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.

MANDERLAY

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)

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March 20, 2018

PORTRAIT OF JASON — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Portrait-of-JasonShirley Clarke’s 1967 cinéma vérité masterpiece remains a scathing social and character study of race in America for the enigmatic quality of its unreliable subject, Jason Holliday (nee Aaron Payne, 1924-1998).

Filmed in her Chelsea Hotel penthouse apartment on a cold winter night over a 12-hour period, from 9 pm to 9 am, Clarke uses out-of-focus segues to interview Jason, a gay African-American hustler as he talks about his troubled life and uncertain future. Jason Holliday is nothing if not a performer, and a tragic figure for the ages. 

Jason is at once candid, guarded, jovial, sad, articulate, affected, and presentational as he tells of working on a cabaret act, that we the audience may be witnessing excerpts from. The movie lights up when he breaks into song. He is talented.

Clarke and her partner (actor Carl Lee — “Super Fly”) goad Jason from off-camera, peppering him with questions or prompting him to tell specific stories from his troubled past.

Portrait1

Jason tells of hustling all of his life to avoid the 9 to 5 grind. His involuntary laugh is constant. Infectious as it is revealing of the deep sadness he carries with him, it is Jason’s laughter that keeps you on pins and needles. You can sense him wanting to cry throughout the interview, but he lets the sound of his own laughter carry him through edifying stories about working for rich white folk as a “house boy” or talking to prying psychiatrists about his sex life.

“I’m a stone whore, and I’m not ashamed of it.”

Portrait3

Jason drinks a cocktail while standing in front of a fireplace mantle, wearing stylish coke-bottle glasses that magnify his heavy-lidded squint. His Oxford shirt’s collar is unbuttoned so that the collar falls over the lapel of a dark blazer, giving him the appearance of a black James Dean whose better survival skills have given him passage in upper class white culture. He may be stoned from drink and pot, but his speech is never slurred. His word choice is rarely less than erudite. The stories he tells of his interactions with Miles Davis ring with anecdotal truth, especially a funny one involving the drummer Philly Jo Jones.

How much of Jason’s stories are real or fiction never comes into question because the force of his being is so convincing. So whether Jason’s sly delivery is merely a persuasive form of carefully constructed editorial narrative or not, doesn’t matter; there is too much intrinsic truth in every word he utters with damaged conviction and regret.   

Portrait2

Aaron Payne studied acting at the Actor’s Workshop in Hollywood under Charles Laughton before studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He recorded a comedy album that was released in 2007.

Not rated. 105 mins. (A+) (Five stars  — out of five / no halves)

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March 07, 2018

BLACK PANTHER

Black_pantherLike adults who read Harry Potter books as if they aren’t children’s books written on a sixth grade reading level, many grown audiences [knowingly or unknowingly] ignore the fact that superhero movies are a children’s genre. Superhero movies such as “Black Panther” represent nothing more than a dubious method for indoctrinating kids into accepting and participating in violent behavior, with the help of their goose-stepping parents.

You need look no further than “Black Panther’s” repetitive return to “ritual combat” as its means of electing a leader for a fictional East African tribe to know that something is rotten in Denmark, or in this case “Wakanda.” Nevermind that Marvel comic book writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby lifted the term “Wakanda” from a Native American word for God. Capitalist exploitation? You bet.

For as boring as the movie is, and “Black Panther” is nothing if not an utter mind-numbing experience, here is yet another reminder of Hollywood’s lazy and persistent use of redundant comic book material to profit from marketing violence to kids while, in this case, spitting on the graves of native peoples.  

These movies aren’t about ideas, such as civilized discussion or compatible behavior, they are about greed and instilling vengeful behavior in kids who grow up instilled with oversimplified notions about wars, fighting, and taking revenge on fellow human beings.  

Black-panther

Just as the “Star Wars” movies have made many times over their box office profits on toys, so too does Hollywood deal in superhero merchandising to elevate profit margins to astronomical levels. Follow the money. You might think it’s a big deal for a movie like “Black Panther” to employ so many black actors, but you can bet the film’s producers are not sharing any product revenues with those same thespians. To put it simply, superhero movies are nothing more than very long commercials. Think about it when Halloween rolls around and every other nine-year-old is wearing a Black Panther costume. You can’t call that Cinema.

Black Panther

“Black Panther” is forgettable as it is toxic. To pretend otherwise is pure folly. As for the popularity of superhero movies, keep in mind their relation to a lowest common denominator cashed in on by faceless corporations. All you have to do is follow the money. Go ahead; buy a toy. But remember to think about what it really represents.  

Rated PG-13. 134 mins. (D) (One [plastic] star — out of five / no halves)

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Treehouse Brewing's American Brown Ale BEAR is the beer of choice for Mike and Cole to hash out the first (and hopefully only) superhero movie to make it into the Feast. We also have our first food-fight as a result. Do superhero hero movies indoctrinate children into violent behavior? Cole thinks so. Could this be the movie that breaks LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST)? Superhero movies do indeed teach confrontation after all. Get out the electric knife for this one Bouffers, and don't worry about the mess. 

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February 25, 2018

GAME NIGHT

Game_nightAlthough saddled with a few unnecessary sequences, this comic rejiggering of David Fincher’s famous 1997 thriller “The Game” (starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn) is a laugh-inducing movie with more than its share of plot twists. Co-directed by John Francis Daley (actor on television’s “Bones”) and Jonathan Goldstein, “Game Night” plays on a cartoon level of violence and suspense. The satire never goes near politics even if the film’s atmosphere is all about American fears and obsessions with torture and violence. Guns and kidnapping provide the lay of the land.

Slapstick pratfalls jab your funny bone, along with witty volleys of sometimes hilarious self-referential [elitist] pop culture jokes that connect more than they miss. With five or ten minutes of sloppy dialogue excised, “Game Night” could run much smoother. The filmmakers are guilty of concurrently running scenes that don’t keep time with each other or the tempo of the movie.

Game-Night

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a suburban married couple into playing games — board games, charades, you name it. The couple host a weekly game night with two other couples. Now that his wife left him, Max and Annie exclude their creepy police officer neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) from their weekly group entertainment. You can’t blame them really. Gary is weird, brokenhearted and weird. Just how obsessive, we may only discover during the closing credits.

Trouble arrives in the guise of Max’s older, taller, more handsome, and successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Brooks is in the business of humiliating his little brother at every opportunity. He shows up driving a 1976 candy-apple-red Corvette Stingray that is Max’s dream car. So it follows that Brooks invites the party of revelers to a game night at the palatial house Brooks is renting. Naturally, Brooks has hired a company to kidnap one of the guests so that the rest can follow “FBI Dossier” clues to rescue the poor victim. The winner takes possession of the Stingray as his or her trophy. Think mystery theater, but with guns, blood, and high-speed car chases.

Screenwriter Mark Perez does some interesting things with form. The opening act runs like a top with funny montage sequences that fast-forward us into the story with a slingshot delay. Still, Perez is too much in love with his every darling joke that he doesn’t stand back to see where some sub-plots should land.

Kyle Chandler

Gamers Sarah (Sharon Horgan) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) are a not-so mismatched cougar-and-fratboy duo whose butting, and budding, relationship pleads for consummation. Perez fares better with a subplot involving Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) whose ongoing argument over a mystery celebrity Michelle laid, gets an inspired resolution.  

“Game Night” is a dark, not black, comedy that taps into modern American fears regarding guns, imposters, and sudden violence. The game is always rigged and no amount of innocence can save you.

Rated R. 100 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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January 24, 2018

THE YAKUZA — CLASSIC FILM PICK

The YakuzaRobert Mitchum was a hot property coming off the success of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” when he made Sydney Pollock’s “The Yakuza” in 1974. It was the same year that “The Yakuza’s” co-screenwriter Robert Towne scored big with his screenplay for “Chinatown,” which Roman Polanski crafted into a timeless masterpiece of political and familial corruption in Los Angeles.

For his debut screenwriting effort Paul Schrader works with Towne on “The Yakuza” to create an ambitious cinematic apologia for the atrocities levied on Japan by the U.S. during World War II, albeit on a deep personal level. The screenwriters are quick to point out in stark narrative terms the awful damage done to the Japanese by America’s fire-bombing missions that paled even the horrific destruction done by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yakuza

The film is a crash course in the ethical codes of the Yakuza, Japan’s transnational organized crime syndicate. Robert Mitchum’s World War II vet Harry Kilmer still carries a torch for Eiko (Keiko Kishi), the Japanese woman whose life he saved while serving as a U.S. Marine. Kilmer went so far as to borrow money from his fellow Marine George Tanner (Brian Keith) to help Eiko open a bar in Tokyo.

Tanner has since switched from being a private detective to selling guns to the Yakuza. A lost gun shipment has caused the Yakuza to kidnap Tanner’s daughter. Kilmer agrees to do his old War pal a favor and travel to Tokyo to track down Eiko’s Yakuza-connected brother Tanaka (played by the amazing Ken Takakura) to help rescue Tanner’s daughter. Tanner hooks Harry up with Dusty (Richard Jordan) as a personal bodyguard whose instincts for survival are no match for Harry’s fast-twitch defense mechanisms.

Yakuza Pollack

The convoluted narrative holds secrets about Tanner, Eiko, and Tanaka that cause Mitchum’s stoic character to take violent action, even against his own flesh. Although clunky by modern editing standards, “The Yakuza” is a fascinating film that earns its sequences of shocking violence, and pays off with a crisis of personally expressed morals that transfer from Eastern to Western philosophy through Tanaka and Harry Kilmer.

Eiko-keiko-kishi-and-robert-mitchum

Robert Mitchum was in his stride when he made “The Yakuza,” doing a movie every year and making it look easy yet poignant with every performance. “The Yakuza” is a beautifully flawed film that nonetheless catches you off guard when you least expect it.

Rated R. 112 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

Documentarian Jeremy Workman ("Who is Henry Jaglom," "Magical Universe") joins the boys to talk about Sydney Pollock's THE YAKUZA (starring Robert Mitchum, Keiko Kishi, Ken Takakura, and Richard Jordan). We kicked off the episode as our debut live-feed on Facebook.  Click here to watch http://bit.ly/2rCMzwU

Although it was Cole's idea to do Mitchum's follow-up to "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," Jeremy still had his diary notes from seeing THE YAKUZA way back in 2001. Cole broke out a bottle of Hitachino Nest's REAL GINGER BREW because it only seemed right to have a legit Japanese craft beer on the show. This is one damned fine beer. Bon appetite. 

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Jeremy Workman

Hitachino-nest-real-ginger-brew.
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January 16, 2018

PHANTOM THREAD

Phantom_threadPaul Thomas Anderson’s prestige period piece is a toxic vision of a dysfunctional marriage. It is a film that self-destructs. What starts out as a ‘50s era English love story gradually tears into a tattered tale of two incompatible people whose only connection lies in the alternating currents of sadism and masochism the two can withstand. For so much ornate beauty, “Phantom Thread” is a truly ugly movie that reneges on its promise of romantic sincerity. There is nothing heartfelt here for any audience member to sew a button on. Apropos to its title there is no thematic thread to hold the film together.  

Considering that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed this overwrought feel-bad-for-no-good-reason filmic atrocity, there is no one else to blame. The once-promising filmmaker responsible for “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” peaked in 2007 with “There Will Be Blood” (also starring Daniel Day-Lewis), but has been in free fall ever since. “The Master” (2012), “Inherent Vice” (2014) and “Phantom Thread” present a triad of undeniable failures. Perhaps it is time for Paul Thomas Anderson to take a cue from Daniel Day-Lewis, and throw in the towel once and for all.

Daniel Day-Lewis

It was tragic enough that Robert Altman’s last movie was “A Prairie Home Companion,” but for “Phantom Thread” to the cap off Daniel Day Lewis’s illustrious acting career is a pill that refuses to go down. Bummer. 

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a mercurial fashion designer who runs his own dressmaking shop, known as The House of Woodcock. If you sense a wry dash of humor in the name Woodcock, any such lilt is snuffed out in a narrative as bereft of romance as it is of humanity. Reynolds holds so many fussy affectations that he could easily pass as gay if not altogether asexual. However, Reynolds reveals himself to be that special queer bird who exploits women for their seamstress skills and for the precise measurements of their bodies.  

Reynolds makes a dire mistake when he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), a dining room waitress of Central European descent. What appears to be a charming meet-cute devolves into a seething hatred fueled by Alma’s incessant neediness and Reynolds’s prickly nature that he uses to protect his demanding working methods. Alma wants to be Reynolds' center of attention, he wants to work. Guess who wins.  

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Reynolds’s sister Ceryl (brilliantly played by the incomparable Lesley Manville), whom he refers to as his “little sew-and-sew,” is the designer’s constant companion and protector. Nonetheless, not even Ceryl can buffer Reynolds from Alma’s little miss Lady Macbeth act once she gets rolling. I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Alma has more in common with Kath Bates’s character in “Misery” than she does with Kate Winslet’s in “Titanic.”

“Phantom Thread” is nothing that it pretends. It is considered a cardinal sin for an actor to break character, and yet that is exactly what Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Vicky Krieps’s personas do. It’s not often that you come away truly hating a movie, but I suggest that if you find yourself loving “Phantom Thread,” you have issues with self-loathing that should be addressed tout suite. Color me disgusted.    

Phantom-Thread

Rated R. 130 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves) 

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January 02, 2018

DARKEST HOUR

Darkest_hour_ver3Joe Wright is a director who specializes in period kitsch. His 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a well-defined dollop of cinematic tough love as experienced through Jane Austen’s emotional turbulence of class struggles.

“Atonement” (2007) found Wright following his muse Keira Knightly through the war-torn romantic terrain of Ian McEwan’s novel with emotional grace notes played in ringing succession. The keen-eyed filmmaker maxed out with his visually embellished adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again featuring Keira Knightley, this time as the title character of Tolstoy’s epic love story.

However deft Joe Wright clearly is with clearing his theatrical space for actors to deliver finely crafted performances in “Darkest Hour,” the filmmaker is hamstrung to liberate the film from screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s staid text and dull plotting. There is no question that Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill is a portrayal for the ages. As well, Kristin Scott Thomas is purely grounded as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI casts a long shadow that few living politicians could pretend to fill.

Churchill

The problems with this dull, drawn-out film announce themselves early on through Dario Marianelli’s bombastic musical score that attempts to mask narrative shifts that clash rather than mesh with the aural hamburger-helper. The story takes place over a one-month period during May of 1940, when Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Germany was winning World War II. For as unpopular as Churchill was at the time, he put his head down and got to work, or so the story goes.

Darkest-hour

"Darkest Hour" gets overwrought and fussy regarding Churchill’s mistreatment of his youthful secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has to develop much thicker skin if she is to endure the demands of taking dictation from the head of the British Empire. We accept the sub-plot ruse in the beginning, but it runs threadbare by the time Churchill is pressured toward engaging in peace talks with Hitler.

References to Dunkirk come across as gratuitous considering that awful film’s recent engagement to a plethora of fawning critics who seem to have never seen a competent war film in their lives. There should be a moratorium on World War II films considering that era's disconnected irrelevance to our drone-dominated modern warfare, and the fact of Cinema's already mile-high coverage of World War II.

When Oldman’s Churchill boards a London subway to get a feel for the will of the people, it’s clear that the filmmakers have sunk to a new basement level of pandering to their audience. The scene works in spite of itself, but it nonetheless represents an unforgivable sin of sewing up a mess of a movie with a flurry of hand-stitching. “Darkest Hour” is a brief, and presumably misleading, biopic aimed more at winning awards for acting than in connecting our modern political problems with those of the past. Here is a film to sip tea over, rather than watch with any sense of urgency or relevance beyond the endearing performances of its cast.    

Ben Mendelsohn

Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)


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