KPK on the CINEMA: (JUNE 2017)

> Politics, biography, drama, fantasy, animation, humor… Jim Jarmusch, film noir, Phillip Roth, John Ford, Bang Joon Ho… Movies from Sweden, Iran, Spain, the U.S. and France… Let’s get started. (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 15 films:

PATERSON  (2016) ****

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL  (1952) ***+

INDIGNATION  (2016) ****

A MAN CALLED OVE  (2016) ****+

THE SALESMAN   (2016) ****

MY BIG NIGHT  (2015) ***

WEINER  (2016) ****+

DENIAL (2016) ****

ARROWSMITH   (1931) **+

BRILLIANT STONED DRUNK DEAD  (2016) ***

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY   (2016) ****

THE LITTLE PRINCE  (2015) ***

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE   (2016) ***

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2  (2017) ***+

OKJA  (2017) ***

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

PATERSON  (2016) ****

Merry indie iconoclast Jim Jarmusch does it again. This low-key bittersweet rumination on how we derive meaning from our lives continues the singular filmmaker’s string of taciturn delights that include the brilliant films STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, DEAD MAN, GHOST DOG, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, BROKEN FLOWERS and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. It’s a typically quirky Jarmusch conceit: a week in the life of bus driver and aspiring poet “Paterson”, a man who lives with his dreamer of a wife in Paterson, New Jersey. His favorite poet William Carlos Williams once wrote an epic poem called Paterson. It is only one of many patterns in his life. Each Monday morning he awakes, nuzzles his wife lovingly, after breakfast he walks to work, where he scribbles a few lines in his overstuffed notebook until his hapless supervisor sends him on his way. As Paterson negotiates the streets of Paterson behind the wheel of a public bus, he eavesdrops on the fascinating and revealing conversations of his passengers. A student of life, the poet in him seeks inspiration anywhere he can find it. At the end of the day he heads home to hear about his wife’s latest scheme to learn guitar or become the Cupcake Queen of Paterson. After dinner, he takes her dog for an evening walk, invariably ending up at his local bar, where he nurses a beer and continues his detached observations about the human condition. Tuesday through Friday are essentially the same, as sharp-eyed Jarmusch cannily reveals the unheralded jewels nestled in the banality of everyday life. I began to think that Jarmusch must be, himself, a master eavesdropper. His dialogue is so always fresh and earnest and unvarnished, it sparkles like silver in your ears. The only widely recognizable face is Adam Driver in the titular role, and though I may have been singularly unimpressed by his performance as the current Star Wars villain, he was really good in Noah Baumbach’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, even better in Scorsese’s SILENCE, and just about perfect here, in a role that might have been taken by Bill Murray as a younger man. He film rests entirely on his shoulders, and he carries every scene, simply… reacting, believably: something my first acting coach insisted constituted the soul of good acting. His face is a constant subtle shifting of contained emotions that is just fascinating to watch. Things are going along swimmingly, until a personal tragedy strikes that shakes Paterson to his core. Unfortunately, I foresaw this crucial development well before it transpired, due to some simple foreshadowing Jarmusch must have felt necessary to include, but it spilled the beans for me. Knowing what was coming did damage my enjoyment of this delightful film, as I spent several scenes waiting for the timeline to play out so the inevitable complication would happen. And it did. Then the film got good again. How would our sympathetic hero go forward after such a deep personal loss? The final scene answered this question beautifully, and it typical Jarmusch style- through an unexpected encounter with a knowing stranger, against the backdrop of the Great Falls of the Passiac River. Some of the bus driving scenes dragged on a bit too long, and there was the issue of the too-predictable disaster, but this film was such an unassuming feast! I just adored PETERSON.

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL  (1952) ***+

This hard-boiled noir crime caper beautifully embodies what is fun about the genre. Everyone is tough, most are cynical and jaded, each man out for himself in a world of malevolent larceny. Shots are downed. Fists fly. Betrayals pile up. A mysterious schemer, (delightfully referred to as “Mr. Big”), strong-arms three thugs to help him pull off a bank heist. (Among them the lithe, squirmy Jack Elam in a too brief cameo.) Mr. Big insists they all wear masks in order to remain near strangers to each other. In the process of pulling off the armored car robbery, they frame an ex-con who is trying valiantly to reform himself. When the police realize his innocence, they convince him cooperate with the investigation. To clear his name, and lured by the promise of a reward of half the stolen loot, he assumes the identity of one of the anonymously masked men, when they reunite in Mexico to divvy up the jackpot. Things come to a sweaty boil down south, as our wronged man plays the role of a spy operating in a den of thieves. Frequently overwrought, but what the hell- that’s part of the landscape of film noir. Wouldn’t be the same animal without the over-the-top histrionics.

INDIGNATION   (2016) ****

This Phillip Roth story is not merely a drama, it’s a feckin’ tragedy. It’s wartime, and every able-bodied manchild is enlisting to fight in Korea. The only way out for young Marcus is a college deferment. Lucky for him, he is a clever guy, and he secures a full scholarship to a Christian University despite being a Jew. Marcus is a loner, disconnected from others, he focuses on his studies… until he meets Olivia. She is a bombshell with a troubled past that included bouts of alcoholism and severe depression that led her to make an attempt on her own life. Marcus’s mother clearly sees that Olivia is delicious poison, making a pact with her son that throws a big obstacle to his longterm happiness, and sets off a series of events that bring his world crashing down, sealing his fate in a way his mother never intended. This is the first feature film by James Schamus, and he’s off to a great start. The production values are very tasty indeed, except for one aesthetic choice that muddied the picture- quite literally. In an attempt to replicate natural indoor lighting, many scenes are egregiously underlit. I get verisimilitude. But the dark, murkiness gets old fast. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the great thing: Outside of Linda Emond, the woman effectively playing Marcus’s troubled mom, I’ve never seen these fine actors. Logan Lerman and Sarah Gordon are just terrific in the leads. This is a very frank and ultimately heartbreaking story about the sexual double standard between men and women- still there, but much more pronounced in 1951, when the story takes place. At first shocked by her open sexuality, Marcus becomes Olivia’s greatest defender when nasty rumors begin to circulate around the campus, and he is forced into a battle of wills with the uptight prig of a dean, nastily well played by Tracy Letts, who seems very reminiscent of John Lithgow. With INDIGNATION, director Schamus has crafted a finely articulated period piece, appreciated by critics, roundly ignored by audiences, but deserving of your attention.

A MAN CALLED OVE  (2016) ****+

OVE is all about love, but you wouldn’t know it to meet him! In the last chapter of his life, this Swedish pensioner has become the absolute human embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge: bitter, angry, rude, and alienated from his fellow men. Ove reminded me wistfully of my grandfather Otto, whom we called “PapPap”. Grandpa was, hands down, the orneriest curmudgeon anyone had ever met. There was only one way to do anything: Otto’s way. He knew all the rules and was convinced it was his job to enforce them. Otto and Ove could have been doppelgangers. Rolf Lassgård, (AFTER THE WEDDING), was wonderful in the title role, of a man so grief stricken by the death of his wife that he is determined to join her in death. This delightful film quickly becomes the darkest of comedies, when we discover the central plot device: Ove keeps being interrupted in the act of suicide again and again and again, by his new Iranian neighbor who seems to be able to look beyond his terminal crustiness and see the bighearted man within. So it’s a story about a damaged man, finding the human parts of himself that he thought had died with his ladylove. The Scrooge story! We gradually get familiar with his very rich backstory in flashbacks he experiences on the verge of death, and like his Iranian neighbor, begin to see the real man behind the bluster. It’s a formula, for sure- but it works. All of it. A MAN CALLED OVE is a warm and wise and acerbic and witty and knowing film that, just like a human life, is over all too soon.

THE SALESMAN  (2016) ****

More fine Iranian cinema from Asghar Farhadi who gave the world ABOUT ELLY and A SEPERATION- both absolutely fine, thoughtful films about real people in Iranian society confronting real problems. This Best Foreign Language Film winner is about a man and his wife who are both acting in a production of Arthur Miller’s American classic Death of a Salesman. One day, something traumatic happens that changes their happy lives. Thinking it was her husband returning home, the woman leaves the door ajar and goes into the bathroom to shower. But it is not her husband. It is a stranger. He enters the apartment and assaults her before fleeing so abruptly, he leaves his truck behind. Injured and wracked with post-traumatic stress, the wife struggles to cope. Her husband takes it on himself to use the abandoned vehicle to track down the perpetrator, but what he discovers is certainly not what he expected. It all comes down to a wrenching scene, where the husband is determined to humiliate the assailant in front of his entire family. But his wife is moved by her attacker’s pleas for pity, and throws down the gauntlet: if her husband does not abandon his thirst for revenge, she will leave him. Excellent stuff. As with Farhadi’s previous films, this is a movie about moral choices. I would not say it was quite up to the other two films I mentioned, but it is nuanced and accomplished moviemaking that leaves a real impact. Sadly, this fine director felt barred from attending the Oscar ceremony that recognized his worthy film, in protest to tRump’s proposed (idiotic) Muslim ban. I respect his choice to boycott, but I think the world would have been better served hearing what he would have to say on such an occasion. One can only hope that the next time this director has an Academy honored film (and he almost certainly will), that we will be living in a more just world, where this great artist would be welcomed to the United States with open arms.

MY BIG NIGHT  (2015) ***

This big, broad, brash, Spanish romp lays it on thick. Nothing subtle about the humor here. It’s a kinetic, character-driven comedy about the mishaps that happen filming a lavish, musical 2006 New Year’s Eve TV special in October of 2015. A boom operator is distracted by a half-naked beauty, causing a major injury to a prominent extra. Word is sent out for a replacement, but the poor guy who answers the call is caught in a vice grip: he must take the job or be blacklisted, but his mentally impaired mother has been left alone to burn down the apartment block. There is a near riot outside the studio, and he risks his life just to enter the building. He is seated at a table with a bubbly beauty who appears to fall for him. With all the simulated New Year’s kissing for the camera, couples are forming all around. But his tablemates warn him: that alluring beauty is Trouble with a capital T. She is “jinxed” and anyone who gets involved with her ends up badly. Throw in a subplot about an unhinged fan plotting to kill the ultra smarmy headliner and the theft of a rising star’s semen (!) and you have all the ingredients necessary for a zany time. And man to those Spanish actors talk fast! I felt more like I read this movie than watched it, the dialogue was coming so rapid fire. Certainly fun, but a bit too much for me. Pedro Almodovar would have made much more of the same material.

WEINER  (2016) ****+

The hubris on display here is absolutely beyond human imagination. It is so lurid and ludicrous it had to be the stuff of reality. The filmmakers had the most astounding stroke of luck, to be invited in to make an authorized documentary of a man just as he is about to self-destruct in a very public and spectacular fashion. This has been called the greatest campaign documentary ever made, and that may not be overstatement. It’s the story of disgraced sexter Anthony Weiner’s attempt at political rehabilitation, when he ran for mayor of New York City in 2013… disastrously! The man revealed here is all flaws and little substance. By the end, we see him as a cartoon clown who absolutely cannot get out of his own way to save his life. It is bitterly, acidly funny- if you can stomach the circus that has become American politics enough to laugh at it. It is also a dark turn down the rabbit hole of ego and entitlement that can only be described as stunning and pathetic.

DENIAL   (2016) ****

Rachel Weitz, Tom Wilkerson and Timothy Spall all kick ass in this asskicking drama about a slimy Holocaust denier who brings a defamation suit against the wrong author. Based on a true story, it starts out a bit slowly as the filmmakers seem to be covering the bases, but becomes riveting drama when the courtroom drama kicks in. Rachel Weitz plays Jewish scholar who is cornered into defending her views in court by a publicity seeking Timothy Spall- looking much older and thinner than we have seen him. The suit is brought in England, where the burden of proof is reversed. The litigant does not have to prove his case- it is the defense’s job to prove the charges are not true- which means she must somehow prove not only that the Holocaust actually happened, but that Spall intentionally lied about history to further his political goals: a high standard to reach. Tom Wilkerson continues his endless stream of great performances as the barrister who must argue her case in court. But there is a terrible conundrum: Weitz feels honorbound to include the testimony of concentration camp survivors- to finally give their voices a chance to be heard. But her crack legal team has other plans. They want to make the case a referendum on the dissembling racist- not on the existence of Hitler’s final solution. They know that if they put survivors on the stand, Spall will humiliate them, and score points in the process. Lots of tension here, despite the somewhat predictable ending. And wonderful acting.

ARROWSMITH  (1931) **+

On the surface, this title appeared to have everything going for it. Taken from a lauded Sinclair Lewis novel, this film stars the always-watchable Ronald Coleman and features the reliable Myrna Loy, and it was directed by the unparalleled John Ford. But ARROWSMITH is a product of its times- undercooked, underwhelming, overwrought, overblown, and overacted- well into the territory of what we now call cliché. The cinematic conventions of the early 30’s could not be more alien to the way we look at things today. All is cardboard, wooden artifice. The story is told in shortcuts. Everything’s abbreviated: American hero desires to be a great research doctor/hero becomes celebrated doctor. Hero meets a woman, decides at once they are to be married/marries her- all within two minutes of screen time. Gotta move on! Dr. Arrowsmith has diseases to cure! Believable, it is not. Not 1%. Perhaps there was just too much in the novel for the scriptwriter(s) to digest and interpret. The normally appealing Ronald Coleman is so painfully earnest here, his gee whiz, aw shucks Boy Scout do-gooder borders on satire. The film wears illusions of American exceptionalism on its sleeve, and celebrates a kind of Ayn Rand individualism in service to the great (imaginary) meritocracy. Everything is two-dimensional. Audiences demand a good deal more reality now. This one has got to be the nadir of Mr. Ford’s illustrious career. Skip the movie. Read the book.

BRILLIANT STONED DRUNK DEAD  (2016) ***

This documentary looks at the creative brains behind humor magazine The National Lampoon, and explores the way the birth of Saturday Night Live meant the beginning of the end for the popular magazine. Producer Lorne Michaels gradually poached all the most talented staffpersons, leaving the mag in a death spiral from which it never recovered. People like Chevy Chase and P.J. O’Rourke reminisce about outrageous comic talents like the energetic John Belushi and the wryly mordant Michael O’Donoghue. Some fun. Looks these goofballs they had a helluva time in their heyday, skewering sacred cows and pushing the boundaries of free speech.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY   (2016) ****

Reputed to be a holy bitch to film, this first “stand alone” Star Wars spinoff all came from one pivotal scene in the first film (actually the fourth chapter) STAR WARS: A New Hope, where our fighting rebel princess gives some vital blueprints to a spunky little R2-D2 unit droid, with the urgent message: “Help me Obi-Wan-Kenobi! You’re my only hope!” But the real genesis came from a line that preceded this- something about many people dying to bring her this information… So ROUGE ONE plugs into the franchise right before this. The Emperor has made his deadly Death Star, and the first test has been a devastating success, but the main architect (the compelling Mads Mikkelsen) is there under duress. He is a spy in their midst, secretly laying the groundwork for the destruction of the weapon he helped build. His daughter Jyn (the toothy Felicity Jones) is the protagonist of the story- another female lead, and I could not be happier about that. A Latino sidekick too, in the capable Diego Luna, as a person similarly scarred by the guerilla war between the Empire and the Rebellion. This one certainly has a rougher edge than the other films in the Star Wars cannon. The danger feels less cartoonish and more visceral. It has the requisite otherworldy aliens and pulse-thumping action sequences. I certainly enjoyed this much more than the average critic. It all worked for me, right up to its surprisingly devastating ending- a conclusion that was definitely not second-guessed by a craven “focus group”. Good thing. The somber ending lends unexpected gravitas to this latest space opera from Disney’s Lucasfilm division. Next up: Han Solo’s bio-pic- a similarly troubled production I gather, as it already lost two directors over “creative differences”. The solid Ron Howard appears to be in the director’s chair now. This is a promising development.

THE LITTLE PRINCE  (2015) ***

Netflix distributed this French animated film, dubbed in English for us monolinguals. It uses the famous French children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a starting point, but really heads in a different direction, by setting the story in modern times. A smart, spunky young girl lives with her uptight mother in the big city. Dad is out of the picture, and mom is determined to micromanage every minute of her put-upon daughter’s time, to ensure a “successful life”. But they have a new house- and the incongruous mansion next door is home to an eccentric old aviator, well known as an inadvertent troublemaker in the neighborhood. Voiced by the reliable Jeff Bridges doing his patented folksy grandpa, the eccentric character befriends the lonely, regimented girl, and introduces her to the story he is writing about his encounter with a mysterious little prince after crash landing in the desert. Expect the usual gaggle of talented voices, including Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Bud Cort, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, James Franco, Paul Giamatti and Albert Brooks. It’s sweet, family friendly stuff, but in the second half the film veers off into awkward territory that seems at odds with what came before. The filmmakers attempt to have it both ways: the aviator’s tale is just a story… but it’s also reality, and this dichotomy becomes apparent when after her geriatric friend is hospitalized, the girl commandeers his old biplane and takes off in search of the little prince who has been coopted by the adult world- turned into a working drone and alienated from the child within- a parallel to the girl’s relationship with her well-meaning but rigidly controlling mum. There is a marvelous cameo from an attention-seeking cop delightfully voiced by Ricky Gervais in a very fun turn. Lots to enjoy here, despite the story that seems to exploit the story of “The Little Prince” rather than celebrate it.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE   (2016) ***

Another installment of this big, bombastic, entertaining franchise. Helmed again by the redoubtable Bryan Singer, there is always something to look at. Oscar Isaac is the new ingredient here- almost unrecognizable as a really nasty, almost omniscient supernatural being trapped under the rubble of a pyramid for millennia until he is accidentally revived to wreak havoc on the modern world. There’s not much to say about these Marvel Studio films that I have not already said. They are all but interchangeable. Great cast elevating patently silly material that should not appeal to grown adults- but they do. They bring out the comic book collecting kid in us- and that’s a good thing.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2  (2017) ***+

Anyone who read my review of the first film in this ongoing franchise knows I loved it. I gave it 4-and-a-half stars after all, my highest possible rating. It struck me as a future classic of the adolescent fantasy genre. The trailers for part 2 promised more of the same- a commercial effort, giving the people what they want. Nothing wrong with that if you want the product they are selling. I did. Enough to actually go out into the real-world, to a 3-D, live, in the flesh movie theater to see it- something I don’t do much anymore. But I like to see big films on a big screen, and despite the indignities of having to pay to endure the commercial hype that preceded the feature in an unpleasantly smelly auditorium, I went to the cheap Tuesday matinee- the very last time the flick was showing anywhere in Santa Cruz. There were about 10 people in the house. Too bad, because this tamps down the unbridled willingness to laugh, when deprived of the social permission of laughing along with others. I first noticed this on my second viewing of the original GHOSTBUSTERS. The first showing was in a packed theater, filled with riotous laughter. The second showing played to a nearly empty house- to a smattering of guffaws here and there. The movie was no less funny, in and of itself: it was the audience that was different. That said, GUARDIANS 2 was certainly not the fresh blast of fun the first chapter was. In fact, the first half hour or so felt flatter than a pancake. I was ready to enjoy myself, but the flick didn’t seem to engage. The overheated humor felt entirely by-the-numbers predictable and the actors just seemed to be mouthing their lines to get the scene in the can. The action sequences just felt like… action sequences. All that remained was the pretty eye-candy Marvel films are known for. Thankfully after this stilted prologue, the film kind of clicked into gear, and once the movie became grounded in empathetic emotion, it got a whole lot better. Chris Pratt was boring white bread, as usual. The sultry Zoe Saldana was a commanding presence behind her green makeup. Kurt Russell hammed it up more than usual, as an eternal Godlike-being with a fatal flaw. Faring best of all, big lunky meathead Thrax (Dave Bautista) had some wonderful moments playing against type as the gentle giant, tenderly cradling the too-precious computer generated Baby Groot. All-in-all, fairly predictable, as these things tend to be. Still, plenty of fun to be had with his motley crew of unlikely intergalactic heroes. One can only hope the next installment (foreshadowed, as always) will offer just as much joy and emotion, but a few more surprises than this one was able to muster.

OKJA  (2017) ***

Netflix is having some fun creating original programming. This broad (vegetarian) fantasy was produced with the singular Korean director Bong Joon-ho, most remembered for the extraordinary SNOWPIERCER. This is a dark pseudo “family” fable about a young Korean girl raising one of 24 genetically engineered “super pigs”, the Okja of the title. After a decade bonding with the sweet giant porcine, the evil corporation that created him wants to take him back… for the slaughterhouse. (Okja was designed to be delicious.) With the help of some radical animal rights folks led by the ubiquitous Paul Dano who really isn’t given much to do, it’s a ‘girl vs. unmovable system’ film. Lots to enjoy here including zany, fevered, over-the-top turns from Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal- but the film somehow feels less than the sum of its parts. Certainly some magic here, but it’s all rather labored and clumsily manipulative. The girl in the lead is of no interest whatsoever. The real star here is the computer generated hog, who feels very much like PONYO on steroids. Some fun- but not even in the same filmic universe as SNOWPIERCER.

*

> Not a busy month, but a good one. Until next time our paths cross, peace, friends… and: 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.

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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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