• Franco Zeffirelli: 1923-2019
    von Peter Sobczynski am Juni 16, 2019 um 5:38 PM

    The famed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who was both celebrated and reviled for the flamboyant emotions and visuals he brought to his work, died on Saturday, June 15 at the age of 96. Throughout his long career, he brought opera and Shakespeare (to the stage and the screen) in ways that might have made some purists cringe but which proved to be surprisingly popular with the masses for a time, his influence still felt to this day. Off the screen, he lived a life that was sometimes just as operatic—and sometimes as problematic—as his productions. But even past the age of 80, a point when most filmmakers have retired and hit the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit, he was still out there staging plays, mounting operas and even getting himself elected twice to Italian Parliament. Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born in Florence on February 12, 1923, the result of an adulterous affair between a silk merchant and a fashion designer. He was exposed to the two forms of art that he would become most associated with at an early age—he was taken to his first opera by an uncle at the age of eight and was educated in the works of Shakespeare by a British tutor as a child. He attended the University of Florence to study architecture but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, where he fought the Fascists and almost faced a firing squad until—in a twist so outrageous that it would have fit perfectly in one of his films—he was reportedly saved when one of his interrogators turned out to be a heretofore unknown half-brother who secured his release. After the war, he returned to his studies, but after seeing Laurence Olivier’s famous 1945 film of ‘Hamlet,” he shifted his focus to the theater, where he began working as a scenic painter in Florence. It was there that he made the acquaintance of filmmaker Luchino Visconti, who hired him to work as his assistant and as the set designer for his 1949 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the first one ever staged in Italy. (The two also began a romantic relationship that would last for several years.) Over the next decade or so, he worked regularly in the theater and eventually began directing plays and operas. It was with the latter that he would have his first great success, staging and directing them with a distinctive more-is-more approach that critics sometimes dismissed but which audiences throughout the world embraced. Thanks to a friendship with Maria Callas, he was able to stage a celebrated production of “La Traviata” featuring her in Dallas. Other productions included a staging of “Tosca” at London’s Covent Garden and a production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” in 1964 that would begin a long-running association with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. "The Taming of the Shrew" When he chose to make his move from the stage to the screen, Zeffirelli, who had worked with the likes of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini earlier in his career, he did so via his other great artistic love. His first film was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967) featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Kate and Petruchio, respectively. Seen today, the film is a little wobbly in spots with its sometimes broad comedic approach, and even though she is ultimately just fine in the role, it is sometimes quite obvious that Taylor is not nearly as adept at handling the language of Shakespeare as Burton. Nevertheless, his instinct to cast the couple when original choices Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni were unavailable—a move that clearly did not thrill studio executives with clear memories of how the duo’s “Cleopatra” went out of control—proved to be inspired both from an artistic and commercial standpoint. The film went on to be a worldwide success, and received much-deserved Oscar nominations for Art Direction-Set Direction and Costume Design. His next film, which would prove to be the most enduring of his cinematic efforts, was his 1968 adaptation, “Romeo and Juliet.” Over the years, there had been a few screen versions of the play but none were particularly successful, mostly because while it's possible for an older actor to play a younger person on the stage, it's much more difficult to pull that off in front of a movie camera. In the 1936 version, for example, the titular teen lovers were played by the 43-year-old Leslie Howard and the 34-year-old Norma Shearer. Zeffirelli’s inspired notion was to cast actors who actually came close to matching the ages of their characters and wound up hiring unknowns Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the leads. (It is rumored that he had at one point considered casting Paul McCartney as Romeo.) The end result was Zeffirelli’s most notable cinematic achievement—his taste for florid dramatic and visual excess fit in perfectly with the tale of outsized emotions he was telling, and while the two stars might not have threatened the stature of the likes of Olivier (who ended up reading the prologue and dubbing in the voice of Lord Montague), they connected with each other and with the teenage audience, who came out in droves to see the film.  Thanks to that younger crowd, the film became the most financially lucrative Shakespeare film of all time to that point, and scored four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Zeffirelli, Costume Design and Cinematography, winning the latter two. Even today, the film's influence continues—it is still shown in schools as a way of exposing kids to the Bard (and no doubt continues to raise a few hackles here and there thanks to the then-surprising brief moment of nudity that was a controversial inclusion back in the day) and when others have attempted subsequent film mountings of the play, they have also made sure to cast younger actors in the leads. "Jesus of Nazareth" After achieving back-to-back successes with Shakespeare, Zeffirelli shifted to religion for his next couple of film projects. "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" (1973) looked at the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, telling his story as an arrogant youth who elected to serve God by renouncing worldly possessions, and living a life of poverty while trying to get everyone from his family to the Pope to change their ways as well. As with his previous film, Zeffirelli was clearly aiming for the youth market by telling the story of St. Assisi in a way that presented him as a forerunner of the then-current counter-culture movement. (The film even featured music by Donovan.) This time around, however, the results were not nearly as strong. Zeffirelli’s visual style was as sumptuous as ever but seemed weirdly at odds with the man whose story he was trying to convey. Zeffirelli would have much greater success in tackling religion as his subject with his next project, “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), a star-studded television miniseries following the life of Christ (played by Robert Powell) that, thanks to his insistence on telling the story in a manner that could be embraced by all faiths, became a massive hit around the world. Having succeeded in presenting the worlds of opera, Shakespeare, and religion to the masses, Zeffirelli decided to make Hollywood the focus of his next conquest, albeit with far more uneven results. He signed on to do a remake of the old MGM chestnut “The Champ” (1979) in which an ex-boxer (Jon Voight) struggles to continue to raise his young son (then-unknown Ricky Schroder) when his ex-wife (Faye Dunaway) comes back into the picture after being absent for years. Already kind of dated and melodramatic in its original 1931 iteration, the passage of time was not especially kind to the material, and Zeffirelli’s insistence on dialing all the emotions up to histrionic levels did not help matters much and did little to distract from the notion that it was made only to cash in on the blockbuster status of the vaguely similar “Rocky.”  From there, he went on to direct what would become his most infamous film, his critically lambasted 1981 adaptation of Scott Spencer’s best-seller “Endless Love.” With a tale of two impossibly attractive teenagers whose romance teeters dangerously towards obsession with grim results for those caught up in its path, it makes sense that the guy who made “Romeo & Juliet” would be hired to bring it to life. Unfortunately, this one was brought down by a terrible screenplay that completely neutered the power of the book (and I assure you that the book is a stone-cold masterpiece), direction that dialed up the admittedly melodramatic material to often laughable excessive extremes, and by having the star-crossed lovers at the center be played by actors—the then-unknown Martin Hewitt and the then-internationally famous Brooke Shields—who never showed a hint of actual chemistry. Thanks in large part to the drawing power of Shields (whose screen career was nevertheless dealt a near-fatal body blow) and the instantly iconic theme song from Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, the film was a decent-sized hit but pretty much soured Zeffirelli from working in Hollywood again. "Hamlet" For most of the remainder of the Eighties, Zeffirelli’s cinematic output consisted of him bringing famous operas to the big screen in collaboration with the legendary Placido Domingo. The two worked together on “La Traviata” (1982), which earned Zeffirelli another Oscar nomination for Art Direction-Set Direction, “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1982), “Pagliacci” (1982) and “Otello” (1986). He then returned to narrative filmmaking with “Young Toscanini” (1988), a film looking at the early life and career of Arturo Toscanini, played, perhaps inevitably, by C. Thomas Howell. Despite the presence of Elizabeth Taylor in the supporting cast, the film was not so much reviled as it was completely ignored. With his next movie, he returned to his other great love with a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (1990) and while the film would soon become overlooked in comparison to Kenneth Branagh’s epic take a few years later, it was nevertheless a strong and sturdy adaptation—the casting of Mel Gibson as Hamlet might have seemed like a stunt but his performance was strong (even if he was too old for the part) and he was baked by a fantastic cast that included Glenn Close as Gerturde, Alan Bates as Claudius, and, perhaps inevitably, Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. Although he would continue making films off and on for the next couple of decades, they would never quite hit the heights of his earlier works: There was a performance film of “Don Carlo” (1992) starring Luciano Pavarotti; “Sparrow” (1993) was a romantic melodrama about a 16-year-old novice (Angela Bettis) who returns home from her convent to avoid a cholera epidemic and falls in love with a neighbor boy (Jonathan Schaech); “Jane Eyre” (1996) was a take on the Charlotte Bronte chestnut featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane and William Hurt as Rochester; “Tea with Mussolini” (1999) was a semi-autobiographical story of a young Italian orphan boy who is looked after by a group of British and American women (including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin and, perhaps inevitably, Cher).  His final feature, “Callas Forever” (2002) was a partially fictionalized recounting of the final day of the life of Maria Callas (played by Fanny Ardant), as she struggles to star in a movie version of the opera “Carmen.” Though none of these films would prove to be as big as his first movies, the best of them—including “Jane Eyre” and “Tea with Mussolini” (which was inspired in part by the teacher who taught him Shakespeare as a chid)—demonstrated a flair for cinematic storytelling that did not require visual or emotional pyrotechnics to get his point across. Around this time, he was also awarded an honorary knighthood from the United Kingdom. If Zeffirelli had at last shown some degree of restraint behind the camera, he could still generate lots of publicity, not all of it good, away from a movie set. On stage, some of his later operas were increasingly criticized for their gaudy excess with a 1998 version of "La Traviata" in particular receiving a great deal of scorn. In 1988, the maker of “Jesus of Nazareth” was one of those protesting the release of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” calling it the result of “that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world.” Along those lines, the deeply conservative Roman Catholic Zeffirelli, who would also serve in Parliament as a member of a right-wing party, would speak out against abortion and gay rights and claimed in a 2006 interview that even though he had been molested by a priest, he didn’t think that he suffered any harm as a result. Most troubling of all, two of the young actors that he worked with over the years, Bruce Robinson (who played Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet”) and Jonathan Schaech (who appeared in “Sparrow”), would make accusations of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault against him. (Years later, Robinson would reportedly use Zeffirelli as the inspiration for the character of the lecherous Uncle Monty for his 1987 cult classic “Withnail & I.”) These actions and accusations are all deeply troubling, of course, and any attempt to fully grapple with the man and his legacy has to take some of them into account. However, if it is possible to completely separate the personal and the professional, and regard Zeffirelli solely on his artistic output, one finds the kind of artist that one rarely encounters these days—the kind who, at his best, was cheerfully willing to swing for the fences with material (that would have given most filmmakers pause) and did so in an undeniably unique fashion. His work may have fallen out of fashion in later years, but for his ability to make grand opera and the works of the Bard accessible to audiences that might have otherwise shunned them, he will always and justifiably be remembered. […]

  • 30 Minutes On: Rocketman
    von Matt Zoller Seitz am Juni 16, 2019 um 7:37 AM

    After seeing the Elton John musical fantasia "Rocketman," I'm not going to complain anymore that musical biopics tend to be bundles of cliches that hit the same beats, or for that matter, that the classic spoof "Walk Hard" should've killed off the genre for good. "Blazing Saddles," brilliant as it was, didn't kill the Western, nor did it inoculate viewers against ever again getting wrapped up in the story of stalwart heroes battling corrupt politicians and land barons. And beyond that, almost any rock star or rapper or country star who's famous enough to have a Hollywood biopic made about them probably either died young or overcame most of their demons and achieved enough personal equilibrium to find some sort of happiness -- enough to sign off on a film about their lives with a happy (or happy-ish) ending; so it's probably inevitable that such films are going to contain a lot of similar moments, including the scene where the main character realizes they're truly gifted, the scene where they figure out their stage name and persona, the scene where they record their first number one record, the montage of them succumbing to success and excess, the "bottoming out" scene, and so forth.  If anything, this retelling of Elton John's life story is proof that, as the founder of this site famously observed, it's not what a movie is about, but how it's about it. It's the movie that "Bohemian Rhapsody" should have been—and that would seem clear even if the film didn't share superficial points of comparison with the Mercury biopic (including the closeted gay glam rocker hero, the copious drug use, and the 1960s-1980s setting), and even if it hadn't been directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the Freddie Mercury biopic after Bryan Singer's participation was ended by reports of sexual misconduct.  What a pleasure it is to see a widescreen rock 'n' roll quasi-musical and period piece in which every scene and sequence has been thought through at the level of individual shots, and where every idea glides kinetically into every other idea, often through via smart match cuts, as when the teenage Elton bursts through the broken plank of a fence during the "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" and a twenty-something Elton emerges on the other side.  There's no possible way that a film like this could have been made in an earlier era, homophobia being what it was (and still is; it's 2019, and this is supposedly the first major studio release with an explicit gay sex scene). And yet the totality of it feels very old fashioned, from a craft point-of-view, almost as if it could've been staged and executed on the old MGM lot, right around the time that color film started being widely used. The movie was shot digitally, like nearly every other major release made these days, and yet Fletcher and his crew seem to have decided to pretend that they were working with very heavy old film cameras, relying on careful planning (and mental pre-editing) to avoid shooting more than was needed. Connoisseurs of all the different ways of staging and filming a musical number will love the smorgasbord of modes that the film operates in—everything from an acrobatic, one-take number in the spirit of "Absolute Beginners," to a more traditionally choreographed song-and-dance/chorus-line montage, to a jittery, handheld scene that feels like something out of a D.A. Pennebaker documentary from the 1960s, to a more intimate sequence expressed entirely through a simple exchange of closeups.  Despite its ambition and comprehensive spirit, the movie stays on track. This is due to Fletcher's keen eye and ear, which proves that there's more to directing a movie musical than choreographing musical numbers with a lot of cameras and then cutting quickly between the various angles; to the film's mastery of tone, which is light-footed, often bordering on self-parody, yet always sincere and serious; and to its superb casting, particularly the lead. Playing John from his early twenties onward, "Kingsman" costar Taron Egerton gives an emotionally transparent, often anguished performance, by turns reminiscent of James Cagney and the young Leonardo DiCaprio -- the kind of star turn where you often forget you're watching an actor, let alone one portraying a very famous person, and instead feel as if it's just your dear mate Elton sitting across from you, lying to himself about genuinely wanting to marry a woman, getting snockered while hiding from a party in his own house, or pounding out a hypnotic melody on a saloon piano after warning a middle-aged macho man not to put his beer on top of the instrument because it'll get knocked off (by barfighting, presumably, though Sir Elton banged those keys so hard that it might've happened anyway).  As directed by Fletcher and written by Lee Hall ("Billy Elliott"), the film's compacted storytelling and foregrounded artificiality puts a rather knowing frame around moments that might otherwise be dismissable as too familiar, even cliched. This is most obvious in the movie's framing device, wherein John enters rehab after abandoning a Madison Square Garden concert, clomping straight out of the arena in his platform shoes and a winged "devil" outfit while haloed by heavenly light, then pushing open the door to the rehab facility (another excellent use of match cutting in a film filled with them) and joining a group therapy session for addicts that's already in progress. That it's unclear how much contiguous time is passing during this therapy session/framing device is just one aspect of the film's gentle cheekiness. It's doubtful that a bunch of addicts with their own issues would sit there for two-plus hours listening to one person's stories, even if that person were one of the world's bestselling recording artists, but Fletcher signals from frame one that none of this is meant to be taken literally. It's not The Truth, it's Elton's Truth, eliding the harshest kinds of self-criticism but not distorting the basic fact of years of destructive behavior: a story dictated more by feelings than facts.  It's all laid out in the condensed and succinct terminology of either therapy or pop songwriting (one being an extension of the other a lot of the time). The main story is Elton learning to accept his invented self as his true self and not be beholden to anyone else's expectations for him, particularly when they're the byproduct of a sexually repressed, gay-hating, emotionally constipated Western culture. The secondary story, nearly as affecting and more cleanly told, is about the artistic collaboration between John and his regular lyric writer Bernie Taupin ("Billy Elliott" star Jamie Bell), which spanned the decades, and ultimately proved a greater source of emotional and artistic stability than any of the relationships Elton got entangled in (at least until 1993, when he met his future husband David Furnish, with whom he would raise two sons). The mutual respect and genuine love demonstrated by these two men for each other is all the more moving for being undersold, particularly when the two have what might have been their only serious fight backstage at a concert, and Elton nearly walks away, then stops, takes Bernie by the wrist, and apologizes on the spot. (This film is a stage musical waiting to happen, and one suspects that it eventually will happen: it's a virtual "Billy Elliott" reunion event anyway, including John, who wrote original music for the Broadway show adapted from the film.) All of it, even the most wrenching or unabashedly sentimental stuff, has a touch of the tall-tale, whether it's the scenes flashing back to Sir Elton's childhood as a musically gifted but sexually repressed middle-class gay boy (Elton's innate genius and true sexual identity bursting out in musical numbers treating suburban cul-de-sacs and city fairgrounds as soundstages); the moment where Elton attempts suicide by trying to drown himself in his Hollywood mansion's swimming pool during a party and encountering his childhood self on the bottom wearing a circa-1950s domed "space man" outfit, playing and singing "Rocketman" on a toy piano, tiny bubbles emitting from both of their mouths; and a genuinely powerful scene later in the movie where Elton sees important people in his life strolling into the group-therapy room (not real people, but apparitions from his psyche, distilled into people-as-issues) and ultimately approaches his younger self again and kneels before him in what could be a gesture of either humility or contrition (or both, or something else).  And then young Elton asks adult Elton if he wants a hug. Of course the answer is yes. It's not just what he wants. It's what we want. And this is not only the kind of film where the older version of a character could hug his inner child, literally as well as figuratively, it's the kind of movie that sets its own terms so clearly and unaffectedly that when we're on the cusp of such a moment, we lean forward in our seats in anticipation, because we want that hug, need that hug, and won't feel truly satisfied unless we get it -- because dammit, you don't pay to see a film like "Rocketman" without on some level wanting its suffering hero to give his inner child a hug. This is a movie that understands perfectly what it is and what we want from it. This is how you do this kind of movie: loud, glittery, shameless, with feeling, and dazzling control of craft.&nbs […]

  • Krysten Ritter is a Powerhouse in Final Season of Jessica Jones
    von Allison Shoemaker am Juni 15, 2019 um 1:52 AM

    This is the end of “Jessica Jones”—of the series, at least, if not the character—and its end marks the demise of the Defenders-verse, Netflix’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jessica was not the first to arrive, but her first season remains the high watermark of the whole shebang, a visceral, subtle story of trauma and recovery that gave Krysten Ritter the perfect role and bestowed the MCU with its first truly great villain. It was also a little overlong, a little meandering, and, occasionally, a little on-the-nose with its metaphors. Melissa Rosenberg’s series has always been an excellent exploration of some of the darker aspects of life—addiction, compulsion, the desire to control or destroy, self-hatred and self-destruction—so perhaps it’s appropriate that the series ends doing exactly what so many of its characters do: Finding new ways to repeat the same mistakes, but always striving to be better. And every so often, it succeeds. The third season picks up with its central figures still scattered to the four winds, more or less. Jessica (Ritter) has begun, in a fumbling way, to make good on the promises she made to herself after the death of her mother at the hands of adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), accepting pro bono cases and attempting to stop the bad and aid the good, inasmuch as either really exists. She does so at the prompting of Gillian, her assistant (Aneesh Sheth, a standout), still working for Alias Investigations after the departure of Malcolm (Eka Darville), who’s now up to his neck in questionable work for the resurgent, but still ailing, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). And Trish, whose desperate attempts to become super-powered herself were revealed to have worked in the second season finale, is testing her limits—a story told in an early Trish-centric episode, directed with care and style by Ritter herself in her directorial debut. And there’s a new villain, of course. Rosenberg’s rogues have always been designed to draw out specific things in Jessica, and to look at certain kinds of bad actors in society through a supernatural lens. Salinger (Jeremy Bobb) does not have super powers. He’s just the kind of man who believes himself to be superior to others in every way, because he worked at things and is thus entitled to whatever he believes to be his due. Bobb hits dead center as the kind of man who tells the whole world that as a straight white man, he’s a victim; he’s a comments-section as killer. Sometimes, this is effective. Bobb draws his character as extremely punchable, to put it mildly. But while his actions drive much of the plot, for each and every significant character in one way or another, he’s often oddly periphery: A figure of huge significance to the plot who remains easy to hate but far from complex. It’s disorienting, throwing the season off balance, but in the end it seems like a case of a feint being just a little too successful. The show and Bobb do such a good job in the early outings of making us believe that the main storyline of the season is Jessica versus Salinger, that when it’s ultimately revealed to be something else, it’s not a letdown precisely, but it does feel like a lot of time wasted. The true central storylines of the season are the same as those of the series as a whole: Jessica’s journey toward (and attempts to define) heroism, and her relationship with her sister. This season does the best job yet of making clear that Jessica’s willingness to see and acknowledge the gray areas in herself and in others is actually one of her greatest strengths. She may be insufferable and wildly inconsistent, but she's also capable of empathy and forgiveness, and a very good detective to boot. “Jessica Jones” has always embraced the contradictions in its characters, but this season, that quality becomes text. It can make the show—still stylish, often surprising, and when Ritter and occasionally Taylor are on screen, wickedly funny—a little self-serious and static. There are a lot of conversations about morality, purity of intention and how self-interest can corrupt, whether inaction is as damaging as bad action, the list goes on. Some of these are well-written, all are beautifully acted, but the frequency at which they appear proves frustrating, to say the least. Even the dreadful “Iron Fist” contained some strong performances, but “Jessica Jones” will go down as the best-acted of the Marvel shows, and that would be true even if Krysten Ritter were the only person in the cast. (She’s got exactly one rival in that regard: "The Punisher"'s Jon Bernthal. It would be a close thing, but she could take him.) Rosenberg’s series had its ups and downs, but Ritter remained a powerhouse throughout. There’s not a weak episode for her in the whole three-season stretch. The show works because Ritter makes Jessica’s struggles, defense mechanisms, weaknesses and regrets, and above all, her hope and her pain alike play across her face without ever making it an overly demonstrative thing. She plays Jessica as a person who’s always trying to keep her mask on, and who struggles to take it off; what we see of her is not what Ritter shows us, but what Jessica unconsciously reveals. It’s a masterful performance, and while the first season of “Jessica Jones” remains the strongest, this run is perhaps Ritter’s best. Taylor and Moss are also quite good—the whole cast, really—but it’s Ritter’s performance that makes it. Barring some greatly unexpected reprieve from the Disney/Marvel corner, this is the end of the road for “Jessica Jones,” but if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll be talking about Ritter’s performance for years to come. I’ll miss the noir-tinged soundtrack, the sharp, even playful use of light, the one-liners, the bourbon propaganda, but above all, I’ll miss Jessica, and the performance that brought her to life. &nbs […]

  • Selah and The Spades to Screen at BAMCinemaFest on June 16th
    von Chaz Ebert am Juni 14, 2019 um 10:17 PM

    I am thrilled to announce that Tayarisha Poe's debut feature, "Selah and the Spades," will be screening at New York City's BAMCinemaFest this Sunday, June 16th, at 7pm. It is the first narrative feature for which I have served as one of several Executive Producers, and I was so proud to see the acclaim that it received upon premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Lauren McBride is a producer, and Ebert Fellow, Jomo Fray, is the cinematographer, and it was so exciting to watch the process as they brought their first feature to completion. IndieWire calls it one of the 8 Gems to see at BAM CinemaFest, and Harper's Bazaar hails it as one of the best films this year built around a female nonconformist.  Lovie Simone is earning raves for her lead role as Selah Summers, a steely and ambitious teenage girl at a prestigious Pennsylvania boarding school, as is the supporting performance of "Moonlight"'s Jharrel Jerome, who is already proving to be a serious awards contender with his riveting work in Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries, "When They See Us." “The ‘Lord of the Flies’-esque drama captures the struggles of a teenage girl threatened by the loss of a power she once wielded (and was intoxicated by),” writes Indiewire's Tambay Obenson. “It’s a biting character study that ultimately brings the trivialities of being human to the fore. Specifically, its unspoken aim is to normalize the mundanity of black life, and newcomer Simone’s performance wonderfully embodies all of Selah’s complexities.” According to Candice Frederick at Harper’s Bazaar, Selah “isn’t so much straddling identities as she is flouting the very concept of the binary notions that so often attempt to harnass women. […] Selah isn’t exactly sexually promiscuous (she’s never had sex), but she's quick to say that she's in full command of her body, refusing to submit to the male-inflicted stereotypes of Madonna and whore. She freely struts around in a pleated cheerleader skirt and fitted crop top, embodying a sense of power and brazen femininity that both captivates and intimidates. Selah is a defiant contradiction of assumptions placed on women, and that's what makes her story—as well as Hala’s, Billi’s, and Molly’s—so provocative. These women are living on their own terms, annihilating expectations, and forming their own resistance in a world that is hell-bent on catering to standards set by men. It’s 2019, after all, and this is the mood we need to take into the rest of the year and beyond. Let's go.” Upon its premiere at Sundance, "Selah" was named one of the 20 best films at Sundance by The Hollywood Reporter, with its critic Beandra July writing that it "signals a bright future for a promising young filmmaker." Variety's Amy Nicholson wrote that Poe's "cold and stylish debut commands attention," while Shadow and Act's Aramide A. Tinubu noted that the film is an  "earnest celebration of youth and power —something long-reserved for white teens while excluding young people of color." Out's Joi Childs says the film is "a joy to watch," Film Threat's Bradley Gibson raves that Poe has "mastered a Shakespearean approach to drama" and The Moveable Fest's Stephen Saito assures that the film won't be leaving viewer's minds "anytime soon." So please excuse my pride in encouraging you to attend. Kudos to you Tayarisha and the whole gang!  "Selah and the Spades" screens at 7pm on Sunday, June 16th, at the BAM Rose Cinemas in New York City. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here. […]

  • HBO's Euphoria is an Audacious, Superficial High School Saga
    von Nick Allen am Juni 14, 2019 um 3:19 PM

    HBO will debut its latest provocative series this Sunday night, and I can already imagine some of the reactions—teenagers will covet it; their parents will fear it. Show creator Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria” is a no-holds-barred, in-your-face depiction of high school, a time where developing human beings are mostly responsible for not dying and showing up to class, while they can hide other salacious parts of their lives in their text messages, and feel their way through the adult chaos of drugs and sex. Executive produced by Drake and Future, “Euphoria” wants to be honest and cool AF with character arcs built around its taboos, but while it has plenty of inspired visuals, those values don't make for durable storytelling once you get to know the show at its core.   Zendaya leads a strong cast, and is the overall storyteller for everyone’s lives. It starts off with the story of her character Rue—born three days after September 11, she’s imagined as a direct product of post-9/11 America, an anxious being just looking for release. We meet her just after she’s gotten out of rehab, and her voiceover clues us into the horrific moment of her recent overdose, where she was discovered by her younger sister and mother. The experience doesn’t stop Rue from slipping back into her destructive habits, and it’s with her character-building that Levinson takes the route of being honest to an addict’s experience, but provocative—in one example, the show explains how Rue is able to pull off urine tests while her mom waits anxiously with her back turned. There’s no sugar coating in “Euphoria,” and even if that means listening to Rue walk back voiceover bits like “I know you’re not supposed to say it, but drugs are kinda cool,” Levinson puts that out there for the sake of being honest more than anything. That quality gets tedious, but the raw nature of her character makes for a standout performance—Zendaya great in this role that lets her run the gamut from tragedy to comedy and back again.  The neon-lit, hyperactive-camera world of “Euphoria” has other beings with compelling lives: a new kid in town named Jules (Hunter Schaefer), who quickly becomes Rue’s friend while having her own sexual experiences and having recently transitioned into a woman; a hulking mass of repressed sexuality named Nate (Jacob Elordi), who is possessive of his cheerleader on-and-off-again girlfriend Maddy (Alexa Demie); Kat, who learns about the power she can have with sex online; the developing relationship between high schooler Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and college freshman McKay (Algee Smith), which starts after he becomes infatuated with her nudes. It’s a testament to these performances, and the show overall, that you can keep track of all of these characters, along with the ones that are in the peripherals. “Euphoria” doesn’t have a strong sense of world-building, so much as a roster of dynamic faces that it’s easy to remember.  Levinson previously directed the oppressively woke 2018 “Assassination Nation,” a movie that begins with a laundry list of trigger warnings it then proceeds to fire off. His mission here is similar: representation, of putting these ideas and people onto the screen in as flashy a way possible, but he's not interested in making them very challenging. These kids are all complicated, as is the world they live in, and yet their storylines are straight-forward. These lives, like much of the show, do not hold much surprise after Levinson introduces them by sharing their secrets (which I am hesitant to reveal here).  When it comes to dosage, “Euphoria” doesn’t lend itself easily to binge-watching, so the HBO release of one episode a week might work. I can see “Euphoria” becoming an event for some, part of its spectacle directly related to the shock value of its sexual content, the way that “Game of Thrones” recently garnered fascination and discussion with its violence and sexual dynamics. The latter is going to be relevant here, as “Euphoria” pushes against more acceptable ideas of nudity (with its images of penises, for example) and then steps back from the idea that the show concerns high schoolers, so it’s about underage sexuality, basically. Like “Assassination Nation,” Levinson brandishes dick pics and nudes as a plain fact of modern life. That’s the kind of edge the story often lives on, especially with a subject that fascinates its characters—sex—and it so obviously seems like “Euphoria” presses those buttons for the sake of doing it. But you might be too dazzled by the visual storytelling to notice, or at least Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rev hope that’s the case. There are certain shots and cuts here that often defy explanation, and add a sense of wonder. "Euphoria" is directed with constant audaciousness by directors Augustine Frizzell and Levinson, who work overtime with cinematographer Marcell Rev to give their characters an edgy introduction to a scene, or in one instance, an "Inception"-like drug trip for Rue. There are transitions and montages that cover a passage of time in a way that I’ve never seen before (going in and out of Nate's mirror, aging him from a boy into a man), and every party scene has a Zion-esque quality to them, a mass of extras crowded in a house, filmed with precision.  The shot that “Euphoria” loves the most is one that seemingly rushes from across the room up to a character’s face (AKA a dolly shot), and the series uses it a comical amount, so often that it warrants being singled out. It’s a huge part of the show’s in-your-face attitude, to bring viewers up close and personal with its different figures, giving them a grandiosity. But these shots are used so willy-nilly that they lose their power, and so too does the show. By the time “Euphoria” emulates the famous shot in “Wings” for a moment with Kat, it’s not for the purpose of telling story so much as the most indulgent manner to introduce other people sitting in a cafeteria before showing us her face.   If any of the current high school-themed movies like “Booksmart” have taught me anything, it’s that being a teenager in the modern age of no privacy and only irony is all about the desire to simply be cool—to express oneself in a way that stands out, whether the collective statement adds up to anything or not. “Euphoria” embodies that cinematically, and while it can make for something that feels like it comes from a place of no rules, it also makes for an exhausting and superficial TV viewing experience.  Three episodes watched for review. […]

  • Men in Black: International
    von Monica Castillo am Juni 14, 2019 um 12:46 PM

    Just because two stars are brilliantly paired together in one movie, it doesn’t guarantee their chemistry will carry over to another. The rapport between Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” became one of the recent highlights of the Marvel movies—Thompson played a world-weary fallen warrior against Hemsworth’s clueless and sometimes emotional Norse god. Their dialogue comically dug at one another’s failings and wounded egos. Many fans wished to see these two actors trade witty barbs once again, but the pair’s new movie, “Men in Black: International,” strips away just about everything fun from the duo except their on-screen presence. The latest “Men in Black” sequel no longer follows Agents Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), although their likenesses are one of the many Easter eggs sprinkled throughout “MIB: International.” Instead, there’s a new hero, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and his mentor, High T (Liam Neeson), in the middle of a daring mission on the Eiffel Tower. Inexplicably, the story then jumps to Brooklyn 20 years prior, where a young Molly (Mandeiya Flory) first sees the Men in Black and encounters her first alien. She grows up (now played by Tessa Thompson) obsessed with space and joining the Men in Black. She gets a lucky break from Agent O (Emma Thompson) and sets off for her first mission. I enjoyed my biggest laugh in the ‘90s Brooklyn sequence when Molly’s dad quotes Morris Day from “Purple Rain” while wearing a Prince shirt. Unfortunately, I still had over an hour and forty minutes left to go. Part of what made the original “Men in Black” movies enjoyable was Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ extraordinarily at-odds dynamic. Smith had an effusive reaction for every situation while Jones stuck an unmoving scowl on his face. For the new movie, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s script wastes this potential conflict by making the characters uninteresting. Agents H and M—which sounds like a reference to the clothing store—come across as co-workers who don’t really have much of a connection to each other outside of greeting each other in the morning and on their way out. There are hints of an attraction to each other, but that’s really misusing what made Thompson and Hemsworth so fun to watch before. Neither of the actors has Smith’s charisma to turn around bland dialogue and situations, so audiences are left with two famous faces and not much else to look at. The script is easily the movie’s worst quality, as so many pieces fall into place out of convenience. Certain rules of this franchise, like not being seen with alien tech in public, are wholeheartedly ignored in scenes involving an alien motorcycle. Other plot points are so telegraphed they can hardly be considered a twist.  “Men in Black: International” is also the latest movie to shoehorn in a few empty pop feminist lines and call it progressive like when Agent M brings up why the organization’s name doesn’t include the Women in Black. Yet, not long after this scene, Agent M has to ask if she’s getting offered to an alien as a sexual companion. If this is Hollywood’s idea of feminism, I really wished they’d invest in women writers. The story didn’t need to go there, much like it didn’t need to add on excess exposition, other dull side characters and random country jumping to fulfill the need to see Westerners run through foreign marketplaces.  Throughout the MIB franchise, there have been a series of sometimes memorable but mostly annoying alien sidekicks. This movie’s unfortunate duty falls to Kumail Nanjiani, who to the best of his abilities, does land a few punchlines and earn a few laughs as a tiny “pawn”-like alien who pledges allegiance to a queen, Agent M. If even Nanjiani can’t make all of his jokes land, what chance do the two straight-faced leads have? Director F. Gary Gray keeps the movie from entirely falling apart, but his efforts feel uninspired. Events happen and the agents move on, giving no time for emotions when there’s danger or death. Even for an action movie about aliens, it’s too heartless. The quality of CGI effects varies between impressive and wildly cheap. There’s a shot of the moon that looks like stock footage and a roughly rendered CGI shot in the chase sequence that appears as if they were cutting corners. The shape-shifting galaxy-patterned villains make for formidable and cool-looking opponents, but even much of their potential goes untapped. Most of what’s enjoyable about this sequel have been cribbed from other movies, like the star pairing from “Thor: Ragnarok,” the villains’ similarity to the Twins in “The Matrix Reloaded” and the many references to the original “Men in Black,” including the score and the basic character arcs of a rookie learning the ropes from a top agent. Without its stars’ chemistry, there’s little life left on this sequel planet besides surface-level jokes, too-cute aliens and a convoluted story. […]

  • On the President's Orders Plays at Human Rights Festival
    von Michael Mirasol am Juni 14, 2019 um 12:44 PM

    A motorized tricycle driver awaits passengers on a bustling road in Metro Manila. A few seconds later, a pair of masked men riding a motorcycle gun him down in front of his small child in broad daylight. As he staggers and eventually collapses, bystanders look on in shock but not necessarily in disbelief, unwilling to assist him only until later when his lifeless body starts to block traffic. It is a sight that unfolds with such horrifying realization. One that should provoke alarm and outrage. But in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, it has become the norm. And it is with this image Olivier Sarbil and James Jones’s new documentary feature, "On the President’s Orders," launches its exploration into how such terror takes place and what it has wrought. The film covers nearly a half-year period from late 2017 to early 2018 in Metro Manila, amid President Duterte’s promises to scale back his drug war, which at the time had already claimed the lives of 3000 suspects. One of its focal characters is Jemar Modequillo, a newly assigned police chief in the district of Caloocan, then considered the epicenter of the carnage. Several officers under his command are also given weight, such as Captain Will Cabrales, who leads Modequillo’s Special Operations Unit charged with rooting out drug suspects. His baby face looks and easy-going demeanor belie his calm focus when it comes to his job. In one key scene he describes how to conduct a drug search at a suspect’s home via indirect means. In another, he calmly mentions to his squad members not to mention anything incriminating on camera. There is Sergeant Adolfo Augustin, leader of the SWAT team, whose chuckling wide-eyed grin whenever he is questioned about extra-judicial killings is beyond unsettling. Jail Warden Octavio Deimos likes to beat prisoners’ hands hanging out of their cells while berating them to no end. Other police staff figure throughout the film, mostly intimidating Caloocan’s poor denizens who have been singled out on watch lists they’ve drawn up with local officials. We see them coercing “suspects” to surrender for impressive statistics or randomly harassing young passers-by via “stop and frisk” while wearing skull half-masks. These heavy-handed activities are all taken in the company of the police with alarming intimacy, as Oliver Sarbil (who handles the shooting) embeds his camera without any overseeing government authority or competing news media. This subject matter is rife for titillation, voyeurism and exploitation, but thankfully never succumbs to these temptations so common in sensational news reporting. There is no rapid cutting, no shaky camera work, no exciting music to trump up the action, no gimmickry. Accounts from news journalists do not visually interrupt in grizzly detail, but through soft background narration playing over aerial drone footage of the shanty metropolis, giving a sense of the city’s breadth and ordeal. There isn’t even a narrator to audibly shape our feelings and expectations. Just sparsely sown yet clear and concise title captions that help give context to the unfolding story. Every shot is confident and composed, conveying stillness and purpose rarely seen in films relying on handheld camerawork. The film also allows itself to breathe, with measured pacing and moments of contemplation that allows its people and events to resonate. We see police squads spending time after a raid over karaoke or handfed meals. Officers are allowed to ruminate their musings on camera often incriminating themselves in their body language and lack of self-awareness. We encounter the lack of training, resources and capability they are saddled with and see genuine sadness in the ranks when a leader is relieved despite all the wrongs that have been carried out of ignorance. This is the kind of rapport that filmmakers can only achieve through trust and familiarity, which Jones and Sarbil must have invested at length. This police perspective is juxtaposed against that of the impoverished citizenry whom they tower over. We meet Orly Fernandez, the manager of a local funeral service that Is open 24/7, who equates the lives of people to that of chickens ready for slaughter (a Filipino aphorism that is widely held). We see scores of prisoners who have opted for jail time without habeus corpus rather than risk being executed when they least expect it. We listen to the victims’ survivors, such as Loremie Sevilla, who testifies to a non-existent judiciary (“If you are poor you don’t get justice.”). We meet their powerless children whose blank faces reveal a suppressed yet seething resentment and anger. This repressed sense of wronging is channeled primarily through the film’s other focal character, Alex Martinez, a self-described gang leader and breadwinner. He shares instances of police abuse and implicates their murderous culpability. Though he describes himself as a “padre de pamilya,” his life inspires greater pity than fear. He, like most of the people whom Sarbil profiles, is merely trying to survive. That is the true tragedy which this documentary lays bare. Everyone, from the police to the policed, is trapped by poverty and the machinations of the powers that be. The undertaker, despite his round-the-clock business, doesn’t believe Duterte is responsible even when the latter admits it from the very beginning. The cops believe that they are on the side of good, even when they have disregarded the law. And the oppressed who are constantly patrolled day by day by their would-be oppressors, are left to a dead end. Many of them slain after surrender. “Being a good soldier means we must be a good follower,” says Chief Modequillo. The slave mentality rules this place. No questions asked. None are the wiser. All of which Jones and Sarbil capture with haunting beauty and sensitivity. They capture Manila’s sprawling metropolis and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair providing relief and levity in moments few and far between. Metro Manila has never looked darker, and its flickering lights have never shone more urgent. The one thing that will forever haunt me is the laughter. Throughout the Philippines’ post-war history, learning to laugh at our misfortunes has been the Filipino’s saving grace. It is our defense mechanism. Our solace. But in this film, with each inexplicable laugh from every questioned cop, it becomes an acknowledgement of inhumanity. A “you got me” moment. A defeated and knowing shrug. And when the laughs come from poor souls answering to police, it becomes a veiled cry of mercy. For Filipinos who know, it’s unbearable to watch. But it must be seen. "On the President’s Orders" is a special documentary that doesn’t try to ask all the questions or provide any possible answers. It simply testifies to our dark age of cruelty and dehumanization. Like the great documentarian duo of the Ross brothers, Jones and Sarbil exhibit great empathy by simply watching and listening to people and places, rather than telling us what to think. And, in this instance, bearing witness to the monstrous policies of the Philippine President, who asks: “’Do not do drugs and kill our children because I will kill you.’ So, what is wrong with that statement?” God help us if we don’t know the answer. The US leg of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 13 through June 20, shining a much needed spotlight on human rights abuses throughout the world through challenging storytelling that pushes for empathy and justice for all. ON THE PRESIDENT'S ORDERS will screen on June 15, 8:30pm at the Film at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. A Q&A to follow with the filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, hosted by Carlos Conde, Researcher, Asia Division at HRW. […]

  • Shaft
    von Odie Henderson am Juni 14, 2019 um 12:44 PM

    The NYC critics’ screening of 2019’s “Shaft” occurred in the most appropriate place imaginable, Times Square. It was here, 48 years ago, that John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) took viewers on a walking tour underscored by Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning title song. A strong, sexy, virile and smart Black man created by “The French Connection” screenwriter, Ernest Tidyman, Shaft became an inspiration for folks like yours truly. As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be John Shaft. He’s the star of three original movies, survivor of a 2000 remake by John Singleton and co-owner of a CBS TV mystery wheel schedule with Jimmy Stewart. In fact, Roundtree’s Shaft is the longest-running Black character in cinema history. Granted, he wasn’t the first Black man to be given two sequels—that honor goes to Sidney Poitier’s Mr. Virgil Tibbs—but he’s so popular that even when his namesake has been rebooted by Samuel L. Jackson, Roundtree shows up to remind viewers who the real John Shaft is. Director Tim Story’s current take on this character also features Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree as owners of the surname Shaft, but unlike Singleton’s version, which paid tribute to Roundtree by making him Jackson’s uncle (and giving him a memorable exit accompanied by two lovely ladies), the 2019 version retrofits Roundtree as Jackson’s father and thrusts him into the action. This is the first in a slew of bad ideas, each and every one of them fatal. Nowhere in Ike’s theme song did he mention John Shaft was a deadbeat dad who begat an equally deadbeat dad. He’s supposed to be a “bad mother shut yo mouth,” not a bad father. At least Shaft Jr. (Jackson) has an excuse for exiting his son’s life; a pre-credits sequence shows the infant being caught in the crossfire between Junior and his enemies. This hurtful stereotype of African-American fathers is a major plot point in “Shaft,” for we have to deal with YET ANOTHER guy named John Shaft, Junior’s son (Jesse T. Usher). Since there are so many damn John Shafts in this movie, I shall henceforth refer to Usher’s character as Baby Shaft. Unlike his absentee father and grandfather (the latter of which has never seen him), Baby Shaft is a non-violent sort who works for The Man. He’s an FBI data analyst, probably the best in the business. The fact that he’s gawky and not as outwardly tough and macho as his lineage requires is attributed, quite offensively, to the fact that he was raised solely by his mother, Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall, who is shockingly bad here). Several times in the film, Shaft Jr. will spout “your Mama did to you” whenever Baby Shaft does something he deems “soft.” Shaft Jr. also constantly questions his son’s sexuality as part of this film’s raging streak of virulent homophobia. It pops up in Baby Shaft’s boss’ dialogue (“I have a 7-year old daughter who wants to be called Frank!” he complains) and in numerous jokes about a veterans’ assistance program called “Brothers Watching Brothers.” Because, as Shaft Jr. repeatedly implies, brothers only watch each other if they’re sexually interested. Unless you enjoy shooting people, fighting and chasing one-night stand female ass with impunity, you’re a homosexual in this movie’s ideology. And that’s a bad thing, of course. But I digress. Baby Shaft seeks out his father’s help after his lifelong friend Karim (Avan Jogia) is found dead of an overdose in front of a drug den in Harlem. Their mutual friend, Dr. Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) determines that Karim could not have accidentally ingested the amount of heroin found in his system according to the documents B.S. was able to get by hacking into the police computer. These skills, and the admittedly preppy way B.S. dresses, will come under scrutiny by his Dad for being too White. So, now we can add the “wannabe White/not keepin’ it real” nonsense to the film’s growing list of harmful stereotypes of Black men. Mark your bingo cards accordingly. When B.S. seeks out Shaft Jr. at his office, a naked woman answers the door. “You lookin’ for Shaft,” she asks the stunned young man. When he appears, Shaft Jr.’s mouth and goatee are covered in something that indicates that he was using SWV’s definition of going downtown. I suppose this compensates for Jackson not getting any action at all in Singleton’s version. “Shaft” may be sexist as hell in that its women are either angry, foul mouthed shrews, damsels in distress or sex objects willing to put up with trifling male behavior, but at least its hero is concerned about getting his women off. After all, his slogan is “it’s your duty to please that booty.” The script by Alex Barnow and Kenya Barris of “black-ish” fame forces Sam Jackson to try so hard to relay a toughness that Roundtree did so effortlessly. The filmmakers don’t trust Jackson’s considerable ability to convey menace subtly. His voice, one of his greatest tools in this regard, is never employed. Think back to his Jules in “Pulp Fiction” saying “check out the brain on Brett.” Instead, Jackson’s Shaft is an overcompensating sadist who spouts Black Hotep horseshit that the film takes as sacredly as tablets from Mount Sinai. “Women like a man to take control!” he repeatedly tells his son. The one time Shaft Jr. actually attempts to treat a woman on the same level as a man, the film shames him for it. The only tough woman in this picture, Bennie Rodriguez (Luna Lauren Velez), is ready to scrap with Shaft Jr. (and probably beat his ass) but B.S. intervenes, citing that you can’t hit a woman, even in self-defense. This is what passes for wokeness here. We can’t even get a fight with the film’s only charismatic and tough villain because she’s a woman. You’re probably wondering where Richard Roundtree is in this review. He shows up 15 minutes before the end of “Shaft.” Even with a snow white beard and a hat that makes him look like Papa Smurf, Roundtree oozes sexiness. He’s still charming as hell and could convincingly fend for himself in the fighting department. Despite being only six years younger than Roundtree, Jackson is more raggedy. “You look older than me!” Original Shaft says to his son. The fact that Roundtree’s presence is so overpowering just proves we didn’t need the other two Shafts in this movie at all. Adding insult to injury, Original Shaft doesn’t get too much to do besides be some kind of spiritual Yoda opening the door for more sequels that I pray never come. The plot is completely forgettable and Story’s direction is atrocious here. He can’t balance the numerous attempts at unfunny comedy with the sudden outbursts of extreme gunplay. The action sequences lack any sense of excitement and only once do the stars of comedy and action align. It’s when B.S. shows off his unorthodox fighting skills at a nightclub. But remember, only the men get the good action moments! When Sasha pulls her own gun, she’s not even allowed to use it. She has to give it to a man who, until this point, has been squeamishly gun-averse. Eventually, she’s kidnapped and has to be rescued by the Shaft Family. The most exciting moment at the screening I attended happened before the movie was projected. A rat made an unscheduled appearance in the theater, causing a fair amount of bedlam in the audience. Its appearance was as on-the-nose symbolic as the rat at the end of “The Departed.” Except here, Cinema Rat was trying to tell us that this sexist, homophobic garbage belongs in a sewer. Gordon Parks’ “Shaft” may not have been the most progressive movie by today’s standards, but it at least gave its women and gay characters some autonomy and treated them better than this astonishingly bad reboot. This movie is “ruin your childhood” bad, right down to the hideous auto-tuned end credits song they chose to use instead of the original “Theme From Shaft.” I say this flick Shaft is a bad movie. Shut yo’ mouth. […]

  • The Dead Don't Die
    von Matt Zoller Seitz am Juni 14, 2019 um 12:44 PM

    Jim Jarmusch's style is so singular and versatile that if you fall in love with it, as some of us did over 30 years ago with "Stranger than Paradise," you'll believe there's no such thing as a bad Jarmusch picture, because you'll judge each new film in relation to Jarmusch's best, not what anyone else might've theoretically done with the same material. "The Dead Don't Die" is far from Jarmusch's best, but there's something to be said for its zonked-out acceptance of extinction.  You know the drill from all the other zombie films released in the last half-century—in particular George Romero's 1978 "Dawn of the Dead," a satire on consumerism in general, American materialism specifically. Zombies take over the small town of Centerville (location unnamed, although the film was shot in upstate New York) and commence wandering the land they knew, repeating actions that once defined them, like swinging a tennis racket, or dragging a guitar or lawnmower around. Zombie children loiter in a ruined candy store, muttering brand names like incantations. ("Skittles...") One zombie (horror film veteran Larry Fessenden) snacks on an arm as if were a turkey leg. "Cleveland," he mutters, shambling away. When shot or slashed, the dead don't bleed, but instead emit puffs of soot. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, etc. The local cops are our guides through this low-energy onslaught. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) hopes the zombie plague will be reversed, or recede on its own. His second-in-command, Officer Ronnie Petersen (Adam Driver), is convinced that things are sure to end badly. We know this because he says it no less than four times, until the phrase fills Cliff with both annoyance and dread. Their colleague, officer Minerva "Mindy" Morrison (Chloe Sevigny), is a wreck, like Veronica Cartwright cratering in the original "Alien." The police are are so used to routine that in the opening scene, when a local hermit named Bob (Tom Waits) responds to their queries about a farmer's stolen chicken by shooting at them, they get back in their car and drive away. What will they do when things fall apart News reports say the world has spun off its axis. Literally. Days last longer than they used to. Night arrives at once. The communications system is gummed up. You can't get a cell phone signal. Commercial radio goes in and out, except when a station plays Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die," which, as Ronnie helpfully informs us, is the theme song of the film you're watching. The other townspeople respond with varying degrees of alarm and resourcefulness. Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), the aforementioned farmer who accused Hermit Bob of chicken-stealing, barricades himself in his farmhouse. Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) locks himself in his hardware store with fellow local businessman Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), who sells pop culture memorabilia at his gas station, including posters for horror movies that Jarmusch probably saw five times in theaters. The most capable character is the newly arrived undertaker at the Ever After Funeral Home, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). She's unperturbed by the ghoul horde, strolling among them and dicing them with her katana. (She and the title character of Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" would've gotten along swimmingly.) Each role has been cast with precisely the actor you expect to see in that sort of part: Driver is a soft-spoken, bespectacled nerd-hulk who gets a little too enthusiastic over the prospect of beheading former neighbors (the chief asks him if he's ever played minor-league baseball); Swinton is a long-haired, steely-eyed, elfin badass who seems to exist beyond the concepts of nationality or gender; Buscemi plays a blandly racist schmuck in a red hat whose impending death no one mourns; Carol Kane is a local drunk-turned-zombie whose only line is "chardonnay." Characteristic of Jarmusch (and his regular cinematographer Frederick Elmes, also a veteran of David Lynch's films), scenes that might otherwise have played as genre box-checking become strangely beautiful, particularly when characters drive slowly through ghoul-dense residential streets at night, steering around former neighbors, or when the camera lingers on an image that's as lovely as it is unsettling, like a tableau of undead faces mashed against storefront glass.  The premise of "The Dead Don't Die" is as basic as it gets. Watching it is, I would imagine, a bit like watching a world-class chef make a grilled cheese sandwich. There's only so much you can do with this specific dish, but it's still fun to watch a master slice the cheese and blood-red tomatoes, every move as graceful as Zelda's. Jarmusch seems amused not just by how little his own screenplay asks of him, but also by the (maybe unnecessarily severe) constraints he's placed on himself. He leans extra-hard into self-awareness. The result evokes those old Looney Tunes shorts where Bugs and Daffy realize they're in a cartoon. When a character suddenly acquires voice-over powers and begins summarizing thematic aspects of the script that were already made plain by the acting and directing (such as the notion that, in an a way, these mindless materialists were already dead, hmmm) it's as Jarmusch is jabbing a bony elbow in the ribs of a genre he loves (Romero's satire wasn't subtle, either) while simultaneously making extra-sure we hear what he's saying. And what is he saying? Worry. Prepare. This is going to end badly. At times, Jarmusch's point-of-view seems to align with Ronnie's, who knows we're all doomed and is taking a scientific interest in the community's trudge to the finish line. Other times he's simpatico with Zelda, a superior intellect whose mind floats miles above the mayhem. Still other times he's Cliff, saddened by the sense of waste and the ebb of hope. Towards the end, he might be Hermit Bob, hiding in the woods, watching the endgame through foliage. (Not a week goes by that I don't think about a stray line from Jarmusch's vampire romance "Only Lovers Left Alive," where a bloodsucker reveals he's buying property in Detroit because the coasts are sure to drown.) In the best Romero tradition, the jokey explanations of what precipitated the apocalypse are open-ended metaphors for real fears, American and global. The world got knocked off its axis by something called "polar fracking," which seems like mere Monty Python-eseque word salad until you hear representatives of the polar fracking industry going on the news and baldly denying that the process is bad for nature. Centerville, a placid American town that seemed culturally and economically dead when the story began, is shaken from its torpor by a literally seismic upheaval that makes one part of the population wish to devour the other. The mortal majority at first refuses to accept that they're facing an extinction-level threat, and when they've finally figured it out, it's too late: there are just too many of Them. But the paranoia doesn't all flow in one direction. In an early scene at the local diner, that cliched emblem of America's ideological crossroads, MAGA Frank unthinkingly insults Hank, a black man ("Keep America White Again," Frank's red cap reads) and although Hank shrugs it off, his weary expression confirms that this kind of thing has happened before. The first zombie to knock on Frank's door, looking to eat his face off, happens to be black. A chill of dread is in the air. Pets and livestock hide from the humans who once called themselves their caretakers. They know what's coming. They know, like Ronnie, that things are sure to end badly. As in a "Twilight Zone" episode, or a classic horror movie, or the most recent string of environmentally-focused Godzilla films, or the plague on Thebes that vexed Oedipus, the extinction threat came from within. It was an unspoken answer to our hubris, our sins, and our inability to recognize that our time is up, and that we're the ones who sped up the timetable, by being so ignorant, greedy, and clueless. "So very ravenous," Zelda says, observing the undead, and damning the living, too, "but well past yer expiration date." The final three words of dialogue leave no doubt about the film's opinion on whether we're worth saving. They're punk-rock harsh. This film is punk rock in slow-motion. […]

  • American Woman
    von Tomris Laffly am Juni 14, 2019 um 12:43 PM

    As far-reaching as its generic name inherently suggests, Jake Scott’s sneakily rewarding drama “American Woman” is a time-spanning life story with a slow building script by “Out of the Furnace” writer Brad Ingelsby. And here is its best and biggest feature: Sienna Miller’s expansive performance as the lead stars-and-stripes female teased in the title. It’s a career-best achievement for Miller, grounded on her wide-ranging emotional muscles; sometimes, she is knowingly mundane and uneventful like the life of the ordinary small-town woman she portrays. Other times, she acts so manically scarred that you can feel the traces of pain crawling in her bones in your own body. The package that surrounds her is far from new or pristine, sadly—she plays a grief-stricken single mother going through the motions of mid-life crisis and maturity. But Miller owns the material and single-handedly elevates it to something you can’t look away from, while reminding us the effortless appeal she brought into even her relatively thankless part in “American Sniper.” She plays Debra, a 30 or 40-something single mother (and amazingly, grandmother) living in a small, chaotic home in a PA town. We meet her as she puts on a body conscious dress and calls out “Bridget” repeatedly. That’s her teenage daughter (Sky Ferreira) she had birthed at 16 years of age, who grew up to do the same thing as her mom did: have a child way too young. Deb calls out Bridget’s name in such desperation that we quickly get a sense of her over-reliance on her offspring. For better or worse though, the duo live in harmony, with Deb helping out with infant Jesse when she isn’t going out to bad dates with an inadequate (and married) prospect. Her helpful, loving yet immensely disapproving sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”) lives just across the street, leading a contrastingly tidy life with two kids and her supportive husband Terry (Will Sasso). This familial bond, shaped both by emotional and physical closeness, is portrayed with a rare sense of realness—sisters both love and assertively confront each other, while the ever reliable Terry truly contends for some kind of a “year’s best brother-in-law in cinema” award. There is also the siblings’ mother in the picture, capably played by Amy Madigan in a relatively inconsequential part. And that’s just the setting until Bridget disappears one day with no trace. Even the sole suspect in Deb’s eyes (Jesse’s biological father Tyler, played by Alex Neustaedter) ends up being a dead-end target—the poor kid has nothing to do with the vanishing. Meanwhile, Deb’s affair comes to a decisive end, after a frenzied (and nearly tragic) night when she shows up at her married boyfriend’s doorstep like a desperate bunny boiler. Then before we know it, we cut to six years ahead. Bridget is still missing; Deb is taking business classes and raising young Jesse (Aidan McGraw) through a hectic schedule. Bossing them around is the abusive Ray (Pay Healy), who pays for all the expenses, but not without some shouting and physical violence on the side. (You guessed it: Terry and Katherine come to the rescue.) With her nose out of that mess later, Deb continues growing in life, scoring a good job as well as a decent boyfriend named Chris (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”), who later on marries Deb and becomes a father figure for Jesse (played by Aidan Fiske at later ages). But troubles await that relationship, too. Rest assured, the film won’t leave you in the dark about what happened to Bridget. A random phone call confirms Deb’s worst fears, but since so much time had passed in the story, the audience doesn’t quite meet her at her level of grief. And yet, Miller pulls off a genuinely stunning performance in the film’s final chapter. Throughout, you can trace deposits of other single mothers in her: Patricia Arquette from “Boyhood,” Frances McDormand’s Mildred from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Angelina Jolie’s Christine Collins from “Changeling.” In one moment, she even faintly resembles a Norma Rae-type at her workplace. Miller distills all these hardworking, idiosyncratic and far from perfect mothers into a towering performance that matures alongside Deb. Her make-up becomes subtler, her hairstyle, tamer—one particularly inspired production design decision even gives her small, modest kitchen a believable face-lift. “American Woman” might not serve up a new dish, but the range of the table spread which Miller fluently commands leaves one in awe all the same. […]

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