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Pretty much the cinematic equivalent of Einstein sitting down with Copernicus. This is the 100th 2015 film I’m reviewing here, so why not this little gem of a documentary. Alright, it’s too damn short at 80 minutes. So, there’s ample time given to “Vertigo”, “The Wrong Man”, and “Psycho”, along with snippets of “The Lodger”, “The 39 Steps”, and “Strangers on a Train”. But no where damn near enough on “Rebecca”, “Rear Window”, and “Frenzy”. The price of genius, I guess. And the curse of Hitch having directed 50+ features. Truffaut’s resume is much more compact, due to his untimely demise. But if there’s a more stunning debut (outside of “Kane”) then “The 400 Blows”, you’d have to do some work to convince me. It shattered me. Plus, I’m just discovering, that as I write about Francois on my 51st birthday, that he actually passed away on my 19th birthday, at the age of 52. Weird.

I don’t envy the enormous amount of material that director Kent Jones had to pick through to arrive at this deliriously, exhilarating hour and change. But also…I do. The film is based on the legendary 1966 Francois Truffaut book, about his 1962 meetings with Alfred Hitchcock. Essentially, the two European titans locked themselves in a room at Universal Studios for days, and sat around talking about movies. Glorious. And not only is there wonderful archive footage (video AND audio) presented here, but there are marvelous interviews with current film maestros like Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Martin Scorsese, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. What struck me about the career arc of Hitch, is the rarity of someone of his talent level being on Earth at the right moment, to be able to go from silent film, to black-and-white talkies, to Hollywood color motion pictures. Talk about full throttle training. And, of course, Truffaut is credited with starting the French New Wave. In other words, is this stuff essential? In one word…yeah.

Grade:  A-



Ghostbusters (2016)

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It’s got no balls. Now listen, before you completely misunderstand, I was rooting for these ladies. Hard. But Paul Feig’s direction, along with his co-screenwriter Katie Dippold, completely lets this talented cast down. It’s like they are running scared. From ghosts. Or the nostalgic apparitions of Murray, Ackroyd, Ramis, Hudson, Weaver, Moranis and Potts. Their long-in-the-tooth versions appear here, in cameo form, btw. Sans Rick Moranis, who has been semi-retired for two decades. Lucky him. Also, the late Harold Ramis gets a blink and you’ll miss it onscreen tribute. But they would have been better off ignoring the original cast completely in this female-heavy reboot. These are funny, eclectic women. Mostly though, they are wasted here.

I mean, I can hardly muster a darn plot description. Three highly educated white gals, team up with a  sassy, African-American, MTA worker, and try to capture ghosts. So, right there is an issue. But that’s it…along with a lot of mugging, scenery-chewing, and a lazy script. And every time there’s a lull, or a lack of momentum, someone sings, dances, or lip-syncs. Bright spots? Sure. Kate McKinnon finds almost every unusual, and delightful, way, to make her character of Dr. Holtzmann the absolute standout. But the talented Kristen Wiig as Dr. Gilbert, and Melissa McCarthy as Dr. Yates, are given almost nothing to do. Leslie Jones as partner Patty Tolan is loud, BIG, and abrasive. That, I guess, is supposed to be funny all by itself. And Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, makes the most of the ridiculously written role of Kevin, the hunky, but dimwitted receptionist. He tries. Or, they just let him dance.

Special effects are very good…and I bet it looked great in 3D. 1984 touchstones: Slimer, Stay-Puft, lines of dialogue, plot devices, ghost-mobile, the cameos…there’s a lot. There’s even an after-credits scene mention of Zuul. This movie has a distinct lack of identity. It fully relies on the first film’s good graces. I mean, take a look at 1984’s “Ghostbusters” again. That one is overrated! These gals should have been given a chance to spread their wings without its memory. McKinnon was obviously up for the challenge. This deserved to tank at the box office–like it did. Not because it’s distaff, but because it is toothless. No one was given the chance to bite. It’s like they were told to just try to be charming. Too bad.

Grade:  C


“Deepwater Horizon” hit Berg

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This is a confession. I’ve decided that I have to see more work from underrated director, Peter Berg. He’s had a few hits, he’s had a few bombs…but he usually makes an impression. Mr. Berg has helmed 8 features since 1998, yet I’ve only experienced two. Expect that to change soon, because I’m really getting the itch to view his latest, “Deepwater Horizon” on a big screen. I’m a little late to the starting gate (it opened on September 30th), but positive buzz, and word-of-mouth is eating at me. Mark Wahlberg stars, as he did in the director’s previous offering, but Kurt Russell and John Malkovich reportedly add ample support here. “Deepwater Horizon” is being recognized as a lean, stirring action film. And, in a way, Peter Berg is cornering the market on this genre.

Let’s start from the beginning. Alright, I’ve never actually heard anything all that positive, about the filmmaker’s 1998 debut, “Very Bad Things”. But it sports a solid cast, so maybe I’ll check it out someday. 2003 is when people really started taking notice, with the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starrer, “The Rundown”. It never covered its production budget, but it had its champions. Things started sparking with 2004’s “Friday Night Lights”, based on the popular book, and followed up with an acclaimed television series. Next, came 2007’s “The Kingdom”. At this point, the word on Berg was hot. But again…the movie barely covered its budget. But “The Kingdom” has a fervent following. To this point though…I haven’t seen any Berg films.

2008’s “Hancock” was a huge hit for Will Smith, quadrupling its production budget. I did see that…and I liked half of it. But that half was so good, that I’m ready to give it another try. 2012’s “Battleship” cost a lot, and lost a lot…plus the critics savaged it. But I heard rumblings of “underrated” from some of the better critics, so I remain curious. 2013’s “Lone Survivor” did well with reviewers, and was a financial hit. It was my 2nd Berg, and I’m quite fond of it. Which brings us to this year, and “Deepwater Horizon”. I’ve got some catching up to do. Get thee to my Netflix queue! I’m ready to take Peter Berg seriously! Cinematic dearth–rectified soon!



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It’s astonishing in its effectiveness. Is “13TH” the best documentary of the year? Maybe. One thing is for certain–filmmaker Ava DuVernay has fulfilled the promise that she made with “Selma” a couple of years back. I wanted to LOVE “Selma”. Honestly. But I couldn’t. It had its moments, but it simply came off as another earnest, middlebrow, not-very-exciting chronicle of a touchstone period for race relations in the U.S.A. Some of the acting was wonderful–especially David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. Plus, the eventual Oscar-winning Best Original Song “Glory”, had all of the passion mixed with anger that I wished the film possessed. Well, I’m here to tell you that Ms. DuVernay has served it up now. Was this her plan all along? Kind of “sucker them in”, and then “blast ’em”? I wonder. Because I’m of the opinion that “Selma” is safely calibrated for white people’s digestion. “13TH”, on the other hand, is decidedly NOT. Bravo.

“13TH” is angry and impassioned and vital. I was struck by how many things it said that I already knew, but how it still drilled itself into my core. This stuff needs to be repeated over and over and over again. Will it help? Just a little at a time, I’m afraid. But we have to just keep chipping away at prejudice and outright racism. What other choice is there? Too many white folks simply don’t recognize how much it’s still there. I know…because I’m a white guy. I hear what they say when black people are out of the room…and sometimes when they’re still in the room. It’s what white privilege is. They deny it. They ignore it. It doesn’t effect them…so they don’t care. We’ve got to eliminate that shit! Patience is required, while we rapidly run out of patience. I’VE run out of patience! The movement is too damn slow. Yes, this is already more rant, than review. I’m angry, because I get why people are angry. Too many don’t.

“13TH” is not all anger. It is 100 minutes of a collection of intelligent African-Americans discussing their plight. Some are scholars, others are controversial, some are politicians, a few are the formerly wrongly imprisoned. “13TH” focuses on the United States criminal justice system, and how it became a replacement form of slavery. It rails against mass incarceration of black people, and takes you step-by-step and decade through decade as to how this happened. Some of the footage shown is sickening and infuriating. We see Emmett Till in his casket. We watch attack dogs and fire hoses set upon children. We get clips of the Presidents and candidates that set this tone. Nixon and Reagan are obvious, but Bill and Hillary Clinton are hardly spared. And then there is the rise of the sickening Donald Trump. That’s given to us too, in all its ugliness, and bigotry and sexism. He must lose next month. One of my barometers after viewing a fine documentary, is how much of a thirst I have for more, after the credits roll. I wanted this to run for ten hours. “13TH” is one of the best films of 2016.

Grade:  A


Swiss Army Man

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Say this for Harry Potter–he’s a risk taker. Daniel Radcliffe is only 27 years old, and has been world famous for (at the very least) 15 years, since first appearing in the film series based on J. K. Rowling’s incredibly popular fantasy books. But halfway through that 8-film trial, Mr. Radcliffe portrayed Alan Strang on stage, in London and New York, in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s risque “Equus”. Then a few years back, he played beat poet Allen Ginsberg on film, in the low-budget art piece, “Kill Your Darlings”. I admire that streak in Daniel–especially considering I have yet to see a “Harry Potter” movie. He certainly doesn’t rest on his mainstream laurels. “Swiss Army Man” is not mainstream.

Hank (fellow risk-taker Paul Dano…quite good, as always), is marooned on a desert island, and eventually decides to commit suicide. Failing in his first attempt, he ends up spotting a person washed-up on the beach. After running over to examine him, he discovers that the man is dead. Then he hears flatulence. But realizes the corpse is simply evacuating its bowels. However, it just keeps on farting. So, Hank decides to utilize the gaseous deceased, by riding the man like a jet-ski back to the mainland. Yes…via fart power. Soon, the dead man is talking to Hank, as he attempts to wind his way home. Hank dubs him “Manny”, and he role plays with his mostly inanimate friend–as well as using him to obtain water, and as a weapon, and as a tool…just like he was used as a conveyance. Manny proves to be a regular “swiss army” man. Their journey eventually leads them to Sarah (a fine Mary Elizabeth Winstead), after being sparked to find her from a cell phone picture.

What’s real, what’s imagined, what’s metaphor? I have my ideas…but you tell me. Is it all kind of silly and juvenile? Yeah, but writers/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan manage to mine some real pathos here too. Is it all worthwhile? I guess. It was hard for me to work up much enthusiasm after a while, though. I guess I found it a little too easy. Maybe a little bit strained? An admirable attempt at something, however. Oh, mainstream movie goers will hate it, so bear that in mind. They’ll label it ridiculous or offensive, or some other kind of write-off description in the hard held habit of casting away anything that comes off a bit strange, or unusual. I wasn’t offended by it…but I wasn’t completely enthralled either. It’s very well acted, and it boasts a provocative screenplay. Also, a bold directorial style. Give it a try. You’ve never seen Harry Potter like this.

Grade:  B-

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“Finding Dory” v “Zootopia”

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Is there any doubt, that come Oscar time (the Academy Awards broadcast will be on Sunday, February 26th), that the battle will be between these two Disney behemoths? Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Dory” crossed the worldwide box office one BILLION dollar mark this past weekend. Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” pulled off that SAME feat, earlier in the year. The sequel, “Finding Dory”, is the summer champion, while the original creation, “Zootopia”, ruled the spring. “Zootopia” fared slightly better with the critics, while “Dory”, arguably, has the higher star power voices. Although both can boast Idris Elba…so maybe it’s a wash. Each movie landed a CinemaScore grade of ‘A’. Is there any way these two GIANTS don’t battle for the Best Animated Feature Oscar? And who wins? Is there any scenario in which Disney can lose? Place your bets now: bunny cop or wayward fish? It’s the Ali/Frazier of Oscar Animation. And it should be a thrilla, and a killa, and a chilla!


KUBRICK @Feature #1: 1953’s Fear and Desire

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It’s commonly known, among Stanley Kubrick fans, that he really despised his first film “Fear and Desire”, and would have preferred that we all forget about it (not bloody LIKELY!). The report is that Stanley once referred to it as, “a bumbling amateur film exercise”. Kubrick strongly suggested that 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss”, should be the one that’s really considered his feature film debut. I’ve always been a bit annoyed by that dismissiveness, along with the rumours that Stanley himself spent years trying to acquire all known prints to make it vanish from public view. Of course, the story in the late twentieth century, when my Kubrick fascination was still budding, was that a couple of prints avoided capture. And that one was readily available for viewing at the George Eastman House (a film archive and photography museum) in Rochester, New York. But that was then…this is now.

I’ve seen “Fear and Desire” four or five times in the last decade, plus I’ve owned the Kino Video DVD release, since the time of its commercial distribution in late 2012. My first chance at seeing it failed in 1994. We were still half a decade from Stanley’s sudden passing at that time, with his final feature, “Eyes Wide Shut”, just entering its infancy stages. I’ve always lived just a few miles outside of New York City, but (for whatever reason) I was unable to get to the Film Forum’s one-week-only revival of “F&D”, in the year that brought us “Forrest Gump”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Shawshank Redemption”. “Damn you, Stanley!”, I remember thinking. I mean, you can’t change history–it’ll always be your first. Of course, YouTube would arrive just over a decade later, Kubrick no longer walked the earth, and experiencing “Fear and Desire” suddenly became more accessible–if not quite at the highest level of quality.

So, there I was, in the latter half of the aughties, watching a mediocre print on my computer, that was first broadcast on television in Europe–with Italian subtitles. Yeah. But, I exulted, I’ve finally seen it! Or had I? Through various readings, in books and via the internet, I had always heard the final cut of “Fear and Desire” was either 68 or 72 minutes, at least based on where you were getting your information. This version ran barely 62. Was something missing? Of course, being fully aware of Kubrick’s constant tinkering with his projects (for instance, both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining” were truncated after their respective premieres–and that’s just two examples), I reasoned that there must be a longer print out there somewhere–but that this was better than nothing. Then, Turner Classic Movies aired a restored print in December of 2011. So, I got my 2nd look, on a 32-inch television screen in my living room. However, its running time was the same as the YouTube copy. Was this it?

Well, that’s what the Kino Video running time is too, so, regardless of what’s out there somewhere–it’s what we have. And I’ve watched that DVD 2 or 3 times now, most recently just a few days ago. Okay…obviously not Kubrick’s finest hour. But indispensable all the same. Stanley was still just crawling. But he would learn to walk by “Killer’s Kiss”, and would break into a run, by the time of 1956’s “The Killing”. With 1957 ushering in “Paths of Glory”, he was officially a genius. Oh, but the talent involved in “F&D”! Kubrick’s high school chum, Howard Sackler wrote the screenplay, and he would go to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for 1968’s “The Great White Hope”. And, future award-winning director and screenwriter, Paul Mazursky, was making his feature film acting debut in Kubrick’s first. The late Mr. Mazursky was only in his early 20’s at that point. Most impressive to me always, was Jamaican-born, Boston-bred, Frank Silvera, a versatile, eventually Tony-nominated, character actor. Silvera would go on to play a major role in Stanley’s 2nd feature too.

Silvera is easily the best actor in “Fear and Desire”. Pushing 40 at the time, his patience and experience shows as Sgt. Mac. The four soldiers “lost in the woods during war time” plot device is prime ground for disparate and flamboyant characterizations…and unfortunately Stanley delivers on that promise. Mazursky’s performance kind of works, with its youthful gyrations and earnest overzealousness. It’s effective. But David Allen’s narration is clunky and self-important. And Kenneth Harp, in the dual role of Lt. Corby and The General, is a bit stiff and guilty of over-enunciating. Virginia Leith is perfectly cast as The Girl, and it’s a strong, mostly silent role. She’s still alive, btw, and will turn 84 in a few days. Steve Coit is fine in the dual role of Pvt. Fletcher and The Captain. But Silvera is the standout from the cast. Gerald Fried composed the serviceable music composition, and he worked with Stanley throughout the 1950s.  Plus, of course, Kubrick directed, produced, edited, and shot the low-budget feature, mostly by way of a loan from his uncle.

Hey, if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, “Fear and Desire” is a required stop. This cut makes it his shortest feature, so it’s certainly not a trial even at its weakest spots. Kubrick reportedly had issues with the recording of the dialogue, and at one point considered making it a silent feature. Paul Mazursky once said Stanley propped the camera on a baby carriage for tracking shots. Mazursky’s scenes with the foreign Girl are tense and highly watchable. Mr. Silvera just being is fascinating to watch. Amateurish? At times. Noble effort? Without question. It remained elusive for decades, but time heals. To an extent.

Grade:  C+

KUBRICK coming in November: the roll of eleven has been done, with help from my youngest son, and it will be, Stanley’s seventh film, 1964’s “Dr. Srangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”