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September 16, 2017

mother!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother

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

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

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September 10, 2017

RUDE BOY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 09, 2017

IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WIND RIVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 04, 2017

TROPHY

Colesmithey.comRegardless of any preconceived ideas viewers will inevitably bring to this insightful look at the trophy hunting industry, you will come away from this well researched film with a more informed understanding of wild animal conservation.

The film opens with creationist hunter Philip Glass indoctrinating his young son in the act of killing deer with a high powered rifle from the safety of a stilted hunting shelter. After the deed is done, the gloating father rushes to take a photo of his son holding the horns of his prey. This necro-fetishism for posing with dead animals repeats over the course of the movie as the audience gets a glimpse into the warped minds of [ostensibly] wealthy [exclusively] white people fixated on filling their homes with taxidermy-preserved renditions of the animals they have killed with roughly the same amount of skill it takes to floss your teeth.

South African animal conservationist John Hume looms large in the film.

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With a goal of breeding 200 rhinos a year, Hume has invested $50 million of his now depleted resort fortune to create the world’s biggest rhino breeding farm, with a heard of more than 1,600 rhinos. Hume and his staff regularly remove the horns from their rhinos, a roughly 20-minute process that involves tranquilizing the animal before painlessly cutting the horn with an electric saw. The reasons for removing the horns, which grow back every two years, is twofold. Doing so, removes the threat of poachers killing the animals, and enables Hume to legally sell the highly prized horns to sustain his farm. Nonetheless, poaching of rhinos continues to occur at an alarming rate throughout South Africa where the world’s rhino population primarily exists. The threat of death from disease remains a significant issue for Hume.

Ecologist and author Craig Packer discusses the “shooters,” whose desire to kill without any reality of sport has increased the number of wild animals in Africa exponentially. The film addresses the backlash from the 2015 murder of “Cecil the Lion” by Minnesota dentist Walter palmer. The event set off a public outcry against trophy hunting-supported animal conservation that threatens to all but end the financing that makes it possible for hunting outfitters such as Christo Gomes to provide sanctuary safaris for endangered lions, tigers, giraffes, egoli gnus, and other species.   

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Naturally, mankind’s constant encroachment on wildlife regions due to human overpopulation presents an ever-increasing threat to animals of all species. What isn’t addressed in the film is why the rich faux hunters wouldn’t be willing to help finance wild animal preserves without the killing aspect of the equation. Taxidermy animals could be shipped to sponsors for their trophy rooms upon their natural death.    

Co-directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, “Trophy” is an important documentary toward opening up informed discussion about saving our wild animals amid encroaching cataclysmic crises of climate change and population explosion. It’s not a comfortable film, but you will come away much better informed for having watched it.

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Not Rated. 108 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 29, 2017

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD

Colesmithey4.com“84 Charing Cross Road” is about bonds of friendship formed and maintained by a by a mutual love of literature or, more to the point, books. Anne Bancroft’s earthy portrayal of real-life playwright and script-reader Helene Hanff (pronounced hell-ane han-f) is so effortless and effervescent that it’s enough to turn a generation of young women into chain-smoking, gin-swigging writers, if not full-fledged admirers of beautifully bound editions by the likes of Jane Austin, George Orwell, Chaucer, or Plato.

Helene Hanff was famous for saying that she never read fiction because she could “never get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.”

Personally, I know exactly where Hanff was coming from, and I concur. So it is that the nature of this film, directed by David Jones, calmly emphasizes the immediate surroundings and social conditions of its characters from the late ‘40s to the late ‘60s. Love of poetry and the written word is intrinsic in the fabric of the narrative. Nothing is strained, even when characters break the forth wall after earning sufficient trust from its audience. We are glad to be spoken to directly. It’s a loving gesture that arrives as a reward.  

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Helene Hanff lives in a weathered brownstone apartment on 95th street off Central Park in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill. She frequents an actual bookstore at 1313 Madison that is still in business at the time of this writing. Unable to locally acquire the specific titles that her ever-hungry literary appetite requires, she responds to an ad for Marks & Co., a London-based antiquarian booksellers overseen by Anthony Hopkins’s Frank P. Doel. What follows is a 20-year relationship of loving commerce elucidated by letters written back and forth across the pond.

Oh what a difference casting makes. There can be little doubt that the separate but resonate chemistry between Bancroft and Hopkins rings as a clarion bell of mesmerizing harmony. Through their constant correspondence we savor Hanff’s lean sense of nearly ribald humor as it rubs on the dry paint of Frank Doel’s heartfelt sense of honest propriety. It should be noted that Judi Dench’s restrained performance as Doel’s loyal but tightly-wound Irish wife Nora adds a layer of stoic resolve to the couple’s marriage.

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The primary action of the story revolves around Hanff’s written requests for specific books that she augments with gifts of food stuffs meant for the appreciative staff of Marks & Co., located at the address of the film’s title. Hanff always sends cash.  

So it is that the seemingly pedestrian story catches the viewer off guard when the cumulative emotional effect takes its inevitable toll in a tear-jerking sequence of satisfying catharsis. “84 Charing Cross Road” is a valuable film for all of the right reasons of theatrical balance and narrative truth. It is a movie that hits you like a live play. I can think of no higher compliment for the source material of soul-bearing experience.  

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Rated PG. 100 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

August 23, 2017

THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET

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Created during America’s ham-fisted effort at producing propaganda films during the early 1940s era of World War II, “The House On 92nd Street” stands as a noxious example of patriotic pap disguised as faux docu film noir. For all of the film’s publicity about it featuring actual FBI footage, the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to use the film’s promised 92nd street location; the building featured was located on 93rd street just east of Madison Avenue in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill district.

The picture was made following the same period that Luis Buñuel was hired to edit U.S. propaganda films for the Museum of Modern Art from 1940 to 1942 before Government agents got a hold of Salvador Dali’s 1942 autobiography that named Buñuel as an atheist and a Marxist. The powers in charge had misunderstood Buñuel’s political persuasion when he replied that he was a “Republican,” meaning that he sided against General Franco’s fascist regime which was responsible for the deaths of more than one million civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Therein lies a clue about where American political leanings bent. Dali's revelation caused Buñuel to be fired from his post at MoMA.

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Hokey as a three-dollar-bill, “The House On 92nd Street” layers on heavy-handed voice-over narration by newsreel standard bearer Reed Hadley about the oh-so-reliable FBI’s ability to defeat foreign (namely Nazi) spy operations attempting to take seed on U.S. soil. J. Edgar Hoover’s name gets dropped a lot. Bombastic music underscores a pre-roll that credits all but the “leading players” as F.B.I. personnel. “Actual F.B.I. surveillance films” show men carrying trunks into the German embassy in Washington D.C. Director Henry Hathaway professedly shot the footage himself, guerilla-style. Nevermind that the pulp story by Charles G. Booth takes place in Manhattan. Fifteen minutes of such preamble is necessary before William Eythe’s double agent Bill Dietrich is ordered into action to investigate shenanigans at Elsa’s Dress shop at 53 E 92nd street. Signe Hasso plays Elsa Gebhardt as a villain with avarice dripping from her every movement and word.

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Although loosely based on the F.B.I.’s Duquesne espionage ring which captured more than two dozen spies and traitors, “The House On 92nd Street, is most memorable for Elsa’s last minute transition into male form with the aid of a man’s suit, hat, and a handsome pair of two-tone high-button shoes. I wonder if the film’s producer Louis de Rochemont (of “March of Time” newsreel fame) would have given the film’s leading part to William Eythe if he knew that Eythe was a closeted gay actor. Considering that J. Edgar Hoover exerted his considerable will over the picture, perhaps all is as was intended. Either way, “The House On 92nd Street” is a laughable piece of American propaganda for all of the reasons you’d expect. The U.S. political machine has never understood how to under-promise and over-deliver. Rather the reverse is always proven to be true. With cartoon villains and overconfident heroes like these around, no one is safe.

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Not Rated. 88 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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