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 …

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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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March 03, 2019

THE NINTH GATE

Ninth_gateThe Ninth Gate is a well-crafted and entertaining horror film. While director Roman Polanski chooses to lilt over the horrific trajectory that tugs mercenary book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) toward the gates of Hell, rather than embrace his protagonist's terror as he did with such shockers as Rosemary's Baby (1968) or The Tenant (1976), Polanski stakes out his own ground rules and adheres to them flawlessly. From the film’s textbook opening scene in which Polanski's subjective camera discerningly divulges aspects of a millionaire's library in which imminent death approaches, to the thorough European pacing over which the devilish story unfolds, The Ninth Gate takes the audience on a joyfully evil descent into perplexing other-worldly shadows.

Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's best-selling novel El Club Dumas, this is a modern gothic horror story woven from the proposed power of satanic literature to conjure up the Devil himself. Dean Corso is an unscrupulous book broker hired by Satan scholar Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to travel from New York to Toledo, Portugal, and Paris to compare Balkin's recently acquired 1666 edition of a rare, hand-bound manual of satanic invocation, supposedly written by Satan himself, against the only two other copies in existence to verify the tome's authenticity.

Balkan tells the amoral Corso: "There's nothing more reliable than a man who can be bought." Corso's cynical character trait of temptation is written in the sanguine fluid of money from the film's beginning. Corso wears death on his sleeve like a war zone journalist hot for action. Johnny Depp uses a vocal texture that rumbles from the screen in a dark pitch that catches you off guard. His economic but heavy timbre establishes a hollowness in his character, dying to be filled with some unknown organic passion. At times, Depp seems to recede into the film's creaking metal and dry tinder-in-a-box settings. He suggests a precise mortal puppet being manipulated by collaborating evil forces to trace steps he cannot help but follow.

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Polanski and his two collaborating screenwriters, John Brownjohn (Tess) and Enrique Urbizu, orchestrate their Faustian script in a cinematic shorthand that magnifies tiny details like subtle differences in the nine diabolical engravings which comprise the murderous puzzle that Corso attempts to unravel amidst the three volumes. Polanski drops in sudden repulsive images that give terse nods to such horror films as Hitchcock's Frenzy, and Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. He allows scenes to play without the ersatz aid of musical accompaniment, resulting in a delightfully intimate game of call and response for the audience to conceive while the action unfolds. There are so many highly polished cinematic elements to enjoy in every frame of the movie that repeated viewing beckons.

9th gate

Pauline Kael said that "great movies are rarely perfect movies," and this truism certainly applies to The Ninth Gate. Actress Emmanuelle Seigner's (Frantic) sub-plot as Dean Corso's mysterious, dark guardian angel slips through the film as a sexy and enigmatic mascot that Corso accepts too easily. There are plenty of silly bumps and loopy twists that don't sufficiently fulfill a dynamic dramatic arc for the film's slightly long running time, but no jolting scares. Still, there is plenty to enjoy in director of photography, Darius Khondji's (Seven) hand-in-glove association with the masterful vision of a director who believes that content is more important than form.

In the end, Dean Corso could readily be an alter-ego fugitive that Polanski recognizes in the mirror of the camera lens. It's an image you can almost imagine.

Rated R. 133 mins. (A+) Three Stars
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