BlacKkKlanasman (2018)

Movie Blurb

Blackkklansman

This has been a pretty good year for black filmmakers with Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting coming out of Oakland, both very fresh, very original, and entertaining, each packed with a powerful punch. Here comes along a Spike Lee Joint. It is Spike’s best effort in years. The brother is back in full form and he has plenty of mojo to boot!

This brilliant film is based on the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK. It is very timely in its theme of white supremacists who want to take America back and to make America great again.

It is a reminder that White House is currently inhabited by white supremist racists and backed by David Duke and the KKK. Trump and Duke both make cameo appearances in the film as well as stock footage of the riots in Charlottesville where Trump smugly says there were some very fine people on both sides. Ha ha! Ho Ho!

This is a must see for everyone in America. Spike’s practiced hand is at the tiller of this skillfully wrought movie. It jumps immediately to my top 10 list and as of now it sits on top.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Movie Review

Joan of Arc poster

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (original title) is a silent film that was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was motivated to watch this film as it was referenced by Paul Schrader as an example of transcendental film style in his book, Transcendental Style in Film:  Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and in recent interviews he has given about his latest film, First Reformed (2017). I wanted to see first-hand what this style of film looked like.

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In 1431, Jeanne d’Arc was placed on trial on charges of heresy. The church attempted to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions. They tried various forms of coercion and threatened her with torture. Finally, in a moment of weakness, she confesses, but later in her jail cell she recants her confession and is then burned at the stake as a witch.

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There is transcendence here as Jeanne is in touch with God or rather He her. She has been sent on a mission by God to run the British out of France. Jeanne hears the voice of God talking to her but this not believed by the clergy who accuse her heresy.

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Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl living in medieval France who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to a victory in its long running (100 years) war with England. She convinced Prince Charles, who was later to be crowned King Charles of France, to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orleans where she won a decisive victory over the British. She was later captured by British forces and tried for witchcraft and heresy and subsequently sentenced to be burned at the stake. She was 19. From that moment on she was known as the Maid of Orleans. Jeanne d’Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920. In all there were 70 charges lodged against Jeanne for witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was burned for dressing like a man, the most unpardonable sin of all, which according to the Bible was an abomination to the Lord.

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The film is considered to be a masterpiece of the cinema and I readily agree. It is shot largely in close-ups in crisp black and white against stark gray background. It is silent but the version I saw was accompanied by a musical score that was created for the movie in 1994 called Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. It is an astonishing piece of work and is very effective in driving the action and setting the mood. I would, however, like to watch the movie sometime in silence as that is the way Dreyer intended it to be seen.

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The story is mainly told through the range of expressions on the faces of the characters as Jeanne suffers the agony of the trial. The camera work consists of low angle shots and high contrast lighting which made the faces priests and other interrogators look all the more grotesque. Jeanne, in contrast, was shot in soft even lighting. The character of Jeanne was played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti. Roger Ebert said in his review, “You cannot know the history of silent films unless you know the face of Renee Jeanne Falconetti.”

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Based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc the entire film was shot in continuity. It depicts the suffering of Jeanne as she is tormented, humiliated and finally burned alive at the stake. This is the Passion of Jeanne which mirrors the passion of the Christ. Jeanne screams out in agony at the end of the film, “Jesus!”

Dryer presents this film as the triumph of the human spirit over the trials and tribulations of life experience.  He strives for new forms of expressionism as he focuses on the visual expressions of the human face.

My original motivation, as I stated earlier, was to view this film from an academic point of view in order to learn more about transcendental style, but I came away more enriched for having had the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Reformed (2017)

Movie Review

First Reformed poster

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds you of why you love movies so much. Sometimes you forget because there is so much crap out there in commercial fare. First Reformed is just such a movie. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it is a movie not to be missed.

First a little about Paul Schrader. He is now 71. When he was 24 and a film student he wrote a book, which proved to be very influential in the coming years, entitled, Transcendental Style in Film. He fell under the sway of esteemed film critic Pauline Kael and became a film critic himself. Two years later he was writing and directing films. He is best known for Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). He has 24 screen writing credits and 23 director credits. Even though he is known for a particular style he has never employed the transcendental style in any of his movies. Until now.

First Reformed is shot in transcendental style which Schrader first defined as a 24-year-old film student. What is transcendental style anyway? A style of filmmaking employed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu. Transcendental style is an attempt to withhold certain cinematic elements the viewer might expect to see. Sometimes a static camera is employed, sometimes a kinetic camera. Slower cuts and fewer cuts. The camera might linger on a doorway a little while longer after a character leaves a scene, A static camera lingers on an empty room as characters enter then exit. The camera holds a little longer than expected. These devices are intended to make the viewer “lean’ in to the movie and to engage the viewer. It is a style that is intended to bring the viewer closer to the “other”, to the mystery.

It is called transcendental because there is a spiritual dimension that is sought after. This is achieved through style not content. Schrader later revealed in interviews that he realized what he was witnessing in some of the films he studied was an outgrowth of post WWII neorealism.

Schrader breaks from that style twice in First Reformed. The first time is a tender scene in which Toller and Mary lie on top of each other while they try to match their breathing patterns. Schrader asks himself, what would Tarkovsky do? Levitate! So, he has the couple mysteriously begin to levitate. The other time is the film’s final scene, which is I won’t describe here.

Schrader freely admits who his influencers were: “There is a little Tarkovsky in there. The credits are from Rossellini. The barbed wire is from Flannery O’Connor (I knew it!). That’s the secret of creativity. You have to steal around.” Also, it is pretty evident that Winter Light (1963), directed by Ingmar Bergman, was the blueprint for this film.

Ethan Hawke, in probably the best performance of his career, plays Reverend Ernest Toller, a character in spiritual crisis. He is pastor at the First Reformed Church which is a spin off of a mega-church called Abundant Life Ministries run by Reverend Joel Jeffers, played very effectively by Cedrick the Entertainer (Cedric Kyles) in an unusual casting choice.

Toller’s church is small and has few parishioners. The source of his pain is that as a military chaplain he encouraged his son to enlist in the army who was later killed in action in Iraq. His marriage did not survive his son’s death. His ministry at First Reformed is sort of a penance.

One morning after service a young woman approaches Toller and asks him to counsel her husband. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is with child. Her husband Michael is going through a spiritual crisis of his own. He is an environmental activist and is very depressed at the thought of bringing a child into the world that is undergoing the throes of devestating climate change. He wants Mary to have an abortion. During their counseling session Michael asks the question, “Will God Forgive us for destroying his creation?”

Toller is a drinking man and keeps a journal in his spare study. He continues to drink and slips further into despair. After his dealings with Michael he slowly starts to become radicalized. He moves closer to Mary but cannot overcome his despair. The movie progresses to a startling conclusion which leaves the viewer a little bit perplexed. It is an ambiguous ending and we don’t know for sure if what we are witnessing is reality. In any case this is a powerful film that one is not likely soon to forget.

 

 

 

Wonder Wheel (2017)

Movie Review

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One of my many guilty pleasures as a film buff is watching the films of Woody Allen. I know he is a controversial artist but I love his films anyway. Thus, the source of my guilt. Can we separate the art from the artist? I don’t know. But I do love his films.

His latest foray into the cinematic realm is the nostalgia laden Wonder Wheel, which takes place at Coney Island in the 1950’s.

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Kate Winslet as Ginny

The critics have been harsh on this film but unjustly so in my opinion. They have slammed the writing concluding there was not much point to the film. Au Contraire. This is a wonderful piece of entertainment, if a bit melodramatic, but melodrama was indeed the point.

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Juno Temple as Carolina

I think the critics just don’t like Woody Allen, for obvious reasons, and continually judge him by his best work of the past. In Hollywood you are only as good as your last time at bat.

Now here’s the bad part. Sometimes Kate Winslet’s character seems to be channeling Blanche du Bois and sometimes she seems to be channeling Mia Farrow. Definitely heard some Woody Allen coming from Mickey the Lifeguard and what about that red headed step child who was a pyromaniac? Could that be Ronan Farrow burning down the house? And let us not forget the plot twist of Mickey overthrowing the older Ginny for her stepdaughter Carolina. And you thought your had drama in your life.

There is dark humor in this film as well a pathos. Kate Winslet is a wonder in Wonder Wheel giving one of her most emotionally resonant performance in years as an aging would be actress (I coulda been a contenda) stuck in a dead end life as a waitress in a clam house on the boardwalk at Coney Island and living in an apartment in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Jim Belucshi is Stanley Kowalski to her Blanche. Yes, I see echoes of Tennessee Williams here.

The real star of the show is Coney Island as depicted by the wonderful cinematography of famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The the amazing color in Wonder Wheel perfectly captures the time of the period and is achingly beautiful.

Two thumbs way up for this Woody Allen cinematic classic.

L’Avventura (1960)

Movie Review

L'Avventura poster

Lavventura (1960) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni is a film about boredom. Boredom of the Italian bourgeoisie. Ostensibly a mystery and a detective story it depicts the emptiness of the lives of a group of rich Italians as they go through their daily lives striving to find something to stave off their deadly ennui. Usually they do this through sexual peccadillo and intrigue.

Albert Camus in his celebrated essay on the Myth of Sisyphus posited that there are only two valid philosophical questions: 1) in the face of the absurdity of existence and a life devoid of meaning should I commit suicide? 2) if no, the how do I overcome ennui? This theme is fully explored in L’Aventurra. While Camus says that in a life devoid of meaning we must give our lives meaning by our our own actions the characters in this film are merely going through the paces of living and relieving their boredom in the most meaningless way possible. In in the end they are mere empty shells truly devoid of  any meaning.

Anna & Sandro

The group of wealthy Italians head out on a yachting trip to a deserted volcanic island in the Mediterranean. When they are about to leave the island, they discover that Anna (Lea Massari) has disappeared. Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) , who is Anna’s fiance and Claudia (Monica Vitti) , Anna’s friend, try without success to find her. While looking for Anna Claudia and Sandro develop an attraction for each other. When they get back to land, they continue the search with no success. Sandro and Claudia proceed to become lovers, betraying the missing Anna. They then search the Italian countryside and various cities in search of her and have an adventure and fling of their own while doing so.

Claudia & Sandro

Beyond the meaning of the film there is there is the theatricality and cinematic quality of the camera work which serves to support the themes of the movie. Antonioni is known for his geometric compositions, static camera, and long takes. This is what I especially admire in his films and this one is no exception.

When first viewed by audience at Cannes it was booed. Later it won the Jury prize and has become acclaimed as a masterpiece.

 

I rate this film 8/10.

Red Desert (1964)

Movie Blurb

Red Desert

Il Deserto Rosso was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first foray into color and a painterly palette did he choose. He explores the themes of alienation in the modern world and the divorce between reality and spirituality. His scenes of industrialized post war Italy are both beautiful and frightening. Progress comes with a cost. Monica Vitti is extraordinary as the wife of the plant manager who suffers a mental breakdown in the face of modernity.

I rate this movie 8/10.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Movie Review

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the brilliant evocation of an American horror story. It was definitely the most disturbing film that I saw in 2017 and yet it made my Top 10 List.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started watching this film and I was slowly drawn into the seeming banality of the of the characters. The movie opens with a scene of open heart surgery performed by Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) which is nothing less than spectacular. This was a real surgery. It was filmed during an operation on a real patient who was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery.

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In a subsequent scene early on in the film we see the famed heart surgeon making friends with a young man. We don’t know exactly why or who this young man is. Is he a family member? A friend? A neighbor? A little at a time the story unfolds and we learn that the boy’s father was a patient of the heart surgeon and that the father died on the operating table. We surmise that the doctor feels badly about the boy losing his father and he is making friends with him in some sort of an attempt to appease the boy and possibly mollify his own feelings of guilt.

Sacred deer

Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan

Slowly they form an emotional bond and the doctor invites the boy over to meet his family. Everything seems to be normal at first but there is a creepy feeling that something just below the surface is not right.

Spoilers ahead

Martin befriends the children and forms an emotional attachment to Kim, the daughter.  Before long a mysterious illness befalls both children and they lose the use of their legs. We learn later that somehow Martin has caused this illness to occur. He then makes a crucial demand upon Stephen in order to save their lives. It seems Martin blames the death of his father on Stephen. Martin demands that a sacrifice must be made in order to set things right. Stephen must make a horrible choice as to who in the family to sacrifice.

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Nicole Kidman with the two children played by Sonny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy

This is where the killing of  deer comes into play. The movie is loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia. In Greek mythology Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was to be sacrificed for the sins of her father. He had killed a sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The goddess demanded in retribution that Agamemnon kill his daughter Iphigenia.

There are other disturbing aspects to this film There is a strange sexuality that exists between the doctor and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Also, Anna has a sexual interlude with the anesthesiologist who was on duty on the day that Martin’s father died. This she did in order to get information from him about her husband’s condition on the day of  the fateful surgery.

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The scenes in film were  shot in a manner to put one in mind of a series of Edward Hopper paintings. Which is to say they carried with them an emotional weight and a strange beauty.

Nicole Kidman was in fine form here as Anna, the doctor’s wife. Is there anything she can’t do? Colin Farrell was very good as Stephen Murphy, the surgeon and Barry Keoghan was sufficiently strange and creepy as Martin.

I liked this film but it is not for everyone. It was extremely disturbing and strangely cathartic.

 

HOSTILES (2018)

Movie Blurb

Hostiles

I just love westerns. Not too many good ones come down the pike anymore but this one is pretty good. A bit slow and talky for an oater but that didn’t seem to bother me none. This is a thinking man’s western. With themes about the hatred of the other, brutality, love and death, and redemption, you know, the usual. Strong writing, directing and acting. Christian Bale is particularly convincing as Captain Blocker who must do his duty by escorting his old enemy Yellow Hawk back to his ancestral homeland in Montana. Complications ensue. People change. Photography of the American West is is achingly beautiful which is another reason to love westerns. Rate this 70%

PHANTOM THREAD

Movie Review

Phantom Thread

One measure of how good a movie is, I think, is how long it stays with you. I have been thinking about Phantom Thread ever since I first saw it a few days ago. There is much to unpack here. This movie is essentially a love story between two strong willed, eccentric people from very different backgrounds. There is also an element of a ghost story thrown in for good measure, hence the phantom part of the title. Early in the film the main character, Reynolds Woodcock, tells his sister Cyril, “It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living. I don’t find that spooky at all.” He sews different artifacts and relics from his dead mother into the lining of his clothes so that she will always be with him. He also sews little secret messages into the clothes he designs for his clients, the wealthy and the Royal.

This is a movie about a famous dressmaker working in 1950’s London. Another period piece for director Paul Thomas Anderson. PTA is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. He has a collection of very quirky but well put together movies to his credit. And this one is no different.  He has been nominated for five Academy Awards and has led seven actors in Oscar nominated roles: Burt Reynolds, Juliane Moore, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis (2X’s), Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Leslie Manville. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his performance in There Will Be Blood (2007). My personal favorite movie of his, however, is Inherent Vice (2014), starring Joaquin Phoenix.

The fastidious dressmaker in Phantom Thread is Reynolds Woodcock played with just the right amount of fussiness by Daniel Day-Lewis. He brings to the role the same level of obsessiveness in creating the character of Reynolds Woodcock as Reynolds Woodcock brings to creating those beautiful dresses and gowns of his. It is a match made in heaven. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business side of things. Reynolds is a confirmed bachelor and goes through a string of girls and drops each one as he tires of them. Then one day out for breakfast he meets a strong willed young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who catches his fancy. She moves in with him to become his muse and lover. She is more than he bargained for. His once controlled and planned life is now disrupted by love. Reynolds can be cold, domineering, moody and loathe to be interrupted in his work. Alma, finds an interesting way of getting his attention and securing his love.

The film is beautifully shot by Paul Thomas Anderson and is a wonder to behold. The original score by  Johnny Greenwood  perfectly compliments the film and drives the action.

I highly recommend this magnificent motion picture and give it a 9/10.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POST (2017)

Movie Review

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I just love newspapers and movies about newspapers.   The Post (2017) rivals some of the best pictures from the past such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Front Page (1974), and All the President’s Men (1976). The Post probably has more in common with All the President’s Men than the others because both movies are about the same newspaper, the Washington Post, and the subject matter was similar; political intrigue. As a matter of fact, the Watergate break in happened the very next year after the publication of the Pentagon Papers and resulted in the resignation of an American president, Richard Nixon. But that is another story and another movie.  These movies show the power of the press and its importance in American society. Justice Hugo Black once said, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

The Post gives us a nostalgic look back at what the newspaper business used to be like. From the loud, busy, bustling news room to the Linotype operators and the press room, it was a miracle they were able to get a paper out on time as it was such a huge undertaking. Things have changed in the world of journalism since the advent of computers and the internet, but I found it fascinating to see the actual operation of getting a paper out on deadline. I’ve seen it before in real life. As a young Loss Control Representative two of my accounts were the Louisville Courier-Journal and Standard Gravure. Together they published two daily newspapers. It was my job six times a year to inspect their entire operation. It was a fascinating and exciting process to witness.

The Post is concerned with the publication of the infamous and so-called Pentagon Papers. When American military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) realizes the extent of the US government’s deception regarding the Vietnam War, he copies top-secret documents that would become the Pentagon Papers.  Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, played to perfection by Tom Hanks, discovers the New York Times has scooped them with an explosive expose on those papers. Nixon gains a court injunction on the New York Times prohibiting them from further publication of the Papers or what they have learned from them. Bradlees finds Ellsberg and obtains copies for himself and talks the owner of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham, into publishing them. Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham in one of her best performances in years. The case goes before the Supreme Court and a ruling in favor the Times and the Post is rendered. One justice was quoted as saying, “The court rules in favor of the governed, not the governors.”

Steven Spielberg is not my favorite director, but that is just a matter of personal taste. He is unquestionably an American master filmmaker. I loved his Indiana Jones series and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But His masterpiece, in my opinion, was and always will be, Schindler’s List. The Post comes in a close second.