June 13, 2017

MANIFESTO

ManifestoBy far the best film to come along in the first half of 2017, “Manifesto” is as thought and discussion-provoking as films come. It also happens to be entertaining as hell. This is one provocative movie about the ongoing culture wars that disrupt our lives in the most intrinsic ways.

Writer/director Julian Rosefeldt comments on modern life and art through a textual landscape created from different manifestos from such authors as Marx and Engels, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Still the barrage of ideologies remains refreshingly transparent thanks to the social setting of each of the film's highly stylized backgrounds. 

Cate Blanchett shows off her chops in a virtuosic display in which she plays 13 different characters, each with a lot to say about art, commerce, creativity, love, hope, desire, geo-global politics, death, global warming, passion, ignorance, authenticity, capitalism and family. If that sounds like a lot, be assured that I have but scratched the surface of the ambitious ideas that Blanchett embodies with a ferocity of purpose seldom seen on stage or screen.

Blanchett

Even the Dogma 95 manifesto makes an appearance in an elementary classroom full of whip-smart students. There’s even a surprise ending that reveals the harmony hidden between each of Cate Blanchett’s wildly different characters.

“Manifesto” is a beautifully conceived think-piece that takes the viewer on a journey of ideas and expression. Any person interested in bold artistic statements should check out this tour de force art film delivered with virtuosic precision from one of the world’s greatest living actresses. It’s not too far a stretch to call this film a real treasure. Bon appetite.

Cate Blanchett

Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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June 04, 2017

WAR MACHINE

WarMachineAlthough crushed under the smothering weight of director/writer David Michôd's relentless voice-over-narration, a lacking vision of satirical tone, and undisciplined editing (courtesy of Peter Sciberras), “War Machine” enjoys considerable lift from the efforts of its (mostly) solid cast — Topher Grace go to your room. Still, you couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to endure all the talky narration (from a character you don't even see until half way though the movie) to get at the story hiding underneath.

This Netflix-produced movie is inspired by Michael Hastings’ 2010 book “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War In Afghanistan,” but the author of “Animal Kingdom” (Michôd) doesn’t grasp first rule of screenwriting; 'show, don’t tell.' There isn’t a single thing that Scoot McNairy’s narrating journalist Sean Cullen tells us that we wouldn’t better receive without the audio-present redundancies. It feels as if the projectionist were substituting audio from a documentary over a feature film. Disaster.

War Machine

Brad Pitt’s General Glen McMahon (The Glenimal) would fit neatly into Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” a similarly themed anti-war film that this movie can’t otherwise hope to aspire to. Pitt’s character is based on General Stanley McChrystal, whose exposure as a rogue U.S. military asshole of epic proportions became public knowledge after Michael Hastings’ feature article (“The Runaway General”) for Rolling Stone Magazine (in 2010). Brad Pitt colors his warmonger persona with features that boldly boarder on the cartoonish. He keeps his right eye in a near-permeant squint, and contorts the fingers of his hands when using them to add emphasis in convincing those around him to agree with his every crackpot idea. Dude is a real piece of work. Meg Tilly steals the movie as the General’s doting wife Jeannie McMahon. If only the filmmakers better knew how to balance Tilly’s authenticity with the satirical zing they never attain. Part of the problem is that, regardless of how tweaky Brad Pitt makes General Glen, the guy doesn't stack up as the anti-hero you want to build your story on. It should have been the reporter's story to begin with.  

There may well be a good movie hiding somewhere beneath this film’s ton of narration and poorly edited construction. I’d like to take a shot at cleaning it up, that’s for sure. The predictable soundtrack on display would be the second thing to go; I don't care if Nick Cave was responsible. 

You do come away from “War Machine” with a clear understanding of the utter worthlessness of America’s copyrighted Afghanistan War. And, you’ll know exactly what an “insurgent” is and is not after watching this frustrating film.  

WarMachine2

Not Rated. 122 mins. (C) (Two Stars — out of five / no halves)


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May 25, 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Aliencovenant-colesmitheyRidley Scott, the director responsible for one of the most iconic and terrifying sci-fi films in history, flops with a prequel/sequel that might be pretty to look at but leaves much to be desired. If you can’t make a franchise picture that serves as a stand-alone film, why bother?

Among its multitude of conceptual and practical errors is this film’s casting of actors whose performances fail to hold a candle to that of the original film’s impeccable cast. Katherine Waterston is no Sigourney Weaver, not even close. She doesn’t have the steel or the physical statue for her role as Daniels, an astronaut who seems better suited for melodrama than sci-fi suspense. Waterston doesn’t have Weaver’s since of determination and reflexive instincts.

Katherine Waterston

If you’ve recently watched Scott’s original film, you can’t help but be struck by the lack of cohesion between characters in “Alien: Covenant” compared to those on display in “Alien.” Each actor in “Covenant” seems to be off doing their own thing. For all of the critical praised constantly being poured on Michael Fassbender (he plays twin androids in “Covenant”), he’s no match for “Alien’s” Ian Holm, an actor of towering gravitas whose gruesome revelation as an android gave audiences a jolt. As well, Danny McBride’s ham-sandwich performance as flight captain Tennessee is a far cry from Tom Skerritt’s Dallas. And the list goes on. There is a case to be made that today’s acting pool simply aren’t as skilled as actors of the ‘70s. Billy Crudup or Yaphet Kotto? Let’s just say that Crudup is boxing way outside his weight class.

“Alien: Covenant’s” lightweight performances eventually take second place to the film’s cobbled-together storyline that feels obligated to force gratuitous violence (with sex) whenever screenwriters John Logan (co-screenwriter on “Skyfall”) and script newbie Dante Harper feel the story lagging, something this film does plenty of regardless of their attempts to distract that there isn’t much of a story here to begin with.  

Fassbender

Where “Alien” had a determinedly anti-corporate subtext running through the film, “Covenant” bends a knee to imperialist overreach under the guise of searching for mankind’s creator. Barf. “Covenant’s” opening scene is an overwrought attempt to steal a glimmer of magic from the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the scene, an uncredited Guy Pierce reprises his role as Peter Weyland from Ridley Scott’s even more disappointing “Alien” franchise installment “Prometheus.” Screenwriting instructors looking for an abysmal example of exposition, will gravitate to this train wreck opener wherein Pierce’s egomaniac order his android to bring him a cup of tea. I’m sure you could open a sci-fi movie on a weaker leg, but I can’t imagine how.

Once you make it past this film’s disappointing set-up, you will only feel yourself sinking into more discontent after the Covenant spaceship’s crew decide to neglect the 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos onboard the ship in order to follow a signal coming from an unknown planet. Couldn't the screenwriters find a new trope to push the action? Reusing the same one from the first "Alien" movie just feels cheap and lazy. 

A baloney script, poor casting, lame performances, and an unfocused production design make for a second-rate sci-fi movie that is nothing more than a pathetic knock-off of the original. Go back and watch “Alien” (1978) or James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), or even David Fincher’s “Alien 3” (1992). Each one is a dozen times better than this waste of time.

Covenant

Rated R. 122 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)


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May 22, 2017

THE CRANES ARE FLYING — CLASSIC FILM PICK

The-cranes-are-flyingThe cranes of the film’s title refer to the large majestic fowl admired by a couple of Russian working class lovebirds named Veronika and Boris — played by Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalov — during the waning days of World War II. The cranes symbolize the lovers’ hope for skies filled with natural beauty rather than birds of war — namely German warplanes.

During its first act, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov captures the couple’s exuberant affection for one another in stylized medium and close-up shots that emphasize Moscow’s urban architecture around them. That Kalatozov borrows formal compositional techniques from German Expressionist Cinema, for such a deliberate anti-war film, adds to its irrefutable power.

The lovers’ scenes together are given imperative compositions to emphasize the confining nature of outside forces that threaten the amorous pas de deux they share. In spite of the war that rages around them, Veronika and Boris seem to share a bright future together. When they return to their respective apartments after spending precious moments together, the lovers each throw themselves onto their beds in a similar fashion. Boris calls Veronika Squirrel, a term of endearment she insist he never stray from using. The audience swept up in the infectious romantic energy that Kalatozov creates onscreen.

Cranes-are-flying-colesmithey

The visual simplicity that Kalatozov uses to establish the story allows the filmmaker to gradually — painstakingly — develop the film’s thematic complexity toward a psychological and emotional crescendo that reveals key self-destructive elements of war.

Boris volunteers with a friend to go off to war. He doesn’t warn Veronika of his plans. Whether he does so to spare her some small amount of worry, or because he doesn’t value her opinion is hardly a matter of importance. Once on the battlefield, a fellow soldier’s insult, regarding the photo of Veronika that Boris carries with him, insures that the two men will share in a dangerous recognizance mission together.

The_Cranes_Are_Flying

Back at home Veronika staves off romantic advances from Boris’s insistent cousin Mark, a concert pianist given a deferral from conscription — supposedly due to his prodigious musical talent. A German bombing raid leaves Veronika homeless and her own family dead. Boris’s physician father Fyodor invites her to come live with his family even as they are forced to relocate east of Moscow. 
Being in such close proximity to Mark, allows him to take advantage of Veronika when circumstance allows. Their forced marriage is a mockery that Veronika escapes while working as a nurse in a hospital with Fyodor. A pivotal sequence involving a wounded soldier left inconsolable after discovering that his girlfriend has married another man, speaks volumes about the judgmental attitudes that misrepresent Veronika’s character in the eyes of society. The tone-deaf speech that Fyodor publicly gives the soldier about the kind of woman who would do such a thing, stabs into Veronika’s heart with lasting damage.

The Cranes Are Flying” benefits greatly from Tatyana Samoylova’s sturdy performance; her youthful beauty shifts from soft to hard over the course of the story. Veronika becomes a symbol of maturing femininity whose purpose is to promote peace, but the hypocrisy that drove her there remains with her.

Cranes are flying

Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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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.   

Kongskullisland

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


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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?

Moonlight2

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.

Moonlight 3

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

In episode #29 Mike and I welcome Armond White on the show to discuss MOONLIGHT while drinking C.O.B. from FREE WILL. They said it couldn't be done, so we did it anyway. 

Armond on The Big Feast

Moonlight


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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)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

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