129 posts categorized "Drama"

August 19, 2018

BLINDSPOTTING

Blindspotting“Blindspotting” carries the burden of associating itself with Danny Boyle’s 1996 mind-blower “Trainspotting.” The slang term blindspotting refers to “a situation or image” that is interpreted in two different ways. If you’ve seen the picture that resembles either a vase or two faces, then you’ll know it when you see it referenced in the film. It’s a fair enough title to pin your movie on even if it comes off as derivative, overwrought, and a little precious. Accordingly, these are all terms that apply to “Blindspotting,” an amateurish effort at addressing the plight of young blacks, and their similarly hip-hop culture-informed white compatriots, in and around socially troubled, and trigger-happily policed Oakland, California.

Collin (co-writer/actor Daveed Diggs) is finishing up his final days living in a probation house after serving a term in the pokey for an incident that occurred at a bar where Collin’s childhood best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) was the bouncer. The wardrobe department puts too fine a point on the film’s regional location with Collin wearing so many shirts that say, "Oakland" that you’ll never want to visit the East Bay wearing any other such attire.

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Collin is black, Miles is white. Collin doesn’t have enough common sense, or character judgement, to recognize Miles as the biggest threat to his reentering free society. Miles is this film’s antagonist, as much as local cops who treat Oakland like minority hunting ground, although most audiences won’t pick up on it. The pals drive trucks for a moving company. On his way home Collin witnesses a cop shoot and kill an innocent civilian. Needless to say, he can’t get the violent memory out of his head. Oh tourism. 

The movie hits cliché rut whenever female characters come into the picture. Dialogue gets downright cheesy when the boys talk to girls. Collin is still hung up on the girlfriend who never once visited him in the slammer. Miles lives with his baby mama and child even as he recklessly carries a gun around for safety. The longtime buddies speak in hip-hop lingo as they help rich white folk move into their gentrifying neighborhood.  Bromance is good, tech yuppies are evil.  

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Form is another of this film’s weaknesses. The movie jolts in fits and starts with scenes that don’t always move the story along, or provide character motivation. There is a better movie hiding somewhere inside of this one, but this is the one we’re stuck with.

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Inspiration is the main thing “Blindspotting” has going for it. The film is energized by two young (relatively unknown) actors putting skin in a film they believe in. Newcomer director Carlos López Estrada doesn’t possess the skills necessary to make every scene work, or to excise crumby dialogue, but “Blindspotting” is nonetheless fascinating from a social perspective. America’s ever-festering boil of racism continues to claim the lives of minorities and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when guns are drawn. “Blindspotting” plays it safe; who can blame it for that?

Rated R. 95 min. (C) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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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.

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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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March 21, 2018

MANDERLAY — CLASSIC FILM PICK

ManderlayLars von Trier’s second installment in his Brechtian trilogy of American culture stays true to the stage bound theatrical setting of his first installment (“Dogville” 2003) even if his protagonist heroine Grace seems not to have kept any continuity from her traumatizing experiences in Dogville, i.e. multiple rapes, torture, and various humiliations, including being enslaved before ordering the massacre of a small town. After all, murderers are humiliated by their own bloodlust.

Perhaps that is as it should be. That was a lot of baggage. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over the role that Nicole Kidman portrayed in “Dogville,” just as Willem Dafoe fills James Caan’s shoes as Grace’s gangster father this time around.

Under von Trier’s fluid handheld camera there is no mistaking the parable aspect of his rigorous dramaturgy, this time dedicated to a slave plantation operating 70 years pat the abolishment of slavery. If you do the math you know that it’s Depression Era 1933. You don’t have to ponder long to realize that slavery in America continues albeit under a transmogrified state of incremental genocide glossed over with pretty words such as democracy, freedom, and capitalism.

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So it is that our minimalist tale of colonialism, best intentions, and hidden agendas comes into microcosmic view when the headstrong Grace arrives at Manderlay in the company of her smarmy dad and his gun-toting henchmen and lawyers. A slave (Isaach De Bankolé) is strapped to a grate, about to be whipped by one of his white masters when Grace intercedes and takes the whip away from the brute with the aid of her dad’s goons. The plantation matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) appears from her mansion with shotgun in hand, but put in her place by Grace. Mam wasn’t long for this world anyway as it turns out but she does leave behind a book (“Mam’s Law”) which includes a “code of conduct” for the plantation. Most appalling, if informative, is the book’s dilatation of seven slave character types with titles such as “Proudly,” “Clownin’,” and “Pleasin’.”

Grace decides to stay on at Manderlay in order to oversee the slaves’ transition to freedom. She keeps her father’s lawyer and a few of his guards. Under von Trier’s seven remaining chapter headings, Grace learns the hard way the unseen forces and brutal tactics that undo her naïve attempts at leading the slave community to any form of holistic equality.

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Not since Ingmar Bergman’s trenchant Cinema has a filmmaker so efficiently tackled universal truths of human behavior that predictably veer toward duplicity, greed and the lowest common denominator of groupthink that priests, politicians, judges, and corporate CEOs wield under the guise of democracy. “The lesser of two evils” is still immoral, n’est-ce pas?    

Grace

Not rated. 139 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Groupthink doesn't live here.

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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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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.

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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)

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January 12, 2017

MARTIN SCORSESE'S SILENCE: THE VIDEO ESSAY

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


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October 29, 2016

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA — NYFF 54

Manchester by the Sea posterOver the course of the past 20 years since Casey Affleck made his feature film debut in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” this disarmingly original actor has quietly put together a body of work worthy to represent the finest film actor of his generation, if not America’s most gifted actor. He’s in a class with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis. Ben may be the big earner, but Casey Affleck runs circles around his brother when it comes to creating character. Stanislavski would be impressed.

Casey Affleck came into his own with his outstanding performance as Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik’s underrated masterpiece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in 2007. Since then, his estimable work in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Killer Inside Me,” and “Out of the Furnace,” bares out Affleck’s ingenious ability to inhabit a range of characters with an unassailable attention to his craft. Where most film actors go from [dramatic] beat to beat, Casey harmonizes complex emotional overtones that create an otherworldly influence on the characters he interacts with, and also the larger social context of the material. This is as good as it gets. Don't bother looking for more, you'll find all dramatic truths at play in this incredible torch song of a film.  

The proof of Affleck’s mastery arrives bare and exposed in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s momentous drama about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man whose emotional scars will never fully heal because he won’t allow himself the luxury of recovery. Told using precise time-flipping sequences, the film allows the audience to digest the human drama on display with a building sense of the last shred of integrity that Lee Chandler hangs on to.

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Michelle Williams compliments the depth of Casey Affleck’s full embodiment of his role with her equally committed performance as Chandler’s wife Randi. There is a scene between Williams and Affleck that arrives late in the film that is as magnificently heartbreaking as any other in the history of Cinema. This is the model that Hollywood should be seeking and developing, rather than the endless stream of lowbrow pap the industry reflexively cranks out.  

Notable too is relative newcomer Lucas Hedges’s inspired portrayal of teenaged Lee Chandler’s nephew Patrick. Here is an actor with a promising future ahead of him. Patrick is the narrative's solid symbol for a better future, and Hedges nails his determined character with a contrasting sense of goofy humor and steely irony. 

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This is a movie you need to discover with as little information as possible. It’s enough to know that Kenneth Lonergan’s poetically told tale of tragedy and emotional endurance is set in the New England town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. This is a movie to see as soon as it comes out, before you’ve heard anything about the story.

As is appropriate for a picture of such powerful emotional and gutsy substance, you might want a stiff belt after seeing it. One thing’s for certain; “Manchester by the Sea” is a film that makes you feel things deep to your singular human core. This is one of the top five films of 2016 alongside Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE, Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, and Barry Jenkins's MOONLIGHT.

Rated R. 135 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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