KPK on the CINEMA: (May 2017)

> In May, I made managed to see a film from every decade between the 1920’s and now. Consequently, this month, I arranged them by date… (All films are rated on a 5 star basis and must be over a decade old to get 5 stars.)

> This month I review the following 30 films:

THE DAUGHTER OF DAWN  (1920) *****

DAMES  (1934) ***+

THE RED HOUSE  (1947) ****+

SUDDENLY  (1956) ****

DO NOT DISTURB  (1965) **+

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE  (1973) **

EYEWITNESS  (1981) ***

THE NEWTON BOYS  (1998) ***+

PRIMER  (2004) ***+

THE WRECKING CREW!  (2008) ****

EVOLUTION  (2016) **+

QUEEN OF KATWE  (2016) ***+

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO  (2016) ****+

FENCES  (2016) ***+

DON’T THINK TWICE  (2016) ***+

BEGIN AGAIN  (2013) ****

OTHER PEOPLE  (2016) ****

THINGS TO COME  (2016) ****

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM  (2016) ***

SILENCE  (2016) ****+

HACKSAW RIDGE  (2016) ****

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS  (2016) ***+

THE DISCOVERY  (2016) ***

99 HOMES  (2016) ***+

LION  (2016) ****

HIDDEN FIGURES  (2016) ****

SWISS ARMY MAN  (2016) *+

WAR MACHINE  (2017) ****

GET ME ROGER STONE  (2017) ***+

BOWIE: THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD  (2017) ***

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DAUGHTER OF DAWN  (1920) *****

Filmed in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, this little-seen silent movie is a simple story about two Kiowa braves competing for the hand of their Chieftain’s daughter. ‘White Eagle’ is a poor, but deserving person and ‘Black Wolf’ is a dark-hearted man of property. ‘Daughter of Dawn’ is in love with the noble one and repulsed by the sniveling schemer. Her father sets a daunting trial to determine who the successful suitor will be, but the villain does not have the courage to follow through. Banished, he goes to the tribe’s Comanche enemies, and plots with them to steal their horses and kidnap their women. Chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress, this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” because it has the distinction of being cast entirely with Native Americans. It’s hard to say how historically accurate the film is, since it is a romantic look at a vanquished culture made by the very people who obliterated the culture it purports to celebrate. I am skeptical, partly because so many of the men from both tribes are wearing full feathered headdresses- something of an overused cliché in western movies as only a few specific tribes ever wore them. But the 300 Indian actors were allowed to use their own personal goods in the film, so the costumes, teepees, lances and tomahawks we see should be the real deal. Thought to be lost for decades, a copy surfaced in 2005, but it had no soundtrack. As part of the restoration, David Yeagly wrote a dynamite score performed by students of the Oklahoma City University. It’s noteworthy- not a great film, but as a document of a time and peoples whose culture was obliterated long ago, it is an irreplaceable classic of the silent cinema, bringing us back to a time before most of we the living were born, almost as though we had stepped into a time machine. Such a rarity, I am so grateful the National Film Registry has stewardship.

DAMES  (1934) ***+

Ray Enright directed and kinetic camera artist Busby Berkeley directed the musical numbers to this light romp. It was Berkley’s fifth film, and while not among his very best, the script was more fun than usual and the songs were good- “I Only Have Eyes For You” is an absolute classic, (even if it went on far too long, repeating the lyrics over and over and over again). The familiar backstage story about a charming scoundrel attempting to mount a big Broadway review had a fun twist: strong-armed into producing the show, Guy Kibee is desperate to keep his involvement a secret, lest his uptight uncle Ezra withdraw his multimillion dollar inheritance. Floozy Joan Blondell has him in the palm of her hand, and he is squeezed between her demands and Ezra’s “League For American Decency”, which plans to disrupt opening night on his cue. Dick Powell charms, ZaSu Pitts frets, and Ruby Keeler smiles and dances up a storm. It takes a while before Berkeley’s signature kaleidoscope of beauties kicks in, but when it does the result is predictably dazzling. A few takeaways: Joan Blondell could not sing. Not one note. Her washing woman number was wince-inducing in the extreme and should have ended up on the cutting room floor. And it constantly feels there is something major missing here: color. DAMES is a black-and-white flick, and that is just a shame. I do not generally support colorizing old monochrome films at all- with two notable exceptions: old cartoons that should have been in color in the first place and films with the pageantry of big, splashy stage productions. Artfully done, colorizing could only improve this movie. I noted an interesting mixture of conventions here: During the stage production the film is centered around, we see things, at first, from the audience’s POV. But during the musical numbers, the camera quickly moves into the world of the song, and the confines of the stage melt away, only to return at the end for the obligatory thunderous applause. It swallows you up into the world of the musical interludes. The following year brought the much more accomplished GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935- featuring an almost identical stagebound plot, but employing far more sophisticated camera wizardry. Still, near the end of DAMES, there is some pretty dazzling creative camerawork to enjoy. Fun.

THE RED HOUSE  (1947) ****+

Edward G. Robinson is feverishly good in this noir thriller about terrible suppressed secrets of the past exacting their revenge. Robinson is an old man living self-sufficiently in the countryside with his sister, raising their adopted daughter to whispers from the suspicious townsfolk. She is an innocent, kept ignorant of her own past. But when a young man is hired to help around the ranch, she begins to ask the questions that drive the film. Who is she, and what happened that fateful night in the red house in the quarry? Robinson is a haunted man. Something about screams in the wood and a red house with a tragic history. He is a man obsessed and slipping into madness, as past and present merge for him, and no one is safe. Dynamite.

SUDDENLY  (1956) ****

Frank Sinatra stars as a hired killer posing as a government agent in this unexpected crime thriller that brings international intrigue to the small American town of Suddenly, California. Familiar curmudgeonly character actor James Gleason is ‘Pop Benson’ a retired military man living on a hill overlooking the town’s train station. Sterling Hayden, (so memorable as the paranoid general in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE), is the local sheriff who is charged with security when it is unexpectedly revealed that the President of the United States will be making an unscheduled stop in their little berg later that afternoon. But when the sheriff and his deputy drop by Pop Benson’s homestead to secure the place, they find Sinatra’s gang of murderous thugs have already seized the property, lying in wait to assassinate the president! How will these ordinary Americans defeat an amoral psychopathic killer who gets his validation in life from the act of killing? Taut stuff! A story excitingly rendered. And Sinatra is a bad dude. Very, very bad.

DO NOT DISTURB  (1965) **+

This limp rom-com is another shockingly bad waste of celluloid. I kept watching in hopes that it would miraculously get better- and it did, near the end, when winsome and terminally perky Doris Day is carted off from her new home in England to a whirlwind adventure in gay Paris by a French womanizer intent on wooing her into an extra-marital affair, (Sergio Fantoni, in a smooth, flawless performance). Day’s flummoxed jealous husband is played by Rod Taylor, an actor whose performance in THE TIME MACHINE cemented him as one of my favorite faces of his era. It’s all film-by-numbers though, with predictable plot twists, lame dialogue and contrived situations that test the viewer’s patience. And clichéd? This film is about as clichéd as they come. Paris looks like a studio backlot and the “French” characters are straight from central casting- about as plastic as they come. Yeah, it gets better near the end- but it’s hardly worth sitting through the film to get to the mild amusement of the farcical ending.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE  (1973) **

It is almost shocking that this film is so very bad, considering it was written by Twilight Zone genius Richard Matheson. But it is! It’s a hokey, corny, overly dramatic, predictable rehash of every cliché of the supernatural genre. Three “psychic investigators” and a spouse are hired by a frail, elderly tycoon to investigate ‘Hell House’, a famously haunted gothic mansion, in order to settle his desperate question of whether there is life after death. The previous expedition ended in death for everyone except Roddy McDowell, and now he is back to face the horror of his past. This was so lame, I can’t really tell you why I kept watching. It’s like watching a train wreck- hard to turn away. As a kid, I really liked Roddy McDowell. His acting is so over-the-top here, the man becomes a human cartoon. At times, it’s almost as if we were watching a live action version of Scooby-Doo. Junk! Skip it.

EYEWITNESS  (1981) ***

Peter Yates directed this mainstream murder mystery, featuring a scrawny, amped-up young James Woods, and a more than slightly creepy William Hurt as an obsessed fan of TV newswoman Sigourney Weaver, a man who just may have some inside information on a big story. How far will Weaver’s driven young reporter go to cozy up to her scary stalker, in hopes of unlocking his secrets? Too far! When she winds up in the janitor’s bed, the whole affair seems more than a bit sordid and unsavory. I’ve wanted to see this flick since it hit the theatres, only because I so liked these actors, who were both fresh young faces at the time. Woods seems to have given his performance percolating on cocaine. Hurt hints at much better work to come. Weaver often feels very green indeed, occasionally shockingly unconvincing. You can see her “acting”, or trying to. Not good. She sure got a lot better in later years! Unfortunately, the film did not. It’s okay, but it hasn’t really aged very well.

THE NEWTON BOYS  (1998) ***+

Before the juicy meat of his career, versatile director Richard Linklater piloted this light, nostalgic crime caper. It’s a biography of the four Newton brothers, introduced as “the most successful robbers in American history”. Stars Skeet Ulrich, (Who names their child Skeet?), country crooner Dwight Yoakam, a loose, brawling Ethan Hawke, and a burly, surly Vincent D’Onofrio all appeared to be having a ball in this stylized window on a simpler time, as a gang of rowdy but civilized thieves who were determined not to ever hurt others in the commission of their crimes. They aimed for 41 banks, but successfully hit over 80, (!!!) until insurers got wise and switched from the square vaults that were vulnerable to nitroglycerine, to round ones that were impervious. So what now? Trains! Time to rob a train. It was all fun and games… until then, when bit by bit, things begin to do disastrously awry. Not great, but certainly fun. Stay through the ending credits to meet some of the real people behind the colorful characters.

PRIMER  (2004) ***+

This unusual, low budget sci-fi about garage entrepreneurs who accidentally create a time machine, was the first film by Shane Carruth, the filmmaker who followed up with the truly experimental UPSTREAM COLOR. He also composed the evocative electronic score for each. PRIMER is considered a cult film of sorts, and I get why. It’s heady stuff about the confusion between causality and effect and the paradoxes that arise with the concept of time travel. It gets a bit hard to follow towards the end, but it all makes ultimate sense, and despite the tight confines of the limited film, it unspools some tricky complexities that do keep the brain engaged.

THE WRECKING CREW!  (2008) ****

I have a special feeling for both musicians and lesbians… and for the same reason. In both cases, we love the same thing: music and women, respectively. And while I have never wanted to be a lesbian, all my life I’ve been in awe of talented musicians, and coveted their talent. I would probably trade any skill I have to be a great singer or pianist or guitarist. So despite being a musically talentless slob, (aside from the one original tune I can play on the harmonica), I savored every bit of this documentary about the elite group of L.A. studio musicians who presented such a threat to the old guard that they were feared to be “wrecking” the industry, hence: the Wrecking Crew. Devoted son Denny Tedesco crowdfunded this loving look back at these unheralded heroes of popular music, as a tribute to his father Tommy, who shoots the breeze with a close-knit group of former musical comrades, telling stories and sharing memories. This is a lively amalgam of old photos and film snippets interspersed with reminiscences from the likes of Brian Wilson, Glen Campbell and Cher, and it’s jam packed with music, music, music! Unlike the recent Netflix Bowie documentary which did not have one discernable note from the great performer, this one is a constant barrage of great songs- mostly in short snippets that leave you wanting to hear more. Include me as one of the innocent Monkees fans who had no idea at the time, that they neither wrote, nor performed their own songs. (I found out the hard way, but that is, as they say, a whole ‘nother story.) It was musicians like these who made most of the classic hits of the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies, but they were invisible hired guns, who often did not get any credit whatsoever for their unforgettable contributions to modern culture. Excellent. Way to go, Denny!

EVOLUTION  (2016) **+

I was led a bit astray on this one. Suggested as one of the best under-seen films of the year, I… could not agree. I just didn’t enjoy it much. This French curiosity titillated, but didn’t really satisfy. It’s an experimental film really, so I suppose it isn’t fair to judge it by conventional standards. Two things it is not are “conventional” or “standard”. EVOLUTION is a horror story about “special” boys who were, (I can only infer), kidnapped as babies and raised by mysterious surrogate mothers who are either extraterrestrial or strange genetic mutations, their backs pocked with what appear to be tentacle suckers. When the children come of age at around 11 years old, their bodies are used to harvest… offspring? I guess. Don’t quote me on that. I do know we get lots of creepy atmospherics in the hospital from Hell where the suspect surgeries are performed. We get to witness some horrible child abuse and some long takes of child actors expressing… nothing. Oh, and many long sequences of underwater life, undulating with the currents. It might have amounted to something, if the filmmakers had experimented with giving it an ending.

QUEEN OF KATWE  (2016) ***+

Disney recounts this true story of a street girl from a the small Ugandan village of Katwe, who rises to be an international chess master under the tutelage of the appealing David Oyelolo, an earnest engineer is working for a church ministry while waiting for an engineering job to open up. His job is to offer hope to disadvantaged kids, a task that overtakes his life and transforms many others. The story is directed by Indian Mira Nair- one of the premiere “women directors” in the world. (As if that were a thing.) And though I admire many of her films, I have the same problem with all of them: they feel choppy, episodic, a bit disjointed as though the tread tying them together was tenuous. But I love films that give us a glimpse into cultures we would otherwise remain ignorant of, and I’m glad Disney is making inspiring films. It’s a sweet journey of course, evoking tears of empathy, but it has a hard edge for Disney, featuring unplanned pregnancies and heartbreaking struggles with homelessness and bigotry against the impoverished. This QUEEN is emotionally satisfying and enjoyable, if entirely predictable.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO  (2016) ****+

When great black American author/playwright/poet James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he was working on a manuscript intended to be called Remember This House, a memoir about his remembrances of three civil rights champions he knew before their untimely murders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Filmmaker Raoul Peck took this rough, unfinished draft and combined it with vivid archival footage, (from shocking news footage to talking heads on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’), to make an intensely powerful and potent documentary about what it’s like to be black in America. As such, it is a painful and alarming document of a shameful past and a tragic ongoing reality. I have the dubious distinction of possibly being the only (thoroughly) white boy to have ever played James Baldwin onstage, in his biographical play The Amen Corner. Mine was a largely pale-skinned high school in a Latino neighborhood, but when the first black student took play production class, our director figured Vince cold play the only role that seemed absolutely locked into race: Baldwin’s heroin addicted jazz musician father, who comes home to die. But I was all of 16 years old when I was given this amazing opportunity, and knew next to nothing about the towering figure I was portraying. I was not even aware that he was openly gay for instance, in an era where that was an unforgivable taboo, or that he was one of the most literate speakers of his generation, or one of its finest poets. This eye-opening education of a film would have gone a long way toward enlightening me. (I saw it online. How did we ever function and thrive before the Great Oracle of the Internet?) I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is just great stuff. It is bitterly heartbreaking of course. It needs to be. It’s powerful, visceral and unforgettable documentary enlightenment.

FENCES  (2016) ****

Denzel Washington directs this pedigreed piece, adapted from August Wilson’s popular 1985 play. Mr. Wilson himself adapts from his stage play, and this is both a boon and a hindrance. Playwrights do not always make the best filmic interpreters of their own work. The spoken word is the currency of the stage, but in a film, artists are obligated to show you the action, not talk about it. A work like Fences is such a lyrical, beautifully worded piece of theatre, it becomes painful for the writer to edit their own material with sufficient ruthlessness. The task is even tougher when the property won both a Pulitzer and a Tony. It’s an impossible choice: which poetry to include and which to excise. But some trimming seemed in order here- particularly in the early scenes, before the central conflict is revealed. As a director, Denzel stays faithful to the source material, passing up opportunities to open up the storytelling and make this feel less like a filmed play than a movie. Denzel seizes the plumb-role of the boisterous, volatile Troy- the loud, effusive and potentially dangerous Alpha Male of the family, and Oscar winner Viola Davis kicks emotional ass as his faithful wife Rose, who’s seriously tested by Troy’s unfaithfulness. There is also some fine work from Stephen Henderson, (LINCOLN, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), as Troy’s old friend Bono, who tries to spare him the inevitable grief he has coming. This is a blistering family drama of the highest order. It’s all about the acting, and the acting is great, but the suburban Pittsburg setting is very constrictive. Most of the action takes place in the back yard or the kitchen. We barely even see the surrounding hood. This is one of those films that needs to be accepted and judged for what it is, not for what it isn’t. It earns four stars on the strength of the material and the actors presenting it- not for the film itself.

DON’T THINK TWICE  (2016) ***+

Thoughtful funnyman Mike Birbigla, (SLEEPWALK WITH ME, Orange is the New Black), wrote and directed this light, sweet ensemble film about what happens to a struggling improv company when one of them (Keegan-Michael Key) unexpectedly gets a big break on a TV sketch comedy series. (Shades of In Living Color?) I will always be the first to broadcast my prejudices and biases as a reviewer: This is really a three star film. I just had to give it an extra half-star because I am a huge fan of improvisational theatre, and stoked to see a film about that world. DON’T THINK TWICE is all about human beings in all their glorious frailty, and populated by likable if not always believable characters.

BEGIN AGAIN  (2013) ****

John Carney, (the fresh voice behind the somewhat similar outings ONCE, and SING STREET to follow), delivers another delightful musical confection that pulsates with the music of life. Here, it’s Keira Knightly playing the musician and a delightfully rumpled Mark Ruffalo as the down-on-his-luck record producer who sees her as something special, even when others, (like his partner Mos Def), fail to recognize the potential of her talent. He hits on what turns out to be the truly inspired idea of recording each of the songs on her debut album in different iconic New York City locations- kind of a brilliant choice from the filmmaker, because it opened this film up to a wide variety of settings from urban rooftops to subway platforms. This film is like a highly virulent infection, but it’s an infection you want to catch! Once again, the music is exactly what we don’t expect from a modern musical: good. Really good! Like the Irish charmer ONCE, this movie fairly oozes with a palpable charm that is all but irresistible. James Cordon is a friendly presence and singer Adam Levine shows great range- more in his singing than in his acting, but Catherine Keener is given nothing to do but enrich the background. This is a feelgood/heartbreak film. It is a romance, but again- the central relationship between a woman and a man is not a physical thing, but a more fraternal kind of affection. Okay Mr. Carney: that’s three for three. You have created a brand for yourself as the best and most prolific modern musical director. Bravo!

OTHER PEOPLE  (2016) ****

When David’s mother faces a desperate battle against a consuming cancer, he thinks aloud that it’s the kind of thing that happens to other people. His friend reminds him that: “To other people, you are other people!” Actor Jesse Plemons is still largely an undiscovered talent, despite working with many of the best directors making films today (Billy-Bob Thornton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tommy Lee Jones, Stephen Frears, Doug Liman and Steven Spielberg among them!) Jesse has an everyman quality that suits this strange hybrid of a film very well. It seems to have been marketed as a comedy. There are several savagely funny moments in this film, but this is like calling Hamlet a dysfunctional family sitcom. The film begins with one of the most emotionally wrenching deathbed scenes I can remember seeing. As Bradley Whitford and his family mourn over the corpse of their matriarch, the phone rings. They are too grief stricken to answer, so the machine gets it- and we get our first guilty laugh. But this film about love and loss is not a lightweight romp. Molly Shannon is simply devastating as the dying woman. I never cared for her in the least. Her hyper-neurotic armpit-smelling Catholic school-girl did absolutely nothing for me but creep me out a little. I certainly did not think her capable of such an astonishing (mostly) serious performance. My apologies for pigeonholing you, Ms. Shannon. I will never doubt you again. Okay- so maybe OTHER PEOPLE is a “dramady”. For such a wickedly funny film, it takes intestinal fortitude to sit through. Dying is a strange subject for a comedy! If you are not afraid to be a little challenged by a film: KPK sez check it out.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM  (2016) ***

Big letdown. Harry Potter, this isn’t. Some nice eye candy here, but this film is a mess. It might have helped if any of these “fantastic beasts” were fantastic. They are not. They look like computer graphics, not like living animals. The script seems undercooked. J.K.Rowling’s story feels slapdash and cursory. The mechanics are choppy and muddled. Even the title hints at pleasures the film does not contain. Eddie Redmayne, so great in LES MISERABLES and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING plays a character that has no there, there. All is quirky, mannered emptiness. My only pleasure here was watching captivating actress Katherine Waterston do… nothing. She was given nothing to do. John Voight was given no function but to collect a paycheck. (Nice work if you can get it!) Samantha Morton was game, but barely there. Colin Ferrell was coolly menacing as the villain, but his complete lack of backstory made him appear to be sleepwalking through the film. Three stars because I like this kind of film, (when it’s better realized), it had great production values and it kept my interest… just barely, and entertained (weakly) despite a plateful of ingredients that should have added up to a considerably more fun. Please Ms. Rowling: no sequel!

SILENCE  (2016) ****+

From all the buzz that preceded Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated historical epic SILENCE, it was going to be a major filmic event. It was going to be one of the best films of his storied career. It would be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination and a major contender for the award. And then it hit the theatres… for about two weeks. I’m not sure it played that long in my hometown. And when the Oscar noms were announced, it was a big surprise to me, that outside of a nod to Rodrigo Prieto for his breathtaking cinematography, SILENCE was nowhere to be seen on the list. This was a mystery to me. From everything I had heard about the project, this simply should not be. So it quickly took the number one spot on my viewing list. When my awesome local library got a copy, I snatched it up with alacrity, popped it in my DVD player and discovered the early critics were right! SILENCE is an extraordinary film. It is one the great films of Scorsese’s career. It is of the best films of 2016. It should have been nominated for the top prize. (Though MOONLIGHT still deserved to win. It pushed the boundaries of the cinema in a way SILENCE simply did not.) But after seeing this film that took the great director 25 years of development to bring to the screen, I have a sense of why audiences were cool to it. (It cost a very frugal 46 million dollars to make but only took in about 7.) For all its inherent drama and tension, SILENCE is a serious film that fully embraces the Christianity of its subject matter. Having been raised in a devout Italian Catholic family, Scorsese is one of the few directors making serious films about matters of faith. In this story about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries attempting to spread Christianity to a hostile 17th century Japan, there is no hint of doubt that the Christian proselytizers are the “morally correct” ones trying to “enlighten” the barbaric Shogun-era Japanese, who are shown as vicious brutal oppressors with genteelly smiling faces. They are so civilized on the surface, but so ruthless and merciless in their unwavering protection of their indigenous Buddhist culture. While avoiding the weeds of Christianity or Buddhism, it is clear where Scorsese’s sympathies lie. As the story opens, two earnestly pious Jesuit priests, (a skeletal Adam Driver and a hirsute Andrew Garfield), are meeting with their superior, (Ciarán Hinds, always good), to request a dangerous and seemingly hopeless assignment. While preaching the gospel, their mentor Liam Neeson has disappeared in feudal Japan. Rumor has it, he has renounced his faith, and is living there as a Japanese. Unable to accept that their devoted spiritual teacher was an apostate, they feel the calling from God to retrace his footsteps and go in search of the truth. After some resistance, they are given permission to make the almost certainly suicidal expedition into insular and hostile Japan. From here, SILENCE becomes a tense and intense survival film. When word gets out that after the brutal eradication of all previous Christian missionaries, two fearless young priests have returned to a small seaside village to minister to the faithful, there is a significant bounty placed on their heads and the entire village is placed in serious jeopardy. The two are forced to part ways, at which point it really becomes Garfield’s movie. At first he is filled with great hope and satisfaction, to discover the underground community of Christian faithful who are so thirsty for his spiritual guidance. But- as in Woody Allen’s wonderful CAFÉ SOCIETY, the faith of the faithful is tested when fervid prayers are invariably met with… silence. (Two very different approaches to tell the same story!) So this is a film then about weighty subjects: philosophy, the nature of truth, cultural imperialism, freedom of thought, speech and religion, official state persecution and the suppression of human rights- none of which are big box office draws! But as historical drama, it is absolutely fascinating to watch. The script is great, if Garfield’s voiceovers are occasionally flat and uninspired. The art direction is top notch, as they always are in Marty’s films. The celebrated cinematography is gorgeous, if somewhat grainy and murky. (I have to believe these are intentional choices.) Except for the too-modern presence of Andrew Garfield, the verisimilitude of this film is remarkable. As a viewer, you feel like you have been transported back in time to a visceral 17th century world of unquestioned power. Long at 161 minutes, it never feels its length, because there is always some fascinating detail to drink in, from the compelling acting to the vivid setting to the tense story. SILENCE is powerful stuff- occasionally quite difficult to watch. With its anchor firmly set in religion, it may be a bit of a heavy lift for the average American, and may well explain why it took so long for the great director to raise the budget to make it. But if you are a film lover, f you appreciate the work of Martin Scorsese, if you are interested in world history, or the clash of the world’s religions, if you seek out ravishing cinema that is not afraid to challenge your comfort zone a little, if you like movies that are riveting to watch in every frame- then forget about the tepid box office response and go rent yourself a copy of this criminally ignored masterpiece. This is amazing filmmaking! SILENCE reaffirms Scorsese not just as one of the great living film directors, but as one of the great cinema artists of all time. And the great thing- he is not alone! There are perhaps five or six living directors that will be remembered as pioneers in the centuries to come, making this a rich time indeed for world cinema! Despite the intellectualism that keeps this film a bit at arms length, this is great cinema.

HACKSAW RIDGE  (2016) ****

There are, of course, a lot of people who are ready and willing to completely dismiss this amazing filmmaker because he, at one point, got sloppy drunk on camera and spouted a bunch of dumbass stuff. Mel Gibson may be mentally challenged in some way, from my perspective, with his devotion to the destructive American Illusion and his blind fealty to conservative Christianity, coupled with his breathtaking blind spot when it comes to his own reflection in the mirror. But this is the man who made BRAVEHEART and other extraordinary big screen entertainments, and this is one of them. He may be a bozo, but he is a bozo who makes exceptional films. I had been warned that it is really gruesome- the bloodshed almost operatic in scale, and it was. From the first frame of the film, Gibson throws you into the worst of the warfare, bodies exploding in choreographed slow motion carnage- then flashes back to tell the true story of Andrew Garfield, (nominated for the part), as Desmond Thomas Doss, the most famous conscientious objector of World War II. Of course our hero has a tough row to hoe, as a patriotic American who has taken a vow to God not to kill- or even so much as handle a rifle, but still feels called to wartime duty as a medic. His superiors have no idea what to do with him and his fellow soldiers presume him to be a coward. But we know better. Why would a coward volunteer to go into the meat grinder of war without a weapon? He is simply an honest, decent man who took his spiritual upbringing to heart, and wants to do everything he can to preserve human life. “Thou shalt not kill” is more than a suggestion to him, a principle that extends even to his vegetarian diet. He makes it through boot camp despite the fury of his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and animosity of his C.O. (Sam Worthington of AVATAR), with a congressional intervention guaranteeing him the opportunity to serve. His parents are solid presences, played by a gentle, patient Rachel Griffiths and a craggy-featured Hugo Weaving in an unforgettable turn as his abusive, emotionally tormented, shell-shocked father. When Desmond’s moment comes to show his meddle, he says behind when his fellow troops retreat, braving machine gun bullets, mortar fire, and the raging flames of blowtorches to single-handedly rescue 32 otherwise abandoned casualties. He is alone in Hell, surround by bloodthirsty Japanese enemies, and every time he drags another soldier to safety, he pauses in his complete exhaustion and asks God to help him rescue “just one more!” Now, Mel Gibson is not a deep thinker. He goes for the easy targets and strips away nuance. As in most of his movies, Gibson appears to want to have things both ways: While crowing about his antiwar sentiments he revels in it, glorifying in the process, the very thing he is presumably denigrating. He dives in wholeheartedly, washing himself to the armpits in blood. I guess I understand this. In an anti-war film, it is necessary to show the unvarnished horrors of warfare. It is the only way to fully understand the incredible moral fortitude it took to be a C.O. in a time of enthusiastic war. Andrew Garfield is quite good in the lead. (I don’t know that he was Best Actor good, but it’s a moot point as he did not win.) He was good in SILENCE too, but there’s something that seems a bit lightweight about this pretty boy. Perhaps his talent will deepen as he matures and gets a bit more grizzled. I was very, very skeptical about this film, being neither a particular fan of Mel Gibson nor someone who is eager to watch human bodies blown to bits in the name of “entertainment”. But HACKSAW RIDGE is more than just a violent depiction of the brutality of war. It’s also about true bravery and having the courage of one’s convictions when doing so turns the entire world against you. And it is such good storytelling- particularly in the early scenes when Gibson is establishing the characters and their relationships. I’d have to say that stupidity notwithstanding, this man is a hell of a filmmaker, and HACKSAW RIDGE is one hell of a film! Does this mean that I will be first in line to see his next Biblical bloodfest? NOT ON YOUR LIFE.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS  (2016) ***+

Susan, (a heartbreaking Amy Adams at the top of her game), is a well-heeled art dealer, struggling in her second failed marriage and deeply, deeply unhappy- perhaps because she never had the courage or faith to become an artist herself. She lives a void: an empty existence in a sleek, clean, sterile environment that clearly reflects the barren desert inside. The art direction is stunning, giving everything in Susan’s world a cold, soulless beauty that is clearly only skin deep. She left her first husband, (a sympathetic Jake Gyllenhaal), because she wanted more than a struggling writer could provide, but once she gets what she thought she wanted, Susan finds herself more unhappy than ever. The story kicks in when her abandoned ex, who would not even take her phone calls over the years, suddenly sends her an advance copy of his first published book. And it’s dedicated to her. As she begins to read, the film bifurcates into two worlds: the life of the reader interspersed with a dramatization of the book, as seen in her imagination. Susan is totally unprepared for the reality that it’s a brutal, violent book. In the film-within-the-film, Gyllenhaal plays a man taking his family on an overnight roadtrip across rural Texas when they are suddenly diverted and divided by a truly frightening gang of local predators. Things get every bit as bad as we fear they will, and as she reads, Susan begins to fall to pieces. The world of the book gets very dark indeed, when it becomes a revenge tale involving a dying detective who no longer gives a shit about following the rulebook. It’s another intense, riveting performance from the fantastic Michael Shannon at his most rough-edged and flinty. Shannon’s fading cop becomes a vigilante, doling out a “justice” the system would not address. Director Tom Ford comes out of the world of high fashion, having been creative director at both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and he seems to know the rarified world of wealth and privilege he skewers so painfully here. It’s only his second film after 2009’s A SINGLE MAN, and he certainly knows what he’s doing in the director’s chair! The problem? This may be a very accomplished film, very well executed, acted, filmed… but it’s a total relentless bummer. This could almost be called a ‘feel-bad film’- hardly my favorite genre! I get enough existential angst and internal suffering in my life without exposing myself to films that could induce suicide among the most troubled and vulnerable of people. The ending was appropriate- and terrible! The choice was 100% unsatisfying, and left me wondering why exactly I watched this dark, bleak film when I was offered no catharsis whatsoever at the end- just cold hard “justice” that elevates the human spirit not one iota. There are reasons to expose yourself to this tsunami of ennui: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and especially Michael Shannon are all terrific, and the production values are impeccable. Just don’t choose this film when you need a boost. See it when you’ve got some reserves to expend!

THE DISCOVERY  (2016) ***

This Netflix original poses the question: What would happen to society if science were able to absolutely prove the existence of some kind of afterlife, on another plane of existence? It’s an original question with surprisingly dark implications. Here, sturdy screen stalwart Robert Redford plays the scientist whose devotion to the truth supersedes his concern about the implications of it. Horrible unexpected consequences begin to sweep the globe when his monumental discovery is corroborated by the scientific community, as a wave of mass suicide grips the human race. Millions are dead by their own hands, when offered relief from this world’s burdens, without facing the certainty oblivion. But that’s not all. From here, it’s a short jump to mass murder. After all, the murderer can rationalize that they are not killing anyone really, just sending them to a different place. Rooney Mara, Jason Segel and Jesse Plemons are all good here, but it all moves a bit slowly and seems to bog down and get more traditional as it goes. The idea is better than the film.

99 HOMES  (2016) ***+

This has been on my “to see” list since I read some very good buzz on it many months ago. After seeing the flick, I agree. It is a potent film, very rooted in this moment in time, when for many, the housing market has degraded into full crisis mode, as the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider and housing has become more of a commodity than shelter for people. This story involves a family man, (a very sympathetic Andrew Garfield), struggling to make ends meet, when his is suddenly and summarily served eviction papers by imperious and unfeeling speculator Michael Shannon, in yet another in a long series of riveting performances. A desperate Garfield finds that his only choice going forward is to work for the very man who stole his house from him. He is taken under the wing of the amoral moneyman who becomes kind of an evil mentor, and in a humiliating reversal of fortune, finds himself evicting other victimized tenants- a fact he is ashamed of and desperate to keep from his family. Gradually, he seems to buy into Shannon’s cynical worldview of an eat-or-be-eaten society, a zero-sum game where the main value is each man for himself, in search of profit above all else. Garfield’s working Joe has been victimized by immoral shenanigans actually engaged in by nefarious banks. It works like this: the buyer is contacted by the bank and instructed not to make the next mortgage payment, for arcane reasons. But this is misinformation. As soon as they miss the payment they are evicted… for not making the payment! It’s criminal theft, pure and simple. As such, this is a powerful critique of the failures of Capitalism! The moral conundrum of the ending was a bit predictable, but it’s still a potent and painful drama, with one foot planted firmly in the Real World. And Michael Shannon is just terrific.

LION  (2016) ****

This is a beautiful heartfelt true story about a precious lost Indian child, raised in abject poverty but adopted by a loving Australian couple, (Nichole Kidman and David Wenham, familiar as Faramir in the LOTR films), and raised in peaceful Tasmania, a world away from the mean streets of Calcutta. 20 years later, that lucky boy is a sensitive Dev Patel- a happy, well-adjusted adult with one issue: who is he and where did he come from? As a five year old child, no one could understand his mangled pronunciation of his home village, but in the age of Google Maps- there just may be some hope for him to find the family he left behind. It’s a very emotional journey, from the heartbreaking early scenes of the child wondering the streets alone, barely avoiding the exploitation of nasty adults- to the bittersweet ending. No wonder audiences found this such a crowd-pleaser. I see why it was a Best Picture contender. Lovely filmmaking.

HIDDEN FIGURES  (2016) ****

This story of unheralded black women making important contributions in a sexually and racially segregated time and place was celebrated as one of the best films of 2016- and nominated for Best Picture. It’s a clear “prestige picture”, made to place proudly in the studio’s lapel and help them have a clear conscience about the distorted choices they make when it comes to their depictions of cultural minorities. Like FENCES, the cynical me believes that HIDDEN FIGURES was green-lit in part to counter recent well-founded accusations of racial imbalance in the industry. 2015 was an abysmal year for screen diversity. 2016 gave us several good films on the theme, including the best picture of the year, MOONLIGHT. This one seemed a bit formulaic to me: race struggles in NASA’s early space program. And it was, sort of- the way biographies are wont to be. It tells the story of three “computational” pioneers who happened to be both black and female, and the daunting obstacles they faced trying to contribute in a culture that tolerated neither women, nor black people. I thought it would be more of a duty to watch this film than a pleasure. I was pleasantly wrong. The sense of time and place is deftly embodied in the top-notch production values- from the costumes to the cars to the soundtrack. The acting from all three leads is captivating. Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe all shine in very sympathetic performances. Kevin Costner as the crusty group director and Kirsten Dunst as an unctuous supervisor are given something to do, and they are quite good. Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) are pretty much window dressing. It’s only Theodore Melfi’s second film, after the much different ST. VINCENT, and it shows an awfully sure hand for a sophomore effort. I really dug this film, in part because of the inspiring true story of victory over dark forces, but also because it reminded me of being a small boy when my country sent my hero John Glenn into orbit, back in the days when America had something to be proud of.

SWISS ARMY MAN  (2016) *+

Never have I so anticipated a worse film. The audiences at Cannes went wild for this extremely singular, pitch black comedy. I guess I understand. Most commercial movies are such formulaic enterprises, driven by conventions that are presumed to cater to the marketplace- to give people what they want. This cult film is wholly… other. I can compare it to no other film I have ever seen- and that’s saying something, when you’ve seen over 5000 films! The set up is so totally unique- and for good reason. It pushes the boundaries of taste well beyond the breaking point. The idea was so intriguing: Paul Dano is trapped on an uninhabited island. He is dehydrated and starving and gradually losing his mind. Reaching the breaking point, he finally decides to hang himself. But just as he is about to do the deed, a dead body, (Daniel Radcliffe), washes up on the beach before him. At last! Company! Dano begins to coax the body back to life, and together, they have a series of disturbing adventures that can only be described as indescribable. And dead Daniel turns out to have superpowers that involve… his extraordinary flatulence and his useful erections. Yeah. You read correctly. A film needs to me more than just unique. It needs to be good. This film is not. Despite aiming to make points about loneliness and the need for human connection, the two first time directors, (collectively called “Daniels”, referring to their shared first names), fail to balance the serious themes with the absurd lunacy of their story. Radcliffe is strangely good as the miraculous corpse, but his performance is not nearly enough to rescue this turkey. Do us both a favor- and skip it!

WAR MACHINE  (2017) ****

Netflix produced this sharp, witty skewering of America’s longest running war- the debacle in Afghanistan, under the direction of Obama’s General Stanley McChrystal. It’s thinly fictionalized here, but it tells the true story of the Rolling Stone story that brought McChrystal‘s reign crashing down. He was given the impossible job of “winning” an unwinnable war, and according to this telling of the story, he bought into the fantasy 100%. It’s serious stuff, but it’s often played for laughs, as a very dark comedy about the many absurdities of modern warfare. Anthony Michael Hall and Topher Grace were totally wasted as background players with no discernible personalities. It saddens me a bit to see talent squandered in roles any actor could do in their sleep. But Tilda Swinton had a spunky cameo and Ben Kingsly as President Hamid Karzai was a wicked delight. That being said, it was, hands down, Brad Pitt’s movie. His “General McMahon” is a swaggering buffoon who totally believes his own spin, and chafes at the restraints of power. Pitt has creates a character from the ground up, from the self-righteous smirk on his face to the uptight way he jogs. He just seems to be having a blast in every scene- and he is in nearly every scene, making the film so much fun to watch! When McMahon invites the Rolling Stone reporter in to witness the war machine behind the scenes, it never occurs to him that the result would be a potent critique of his team’s hubris and overreach. I fucking hate the Taliban and what they did and continue to do to people like Malala Yousafzai, but this war has been a boondoggle from the start- a terrible waste of lives and squandered treasure that shows no sign of abating. (President Rump plans to make it worse, by sending more troops into the meat grinder.) As long as we are there will be an occupying force, creating more and more enemies in the process. But one good thing came out of it: this painfully funny film!

GET ME ROGER STONE  (2017) ***+

Here are some sound bites to describe the (anti)hero of this alarming documentary about the Darth Vader behind Donald Trump: underhanded political operative, proud charlatan, serial liar, bombastic blowhard, unabashed partisan purveyor of fake news, master manipulator and cynical exploiter, scheming muckraker, Nixon apologist and and Clinton gadfly, scandal besmirched shameless self-promoter, celebrity schmuck, dirty trickster and unapologetic hater, Machiavellian plotter, underhanded cheater, blatant powermonger, creative prevaricator and shit-throwing monkey in a suit. Scary stuff! Sad to have to accept, that this is the world as we have made it.

BOWIE: THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD  (2017) ***

Sadly, this seems to have been rushed into production about one minute after Bowie’s passing, to capitalize on it. It is not bad, in that it contains a wealth of great footage of Bowie himself talking about his life and his art in an erudite and unguarded way. The man was brilliant songwriter, singer, artist, and theatrical performer, and there is certainly a story to tell, though this is clearly not an authorized documentary. It is full of people who have obvious axes to grind, praising him with one breath and damning him with the next. But the real giveaway is that there is not a lick of recognizable Bowie music in the film- not one note! The filmmakers appear to have hired a musician to write a score that sounded like Bowie music. It was really distracting and annoying. While we watch him perform, we listen to a droning voiceover, and mixed down in the background- we hear music that had nothing whatsoever to do with the song he was performing! I can only suggest this for hardcore Bowie fanatics, (like myself). But I can only hope that some day there will be an authorized Bowie biopic that will be blessed with the thrilling music this amazing performer made. This is not that document.

> That covers May.  See you in July to review June’s bounty.  Until next time: Vive Cine!

*  *  *

© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2017. 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.

Advertisements

About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
This entry was posted in KPK on the CINEMA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Love to hear your (constructive) thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s