-loud comic bit that went so far over the top (courtesy of a ribald Charlie Day) that there isn’t anything else do to but guffaw at his character’s full-course imitation of masturbation.

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“I Love You Daddy” will go down in history as an ugly reminder of men in power who abuse and harass those [especially women] who come into their sphere of influence. There isn't anything funny about that. 

Rated R. 123 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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October 31, 2017

SUBURBICON

SuburbiconThe ongoing dumbing down of film criticism and cinematic taste rears its ugly head a lot these days, especially when it comes to that rarest of film genres, satire. Just as critical forces attempted to shame Darren Aronofsky’s excellent social satire (posing as a psychological thriller) “mother!” out of theaters, the same ones are denying that the George Clooney-Grant Heslov-Coen Brothers collaboration “Suburbicon” is anything other than a black comedy gem. How long will it be before these films receive their proper place in the Criterion Collection? Not long.

It’s telling that these sharply allegorical films are getting the shaft in an America that has descended into an uncivil war of culture under Donald Trump’s idiotic leadership. By their very nature, satires demand more from their audience than your typical dramas or superhero movies. Deeply seeded questions about which characters you can empathize with, and why, provoke intellectually demanding responses. Satires contextualize widespread social norms and political behavior into stylized frameworks that allow us to inspect ulterior motivations under a specialized cinematic magnifying glass. Satire is a genre to which Cinema is ideally suited, but the form is being marginalized as never before.

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The title says a lot. “Suburbicon” references the McCarthy era American Dream where diversity meant white people infiltrating formerly rural areas in bland suburban sprawls of brainwashed conformity where right-wing racists could live in safe little echo chambers of their own. A lot people are being conned, and everyone with a modicum of power is in on the con. This is one prickly con game to which billions of people have been exposed. Such capitalist (read racist) ambition is fueled by a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, just so long as the Joneses aren’t black people.  

So it is that “Suburbicon” presents a not so mythic 1959 version of homogeneity where white folk have come from as far as “Mississippi” to escape black people who they consider a burden on the society that blacks were enslaved into building. The irony is built in. When a black family named Meyers (yes, they could even be Jewish) moves in to the white bread housing project, white residents rally together in protest by gathering in front of the Meyers home to sing “We Shall Overcome,” oblivious that they’re singing a gospel song that became a protest anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Co-opting the tools of the victim is standard operating procedure.  

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For those born in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there are plenty of canny references about how America’s patriarchy spoon-feeds society justice for the entitled, greedy white rich men who still run the show. The local (clearly racist) police chief is on the lookout for Jews, regardless of how non-Jewish anyone’s name might be.

The film presents a brief allegory of post-World War II racist ideologies that have persisted as a hydra of economically-driven hatred so perverse that rational minds retreat on contact.   

Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives with his disabled wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their 10-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose lost her ability to walk in a car accident where Gardner was driving. Rose still holds a grudge. Perhaps Gardner isn’t the stand-up guy he presents with pokerfaced sincerity. Rose’s identical twin sister Maggie (also played by Moore) is a constant fixture at the family’s 99% all white housing development home. Trouble ignites when Gardner awakens Nicky and brings the boy into the living room to witness a couple of mob thugs robbing the home and chloroforming the family. Bigger problems are just beginning.

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Smuggled into the narrative is a dark coming-of-age story that speaks directly to the potentially abusive relationship of racist parents and their unsuspecting children. The film’s secret weapon is Nicky’s point-of-view as the film’s surprise protagonist.      

A mob debt and a life insurance scam are pieces in a narrative puzzle where white men set society’s ground rules with instructive hints about their prejudices and greed. When a [white] grocery store manager demands $20 per item (regardless of their actual price) from Mrs. Meyers, the harasser’s message is clear; you can’t shop here if you’re black. The indoctrination of American children via such jealously guarded entitlement equals fraud.

The cracks in America’s longstanding patriarchal methods of intimidation and theft of life and dignity are igniting a volcanic reaction. The Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world are being dumped into the trash bin of history. Their fall from a long-held stranglehold of power can’t can’t come soon enough. The poison is in their sandwich now.     

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Rated R. 104 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves) 


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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.

The square

“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.

Blade runner 2019

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

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