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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 12, 2019

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

Man_who_killed_don_quixote_ver3After decades of trying to make this movie, Terry Gilliam has done it. Sadly, it isn’t any good. All of our worst fears, about how Gilliam might inject some sorely needed filmic depth into Miguel de Cervantes’s famously shallow if picaresque novel, are proven just. Here is a movie in search of a story.

The 1605 source material might have inspired authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain to write such gems as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but Gilliam has lost the thread if he ever even had it. My suspicion is that Gilliam never did have a grip on a story most famous for having its hero tilting at windmills with a jousting pole from atop his horse. It’s a slapstick image that spells deadly trouble for horse and man alike.

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The hook of the book is that society is all wrong; only individuals willing to throw social mores out with the bath water, are able to realize the pure sense of freedom that nature intended. Good luck trying to cozy up to that principal watching “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

Billed as an adventure-comedy, this movie is a tragedy. Gilliam got it wrong from the start. Perhaps the filmmaker will learn from his mistake and a movie half as good as “The Fisher King” before his time runs out. For a self-reflexive narrative, complete with a film-within-a-film trope, the sequences don’t add up when the final credits roll. We could have at least had a sex scene. No such luck.

Adam Driver

Adam Driver is squandered as Toby Grison, an ad director working on a commercial in Spain that features Don Quixote and his (frequently abused) squire (read manservant). Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) gifts the director with a VHS copy of a black and white student film Grison made (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) a decade earlier. Revisiting his film sends Toby on a journey to rekindle connections with actors living in Los Sueños, a nearby Spanish town. Toby reunites with his Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce); uninspired (would-be) comic set pieces ensue. Yawn. If only there were at least a few funny lines thrown in. Where is Mel Brooks when you need him?

For anyone like myself who holds Terry Gilliam in high esteem in spite of the fact that he hasn’t made a decent film since “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” back in 1998, you will need to see this filmic atrocity for yourself. You too will know that, in the end, it was Terry Gilliam who killed Don Quixote.

Not Rated. 132 mins. (C-)

One Star

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March 28, 2019

THE BRINK

BrinkDocumentarian Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) brilliantly contextualizes Steve Bannon’s bizarre racist mission within the many coded ways the right-wing fascist ideologue expresses his murderous subtext to politicians (see Nigel Farage), billionaires (see Blackwater’s Erik Prince and Guo Media’s Miles Kwok), hack journalists, sycophantic fans, television interviewers, and during personal interactions.

It says a lot about a man by those who he admires; in Bannon’s case most such icons (seemingly) have direct links to the Nazi regime. Indeed, Bannon goes out of his way to put a fine point on his love affair with Hitler’s genocide of the Jews.  

Klayman opens the film with Bannon chugging a Red Bull while going over “spots” (shorthand for Bannon’s ongoing television media propaganda campaign) over the phone with an unnamed associate.

“You talk about culture being upriver in politics; this is the way you make a statement. I’ll see you at five o’clock and I’ll feed you dinner.”

Cut to Bannon bragging about “Torchbearer,” the 2016 “documentary” he directed. Oh yes, Steve Bannon is a director and producer. Check out his IMDB page, it will give you an idea Bannon’s obsessions. Shocker, Bannon executive produced the Sean Penn written/directed “The Indian Runner.” Still, Bannon can’t bring himself to remember his film’s proper title, “The Torchbearer,” or “Torchbearers,” or …

Bannon 2

The subject brings up filming that Bannon did in Auschwitz.

“My shit in Auschwitz rocked.”

This weird, out-of-context statement reflexively begs the question, does Bannon think Hitler also “rocked” Auschwitz? Evidently so. Bannon’s profane scatological reference is the needle that punctures the mind of the listener as Bannon normalizes his audience to his objectively racist beliefs that he carefully masks behind a sleepy-eyed gauze of overt respect and appreciation the Nazi death camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau).

Visually excited, Bannon nods his head with praise.

“We leave for Birkenau. This gets to the punchline of the story. I look around and I turn around in the chair and I go, “Man, I said, this is the most haunting place I think I’ve ever been. It’s something about this. This actually is the feeling I thought I was going to feel in Auschwitz.

And he (the guide) goes, ”Oh everybody says that.” Bannon breaks into a laugh and shakes his head like a puppy.

“And I go, What are you talking about?”

And he goes, “Oh no, no, no.” He goes, “Maybe I didn’t explain it.”

“He said, “Auschwitz was a Polish cavalry college. The Germans just requisitioned it immediately. That was like the beta site (test); this was made from scratch.”

Bannon raises his finger to make the point, “German industrial design. He says, “The whole thing’s perfect.”

“I’m walking around going oh my God. It’s precision engineering to the nth degree. By Mercedes, then Krupp, and Hugo Boss. It is a (sic) institutionalized industrial compound for mass murder.”

“Here it finally hits you that — think about it, good people back in Germany were sitting at their desks drawing, and having arguments, and meetings. This thing was so planned and so engineered — down to perfection; you could see the conference meetings. You could see all the cups of coffee, and all the meetings, and all the argument. There were actually people who sat and thought through this whole thing and totally detached themselves from, you know, the moral horror of it. That’s when you realize, oh my God, humans can actually do this. Humans that are not devils, but humans that are just humans.”

Bannon 1

Bannon’s dog whistle works on a handful of signifiers that he employs 24/7. He thinks he’s doing the "Lord’s work.” He may as well have LOVE and HATE tattooed across the knuckles of his hands. His disarming Virginia accent, folky linguistic style, compulsive physical mannerisms, unshaven ruddy face, unkempt overlong hair, outlier habit of always wearing two button-down shirts (usually under a hunting field jacket), all come into sharp focus under Alison Klayman's close eye.

Steve Bannon knowingly embodies the banality of evil. We watch Bannon weaponize words such as “Deplorables,” and “Populism and Economic Nationalism” (i.e. “military and economic patriotism which inclines us to the side of pervasive national defense.” —William Safire).

Bannon 3

To view “The Brink” is to get a peek behind office doors at private meetings of right wing radicals from far and wide intent on spreading hate, greed, and brutality through political and corporate means. In order to defeat your enemy, you must know him. Alison Klayman’s brilliant documentary gives you plenty to chew on.

Not Rated. 91 mins. Five Stars

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March 04, 2019

THE WATCHER

WatcherAny kid in Filmmaking 101 knows that the easiest thing to shoot, and have it hold an audience's attention, is a chase scene. Almost every movie ever made contains some form of a chase scene, and it can be fun to pick it out in every genre of film.

But debut feature director Joe Charbanic (music video director for Keanu Reeves' band Dogstar) dilutes any hope for captivating cinematic entertainment in The Watcher by beating this otherwise innocent cinematic device until there is nothing left. People run, cars chase, helicopters search, and somewhere along the way a suspense movie pretends to happen.

It doesn't help matters that Keanu Reeves, as David Allen Griffin, insists on crystallizing his worst-actor-in-Hollywood title by playing a serial killer about as menacing as a sleeper sofa. And James Spader (sex, lies and videotape) comes off more as a desperate actor in search of a script than as Joel Campbell, a drug addled F.B.I. agent hot on Griffin's trail.

The Watcher is a textbook study in oversights that music video directors make in directing poorly written feature films, the most grievous disregard being the choice of script. Joel pours out tons of weakly disguised exposition to his unskilled therapist Polly (Marisa Tomei). The therapy session dialogue is so slanted toward Joel gabbing about his tortured life of tracking an elusive serial killer that Joel should be the one interviewing Polly.

Watcher-2000

Charbanic leverages the shrink/patient relationship for much more than it's worth, then blows his only shot at an even marginal movie by failing to produce compelling visuals and refusing to mix up the rhythm of the story. Every labored flashback feels like two giant rusty cogs turning so that the audience can get yet another glimpse of Keanu in black leather, threatening to break out of his notoriously flat-line readings.

It's hard to believe that Reeves has actually worked in a movie with Al Pacino (The Devil's Advocate), a master of vocal inflection, and didn't learn a single thing from the experience. The only real question is how many movies Keanu Reeves will be cast in before casting directors realize that not only does the emperor have no clothes, he hasn't even got the energy to sit on a float in the parade. When Keanu does a victory jig to some metal-grunge music before squatting down with his fingers stuck against his temples like little Satanic horns, it's so laughably bad that you want to write a letter.

Spader keeps his focus strong, but can't help seeming like a weakened Atlas trying to carry the weight of the world on his exhausted shoulders. The weathered Marisa Tomei looks like an aging ingenue pulled out of some community theater production and given her first film role. Tomei cheats her psychiatrist role as Polly by evoking a damaged girlish quality that begs for another, more experienced actress to come along and relieve her of the burden of acting.

No stars for this lame attempt at stylish suspense and psychological voyeurism.

Rated R. 93 mins. (F)

Note: this film review originally ran in the Colorado Springs Independent in 2000. 

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