KPK on the CINEMA (June & July, 2016)

Cinema

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> I spent these two months in Ireland, with very limited access to movies. The few I did see were (mostly) courtesy of the Bantry Public Library. Thanks guys! (Remember: all films are rated on a 5 star basis.)

> This time, we will take a look at:

YOUTH  (2015) ****+

WELCOME TO ME  (2014) **+

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST  (2014) **+

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM  (2013) ***+

THE BFG  (2016) ****

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YOUTH  (2015) ****+

When this film played in my local art house, I recall reading and hearing how very good it was… So why didn’t I go see it? Too preoccupied I guess. There are lots of good films. I can’t afford to rush out and see them all. But man! These critical voices were not exaggerating. If anything, they dramatically understated what an accomplished, extraordinary film YOUTH is! In Italian Filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s second English language film, he far exceeds the scope and majesty of his Best Foreign Language winner THE GREAT BEAUTY in 2013. My very favorite films are the ones that elicit spontaneous unconscious vocalizations of joy as I view them, and this was certainly one of those. I found myself saying, (to no one, since I was the only one in the room): “Wow!” and “Oh my God!” and “Beautiful!” and “I am loving this!” By the final image I was in complete amazement that YOUTH was so egregiously overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it nominated the films eligible for the 2015 Oscars. Then I realized: though this exceptionally talented director may have made the film in 2015, it was released in the U.S. until 2016- one of the best years for cinema I can ever recall. The competition in 2016 was fierce. But YOUTH was a far superior film to BROOKLYN, and that got a ‘Best Picture’ nom… Personally, I would have thought this ravishing film worthy of a nod for Best Original Screenplay [Paolo Sorrentino], Best Cinematography [Laca Bigazzi], Best Supporting Actor [Harvey Keitel], Best Actor [Michael Caine], Best Director [Paolo Sorrentino], and Best Film- in addition to the one (worthy) nomination it did receive for Best Song [David Lang]. Nobody asked me… This wonder tells the story of two aging friends vacationing together in the Swiss Alps- one, a celebrated conductor, known for his masterwork “Simple Songs” (Caine) and the other a successful filmmaker with his best days arguably behind him, (Keitel). They dialogue about the regrets of their youth and the indignities of aging, questioning their lives and the choices they’ve made that led them to now. The dialogue sparkles with perfect gems of wit, wisdom and irony that absolutely delight even as they evoke the pain of recognition. This film made me feel every second of the youth that led me to the man I am today. Honestly, I don’t believe Michael Caine or Harvey Keitel have ever given better performances, and it is an unbridled delight to see these two great septuagenarians ply their considerable craft, bouncing off each other in the casually intimate and absolutely believable ways close friends do in the lives real people live offscreen. Rachel Weisz gives another quietly devastating sperformance as a damaged woman coming to grips with her family and personal demons. Paul Dano continues his string of fine performances (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, LOVE & MERCY), as a popular actor researching a new role. (Exactly whom he will be playing is a major and startling reveal.) Insecure, like all actors, he lives in constant regret that he is best remembered for his role as a robot in a silly throwaway film, and not for the work he regards as serious art. His character has two of the best moments in the film when he is confronted by two fans- a young girl and the current Miss Universe, with very different outcomes that play against our expectations. A scene where Mr. Caine placidly “conducts” a field of cows and birds is priceless. The film is photographed by Laca Bigazzi with the nuanced eye of a perfect master, often invoking the work of great painters of shadow and light like Rembrandt. Simply, it is visually among the most stunning films I have ever seen. The narrative is dotted with surreal fantasy sequences that always amaze and delight, and peppered with surprise cameos like famous, now corpulent footballer Diego Maradona and vapid popstar Paloma Faith. The film did seem to flag a bit when Jane Fonda made her entrance late in the story, but she redeems herself with a brief but devastating coda in the aftermath of a shocking development. In my reading about this stellar film, I see the same qualifier used again and again, as though the critics were trapped in the same echo chamber: It is referred to as a “flawed” film. I can’t imagine what they were talking about, unless it is the fact that in three or four instances the plot is absolutely predictable to anyone who has ever seen a movie before. It is a potent testament to this fantastic film that none of this matters. We see, for instance, the final scene coming from a mile away. In fact, it’s there in the first scene, where the great, retired composer is asked to conduct his famous work for the queen of England. The thing is- the entire film would not have worked unless we got to finally hear this celebrated piece of classical music. And again- unless this piece was as gorgeous as we kept hearing the whole enterprise would have rung hollow. But we are not disappointed. The piece is just as sublime as it needed to be, making me wonder if the music came first and the screenplay followed. Okay, so maybe YOUTH was a tad “flawed”- but isn’t it the one flaw on a “great beauty” that makes her face beguiling? If you love great cinema, (and even more- of you have reached what is often called “a certain age”), you’ve got to see this wondrous film!

WELCOME TO ME  (2014) **+

Um… okay. This must have looked like a viable idea on paper, when producers Will Farrell and his partner Adam MacKay, (THE BIG SHORT), considered the project: Woman with borderline personality disorder wins the lottery and decides to emulate her hero Oprah Winfrey and produce her own “vanity” show about… herself. No interviews, no guests, just 100 two-hour episodes where she exposes her inner monologue to the world. Got my interest! Add SNL funnywoman Kristin Wiig, (for my money, one of the funniest and most compelling comedians to hit the scene in decades), and a side helping of capable stars, (including Tim Robbins, Joan Cusak, James Marsden, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), and it looks like a winning formula for a breezy comedy about our self-obsessed world of instant celebrity. And it starts out well. Ms. Wiig is, as always, an absolute delight in another quirky role. Then the character goes off her meds, and suddenly, WELCOME TO ME has a serious problem. There is really nothing “funny” about mental illness. It is simply a subject one does not mine for humor- not in good taste anyway. The film attempts to switch gears, and because she is actually a well-rounded actress, our woman Kristen appears up to the task. But the script is not. It breezes along in light- or rather: dark humor mode, in a way that feels completely flat and embarrassingly inappropriate. The supporting cast of real talents are completely squandered here. They are window dressing, and do little more than show up and collect their paychecks. By the time the lead character has a complete breakdown, wandering nude and vulnerable through a casino, the film is in freefall, and just as naked and broken as our sad heroine. The ending is cursory and predictable and despite many fun moments along the way, the journey feels aimless and pointless, without really having anything to say about the human condition. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to give it two-and-a-half stars, but I had to admit to myself, that even though watching this film unfold was like witnessing a slow-motion train wreck, Kristen Wiig is just a blast to watch in anything. This woman could make brushing her teeth entertaining. Please pick better roles Kristen!

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST  (2014) **+

Seth MacFarlane, (writer, director, producer and lead actor), teamed up with the always-fine Charlize Theron and equally sublime Liam Neeson in this predictably over-the-top send up of the film western, in an effort that cannot be called actually “funny”, but can be summed up in one word: “diverting”. I laughed out loud exactly once, (at a gag having to do with how unscientific and barbaric “medical” treatment was in the wild west), but I smiled throughout. Neil Patrick Harris and Sarah Silverman were both a hoot, if Amanda Seyfried was little more than window dressing. I enjoyed seeing Giovanni Ribisi in a comic role and got a kick out of Bill Mahr’s cameo as a wild west stand-up comic in a saloon. Naturally, it being a Seth MacFarlane vehicle, enough was never enough, and the low road was always the path taken. Not enough to have an extended diarrhea joke that had Neil Patrick Harris publicly shitting in two bystander’s ten gallon hats, but he had to kick one over on his way to the gunfight to make good and sure that we all got a good look at it. Not enough to have a sheep piss on Seth while he is hiding amid the flock to escape the bad guys, but we have to have a close-up of the sheep’s penis extruding to relieve itself. There was a really cool surrealist sequence where Seth has an epiphany on psychedelic drugs, during which we are treated to a reprise of the sheep peeing gag… times seven! Yeah, I was entertained. It was better than picking my nose… I guess.

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM  (2013) ***+

This earnest bio-pic, based on the great man’s autobiography had a lot going for it- not the least of which, a fine lead turn from Idris Elba, (riveting in BEASTS OF NO NATION), with strong support from the talented and poised Naomie Harris, who plays the newest incarnation of Miss Moneypenny in the 007 franchise. The early scenes feel a bit cursory- like greatest scenes from the life of a great man- a common problem with the genre, but when the film finds its mojo it gets much better. Two scenes in particular held great power for me: The first involved a prison reunion with his second wife Winnie, after an 18 year forced separation, and the second, was Nelson Mandela’s first meeting with the white segregationist leader of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk. In these scenes we really got a feeling of the heart-wrenching human toll their righteous struggle exacted from these historical figures, and the way one person can change history through strength of will. Naomie Harris is so lovely, (in a Thandie Newman kind of way), and so talented, she complimented Idris Elba’s nuanced and quietly potent performance excellently. And the U2 song at the end? Only ever heard it that one time, and I can’t get it out of my head! Perhaps this treatment of the life of the great Nelson Mandela could have been better, but what was here was very good indeed.

THE BFG  (2016) ****

Advance word on this Spielberg return to classic family fare was so gushingly positive, I was really looking forward to its release. Many reviewers favorably compared THE BFG (“Big Friendly Giant), to E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, and I absolutely loved my introduction to character actor and master stage thespian Mark Rylance in Spielberg’s previous triumph BRIDGE OF SPIES. I was stoked when he earned the well-deserved Oscar for that performance, and thrilled to hear that the next three Spielberg films are all slated to feature this fantastic actor in prominent roles. (A marriage made in heaven!) Imagine my disappointment then, when this delightful pic bombed at the box office! I cannot for the life of me, imagine why. I can hazard a guess: Americans are not very familiar with the great British storyteller Roald Dahl, who wrote the book this project came from, (despite WILLY WONKA/CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and FANTASTIC MR. FOX), and just had no idea who the hell Mark Rylance was, despite his recent Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Critics opined that perhaps, also, it had just been so long since Spielberg made a family film that people just no longer associated him with the genre. I certainly did not see much media promotion for the film before it opened stateside. Perhaps Disney just didn’t believe they needed to spend the money, believing it would sell itself. In any case, it’s the audience’s loss, because this was one delightful fantasy wonderment! I read that it took he screenwriter five years to convince any studio to produce a children’s film about child-eating giants. That, I guess, is understandable. It took many, many drafts to strike the right balance between being true to Dahl’s (typically) dark vision, and a bankable movie. Roald Dahl pulled no punches. He didn’t mind scaring the hell out of his child readers. (Witness MATILDA, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, and 1990’s THE WITCHES.) Disney is a good deal more circumspect. The result was a somewhat toothless effort. Gone were the references to Greek children tasting greasy and Turkish kids tasting like Turkey. In fact, we never actually see a child be eaten- except (conveniently) in a dream sequence. Nonetheless, for me, this balance was not correctly struck near the end, when it is revealed that hundreds of children had gone missing in London overnight. Of course, we know what happened to these kids- they were eaten! But this horror is never referred to again. As a producer, I would have insisted that these kids were rescued in the final reel, despite the fact that this would have been at variance with the source material. It would have been easily accomplished, if, say- the ravenous giants were saving these innocent victims for breakfast… But no, we are left with the impression that they were devoured overnight. A hideous plot point! This flaw in the storytelling reminded me of the big mistake in the otherwise perfect THE WIZARD OF OZ. Think about it: What was the event that caused Dorothy to run away from home in the first place? It was nasty Miss Gulch, who threatened to drop by with the sheriff and confiscate Toto for euthanasia, as punishment for trampling her flowerbeds. Logically, what would have transpired if the story continued after: “Oh Auntie Em! There’s no place like home!”? The sheriff would have dropped by with Miss Gulch to slaughter Toto! So the central conflict of the film was never addressed. And again- it would have been so easy to do! All the writers needed to do, was to have Miss Gulch there among her family when Dorothy came-to. She would have been momentarily taken aback, until we saw that Miss Gulch was there because she was actually a human with a heart, and genuinely concerned with Dorothy’s wellbeing. Then Dorothy could have delivered the perfect iconic final line. As far as I’m concerned, this would have been a far superior ending. Same issue with THE BFG. Other than that, this beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted and imaginatively realized film had only one other notable flaw: There wasn’t much to it. Having head the considerably beefed-up promos in the British newspapers, (as I was in Ireland when I saw the film), I expected each of these gruesome giants to have individual personalities. They did not. It was as though a key scene was missing- the scene that would let us know the bad guys enough to really fear them. The Sunday Telegraph had a big pullout advert for the film, with games and pictures and blurbs about the movie that included character sketches of the unfriendly giants who bullied and tormented the BFG for his kind heart. None of this was evident in the finished film-a real wasted opportunity. And the conclusion happened much too quickly. We have been trained by blockbusters like this, (think: Spielberg’s similar box office failure THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN), to expect more nail-biting and drawn-out conclusions, where several scary disasters almost thwart a happy ending. Not so here. With the help of a perfectly cast Queen of England, they set out on a military assault to capture and disable the giants, then do just that, with very little fanfare or unexpected plot twists. But look at my rating: four stars! Guess none of this really matters when you have a near-classic film with everything else going for it- especially a deft, nuanced and poignant CG-augmented performance from the great stage actor and Globe Theatre artistic director Mark Rylance who deserves another Oscar nomination for his wonderful turn at the heart of this big-hearted family film. The BFG has a Big Friendly Heart!

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> I want to mention that I attempted to watch David O. Russell’s latest film JOY during this period. Attempted, not succeeded. I absolutely could not get beyond the first 12 minutes. It was marked by his usual high production values, populated by his usual A-list actors… But in the first reel of this stylized quasi-biography, Robert De Nero gave us the single worst performance I’ve ever seen this potentially brilliant actor deliver. De Nero had a scene where he was bickering with his estranged wife, that was so shockingly flat and egregiously unbelievable that it appeared as though he really didn’t give a crap about what he was doing- just punching a clock for a paycheck. It was at this point I realized that I was bored- really, really bored. If De Nero didn’t give a shit about the film, why should I? I popped the DVD out and went on to something far more entertaining: clipping my toenails. Better luck next time David O. Russell.

That’s all for now. Vive Cine, compatriots!

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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One Response to KPK on the CINEMA (June & July, 2016)

  1. Kathy says:

    I agree with you all the way on “Welcome to Me”.

    Like

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