Saturday, January 13, 2018


Over the past two weeks, I saw two vastly different films; both excellent and also bizarre: one based in realism, the other, pure sci-fi fantasy.
Terry Notary with Claes Bang- in glasses- sitting below Notary's right hand,

The Square is a Swedish film, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, in English, in
Swedish and Danish, subtitles where necessary.  It is a send-up on the pretentiousness of running a public modern art museum. The subject is an installation called The Square, which we see being installed in the museum's open entry-way.  A press-conference is held at its opening where the artist is questioned about what it is supposed to mean.  Claes Bang plays Christian, the museum's pressured curator; a divorced, middle-aged, father of two pre-teens.  He is interviewed by Anne, an American art magazine critic excellently played by Elizabeth Moss. Anne comes off as clueless in all aspects of the medium.  Clearly smitten by him, awed by his influence and position, they end up in a one-night stand (There's a quirky bit in the scene involving the used condom).  Watching the scenes between Christian and Anne, one cannot help but reflect on the current #MeToo  movement. Some street scenes portray the homeless with some interaction  between Christian and an aggressive woman.  Östland allows her a sense of dignity and the ability to hold her own.

At the outset, somehow Christian's phone and wallet get ripped off.  His efforts to reclaim them constitutes a subplot that involves inconsequential yet overt racism.  Hints of a shocking, disastrous event which will occur at a posh, member/donor fundraising dinner are foreshadowed by a few-seconds glimpse between scenes of a video-installation of a scowling, gibberish-spouting, shirtless man (the excellent gymnast, choreographer Terry Notary: Cirque de Soliel, Planet of the Apes franchise, etc), that had diners cowering- powerless-either running in fear or hiding under the tables.
Filmed in Sweden and Germany.

Artist's sketch of Elisa  with  Amphibious man
Guillermo del Toro makes gorgeous films.  The Shape of Water is no exception. It is basically a 1960s sci-fi film like "Swamp Thing" and "Creature From the Black Lagoon," influenced by Japanese sci-fi films of that era.  There's Russian secret agents (one a scientist) US military and secret service actions, working on developing secret weapons. The Shape of Water is also a beautiful, heart-tugging love story.

An amphibious, almost human monster is discovered by American scientists, in a remote jungle river.  In cahoots with the military, the scientists house their find- known as The
Asset- in a swamp-like tank in a huge secret, scientific facility in order to study the creature, and eventually kill and dissect it to discover the secrets of its powers.

Still, the busy, massive facility must be cleaned.  Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer play cleaning women, Elisa Esposito and Zelda Fuller,  who are invisible to the staff.
Sally Hawkins as Elisa left; Octavia Spencer as Zelda, right

 Michael Shannon plays Richard Strickland, an NSA operative charged with overseeing the scientific studies and eventual demise of the amphibious man.  Shannon's visage and physicality is ideal for portraying evil-villains, and as Strickland, he surpasses anything he's done before.  Evil devolving into bat-shit crazy.  When things don't go his way he cracks hard candy between his massive teeth while extolling the virtues of his favorite snack, prior to a kill.

The always great character actor Richard Jenkins is Giles, Elisa's across-the-hall neighbor and confidante, with whom she has a cozy, close relationship.  Giles is a closeted gay, commercial artist whose work is considered passé.

Richard Jenkins as Giles with Hawkins as Elisa
Michael Shannon and Michael Stulbarge
Elisa discovers the amphibious man during her rounds and entices him to communicate with her through sign language.  When she learns of his fate, she gets Zelda and Giles to help free him. Dr Hoffstetler, an undercover  Russian scientist/spy(Michael Stulhbarge), who works on the project, knows his cover is about to be blown gets involved in Elisa's plot. The machinations of how this is pulled off is worthy of the best of all spy intrigue films from noir to Bond.
Creators of The Asset's (Doug Jones) Costume
I cannot conclude this review without talking about Doug Jones, The Asset, and his beautiful, superlative costume whose creators deserve a special award: creature designer Mike Hill, Legacy Effects Supervisor and co-creature designer Shane Mahan, and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, of visual effects house Mr. X.   "The Asset was a towering figure, a fish-man with luminous skin, a sharp spine, gills and shimmering scales who was meant to intimidate" until his attachment to Elisa softens him. (from:‘Shape Of Water’ BTL Artists On Creating The Asset: Creature & Leading Man'  by Matt Grobar, January 2018. For more, Go to the web site.)  Jones had studied mime, and is also a contortionist.  His other films include del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth"; "Hellboy." and 
Doug Jones

The Shape of Water has won for Best Picture at the Critics' Circle Awards, and Golden Globes awarded Guillermo del Toro Best Director for the film.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

FENCES, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

Denzel Washington and Nancy Pelosi at the film premiere of FENCES  at the Curran Theatre 

Last week, I was fortunate to have attended a special preview of Denzel Washington's film version of August Wilson's play, Fences, at the newly, and gorgeously, renovated Curran Theatre. The event was historic in that it was the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Fences, the play, which opened at the Curran in 1987 when Willie Brown was mayor.  This night, he introduced the film.  There was a panel discussion after the film featuring Washington, who also starred as Troy Maxon; Stephen Henderson, as Jim Bono, an old loyal friend; Jovan Adepo as Cory, Troy's youngest son; and Mykelti Williamson, as Gabriel, Troy's mentally shattered brother.  Unfortunately, Viola Davis who played Troy's wife, Rose, couldn't make it.  "She's working," Denzel quipped.  Also on the panel was Wilson's widow, two-time Tony nominated for Costume Design for plays, Constanza Romero.  
She enriched the discussion with anecdotes about the genius playwright who died in 2005.  They met  in 1990 when she designed the  costumes for Wilson's play, The Piano Lesson; married in 1994 and had one child.

Fences opens "wide" across the country on Christmas Day. Still, previews already have opened in New York and LA.  However, this is not a holiday film.  Fences, as are all Wilson's plays, is about black families struggles not only to get ahead, but with troubled relationships based on past experiences.  In Troy's and Bono's case years spent in federal prison; the oppression suffered by their slave elders, indignities and on-going oppression at the hand of the privileged white world.  Troy is not only shattered by these experiences, but endures deep guilt about how he obtained the money to buy a house for himself, Rose and their sons, at Gabriel's sacrifice for which he, Troy, feels he is, but was not responsible. In his mind and soul, he's fighting the Devil.   Families love desperately, need each other yet push those closest away.

The film follows the play under Washington's sure hand.  The actors are superb- especially Washington and Davis.  And of course, Mylelti Williamson , One feels almost embarrassed as though one is watching real life unfold, fall apart and reconnect in real life.  Some scenes are both heart- and gut-wrenching, such as Troy's final scene with Cory (Adepo).  I found myself in tears at times.

At the end of the panel discussion, Constanza Romero announced that she has signed over the rights of all of Wilson's plays to Denzel Washington to convert to film.  Washington laughed, saying, "As producer," adding that he would not have the energy to direct and act in the films.  One could understand, as we, watching this film, felt totally wrung out yet at the same time utterly joyful because of the way Washington and the actors brought off the ending.  And the matter of the mysteriously closing gate at the end was discussed.  Only one of the characters, the most innocent, reacted to it.  Watch for it in the final scene or you'll miss it.  

Thursday, July 7, 2016


A mother in Beijing adjusts a protective mask on her daughter's face


Time to Choose, a documentary film by Charles Ferguson, narrated by Oscar Isaacs.
Charles Ferguson’s documentary Time to Choose should scare the bejesus out of you.  Unfortunately it will be seen only by climate change believers.  The trick is to get deniers to see it and hopefully change some minds.  That said, I doubt that the film will be shown anywhere else but in the liberal cities.  Too bad because Time to Choose makes it abundantly clear that if corporations promoting large-scale commercial farming and livestock production, and  fossil fuel mining and drilling operations and oil conglomerates (and the companies using them), do not cease their operations NOW, many coastal cities, if not countries (island states) will literally cease to be by mid-century, if not sooner.  Millions of people will be forced to migrate.  Politicians who deny the reality of climate change use fear tactics to ensure their continuation as well as their shareholders’ confidence.  What they fail to acknowledge are the facts-and there are plenty.  Alternative energy sources and the money they make, are on the rise.  Clips from the film illustrate former fossil fuel workers being trained in production and installation of wind turbines and solar panels.
Tom Randall of Bloomberg News wrote: “The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels, according to an analysis presented Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.  The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there's no going back.”   Still, politicians and their constituents won’t listen.
Ghastly images of mountain top removal in the US by mining companies were shown, accompanied by devastating interviews with locals about how they were bamboozled by their reps into believing that there would be jobs, money for health and education.  Instead, they got polluted water and air, cancer, and general degradation of the entire area.  There were scenes of enormous “ponds” of livestock waste that leaches into the groundwater and soil; acres and acres  of feedlots for cattle and pigs fed corn and soy (greatly subsidized by the government), because of the growing worldwide demand for meat .  Not a blade of grass or a tree as far as one can see.
Other contributors to climate change like clear cutting of rainforests to grow oil palms and for cattle raising in Central and South America were illustrated, all of which cause increases in violent weather, widespread flooding, and extreme years-long drought, leading to a rise in wildfires throughout America’s south and west.  

The film stated that there is no denying that renewable energy production is fast out-pacing that of fossil fuel.  It’s time for governments to choose to invest in renewable energy now; if not, world populations can look forward to huge increases in floods, wild fires, extreme temperatures, droughts, food and water shortages; and pollution of the ocean and other life-sustaining water sources; continuing fossil fuel production will also lead to increases in deadly epidemics;  respiratory diseases, cancers, neurological illnesses, and more.  Millions of- not only people, but livestock, pets, and sea life- in other words, millions of all livings beings will die .  

FREE STATE OF JONES, directed by Gary Carr, starring Matthew McConaughey

Knight (McConaughey, center) with Moses (Mahershala Ali, left) leads the insurrectionists

The Free State of Jones is based on a true Civil War story, a little unknown story, because its subject matter is in a controversial gray area.  Here we have Newton Knight (a spot-on Matthew McConaughey at his scraggly, unkempt, bearded best) a Confederate soldier- a nurse, no less- who deserts.  Although married to Serena (Keri Russell in a thankless role) with a toddler, he comes to live with and eventually marry “in the eyes of the Lord” a black woman, Rachel (a believable Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave and healer.  At one point, Knight is being chased as he runs through the wilderness by what one character tells him “nigger dogs”, dogs that slave catchers use to hunt down runaways. (The “N” word is used profusely throughout.)  He ends up hiding out in the swamp in an area occupied by runaway slaves who come to accept him. “Horses can’t handle the swamps,” Moses, the head of the hideout tells him.  Moses (Mahershala Ali) is a saintly man, aptly named, but whose life comes to a tragic end.  Knight reaches an epiphany when he realizes that poor men are fighting for the rich so that the rich can stay rich and the poor poor, which resonates today.  Men are men and all men should be free, so the Constitution promises. (though in it, Negros were degraded to 3/5th of a person. [Women were not even considered]).  Knight does something about it by leading poor white farmers and slaves, in an extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. In effect, launching an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance.

Carr created an interesting, but whip-lashing change of scene by suddenly cutting away from the action early into the film, and fast-forwarding to a Mississippi courtroom 85 years later, where his very white-looking grandson, Davis Knight  (Brian Lee Franklin)  is being tried for miscegenation as he is married to a “pure” white woman.  Court records had revealed that he is the son of Knight and Rachel’s offspring.  The law was not repealed until 1967.

This is a compelling, suspenseful, well-acted, beautifully shot film about a little known-history and of one man’s futuristic vision regarding human beings and their ability to live together freely and peacefully.    
This double review can be read in an adapted form in Socialist Action: 

Monday, February 8, 2016

"The Revenant" VS "The Man in the Wilderness"

Okay.  I finally saw "The Revenant" which has been nominated for at least 12 Academy Awards.  I liked it.  I probably haven't read everything about this movie, but of the reviews or columns I did read none mentioned that the film is a remake of the 1971 film "The Man in the Wilderness," directed by Richard Zarafian.  I came across it surfing movie channels on broadcast HDTV some months ago, so when "Revenant" came out, I thought it seemed familiar.  "Man" stars the British actor Richard Harris in the Leonardo DiCaprio role, Hugh Glass, but who, in "Man" is called Zachary Bass.   It features flashbacks into Bass's past to show how he came to became a trapper who ends up in the extreme North American wilderness.
Richard Harris as Zachary Bass

It appears that in "Revenant" director Alejandro Iñárritu conflated the role's of Fitzgerald (Hardy) and Captain Henry (John Huston).  The Fitzgerald character does not appear in "Man."  There is a Captain Andrew Henry, however, played by Domnhall Gleeson in "Revenant," who is just that, a captain with an agenda.  In "Man" the late, great John Huston plays Captain Henry.  The major difference between the two films is that of the Hardy and Huston characters.  In "Revenant," Hardy as Fitzgerald is plain down and dirty, and evil.  In "Man," Huston's Captain Henry is larger than life, almost mystical, godlike, yet paranoid and ruthless, as well.

The premise is the same- based on a true story and partly adapted from the book by Michael Punke- fur trappers in the wilderness try to get back to civilization with their haul after being attacked by natives, and before a blizzard hits.  The guide is  viciously mauled by a bear who's protecting her cubs.  Seriously injured, he is left behind with a couple of trackers assigned to give him a Christian burial when he dies.  Believing he won't survive they abandon him to follow the others back home.  Glass (or Bass) slowly recovers despite his wounds and the unforgiving environment (Glass with the help of a native shaman).  The spectacular cinematography was shot by Emmanual Lubeski.

Leonardo DiCaprio is unrecognizable: bearded, with stringy, dank hair, and filthy; he mostly grunts and groans with pain throughout most of the film which is over two hours long. (Richard Harris undergoes the same in "Man").  Glass employs his knowledge of wilderness survival: using the carcass of a dead horse and the skin of the bear who attacked him, and cauterizing a wound in his throat with the fiery end of a branch.   Knowing the territory, he makes it back.  As does Safarian for "Man," Iñárritu splices into his film Glass's backstory of marrying a native with whom had a son, now a teen, who is traveling with him and the trappers.  He meets his end at the hand of Fitzgerald, adding heightened reason for Glass to exact revenge.
John Huston

There is an unforgettable, haunting, mysterious, surreal vibe in "Man," especially when Bass gains on his betrayers.  Huston, a towering figure as Captain Henry, rides atop a lurching juggernaut of a wagon, spouting nonsensical rants.  Wearing a battered white top-hat, he appears to loom high above all as he travels across a vast wasteland of melting ice and marshland, while his men straggle behind.  Way, way in the background we glimpse Bass, trudging along determinedly. Credit Gerry Fisher for his breathtaking cinematography.

Both films end well, the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys prevail.

The directors of the films cast Canadian and American natives in major roles.  "Revenant" was shot mainly in various Canadian locations as well as in Argentina, Mexico, and Montana.  "Man" was  shot in Arizona, Mexico, and Spain.

You can stream "Man" through Amazon and other means.  "Revenant" is currently playing in a theatre near you!

Thursday, July 9, 2015


MAD MAX FURY ROAD, with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy; Written and directed by George Miller.
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa

I liked Mad Max Fury Road much more than I thought I would.  Critics seemed to focus on only the action of which there were scads- relentless, spectacular, and loud.  Cirque du Soleil gone gritty: Men clinging to the tops of swaying poles attached to souped-up speeding cars while blasting away with automatic weapons.  However, throughout, messages are evident concerning the exploitation of women and children and climate change.  No water, except for that which is controlled by the ruling entity- a warlord- white-haired, masked Immortan Joe (played with menacing evil by Hugh Keays-Byrne who relishes every move).  Joe runs the Citadel and has enslaved the people. He demands worship.  Followers of his ideology believe that when they die for him, they will be martyrs.  One of his minions (not THOSE minions), Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, is selected as a favorite by being “chromed”, i.e. mouth sprayed with a silver liquid or powder.  He later defects and signs on with Max (Tom Ford) and Imperator Furiosa (a kick-ass Charlize Theron).  Furiosa’s green-blue-eyes appear capable of penetrating an armored truck.  She wears a prosthetic left arm and hand; pants, boots, a tank-top and hair cropped to her skull; her war-paint?  axle grease smeared across her forehead.  Beautiful!
The Citadel consists of mountainous red rock on the very tops of which plant life grows, the only green stuff for hundreds of miles of endless red rock desert.  Max (the same character from the three original films) is seen in an opening shot eating a two-headed lizard he’d stomped on as it scampered across barren ground.  Max, captured for trespassing, is used as a blood bank for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), on of Joe’s dedicated war boys.  Muzzled with an intricate, barred, metal device, he ends up as a bizarre hood-ornament on one of Joe’s wildly tricked out vehicles.  Later on, it’s fun to watch him try to remove it with a chisel.
Tom Ford as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max Fury Road

There’s little if any exposition in this film, yet it is cohesive and linear, and satisfies many levels of expectations both visceral, emotional, and intellectual and comes to a believable conclusion.   One need not see the preceding Mad Max films, though they are worth streaming on your favorite platform especially the first one, simply Mad Max, which made the then unknown Australian actor Mel Gibson a star.  Fury Road stands on its own.  We learn that Imperator Furiosa is rescuing Joe’s breeder slaves, flimsily-dressed women from Joe’s harem (one of whom is pregnant) in the body of an empty oil tanker which she’s hooked up to her heavily armored vehicle.  She’s also hauling water and fuel.  Her destination is a home she hasn’t seen for over a decade, which she recalls as being green, with waterfalls. 
There’s an early scene of thousands of ragged, filthy, desiccated men, women and children swarming at the foot of a cliff, holding up all kinds of containers.  Joe appears, high above; he shouts an order to open the sluices.  His slaves (hairless and startlingly white men and children) turn massive wooden gear wheels by literally walking on the circumference. The people trample one another to catch water as it gushes from huge pipes in the cliff face, nearly sweeping them away.  Suddenly, the water stops. That’s it.  People go mad.
Aging and dying, Joe wears a suit of armor made of Plexigas you can see through, but you don’t want to- as Lenny Bruce once observed about nylon dresses- and  a metal-framed, grotesque, half-mask over the lower part of his face.  His piercing blue eyes rival Imperator’s gaze.  A bellows is attached to the back of the armor, pumping air so he can breathe.  In one scene which appears to be one of women in a beauty salon getting their hair done is instead a scene of women being milked for Joe, to sustain and prolong his life.  Coincidentally, one morning, I heard a bit on NPR about women selling their milk to facilities that prescribe mother’s milk to patients with digestive disorders caused by bad bacteria.
Cinematographer John Seale shot some gorgeous scenes to relieve the gruesomeness and horror of others, as well as some that are eerily, hauntingly, beautiful: e. g. when Furiosa’s rig approaches a muddy swamp, shadowy, ragged, cloaked figures appear on stilts, slowly crossing the expanse.
As she nears her goal, dirt-bikers- older women (surprise!), the Vuvalinis- leap over and down immense sand dunes and stop her (The film was made in the Namibia desert in Africa).  They turn out to be from Furiosa’s former home and remember her as a child.  Bad news though: Furiosa had been traveling in the wrong direction.  The mad dash back the way they came is even more harrowing with Joe and his Chrome buddies once more on their tail.  Joe’s sex slaves evolve into fighters as well.  Furiosa, near death and having lost her prosthetic arm and hand, but not her grit, prevails, with Max’s help.  The folded length of plastic tubing on his shoulder came in handy after all.   In a blockbuster, summer movie season, rife with costumed, comic book, male superheroes, Imperator Furiosa is a woman warrior not unlike The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, or Shailene Woodley in Divergent.  There are no heroes here, only liberators. Mad Max Fury Road is, as New Yorker’s A. O Scott wrote, “about revolution.” 
.Read an adapted version of this  review on Socialist Action News.