March 11, 2017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Kong-skull-island-posterWho is Kong this time? That’s the burning question any movie audience should be asking themselves when going into this woefully disappointing military adventure flick. In 2017, you might suppose that the biggest monkey on the planet would be anatomically correct; however, that is not the case. We are left to conclude that Kong might represent a transgendered ape co-opted by a foreign and domestic patriarchy to fit their narrative agenda. One thing is for certain; our gigantic ape protagonist isn’t sporting a package.

The by-committee (and focus grouped) script loses ground early on by not identifying the human protagonist that we should put our faith in for this two-hour endurance test. At first blush it seems that John Goodman’s super-invested scientist Bill Randa is the man for the job, but the screenwriters quickly shuffle Bill off to the side in favor of Tom Hiddleston’s oh-so-metrosexual James Conrad, a British ex-military mercenary tracker who probably counts calories. Conrad comes across as the kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do with a boner if he ever got one. Equally absent of a libidinous center is Brie Larson’s “antiwar photographer” Mason Weaver. Even Kong can’t manage to muster any romantic interest in Mason when he holds her tiny body in his giant maw. Forget about Fey Wray or Jessica Lange (two O.G. actresses whose characters Kong took amorous interest in); the days of cross-species attraction are over. You can’t have a King Kong movie without a love story.

Kong Skull Island

The storyline goes half in the bag as a “Heart of Darkness” knock-off that might whet your appetite to check out Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” just to remind you what a great film is like. There are so many rock music montages in “Kong: Skull Island” that they feel like commercial breaks in the action. It’s fine to give Iggy and the Stooges props by playing “Down On The Street,” but it reeks of filmmakers trying way too hard to be hip.

This movie devolves into a slasher picture where you keep guessing about who will be knocked off next. We already know most of the U.S. soldiers sent along on the (circa 1973) mission are doomed. The filmmakers could have at least pulled out some real surprises in this area of character deletions. Instead, every plot point seems so rote you could script the story as you’re watching it. Sure, there’s some cool spectacle to be had, as when Kong battles a giant lizard creature, but there’s isn’t any meaningful social commentary for subtext.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a neutered adventure movie without any soul, or balls.   

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Rated PG-13. 120 mins (C-) (One Star — out of five / no halves) 

February 09, 2017

MOONLIGHT

MoonlightMoonlight” normalizes racism. It also perpetrates stereotypes about homosexuality and the repressive conditions of blacks in a country that has been carrying on an incremental genocide against this minority since the first slaves were brought here. As in “Brokeback Mountain,” Hollywood maintains its kneejerk assertion that gays must always be punished for harboring non-conformist sexual ideas. It’s only rich white people who get to indulge in wild sex fantasies (think “50 Shades Of Grey”). In “Moonlight,” black on black violence is the norm.

Here is a movie designed to make white audiences proud of the tears they shed in a darkened theater because those salty drops of water prove just how sensitive they are, except not really. Sentimentality comes cheap, especially when it’s about a gay black guy running back into the arms of the man who betrayed him in a violent and humiliating way years earlier.

Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins shows black characters that, regardless of how much the film’s well-cast actors elevate the baited source material, come across as cartoon people with limited intellects and imaginations.

Split into a three-act structure, the time-jumping narrative follows 10-year-old Chiron, a.k.a. “Little” (Alex Hibbert), a frightened weakling constantly bullied and harassed by boys in his economically depressed South Florida neighborhood. That fact that Chiron’s dad is long gone, and that his mother is a nurse and a crack addict, puts the boy under the mentorship of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer with a soft side. Juan might not be an ideal surrogate father, but beggars like Chiron can be choosers. At least Juan isn’t a pedophile, or is he?

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At school, Chiron’s detractors identify him as gay even before his first sexual experimentation goes in that direction. The power of peer suggestion is strong in this oversimplifies setting.

Cut to act two where Ashton Sanders plays a teenage version of Chiron who enjoys a moonlit handjob and a kiss with his pal Kevin. Alas, Chiron’s dreams of romantic fulfillment are short-lived when Kevin turns on him in a disgusting scene of physical, emotional, and intellectual abuse that seals Chiron’s fate for the years that follow.

The filmmakers allow Chiron a few moments of doomed emotional satisfaction in a narrative that barely hints at the racist system pulling the strings. Chiron deserves more than the hug he eventually receives, or the return to prison he seems destined for if he survives the unseen encounters with he will most certainly experience.

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Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five / no halves)

February 07, 2017

LUNA

 

LunaBernardo Bertolucci willingly falls into every cinematic pitfall any film artist could make in this follow-up film to “1900,” an epic masterpiece that seamlessly shifts from formal to neo-realistic to sweeping romance in a wartime setting before tilting into magical realism.  

“Luna,” however, is a kitchen-sink melodrama that seems to proffer that it’s okay for a mom to jerk off her teenage son so long as she does it while he’s in a heroin-induced state. Never mind that mom scored the smack to keep her son’s habit in check. Mother and son also kiss passionately once in public, but at least the abused boy refuses to eat out his mom when she pushes his head into her panty-clad crotch. It’s better to get these dicey plot points out of the way in order to properly address, analyze, and critique the taboo subject that puts Bernardo Bertolucci in waters far above his head.

Bertolucci has said that, because he had given the patriarchy so much mileage with his previous films, he wanted to do something for the matriarchy. If anything he sets matriarchy back to the middle ages. Informed by the Freudian archetypes of psychoanalysis he was undergoing at the time, Bertolucci co-wrote “Luna” with his wife, brother, and regular script collaborator Franco Arcalli. The hodgepodge script that results is infuriating for a host of reasons not limited to Bertolucci’s seeming endorsement of sexual mother/son relations.

The film is clouded with overworked (artificial) obfuscations that run the gambit. Jill Clayburgh gamely plays Caterina Silveri, an American opera singer whose husband (Fred Gwynne) dies from a heart attack just before the couple is set to fly to Italy for Caterina to perform in a Verdi opera. As a result of the death, Caterina takes her 16-year-old son Joe (Matthew Berry) with her to Italy where he instantly develops a heroin addiction with the help of a local girl. Joe’s tortured mental state is exacerbated by the discovery that his biological father is an Italian guy in love with his own mother.

“Luna” is an indefensible film because it is built on unsupported narrative clichés that Bertolucci never resolves. Bertolucci is said to have asked if all boys didn’t “sleep with their mothers.” Whether he intended “sleep” to be literal or figurative (sexual) is a question that casts unfavorable light on his relationship with his own mother.

LUNA

It seems clear that Bernardo Bertolucci was attempting to work through personal psychological demons by making “Luna.” In so doing, the filmmaker exposes self-referential tendencies that cheapen every artistic impulse that went into masterpieces such as “Last Tango In Paris” or “1900.” When Fred Gwynne’s character pulls a piece of gum from underneath a balcony railing, the not-so-subtle nod to “Last Tango In Paris” comes across as an inappropriate piece of narrative filler. Later in the film, Caterina and Joe drive through the Parma farmhouse that featured prominently in “1900.” What was once full of life is now a socially barren landscape that mother and son view from their incestuous emotional perspective. Their taboo reality is a nightmare that will not resolve. The worst part of it is that we, the audience, don’t care.

ction with the help of a local girl. Joe’s tortured mental state is exacerbated by the discovery that his biological father is an Italian guy in love with his own mother.

“Luna” is an indefensible film because it is built on unsupported narrative clichés that Bertolucci never resolves. Bertolucci is said to have asked if all boys didn’t “sleep with their mothers.” Whether he intended “sleep” to be literal or figurative (sexual) is a question that casts unfavorable light on his relationship with his own mother.

It seems clear that Bernardo Bertolucci was attempting to work through personal psychological demons by making “Luna.” In so doing, the filmmaker exposes self-referential tendencies that cheapen every artistic impulse that went into masterpieces such as “Last Tango In Paris” or “1900.” When Fred Gwynne’s character pulls a piece of gum from underneath a balcony railing, the not-so-subtle nod to “Last Tango In Paris” comes across as an inappropriate piece of narrative filler. Later in the film, Caterina and Joe drive through the Parma farmhouse that featured prominently in “1900.” What was once full of life is now a socially barren landscape that mother and son view from their incestuous emotional perspective. Their taboo reality is a nightmare that will not resolve. The worst part of it is that we, the audience, don’t care.

Rated R. 122 mins. (D) (One Star — no halves)

January 28, 2017

20th CENTURY WOMEN

20th Century Women PosterWriter/director Mike Mills — no, not the bass player for REM; he makes better movies — has made a simultaneously preachy, smarmy, and condescending (yet nostalgic) vision of the ‘70’s heady Punk-fuelled age that gave way to the Me Generation of Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. Infuriating by design, this rudderless story can’t even locate its protagonist.

Annette Bening is miscast as Dorothea Fields, a 55-year-old single Santa Barbara mom to an equally miscast Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, a punk-loving high school misfit in search of his testicles. Although Annette Bening may be only 58 in real life, her character here reads as much older — so much for any suspension of disbelief.

Dorothea charges her David Bowie-loving artsy tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig in full Lena Dunham mode) with mentoring 15-year-old Jamie on how to conduct himself with girls. Jamie’s biggest problem is his despicable 17-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who thinks it’s cool to sneak into Jamie’s bed every night without ever giving him any nookie. Julie prefers rough trade, a fact she is only too happy to inform Jamie and others in attendance at a dinner party hosted by Dorothea. There isn’t a single likable character in the movie, with the possible exception of Billy Crudup’s inveterate slacker William, who happily takes advantage of whatever skirt happens to fly up on his behalf.

For an ostensibly feminist agenda-driven drama, “20th Century Women” misses its egalitarian target completely. Everything is overstated with ridiculous dialogue and cynical hindsight that wasn’t available at the time that music fans with taste listened to the Talking Heads while less sophisticated children preferred Black Flag, a band lacking in all manner of musical competency.

20th Century Women

The movie pats itself on the back so hard that it can never get its bearings. The filmmaker’s sue of still photo images from Punk’s glory days — with insufferable accompanying voice-over narration — is akin to putting Punk in a Plexiglas box in a museum. Mills fails to transmit Punk’s romantic qualities that served as the impetus and background music for a lot of teenage heavy petting in the late ‘70s.

Mike Mills should acknowledge his place in society by not using the name of REM’s bass player. REM’s Mike Mills got there first. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman had the audacity to place “20th Century Women” on par with Lisa Cholodenko’s far superior (similarly themed) 2010 film “The Kids Are Alright,” which coincidentally also starred Annette Bening. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

SEX PISTOLS

Rated R. 119 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)

January 12, 2017

MARTIN SCORSESE'S SILENCE: THE VIDEO ESSAY

SILENCE - THE VIDEO ESSAY from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

Rated R. 161 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)

January 03, 2017

AND GOD CREATED WOMAN — CLASSIC FILM PICK

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

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

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

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

And God Created Woman

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

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

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

December 10, 2016

LA LA LAND

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

Fear not musical-film-haters, the genre isn’t about to explode with “La La Land” copycats. Gosling and Stone might be great together, but this movie leaves much to be desired. Although the film makes pained efforts to pretend it has the slightest thing to do with Jazz, the soundtrack is more akin to the music you'd find playing under a cartoon Cinderella.

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

The overblown set piece values presentation over representation in a musical that tries too hard and still doesn't earn its stripes. The cheesy champaign-pouring montage looks like it was cut together from B-roll. 

Jazz prodigy boy meets young actress who hates jazz. Red flag. Boy should know better than take up with a Jazz-hater; it will never work out. Besides, Gosling's Sebastian is too meephy for his own good. 

Stone’s actress chic Mia sits in her car, running lines for the movie audition she’s on her way to. Gosling’s brooding jazz pianist Sebastian honks at her to get moving. Fear not, they won’t be enemy rivals long.

Cut to Emma Stone’s struggling Mia going on endless tryouts. She does great acting work — as evidenced in audition bits that show off Stone's acting chops,— but she still doesn’t get any gigs. It’s tough out there, even in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s updated '50s styled L.A. fantasyland. George Lucas's "American Graffiti" would make a natural double-feature choice to go along with this film's fascination with primary colors and squeaky clean surfaces.

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

Chazelle gives an inside nod to his last film “Whiplash” by casting J.K. Simmons as the disapproving owner of the restaurant that (re) hires and (promptly) fires Sebastian for his wandering fingers on the 88s. The gratuitous casting choice does the movie no favors. Sacha Baron Cohen would have been a better choice to bring some resonance to the part.

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For all of the colorful costume changes and tightly choreographed dance sequences between Stone and Gosling, “La La Land” meanders when it should glide, and rings with mood-killing alarms that interrupt more than one scene.

“La La Land” is long way from “West Side Story” or “Cabaret” — two great (determinedly tragic) musicals that this film tries to emulate. Chazelle reneges on fulfilling the film’s snappy opening tone of screwball romance. He zigs after establishing he wants to zag. This is this film's fatal flaw. Instead of bookending the joy foreshadowed in its virtuosic opening, the movie ends on a minor chord nostalgia for things to come. Yuck. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

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

Damien Chazelle wants to bring Jazz back into America’s cultural conversation – and for that I commend him — but he unintentionally cheapens the idea with saccharine sentimentality that he mutes with a downbeat ending. Any Jazz musician or fan knows that be-bop’s intrinsic element of syncopation is all about the upbeats. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." La La Land doesn't swing. "Hustle and Flow" is a much better musical. 

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

LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) — LUNA from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

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