November 29, 2018


House_that_jack_builtIt isn’t so much that Lars Von Trier a gifted filmmaker, which he is, that makes his films singular for their thick layers of political and social satire, but rather that Von Trier has so little competition in this realm. Yorgos Lanthimos is an avant-garde filmmaker who wins overpraise for satirical films, such as “Dogtooth” or “The Lobster,” that come nowhere near the level of filmic and allegorical sophistication that Von Trier achieves. Lanthimos isn’t anywhere near as rigorous as Von Trier. He doesn’t work as hard. You’d have to look to Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”) for a peer. As for sophistication, Von Trier isn’t above poking fun at himself; “Mr. Sophistication” is the oh-so-clever moniker that this film’s main character gives himself. Naturally, the character is anything but sophisticated.   


“The House That Jack Built” is a methodically crafted social satire that pokes at the emptiness of social media mob rule, Globalization, and the intimate connection between guns, war, and capitalism. That’s just scratching the surface. Von Trier compartmentalizes his latest film in fluid dramatic depths that the audience experiences as if submerging and resurfacing in an intellectual, emotional and visceral cinematic vessel.

Matt Dillon plays the title character, an architect who wishes he was an engineer. Jack is like the bass player who wants to play lead guitar. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Jack is obsessed with artistry; unlike Wright, he isn’t very good. Jack owns a plot of lakeside land where he continuously begins building a self-designed home that he tears down only to start over from scratch with a less inspired design. Von Trier cleverly creates this building allegory to underpin his narrative about a would-be/could-be/isn’t really serial killer engaged in an ongoing therapy session with a largely unseen shrink played by the legendary Bruno Ganz. Jack brags about five of the 60 murders he has supposedly committed. The snag is that Jack is far too lazy and dumb to steal a beer from a gas station without being caught.  


The audience has to play along with Von Trier’s artistic narrative mechanics to extract his or her own ideas or questions about a violent world where some people are considered heroic if not iconic for murdering fellow human beings, while some are not. If you’ve never seen a Lars Von Trier film before, you will be thrown into the deep end of the pool and probably not be able to come up for air. Too bad.


Here is a brilliant satirical film bathed in touches of Buñuel, Greenaway, Hitchcock, and Lynch that contextualizes the nature of cruelty within the context of the power of persuasion. Art informs reality. Is it ethically correct for Jack to spend so much energy and thought imagining the ways he would like to kill people. It is after all a primary occupation of the American government and its militarized police. How complicit is the audience in such a toxic social atmosphere where we wait with baited breath to witness the murders that Jack could or might commit in “The House That Jack Built”? The film raises as many answers as it does questions. Yes, you read that right. Reading this film is up to you if you think you’re sophisticated enough for the task.    

Unrated version. 152 mins. (A+)

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November 19, 2018


Ballad_of_buster_scruggsThe Coen Brothers’ latest movie is a hoot. Its simple format is an anthology of six stories of the Old West, two of which (“The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “All Gold Canyon”) are based on stories by Stewart Edward White and Jack London, respectively.

The tone of the engrossing narratives goes from slapstick musical to black comedy to social satire to tragedy. and to elegiac poetry. Legend has it that the Coens wrote the stories 25 years ago, and stuck them in a drawer for a later date. If the Coen Brothers have been reliably hit or miss over all these past two decades (“The Ladykillers” and “Hail, Caesar!” are undeniable stinkers whereas “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit” are fantastic gems), “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a delightful cinematic buffet with something for everyone.

Hands turn the lush pages of the kind of book that kids in the ‘60s would have pulled down from their parents’ shelves to stare blankly at the beautiful color plates that introduce each chapter. No byline is present under the book’s interior title page, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” The narrative formality is punctured if you read quickly enough to absorb the humor on the dedication page (to Gaylord Gilpin) for telling these campfire stories that won the trouser-staining esteem of his listeners.


Coen Brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson all but steals the movie right off the bat as the title character, a guitar-playing crooner who also happens to be the fastest gun in the West. Is there anything Tim Blake Nelson can’t do” Old Buster is a show-off with a pistol. He is one smooth customer and a snappy dresser. Suited up in his all white cowboy outfit and white hat, Buster is the cleanest cowboy or gunfighter you’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil the tale, but dirt does have a way of finding its level with blood.

“Near Algodones” is the second story. “Pan-shot!” cried the old man” is the text that sits beneath the color plate of an old coot running in front of a frontier bank with a shotgun in his long-johns with a bunch of metal cooking pans strapped to his body. Trying to figure out the meaning of each chapter-opening caption becomes a game the audience can’t help but play. James Franco dials up his best Clint Eastwood squint.


“Meal Ticket” is the third installment in the movie, and for my money the weakest of the bunch. Nonetheless, Liam Neeson gives a damn good portrayal of a traveling impresario who earns a living putting on shows with an armless and legless actor (impeccably played by the great Harry Melling — of “Harry Potter” fame). Melling’s character recites great speeches and soliloquies that capture the hearts and imaginations of hardscrabble frontier folk who give up coins for a night’s worth of entertainment.


“All Gold Canyon” savors the unpopulated landscape of a gorgeous valley where a gentle creek might just hold untold wealth for a grizzled white-haired prospector played by Tom Waits. It took me a while to realize that it was the legendary singer/songwriter in the role. This little yarn has it all. Wild animals, a dream of glory, and a couple of jaw-dropping surprises.


“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most complex of the film’s stories. Alice Longabaugh (wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan) is girl on a wagon train headed for Oregon who finds tragedy, romance, and violence along the way. It doesn’t get more bittersweet than this.


The movie wraps up with “The Mortal Remains,” a stagecoach ride to end all stagecoach rides. Five passengers (played by Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, and Chelcie Ross) trade verbal, and a few physical, jabs on their way to a place where all crimes are paid. You’ll want to watch the whole movie twice just to catch all of the clues in this brilliantly crafted tale of would-be redemption.

Rated R. 132 mins. (A)

Five Stars

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November 15, 2018


Bohemian_rhapsody“Bohemian Rhapsody” achieves its dramatic goal of celebrating the unforgettable music of a groundbreaking rock band whose omnisexual lead singer Freddie Mercury remains a revered pop figure for many good reasons. As with any biopic, this film’s success relies on the ability of the actor portraying the film’s subject to inhabit that person entirely. Indeed, Rami Malek carries off a spitting-image portrayal of Freddie Mercury that wins you over from his first appearance as a singer whose signature overbite allowed Mercury a greater singing range. Who knew an overbite could be so musically effective?

As the filmmakers make clear, the title of the film isn’t “Freddie Mercury.” Fans may well quibble over this film’s sanitized rendition of Mercury’s voracious appetite for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. However, the movie displays the band’s unorthodox musical methods and interpersonal conflicts toward creating anthemic songs that you’ll be humming in your sleep for days if not weeks after seeing it.  

Freddie Mercury

Actor Gwilym Lee is unrecognizable in his portrayal of Queen’s guitarist Brian May. You can’t help but get a charge out of Lee’s spot-on portrayal of Queen’s charismatic guitarist. Mike Myers turns in an equally impressive act of disguise as Ray Foster, an EMI record label executive (a composite character of several EMI geniuses) who screwed up what would have been a lucrative deal with Queen had he endorsed their experimental approach to songwriting that birthed the film’s title track.


Dramatic liberties are taken. Pet peeves will be had. I wish they had used the [actual] clip of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing their amazing “Under Pressure” duet. Would it have been too much of a cheat to let the audience revel in that dynamic musical moment in time? It certainly could have provided some insight into why Mercury abandoned his bandmates.

Enough splitting hairs, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a fun ride that will put a lump in your throat, a tear in your eye, and more than one terrific song in your heart. Go with it.  

Rated PG-13. 134 mins. (A) 

Five Stars

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