Wednesday, December 31, 2014


*THE TRUMBO: The Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE PICTURE is named after Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, who was imprisoned for his beliefs and refusing to inform. Trumbo helped break the Blacklist when he received screen credit for "Spartacus" and "Exodus" in 1960.

One of the only biopics this year not twisting truths through either falsification or omission, this Michael Cuesta directed docudrama heralds the courageous, defiant, lonely and tragic struggle of journalist Gary Webb, who stood up to both the US government and corporate media in collusion. As he exposed the CIA scheme to flood the inner cities with cocaine back in the 1990s to covertly finance the illegal US-backed Contra war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

With their citing of late iconic film critic Pauline Kael that 'Criticism is the only thing that stands between the audience and advertising,' the Critics Chapter of JACC is described as an association of national and international critics, historians and film scholars who came together to form the first progressive critics organization, in the belief that idealistic perspectives, voices and diverse ideological visions in film criticism that speak with social conviction and consciousness, are sorely lacking as a public platform. And we recognize films embodying those humanistic ideals with our annual awards.

For the complete list of JACC Awards 2014, visit the James Agee Cinema Circle HERE

Friday, December 26, 2014

It's Hard Being Loved...Charlie Hebdo Doc Laughing Outside Of History

Just re-released in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, is Daniel Leconte's It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks (C'est Dur D'ĂȘtre AimĂ© Par Des Cons). The  2008 documentary follows the ultimately triumphant trial of that French satirical newspaper, charged by the World Muslim League and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France with defamation.

But just how triumphant the publication turned out to be, is laced with eerie irony in post mortem retrospect, as the grinning faces of the cartoonist victors who brag on camera, are counted among the recently assassinated. But not exactly unaware of that possibility, amid multiple threats half a dozen years ago. And when challenged on camera if mockery of an immigrant culture was worth risking their lives, the eager reaction came off less as that of ardent social activists than danger junkies. Intimating a bizarre, opposite sides of the same coin connection between these extreme cartoonists, and the extremists in pursuit.

Overloaded with talking heads and under-furnished with any broad social context - including the real difference between satirizing the power structure as opposed to an oppressed people  your own government has collaborated in murdering in the millions - the documentary feigns impartiality by tossing in a few challenging pundits from the opposite side of the spectrum. Most prominently from eccentric civilian commentators joining the heated circus atmosphere just outside the courtroom. And when one of them is ejected from the building by security because 'you're bothering people' by what seems like daring to air an opposing view, this telling moment blatantly stifling free speech in a documentary supposedly heralding free speech, is oddly tossed by the wayside along with the unfortunate Muslim challenger.

So what remains here when pared down to ideas rather than glorified individuals, includes those many cartoonists and supporters living and dead, and celeb defenders counting Francois Hollande, Holocaust filmmmaker Claude Lanzmann, and Nicolas Sarkozy preferring to text in his sympathy - to the defendants' dismay. And satirists - or sketch makers as they are known by some of their adversaries in the Muslim world, preferring to live contextually and conveniently outside of history.

 Namely, the contrasting notions of free speech and hate speech. And in effect, anti-Muslim cartoons which further the dangerous discrimination against the Muslim population in Europe - immigrant and native born alike. In fact, unintentionally revealing itself in the film, are the most prominent objections raised. That is, in the scary post-9/11 world, the labeling of all Muslims as potential terrorists - in particular one incendiary cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. And not the typical petty pronouncement - that's it's all about showing Muhammad's face. And speaking of faces, their objection to the anti-Semitic facial characteristics - after all, many Muslims are indeed Semites as well. Though once again ironically, anti-Semitic speech is prohibited in France, but only if it pertains to the Jewish branch of Semites there.

Then there's the film's chief talking head and Charlie Hebdo editor at the time, Philippe Val, mouthing off repeatedly about free speech. Yet his own unquestioned dubious rap sheet includes firing one of the magazine's most prominent figures, Maurice Sine, for publishing a cartoon that year about the marriage of Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, Jean, to a Jewish retailing heiress. Which Val deemed anti-Semitic. ( Sine won a 40,000 Euro court judgment against Charlie Hebdo for wrongful termination). And counting as well, longstanding charges of anti-Islam racism and Zionism against Val. And added to this hypocrisy, another figure hastily appearing ironically in the documentary, controversial French comedian Dieudonne. Who has now been arrested along with dozens of others at the moment in France, for exerting their free speech. But oppositional speech the authorities don't want to hear spoken, namely not unquestionably deifying Charlie Hebdo.

And meanwhile, in no way coincidental crackdowns on freedom everywhere in Europe, in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo assault. Which many believe, with suspicions mounting, that this reactionary advancing of the security state was the originally preemptive intent anyway. After all, didn't the CIA and French intelligence meddling in the Middle East train and arm the very assassins in question, in death squads to bring down governments in the Middle East, the better to invade, occupy and loot their resources? And while officially eroding civil liberties further, under the cloak of terrorism alerts?

So in effect, were the Charlie Hebdo assassinations somehow carried out by the CIA and their French counterpart collaborators? If nothing else, food for thought for a very different sort of publication.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ned Rifle Review: Hal Hartley's More Daring And Darker Boyhood, And Felonious Fun

Less Boyhood than perhaps Boy In The Hood, Hal Hartley completes his intermittent suburban bio-trilogy counting Henry Fool, Fay Grim and now Ned Rifle. But half a dozen years longer than Richard Linklater's decidedly more conventional odyssey - and infinitely more dark and daring.

That is, for those preferring their family dramas with the accent on dysfunctionally deviant, and with an ample chaser of toxic lunacy. While touching on the world way beyond Woodside, Queens, with flaky forays into America's satirically laden take on, you name it - the war on terror, gun love, religious fundamentalism, secret prisons, the CIA, Homeland Security, Mossad, the crafty and corrupt pharmaceutical industry, and the oddly combo passionate pretentiousness of academia.

Ned Rifle begins with a now emancipated 18 year old Ned (Liam Aiken), the understandably troubled son of Fay Grim (Parker Posey) and Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) who first appeared as a six year old in Henry Fool. Ned it seems, was sent into a witness protection program following his mother's arrest on charges of international terrorism, don't ask, when she found herself disappeared into a secret CIA prison,

Ned is intent on tracking down his diabolical dad in hiding, and killing him in revenge for destroying the family. Now bearing the government approved alias of Ned Rifle, the introspective, gloomy teen departs from his religious suburban foster family headed by a caring minister (Martin Donovan), and heads to New York City in search of clues from his uncle, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak).

The only member of the peculiar family without his own biopic, Simon has morphed from humble garbageman to celebrated poet - and now currently a hermit comic with his own channel on Youtube, obsessively in touch at the moment with his 'inner clown.' Following leads from Simon that Henry is a wanted fugitive for a lengthy menu of charges and hiding out in Seattle, Ned sets out for the West Coast. And apparently under free lance surveillance by a covertly flirty femme fatale coed and former bottom feeder film critic (Aubrey Plaza) with her own hidden agenda, who is apparently stalking all three of them.

The detours along this suburban noir road movie are endlessly convoluted. But peppered with such richly conceived verbal literary abandon, that all is forgiven. Though not so for these collectively questionable kooks, where nearly everyone here is a philosophizing felon, or potentially so. And whose greatest crime all told, much to the bold whim of a rarely disappointing Hartley, is reading too much.

The Interview: Presidential Assassination Comedy As Free Speech Manifesto, Or US Backed Corporate Terrorism Under Cinematic Cover?

It seems that this country should be concerned, not just about increasingly questionable ingredients in their food, but in Hollywood movies as well. And it's not just the biopics and historical dramas taking outrageous liberties with the facts or by omission, that appear to be on the rise. Humor can also provide a convenient cover.

And in the case of the controversial presidential assassination comedy, The Interview, the sobering question presents itself: How much was this a script by committee, or instead consultation with the US government about exploiting the film as cover, to bring a foreign government down. Which would then beg the question, when are legitimate claims of free speech and against censorship as issues forfeited as bogus with a movie claiming cultural entity status - and corporate terrorism initiated - when the studio heads huddle and strategize with the US State Department, as is the case with The Interview. With the State Department then eagerly insisting on not removing the assassination scene of the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un from the script, because it could be useful propaganda to hopefully bring down the DPRK government.

Not to mention that this is not the first time there was evidence of the alarming progression of the Military Hollywood Complex, along with potentially quid pro quo access to US military hardware for props in movies. Sony huddled with the CIA just last year to film their other political assassination movie involving illegally invading another country, Zero Dark Thirty.

And though smaller theaters jumped at the opportunity to show The Interview, following the refusal of larger chains to do so after elusive threats of violence against them if they did - and in the wake of Sony's withdrawal and then about-face concerning the release - let's not cheer on freedom of speech just yet. And it's not just because technical experts theorize a Sony inside job by disgruntled staff, and not unsubstantiated DPRK threats being hawked by the media. That is, all theaters did get amnesia about censorship issues last year, refusing to show another assassination movie - German director Uwe Boll's Assault On Wall Street. In which Wall Street robber barons get blown away, in the heat of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And while it seems just fine to make fun of a national ruler that you don't happen to like, while getting his head blown off and burned to death in a movie, theaters appear to think Americans need to be shielded from the scandalous notion of doing the very same thing to Wall Street capitalists. On the other hand as a colleague pointed out, Wall Street honchos are in effect the rulers of this country, and mulling harm against our own rulers even as fictional characters, unlike Jong-un, is apparently a no-no. Same theoretically goes for a comedy featuring, say, the lynching of Obama from a tree for laughs. Such a filmmaker would be lucky to avoid charges of terrorist threats and incarceration.

Back to the contradictions inherent in The Interview. James Franco as Dave and writer/director and co-star Seth Rogen as Aaron, are a tabloid television entertainment host and his producer respectively, who receive an invitation from DPRK leader Kim Jong-un to travel there to interview him for a segment - since Jong-un happens to be a fan of that, well, news actor, Dave. Meanwhile, the CIA makes them an offer they seemingly can't refuse - to assassinate Jong-un during the visit.

But Dave eventually balks more when told exactly what he's allowed to ask during the televised interview. Which actually sets in motion all the unintended humor to come. Specifically, that entertainment journalists here happen to be ordered around in this country by film publicists all the time, as to exactly what they can and cannot ask actors and directors like Franco and Rogen. And if they defy those orders, those reporters will, rest assured, be blacklisted by Hollywood in the future.

Then there's the notion of setting up journalists as CIA operatives, as if this movie came up with that fabulous idea in the first place. Apparently that's not counting all the reporters who are paid by the CIA to promote their propaganda, or carry out their orders primarily as covert spies all around the world. And the over 600 CIA attempts to murder Fidel Castro, including via exploding mollusk shells, a lethal fungus infected diving suit,  poisonous pens, exploding cigars, and bacterial poisons designed to be dissolved in his coffee or tea. And the former Cuban leader is apparently not alone - the CIA has attempted to assassinate more than fifty foreign leaders, and been successful at least half the time. How many of those operatives were posing as journalists, has yet to be tabulated.

And references in Obama's televised reactions to the controversy concerning Internet breaches surrounding Sony hacked emails and other material, should be scrutinized as well. Especially with some claims that the whole matter may actually be an orchestrated Sony publicity stunt, to help promote bills in Congress destroying net neutrality and advancing corporate economic control over the Internet. Not so far fetched, considering Sony's lost legal battle following their scandalous invention of that fictitious film critic applauding their movies, David Manning. 

There are, however, several revealing moments in The Interview, ironic as they may be. When Dave goes off script on camera and demands to know why North Koreans are starving, Jong-un brings up the subject of 'sanctions.' A subject which a clueless, perplexed Dave - and likely the US population in general - have been kept in the dark about. And which refers to the United States imposing an economic blockade against North Korea these many decades, attempting to starve the country into submission. And perhaps as a vendetta as well, for the US not winning that other war in Asia - the Korean War. Another subject which Jong-un brings up, blaming the United States. Though the fact that the US killed one tenth of the population there - 290,000 North Korean soldiers and nearly three million civilians - is conveniently omitted from the film.

Last but hardly least in this David and Goliath demonization, is Sony's closing credits disclaimer. Asserting that  "Any similarity or identification...or name, character, or history of any entirely coincidental or unintentional." Now where's that Brooklyn Bridge...

Wait, there's more - on the subject of attacks on any living thing in The Interview: "No animals were harmed." Whew, what a relief.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Foxcatcher: Chilling Capitalist Noir Connecting Multi-Millionaire Murder At Home To Crimes Against Humanity Abroad

Though the United States has the largest prison population in the world at way over two million inmates, you'd be hard pressed to find any rich people among the predominantly inmate of color incarcerated population there. And the same goes for American movies. Where worker oppression and  impoverishment is on the rise on screen as well, thanks to the economy sinking to new lows. But just who is responsible among the robber barons in this country, are pretty much nowhere to be found, let alone accused or indicted.

But one Hollywood movie daring to put a name and face on capitalist crimes against humanity, however ambiguous, is Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher. A biopic touching metaphorically on the toxic, destructive and expoitative relationship of one military industrial complex billionaire and sports enthusiast, John Dupont, played by Steve Carell, to Olympic wrestling athletes in his employ back in the 1990s, most prominently brothers Mark and Dave Schultz - Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively - and leading up to his cold blooded murder of one of them.

And while Foxcatcher in that sense could be considered the most powerful horror movie this past year though it technically is not, the chilling capitalist noir has also been in theaters for over a month. Something nearly unheard of, with those quick bundles of cash, take the money and run Hollywood opening weekend, event over art extravaganzas. And likely indicating how hungry audiences are for those well concealed financial controllers in charge who really rule America, and the film's connection of multi-millionare murder at home, to military industrial complex crimes against humanity abroad.

And though the Dupont economic crimes enriched by US military munitions profiteering to the tune of fifty billion dollars and encroaching in over seventy countries around the planet are only subtextually viewed in John Dupont's tyrannical obsession with his weaponry negotiated with Pentagon visitors to his palatial grounds. Those revelations are sufficient to infuse this psychological thriller with enormous disgust and dread.

And while the actual crime that is the centerpiece of this story, the homicide that landed Dupont in prison where he died in 2010, remains both on and offscreen without a clear motive, a prosecutor involved in the actual case at the time, Dennis McAndrews, had his own theory. Which would fit in just as clearly, with the capitalist mentality in general. Even as another Hollywood movie making the rounds, The Interview, a presidential assassination comedy targeting DPRK ruler Kim Jong-un, was apparently forged in league with the US State Department as a propaganda tool to bring that government down - and heralding a brand new role for the advancing Military Hollywood Complex - international corporate terrorism. Or in other words, as McAndrews so decisively put it during the Dupont trial:

“He was very controlling. A very entitled guy. He believed he was above the law. In fact, he said, ‘I could kill a man and get away with it.’ Sound familiar?

And it's worth noting that in the face of the currently alarming, bleak future younger generations face today under capitalism as symbolically conveyed in Foxcatcher and its exploited and abused athlete gladiators, that the film ends with quite a different cover of this Dylan song, more eulogy than rage for a despairing time, courtesy of the band, A Whisper In The Noise.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Love Hunter: Cabbie Comedy Tenderizes Travis Bickle With Tough Love Tale

This doc fiction musical combo hybrid, conventional immigrant urban odyssey in search of the American dream displays substantial bittersweet if odd, raw charm in the person of aspiring Big Apple Serb rock musician, Milan Mumin. And in a kind of cabbie's comical antidote to De Niro's darkly desolate Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. With a humorous array of eccentric when not exasperating ferried passengers in tow.

But the narrative is riddled with persistent anachronisms and contradictions that derail any effective dramatic coherence. Foremost, that Mumin doesn't seem to have read the news lately. Namely, that the American dream, somewhat mythological to begin with except for a fortunate few, has been essentially derailed by a far flung economic crisis in progress, here and around the world.  And  - reality check moment - does Mumin have absolutely no recollection of US President Bill Clinton's massive bombing of his country in league with NATO - the 78 day destruction whose 16 year anniversary is in fact  commemorated this week. Even as the physical scars remain. 

As for the story itself, with his visiting Serbian girlfriend (Jelena Stupljanin) framed here as the villain for nagging him to get real and give up rocker dreams already in his midlife years, she seems to have a point even if not intended. That is, with Mumin coming off more like those aging rockers looking ludicrous performing as imagined young studs on stage -  and with seemingly far less talent - Mumin ironically sabotages the sympathy he works so hard at drumming up for himself. And maybe should have taken his Serbian girlfriend's tough love advice to begin with.

Prairie Miller

Arts Express: On Stage With Reimaginings, Revivals, And Revelations

**Nevermore! The Imaginary Life And Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe: A vividly conceived musical fantasy on stage, focusing on the iconic and tragic American poet and author. Scott Shpeley, who plays Poe, phones in to Arts Express to talk about bringing that dark, lush literary voice to life, and the process of becoming Poe - physically, psychologically, emotionally and artistically. And while delving creatively into questions of loneliness and existence, laced with haunting, gothic melodies.

Listen To The Show Here

**Amiri Baraka's Dutchman: A daring and dynamic theater tribute during Black History Month to the late African American dramatist, poet and author Amiri Baraka's controversial 1964 classic. Dutchman's producer and director Woodie King phones in to Arts Express to describe mounting a very new and different staging of the award winning play. Taking the text in a direction not seen or heard before, and what it has to do with nightmares, and the NYC subway as metaphor for the underbelly of slave ships during the Middle Passage. Chris Butters reports.

**The Fantasticks: A conversation with the young star Max Crumm about the longest running musical in the world, how and why. And what is freshly imagined in this latest revival and reinterpretation, originally conceived by Tom Jones over half a century ago. Along with the process of making the character his own, and the nightly exhilaration of breaking through the fourth wall with the audience.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Arts Express: Chris Elliott Talks The Rewrite

Chris Elliot may just be the sympathetic sidekick to Hugh Grant's perplexed Hollywood hack turned terrible teacher at a remote Binghamton college in the satirical romp, Marc Lawrence's The Rewrite. But the actor, comedian and writer best known for Late Night with David Letterman, Get a Life, Adult Swim, Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, grabs attention no matter what he's up to on the big or small screen. Elliot met to talk about taking part in The Rewrite, nutty jobs he's had just to get by, other fellow funny guys who've inspired him, and getting stoned on Groundhog Day.

What do you think of the idea in this movie, of rewriting your own life?

CHRIS ELLIOTT: Well, I'd like to think that you can. I think to a degree as a performer I'm trying to sort of recreate and restart.

And you know, change that parameter. I've always wanted to paint, and I can draw. I can do that kind of stuff.

But I couldn't start right now and be a painter. I think I could do it for the fun of it.
But I don't think I could actually go in and commit myself to a lifetime of doing that. At least not at my age.

And I think age does have a little something to do with it, too. Like, how tired you are.

Chris, you've been thought of as more of a comic personality but you also can do a lot of other things. How do you decide when you think something works for you, when it's got a comic and a serious side too?

CE: Well with me, I honestly feel like I have spent the last ten years of my career trying to get smaller and smaller. With what I do comedically.

And I think that's been noticed a little bit. And so I've been able to move from doing kind of the goofy, crazy stuff that I was known for doing in the '80s and early '90s.

And you know, into maybe doing something where I'm a little bit more believable. But I never thought I was a believable actor! I always thought I was just this goofy guy.

There are comedians that I believed on camera. I believed Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bill Murray.

But I never believed myself. You know, when I was actually trying to act.

And so it's taken me a while to find that balance. And I think I did in this movie.

And I think it's because of working with Hugh and with Marc, who keep the reins pulled in pretty tight. That's about it for me.

I don't know, I really believed you in Groundhog Day.

CE: Oh, I was so stoned!

One of the funniest parts of The Rewrite, is Marisa showing up in different places and having all kinds of jobs just to survive during these economic hard times. So was there any time in your own career where you had to do a lot of crazy jobs just to survive?

CE: Yes! Unlike Hugh, I still do work for the money! But I've actually been so lucky, to go from one thing to another.

And my first job was working for Dave Letterman. I worked there for eight years before I had my own TV show, and then a movie.

And I seem to have always been able to have something during the year to make a living. But I have done some horrible movies for a quick buck.

But my crazy jobs weren't even that crazy. I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, and then a PA.

And a runner on a couple of TV shows. So I didn't really have to stretch that.

But right now like everybody, the times in this business have changed. And the numbers have gone down.

Especially for people like me in the business. But I still try to be certainly choosy.

And the idea of working with Hugh on this movie was too much to turn down. So I really did it for...below what I usually get paid!

What do you think of Hugh's idea, that art is as much about being whipped into shape to work, and not just the fun of inspiration?

CE: Well, the whipping is fun too!

Continuing syndicated features of Arts Express: Expression In The Arts are hosted by Prairie Miller, and air locally and nationally on the Pacifica Radio Network and WBAI/Affiliate Stations, including WPRR Public Reality Radio. And if you'd like to Express yourself too, you can write to:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Serena Review: Jennifer Lawrence Does Masculinized Femme Fatale In Southern Gothic Wilderness Weepie

Jennifer Lawrence seemingly returns to that Southern Gothic hillbilly caricature terrain of Winter's Bone, though switching it up from Ozarks to Appalachia lunatic local lore with the wilderness weepie, Serena. Lawrence likewise switches sides of the track, so to speak, this time around a woman of wealth derived from the logging industry.

Though more emotionally weak than wily, Serena and her slithering over to the dark side gets attributed instead to a standard Hollywood homicidal workingclass villain, a logger with apparently supernatural demonic powers performed in her service, wouldn't you know it. And unfathomably pulled off with ludicrous gusto by Harry Potter's Xenophilius Lovegood - none other than Rhys Ifans.

Bradley Cooper turns up in the film too, as leading man George Pemberton, a logging industry magnate infatuated with Serena, and then marrying her in rapid succession. The rest of this trite tale you've already seen many times before. Though suffice it to say that there's a baby mama servant irritant hovering about, an ensuing childless marriage, inexplicable wealth on the part of Pemberton in the midst of the Great Depression, and a logging town rescued from corruption by the local sheriff -  played by Toby Jones.

Now, a bit of reality check about that sheriff. In fact, the lumber barons essentially set up feudal domains on their occupied lands, 'filling the towns with gunmen whom the authorities commissioned as deputy sheriffs, and jailing anyone who questioned their rule,' according to Joe Richards' 'The Legacy Of The IWW.' And primarily the Wobblies as the mass organizers of those workers for more humane conditions, resulting in militant mass unions numbering in the tens of thousands.

But Hollywood prefers to designate those same sheriffs here as heroic, along with feats by the Pemberton couple as saviors of the workers from dangerous working conditions. And with Jones as a weirdly anachronistic ecological activist voice from the future in the wilderness back then, to save the trees from those selfish village idiot workers who are cluelessly manipulated by the boss to think only about their wages.

Meanwhile, Lawrence is apparently ripe for some hefty demonization as well. Let's just say with her bossy demeanor and dominatrix style horse riding outfits, she's that latest female caricature turning up in Hollywood - the masculinized femme fatale. Or as Serena smugly asserts early on, 'I didn't come to Carolina to do needlepoint.'

Nor should anyone be surprised that the face behind the camera turning out these stereotypes lately, is female. In this case filmmaker Susanne Bier, along with last year's malevolent matriarch in Gone Girl, penned by Gillian Flynn. In other words, with Hollywood, as in politics, that more macho than thou attitude seems to be an eager bid for entry into the inner circle of whatever reigning exclusively good old boys club at the moment.

As for the history of those brutally exploited but eventually courageous unionizing loggers as pretty much woodland wallpaper in this shallow selfie of a movie Serena, perhaps one day some filmmaker out there will illuminate their story on screen. But what can one expect, of a basically European production about this country, helmed by a Danish director.

And filmed on a set in the Czech backwoods ironically for good reason. Where deforestation may not yet have reached their land, but their people are sought after in the film world as cheap labor for extras and crews. Unlike their intentionally avoided unionized counterparts back here in the United States, who demand a living wage for the same work.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Slamdance: The Anti-Sundance Film Festival: Rapper Pras Talks Haiti Film with Arts Express

Listen To The Show Here

**Slamdance: The Anti-Sundance Film Festival. Rapper Pras Michel returns to his Haitian roots to explore with his documentary premiering there - Sweet Micky For President - political turmoil in Haiti. Pras phones in to Prairie Miller on Arts Express from Slamdance, Utah to reflect on what he learned while immersing himself in politics there, along with making this movie, and what still remains a mystery. And, will The Fugees ever get back together again.

Update: The film garnered the two top Slamdance Awards: The Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary.

**The Humbling: Better than Birdman, with its more poignant, less pretentious introspective grasp of the raw, revealing truths about art and fame, the film stars Al Pacino, and is adapted from the Philip Roth novel. As it connects the ironic and elusive notions of creativity, existence, self-worth, and celebrityhood. And, when not just simply weird and wicked fun. A commentary.

**My Son The Waiter:
Intrepid Arts Express reporter Jack Shalom catches the bitterweet rantings of standup comic Brad Zimmerman's show. Touching on nearly three decades of waiting tables for better or much worse. Along with insights gleaned from the invisibility of service workers in capitalist society.

**Poetry Corner: A reading of late poet and author Charles Bukowski's Nirvana. A solemn youthful odyssey through the American winter landscape by bus, in search of a place in the world.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bluebird Review: Remarkable Slice Of Life Regional Economic Crisis Cinema

 With the advent of the new year right now, some sobering matters that are old remain on a rather grim and portentous horizon. And one of those still very much looming issues is the bleak economic outlook in this country, and new films appearing which may inevitably still reflect just that.

Among them is an exquisitely lensed regional dramatic feature, Bluebird. Unfolding during a harsh, punishing Maine winter in a remote logging town, Bluebird evokes in subtle and lyrical yet crushing tones like the weight of the logged trees themselves, a tragic accident visited upon school bus driver and working mother Lesley (Amy Morton).

Barely making ends meet along with her about to be laid off logger husband Rich (John Slattery), Lesley is fatefully distracted one day by a bluebird trapped after flying through her bus window. The metaphorical whimsical longing for flight juxtaposed with a suppressed undercurrent of despair imprisoning both of them, requires few words to then eventually evolve into a group portrait of a town of collectively economically thwarted lives. 

And though sharing common elements with Atom Egoyan's likewise tragic 1997 school bus drama, The Sweet Hereafter, first time Maine filmmaker Lance Edmands' Bluebird has a distinct set of issues on its mind nearly a decade later and mirroring a different century. Including the diminishing employment options of workers and especially women - consigned to juggling multiple roles in life, not to mention a spontaneous maternal instinct to protect the species; and the cruelty of fate, particularly class fate, epitomized as a microcosm in this emotionally and economically drained town.

In other words, ultimately more than just the story of an unfortunate accident - but about everything not accidental, under capitalism. And encapsulating those experiences in Bluebird's opening quote, from Henry David Thoreau's The Maine Woods: '...I stand in awe of my body. This matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me.'

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Roald Dahl's Esio Trot: A Rather Ridiculously Resplendent Reptilian Romance

Though Roald Dahl is best known as one of the most famous writers for children, including this adapted novel in question, Esio Trot has apparently been conceived by director Dearbhla Walsh as a fable for more mature audiences, however magical the tale may be. And specifically featuring octogenarian protagonists, or nearly so, in a decidedly daffy December romance.

Though thankfully and without hopefully giving too much away, the designated elder lovebirds don't by the end make a grim transition into the usual end of life disease of the week melodrama. On the other hand, there is an ensuing love triangle complicating a potential relationship between these two strangers, however playfully whimsical. And involving namely, a woman deeply obsessed with her pet tortoise. And did I happen to mention that the cryptic title of the movie is actually tortoise spelled backwards? Hold that thought.

The writings of Roald Dahl have often been adapted into movies. Including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr Fox, Though oddly enough, he's penned small screen episodes as well for Alfred Hitchcock Presents with titles like Poison, along Tales Of The Unexpected diabolical sounding gems like Vengeance Is Mine Inc.

Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench are Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver respectively in Esio Trot, neighbors dwelling in a high rise somewhere in a bustling British metropolis. And who primarily encounter one another through formal cross-communication via their his and her balconies - Mr. Hoppy above, and Mrs. Silver below. And while Mrs. Silver, an elderly widow, spends most of her time swooning over and babbling to her reptilian object of desire Alfie on the lower level outdoors, Mr. Hoppy, an American bachelor, tends to his immensely overgrown balcony garden above. Meanwhile, the hopelessly smitten Mr. Hoppy embarks on a scheme to fill his house with pet turtles, in a rather convoluted proposed path to the ditzy downstairs neighbor's heart.

And why Mr. Hoppy lives in the UK, or what he's ever done for a living in his spartan existence, remain a mystery. In a rather sketchy conception of a shy, self-effacing and withdrawn, downbeat character - though with weird voyeurism tendencies at times. Mrs. Silver in contrast, is on the flamboyant and kooky side, though equally bereft of any back story. But in the case of Esio Trot, a flaky fantasy seeming in search of an identity of its own too as to whether it wants to appeal to children or adults, none of this hardly seems to matter. Owing to the enormous charisma and charm emanating from this pair of acting legends, no matter what they're up to.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Big Eyes: The Business Of Art And The Pre-Feminist Stuck-Home Syndrome

Setting the stage for mid-20th century female oppression playing out prior to the women's movement -  as well as in the media  - in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, is Danny Huston's voiceover narrator doing the late San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and subversively cutting to the chase. And all at the same time delivering perhaps the best movie line of the year: "I make things up for a living - I'm a reporter."

Which could not be more to the point, in deciphering through quite metaphorically candid Big Eyes, a financially compulsive US consumer society harboring a dark side just beneath the giddy, deplorable, culturally embedded deceptive commercialism dominating everything. And connected in this case, to domestic violence primarily psychological in nature visited upon the populist artist Margaret Keane. Who was pressured by mid-20th century white middle class limitations placed on women, to essentially collaborate as a component of domestic security and well-being, in her own oppression. And actually, pretty much nothing new, if one considers throughout human history the many women like George Eliot who took male names to have equal access to the privilege of creativity and public recognition. Along with that well known, sadly often repeated rhetorical question historically speaking, why are there no women artists?

Amy Adams projects an alternately subtle and stinging emotional and ethical ambivalence as Margaret Keane, deferring to her arrogant con-man mate Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), when he assures her that attributing her popular paintings to him instead, is a prudent business move that will substantially enrich their coffers. Which it does.

But this Faustian deception as ambivalent accomplice, driven by her own insecurities as a woman and yearning for a safe haven in a female-demeaning and dismissive world at the time, ironically further entrenches her own invisibility as an artist and human being. And admirably, Burton doesn't simplify the gender based conflict here by opposing a stereotypical female victim with her male victimizer. But rather probes all the self-critical ambiguous issues in between, in crafting a kind of canvas of his own pitting stifled rebellion against embarrassing expediency.

Big Eyes can also claim distinction for probing a less traditionally scrutinized component of domestic violence against women that leaves no physical scars, but destroys countless lives as well - mental and emotional abuse and domination. And perhaps best described in this case, as the Stay-Home Syndrome. And deferring to a husband as dictatorial decision maker, however self-destructive. Though in two instances that might be referred to as sorrowfully sequelized though ultimately triumphant in real life as well, Margaret is seen fleeing two unseemly spouses down the nearest highway - destination scary single motherhood - with her paintings and her child in the back seat in tow.

Then there's possibly Burton's own very personal exploration here, of the business of art. In other words, Walter Keane as symbolic of Hollywood, and the movie industry that aggressively shoves aside any notion of art - when not exploiting and taking credit for it - in the parasitic pursuit of profit. And if this was in fact on Burton's mind as troubling creative subtext, all power to him.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Nightcrawler: Hollywood Hidden Agendas, Hype And Crushing The Competition

Whistleblowing when it comes to media malice, even if fictionalized in movies like Nightcrawler, can't be a bad thing. Even if it's a little like say, treating pneumonia with an aspirin. Or, the police investigating themselves for wrongdoing. Let me explain.

Nightcrawler may have its heart, if not exactly it's calculating head, in the right place as the thriller goes about denouncing television and specifically the evening news for exploiting public fears about crime in racist and class biased terms, in a quest for ratings and profits. And essentially going with stories intended to raise the paranoid panic level in suburbia, about inner city crime crossing the line - literally and figuratively, into their affluent turf.

Not that these sordid manufactured goals are instigated primarily from top down tactics in the film. Rather, it's those from the bottom feeder classes themselves - in similar fashion to the have-nots havoc of those broadcast stories in question - who provide and feed that unethical news cycle in a kind of hypocritical substrata plaguing Nightcrawler. And personified in that particular psychopathic crime scene paparazzi in question, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Not to mention Hollywood's own looming personal subtextual motives here, in demonizing paparazzi in general.

Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, a chronically unemployed, alienated young man desperate for work during the ongoing economic downturn, in yet another entry into that growing genre of economic crisis cinema. Stealing and selling scrap metal when not getting into violent mugging, Bloom happens by chance upon a crime scene and the 'vampire shift' free lance LA cameramen who make a living selling those gory photos to television news outlets.

Eventually the deceptively genteel and soft-spoken Bloom ruthlessly eliminates the competition (Bill Paxton), and ends up manipulating and sexually dominating his equally ruthless boss at the station (Rene Russo). And becomes somewhat of a celebrity news gathering predator in his own right, by quite illegally 'creating' his own unsavory crime scenes and scenarios.  

Screenwriter and first time director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) has crafted a relentlessly discomforting and disturbing, psychologically dense thriller. But more troubling, is the context. On that note, let's revisit the self-policing metaphor. Are not the big and small screen the very same source of the racist and anti-workingclass fear mongering plaguing ethical values in this country? And in effect, the media assault on the inner city by this fictionalized TV station and  this movie's class based indictment of Bloom, one and the same. And their own offscreen hardly coincidental cultural collusion,  Gilroy and his perp-arazzi protagonist, Gyllenhaal. The latter for his Hollywood rap sheet of not unrelated sordid crime thriller affairs like Zodiac, Prisoners and End Of Watch.    

Then there's the matter of Nightcrawler's dubious division between victims and villains during these economic hard times. Are the bottom feeder designated media monsters in big city underbelly news cycles enriching the coffers of television stations really the impoverished at the other end of the food chain? And in the case of Nightcrawler, even ensnaring their own personal workforce ripe for exploitation? Well, perhaps those feeling most threatened by them think so, or driven by anxieties about ending up there themselves.

And let's not forget that other possible competitive thorn in the side of Hollywood. Namely, the recent small screen surge known as the new golden age of television - a potential challenge both creatively and financially to an industry dubiously turning out movies like Nightcrawler. Along with all sorts of beyond troubling issues in the media not touched upon at all here. Including the one side to every story, brazenly corporate controlled media in collusion with CIA and government entities when it comes to the propaganda relentlessly fed to the public. Guilt by omission? Just some curious food for thought.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

NY Film Festival 2014: Laura Poitras Talks Edward Snowden Doc, CitizenFour

A special, last minute presentation of the just completed CitzenFour documentary directed by Laura Poitras in exile in Germany, was a highlight of the NY Film Festival. Poitras embarks on a real life espionage journey, as she's contacted by Edward Snowden posing as the enigmatic CitizenFour. Which leads her to extraordinary secret rendezvous meetups on the run with Snowden, in Hong Kong and then Moscow.

Following the public screening, Poitras delivered a Directors Dialogue and audience conversation about her not yet released suspense thriller and fugitive from the NSA/CIA escape to freedom documentary. Excerpts from her conversation are below:

More information about the NY Film Festival is online at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Camp X-Ray: Kristen Stewart Kicks Ass Politically On Screen

Camp X-Ray engages in somewhat of a military drama miracle. Packing in admirably and effectively a grim array of pressing issues in the real world, probing as its title implies national truths rarely covered in films and almost never in the corporate embedded media. And which include what's going down at that surreal and questionable gulag known as Guantanamo, sexual violence against females in the military, and the hundreds of US soldier suicides every year and why. Camp X-Ray is also an immensely devastating and emotionally honest and grueling dramatic showdown focusing on primarily just two characters.

One of those characters being, just as unimaginable, former Hollywood teen heartthrob of the Twilight series, Kristen Stewart. Who apparently, unlike most other movie stars in an avid quest for fame and fortune, has opted for the opposite direction. Intent on mining her talent for raw and real, meaningful hardcore drama instead. You go, girl.

Incredibly first timer young writer/director Peter Sattler daringly flips the official script of the one side to every story media and US government scenarios, in a courageous telling it like it is as to just what may be going down at Gitmo. With recently arrived army soldier Amy Cole, played by Stewart, assigned to the monotonous and unpleasant task of guard duty in a claustrophobic and hostile cell block. Where one of the 'detainees' Ali (Peyman Moaadi) - the soldiers are forbidden to call them prisoners because their unlawful US detention violates all existing international human rights statutes - attracts her alternately curious, repelled and empathetic attention.

The odd couple, in a kind of surrealistic mutual captivity at the camp confining both of them, at first approach one another in negative stereotypical preconceived notion mode. And with Cole astonished to learn that Ali, however understandably enraged at his hopeless plight, defies existing stereotypes as an educated, intellectually and artistically aspiring German national. And whose own perplexed youthful yearnings on a quest to make meaningful sense of the world, quite surprisingly mirror her own.

To say more about this delicately layered and defiant, doomed duet would dramatically diminish its resonance on screen. Suffice it to say that this brave excursion into controversial territory,cuts  through that blind fog of official propaganda, relentlessly fed to the US public on a daily basis.

Two Days, One Night: Marion Cotillard Class Struggle One Hour At A Time


...Cotillard, who is no stranger to tackling complex characters and complicated women in movies, most notably as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, plays Sandra in Two Days, One Night, an emotionally vulnerable blue collar worker in a plant determined to pit her against the other workers...


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Maps To The Stars: A Fine Line Between Exposing Hollywood Exploitation, And Crossing it

If decadence and depravity seem to have gotten worse recently in Hollywood, with all the drug scandals, murders and suicides, David Cronenberg (Crash, Naked Lunch, Cosmopolis) and his latest Maps To The Stars should more than reinforce that collective hunch. A rude and raucous LA cesspool reality check especially for the star struck obsessives in the audience, the film nevertheless walks an exceedingly fine line between depicting Hollywood self-dehumanization, and simply crossing it.

Presiding over this cast of beyond degenerate lunatic characters is John Cusack as Stafford Weiss, a motivational mental health and fitness guru to the stars, plying his elite trade with unorthodox methods that include physical restraint, barking commands, and the pressure tactic eliciting of emotional pain. Among his kooky clientele is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging diva actress (where 40 is apparently the new 95) longing to play her late screen goddess abusive mother in a new production. And an ambitious obsession that is literally here, to die for - as long as that unfortunate is somebody else. 

Then there are a couple of truly bad seeds that happen to be Stafford's own kids. Including a way beyond bratty child celeb just exiting detox and his pyromaniac institutionalized sister, both with festering homicidal tendencies. Likewise turning up for seemingly sarcastic glee, is Carrie Fisher as herself in this far from coincidental tabloid tall tale touching on abusive parenting and kid counter-revenge. Along with related exploited employee revenge and something to do with retaliatory menstruation on a zillion dollar designer couch, not to mention coincidentally cross-generational arsonist tendencies, death by trophy - don't ask, and malevolent magical realism kicking in. Then there's Robert Pattinson, an LA limo driver for hire drudge who just longs to make in it Hollywood, and appears to be the only relatively sane individual in this multiple dark side menu of mix nuts.

I get it, that this movie is all about life such as it is, played out among stars as diseased hyper-individualism, and an avaricious series of egocentrically ambitious transactions in pursuit of getting ahead. And a society in moral decline and increasingly devoid of any individual sense of self, where identity theft metaphorically speaking, gets concentrated on obsessively burrowing into the imagined lives of movie stars

But there's a troubling irony throughout, that while exposing the malignancy of Hollywood, Cronenberg may be engaging in exploiting it as well. And it's not just the debasing of Julianne Moore as an actress in instructing her to repeatedly fart and wipe her behind on a toilet while getting nosy with her personal assistant through the open door, demanding details about her orgasms.

There's also the curious observation that the Hollywood honchos responsible for perpetrating this culture of insatiable greed are quite invisible here and seem to get a pass, possibly in a bid for the director to preserve his own career as a player in all of this. And much like his characters, hiding self-serving machinations behind a public smile.

And ultimately, yet another movie like so many preceding it, full of sound and fury while signifying no particular point about any of it. And a film world sadly tending to be about so many things, except meaning or art.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Homesman: Pioneer Women Surviving Prairie Fever On The Bleak Frontier

Much of the depravity, chaos and rage lying just beneath the iconic myth of the Wild West and exhibited as a male manifestation - is in large part attributed to post-Confederacy PTSD among veterans back then. Connected to the sound defeat and enormous devastation visited upon the South, that gave rise to dangerously disgruntled drifters known euphemistically as cowboys.

But there was another rarely spoken about Manifest Destiny madness out on the plains, and equally afflicting men and women due to the harsh living conditions and alienating isolation - Prairie Fever. Though an affliction characterized more in terms of gender, by deeply depressed women and violent men.

And without actually attributing that very real and far from uncommon ordeal among those 19th century heartland settlers, The Homeseman illuminates that state of mind with an astonishing poetic eloquence in portraying the descent into madness of three pioneer women on the Nebraska plains. Directed, co-written, produced and starring Tommy Lee Jones and co-produced by Luc Besson, this stunning, very differently depicted, and vividly conceived journey into the mythic American past likewise boasts a strikingly impressive ensemble cast. Counting in addition to Jones as the title character in question, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.

Not exactly a feminist western but powerfully evoking the lives of these scarred and thwarted women nevertheless, The Homesman follows the fate of three young wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) broken by mental illness (involving sexual assault, post-partum depression infanticide, grieving the death of children from a diptheria epidemic, and attempted female implement suicide by darning needle). And being escorted back East, where a concerned church has offered to care for them. The problem is that there are no local men, not even their own husbands, willing to take them by covered wagon on that long and dangerous journey.

Volunteering instead is Mary Bee (Swank), a solitary, pious farmer who courageously works her own land. A member of the town's Ladies Aid Society, Mary is also a lonely woman that all the men around her refuse to marry. Deemed just too 'plain as an old tin pail' Mary Bee is actually not at all physically unappealing. But her toughness, resilience and independent spirit get her labeled as simply too bossy for wedlock. And a pariah within the patriarchal kooky courtship culture on the frontier, despite her persistent proposals of marriage to men.

And self-determined but not impractical, Mary Bee realizes she'd have difficulty transporting these very needy and out of control women alone. So happening upon nomadic army deserter George Briggs (Jones) hitched up to a tree for lynching by an angry mob, Mary Bee saves him in return for his reluctant pledge to assist her on the journey.

The relationship that develops between Mary Bee and Briggs, along with the unusual bonding of these tortured and helpless women, unfolds within a captivating fusion of bleak tragedy, horror, delicate grace and devilishly twisted, dark humor. Along with a perplexing landscape and its oblivious history encircling the lives of surrounding enraged Native Americans and shackled trafficked slaves alike.

And a remarkable performance from Tommy Lee Jones' recklessly rowdy anti-hero never ceases to surprise and amaze. With a begrudgingly kind heart, that is delicately transformative and magnificently nuanced.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alumbrones: A Luminescent Light On Art Liberated From Money

Once again, documentary film steps in to courageously and with conviction fill the quite empty shoes and abandoned mandate of the corporate controlled media - seemingly irrevocably embedded with the government as its useful idiot propaganda arm. And championing conviction over moral corruption when it comes to presenting more than one side to every story  - in this case Cuba - with the documentary, Alumbrones.

Directed by South African filmmaker by Bruce Donnelly, Alumbrones is a collective portrait of the quite gender and age diverse prominent Cuban artists today. And with the title referring to the flickering lights in Cuban homes, when resources became scarce following loss of the helping hand of the former Soviet Union - along with the cruel US economic blockade against Cuba for these many decades.

But one of the most striking elements concerning the endurance of these hardships, is the resilience of the Cuban people in the face of political and capitalist aggression targeting them from the United States. And rather than the intended US affect of pressuring them to rise up against their government with artificially induced scarcity as the driving force through US economic terrorism, a determination to transcend those made in USA economic hostilities. And not only prevail as a people, but continue unhampered creating their flourishing art as well.

Alumbrones should have provided more explanation in detail how socialism in Cuba has not only created an egalitarian community of professional artists from all walks of life - something unimaginable in the class constricted United States - but through a system that supports them financially as a recognized vocation. And in which they don't have to struggle economically under the pressure to make ends meet like their US counterparts, or sell themselves off to the domineering highest financial elite, commercial benefactor bidders.

This extraordinary film is nevertheless a vividly conceived journey into the creative imagination and passion of artists in Cuba. And what happens when art purely as a socially subsidized and esteemed professional pursuit, is liberated from money.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Prince: Macho Mayhem As The Male Version Of Maternal Instinct

Yet another entry into the dad rescues endangered kid thriller with Brian Miller's The Prince, that macho mayhem as opposed to maternal instinct scenario is beginning to nearly qualify as a guy genre in its own right on screen. Though in this case just about every guy around is a metaphorically conceived maniac from bad to worst, and it supposedly has something to do with the ancient Romans and rabid royalty under house arrest somewhere in the Scotland wilderness centuries ago.

Updated to the present time and with ensuing anti-heroes galore, The Prince plays out as a longstanding grudge between two gangsters with combo anger management diabolical daddy issues. Paul (Jason Patric) is the title character in question, a soldier who reluctantly chose the military over prison as an option he couldn't refuse, and whose combat experience apparently sent him into post-traumatic assassination mode, bringing home the war for the New Orleans mob. Now a mysterious auto mechanic down in Mississippi, Paul returns to New Orleans to locate his missing runaway teenage daughter.

Likewise interested in finding her is Omar (Bruce Willis), a local mob chief out to seek vengeance against Paul, responsible for the car bomb murder of his wife and daughter that was intended to take down Omar instead. Also tossed into the mix though rather peripherally is 50 Cent's leering lunatic druglord dubbed The Pharmacist, and John Cusack as a retired gangster from Paul's old posse back in the day, who wants none of it but is willing to help out secretly in any way he can. Then there's Omar's peculiar sidekick played by Rain, a skinny, dapper effeminate martial arts hitman favoring designer duds.

Willis rather delicately negotiates getting into his darker side, in a shaky balancing act between a slightly humanized professional psychopath yearning for closure over a longstanding major grievance, and just a really rotten dude. Meanwhile, maximum homicidal pandemonium ensues without astonishingly, a single big city cop in sight for the duration. Along with a remarkably bullet-proof protagonist throughout the proceedings, and the most destruction inflicted instead upon exceedingly defaced property if not highly abused chewed up scenery.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Mercenaries: Charlie's Devils Meets The Sexpendables

While the US energy corporations conspire to invade European markets by demonizing Russia and marginalizing their gas production, American movies seem to be getting in on the financially lucrative propaganda frenzy too. Shifting their negative focus on Muslim villains to neo-Cold War Russian adversaries everywhere, and set up with predictable elimination. Or, in the case of Christopher Ray's Mercenaries, a deranged when not daffy Danish substitute in the person of  Brigitte Nielsen will do.

A bargain basement, blatant female driven copycat ripoff of the pricier Expendables with a generous dab of Roger Corman - oddly enough or perhaps not, with Expendables the brawn over brainchild of Nielsen's ex-spouse Stallone, Mercenaries serves up its schlock and awe like S&M pole dancers with pistols. And Charlie as in the CIA covert warfare military mode, and dabbling in knockoffs right down to this female army's skintight sexpot battle slutwear from The Expendables Recycler store outlet, no less.
And with a remote US location filling in for Kazakhstan as a Russian enclave - though these geographically deprived filmmakers haven't gotten the notice yet that Kazakhstan is now an independent country. Though who knows that the territory may actually house at this point, one of those nifty secret CIA military prisons specializing in creative torture.

In any case, sent off to this somewhat mythic realm somewhere in the real world, is a criminally minded collection of female felons recruited, whether they like it or not, by the CIA visiting them armed with mace, to embark on a secret mission to rescue the US president's diplomat daughter taken hostage in Kazakhstan. And by none other than a statuesque Russian lunatic lesbian ballbuster played with femme fatale macho relish by Nielsen. Which is essentially what happens to young bombshell screen goddesses hitting old age, where in Hollywood forty is the new ninety-five.

And with Nielsen and a male army of apparently myopic sharpshooters in a ludicrous faceoff never less than destined for enemy loserville, by armed to the teeth, bulletproof, ferociously foul-mouthed battling babes counting Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken and Nicole Bilderback. And last but hardly least, Vivica Fox as the reigning demented wild card of this deranged posse, mulling fantasies of one day turning the former Soviet Union countries like this one into those cheap labor, non-union movie sets (hey hello, it's already been happening) where packing a strap-on, she can get to perform sex acts on George Clooney.

Mercenaries: Charlie's Devils Meets The Sexpendables. And riling themselves up with the bitch bravado battle cry, 'Let's go PMS on them.'

'...It doesn’t take a feminist to figure out that the men in charge of making this film might reasonably be said to have a few issues with women...'


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Good People: Kate Hudson Wears The Pants, Perfecting Ballsy Moves Against Bad Guys

Nuclear family noir faces off against gangster thriller gore in Good People. Simultaneously referencing traditional mobster mayhem and bleak, apocalyptic end stage capitalism in a recession stricken world.

James Franco and Kate Hudson are Tom and Anna Reed in Good People, an economically struggling young American couple migrating to London after Anna inherits a dilapidated family home there. Determined to renovate the aged structure in nearly complete shambles while relying on Tom's carpentry skills but few funds, the frustrated  duo are elated when a downstairs neighbor in the building where they live is found murdered, but leaving behind a huge amount of hidden cash they discover there. Money that they attempt to rationalize, has no moral value in and of itself, it's what people do with it that creates ethical quandaries.

And turning up to drive those problematic points home rather quickly as the pair begins to pay off debts, are no less than three warring parties. Counting a deeply suspicious detective (Tom Wilkinson) with his own hidden agenda, local drug dealers from whom the money was originally stolen, and French gangsters who were ripped off by the local thugs in the first place. Leaving the couple in the unfortunate predicament of eluding everyone in question at the same time, in order to save their lives.

Kate Hudson wears the pants in this particular family outing, with Franco frequently deferring to her ballsy moves intercepting the bad guys, more comfortable apparently with applying his craftsman skills to a kind of creative blue collar class warfare. And with the various menacing intruders when not homicidal busybodies standing in somewhat for a metaphorical late capitalism doing battle with itself, and those at the bottom left essentially with no side to choose from or any traditional good versus, evil amid multiple malevolent threats. Whether implicating ruthless greed, official corruption, or perfected torture in the pursuit of ill gotten gain.

Directed by masterfully bold and socially intuitive Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz (Terribly Happy) and adapted by Kelly Masterson (Snowpiercer, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead) from the  Marcus Sakey novel, Good People anchors this story in a sobering subtext beyond its otherwise conventional thriller roots. Channeling guerrilla imagination with whatever tools at hand, and workingclass resistance in a nearly futile hi-tech weaponry world. Or as a confident Kate Hudson declares at a key moment in confronting formidable, elaborately armed opponents from all sides, "Guns are for pussies."

Monday, August 4, 2014

Frontera: Eva Longoria Desperate Housewife In Hell, In Brewing Border Wars Bromance

Actor Michael Pena, who already displayed his tremendous talent and conviction earlier this year filling the formidable shoes as larger than life fearless farm worker activist and UFW labor leader Cesar Chavez in the biopic bearing his name, brings this same fury and idealist commitment to an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary historical circumstances, in Frontera. This brewing border wars bromance initially pits Pena against a disgruntled retired Arizona sheriff played with magnificent complexity and subtlety by Ed Harris, a rancher perpetually peeved about undocumented Mexicans crossing his land in search of work and sustenance in the United States.

In the course of embarking on that journey he's taken many times before to support his family back in Mexico and his now pregnant wife (Eva Longoria), Pena and a companion become trapped as unfortunate victims of apparent rifle target practice by bullying gringo teens cornering them from a cliff. In the course of which Harris' wife (Amy Madigan) who is passing by riding her horse, is caught up in the terrifying moment and suffers a tragic accident.

And in the ensuing panic and rage gripping that small Arizona town, Pena's bewildered migrant is imprisoned and his brave and determined wife travels across the border on a subsequently dangerous mission to find and save him. Even as doubts about what really transpired beyond racist accusations, hidden agendas and coverups trouble the former sheriff. As he takes matters into his own hand to the dismay of the police force, and mounts his own investigation.

Vigilantism, whether spurred on by homicidal revenge or on the other hand idealistic protest opposing official injustice, has long been an enduring theme in American movies, and no surprise there. With a US government that increasingly ranges from corruption to a woefully broken system, frustrated civilian activism whether from the right or left, is spurred on. And Michael Berry's Frontera blends these timely socio-political elements in dramatically bracing ways, intertwined with the current south of the border turbulent immigrant crisis in progress today.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The One I Love: Or Not, In This Split Personality, Identity Theft Small Talk Romance

With a movie title borrowed from the name of The Mamas And Papas classic song, this choice would appear to be not quite random, as the duo in question starring in this split personality sex romp might be termed the Ethans and the Sophies, played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss respectively. And setting in somewhat circular and repetitive motion, a sci fi relationship scenario laced with guilt free, cake and eat it infidelity.

And if all that sounds as philosophical as theatrical in equal measure, perhaps that was the point as crafted by director Charlie McDowell and first time screenwriter Justin Lader. And seeming as much an idea for a movie as an actual dramatic feature, as well as that problematic divide between the idealized or misremembered fantasy of a lover and who they actually are, not to mention yourself in their potentially disappointed eyes in turn.

Along with how that weighty emotional baggage can precipitate the sort of identity crisis where in eager-to-please mode lavished upon your object of desire, you begin to no longer be in touch with or recognize who your really are. Or in other words, in not sounding like your usual self lately while putting your best foot forward - there is uncertainty if it's even your foot any longer. Enough said about the mysterious meanderings of this crabby when not cosmic, identity theft small talk satirical romance.

The rather perpetual primary plot point of the movie concerns Ethan and Sophie as a borderline estranged married couple entering into relationship therapy, conducted by an unorthodox shrink played by Ted Danson. Hopelessly failing the adviser's compatibility exercises, the pair upon his recommendation head to his specially designed rustic reconciliation retreat. Whereupon they enter perhaps a claustrophobic parallel universe of sorts, having something to do in an exceeding stretch of the imagination with Russian stacking dolls and aardvarks.

The One I Love - or perhaps more aptly The Ones I Love - seems more grounded in concepts and a dash of mystical intrigue than momentum and dramatic pacing. Along with the nagging notion that if you're as bored with this couple as they apparently are with one another, that's not a good sign.

Which raises a question about that tendency these internalized indie characters with their shallow intimacy seem to share. That the cure may not lie within generating even more self-entertaining amusement and wonder, but rather hey, how about getting close by getting in touch with life on the planet, and the teeming world all around you.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Around The Block: Christina Ricci Does Hamlet In The Hood

                    Hunter Page-Lochard as Hamlet In The Hood    

...Hamlet In The Hood. Petite Christina Ricci displays a big heart and radiates warmth and resolve, as she gets in touch with her inner maternal instinct - apparently both on and off screen right now. Ricci portrays a high school teacher transplanted from the States to inner city Australia, coaxing the initially less than enthused local Aboriginee teens into a culturally conscious production of the Shakespearean play. And linking the alienation, passion, frustration and despair at the heart of Hamlet to disaffected youth of color today, who knew. First time writer/director Sarah Spillane elicits raw, genuine, organic performances from her young cast, though compromised by an afterschool special conventional story. And tossing into the mix that lesbians turn gay because men have bad personalities, was a gratuitous addition.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Calling: Mysticism, Maniacs And Assassins With Assisted Suicidal Tendencies

The summer season is not exactly shaping up as a showcase for positive images of the priesthood in movies. On the heels of Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh's comedic crime thriller Cavalry, in which a mystery avenger is obsessed with gunning down a countryside cleric, The Calling sort of flips the sacramental script. As a felonious religious fanatic, possibly in league with a local Catholic Church parish, seeks out victims for homicidal redemption, don't ask.

Susan Sarandon is Detective Hazel Micallef in The Calling, a rural Canadian down in the dumps detective suddenly up against an elusive serial killer stalking the vicinity. And the rising body count is initially not only seemingly random, but gruesome and bizarre as well. With open mouthed corpses that appear to have died while singing, and dogs dining on one victim's severed human stomach in a frozen field.

Meanwhile, afflicted with a bad back and even worse disposition, Hazel is furiously on the case, even as she alleviates whatever ails her with ample infusions of alcohol and drugs - some of the pills surreptitiously swiped from crime scenes. Soon joining Hazel in the investigation to her dismay, is Ben (Topher Grace), a young, overly enthused big city cop sent on assorted wild goose chases around the country, courtesy of mom's frequent flyer mileage.

In any case, what eventually comes to light is exceedingly murky evidence referencing ancient scriptures, Christian mysticism, toxic tea sipping, tattoo cleansing, terminal illness chatrooms, a highly suspect online link at, and one odd combo assisted suicide assassin. Or possibly two. Also on hand to toss in their two cents are Ellen Burstyn as Sarandon's nagging resident matriarch, and Donald Sutherland as a reclusive cleric who ponders in Latin.

The Calling is a somber and suspenseful twisted tale with lots of lapsed Catholicism to say the least, not to mention lapses in logic. But a story that is nicely held together owing to vigorous performances and moody atmosphere. The production is also layered with quite of bit of strange elements of its own. Including The Calling's South African filmmaker Jason Stone's previous dabbling in supernatural weirdness as the writer/director of Jay And Seth Versus The Apocalypse starring Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, and the screenwriter Scott Abramovitch's prior televangelical comedy, Prayer Hour.

Along with Inger Ash Wolfe, whose novel The Calling was adapted for this film, not being Inger Ash Wolfe at all. But rather Canadian writer Michael Redhill - who only just outed himself as to his real identity in 2012.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet: Intellectual Consciousness And Brutal US Capitalist Conformity

While a movie directed by an outsider delving into American life may suffer the pitfalls of idiomatic mishaps lost in translation so to speak, a detached point of view can on the other hand, shine a sharper and less hesitant, self-conscious light on the native foibles and fears at hand. Such was the case last year with British director Steve McQueen's unprecedented, uncompromising scrutiny of that shameful, brutal period of buried US history this country has always been averse to confronting, with his scathing dramatic biopic, 12 Years A Slave.

Not nearly as raw and revealing, but certainly striking a few sensitive nerves with its gently probing satirical bite, is French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Bringing his bold and cutting edge wit to this scrutiny of peculiar when not outlandish American customs and bad behavior, Jeunet's mischievously playful cinematic reputation precedes him, with raucous gems like Delicatessen and Amelie.

Derived from Reif Larsen's illustrated debut novel, The Selected Works of TS Spivet, Jeunet's adaptation is deceptively crafted as a child's adventure. But within that visually stunning,  imaginative tale is an excursion through the darker heart and paradoxically damaged soul of America.

Kyle Catlett is the T.S. Spivet in question, a beyond precocious ten year old genius and rural Montana boy whose scientific knowledge and analytical powers have rendered him a local alienated outcast in a rigidly conformist culture. Where reactions to the boy tend to narrowly range from ridicule to the irritated displeasure of his baffled teacher at school.

And Spivet fares no better at home, where he's emotionally rejected by a cowboy obsessed rancher father who'd rather the boy be more like the macho males around him, and scorned by a sister aspiring to beauty pageants. And though he shares an intellectual and apparently genetic bond with his mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter - a woman who must limit her own passionate scientific inquiries into the lives of insects to her domestic downtime between household duties - she herself is dismissed as a designated eccentric as well.

Following Spivet's groundbreaking invention at home of a futuristic, power harnessing gadget, he's summoned to the Smithsonian Institute in D.C. to receive a top award, though they're unaware that he's a mere child. Concealing his age on the phone to the crafty official (Judy Davis) who invited him - and who harbors an agenda of her own to exploit the boy for her own ambitions - Spivet secretly sets off on the long journey from Montana to D.C. via boxcar. And in a tale morphing into a visually enthralling road movie, equally enchanting for children and adult audiences alike. Even when encountering a flaky truck driver war veteran offering Spivet a lift, as he explains with difficulty how he signed up to see the world which necessitated killing people in the process.

But within the colorful layers of humor and heartbreak summoned in equal measure by Jeunet's magical powers of visual storytelling, are stinging perceptions pertaining to oppressive cultural tendencies playing out in this country. Including difference intolerance, and the ostracism of knowledgeable minds and probing intellectual inquiry beyond the narrow constrictions of stunted mass conformity. And aggressive competition counting militaristic driven adventurism and unquestioning tragic gun love derived from the capitalist mentality, and even over science in the pursuit of a better world.

Prairie Miller

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Female Bonding And Unbonding In Movies, And The New Digital Universe

Very Good Girls: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen: Fempatico Friends Without Benefits

The digital age has no doubt expanded access to the media universe for masses of people on the planet, both as creators and consumers. But what about the more subtle side effects on cinema itself. Not so much the more readily available tools to produce movies, but rather the influence on content of gadget culture.

And where there was at one time in the last century the existence of a collective reality of people in a human bond, gathering in front of a radio or television - or in the case of the now progressively diminishing reign of the movie theater. Yet all that changed radically, when capitalism came up with a shrewd new idea of huge profit generating individual and strictly private devices, rather than just buying simply one per residence. Whether digital rather than home phones, and single viewer movie or music gadgets.

And in turn, the effect on human interaction - or the absence of it - on screen. Ad what may be termed The New Loneliness. With a trend in movies as seen in the examples below, more often than not with everything and everyone else pushed into the background - or not there at all. And more likely than not inevitably starring a trio of notoriously narcissistic characters - Me, Myself And I.


Taking the bratty teen genre out of the sitcom and into the South African wilds doesn't seem to do either much good in the female action hero thriller, Heatstroke. Not that Maisie Williams and Stephen Dorff don't dramatically impress as the estranged offspring and resented divorced dad respectively.

But to equalize and thereby diminish the barely touched upon, real life, breaking news back story of the alarming extinction of threatened wildlife existence in remote Africa by profiteering poachers for bickering nuclear family faceoffs, leads to a case of the narrative in need of rescuing as well, and suffering as much as the endangered creatures. Not to mention an Africa minus Africans.

Nor the fact that the main source of conflict here and Dad's new love interest, is played by Russian actress Svetlana Metkina. An odd choice considering that she's a whole lot more accomplished at the facing up to the physicality of wilderness survival and delivering the ungrateful kid to safety, than delivering her lines with any emotional depth.

And while director Evelyn Purcell may or may not have been drawn to the project as a kind of dramatic closure regarding surviving herself as stepmom to actress Josephine Demme when she was married to her famous father, Jonathan, the same is not likely to be said vicariously. That is, for audiences not sharing that particular label in the real world.

Heatstroke: A feelgood fantasy for primarily harassed stepparents everywhere.


The emotional intricacies of female teen friendship rarely receive authentic treatment on screen, mostly about female gazing as an object of desire from the male point of view. And though Naomi Foner's Very Good Girls does just that as well, this portrait of coming of age female bonding and unbonding has much more on its mind. And in uniquely probing, sensitively evocative ways.

And though much too old for the just graduated high school girls they play - Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are 20 and 25 years old respectively - they get a pass here for the extraordinary depth, passion and complexity they bring to their coming of age characters.

Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), best friends since childhood, are about to painfully part ways one emotionally turbulent summer, following high school graduation. Raised in an affluent New York City suburb, the inseparable pair have experienced little of the world, including sex, as uptight Lily prepares to go off to college while a more free spirited Gerry sets her sights on a folk singing career.

But following an encounter while biking around Brighton Beach - with a mysterious artist (Boyd Holbrook) making ends meet as an ice cream vendor - the best friends are drawn into a mutual infatuation with the not quite displeased seductive stud. Giving rise to competitive twin infatuations which threaten the female bond between them.

This potentially trite tale written and directed by Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Losing Isaiah), is salvaged by dramatically stirring performances from its exceedingly charismatic crew. Including Ellen Barkin as Fanning's bitter mom, along with a far too little seen and heard from Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss as Olsen's offbeat, social activist parents.

Though you have to more than wonder about Dreyfuss as the combo capitalist patrician dad vocially championing the workers of the world as he barbeques at his upscale abode, regarding whom exactly in his sumptuous lily white world, he might be addressing this to. Not to mention. Foner's exceedingly peculiar decision to insert an erotically charged, impulsive sex scene between a panting Fanning and her summertime employer played by Peter Sarsgaard - who just happens to be Foner's son-in-law in real life, married to her daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal.


The less said about this Mark Jackson directed post-battlefield psychological drama, the better. Which is likely what this less is in no way more style that filmmaker Mark Jackson may have had in mind anyway. Exemplary actress Catherine Keener, through seemingly no fault of her own, is stuck in this moody, one note melodrama as Lee. She's a US photojournalist and PTSD survivor, just returned from conflict in Libya where her partner was killed by her side.

Holed up at an Italian lodge on her way home to the States, Keener is burdened with the weight of both traumatic memories and this fractured script devoid of much substance, as she wanders sulking about in a perpetually grouchy silent mood. And dividing her time between snapping abrasively at strangers or stalking them with her prying camera, for the duration. At one point, she latches on to an irritated pregnant young Libyan refugee, butting into her business until the woman almost but never quite allows herself to be befriended.

As for the conflict in Libya, forget about it. The movie could have just as well been about clinical depression brought on by a bad hair day. End of story.

And regarding what all these recent hermetically internalized female bonding films may have in common, let's just say it's all about what you don't see. Namely, the world around them in this age of digital narcissism, that is best described here as Africa without Africans, the Libyan conflict without Libya, and a racially, ethnically and economically diverse New York City without a multi-cultural or economically deprived demographic presence in sight.

Prairie Miller