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Bugsy

Allied

Where Eagles Dare

The Words/Night Train

Running with Scissors

Jefferson in Paris

Fences

Justin Timberlake

The Pride and Passion

Exposed

Ran

The Scapegoat

 

 

 

 

 

Adore

Albert Nobbs

All the Way

American Hustle

American Sniper

Amour

Anna Karenina

Argo/ZeroDark 30

Atlas Shrugged Pt 1

Atlas Shrugged Pt 1I

Atlas Shrugged Pt III

August: Osage County

Bad Education

Before Sunrise, Sunset

Before the Devil...

Begin Again

Beginners

Behind the Candelabra

Bernie

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Big Little Lies

Birdman

Biutiful

Black Swan

Blancanieves

Blue Jasmine

The Borgias

Boyhood

Bridesmaids

Bridge of Spies

Bright Lights

Broken Embraces

Bulworth

Burton and Taylor

The Butler

The Canal

Captain Phillips

Carnage

Carol

Chi-Raq

Cinderellla (2015)

The Company You Keep

The Conformist

Crazy Heart

The Crown

A Dangerous Method

The Danish Girl

The Descendants

Django Unchained

Doubt

Downton Abbey

The Duchess

Durrells in Corfu

Edge of Tomorrow

Enough Said

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The Family That Preys

Feud: Bette and Joan

The Fighter

Flight

For Colored Girls

Genius

Gone Girl

Good Behavior

Grace of Monaco

Gran Tarino

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Great Gatsby

The Help

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Hidden Figures

Hope Springs

House of Versace

The Hurt Locker

I'm Not A Serial Killer

I’m So Excited

Ides of March

Illusionst/Paitned Veil

The Imitation Game

Inception

Inglourious Basterds

Inside Llewyn Davis

Into the Woods

The Iron Lady

It’s Complicated

J. Edgar

The Kids Are All Right

Killer Joe

The King’s Speech

Kingdom of Heaven

La La Land

Larry Crowne

The Last Station

Les Misérables

A Little Chaos

Limitless

Lincoln

Looper

Ludwig

 

 

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Men

Magic Mike

The Master

Maurice

Midnight in Paris

Mildred Pierce (Winslet)

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

The Monuments Men

Mud

My Week w/ Marilyn

Myra Breckinridge

Nine

Nightcrawler

Noah

Nocturnal Animals

The Normal Heart

The 100 Foot Journey

Outlander

The Paperboy

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Pearl Harbor

Philomena

Pinero

Pittsburgh

Political Animals

Pompeii

Prometheus

Quartet

Ratatouille

The Reader

La reina del sur

The Revenant

Revolutionary Road

Robin Hood

Romantic Englishwoman

Room

Rosewater

The Rules of the Game

Safe House

St. Vincent

San Andreas

Savings Mr. Banks

The September Issue

Sex and the City 2

Shame

Sherlock Holmes

Shooter

Shutter Island

Silver Linings Playbook

A Single Man

The Skin I Live In

Skyfall

The Social Network

The Sorrow and the Pity

Spotlight

Stalingrad

Still Alice

This is Where I Leave You

Titanic 3D

To Rome with Love

Trainwreck

The Tree of Life

Trumbo

Truth

12 Years A Slave

2012

Venus

The Walker

War and Peace

War Horse

Whiplash

Wizard of Lies

Wolf  of Wall Street

Woman in Gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If fiction, we wouldn’t buy a minute of Florence Foster Jenkins. We might joke that moviemakers decided to take the character Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane and let Meryl Streep run with it, as another exercise in super business. At least four recent bouts before this one: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady and Into the Woods. Based on a Ripley-like believe or not, Meryl’s Florence isn’t quite a triumph of acting as it is a landside of gutsiness; in ways similar to her Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher, she cascades down upon us another “spot on” semi-satiric tribute. Frumped out in whacko regalia, Florence’s clueless aesthetic is the drawing card; according to published accounts of her concerts, the amusingly expressive audiences loved the rip-roaring effrontery, wrapped in a bedeviling naïveté. Nina Arlanda’s Agnes convulsively lets go for us and it’s cathartic, a recognition of our embarrassments: listening to Meryl’s botches, I quickly remembered a ROFLMFAO moment when sharing with friends my recorded butchery of Edu Lobo’s Brazilian scat classic Casa Forte. That “performance” was youthful, healthy diversion; I’m not too sure about Florence’s awareness in weighing the mocking response she received, in that the poignancy in the issue of illusion slowly brought on after reportedly contracting syphilis, at 18, on her wedding night, is left dangling. But what fun it must have been to be part of those very animated extras for the filming of the concerts, made risky when director Stephen Frears asked Meryl to sing and Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon to tickle the ivories live, foregoing the prerecordings. This in-movie audience is the best since Singing in the Rain. After watching FFJ, I was ready for a leave of absence from Meryl’s “acting.” Familiarity with process does breed contempt. Then, as one of the few virtues in channel surfing, the opportunity for a second viewing came up a few days ago and, in spite of being incessantly aware of her strive for the gold standard, it’s a reeducation if not a fix to watch her tune out the apparatus and procedurals of moviemaking to indulge in the cult of Florence’s screaming badness, exonerating Cole Porter’s repeated attendance at her sold out concerts. (11/02/2018)

The temptation would be to accept the nearly universally good reviews for Bugsy but how can something so uninvolving be called “the most exciting American movie of (its) year”? Unless “exciting” is subbing for nervous and there’s no debate that Warren Beatty’s Bugsy is on the extreme end of the jitters. Over at The New Yorker, critic Terrence Rafferty might be right to excuse James Toback’s half-baked script when he writes, “The screenplay portrays Bugsy as a charming, mercurial psychopath with a rather touching taste for glamour...(it) doesn’t really try to do anything more than reflect his contradictory personality as accurately as possible...(it doesn’t) waste time chasing after the meaning of Bugsy’s life...the film makers seem to realize that they can’t take their eyes off Bugsy for a second—that if they didn’t concentrate hard on the everyday details, if they stopped following all the little hairpin turns of his erratic behavior, they’d lose him. They can’t afford to pull back and look at the big picture. Besides, they don’t need to. Bugsy Siegel is a fascinating monster; we don’t want to take our eyes off him, either.” Most of us can’t take our eyes off of Bugsy because we’re afraid we will lose him. The moviemakers’ assumption is that their audience knows more about Siegel than it probably does and therefore they sneak by without clarifying at least some of his prerogatives, like the catered meal served under expensive warmers on tablecloth in jail. He has so many “hairpin” rushes that we can’t keep track; we’re caught in the maelstrom of compulsion that precludes his often wickedly successful takeovers and swindles and steals from L.A. stars. Deemed prestigious because it’s an audacious star vehicle, Bugsy is supposed to be Beatty as we’ve never seen him before and that’s right in the wrong way: he’s never been more daringly vacant of innards. We eventually realize the sole purpose Ben Kingsley’s Meyer Lansky serves—to try to fill some gaps. We definitely want to see Beatty go the distance, and we can feel him want to—this Bugsy is intended fearlessness and “the Oscar goes to” programmed in. (During his one very scary violent storm at the Flamingo, Beatty is telepathing to voters, “This is what will win me best actor.”) Yet glitches spring up regularly: Beatty’s biggest moments, his rages, are all shriek peaks. He doesn’t recover from his hysteria, or much else, and neither do we; we’re too exhausted to want to reconnect. Annette Bening wowed the critics too: a 90s kewpie doll who doesn’t look at all bad in lamé, she puts extra bitch zing into Toback’s “jerk yourself a soda” dialogue. She’s enough of the snippy, conniving and jealous Virginia Hill to get by with her own shrill moments—Bugsy is, finally, the Battle of the Shrill Kills—but she’s not even remotely romantic to get away with using Ingrid Bergman to Beatty’s Bogart for their Casablanca kiss-off. Notwithstanding the restricted appeal of subject matter, the lack of dividend in Bugsy is also due to Barry Levinson, who is about as synthetic as a director can get; so as not to forget, he manufactured new lows of sterile manipulation in the The Natural and Rain Man. Here he has Tinseltown blood coursing through his gangsters’ tantrums. He’s far removed from the closing-in-on-you horror of the beatings and murders and the fears of what’s coming next; he seems afraid to get close to the bloody pulp of the victims, including Bugsy. Levinson and photographer Allen Daviau allow reproductions of the period to look like second-rate forgeries, accuracy minus target. Holding to its original design, the Flamingo casino has the incipient Vegas ambiance of the artificial—its incongruity in the barren surroundings. Curiously it doesn’t allow for much caveat in the expensive detailing Bugsy demanded, which would be one of the reasons for the then-exorbitant $6 million dollar cost that would endanger his life. Unlike graffiti aerosol artists, Levinson and company spray millions of dollars worth of shitty shitty bang bang without the social reflection on the dapper psycho’s infamy having helped put Vegas on the map and its ersatz, upgraded to include Venetian canals and the Eiffel Tower and a glossy pyramid, controlling the landscape. (10/19/2018)

Perhaps better as a Joan Crawford follow up to the neglected 1942 Reunion in France, Robert Zemeckis’s 2016 Allied is more or less a tribute to 1944’s Casablanca. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard aren’t in any peril of becoming the movie legends Bogie and Ingrid became by chance event. No one making that classic mess knew from day to day where the hell they were going with the script nor any idea how it would all turn out. In the heavily pedantic Allied, we’re amply apprised that Brad and Marion are pre-Bondettes, that they’ll machine-gun down prominent Nazis in Morocco, take fast refuge to London, at which we’re quickly reminded of the silk and nylon stocking shortage in the midst of the blitz, and we’re fully briefed about the “blue dye” mission Brad has to perform or extricate from. At climax, the only detail not sorted out is the degree of Marion’s love for him. Romantics affirm, others skeptical, the split decision resulting from the unease that while there’s nothing screaming awful in their performances, neither is there evidence of potent conviction. Brad’s been in too many WWII actioners—he’s now gliding by, set into motion at the beginning when parachuting down in the Moroccan desert in the first of two weak sneaks from The English Patient, the other a sex scene in a car during a sandstorm that should be but isn’t penetrating thru door and window cracks. (How did the car keep its spotlessly washed and polished gleam in the middle of the desert before the storm?) Brad’s go at French has a soph charm; Marion’s fluency, however, is used as gaiety that also glides by as prop, lessening efficacy in espionage. She has costume issues too: a couple ensembles salute Ingrid’s, and Bette Davis’s in Now, Voyager, but when walking away from the camera in some robes, the lack of tailgate tailoring hints at a fat ass she might not have. Is there a single surprise anywhere? Brad’s sister. Though a supposedly true story British screenwriter Steven Knight picked up while traveling in Texas as a young naïve absorber, there are no black screen pronouncements of fact. Listless entertainment, Allied needs a lot of pick-me-ups. Smart money would be on Joan wanting to oblige. (9/28/2018)

Explaining why so many male moviegoers are hooked on 1968’s Where Eagles Dare isn’t as easy as it seems. The triviameisters over at Cinema Retro, in their lavish single edition celebrating the movie, set out to uncover secrets for its compulsive watchability but, armed with fresh angles, rare pictures and anecdotes, they don’t quite get to a revelatory summation. Long acknowledged guesses for its success include the odd couple casting of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood; the roster of back-numbers in ludicrous support; the dusky sylvan environs; and the mission impossible tasks dreamt up by Alistair MacLean, the culprit responsible for the genre of gung-ho WWII shoot-’em-ups starting with The Guns of Navarone. A portion of our compulsion might be in director Brian G. Hutton’s do or die efforts in overcoming obstacles to finish the movie. Burton, for instance, went on a three-day bender with buddies Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole and, from accounts verified by cast members, daily guzzled bottles of vodka on set. Huge snow storms and deep freeze temperatures also caused delays. One of the cult factors about the movie’s repeat appeal is that anytime it shows up on the telly somewhere, many of us watch transfixed; it seems to add to the experience knowing the movie’s not that good. The stronger equivalent might be comfort food—being bloated yet sated after pigging out on Weiner schnitzel and pomme frites or a dozen White Castle. Agree with others I’ve spoken to about how irredeemable we feel in being unable to resist looking forward to the various executions, making a game out of adding up the number of krauts Dick and Clint zap to Hell. (Untrue but Clint seems to waste more baddies than in any of his other films combined.) The favorite sequence remains the wipeout in the castle’s great hall, relishing lispy Anton Diffring, Engelbert Humperdinck clone Derren Nesbitt and sneery frau Olga Lowe going down. Okay, that’s plausibly the core addiction—the guiltless pleasure in Nazi body counts. Catching Where Eagles Dare for the umpteenth time the other day, that reliable high didn’t take its usual hold. An intervention happened: with growing apprehension about what’s happening in our nation and Europe, that good people are flummoxed to incapacitation by the reemerging virus that killed roughly 60 million people, the Hollywood fantasies ejaculating a celebratory destruction of Nazism aren’t cutting it anymore; they’re passé and delusive. Going back to reeducate myself about the tenor of the times when FDR was preparing America for a second war against Germany, someone famous keeps popping up—wealthy adulterer, racist and Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh. After meetings with FDR, during which Lindbergh went orgasmic over Hitler’s successes in revitalizing Germany, the president publicly censured him and his positions—one of them infamously ballyhooing that Hitler would do wonders for a conquered Europe. A shock but not much of a surprise that Americans and Europeans today are willing to forget history, or worse be brutishly proud of their ignorance in not knowing any, and be eager to auto-click their heels to “Heil Twitler!” and rationalize Putin. The curtain closes on Where Eagles Dare and reopens, in BingeArama, with World at War and, for the homefront, North and South. (9/14/2018)

Accidentally providential, Jeremy Irons made two movies about writers within a year. In 2012’s The Words, he is the real author of a novel (that becomes a highly praised best seller) he thought lost forever when, decades before, his former wife forgot to retrieve the briefcase, in which the book was stored, from the luggage rack on a Paris train. Sound familiar to Papaholics? The script, by co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sterntahl, is loosely based on the loss Ernest Hemingway suffered when first wife Hadley packed his scripts (including carbons) in a suitcase that would be stolen from a train in Paris and never recovered. Here’s the twist in the movie: failed writer Brad Cooper receives as gift from his wife a case he admired in a Paris book shop and, while examining its feel and design, discovers Irons’ typed manuscript, with only fingerprints attached as identification, in a hidden compartment. Ethical and moral issues abound when the two meet. In 2013’s Night Train to Lisbon, Irons is a Swiss professor who, spontaneously saving a young woman from suicide, comes upon a pocket-sized book and a ticket for the next express to the city in her unwittingly discarded coat. Unable to find her at the station, he throws caution to the wind and hops aboard. During the journey he gets increasingly absorbed in and curious about the book’s philosophically autobiographic musings of a Portuguese doctor living through the Estado Novo, the corporatist fascist regime of Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar, the forgotten neighbor to Spain’s Franco. Few over fifty in Portugal want to remember, either, until Irons starts probing. Both films are loaded with well-integrated flashbacks, supported by mostly fine actors and become companion pieces on the lasting power of words and consequential actions. Obviously Cooper, in The Words, differs from Papa in that he’s experiencing pain caused by the dilemmas resulting from taking credit for something he hadn’t the talent to write in the first place. (Josh Brolin faces a more diabolical situation for doing the same thing in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.) At the center of the confrontations with Irons there’s a modern mushiness, a satisfaction over the novel’s success while neither the imposter nor the authentic writer find a way to resolution. Dennis Quaid is not the answer; the hubris in his characterization and voice are purposeful with the intent to dangle a gnawing inconclusiveness medicated by long-term boozing, yet he’s the wrong actor to do it. As I see the deceiver, Cooper’s a Nervous Nellie looking around every corner for snitches; he wouldn’t have the cojones to evolve into a grinning dipshit con artist armed with corruptive bromides about choices. (Lasting echoes of the soothing effluence in Irons’s narration about the novel’s origins may be more paralyzing than the fears of being uncovered as a fraud, if we generously accept the manual typewriter as useable after being tossed in anger.) In Night Train to Lisbon, the connection Irons tries to make with the deceased doctor/author he never knew about and likely wouldn’t have, save the prevention of suicide, is also a stretch for educated viewers. Irons calls himself a divorced bore, so spent that he’s willing to forsake his comfort zone in a flash to—here we go—find meaning in his otherwise empty life through a hundred pages of lovely contemplation and, with flashbacks as testimonies, the heroism in the doctor’s struggle to save lives during the Estado Novo, including the life of the butcher of Lisbon. Irons plays meek, humble and exceptional politeness comfortably; when he arrives in Lisbon and begins inquiring into the doctor’s past, these handicaps turn into benefits—his visits to the doctor’s sister (Charlotte Rampling as a queasily incestuous Lauren Bacall), his eidetic memory lover, and their close circle in the resistance allow, after leery starts, the kind of openness a good fact-checking researcher strives for. Director Bille August, who would cast Irons as the pro-junta politician Esteban in The House of the Spirits, recognizes the insidiousness of fascism as if he too is a politico, and he looks like one, maybe even a prime minister. Having been attacked by critics for deficits in tension and fear, which were moderately brought to THOTS, he seems determined to be diplomatic, i.e., reserved in subterranean messaging. He allows Jack Huston’s doctor a valedictorian speech in a Catholic church that opens with his remark about liking cathedrals and then, to the shock of many adherents and observed by his father who is a Salazar-appointed judge, attacks the myths and follies promulgated in them. With much of Portugal’s senior citizenry remaining spooked about the era, the salience to which August aspires is not be deaf, dumb and blind to Camus’s warning that “it always comes back.” One of the unfortunately persistent blind spots in movies, Lisbon doesn’t get much visual attention here. Apart from the dulcet optometrist as trigger for renewal, August might have considered being more generous and viewers very appreciative by expanding her duties to include an ample walkabout. (8/24/2018)

Augusten Burroughs’s nutsy memoir Running with Scissors, the first of too many, is a fast read if stuck in airports or waiting for friends to stop texting. Purportedly revelatory about his growing up among cuckoos, it’s more like an audacious yarn and you might respond in a similar way many react to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist—intrigued by their quirky familial flavorings. Reading Burroughs and Tyler before seeing the movie versions, you could resist the adaptations because they reduce or exaggerate unconventionalities, proclivities and untreated inertia, such as never picking up a ringing phone or cleaning house. The 2006 movie of Running with Scissors, for example, does a disservice to the audience in its overkill depiction of Doctor Finch’s pink palace. The book describes its filth so that the reader creates his own vision. The movie loads on the gross extras and they may incapacitate for a while; taking in only a few glimpses of the kitchen, you fear you’re coming down with e.coli or ptomaine poisoning or the cooties. You sort of get passed the mise(ry)-en-scène since Ryan Murphy, in his début as movie director, never suppresses Burroughs’s aims to deliver the warped interactions with degrees of insight ranging from insufficient to deeply shallow. At the age of thirteen, chronically truant Augusten starts a dependency fling with a thirty-three-year-old schizoid ward of psychiatrist Doctor Finch. Augusten wants to blame the selfish seducer—Joseph Fiennes’s Bookman—and, implicitly, Brian Cox’s doctor, who not only tacitly okays the criminal sexual behavior but has also become Augusten’s legal guardian. In point of fact the match-up is the suggestion of one of Finch’s daughters—Evan Rachel Wood’s Natalie—and the initial seduction is hoped for by Augusten, only he hadn’t any experience to anticipate what his mouth would endure during the mating process. His love/hate relationship with Bookman is meant to mildly shock—in the book he occasionally threatens Bookman with charges of statutory rape—and to circumvent moralist outrage Murphy uses 19-year-old Joseph Cross to play adolescence. (Something like the Lolita loophole, with Kubrick casting Sue Lyons as the pubescent vixen.) All the actors as looney tune exhibitions rising above complaints, two deserve citation. Melodiously manipulative as scam artist, Cox has our suspicions about psychiatry down pat and at the same time a joy to watch as he watches and maltreats everyone else. As Deirdre, suffering divorced wife to Alec Baldwin, pathetic poetess with many découpaged submission rejections and unstable drug-addled mother to Augusten, Bening is near the peak of whatever it is she has going for her, which I still have trouble connecting with. She has been, remains and likely will continue to be the American queen of cold ass bitches. There is a highly discernible lack of empathy for her and her characterizations, making “natural” that she’d help produce a gay child, or become a lesbian or a grifter or the murderess Jean Harris; she seems to want to stick the shears in us as proxy punishment. (Not bad in Mother and Child and The Face of Love, she can’t unstick their preposterous coincidences.) The mother to Kristen Wiig in Girl Most Likely (aka Imogene), she’s doing one of her infrequent slattern larks, affirming that the dumber she appears the more pleasing she is. Comedy aside, she’s very tolerable in smaller roles; we’re not vexed by any heavy insulation to plow through. Which, of course, should be a danger for her as Deirdre as there’s plenty of “what’s her problem now?” to manifest chills, yet somehow she manages to not quite freeze us out. In looking over the list of movies she’s made, I’m reminded how often I rooted for her in major parts, hoping she’d give something back to make the return on investment worthwhile. Fate intervening, there’s pretty consistent dearth in the package, analogous to diet TaB, even when disguised in Being Julia. Thoroughly pigeonholed in Running with Scissors, the saving graces are that she’s self-groomed for the character and Murphy doesn’t wus out in confirming what we’ve long detected—that her eyes reflect purple shadows on a career of willful aloneness, fittingly captured in her final scenes. (8/3/2018)

One explanation for the dismal box office for the Ismail Merchant and James Ivory production of 1995’s Jefferson in Paris: Nick Nolte. Audiences for so long saw him as a contemporary tough that they flatly refused to buy him as a wigged Thomas Jefferson. Understandably they didn’t want another Pacino out of Revolution, and it may also be that moviegoers, liking him in The Prince of Tides, feared another pathogen of “sensitivity.” What is the fundamental amazement is how good Nolte is and it doesn’t take long for him to win us over—when he sets his eyes on Greta Scacchi’s Mrs. Maria Cosway. Their combined charm, politeness and ditsy chatter are unexpectedly seductive: Scacchi captivates, Nolte disarms. The Tom & Maria “affair” is faithful to history’s public account: that, after the death of his wife (to whom he kept a deathbed promise never to remarry), Jefferson, accepting succession to Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France during the last years of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, discovered the continent’s laissez faire regarding sex and while engaged in cathartic merriment he met Cosway, with whom the same pleasure is sometimes assumed but not factually certain. Some historians conjecture that a marriage was impossible even without Jefferson’s commitment to his wife: Maria was socially and financially strapped to a loveless union with effeminate dandy Richard Cosway (Simon Callow), the screen pairing of which, in flouncy cosmetics and curlicue coifs, get a lot of laughs. At the same time, Jefferson was wary a scandal could erupt over his mulatto slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) who was brought to Paris to tend to his two girls. Producer Merchant, director Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writing one of her rare original scripts) are satisfied it was in Paris that Jefferson and Sally began their forty year companionship and much to the consternation of Jefferson’s daughter Polly, played annoyingly by Gwyneth Palthrow. Done in that compulsory Merchant & Ivory mode, meaning the atmospherics of their movies look richer than their budgets—and convincing Touchstone Pictures to unwisely push for an initial “reserved seat” release—this movie is actually niggardly pre-occupied with economic self-consciousness: bad enough that it’s skimpy on Jefferson’s diplomatic duties, but his eye-witnessing to the lead up of the French Revolution is scaled to be an “event” happening outside his windows. The only things guillotined are asparagus shoots. (7/20/2018)

FENCED IN: After watching Flight, some of us appreciated that Denzel Washington, as the pilot retaining elements of conscience to resolve his dilemma, hadn’t yet turned into Sidney Poitier as a pontifical gasbag. Given the paucity of better material, we did start feeling apprehensive about the inevitability he’d likely have a go at that routine. And guess what? In 2016’s Fences, which Denzel directs, he’s inching close and then closer. He’s calculating and dominate in a way Sidney might have been if he had had the guts to play beyond his goody two shoes roles. Sidney was, of course, never an actor destined to play a glowering Eugene O’Neill character out of The Black Man Cometh; he went ever-more dull by trying to retrofit just about every part with the outrage of a choleric black—he and his raging terminus persnickititis eventually souring into obsolescence. Having peaked when slapping back at a bigot in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, he was all down hill for failing to take risks; he wasted the untapped modality of commander as centerpiece to tap into playing iniquity with self-justification, one of Denzel’s specialties. In Fences, integrating the spectral presence of Sidney’s self-possession, Denzel’s an embittered son of a bitch garbage hauler who, because he believes he was denied a baseball career because of race, refuses to allow his son a promising career in football. He’s also an egoist, a boozing adulterer, a felon who served time for robbery during which he killed a witness. From the second Pulitzer prize-winning play by August Wilson, the first received for The Piano Lesson, and both part of “The Pittsburgh Cycle” consisting of his ten plays that made him the unmistakable black O’Neill, the familiar territory is nothing if not predictably depressing. Doing in Wilson’s jeremiad is an exceedingly rehearsed smoothness smothering any spontaneity, every turning point glides by. Denzel even uses the same kind of green lawn chair from the 2010 Broadway production in the sequence in which he and a few others are sharing a pint of gin. In fact, this is the Tony award-winning revival with the same cast, filmed in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Notwithstanding cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s applaudable measures in opening up the confines to include streets and backyards to naturalize the play’s voluminously prefigured dialogue, Denzel is determined to overweeningly auspicate much of it by modulating his voice to get the wordiness to flow, to make it all sound eventually significant and relatable, if only we knew what beyond the inevitable. Well, we do know: the role is the gateway for him to play Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. For a while Viola Davis fits into Wilson’s schemes to project the patient, put-upon, built-like-a-Mack-truck mama; she’s certainly as fine-tuned, especially when hanging what look like kitchen towels on the clothesline. (A bit later a few towels go missing.) On cue come her tears and, dismayingly, the Oscar bait drooling and I want to yell, Wait a minute! You’re a g.d. good actress; it’s not necessary to make us feel physically sick. (Must confess not getting over Thandie Newton’s gobbling in Beloved, either.) The pleasures in watching Denzel and Viola are increasingly marginal; victimized by the shortage of quality parts for blacks, they end up as variations, sometimes composites, of their resumes. During involuntary hiatus from artistry, they’re entitled to go for the big bucks—Denzel will be back as The Equalizer and Viola dons bad glitz and postiches to bring cachet to the insulting tawdriness of How to Get Away with Murder. Unsettling is that they may believe they acquit themselves for kneeling to Wilson’s fenced-in slobberings, which are neither artfully reverential nor sufferable. (6/8/2018)

WHO IS THIS GUY? Watching Justin Timberlake’s performance at the 2018 Super Bowl, it finally hit me: he has no self-identify as a performer; he wants, maybe desperately, to be adopted as transmeister of rap, funk, hip-hop and honky cool. Didn’t find anything flagrantly objectionable about his singing and dancing, other than as hard worker he’s like ZzzQuil. Something the New York Times music critic said about him rings true: “We are now approaching the 12th year of the national delusion that Justin Timberlake remains an essential pop star.” What many of us experience when Justin’s in range is our radar cranking up. He tried in Friends with Benefits to deal with what the microwaves have long transmitted: his character is questioned twice if he’s “sure he’s not gay.” That allowed the acknowledgement of audience intuition to come into play, having been around since at least the heydays of ‘N Sync, during which his fellow group members also thought he was, and reasserted when the swish alarm goes off in both FWB and The Social Network. Frivolous to say that his loose cheeks ambiguity doesn’t matter; in our intense social media world that violates privacy, everything somehow matters. But during the halftime show and in listening to his album Man of the Woods, our radar is picking up a more critical issue—that he’s manufactured. Our sense of his lack of realness is central to our responses to him, that his scarcity of originality points us in other directions. Healthy-looking, he escapes physical comparison to Michael Jackson and Prince while stealing their Juicy Fruitiness with second-rate Usher terpsichorean flourishes; in “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” for example, Motown is modified as updated Disney hipster bubble gum (and borrowed by Pepto Bismol in a commercial featuring three male dancers in shocking pink jump suits) that gets sticky in the echo chamber of yesteryear. This in part explains the heavy batch of negative reviews of his halftime gymnastics, and in part the less than happy reception his album has received: we’re still waiting for Justin’s comingout—as whoever the hell he is. His long list of musical accomplishments and accolades wouldn’t be less than impressive if not for the mirage; once the curtains close on his pansexual vibes, he pretty much disappears from memory. (Those who have attended his concerts say he turns every sex on; we who haven’t seen him this way can accept the impact because what we’ve shared “live” with a favorite performer known for sexing up isn’t always duplicated by video, either, as taping tends to quell communally felt eroticism. It’s the old “you had to be there” thing.) For casting agents, the illusiveness exacerbates efforts to find the right parts for him. Of his movies to date, Bad Teacher is more in tune with what the NYT calls his “lightly carnal” persona; when dry-humping Cameron Diaz, his idiocy recalls Marilyn Monroe’s twerpy love interest Tommy Noonan in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And not a bad thing—Justin may well be the modern variant of the doofus space cadet sans the THC factor who wins us over. (And like John Cusack in The Paperboy, he has the guts to show seepage.) No stretch at all to say that he’d have been preferable to Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Currently lacking gravitas, he’s clumsy in dramatic parts, especially true in Edison, Runner Runner, Trouble with the Curve and Inside Llewyn Davis,  yet he survives In Time and its ticking digital arm clock, helped plenty by Amanda Seyfrieds’s Anna Wintour kewpie-dollishness. A future role could be S.C.’s Lindsey Graham, the feminazi of the Senate. With his preferred emphasis in sensual black pop culture, perhaps he could hook up with Tyler Perry to make the long overdue musical covering a few dozen shoovgie classics. Isn’t unimaginable the level of concupiscencehe might bring to Earth Wind and Fire’s “The Way You Move,” or how infectious could be a white bongo fever for Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star.” As a postscript of sorts, there’s some good news: Justin’s Jordan IIIs, worn during the halftime show, sold out. We’re not sure if audiences have recovered from his attire, which suggested a hick-hop survivalist lost in the Minnesota corn stalks. They might have been more forgiving if he had worn what we see in the above photo, taken during the shoot for the cover of Man of the Woods. The message the picture imparts is clear: this is the most butch the braspberry’s ever been. (5/11/2018)

About a mammoth canon dullishly hauled, pushed and hidden by thousands all over the terrains of Spain, Stanley Kramer’s The  Pride and the Passion is more widely derided for its acute miscasting of its male leads. Cary Grant is in a weird kind of finned crew cut and poorly fitted embellishments as a 19th Century English officer. We’re hoping Professor Higgins will stop by the caravan to help Cary articulate clearly but even if he did, we wouldn’t be spared the awful truth that Cary was convincing only as star and seldom if ever as an actor of range. Some postulate that he cultivated foremost his image and believe, without disapproval, he perfected being a star. By the mid 50s, though, he came to a light bulb moment—that that’s all he was; when he tried to be serious, as in this travesty, he failed twice: as the actor he wanted to be and as a dependable star. Not long after this picture, and partially because of it, he took psychotropics under a doctor’s supervision, and one of the mind-bending conclusions from his trips was that audiences neither wanted nor believed him as a British military pansy; they wanted him to remain the persona of comedic suavity and look good enough to snack on. Frank Sinatra didn’t fare any better as a Spaniard: whatever pretense of credibility was doomed from the start when in his perpetual tantrum mode, he told the director that he wouldn’t—and didn’t—do more than one take per scene and left location shooting seven weeks before completion. (He had to hunt down wife Ava Gardner who, the Madrid press reported, was slurping the fruity Sangria with some of Spain’s eligible toreadors.) The lure for viewers is Sophia Loren and her dance is this epic’s pièce de résistance: with her lips parted and moist, her meaty hips defyingly slinky, her boobs bouncy and consumable, she’s absolute trash sanctified. We sense she’s more woman than under-equipped Cary, who during filming fell madly in love with her, could handle. (His need to conquer and marry her was psychologically slimy, the details of which Sophia has always been gracious not to repeat.) The movie has a load of bad studio shots spliced into what is pretty much an outdoor adventure: the sloppiest is with Cary and Sophia the night before he fires the canon for the first time. We think we know what the prop is that they’re gathered around but no bets. There are some idiot fun moments: Cary in a knife duel, freshly starched and pressed; Sinatra furiously whipping mules and later Cary carrying him instead of Sophia through the blown away stone wall of Ávila; the unintentionally duncy as well as problematic Ku Klux Klan-like religious headdresses used during Holy Week. A few pluses: Spain’s castles, cathedrals and wide-open spaces and a mildly striking sequence when huge straw balls are set afire and roll down toward a French military camp. No one can account for Kramer’s DGA nomination for this would-be hardticket, a missed opportunity for the tipsy “in” theatre party crowds who are usually among the first to enjoy the fortuitous laughs. Based on C.S. Forester’s The Gun. In VistaVision. (4/20/2018)

Of the alleged Hollywood perps who have been outed in the #MeToo rage, director James Toback is my personal choice as the most satisfying to have been exposed. He’s two tons of misogynist vile, a sexist, repulsive Jabba the Hut who now has more than 350 claims of abuse lodged against him. These claims aren’t out of the blue; they’ve been around and building for years and those of us who loved Pauline Kael wonder how it was her usually well-tuned radar didn’t pick up on his super sleaziness. Liking bad boys—another one is Sam Pechinpah—she risked plenty in doing so: she was lured from her cushy perch at The New Yorker as America’s bitch supreme to make her first foray into movie making with Toback in Hollywood, in a project titled Love and Money. That experience lasted about a month before she got the boot, unable to resolve her editorial and artistic conflicts with him over the script and whatever else. Though she remained “out there” for several more months, doing busy shit work for Paramount, she did so out of desperation because she had nowhere to go and, worse, she was to suffer the additional crushing embarrassment that the magazine’s beloved editor William Shawn didn’t want her back. (“Corrupted,” he would utter in meekly spoken contempt.) While he’d later soften and allow her to return, everything changed when she did: her assumed invincibility as critic became a growing party joke. So did Toback, who went on to make Love and Money and that bomb was followed shortly after with another bomb called, appropriately if not presciently, Exposed. As community college claptrap—a 1983 roly-poly Woody Allen gone inchoate—it’s probably not worth talking about, yet because of his recent troubles, it now reeks of foreboding comeuppance. Even if we aren’t too sure what’s going on, the movie is strangely predictable, boring and very bad. There’s some kind of terrorist avenging taking place, the hatred having started back in Auschwitz; yes, another one of those. In the starring role is an inconceivable Rudolf Nureyev as the flip side of his Valentino. He’s gone from the Ken Russell Faggot Academy to Butch Correspondence School: His gait calculated, his pants brown corduroy, his jacket black leather, his coarse hair urgently in need of a Pantene 3 Minute treatment. Miraculous that we’re not too embarrassed for him, like we were in Russell’s fiasco, and he manages to pull off the violin seduction. (When revealing his gluteus maximus, we no longer have to guess what interested Tab Hunter.) At the time of the movie’s release, both Time magazine and Roger Ebert predicted in terms to gag on that Nastassia Kinski would become the next superstar. In looking over her résumé these days, the biggest thing going for her back then was her agent having booked her for three movies in one year and, as the worst thing, a Time cover really can be the kiss of jinx. (Her singular talent, restricted to glossies, is going from ravishing to ravaged to ravishing again.) But back to Toback, who, a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard, enters the egotist zone believing he could afford to be seen as a prof in his own production. Exacerbating the soon-to-be infamous scumminess, he’s a chub schlub who sounds suspiciously like Kael on Toback in her review of Fingers; he roll calls authors like Dostoyevski and Kafka and scribbled on the classroom blackboard are the names Orson Welles and A Touch of Evil—clumpy clues to what’s going on? The role might have been a classic cameo for John Belushi—a slob who gets screams as erudite teach. What seems fitting in the movie is Toback mirrors insistent masculine dysfunction; he’s not merely a dick, he’s an offensive limp dick. Reportedly Kael forgave his ignominious behavior towards her in Hollywood and, in a photo included in Brian Kellow’s biography of her, seems to have invited him to her 80th birthday party. The #MeToo-ers won’t be that forgiving. (3/9/2018)

Akira Kurosawa is often eulogized as the visual version of Shakespeare. We’ve heard this equivalency long before he passed, as far back as The Throne of Blood, and, to make the connection seemingly indisputable, his 1985 epic splash Ran is touted to be the ultimate King Lear in warlord drag. Writing the screenplay on and off for years, basing it on Segoku-era military leader Mori Motonari who had three sons, he acknowledged using the Bard’s tragedy to frame the bloody tohubohu of sixteenth-century Japan because he needed to make sense of what is inscrutable Shõgun action, to keep it from becoming another Kagemusha. (Could be said uncomplicatedly the latter is about a horse dethroning a fake.) As with Lear, themes abound: the suffering of lovelessness, deserved or not; the battles of inheritance; treachery; nihilism; and, obviously, chaos. These and other motifs drift in and out like the inclement weather did while filming and that is the movie’s saving grace, a feast of atmospherics by compromise with nature. The fog and chill of Mt. Fuji were storyboarded before shooting started; the volatile weather, however, enhanced what the Bard might be envious of—the soaked-in-disease ambiance, which in turn adds intense contrast to the Oscar-winning costume designs by Emi Wada and Oscar-nominated art/set direction and lensing. But let’s be honest, the punches in the prolixity of Lear don’t easily roll. They didn’t for Laurence Olivier, either, in the 1983 Granada Television’s economized video version, though he managed to capture Lear dispensing and suffering from the biffs: his hands spin from his gray bearded face and then blows a lewd, incestuous kiss to his beloved Cordelia—yet is it a kiss?—and he virtually sings an agonizing aria mixed with disdain and hurt when he’s turned away by his two other daughters, bitches Goneril and Regan. Kurosawa’s vistas and bloodbaths are compensation for pent-up emotions without actors verbally expressing them, forfeiting the rot of familial dysfunction to choreographed pantomime, to horses, landscapes and rifles. If the peril in the theatre of Bushido is much the same in Shakespeare’s tragedy—the pathologies keeping us in a deep freeze—the settings and tempestuous action are satisfying substitutes, delivering the master playwright’s pre-cinematic senses the British usually and over-respectfully avoid. Some time before Ran, Peter O’Toole wanted to play Lear with Kurosawa directing. It’s okay to grieve the lost experience. (2/9/2018)

Might have zapped right by a cable movie channel’s airing of Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapepoat. But Matthew Rhys, who’s currently playing in The Americans and in Spielberg’s The Post as Daniel Ellsberg, stars as two men looking so much alike that, without sharing an ounce of the same blood, one of them plots to steal the other’s identity and the victim ends up rather unwittingly replacing the plotter as husband, lover and father. Directed and adapted by Charles Sturridge in the generally satisfying ITV tradition he’s amenable to—having respectfully co-helmed with Michael Lindsay-Hogg the ITV miniseries of Brideshead Revisited—this 2012 version of The Scapegoat is a disporting stretch. Resisting duplicating the stuffy chit-chat of the novel, which is set in France and has a different ending, Sturridge changes the locale to Britain during the period covering Elizabeth II’s coronation and dabs with some 21st century cynicism. Sometimes we’re not sure what the hell is going on and for a while Rhys doesn’t, either, yet he wins us over by the uncomplicated truth—simply telling his “family” that he isn’t the real husband and father, though they regard his confession as a joke and dismiss it. Not having the physical authority to play Darcy in Masterpiece Theatre’s Death Comes to Pemberly, which is neither a masterpiece nor needed, Rhy’s slightness works for him here; he’s sort of inconsequential—until it matters not to be—and it’s his good fortune that he’s acting opposite actors who likewise aren’t of much consequence. Except for Eileen Atkins, who requires an expanded presence; it’s she, not her home care nurse, who needed to tell Rhys that he “smells” differently than the man whose identity he’s replaced. (We do wait for any of the women, including his city paramour, to detect it and/or the differences in his package.) The slightness of Rhys also works in admitting that he isn’t much good at setting straight the family’s ruinous finances; in fact, he’s relieved to have to admit it. As the climax is about to arrive, allowing the return of the rogue husband, Sturridge inadvertently confuses: we can’t comprehend how it is that the bastard convinces someone so quickly to commit suicide; scenes seem to be missing. Then the director moves guardedly during culmination, hoping to prevent any hint as to what happens in the clash of the dead ringers in the shadow of a raging furnace to ensure a guessing game. A bit more intriguing is what the movie suggests as the victor watches Elizabeth II ascend to the crown. The B & W 1959 movie version may now be more noteworthy for its star Alec Guinness often looking a lot like Kevin Spacey. (1/26/2018)

   

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