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June 13, 2018

If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a Fuck

If It Ain't StiffLong before Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe became musical elder statesmen, they were at the tip of the Punk spear as part of a dirty little British record company called Stiff Records. The company was run by two scrappy pub-rock-band managers, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. In 1976 Stiff released the first Punk single “New Rose” from The Damned. During the following year the company put together a bus tour for five of its acts that didn’t stray too far from their London home.

The resulting documentary of that magical musical episode captures the likes of Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Dave Edmunds, Larry Wallis, along with Elvis and Nick honing their musical chops with considerable help from all available band members. Check out Ian Dury keeping perfect time playing drums for Wreckless Eric on “Reconnez Cherie,” or Pete Thomas and Billy Bremner playing dual drumkits on “Watching the Detectives” for an angst-spewing Elvis Costello. Mesmerizing.

Billy & Pete

The sold-out concerts led to the release of a live record “Live Stiffs,” but there’s a big difference in being able to hear or witness such brilliant musical history in the making. This down and dirty doc has been favorably compared to The Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues,” but trust me this film is better.

Nick

For many years “If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a Fuck” was an incredibly rare find available only on scratchy VHS copies. That it now shows up on Amazon Prime gives it fitting exposure for the masses. Witness a bunch of inspired, talented, and frequently drunk and stoned musicians laying down the jam harder than you knew they did. Elvis Costello might have thought he was better than the company he kept, but he was wrong. And as the record shows, Elvis Costello was also Punk as fuck at the time.

Not rated. 51 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

June 08, 2018

AMERICAN ANIMALS

American_animalsFor the first time since Quentin Tarantino reinvented the heist genre with “Reservoir Dogs” way back in 1992, a filmmaker has broken the whole thing wide open. With a handful of documentaries under his belt writer-director Bart Layton crafts a snappy docudrama rendition of a small-town heist at a university in Lexington Kentucky that finishes with appropriate grace notes of hubris and pathos. Bart Layton isn’t a household name, yet.

Layton uses interview clips with each of the real-life young men who schemed to steal rare books and manuscripts from Transylvania University’s library, as overseen by a lone librarian — one Betty Jean Gooch. A first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and four double-size folios of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” are on the would-be thieves’ shopping list.

American Animals1

We relish as the amateur heist team of college students assemble. Pals Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) watch a collection of heist movies ranging from Kubrick’s “The Killing” to “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Naturally, the guys gets colors for names. Warren names himself Mr. Yellow because he’s his mom’s “sunshine.”

American Animals2

No one wants to hurt the librarian, the only person guarding the university’s precious books, but pain must be inflicted. By the time the heist takes place, the suspense is gut-wrenching. Here is a thrilling caper movie that makes us empathize with the crooks and their victim in equal measure. By interviewing the real thieves, while dramatizing their story, Bart Layton adds a meaty layer of social realism to the film. Get out your knife and fork; this is one movie you can really sink your teeth into.

Warren Lipka - Evan Peters

Rated R. 116 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

June 02, 2018

THE DAMNED: DON'T YOU WISH THAT WE WERE DEAD

Don't You WishFinally there exists a beautiful top-to-bottom documentary about the incendiary rock ‘n’ roll band that recorded the first Punk single (“New Rose”) in 1976, and went on to keep reinventing themselves five decades over. They’re still at it today. The Damned’s single “Smash It Up” (from their third record “Machine Gun Etiquette”) was so aggressive that it was banned by the BBC. The band’s founding drummer Rat Scabies met guitarist Captain Sensible at a London concert hall where they had jobs cleaning the toilets. Such are the tidbits and details that documentarian Wes Orshoski (“Lemmy” 2010) delivers with loving attention. In-depth interviews with band members present and past (especially the band’s longtime vampire-inspired singer Dave Vanian) give way to great archive footage to tell the story of a band that never got the attention they deserved.

The Damned2

Exhaustive interview clips with the likes of music legends Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Clem Burke (Blondie), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Steve Diggle (The Buzzcocks), Mick Jones (The Clash), and Billy Idol add to this film’s addictive vibe. Whether or not you are a fan of punk music, there is plenty of honesty and energy to inspire you. Perhaps the film could have been better edited, but it hangs together well enough to hold your interest for nearly two hours.

“It’s an attitude and it’s a lifestyle. It’s about not taking any shit from anyone — thinking for yourself, trying to improve your lot in life; that’s punk rock.”

Not rated. 110 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

ColeLAMF

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

May 12, 2018

ALWAYS AT THE CARLYLE

Always_at_the_carlyle“Always At The Carlyle,” along with Matthew Miele’s recent documentaries (“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” and “Crazy About Tiffany’s”), confirms the documentarian as a curator of Manhattan taste in a world that is rapidly losing its sense of such enigmatic qualities.

It’s a short walk from the steps of Bergdorf Goodman’s and Tiffany’s to the hallowed Madison Avenue entrance to one of Manhattan’s most lovely Art Deco creations, the 35-story Carlyle Hotel where Princess Diana once slept. Snugged neatly between 76th and 77th Streets, just north of the Met Breuer [BROY-er] Museum, this New York standard bearer is introduced by tight-lipped but polite hotel staff explaining that discretion protecting their guests is their utmost priority.

Alan Cumming

So it is that the rich cultural soil is tilled for Miele to gently pull back the curtain on the Carlyle palatial interiors with the generous help of celebrities such as Wes Anderson, Jeff Goldblum, Jon Hamm, George Clooney, Alan Cumming, Tommy Lee Jones, Sofia Coppola, Anjelica Huston, and Elaine Stritch. There isn’t much guilt to the pleasure of watching smart, beautiful entertainers wax poetic about a place that few plebes will ever even catch a wafting scent of fragrance from, but a pleasure it is nonetheless.  

JFK at the Carlyle

Miele’s only misstep comes when he includes an image of the late Michael Jackson entering the hotel’s rumor-free-perimeters with a gaggle of young children wearing masks on their faces. Creepy doesn’t begin to express the chill that the image sends down your spine. As George Clooney says, “many dastardly things” have taking place in the grand hotel where John F. Kennedy is believed to have carried on his affair with Marilyn Monroe.

Bemelmans Bar

“Always At The Carlyle” gives you a sense of old New York’s glamour and decadence. The movie is as much a history lesson as it is a celebration of a way of doing business that honors human nature above unbridled greed. You might want to break open your piggy bank to sip a cocktail in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle after seeing the bar’s enticing atmosphere, complete with a 14K-gold-covered ceiling, on the big screen.

Rated PG-13. 92 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

May 05, 2018

PERMANENT VACATION

Permanent-VacationJim Jarmusch’s debut feature is an idiosyncratic if evocative character study of Allie (short for Aloysius), an outsider (played with vulnerable curiosity by Chris Parker). Allie has transitioned from being a latchkey loner as a kid to a Lower East Side drifter. Allie's mom rots away in a mental hospital. His personality is in flux. Allie doesn’t need more than the clothes on his back to float around on a philosophical vibe that is nothing if not independent. A yo-yo in his pocket represents a throwback to his childhood days. With his rockabilly haircut, stylish shirt, and a blazer this is one cool kid.

“You know, sometimes I think I should just live fast and die young. And go in a three-piece white suit like Charlie parker. Not bad huh?”

Permanent Vacation 1

Jarmusch captures Manhattan’s empty, rugged streets of the late ‘70s as an alien landscape where empty lives play out in poetic silence punctured by car horns or a lone saxophone. The film feels as though it’s in black and white although it’s in color.

Some might call “Permanent Vacation” a shaggy dog story for its wandering sense of anticlimactic narrative, but the film is much more than that. It makes you care about Allie, and the actor playing him, with an empathy that few films ever attain. When Allie takes a dishonest turn, we can't help but go along with his crime. Is this kid a dead-end loser, or is Allie destined for greatness? Will he ever establish his full voice? We can see the poetry in his dance moves, but how will that youthful expression ever find an outlet inside or outside of society?

Permanent Vacation 2

“Permanent Vacation” represents a state of mind and space that doesn’t exist anymore. Technology has wiped out the possibility for such introspection. So much is lost that can never be regained, or can it? Watching this movie is one of the few tunnels back to a time and place where you could think. It’s a groovy movie to think along to.        

Not rated. 75 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)    

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

May 01, 2018

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON

A-poem-is-a-naked-personLes Blank’s mind-bending filmic document of music legend Leon Russell is a rare anthropological social study wrapped in the post-Watergate culture of [roughly] 1973 Oklahoma. Not one to distance himself from interacting fully with the people around him, Blank creates a living and breathing document that is at once beautiful, dirty, inspiring, and cynical.

Scantily clad hippie chicks, river people, locals, and members of Leon Russell’s band receive ample screentime between Russell’s energetic concerts, recording sessions, and interviews. Jim Franklin, the artist hired to decorate Russell’s swimming pool, provides sharp social commentary though his surreal painting and in an especially gripping scene involving his pet boa constrictor and a baby chicken.

Leon Russell

Criterion’s 2K digital restoration reveals the magic in Les Blank’s free-form approach to his subject matter. Although the film’s producers (Leon Russell and Denny Cordell) disapproved of Blank’s determinedly cinema vérité movie so much that they refused to release it, “A Poem Is A Naked Person” is a one-of-a kind masterpiece that draws the viewer into its wild musically-influenced ride.

Leon Russell

Not only is Leon Russell’s legacy as one of American music’s most vibrant composers and performers savored here, so too is Les Blank’s intuitive genius as a filmmaker of grit, soul, and heart. This is one artistic historic filmic record that stands. Dig baby, dig. 

Poem is Naked

Not rated. 90 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves) 

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 24, 2018

POLICE BEAT

Police BeatA poetic character study etched in its primrose Portland, Seattle locations, “Police Beat” is a clear-eyed dissection of the immigrant experience in pre-smartphone America. Senegalese non-actor (and former Junior World Cup Soccer Team star) Pape Side Niang plays Z, a newly hired bicycle cop attempting to create a romantic life with an American white girl more interested in playing head-games than spending time with him. Barely into his 20s Z is a Muslim struggling with Western culture from the ground up. His motivations are unfettered. He saw an ad in the newspaper, passed the test, and became a police officer.  

Co-writer/director Robinson Devor (“Zoo”) frames the weeklong narrative in police procedural terms based on actual case files. As such, every day-to-day social encounter rings with an element of banal, unpredictable truth beneath Z’s running inner monologue that narrates the movie. Our protagonist deals with frequently stressful tasks by concentrating on things in his personal life. The device works well in keeping the audience engaged. Every scene has multiple layers of emotional and physical suspense inherently built in.   

Pape Side Niang

Z wants to be promoted to a patrol car. In the meantime he’s stuck patrolling downtown Portland on a mountain bike. His sometime partner (Eric Breedlove) is a heroin-addicted white cop whose girlfriend is a prostitute.

Pape Side Niang’s character is the same person in or out of uniform. He brings his own method of common sense in dealing deal with the normal, confused, irate, or outright insane (largely white) locals he comes into contact with. His exotic West African accent expedites rather than hinders.  

Police Beat

“Police Beat” (2003) is far from a perfect film, but its originality unites with its quietly charismatic lead actor and keen compositions to generate a haunting human experience brimming with truthful social commentary.

Sadly, Pape Side Niang passed away at the age of 25 with “Police Beat” as his only film.

Not Rated. 80 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)   

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 22, 2018

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — CANNES 2017

You_were_never_really_hereIf only I had never really seen this atrocity of a movie I’d feel much better. That does it; I’m giving up on Lynne Ramsay for good. I loathed Ramsay’s last film “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011). Still, I was willing to give her latest effort a chance. Big mistake. I thought it possible that Ramsay had grown as a filmmaker. The complete opposite appears to be the case.

Ramsey steals a dozen little tropes from movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Taxi Driver” to piece together a baloney narrative that hangs together like wet seaweed on the beach. Some people might call it experimental, and I can see why. You certainly feel like a guinea pig being experimented on while watching this awful movie. Ramsey based her self-penned screenplay on Jonathan Ames’s novel, but you’d never guess that this movie had any formal underpinnings.

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hit man/cop killer who rescues underage girls from sex traffickers. A New York politician hires Joe to rescue his pubescent daughter. So topical, you think. Wrong. Ramsay treats the issue with such cavalier sloppiness that she trivializes sex trafficking into something so fake that it's no wonder so many people don't believe such a thing even exists. Judging from this film, it doesn't.

If revenge fantasy is your thing, Michael Winners 1974 “Death Wish” did it meaner and with real heart from the great Charles Bronson. Joaquin Phoenix just looks like he needs a good long nap. Joe suffers from delusions, so not everything we see is for real. Joe is a white dude sociopath whose chosen weapon is a hammer. If I never see Joaquin Phoenix with his shirt off, it will be too soon. 

Joaquin

If this set-up sounds like something you want or need to see for some imagined reason, just know that there is an underwater scene that is a very close copy of a similar scene in “The Shape of Water.” You could always stream “You Were Never Really Here” and turn it into a drinking game where you have to drink a shot every time you see a reference to another movie. The influences here are much more accessible than the arcane ones you find in a Tarantino movie. Then again Quentin Tarantino is a real filmmaker; Lynne Ramsey isn’t.

Rated R. 89 mins. (D-) Zero stars — out of five / no halves

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

DEALT

DealtLuke Korem’s Cinema Vérité documentary about “card mechanic” Richard Turner is an exquisitely told story of an incredibly talented man’s journey toward becoming a stronger individual with the support of his loving family.

Turner practices with three to five decks of cards a day for 16 hours every day, as he has done for most of his life. He give performances where he demonstrates card cheat tricks used by dealers to control card games. Mr. Turner can cut a deck of cards precisely in half-stacks of 26 in a less than a second. True wizardry resides in Richard Turner's constantly moving hands that each endlessly manipulate decks of cards.

“Dealt” is a documentary of such deep human beauty that the less you know going in, the more fresh your experience will be when you watch the film. Stop what you're doing and stream this movie with your friends and family. I promise you’ll be affected in a positive way.

This is Luke Korem's second film. His first film ("Lord Montagu" —2013)," comes highly recommended.  

Richardturner

Not Rated. 85 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
    

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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