KPK on the Cinema (November 2016)

Cinema

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> In the penultimate month of 2016 I saw a boxing drama, a musical lovefest, a high-tech thriller torn from recent headlines, one of the kookiest movies I’ve ever seen, a post-apocalyptic teenage dystopia, a steampunk anime fantasy, a tense submarine potboiler, a film torn from the pages of American history and an unfinished would-be masterpiece from a passed master- all in all, an eclectic assortment. (All films are rated on a 5 star basis, and films must be at least a decade old to get a five star rating.)

> This time, we explore the following 9 films:

CREED  (2015) ***

SING STREET  (2016) ****

EYE IN THE SKY  (2016) ****

THE LOBSTER  (2016) ***+

HOW I LIVE NOW  (2013) ***+

APRIL & THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD  (2016) ***

BLACK SEA  (2015) ***+

THE CONSPIRATOR  (2011) ****

ORSON WELLES’ DON QUIXOTE  (1992) ***

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

CREED  (2015) ***

Fight films as a genre are definitely not my thing. I must admit to having seen none of the Rocky sequels before this. Why would I? I was not knocked out by the original ROCKY. Critics liked this though, so I gave it a try. Despite some familiar and clumsy tuggings of heartstrings near the end, this was a pretty decent drama with an inventively ironic twist: Rocky bonds with and comes out of retirement to train the son of Apollo Creed, the man he killed in the boxing ring in the fourth installment of this workhorse. Oscar honored Sylvester Stallone with a best supporting actor nomination for his work here, and while not an Oscar-worthy turn, there was something satisfying about seeing him nominated. In fact, I have never seen Stallone be better. In a few scenes I saw him achieve something I’d never seen him master: subtlety. The good news on CREED: this film’s got heart, not just fists.

SING STREET  (2016) ****

John Carney, the inspired music lover behind the beautiful ONCE, brings us another music-centered Irish delight in this look at first love and coming of age in the era of Madonna. With a soundtrack featuring The Cure, A-Ha, The Jam, Duran Duran, Hall & Oats, Spandau Ballet and The Clash, expect a rockin’, rollicking joyride through the tough and confusing terrain of adolescence that is just a delight from start to finish. Connor is the new kid at school and the object of nasty bullies from a bored and desperate classmate to the evil clergyman who runs the school. He’s a sweet, sensitive kid who just wants to be himself and live his life. In this new environment, he meets the perfect girl for him- a little older and totally out of his league, but a suitable object for the adoration of a young, hormonal manchild. He approaches her boldly, and asks her to be in the video his band is making. To his amazement, she consents. Now all he has to do is form a band, write a song, and produce a video of it! There is a hint of THE COMMITMENTS here, if it were set in among a grade school crowd. Actor Adian Gillen, familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, is a hoot here as Conor’s ineffectual and marginalized father, exasperated by his waning influence in the family. Easy clichés are largely avoided in order to ground events in a recognizable reality. It’s sentimental without being maudlin or cloying. Fun stuff to anyone who lived through the tween and teen years, and anyone who remembers the 1980’s.

EYE IN THE SKY  (2016) ****

This is a deft, taut political thriller that delves deeply into the reality and moral implications of murder by drone, making it a very topical picture indeed. The always perfect Helen Mirren is Colonel Katherine Powell, an anti-terrorism warrior who has several “high-value targets” in her sights- terrorists who are clearly right on the verge of arming suicide bombers, as seen via some very sophisticated surveillance technology disguised as birds and insects. She is authorized to give the order to make a drone strike on these bad hombres, but enters into a war of wills with the soldier in the bunker who would have to actually push the kill button, played by a suitably intense Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), who can clearly see a little girl selling food at a roadside stand that lies directly in his field of fire. Does he follow orders and initiate the air strike, knowing for certain that an innocent little girl will be collateral damage if he does? Is it ethical to sacrifice the life of this child to prevent further and probably greater loss of life in the near future, and if so, how does a person live with making that decision? Great stuff! I cannot help but wonder, how different our drone program really is from the world of TERMINATOR. In both cases programmed killing machines that amount to soulless mechanical soldiers are programmed and dispatched to kill. Sure, the Terminator had artificial intelligence that allowed him to be an autonomous assassin and our drones so far require an actual human soldier to function… as far as we know. But it amounts to the same thing doesn’t it? Moral culpability is not antiseptically removed by turning loose our assassins to terrorize our perceived enemies on their own, as in James Cameron’s bleak futurevision- nor is it removed when there is a real live person at the controls, slaughtering other people without what we normally think of as due process of law, as though it were a violent first-person-shooter video game. In this deadly “game”, the loser gets obliterated. I don’t know that I believe in evil. I think when we say “evil” we are talking about unfathomable mental illness. But our drone program comes as close to it as possible, and in my view, our short-sighted and immoral drone program is a symptom of a mentally ill society. Thoughtful thriller, and the final film of the great Alan Rickman.

THE LOBSTER  (2016) ***+

Um… Okay. (Not a good sign when I begin a review this way.) I guess I loved it… mostly. This is the seventh feature by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. I have only seen one of his previous efforts, a film called DOGTOOTH, and I really did not care for it in the least. But it is so different from this film, it’s hard to believe that its from the same director. The absurdity of this dystopian very black comedy was a delight, and hangdog schlub Colin Ferrell could not have been better in this twisted story about an alternate world where single people are checked into a hotel and given one week to hook up with another single societal outcast or face being turned into an animal. I’m not sure it’s any consolation that you get to decide which one. A lobster maybe? It’s wildly offbeat and original, and it was a hoot to watch. There are many serious points made here in a crazy, fractured way. We are a society obsessed with coupling. Single folks like me are viewed with distrust and suspicion. What must be wrong with me that no one is interested in partnering with me? As usual, Rachel Weisz was excellent, and I have never seen a single performance from John C. Reilly that did not delight. (He is thought of as a character actor, but his talent extends far beyond the genre, as anyone who saw THE TROUBLE WITH KEVIN can attest. This film is so full of outrageous irony. But I felt let down by the ending. SPOILER ALERT: More often than not, I hate it when writers and filmmakers make the choice not to make a choice. John Sayles’ extraordinary LIMBO notwithstanding, I usually find this kind of final reel as a rude cop out. What’s the point of a great setup followed by a complete lack of resolution? Why did I sit through an hour and a half of a film to be pissed on in the final reel? Still, it’s one whacky trip to nowhere. If only Mr. Lanthimos had had the courage as a storyteller to… tell a story!

HOW I LIVE NOW  (2013) ***+

Saoirse Ronan is great in this look at a spoilt teenage girl gone unenthusiastically to visit her aunt and cousins in the English countryside during tense political times when the unthinkable happens, and nearby London experiences a nuclear attack. An event like that could change a girl! This plot bears a striking resemblance to a book I began writing as a young teenager. I called it “The End: A Beginning?” and it was about what happens when everybody vanishes and there are no adults to supervise impulsive teenagers. They are forced to grow up practically overnight and faced with survival problems they never thought they would ever need to confront. So many dystopian stories in films these days! No wonder. Look at the world we live in: it barely seems to be hanging on by the fingertips. When I was a teen in the 70’s, many of us had a poster on our bedroom walls bearing a silhouette of a woman kneeling to comfort a child. The text says: “In the event of a nuclear attack… BEND OVER AND KISS YOUR ASS GOODBYE!” Under Führer Trump those days are back with a vengeance.

APRIL & THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD  (2016) ***

Touted as Studio Ghibli meets Pixar, this steampunk fantasy has its pleasures, but deserves neither comparison. Critics were very generous in their praise. I was entertained, but did not see what they saw in it. 3 stars out of 5.

BLACK SEA  (2015) ***+

This caper film about an expedition to retrieve a sunken hoard of Nazi gold at the bottom of the Black Sea was about what the trailer promised, and not much more. But there is a good side to that. The trailer promised taut, tense action, and although it didn’t feel that original or groundbreaking in any way, on this front, the film delivered. Jude Law was very good, as always, but didn’t really play a very likable guy here, keeping empathy at arm’s distance. I was predisposed to enjoy myself, because from DAS BOAT on, I’ve loved the genre of submarine in crisis. I might be easy to please on this front. Eventually, it becomes another corporate boogieman subplot. Evil, manipulative corporate boards have become the scapegoat that Communists once were in movies. The difference is that the Communists were never much of a threat.

THE CONSPIRATOR  (2011) ****

I watched this entire film without realizing I had seen it before! Can’t have left much of an impression the first time! (A quick look at my earlier review confirms this. I gave it three stars and wrote: “Robert Redford directed this detailed historical drama that has all the right ingredients, yet doesn’t gel completely. Interesting, not very involving. Disappointing, considering the promise of the film.”) Fresh eyes brought a fresh perspective. This historical drama about the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, vice-president Johnson and Secretary of State Seward was the first effort by the American Film Company, a new entity that plans to specialize in films based on historical fact. It stars an austere Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the plot, and James McAvoy as her reluctant lawyer. The second time around, I was entertained by the fine acting including a solid turn by Kevin Kline, captivated by the period details, and fascinated by the sweep of little examined American history. Keep ‘em coming American Film Company! There is a vast treasure chest of untold stories in the pages of history.

ORSON WELLES’ DON QUIXOTE  (1992) ***

This imagining of what the temperamental sometimes-genius filmmaker Orson Welles might have done with one of the many unfinished projects he left behind when he passed in 1985 is… controversial at best. This DON QUIXOTE certainly hints at brilliance, but it is, by any measure, a mess. This should not be a surprise, because though principal photography lasted between 1957 and 1969, he never stopped tinkering with the basic idea behind the project. There was no script- it was all in Orson’s head. In fact, he was so disgusted with the way studios butchered his previous films, he even intentionally mislabeled film canisters to rouge editors would not have a clue as to how to assemble the footage. The project began as a Spanish film before the funding fell through and it went into permanent limbo. But Welles retained the rights, and through the years, and bankrolled further shoots himself as late as 1985, with partial funding by Frank Sinatra. Now that he was not beholden to deliver the project to investors at a fixed time, Orson made it one of several pet projects he developed between more lucrative acting and voiceover gigs. This version by Jesús Franco patched together available footage from different sources and blended in other images that the great master had no intention of including- like newsreels of Welles accepting accolades from Spanish officials and self-conscious references to the film itself that make this DON QUIXOTE seem like a strange mash-up, years ahead of its time in a way, but stilted and choppy and unfocused. Sadly, another version of this unfinished film exists that is purported to contain far superior footage, but for whatever reasons, (profit over art?), the owner refused to surrender the rights, so Mr. Franco had to make do with what he had. And because what he had was in three different formats from disparate sources who kept the unedited footage in different conditions, the quality of the images ranges from bad to abysmal. Too bad! The casting could hardly have been more perfect. Francisco Reiguera was the quintessential imagined knight errant Quixote, tall and lean, obsessed and passionate and delusional. Akim Tamiroff (familiar to viewers of previous Welles films) embodied his squire Sancho Ponza perfectly. Sancho is the ultimate layman philosopher, loyal but constantly fussing about the imagined island his master has promised him he will someday rule over. The biggest problem with this sloppily assembled mess: no one could possibly believe the great filmmaker would have approved of this cut. He’d have hated it, as many critics did. Jesús Franco didn’t have much of a soundtrack to work with- just a tape of Mr. Welles reading all the character’s lines and giving direction. He had to write much dialogue himself- and to his credit, most of it is pretty good. There are some very witty exchanges between Quixote and Ponza. But this tape was merged with voice actors imitating Mr. Welles’ delivery- poorly, so the soundtrack is just as sloppy and confused as the images. In an attempt to bring the tale out of the past and into the present, Orson never filmed the familiar tilting at windmills sequence, substituting a scene where his characters are in a movie theatre, watching as a battle scene plays onscreen. Mistaking this for the real thing, the swashbuckling Don tries to do battle with the screen, slashing it to pieces with his sword. But this sequence was one of the pieces of film Mr. Franco was unable to get the rights to, so he shot his own tilting at windmills montage, which works, but is certainly no substitute for Orson Welles’ vision. In the end, actor Francisco Reiguera passed away in 1969, with key scenes left unshot. The fascinating Wikipedia entry for this film concludes with the very astute observation: “On Don Quixote and the subject of the artist’s rights over their work- particularly the right not to finish, film scholars Jean-Paul Berthomé and François Thomas wrote that the so-called completed version, hastily cobbled together in 1992 by Jesús Franco merely created a sense of regret that posterity does not always respect this right not to finish.”

Ouch.

> That about sums November up. Took me months to get around to it. Creeping arthritis is making these difficult columns to complete. But I’m not throwing in the towel yet- particularly now that I once again have access to Netflix. Stay tuned for more picks and pans. Vive Cine, dear ones!

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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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