Liquid Sky

A friend recently sent a letter via snail mail to ask my opinion of a NYC 80s cult classic titled, Liquid Sky

I couldn’t find Liquid Sky in the fantastic collection at my local library (APL I’m lookin’ at you!) and was feeling stumped. So I asked another friend who happened to have been a NYC filmmaker for quite a few years and might have some insight for me. She tracked it down on the Dark Web, a place called…YouTube. 

Liquid Sky refers to heroin and this opiate takes center stage in the drama. Apparently, the unseen aliens who zap anyone reaching orgasmic ecstasy within range of the saucer they have landed on the protagonists’ downtown penthouse are into any type of endorphin rush. 

The odd part of this at times difficult film (you have to pay attention to keep up with the patchwork plot) is that it’s not a celebration of Bacchanalia or the hedonism of late 70s & early 80s NYC New Wave/No Wave culture. I’m not sure if the death by sex theme here, a mainstay of any slasher movie you’ve ever seen, is not simply a moralistic take by the producer/director and writers. (This 1982 film is pre-HIV/AIDS hysteria as revealed by one character who references that she might get syphilis —as a worse case scenario). Is it merely a critique of American society by the Russian filmmakers, using as a cultural trojan horse the ultrahip stylings of New Wave fashion and music and the general vibe of 80s underground New York City (of which I’m a sucker for). Certainly, it’s an intelligent film, under the far-fetched script and cheeseball special effects. And the bad guys (and a girl!) get what’s coming to them—or more accurately stated, what they are coming to.

I watched a film made this year called Execution, directed by Stavit Allweis, that was even more raw and had arguably even cheesier graphics. Basically it takes place in one room. The guys are rolled in one by one. Their heinous crimes against women are announced and they are killed before us in one way or another by a group of women. Not exactly a parable, as in Liquid Sky, but more honest in many ways. That is, if the point of Liquid Sky is revenge. I’m not exactly sure about the point. The more questions I seem to answer for myself, the more pop up. I know that the film is a kind of ethical minefield, with complicated and unsympathetic characters. I think Liquid Sky would certainly appeal to any nihilistic readers (or readers with nihilistic tendencies) of the L&D Report.

Another feature in Liquid Sky is the language. It’s got more blue streaks than a Midwest hair salon. The amount of F-bombs that get dropped would would make Tony Montana look up from a pile of blow. But it never seems inauthentic. It just seems New York. 

Anne Carlisle creates a stand out performance of both characters, Margaret and Jimmy. This rivaled, if not surpassed, Cate Blanchett’s double turn as Cate and grungy cousin Shelly in Coffee and Cigarettes.  

I certainly would drop Liquid Sky solidly in the NYC indie film, New Wave genre canon, along with Smithereens and Downtown 81. There’s hints of Scorsese’s After Hours and Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. There’s an air of Daryl Hannah’s Pris in Blade Runner. There’s the flair of David Bowie and there is a charge that’s reminiscent of Prince’s First Avenue in Purple Rain. Not even the film’s own disparaging take on the scene can erase or beam up the intrigue and excitement of that particular NYC zeitgeist. 

The Iron Lady & The Two Popes Walk Into a Bar: Thoughts on the Biopic

LnD not so recently experimented with the Netflix Party Chrome screen sharing extension. This really didn’t go anywhere as there was no one there in person to poke D awake, like there is in real life.

Since then I’ve learned that Netflix Party Chrome extension is most popular as a hack that kids use to thwart parental controls — cool! 

Once we got past the need to use an emphasis in the word biopic (/ˈbīōˌpik/) I was off to the races on my review. These two films include some high powered talent but only one hit the mark for me.

In The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict leave you with the feeling that they were both born to play these roles. 

But this is not your Dad’s Pope movie. And it’s not a simple good Pope vs. bad Pope story. The one major standout element of this film, besides the uncanny acting, is the scope and originality of the cinematography. 

If you’re settling in for a film where two dudes sit on a bench and have a theological conversation for two hours you are going to be sadly disappointed. Two Popes moves, even wide angle shots track, overhead shots go right through helicopter rotors and the torture scene will stand your hair up at attention. It’s not a movie about romanticizing the past but examining the current situation through it. 

On the other hand, The Iron Lady is a film where you never get away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The camera lingers on her. You start to wonder, who was the Director? Was Streep the Director? (No. No she wasn’t. (Phyllida Lloyd.) This isn’t some vanity piece. And Streep who no doubt uses an Oscar statuette as a toothbrush holder has got more chops than Chopin at an Austin BBQ. In fact, she slays in another Netflix film with Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, directed by Soderbergh, The Laundromat. But here, she never gets lost in the character and so we can never transcend her being her fabulous self. We can never really understand the complexities of the times and the struggles she may have had with her choices. (Yes, Streep won her, yawn, third Academy Award for this role).

You don’t have to agree with someone in order to find them interesting. Often, it’s quite the contrary. But The Iron Lady seems stuck in a debilitated present, that lacks movement, that lacks a living history—and motivation. If a film doesn’t offer the audience transcendence, even on a visceral level, the most basic level that cinema can give, then the audience will also never get perspective on either the historical figure as real person or their own lives in relation to that figure. 

In terms of biopic, it’s really a challenge to make a sweeping historical film meaningful. There are so many possible storytelling detours and dead ends. It’s easier and I’d argue more effective to take a situation, like in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “On the Basis of Sex” and turn your narrative around that. That film was about the late great Notorious RBG’s first time arguing a case in court as an attorney. And by concentrating on those specific events, the story speaks to universal truths. However, this is not to say a sweeping biopic can’t hit you hard or inspire you, because it’s achieved with aplomb and passion in The Two Popes

The Forty-Year-Old Version

A special guest review to the LnD Report by Joana Kosowsky Dane

After reading half a sentence about the film “40-Year-Old Version,” I knew I needed to see it.  

Radha Blank plays herself, missing her dead mother, unable to return her brother’s phone calls. She is chronically late to the after-school theatre class she teaches where one of the girls, frustrated with Miss B’s indifference to her heartfelt spoken word, calls her washed up, a fake. It stings more than the girl knows.  Radha had higher expectations for her art, no doubt.  Her name is on the 30 Under 30 Playwright’s Award that sits among the clutter on her dresser.  But now she’s 40, with that all-too-familiar reality facing aging artists: What do I have to show for this life I’ve lived?

Filmed in black and white, we follow Radha on a journey through New York – Harlem and the Bronx and a brief foray on Broadway – the camera in close, capturing all the details of her pain and her comedy.  She glances at the camera and we know exactly how she’s feeling about D, the guy who lays down beats for anyone willing to bring him a bag of weed; or about J. Whitman, a famous producer who is willing to give Radha a big break but only if she compromises the integrity of her play by turning the characters into racial stereotypes.  

What’s an aging artist to do?  

Interspersed are color photographs explaining years of back story in a single flash (like the one of Radha and her gay agent, dancing together at her high school prom); and postcard sized snippets of interviews with characters from the neighborhood giving blunt and hilarious commentary on Radha’s middle-aged life.  

She’s down, but not so far down that she can’t grasp inspiration when it strikes, rapping one afternoon about all the ailments that come with being 40.  “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why a young boy on the bus offer his seat to me? Why my skin so dry? Why am I yawning right now?  Why them AARP niggers sending shit to my house?” She catches the ear of the elusive D who invites her to perform her piece Poverty Porn at his next showcase.  She fails hard.  But we see what the past 10 years have taught her, a resilience that comes when an artist keeps creating despite being crushed and ignored.  

D takes her on a long drive, to a Queen of the Ring competition where 4 women battle with their rhymes in a stark boxing ring.  Radha is awed by their raw power and their courage.  They show her how it’s done, and in turn, she shows us.  Keep doing, stay brave. 

Radha goes to see her brother.  Trying to figure out what to do with one of their mom’s numerous paintings that neither have room for, her brother says it will just have to go into storage.  “Wow. You come here with a dream, and your work ends up in storage,” says Radha, a pitiful conclusion to an artist’s life.  Her brother sees it differently.  “She did what she wanted. She was a teacher, a curator.  She chanted, she traveled, she did some art.  She lived a life.”  Her children, their mother always said, were her greatest creation.

Radha realizes the reward is not in the big production, but in the much smaller daily task of staying true to her art.  And when she does, she wins the admiration of her theatre students, though she won the viewers’ admiration long before that.  

Cutie and the Boxer

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An LnD guest review by Joanna K. Dane.

— Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary now on Netflix.

In a New York City studio, an 80 year old artist does his work.  Ushio Shinohara puts on swimming goggles and boxing gloves adorned with sponges and produces another “action painting,” dipping the sponges in a bucket of black paint and boxing at a giant canvas while his wife, Noriko, more than 20 years his younger, takes pictures.  

She helps him weave cardboard and attach it to a giant sculpture he is trying to finish and hoping to soon sell.  “You can tell, she doesn’t really want to help,” Ushio says.  “She is just an assistant.  The average one has to support the genius.”  

But when we finally see Noriko, quiet and alone, bent over a drawing, we learn a different story through the character of Cutie with her twin braids identical to Noriko’s.  “I’m always naked,” says Cutie, “because I am poor.”  She comes to New York as an eager and ambitious young art student.  Cutie meets Bullie at a gallery and is awed by his unusual art.  He gives her studio space for her own work.  Six months later she is pregnant with their son.

Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling creates an intimate portrait of this complex marriage, both supportive and competitive, through close-up shots of the artists’ daily lives intermixed with animations of Noriko’s drawings. “Love is ROARRR!” Cutie says, attacking Bullie.

When the gallery owner who is going to host Ushio’s show comes to the studio to see his work, Noriko is prepared and quietly asks if he would like to see her drawings.  He is impressed and invites her to be a part of the show.  When Ushio sees the show catalog, he can’t believe it, that it opens talking about famous artist couples.  “What the hell?” he says laughing.  “That’s crazy!”

When Ushio is gone, Noriko feels calm and quiet.  But when he comes home, she runs to greet him.  She has compromised her art for him.  And yet, she knows it is her struggles with him from which her art has grown.  

Set to a beautiful soundscape by Yasuaki Shimizu, this delightfully contemplative film shows us the difficulties of love and ambition and asks us to take a closer look at the compromises we all inevitably make.

 

The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section really caught my eye with some nice Steadicam moves and jaw dropping landscape shots thanks to the handy cinematography work of Sean Bobbitt. This film has great scope as we travel along Stephanie’s trail of violence throughout the world, including a unique car chase in Tangier. I also enjoyed the shot selection and style of director Reed Morano. And though The Rhythm Section hit many clichés it was still a mostly enjoyable ride due to the serious talent of one Blake Lively. For a genre crime film this is a powerful performance. It starts out intense and it ends that way — and don’t you forget it.

The film has many merits. Jude Law convincingly plays a former British spy forced to turn into trainer of lethal force. Aside Warning — Why is it the training scenes in films are always more compelling then the following events?…Full Metal Jacket, Rocky, etc. — Regardless, the drama is carried deftly by Lively and Morano. This film was extremely human for one with several car bombs. That’s a nod to novelist Mark Burnell, who created a compelling character that has to learn difficult lessons about vengeance. The Rhythm Section doesn’t have the sustained visceral energy of some other kick-ass woman films like Besson’s Anna or Lucy but it still carries you along on other stylistic and emotional levels. It certainly easily passed the Tuesday 5 dollar bar at our local cinema.

Justice

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Most films are either about proving your worth to your dad (or mom or family). …Quick Example: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Or about being the best at ___________. …Quick Example: Ford v Ferrari. In other words family dynamics or ambition. It’s easier to tell a story with these themes because the conflict (i.e. drama) and heroic journey are built-in. …Quick Example: Joseph Campbell.

But recently LnD screened three films that had stories driven by a wholly different theme: Seeking Justice.

Although Little Women telegraphed scenes…Quick Example: A lonely man’s daughter has died. He has a piano nobody plays in his house. There happens to be a little girl in the house next door who plays the piano beautifully…what is going to happen? Exactly. And there is also a bit of navel gazing and outright yawn inducing scenes. Does this mean I don’t think it’s a great film? No, it’s a great film. I actually highly recommend it. It’s about being taken seriously as a women but also as a person. Why even the next day I found myself exclaiming to my wife that, “I am a person with my own ideas!” So, yeah, the film did have an actual impact on me. The fact that Director Greta Gerwig is not up for an Oscar is something that I think should bring true shame to the Academy. Not even with Meryl Streep, who probably uses an Oscar statue as a toothbrush holder, acting in this film could the vote be swayed towards Gerwig. As we learned in this great article, the Directing award is voted on by the Directors section of the Academy. So you can imagine that it skews male a bit. Just a bit. However, Little Women is a cinematic film, it deserves the highest recognition, my above stated objections not withstanding. It’s a powerful film. 

Next we saw Bombshell. This film didn’t suffer the pace of Little Women. If you have ever worked even one day in the news world you know the take no prisoners speed and attitude of that work — it was reflected in the storytelling. Bombshell is like what if 9 to 5 with Dolly, Lilly, Jane and Dabney wasn’t funny. Not funny at all. Welcome to Fox News. John Lithgow as Roger Ailes was simply mesmerizing. Full disclosure, he is already one of my favorite actors, so I’m biased. And speaking of Oscars, Charlize Theron is rightfully nominated for Best Actress. And I hope she wins. At first you wonder about her speech and its affectation but then you realize that she is an anchor on and off screen. She breaks only enough to remind her husband, who gives her a hard time after a softball interview with a Presidential candidate who’d personally attacked her, who pays the fucking mortgage and health insurance around here! Pretty great stuff. Now the fact that you find yourself rooting for someone who believes that SPOILER ALERT: a fictional character named Santa Claus belongs to the domain of one race, in this case caucasian, over all the other races, is an issue for me. But overall, the film plays to the complexity of her situation. Reveals the forces working against her and in the end aptly portrays her move towards doing the right thing in the sex scandal that took down the head honchos of the so-called news division of this media empire. 

Finally, Just Mercy. I think this film should be required viewing for every American. Actually for anyone. Even more egregiously than Little Women it runs long and the pacing is off. But realize that all these films are carrying a lot of weight. They are trying to encapsulate and explain, in as entertaining a way possible, centuries, even Millenia of injustices. Starting with Jaime Foxx, besides all his awards, including the Oscar, he just lights up the screen with his charisma. Even in a role like this, where he plays a falsely convicted death row inmate, where his character is translated into a simmering frustration, he takes over each scene. Michael B. Jordan is no lightweight and he also carries this film, which plays like a social document, laying out each detail, nailing each twitch of each supporting character down, convincing the audience as the Alabama Supreme Court had to be convinced. Because even with absolute evidence, the law can be tricky dance partner, especially when local politics is playing the tune. And if you don’t think our justice system, especially in regards to the death penalty, needs some fine tuning, here is a list of 166 Americans who were falsely accused of murder and put on death row since 1973. What watching this film gave me — some films leave you with a feeling like you have been robbed of your time, intellect, etc., all of these films give you something in return — was a sense of perspective. When I find myself complaining about what I perceive are the injustices in my life, it’s laughable compared to the injustices exposed in these three great movies.

1917

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“That was supposed to be a good movie, wasn’t it?” Would be the extent of the review that our friend F. would be willing to give 1917. And sadly I’d have to agree. The film felt like a first person shooter video game gimmick throughout. And Cinematographer (normally) extraordinaire Roger Deakins seemed out of his element in the plan séquence style mastered by Emmanuel Lubezki in Birdman. While watching 1917 I could almost hear the creaking of the technocrane extending in some of the shots. But worse, there was no depth to the protagonist.

The film was without the humanity of Max Ophüls’ camera in Le Plaisir, without the character of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, without the grace of Russian Ark and without the visceral energy of Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan —or even the raw violence of Hardcore Henry. It was sort of like watching a 360º movie and constantly feeling like the action is happening 180º away from you. And apparently, if I am to take the word of D and F, the Peter Jackson World War I film, They Shall Not Grow Old, inspired the art direction for 1917.

Now, if nothing else, you have a list of films to watch other than this one. 

 

Uncut Gems

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I wish they would have cut it.

It felt twice as long as Gone with the Wind with a tenth of the integrity and interest. I feel somehow personally disappointed by Adam Sandler, not like I know him, but I did have a late night dinner at the Denny’s on Sunset Blvd and he was sitting next to me. He seemed like a great guy. Now this. Who green lights these things for their clients? I just can’t believe Sandler thought this was a good idea.

And Judd Hirsch. Why? If you are interested in climbing a mountain of stereotypes then this film is a great first step in your journey.

Not to mention the fact that there is not so much as even an anti-hero. There is a no hero here. And there is a simple thematic note that is delivered for hours and hours. The film is essentially a cheap card trick, similar to Joker and Midsommar.  Look, says the director, “I can make you feel uncomfortable, on edge and ill for a very long time. Isn’t this a cool trick.?”

No. No it’s not.

In general, the film is uneven. There are scenes with characters that go nowhere, serve no purpose. Simple dead ends. And whichever reviewer said that this was Adam Sandler’s greatest role never saw Punch-Drunk Love plus whatever other character or role he has ever played. And finally, what the hell executive producer Martin Scorsese, I’m still not sure why you stood up for that rat fink Kazan at the Oscars but producing this really isn’t forgivable. Marty, stick to preserving movies from Africa, that’s something you can actually be proud of. This film should be forgotten as soon as possible. —If only I could erase it from my brain. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a fun ride. Like the latest Terminator, the response to this film will fall into two camps. The overly analytical who claim not to be and the rest of us. For the overly analytical there will be major time ellipses, plot flaws and random disparities that they will never get over. For the rest of us there will be some great special effects, action and nostalgia which we will enjoy.

For those who have a hard time living in our multicultural and gender equality leaning world, you will not like this Star Wars chapter, as you haven’t liked the last few. The heroine is an independent woman. You might already feel burn out from the “strong woman character” archetype. However, as far as I am concerned, in general there are nowhere near enough strong, independent women characters in films. So I think Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is awesome in these regards. Of course, there is a beating heart inside of Rey (Daisy Ridley). She isn’t one of these cold and aloof Jedi like Luke, for example. But so what if she was, would it make the film any different? It shouldn’t. Towards the end of the film, Rey’s somewhat plodding storyline had a hard time competing with the epic battle that was raging around her. However, all told, for a 2 hour and 21 minute film, the plot held together remarkably well. 

I thought Oscar Isaac was a solid General Poe. If you’d like to see him do some serious acting, check him out as Paul Gauguin opposite Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in the 2018, already classic, At Eternity’s Gate.

If you keep your expectations reasonable, you will enjoy this final installment. At least what tries to put a bow on this most timeless of sagas.  

Richard Jewell

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I was mesmerized by the performances and by this standard alone I recommend Richard Jewell.  It’s satisfying to see a film that can rely and succeed almost entirely on the great work of its actors. Richard Jewell boasts some of the best actors in the world including Cathy Bates and Sam Rockwell, laying their talents and hearts on the line for us. 

I didn’t know the story of Richard Jewell or any of the details in the 1996 Summer Olympic bombing in Atlanta, so that was intriguing in and of itself. Furthermore the film is pertinent in terms of the FBIs’ abuse of power. When a secret court system like one we have here in the U.S., called FISA, calls you out in the press, like it did to the FBI this week, you know you have some issues. But hasn’t the FBI always had issues? How about the executive branch and Congress? Another great story from this week that got very little attention was how since at least 2003 the government has lied about how the war in Vietnam, I mean Afghanistan has been going. The film does not let the press off the hook either. Though the director of this film famously married and then divorced a reporter so who knows, maybe he has a personal axe to grind? One of the main takeaways from Richard Jewell is how little things have changed in U.S. society in the past 23 years. This is the system we live in and this is our human nature, so only the players change as the situations must by and large remain relatively the same. It’s nevertheless a cautionary tale worth heeding.