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Beat the Devil

The Mediocre Falcon
John Huston does a smug and sloppy self parody of the Maltese Falcon in Beat the Devil, a film that insults more than entertains with its abrasive humor. Huston's at times incoherent script (Truman Capote co-author) huffed and puffed with a mostly fatigued cast outside of Jennifer Jones and her feverish energy for adventure and romance never allows for any character to flesh out or gain audience interest.

Of less interest is the convoluted mess of a plot zapping the film of any intrigue or suspense as the cast bakes in the sun. Bogart is a hybrid Rick/Sam without the assurance or energy of a decade earlier. An escape scene is almost cruel to watch as he makes a run for it. The rest of the cast seems to be in their own world with Morley a poor substitute for the deceased Sidney Greenstreet, Lorre a corpulent but dissipated ghost of his former self. Jones' character is meant to be kooky to begin with while a young Gina Lollibrigida more than holds her own with the old pros. Saro Urzi's bombastic ship's captain is an insult to Italians that Huston ham-handedly allows to go over the top.

The rest of his direction seems without one, lacking focus or cohesive plot to get the viewer involved with the story while his array of cardboard characters irritate more than achieve laughs or menace. His choice of the Italian coastline is stunning but in need of darker shadow, sharper corners in stories that deal in double cross as well as characters with deeper motivation and a semi-comprehensible story to follow. Beat the Devil deserves its place in Hades.

Nightmare Alley

Power never better.
DP Lee Garmes gives a master class in chirascuro lighting and Tyrone Power gives the finest performance of his career in this rise and fall drama about a carny barker with huge ambitions. Visually stunning with a strong supporting cast Alley does however bog down at the end as well as provide a cop out ending, barring it from the top shelf classics of noir which it is well on its way to three quarters of the way along.

From the midway to the palatial homes of the ultra powerful and wealthy Power's maniacally ambitious Stan Carlisle con's rubes from all strata. Working as a mentalist's assistant (Joan Blondell) he accesses a code from her and her alcoholic husband that soon has him playing for the swells in supper clubs. When he gets involved with a psychiatrist (Helen Walker) he becomes more brazen as he attempts to exploit her wealthy clientele which leads to disaster.

Director Edmond Goulding moves through hardscrabble carny life with the same smooth style that ran through the lobby of Grand Hotel, getting an overwhelming abundance of assistance from cameraman Lee Garmes who offers one outstanding expressionistic composition after the next of foreboding carny life as well as some incredible portraiture of the players in creating the setting the title demands. So powerful is the imagery in Nightmare Alley it eschews the crutch of a musical score throughout most of the film, seldom done in major pictures.

Power, as handsome an actor that Hollywood ever saw, has to dig deep to convey it and does by coldly utilizing those looks for no good. His dissipation and destruction from beauty to beast is as impressive a performance as the period offers. Blondell, Walker and Colleen Gray as the women he uses and abuses all give solid restrained performances, not a weak link among them, while Ian Keith as Blondell's alchoholic husband Pete is riveting in every moment of his minor role.

Visually as strong as any noir of its day Nightmare Alley's cop out ending does a disservice to its audience and Power's performance, that nevertheless is an incredible one in spite of it.


Boston innocent Francis McCullin (Chloe Moretz) finds a woman's handbag on a NY subway and decides to return it against the advice of her hip roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) to Greta Hedig (Isabelle Huppert) a middle aged French woman living in Brooklyn. It is apparent early that there is something odd about Greta but Franny perhaps looking for a mother figure avoids the warning sign until she discovers a fact that cannot get her away from the banshee fast enough. Greta begins to stalk her openly after being rejected and since all of NYC is willing to turn a blind eye to her disturbing obsession allows Greta to kidnap and torture accommodating rube Franny who disappears without a trace.

Stretching credulity beyond its breaking point about half an hour into the story, Greta is an insipid thriller that asks you to swallow an awful lot of absurdity in its attempt at modern day Gothic horror of psychopath hiding in plain sight. Neil Jordan' script and direction is abysmal from the get go with his enigmatic lynch pin revealed early forcing him to stack one semi-suspenseless, contrived scene on top of one another with wide eyed gullible Fran doing her requisite bungling to get her in deeper. Break a full window to escape? No way, run down into the dark basement and try and climb up an out a window a fraction of its size instead.

Moretz's dense Franny is all whine and whimper to a point of annoying. The usually excellent Huppert is anything but, her performance stilted and a touch comatose. Given her pedigree I expected more out of Greta but with the script going adrift early it is little more than a poorly edited sloppy slasher that is overlong at 99 minutes.


Time has reduced Wolf to boorish howl.
Riding the crest of his popularity in 1968 Ingmar Bergman made this nightmarish story about the disappearance of a fictional artist (Max Von Sydow) on a sparsely populated island of symbols and metaphors. With his diary and testimony from his wife we follow what looks like his final tortured weeks overwhelmed by conscience and demons he cannot escape while his wife (Liv Ullman) steers into the camera looking as confused as many of us are by the time Wolf winds down.

Given his high priest of film prominence in 68, Hour of the Wolf was getting the same lavish attention all Bergman's works received back then as another daring and unique look at the tortured artist with a hint of bio from the celebrity /director who shunned the spotlight. With his bleak landscapes, joyless characters and "restrained" sense of humor, common in all of his superior work fails to take hold in Wolf. With its pretentious opening it moves from drab Fellini to Roger Corman moments as Sven Nykvist overexposes for heavy handed effect as Liv Ullman's sober monologues reminds us to take all the confusion seriously while I guess Bergman as one of his players mentions early in the film "fingers our soul." Keep your hands to yourself Ingmar. Pure art house claptrap that has aged poorly.

ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke

Trying to make a killing on Sam Cooke
I can recall no singer of any color being able to move between the races (outside of Jim Crow South) with such popularity as Sam Cooke the gospel, soul singing pop star destined for superstardom (if not already) when he was gunned down in an LA motel seeking out some "strange." It was a loss to music that far exceeded the similar tragedy of John Lennon in that the already famous Cooke was an arrow pointing up and moving perhaps into a new area of appeal with his latest hit "Shake" expanding his style from pop to rock.

In this doc on the singer we are mislead into thinking it is a re-investigation into the motel shooting with the possibility of a massive conspiratorial cover-up possibly related to Cooke's courageous activism (he refused to do segregated shows, did tours of the South when he did not have to) regarding civil rights. It is a bit of a stretch with speculation being relegated to last 15 minutes of the film with most of it hearsay and far from the detail available in bios available for years.

What does make the film worthwhile however is its subject and the story of his rise and success through newsreel and performances along with interviews with friends, fellow musicians and intimates. It reveals an incredibly natural and graceful personality featuring one of the truly great voices of the twentieth century who had at least 30 good years in front of him when tragedy struck. Compare him to stiffs like Andy Williams or Pat Boone who paled in comparison to his smooth style, beating them at their own game while having the ability to belt out soul the equal of Marvin Gaye. The future was wide open for Cooke with anything (variety show, Vegas, touring) in the entertainment business he wanted as well as being an eloquent spokesman and committed individual for Civil Rights. His loss as an entertainer spreading joy through his music was large but his loss as the man in full was beyond enormous. Give him a listen now and feel the pain.

Studio 54

Dance of Death
Two college pals from Brooklyn Steve Rubell and Ira Schager not only took The Big Apple but the world by storm when they opened Studio 54 in 1977. Overnight these brash entrepreneurs took the club scene to another level with it's opera house bones that provided a balcony to watch the beautiful people in full hedonistic tilt as well as special sections for A listers to snort coke and perform other illicit activities as the boys pulled all the stops to make the club a success which they did from the opening night, maintaining a dizzying pace until the Feds cracked down three years later when silent partner Jack Dushey sang like a canary to the Feds. Then suddenly as it had begun it ended for this brazen duo and they were off to prison on tax evasion convictions.

Documentary filmmaker Mark Tyrnauer's (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) fascination with celebrity nostalgie de las boue is once again in full evidence as he takes us back to the epicenter of the 70s Disco era and its meretricious glamor and sybaritic lifestyles of the beautiful people making the scene at the time; the plague of AIDS, that would decimate so many attached to the club still at bay. They were dancing on a volcano almost as volatile as the bathhouses in NY and Frisco. It remains a weak telling however as it depends more on still photographs, gossip and the guarded testimony of surviving former co-owner Ira Shaeger trying to paper over Rubell, Dushey and their all consuming greed (skimming up to 80% a night) as an insatiable desire to "succeed." Given the voluminous amount of celebrities who were part of the scene Tyrnauer offers little in terms of interviews then and now, outside of a precious snippet with a young Michael Jackson pre- superstar period. Instead he relies on former club flunkies playing coy, protecting themselves, acting like it was all fun and games as they clipped the cash strap city of NY for millions.

Rubell the extrovert of the duo's high energy enthusiasm had a certain likability in the early days that was soon corrupted by sex, drugs and rubbing elbows with the in crowd. He soon became dictatorial out front insulting customers and turning them away while remaining obsequious to the celebs. He would die of AIDS in 1989 like their famed lawyer Roy Cohn had in 1986; both in deep denial about their disease. Some things were just impossible to lie your way out of.

Shaeger, a man who clearly understood the price of everything and value of nothing was destined to land on his feet as he bought protection in prison and ratted out others to cut his sentence in half as he sits today in a multi-million dollar Southhampton mansion along with having a newly minted pardon from President Obama. With this insulated, unctuous character as the main source of Studio 54 the doc is a shallow as the crowd it catered to in its hay day, offering the viewer nothing that we did not already know last century.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Pimp to the Stars sells out his clients.
Pumping gas by day and clients by night tinsel town pimp extroadanaire Scotty Bowers made quite a living in the 50s catering to the Hollywood set in search of utter discretion. Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, George Cukor, Tracy and Hepburn even the Duke and Duchess of Wales were clients. At 90 he revisits his days of glory when he was both player and manager doing a threesome with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner among others. He even brought Al Kinsey to gang bangs for "research" purposes. It is pretty saucy stuff, a jolt to the film historian.

Ancient Scotty is in excellent shape reaching final count down to the century mark as he climbs ladders and displays an enthusiasm decades younger than he is. Unapologetic and proud he says he provided fun to an uptight society where morals clauses held famous careers in the balance. No doubt his unique service proved invaluable to his customers.

With the real story 50 years in the past, director Matt Tyraneur has to deal with Bowers a pack rat of immense proportions stumbling through mountains of trash in a couple of deeded properties, climbing ladders, stealing cat food, coveting a sidewalk toilet and tooling around LA while he dishes on Hudson, Grant and the good times. There is also testimony to his friendship and loyalty and dependability seeing through a scheduled trick the day he found out his daughter was dead. Yes, I know.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a by product of the major success of his tell all tome Full Service. Purportedly it has even more salacious detail as Bowers re-buries legends. But why? He was extremely well off and took so much pride in keeping things on the down low for these folks while alive. There was also a degree of underground fame to go along with it. But even his wife thinks he's a sleaze for doing it, especially since he's in the final stretch of an exciting life (Chicago streets as a kid, action in the Pacific as a marine) to stumble and fall as he rats out the people that gave him an excellent living. It's a lousy last act, the gossip of an ingrate dishing titillating trash while living in the middle of it. You might want to shower after watching it for a number of reasons.

The Americanization of Emily

Genre hybrid makes for decent mongrel.
Paddy Chayevsky's script and Arthur Hiller's direction run a smooth course and fine line in The Americanization of Emily, featuring an unrepentant coward determined to stay out of battle during WW2. He nevertheless finds himself in the first wave of the Normandy Invasion due to the hair brained scheme of his superior officer.

Naval officers Charlie Madison (James Garner) and Bus Cummings (James Coburn) have done a superb job of avoiding the fight under the command of a dementia showing Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). Military gophers they specialize in making things comfortable for those away from the fighting, especially themselves. Charlie meets a Brit Wac (Julie Andrews) and falls head over heels but his cowardice turns her off. When Jessup gets the idea to sacrifice someone on the beach for Navy, Bus volunteers Charlie.

Half 40s romance, half cynical satire Emily does an excellent job of presenting both themes fairly evenly through compartmentalizing with Coburn spelling Andrews to both debate and enter him into the fray without putting too much weight on Julie's shoulders to carry all of the discussion.

Garner and Andrews make for an excellent pairing with Julie registering in this serious role between Sound and Poppins. Coburn is his usual energized self with Douglas ditto gruff.

The Americanization of Emily may not have the more accusatory tone towards the military that followed in the years ahead in anti war films. It has to compromise with the heavy romantic/comedy aspect of the story, but there are more than enough moments to make the point about the futility and waste of war that the cast and its makers pointedly make.

Outside of the protagonist motivation The Americanization of Emily

The Loved One

The Loved One deserves none
Flush with the bankability and runaway award winning success of Tom Jones, director Tony Richardson promptly threw it all away with this absurdist satire on the American funeral industry. Packed with stalwart performers it displays some flashes of brilliance but overall is a heavy handed free for all of dark humor scripted by Strangelove writer Terry Southern that more feebly offends than provoke laughter with stale borrowing from the former.

Richardson's direction remains erratic throughout with his caricatures overblown windbags, his sloppy crosscutting convoluting matters and the dreadful miscasting of Robert Morse (an American) as the British Poet lead going in an out of accent. Some audacious casting such as Liberace the casket salesman and Lionel Stander's advice columnist add comic spark to the story while Rod Stieger's embalmer, Mr. Joy Boy is ferociously over the top but it is a crowded field vying for slim pickings with a scenario built on such bad taste the author Evelyn Waugh who wrote book in 1937 had his name removed from it. The Loved One deserves none.

The Wife

Deal Breaker
Joe (Alan Pryce) and Joan (Glenn Close) Castleman unbeknownst to the world are quite a writing team. In fact Joe's just won the Nobel Prize, except she is the more deserving of the two who will have to settle for loyal wife praise. It seems they've been pulling the wool over the public's eye since his married, tom catting, teaching days when he first hooked up with Joan who agreed to the corrupt bargain.

The Wife is a Bergman Wild Strawberries derivation without the Swedish stoicism. Joan snaps and you wonder why she had not sooner given the near totally unredeemable character of Joe the gate decades earlier. Leeching off his wife's talent over the years he also took the opportunity to have affairs but now sees himself as the victim.

Close is outstanding, certainly one her finest performances over a excellent dramatic film career. Pryce is also impressive as the unctuous hubby, criticizing his wife, berating his son, coming on to a photographer and being outright insensitive much of the time. But the heavy handed ogre treatment all works against the film's credulity of Joan's lifetime of restraint and sacrifice that erupts in resentment and fury most people would agree was years late. The imbalance does not stand up and this wife only has herself to blame.

New Orleans

More Jive than Jazz in New Orleans
Nick Duquesne (Arturo DeCordova) is the king of New Orleans night life providing gambling and musical entertainment for the local swells who by day amid polite society condemn these dens of iniquity. When a dowagers concert pianist niece (Gayle Patrick) falls for Nick and jazz she gets together with the rest of the connected hypocrites and runs him out of town to Chicago where his gambling establishment hopes are quickly dashed. He then turns to jazz to save the day.

Featuring Jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday Woody Herman, Barney Bigard and other famed musicians New Orleans spends most of its time dealing with the tepid romance of its two dull leads and a watered down telling of the cities infamous Storeyville section. When Louie does get screen time he owns it with his horn or his outright charm as he sums up written music; "Those flags on the fences get in the way of the feeling." Lady Day gets even less screen time than Satch thus entrusting and dooming New Orleans to a sour noted romance of unconvincing lovers.

Rich and Strange

Two for the Road
Awash in self pity Freddy Hill yearns for excitement and adventure away from the rat race of London. When he comes into a windfall from his uncle he and wife Emily pack-up and go on a world cruise. The air may be fresher but there is also more danger in it and we soon find our loving couple both straying as well as face life threatening catastrophe on the high sea.

Rich and Strange is an early Hitchcock romantic comedy with touches of suspense. There are flashes of both (a sinking ship in particular) but with Henry Kendall in the lead charm is non-existent and the humor falls flat as he whines from end to end. Joan Barry ably suffers with him while Elsie Randolph as a busy body and Percy Marmont as a cad offer the films better performances.

Displaying what might be looked upon as outlines for future work Rich and Strange does give hint to ideas that would reach full fruition in Hitch's later films which can be of value to students of the master of suspense but his self absorbed duo stand in the way of making this a passable entertainment.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is a magnificent piece of documentary filmmaking that should be required viewing for all high schools. Released a century after the end of the First World War it is a sober reminder of the blundering by Monarchies all too willing to use millions of its subjects for canon fodder while they hung on to some perverse sense of romance about war. All the royals after all were far from the trenches. Jackson puts you in the trenches amid all the chaos and carnage with those who experienced it serving as narrators detailing the horrors, comraderie and experience of the period that was called The War to End all Wars.

Jackson opens "They" with standard documentary footage of the time with background information before morphing into color and normal speed on the battlefield. The transition is jolting as it re-enforces the humanity of the combatants slogging through the fog of war, emphasizing the horror with raw vivid images and veteran voiceovers detailing the horrendous conditions with occasional comic irony.

Jackson worked years on this project and I've heard he drew no pay from it. It is a remarkable, valuable achievement and a fitting tribute to the sacrifice of not just the British conscript that the film focuses on but all the conscripts treated like chess pieces on a board by clueless arrogant monarchies. Sadly the postscript title of WW1 did not live up to its call to end all wars but it did rid us of a lot of the royals. An outstanding history lesson. They Shall Not Grow Old, never will.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Buzzaw can't cut it.
Inventor of the homicidal painting, Ventril Dease meets his end on the second landing of an LA apartment building; dying as he had lived, alone. Neighbor and art gallery employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds him but more importantly his oeuvre that takes the art world by storm; much to the dismay of Dease Redux in supernatural form.

Buzzsaw is a poor satire/horror recipe from start to finish; a crass funhouse filled with unctuously ambitious characters deservedly and brutally offed over its two hour length while making acerbic commentary on the LA art crowd. Problem is the outcome is fairly predictable a half hour in with little for the audience to do but await the next creative way to eliminate a surly player.

Jake Gylenhall has a field day playing the narcissisitic art critic Morf Vanderwalt. A preening, self pitying, weasel he oozes a smugness that demands comeuppance. Toni Colette is also wonderfully over the top but these are the only two characters in the film that seem to resonate with director/writer Gilroy's sardonic send up of the LA art world while the rest of the cast sulks or work on their resume to be offed by the closing credits.

Robert Elswit's photography is his usual outstanding stuff ( that introduction of the LA night shot is 2001) and he does his best to cover what is being telegraphed but outside of the well written well played character of Morth Velvet Buzzaw is little more than slasher drive-in fair, cheap thrills not priced low enough.

The Gay Bride

The Gay Bride deserves being left at the altar.
Chorus girl Mary Magiz (Carole Lombard) is one ambitious lady with expensive tastes. Married for better only to bootlegger Shooter Magiz (Nat Pendleton) her passion lies in the material more than anything else but she does have this thing for Shooter's bodyguard "Office Boy" (Chester Morris). Shooter is crazy about Mary as he bankrolls her stage career and in doing so lax with his business which is taking a beating since repeal. Inside the tent his associates envy his position and his wife.

Bride is a typical Lombard vehicle that fits her strident screwball ways but the plot fails to go the distance with her and it is left up to Runyon like characters to spout veiled threats and desires as the story muddles along under Jack Conway's distracted direction. Morris is no Gable in a role that Cagney could have enlivened, perhaps elevating the torpor and slap dash approach that plagues The Gay Bride. Not worth the walk down the aisle.

The Big Chill

Juke box saves Chill from melting
In The Big Chill a group of former hippie, college friends assemble to bury and ruminate over one who has committed suicide. Along with the departed's free spirit ( Meg Tilley) partner they reminisce and debate the past over ensuing days and nights that lead to life changing decisions for some.

Writer Director Laurence Kasdan's script is cliché trite as its cast of smug but handsome dullards fall into pits of pity to wallow as they reflect on life in general and lack of fulfillment. Kasdan does deliver a few pointed observations that fall somewhere between sarcasm and wit but his continued saving grace to relieve the torpor of some scenes is to inject the film's soul and energy; the music score into them rather than trail off in whiny hissy fits by this self absorbed crowd. His ensemble cast performs adequately and allows him to keep a decent pace as he moves from dynamic to dynamic with characters displaying a benign self righteous vacuity but not before they are redeemed at denouement with one of the "beautiful people" (Glenn Close) showing us what peace love and groovy is all about along with everyone at the breakfast table free of funk off on the right path. Just put another nickel in and play "Good Morning Starshine."

Only the Valiant

Ford fraud
In the midst of his legendary career, Gregory Peck manages to get himself scalped by this poorly written and directed western that never gets much deeper than outline stage in a genre that doesn't ask for much to begin with. Lifelessly acted, indifferently directed it begs audience disinterest.

Despised by his fellow troopers who feel he indirectly caused the death of another popular officer Captain Lance (Peck) leads a rag tag platoon of soldiers into an outpost in order to blunt a warring tribe from spreading throughout the territory. All have disgraceful resumes but lack the leadership that Lance has to get them out of this perfect storm superiors have cooked up. Further complicating matters is a hot blonde (Barbara Payton) along for the ride.

In attempt to capture the interest and audience that John Ford was doing with his successful Calvary trilogy the previous three years Only the Valiant attempts to get in the game and fails miserably. Director Gordon Douglas who would make better westerns (Rio Conchos, Yellowstone Kelly, Charge at Feather River) direction is detached as he does little to develop his band of malcontents (Neville Brand, Ward Bond, Lon Chaney Jr, Jeff Corey) who give a surly show and tell and wait for the arrows to fly.

Peck looks dull and lost , lacking the frontier leadership Wayne or Cooper might present on the western plains. He also seems overmatched in his clinches with out of place bombshell Payton. If you do not want to take my word for it, listen to Greg, in his autobiography has called it the worst film of his career. Valiant is vapid.


As good as American film gets.
A boatload of major Hollywood talent is on their game in this intricately complex tale of murder and corruption in 30s LA. Featuring a multi layered script of sub plot and deception by Robert Towne, impeccably translated by the florid cinema syntax of director Roman Polanski.

JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a successful snoop dealing mainly in marital discord. When he's hired by a woman posing as the wife of the Water Commissioner, things immediately get ugly as prevarication runs rampant and people get hurt.

Chinatown is a perfect blend of form and content. Every shot counts, every camera movement precise and for a reason. All characters resonate no matter how insignificant they may seem. For two hours he keeps both the audience and protagonist Gittes in the dark as he offers up one outstanding set piece after the next in a park, restaurant or a morgue brilliantly transitioning both place and mood as he does in one that starts out in a barbershop. Bloodletting is brief and minimal but about as brutal and jolting as any you will find in film. Leads and misleads are subtle as we literally in some cases tale Jake throughout the whole film since he is in every scene allowing us to watch things unravel in real time.

The sardonic Nicholson is tailor made for the role, his smart ass remarks fitting like a glove as he takes his lumps and stumbles upon evidence inadvertently doing more harm than good. Faye Dunaway's fatale is magnificently ambiguous, her icy exterior deceptive enough to allow the mystery to deepen even further into the film's running time. John Huston is tour de force avuncular creepy and Polanski in a cameo an imposing diminutive gimp with a blade.

John Alton's cinematography, Richard Sylbert's production design, Sam O'Steen's editing, Anthea Sylbert's costume design and especially Jerry Goldsmith's plaintive moody score all rise in compliment to Polanski's dark polished vision.

Arguably the finest American film of the last half century no amount of superlatives can convey the challenge, demand and awe to be found in one's first viewing of this cinematic masterpiece. Subsequent viewings will be void of the mystery that is perfectly shadowed from end to end yet the edifying moments of repeated showings will make the experience no less satisfying. Chinatown easily ranks with The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as the best detective film in history. It's eloquent masterful telling by Polanski as graceful and well spoken as cinema language gets. Chinatown is film done perfect.


Well acted, hateful slander provides brief relief for TDS sufferers.
In this day and age of countrywide TDS ( c'mon, everyone has a little of it ) comes this uncompromising hateful screed from writer director Adam McKay featuring a standout performance from Christian Bale as former anti-Christ from the right Dick Cheney. Bale perfectly captures look, nuance and voice while McKay fills in the dark shadows and provides us with visions of US war crimes against the timid souls of the earth by the likes of this American Darth Vader. Slicker and less sloppy than an Ollie Stone Presidential, anti-American slander it's comic and satiric possibilities collapses almost immediately from the blind hatred McKay holds for his "protagonist," the smug unctuous suits and a drunken, dumb as a post George Bush the Second.

Utilizing a heart donor as his omnipotent narrator McKay opens with Cheney as a surly "deplorable" lineman, with an ambitious wife (Amy Adams) who slaps the weakling into shape. Then from pole to pol McKay drags Cheney through the mud from one reel to next with Lady Macbeth in tow pulling him upstream while dark figures with familiar names insinuate evil actions.

The character assassination does not end with just Cheney and his wife. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is treated as a dim witted drug store cowboy shaking in his boots under the spell of Svengali Cheney while special attention is reserved for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as a foul mouthed, cynical climber, career in tatters cowering in a file closet at film's end. It is a far cry from the far more corroborated story of Rumsfeld courageously assisting during the Pentagon attack (covered in the film) than this fiction and more or less sums up the gross dishonesty of McKay which to be honest is never in doubt. His Jimmy Carter shout out, albeit brief and unintentional might be the film's funniest moment but also how out of touch our earnest auteur is with his subject matter.

Vice is a cautionary big bad wolf telling for those in the throes of Trump Dysfunction Syndrome with the usual boogeymen out to get them. They can relieve their paranoia and justify their resistance for a moment through this manipulation by McKay who conveniently makes his case with a bogus narrator and a claim that Bin Laden did not hook up with another terrorist because he did not like his mom. Only from Weinstein Hollywood. Should definitely clean up overseas.

Holmes & Watson

Time warp trash.
The arrogance of two one notes (Will Ferrel, John C. Reilley) reappearing in different periods in different costume with the same exhausted heavy handed and abrasive routine to be found in previous works together is an idea that should have been strangled in infancy. Just who, where and how did the makers convince anyone that an already glutted Sherlock Holmes market would need this travesty featuring two crass American actors rewarming the insipid interplay found in all their other arch comedies together?

Is anyone surprised that the film's genesis was an SNL skit. Well this is an extended one that runs beyond an entire show with about 2 minutes of laughs but without the hootin' and hollerin' urban moron audience to respond to an applause sign.

Ferrell's been washed up for some time and Reilley may still be a decent character actor but this teaming grew tiresome last century and given its packaged and stale routines creates the impression that producers, writers, and directors were hanging with Walt Disney and Ted Williams since the turn of it. A solid contender for worst film of the year.

character actor but this

Barry Lyndon

Kubrick's beautiful museum tour bore.
Stanley Kubrick offers up end to end JMW Turner landscapes along with some eye popping portraiture of 18th century styled Marisa Berenson in this stunningly photographed visual masterpiece lensed by John Alcott. But given its lengthy running time featuring a dreadfully miscast Ryan O'Neal as the title character it amounts to little more than a museum tour; and even The Louvre gets tiresome after three hours.

Youthful Redmond Brady falls for his cousin Nora, getting himself into a duel with an English Army Captain and killing him causing him to flee Ireland, be waylaid by highwaymen, join the army, desert, sleep with the farmer's wife, join the Prussian Army, hook up with an Irish card sharp and marry into title and property the massive success he had hoped to become before a swift downturn in fortune.

In the hands of a capable actor of the day, Barry Lyndon may well have ranked as one of Kubrick's better films but O'Neal simply rings hollow from end to end going from an overgrown chubby cheeked young adult to a dissipated, aging old man with the healthy glow of Malibu Ryan still in evidence. His lilt is a timid wisp and Kubrick's incessant close-ups of his lifeless look of hurt an indignation after awhile can no longer be assuaged by Stanley taking us on frequent trips to the country.

Michael Hordern lends the imagery and the dignity it demands with his narration while chamber orchestras bang out Vivaldi, Bach and Schubert among others to present us with one gracious tableau after the next but with O'Neal as the linchpin to this picaresque journey across the magnificent countryside of Ireland and GB the picture staggers more than gallops.

Kubrick himself bears blame with a running time that includes four duels, the first offering one of the film's more expedient moments while two others run inexorably overlong. His mesmerizing candle lit interior shots at times seem like they will run the length the stick or at least until the band takes a break.

Barry Lyndon may be the prettiest girl at the dance by far but it lacks the energy of Tom Jones (1962) before it, along with Albert Finney and a magnificent supporting cast carrying it along at break neck speed. It also had an outstanding look but more importantly a heart and vitality that Lyndon lacks barring it from the pantheon status that its look commands.

The Mule

The Mule has no kick.
Clint Eastwood mugs and regrets in old age as a victim of the Internet in The Mule. An old school horticulturalist unable to adjust to the age he is led to desperate measures transporting drugs as he takes a series of rides in pick-ups, attends a variety of parties and annoys a series of mean looking Latinos in garages in this exhausted suspense that remains under the radar nearly all the way.

Eastwood is compelling in moments but also understandably sluggish. He does manage to get in some dancing and groping with the ladies becoming annoying eventually as he turns to a series of mawkish scenes to haul this beast of burden home turning this supposed suspense into a sentimental Hallmark family re-union film.

A supporting cast of noted actors also seem to suffer from the same anemia. Bradley Cooper looks like he is doing an SNL skit with stagy tough talk. Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia act flat, look terrible. Diane Wiest attempts to dignify the script but drowns in the flood of syrup at the film's conclusion.

The Mule simply has no kick with it's only draw a cantankerous Eastwood well into his 80s displaying an impressive physical fitness but also his highly diminished directorial skills last seen in his Letters from Iwo Jima days..


Lee's Black privilege fails to disguise heavy hand.
Spike Lee gets his shots in at the Klan in this lumbering repetitive tale of a black detective infiltrating the organization in BlacKkKlansman. One shot however is in his foot as he exposes himself for what he condemns.

Dan Stallworth is hired by the mostly lily white Colorado Springs Police Department where he chafes at the smug bias of officers in the records room. He requests a switch to detectives where he is given assignments to infiltrate the Black Panthers and KKK which finds him a love interest and getting up close with grand wizard David Duke, acting as his bodyguard during a visit. Eventually the dim witted Klan members put things together and plan a big hurt for Stallworth and his politically woke squeeze.

Poorly paced, haphazardly edited, Lee loosely attaches the plots of his storyline together without much rhythm or energy, his players (with the exception of some of his moronic goobers) lifeless dullards of sober demeanor that make every pregnant pause overdue. The entire cast looks like it could use some rest.

There are attempts by Lee to be au courant hip (it's Saturday Night's Live's Alec Baldwin! And how bout that title? ) and address today's racial tension with current news footage perhaps attempt to elevate this banal film's gravitas. But it cannot hide Lee's lifelong problem with pacing, packed on mostly with insipid dialogue and sermonizing displayed in abundance here with Lee's heavy handed juxtaposition.

Most revealing is Spike's handling of scenes from Birth of a Nation with its vile representation of virulent racist black faced northern pillagers. Given the absolute clueless imbeciles of the Klan and the casual bigotry of the boys in blue he presents in his film one might suggest Mr. Griffith has taught him well. A shame DW's artistic style never rubbed off on him. BlackkKlansman is a rambling bore.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

How the West was coped with.
This Coen's pearl handle six shooter contains the same impeccable décor, outstanding ambiance, dark humor, cruel irony and characters of great quirk and interesting physiognomy that the brother act is noted for. Most of the six unrelated stories misfire however as the boys slow draw with an itchy trigger finger.

The opening episode featuring a homicidal Gene Autry like singing cowboy (Buster) in sparkling duds offers some smug slapstick violence and a Destry saloon tune musical number but the comic absurdity is jarring introduction to the mostly tragic and melancholy mood of the subsequent episodes. The second episode (Near Algodones) displays a rythym and energy that the rest of the film never embraces as it features a bank robbery, cattle rustling, Indian massacre and two hangings in the briefest of the stories.

The remaining four episodes all bog down in pace, precious detail and mighty pretty country as a prospector (Tom Waits) searches for gold in a paradise like valley and sturdy good looking Conestoga wagons make their way across the prairie. But while the form is beautiful the content lags with the brothers too busy to concentrate on one story outside of making it look good visually.

The Gal who Got Rattled (#5) is the best of the bunch as it develops characters of interest outside of the caricatures that both help and hinder the film in other stories. It is the only one really deserving feature length in this herd of short subjects that kick up a lot of dust but once settled remain an uneven blend of tragic hardship and Zany Grey.


No Man's Land
Director/cameramen Tim Huntington and Sebastian Junger get the audience close to the action of the present day war in Afghanistan as they hunker down with the Second Platoon from the 503rd Infantry for a year in a desolate mountainous outpost named after a fallen medic, Doc Restrepo. Interspersed with interviews after the fact the film is a sober recounting and acknowledgement of something that does not affect the everyday American, a war only a portion of the country is fighting.

Junger and Hetherington document the danger, boredom, bonding and humor with an objective eye putting caution to the wind as they put themselves in harm's way swivelling their cameras about during firefights or snaking about the outpost under attack. Hethington would eventually be killed while making another documentary on the war in 2011.

Restrepo is to the Afghanistan war what the Anderson Platoon was to Viet Nam. A grim and suspenseful account of men in conflict in some far flung outpost trying to survive in the most hostile of situations not only physically but emotionally as well. Junger and Hethington do a great service by providing vivid documentation of the pain and fog of war which should be required viewing for those of us who are far from or choose to ignore the courage and sacrifice of our military. It offers no answers to the conflict, just provides vivid witness to the confusion and nature of man at war that makes for powerful viewing.

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