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Monday, January 15, 2018

THE POST 1/15/18


Spielberg often directs provocative films, but recently he has relied on obvious tropes to depict his characters and plots; they are often so cliched that I could not help but wince in the theater and was told to shush by another patron. Drama is"heightened" by placing familiar barriers in the path of the fulfillment of a time-sensitive mission. Ie: a car almost hitting a copy boy running to deliver important papers. Sigh.....

On the other hand, it is worth seeing THE POST (referring to The Washington Post newspaper) and its 1971 role in the publication of The Pentagon Papers which exposed the hypocrisy of United States Presidents going back to Truman, on the reality of the so-called "successes" of American soldiers fighting in Indo-China, the area later known as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. 

The source of these potent revelations was Daniel Ellsberg who today, at 86 is making the talk-show rounds reliving for a new audience his historical whistleblower experience; the extraction of top secret papers from the Rand Corporation and secretly giving them to The NY Times and The Washington Post for publication. 
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/us/pentagon-papers-post.html?_r=0


Tom Hanks appears especially fit - what happened to his doughy face of yore? Here he looks svelte and passionately portrays Ben Bradlee- a bit of a strutting peacock - the Post's Executive Editor, who believes it is critical to get this story out to the public. Freedom of the press and the unraveling of lies and propaganda in the search for truth is this journalist’s credo.

Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham is both overly awkward (Spielberg making a point and overdoing it) and a fierce defender of the paper her family has run for years - a newspaper that often comes in second when being compared to the NY Times, and one that is in financial difficulties. Being a woman running a paper, surrounded by men who do not take you seriously, is challenging and we see the evolution of Graham’s confidence and resolve in doing what she intensely feels is right - and the respect eventually accorded her by the men who only saw her as a presence to be tolerated.


THE POST resonates at this time because of Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” crusade to silence the voices of criticism and the many women who are screaming to be taken seriously in the workplace - not only in 1971 but just as fervidly today.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

GET OUT




GET OUT directed by Jordan Peele is like no other film that I have ever seen; not a  conventional comedy, nor a conventional horror movie - but rather a trenchant psychological thriller about black/white relations incorporating myth, history, and racial symbolism resulting in an intelligent, profoundly moving fable. GET OUT opens with an abduction of an innocent young black man who is lost, aimlessly searching for an address on a quiet suburban street in the dark of night - this one abbreviated cinematic moment encapsulates years of racial violence, forecasting what lies ahead for the viewer.

We witness a young couple who appear to be disarmingly happy - a young African American man Chris Washington (an excellent Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a lovely Allison Williams) packing in preparation for a visit to her parent's home in the suburbs. Once they are in the car leaving the city they allegorically cross a “color line”  and the mystery and tension mount with baleful incidents that augur a grim future.



When they arrive at their destination, we observe in the behavior towards Chris, a cool veneer that is draped over each character like a shroud of duplicity, particular Rose’s “liberal” parents (the wonderful Catherine Keener as her mother Missy) along with a groups of friends who are invited to an annual lawn party. Each character is satirically delineated with a familiarity that betrays their inner bigotry. GET OUT is so biting that the ensuing marks claw deeply under our skins. 


Jordan Peele (formerly of Key and Peele) in his directorial debut makes memorable use of his powerful comedic skill, but this time we do not laugh with joy, but we drown in the despair of a modern-day allegory of stereotypical attitudes and conspiratorial stratagems towards Afro-Americans that are as original and devastating as a science-fiction tale. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

WONDER WHEEL 12/18/17





WONDER WHEEL, written and directed by Woody Allen falls flat. It is redeemed - only slightly - by the nostalgic soundtrack and the overly-saturated colors blanching out the inherent seediness of Coney Island in the 1950’s. I am familiar with the intensely restless lure of hot summer days at the beach, having ridden the A train for up to 2 hours from my family’s Washington Heights apartment with groups of friends to the gritty sands fingering the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean - though Rockaway and Orchard Beach in the Bronx were my destinations. Shops nestled into the makeshift enclaves of the boardwalk wooing us with games of chance, hawking prizes that when we finally won - felt like jewels; “making out” under the boardwalk where it was dark and dank, the sunlight creating stripes on our exposed arms and legs was a familiar “go to” place - our hearts and groins throbbing. 


Alas, I felt none of the above ambiance in Allen’s latest movie - despite the gorgeous backdrop. Wonder Wheel  is a melodrama replete with gangsters, a dreamer poet, a wife-beating drunk and a failed actress as well as a strange pyromaniac child - “symbols” of thwarted “fate” - a point repeatedly stated by the earnest, lightweight poet Mickey portrayed by a cooly detached Justin Timberlake who is having an affair with the frustrated housewife, Ginny ( a harried Kate Winslett) who is turning 40 years old, mired in a miserable marriage, working as a waitress instead of pursuing her thespian ambitions, and in a constant state of hysteria which quickly becomes boring and repetitive losing its emotional impact. What has happened to Allen’s originality with language? Instead, the actors resort to over-the-top Brooklyn accents - a contrivance that is a blanket smothering the insipid dialogue with affectation. 


Juno Temple plays Caroline, a beautiful young woman,  the most complex and fully written character in Wonder Wheel  - with her shining blonde hair gleaming like a star, fleeing to her working-class father (Jim Belushi) and stepmother in Coney Island where she hides out from pursuing mobsters becoming the fulcrum for the ensuing narratives. 



Woody Allen has been relying on “place” (envisioned by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) and recruiting wonderful actors in minor roles to enrich his most recent works, but I get a sense that no one’s heart is in this film least of all Woody Allen. Wonder Wheel feels like a “one-off” - the requisite yearly production that keeps this once great director occupied.  Questions of betrayal, aging, the illusion of creativity’s power, and ultimately the direction that our lives take - all these issues are brushed up against with the lightest of touch, but never held in a firm generous grasp.

Friday, November 24, 2017

SPIKE LEE'S SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT - NETFLIX 11/24/17

I binge-watched: 10 episodes in 5 hours of Director Spike Lee's new Netflix series SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT where Lee attempts to address the Brooklyn of today in contrast to the original Brooklyn that he filmed in 1986 - 31 years ago. We see how much has changed in the Borough, impacting the local populace both optically and financially. White people have taken over brownstones in the neighborhoods - buying up properties which then propel shops and cafe's to dot the streets serving their needs. Gentrification is addressed in the film loud and clear.


The SHE is a young "struggling" artist, Nola Darling who is strikingly beautiful and seemingly self-confident, but defensively so - a woman who has no trouble juggling three lovers. I kept thinking that Spike Lee was desperately searching for sub-plots to keep this particular story-line going beyond a woman's insatiable sexual appetite, reversing how men behave toward women, but even that can get boring. Yes, women, today are free to treat the other sex like objects for gratification and temporary fulfillment - which seemed to be the in-your-face message. So to fill the gap there is lip service paid to almost every social issue affecting the community, except the opioid crisis - the ever-present weed (or the many names that it goes by) is now taken for granted and socially (if not legally) acceptable. I did rejoice in the fact that Nola took her art seriously, and spent a lot of time making it, not allowing her "suitors" to be a distraction.

Visually Lee does some "cool" things in SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT such as:
Filming a love poem to Brooklyn, NYC

Focusing on the sensuality of black women annexing all the senses including smell, taste, and touch.

Introducing pop up stills of the musicians and artists, and writers Lee admires which flash on the screen unexpectedly.

Referencing the November 2016 Presidential election with a powerful visual diatribe against newly elected Donald Trump.

And Lee's paen to the death of multitudes of historically distinguished black artists/writers/musicians/leaders is beautifully and simply done - with an image of a rose.

Those are the precious moments when the series moves us.

It is the characters themselves, particularly the three chosen men that are cardboard cut-outs; often defining a distinctive trait and representative of a specific class structure whose humanity has been veneered by caricature. One of the few exceptions is a homeless Afghanistan veteran, Papo da Mayor played by Elvis Nolasco, who is never without a cart brimming with "the detritus of the street - (garbage to most) which he transforms into art. Whenever he appears, his genuineness shines a light on the moral emptiness of the other characters.There is also Nola's mother (acted by Joie Lee,) who has acquired some wisdom and acts like someone you would want to know better and spend time with - a person who has been enriched by life experiences. She is no fool.

Spike Lee is trying to "do the right thing" by women and in the credits many of the writers are women - but most of the male characters cannot be penetrated - no pun intended.
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Sunday, November 19, 2017

LADY BIRD 11/19/17




Greta Gerwig, usually disappoints me - as an actress and now in her writing and directorial debut, LADY BIRD, a coming-of-age film about a seventeen-year-old girl growing up in Sacramento “…the Midwest of California…” (the best line in the film,) and the love/hate relationship she has with her working-class family and peers. Social distinctions figure prominently in Gerwig’s cinematic world of “ironic class strivers.” I keep wondering why I am left cold by her words and her characters and eventually understood that LADY BIRD is too self-consciously trying to be inclusive - inclusive of every contemporary issue - touching upon a diversity of characters and situations with momentary episodic flashes.The touch is light, illustrating concerns rather than delving into them, giving us tokenism - glossing over deep pain and longing with a CliffsNotes diminution.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson - a nickname she gives herself to appear distinctive. I am sympathetic to the aspirations of a young, self-involved teenager searching for a path to glamour and excitement. Youth is an innocent time - one open to endless fantasies - reality has not yet penetrated the hermetic world of dreams. The “firsts” of the teen years - first kiss, first sexual experience leading to the loss of virginity, first self-awareness of one’s own ethical and moral values, and the critical realization that the world is not always spinning for you alone - solely for your personal gratification.

The film opens with Lady Bird and her mother - a wonderful performance by Laurie Metcalf - who is driving and listening to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath on audio tape - both simultaneously weeping, moved by the beauty of the spoken words; their mirrored responses reflect their enduring affection. And suddenly the mood is shattered and we see the other side of their relationship - a mother who works double shifts as a psychiatric nurse to supplement the family income so that her daughter can go to a private Catholic school; the burden of monetary expenses weighs heavily on her shoulders.  The ever-present resentment that comes with sacrifice is often unleashed on her oblivious daughter in a torrent of sarcasm, humiliation, and disparagement.


Greta Gerwig is at her best in the scenes between mother/father and daughter. A lovely tenderness exists which is often choked and stifled by the exigencies of financial straits.The underpinnings are there for a truly fine movie, but in the rush to cast a wide net, Gerwig compromises her subjects’ humanity, placing a veil of bromides over what could have been profound interactions. Maybe next time. I hope so.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT 10/22/17



THE FLORIDA PROJECT directed by Sean Baker is a film that left me with a sadness I could not shake all evening. Still thinking about a movie which gives us the best performance by Willem Dafoe I have seen in years, finally shedding the horror edge he often exhibits to display a complex humane being. The action takes place in Orlando Florida's honky-tonk atmosphere of cheap motels and stores surrounding the "magical" Disneyland dream destination.



I guiltily found myself feeling terribly judgemental towards the single-almost-children-themselves moms in the throes of "hard" living; their hand to mouth struggles to exist, and the laissez-faire attitude towards taking care of their offspring. Yet, I admired a certain freedom that comes from a who-gives-a-damn- about- me - attitude when you know you are fighting a losing battle and anything is possible - where time is compressed into the moment.


The children were not sentimentally cute but cunningly so. Kids who are growing up running wild; a total lack of respect for others a mini-version of their parents but with their innate empathy still unbroken. The insights of Moonee ( a terrific Brooklynn Prince) are penetrating, her intelligence spurs the pack of friends onto new adventures whether it is scamming a tourist for the ice cream cone which the group takes turns licking with the innocent sensuality of children; or sitting on a curved, bent tree with her best friend, telling her why it is her favorite tree - appreciating its visual history.



Here is an enchantment that is not produced commercially by the Disney Corporation; Moonee's childhood delight is raw and grating full of laughter and at times perilous mischief-on-thin-ice.