Saturday, July 22, 2017

Late Summer Western #1: Shane **** (1953)

From 1953, Shane is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. The film tells a fantastic story with many powerful themes in the subtext: the tight bond of a family and a meditation on courage and loneliness. Filmed on location in the awe inspiring Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Shane is certainly one of the most beautiful films ever made with stunning cinematography by Lowell Griggs.

Based on the Jack Schaefer novel, the story is set in Wyoming several years after the Civil War.  Loosely based on the Johnson County War between settlers and cattle barons, material also covered in Michael Cimino's 1978 film Heaven's Gate, Shane tells the story from the point of view of a young boy.

As the opening credits roll, a stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd) passes through the homestead of Joe and Marlen Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) as their nine year old son Joey (Brandon De Wilde) watches. At first the family's uncertain about the stranger seeking a brief stay at their place, but in time Shane and Joe form a bond. Upon first impression Shane seems small and unsure of himself, but looks can be deceiving.  In time they learn he is one of the best gunslingers around and is pretty good in a fight.

Under incessant harassment from a ruthless cattle baron who uses intimidation to drive homesteaders out, they try to lure Shane into a fight.  At first he turns the other cheek, but the next time he strikes back. Stevens filmed an epic fight scene with Shane taking on several goons.  The bond between Shane and the family grows. He teaches Joey how to shoot a gun, although Marlen voices her disapproval of violence, he becomes a trusted defender of the community. 

Enter the main villain Jack Wilson, memorably played by Jack Palance.  In a memorable scene he kills a settler in cold blood.  Realizing a final confrontation is inevitable, Shane decides he must end the threat for good.  He insists on confronting Jack alone, Joe and him get into a fist fight as Joey watches his two male role models fight it out.  Shane wins, deciding to save the family by sacrificing himself.

Joey follows Shane into town and watches the final confrontation, leading to one of the great farewell scenes in movie history. By film's end, there are as many questions as answers.  Where did Shane come from?  Was he some archangel sent by God to defend good from evil?  Is he on a quest for redemption for past sins he committed? Was he even real?  The simplicity of Ladd's performance is more powerful than anything in a modern superhero film.

Like many great Westerns, Shane asks the question: What makes a civilization?  Close bonds between families and communities are emphasized.  Civilization also means people sacrificing themselves for a higher cause. A great movie, one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk **1/2 (2017)

One of the most anticipated films of 2017, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a quasi reimagining of the war film.  The few reviews I skimmed are overwhelmingly positive, praising Nolan's ingenious approach to the genre.  What is the approach?  Basically, separate vignettes told in fragments that blend into a panoramic picture of the Battle of Dunkirk. For myself the film's shortcomings are simple, I found the vignettes unengaging, minimalistic to the point of incoherence.

The German invasion of France in May 1940 changed the course of world history, the swift surrender of the French army left the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) stranded on the French coast. To save the army, the British navy and English civilians organized a dramatic evacuation immortalized in the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.  The BEF was saved and Britain went on to resist the Third Reich on its own until the American entry into the war almost two years later.

The film opens with British soldiers in retreat from the German forces, interestingly the Germans never appear in the film.  The enemy remains an abstraction.  Other story lines follow Mark Rylance as a British civilian determined to do his part in the evacuation with his sons in tow. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander, he's really good at gazing wistfully into the sea.  Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy appear in small roles.  The story unfolds in an elliptical way with flashbacks and flash forwards, but the approach adds little to the overall narrative. 

While there's enough sound and fury to fill 100 minutes, few of the images are memorable. There's a claustrophobic sense of space, with boats constantly being straffed by German planes, yet it all looks like crisp archival footage set to Hans Zimmer's pulsating music. 

Dunkirk is not a bad film by any means, it's an impressionistic war movie along the lines of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, multiple impressions of a singular experience. Yet even Malick allowed us to get inside the heads of his characters. Nolan keeps us at a cool distance.  In other great World War II movies such as Das Boot and Saving Private Ryan we get to know the characters and their motivations, there's a deep humanity through those works.  Maybe Nolan grew tired of the Interstellar critics who chided the film's maximum effort to create an emotional resonance.  Dunkirk keeps sentiment at arms length, resulting in long stretches of tedium.

And then there's the politics of the film, or lack of it.  The issue never comes up, the stakes of the battle are never articulated.  There's hardly any discussion of Hitler and the Third Reich, the enemy could be anyone from anytime in history, giving Dunkirk an almost Sci-Fi feel.  While war films are hardly required to get into the ideas at stake in a battle, patriotism without ideals walks a razor's edge.  Dunkirk is a WWII film that seems to exist outside the war itself.  There's enough style for ten movies, it's the lack of substance that leaves you famished. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes ***1/2 (2017)

By far the best of the reboot trilogy of Apes films, War for the Planet of the Apes matches the original 1968 movie in the power of its allegory. The previous film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ended with most of humanity wiped out by a virus as the apes are becoming the dominant species on the earth. By the third film, humanity is reduced into tribal societies.  Most of the film focuses on the apes, humans play a limited role in a bold creative choice.  Woody Harrelson plays a Colonel Kurtz type military leader who wants to wage a war of extermination on the apes. The enlightened Chimpanzee messianic leader Caesar wants to lead his people to freedom.  The apes look more realistic than ever, Andy Serkis deserves special recognition from the Academy for his groundbreaking work in these films.  By far the darkest of the trilogy, it's about the end of one culture and the rise of another.  Harrelson excels in his character's introduction, you know where's he's coming from! In the last half hour the movie takes the allegorical themes up another notch, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, and leaving the door open for more.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (2007) ***

As far as rock documentaries go, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream gets the job done.  Directed by New Hollywood prodigy Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary covers the entire history of the band up till 2006.  As the decades have passed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became standard bearers of the rock and roll spirit. With interviews and archival footage, Bogdanovich presents a full portrait of the prolific band.

A telling fact is revealed about Petty early in the film.  Despite growing up in Gainesville, Florida he never picked a up a southern accent. Tom's independence, determination to do things his own way, comes out in that anecdote.  While he's written about his Southern roots, no one would ever accuse the band of being Southern Rock.  They embrace a more complex idea of American identity. 

A rock and roll fanatic, Petty recruited what became the Heartbreakers when he was a teenager. After years of honing their repertoire, they scored a record contract.  In 1976, "American GIrl" became a hit single with its Byrds inspired melodies.  During a period sandwiched by punk and disco, the Heartbreakers carried the torch of rock music inspired by earlier eras.  Interestingly, they gained a following in England with fans and critics before finding success in the states.  Their third LP from 1979, Damn the Torpedoes, proved their breakthrough in America: "Here Comes My Girl," "Refugee," and "Even the Losers," all became staples of FM radio.

Through the 80s their music and popularity flourished even more with the rise of MTV.  By the end of the decade Petty had a thriving solo career, even playing alongside other rock legends as the youngest member of The Traveling Wilbury's. By decades end the hits kept coming: "Running Down a Dream," "Free Fallin," and "I Won't Back Down."

Petty soldiered on through the 1990s, always carrying the banner of American rock and roll as audiences fragmented.  Their 2002 LP The Last DJ is one of the best albums to deal with post-9/11 America, with Petty's prophetic condemnation of the corporate takeover of radio in the title track.

Interviews with other band members including keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, and former drummer Stan Lynch illuminate the band's sometime tumultuous history: tensions over Petty's decision to go solo or creative differences in the studio often got intense, but never broke up the band. The tragic loss of bassist Howie Epstein to a drug overdose in 2003 also gets discussed. The interviews are complemented with excellent archival footage.

Fervent fans of the band will love the documentary. Those new to Petty may find it a bit self-indulgent at times. Regardless, Runnin' Down a Dream is a worthwhile history of an essential band.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Long Strange Trip ***1/2 (2017)

The Grateful Dead are originals. They created music that comes from the fabric of the American experience.  The four hour documentary Long Strange Trip, currently available on Amazon Prime, chronicles the four decade career of the band from their beginnings in the psychedelic scene of 1960s San Francisco to mainstream success in the 1980s. Fronted by the sphinxlike Jerry Garcia, the band carved a deep niche in the history of rock and roll with their improvisational style that created a unique symbiotic relationship between audience and artist. 

With Martin Scorsese on board as executive producer, Long Strange Trip recaptures some of the magic of his 2005 Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home.  The film includes interviews, superior archival footage, and historical perspective on the forces that drove the band.  The tone subtly shifts as the narrative moves forward from the bright idealism of the 1960s to the harsh atmosphere of, in the words of Garcia, the "fake culture" of the 1980s.

In the mid 1960s, Garcia formed the Dead along with bluesman Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. They became fixtures of the counterculture in San Francisco.  The Dead joined Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, serving as the house band for his famous LSD experiments, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

In time the Dead added their own elixir of blues and jazz to rock and roll.  Founding members included the classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir, two drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Unlike other bands of the era, the Grateful Dead worked from a different model: building a loyal audience through nonstop touring, promising a unique, transcendent experience with each performance.

During the 1970s, the Dead gained a loyal fan base of "dead heads" that followed them everywhere. Although some critics considered their music boring and repetitive, their popularity grew. The 1987 single "Touch of Grey," 20 years in the making, finally got the Dead on the pop charts and even some MTV play.  But just as they were peaking, Garcia fell deeper into his addictions, the documentary suggests it may have been a deliberate message to his fans: Don't be like me.  Years of touring took their toll. Garcia passed away in 1995 and instantly became a legend.

Well versed fans of the Grateful Dead may find the documentary too superficial for their taste, while for those new to the band it's an excellent primer. Original members of the band and those who worked closely with them add colorful commentary.  The time flies by.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Baby Driver ***1/2 (2017)

Edgar Wright's exuberant Baby Driver is a movie for people who love movies. There's fantastic car chases, an eclectic array of music, and exciting heists.  A hip crime film with elements of the musical, pure cinematic energy carries Baby Driver over the top, a highlight of 2017.

Starring Ansel Elgort as expert driver "Baby" who offers his talents to professional criminals. There's a direct lineage with two other movies: Walter Hill's 1978 film The Driver and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive from 2011, both movies about existential loners who drive for the rush of it.  Wright constructed a more relatable protagonist, giving "Baby" a worthy back story. An ear condition creates a non-stop buzz that he drowns out by constantly listening to music.

Wright surrounded Elgort with a top notch supporting cast with Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez as husband and wife bank robbers, Jamie Foxx as the loose cannon, and Kevin Spacey as Baby's menacing boss. Lily James plays a waitress who befriends Baby, she prevents the film devolving into a cold descent into violence.

Baby Driver is a pop song of a movie, moving along at a smooth pace with likable characters and crackling dialogue. My only criticism would be the movie tries to be too cool for its own good at times, as if in a desperate struggle to avoid the conventions of mainstream moves.  As a result, the last act gets predictable.

Still, Baby Driver is the ideal summer movie.  A triumph of cinematic vision and sound design, a breath of fresh air in a summer clogged with franchises and sequels.  Like Tarantino, Wright puts his encyclopedic knowledge of movies into action, leaving film buffs with all sorts of cool references to ponder.      

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jurassic Park ***1/2 (1993)

Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to the big screen. Almost 25 years later the effects still work and its status as an iconic blockbuster remains undisputed.  Although it lacks the cinematic virtuosity of Jaws, Close Encounters, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park succeeds as an amusement park ride movie - a formula Spielberg  crafted to near perfection.

The opening scene imitates Jaws.  A group of native workers are handling a dangerous animal that's out of sight. Someone makes a mistake and workers gets killed by the predator as head of park security Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) looks on, a low rent Quint. The two protagonists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), both paleontologists, are recruited by the Walt Disney (Steven Spielberg?) like visionary John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to inspect the park.  Neil and Dern are pleasant enough screen presences, bringing life to a CGI driven venture.

Once they arrive at the park, set to classic b-movie John Williams music, we meet Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician skeptical about genetic engineering for profit.  Goldblum makes the movie, contributing humanity and reason.

The exposition scenes are my favorite because they most closely resembled the Michael Crichton novel. Scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from mosquitos and use it to clone dinosaurs. They cut corners and assumed they could control an ecosystem, not considering the consequences of bringing together two species separated by millions of years of evolution. In the best scene, the closest to USS Indianapolis moment from Jaws, Dr. Malcolm explains chaos theory.

Inevitably, things go wrong and the dinosaurs attack.  The most harrowing sequence of a T-Rex terrorizing two kids who are there to visit their Grandpa.  From then on Jurassic Park is an adventure story, some characters become dino snacks; some make harrowing escapes.

But its unfair to compare Jurassic Park to Spielberg's earlier triumphs. By 1993 he had yet to score a Box Office Smash since the early 1980s (outside of the Indiana Jones movies). So he had to adjust his style for a new decade.  George Lucas played a significant role in post-production and his signatures are present: faster paced action, thinner characters, and awe inspiring effects created by his company Industrial Light & Magic.

Compared with the tent pole movies of this summer, Jurassic Park has aged well. Spielberg took notes from adventure films of the past, duplicating the magic of Ray Harryhausen's special effects extravaganzas.  And it's a perfect introductory film for anyone interested in the Sci-Fi genre.

Monday, May 29, 2017

War Machine *** (2017)

The Netflix film War Machine stars Brad Pitt as a fictional version of the Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal who was removed from his post after an unflattering 2010 article in Rolling Stone.  I recall reading the article as a depiction of McChrystal and his staff as cowboys running roughshod out on the fringes of Empire, they were also less than thrilled with President Obama. 

Pitt plays the fictional version (General Glen McMahon) as a laconic dunce with good intentions.  Upon arrival, a defanged version of Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglorious Basterds, he inspects the base of operations like George C. Scott in Patton.  Only he ain't no Patton, in fact the entire movie is a Patton told in reverse.  McMahon walked into the middle of a war with unclear objectives, a counter-insurgency impossible to defeat, and a lukewarm public on the homefront. Attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghani locals meet with predictable results.

It should also be pointed out there's hardly any actual fighting in the film, except for a brief battle at the end.  The tone of War Machine falls somewhere between satire and drama, a combination that will irk some, but appropriate for the material.  A first rate supporting cast and some A-list cameos are a big plus.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Get Me Roger Stone *** (2017)

Get Me Roger Stone will be remembered as an educational artifact from the 2016 election, but beware, watching the film is akin to sticking your head inside the filthiest toilet you can imagine. 

Who is Roger Stone?  A self described dandy who helps political candidates destroy their rivals, Stone started out as dirty trickster back in the Nixon days. According to William Safire's Political Dictionary the term "dirty tricks" was used in the 1960s to describe CIA Cold War operations, but took on a new meaning during the Watergate era.  Watergate involved all sorts of dirty tricks orchestrated by Nixon's reelection committee (CREEP), which ranged from Fraternity type pranks to shady slush funds, and eventually to illegal surveillance on political enemies.

Stone played a key role in many GOP campaigns to follow. In 2000 Stone organized a "riot" to stop the Bush v. Gore Florida recount.  The documentary suggests Stone is analogous to "The Cigarette Smoking Man" from the X-Files, a shadowy figure manipulating the course of history.  But he's more of a rake straight from a Dickens novel, a scandal monger who thrives on creating chaos.

The film follows Stone through his acrimonious relationship with the Trump campaign as an adviser in real time, he was hired, supposedly quit, then came back.  Stone had a long history with Trump, going back to 2000 when he engineered Trump's quashing of the Reform Party.  A media savant always good for a sound byte, Stone fed Trump many of his best attack lines and conspiracy theories.

At one point in the film Stone says he's merely playing a character. Is the whole persona an act? You be the judge.  When asked if he's afraid the movie will make everyone hate him he replies, "I revel in your hatred." Enter at your own risk.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Jackie *** 1/2 (2016)

The 2016 biopic Jackie is about the aftermath of the JFK assassination. While countless movies have dealt with the events of November 22, 1963, none have been told from the point of the First Lady who witnessed the terror firsthand.  Natalie Portman literally becomes Jackie in a poignant performance.

Jackie is about trauma on all levels - personal and historical.  The script and direction did a great job of recreating the hours after the assassination.  The first 20 minutes are unbearably emotional, with the immediate minutes after the assassination recounted in wrenching detail with a chilling movie score by Mica Levi.

Based on an interview Mrs. Kennedy gave to a Life Magazine journalist a week after the tragic events in Dallas when she sensed a plot to erase JFK's legacy from history. Lyndon Johnson believed a low key funeral would serve the country best and encouraged her to retreat into private life. 

Out of respect for her husband, but also to let the her husband's enemies know the extent of what they did, Mrs. Kennedy insisted on a public funeral that would follow the path of President Lincoln's and also selected the President's resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Other performances stand out as well: Peter Sarsgaard as a stoic Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie's assistant Nancy Tuckerman, and John Hurt in one of his final performances as a priest consoling Jackie.  Above all Portman portrays her character with intelligence, poise, and determination.

Jackie comes back again and again to the idea of Camelot, a brief period when America lived up to its ideals. Mythology of course, the early 1960s look grand in many ways but they were far from paradise.  Just ask Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson. Bobby wonders in a moment of doubt, "What did we really accomplish"? Jackie comments, "Isn't this what the Birchers wanted"?  The tension of memory and reality are in conflict, preventing the film from entering into hagiography territory.

Despite the mythmaking, the iconography of the Kennedy's continues to glisten.  The power of personality in history cannot be underestimated, and I don't mean hero worship, but leaders who brought out the best of its citizens: a call to service, not to ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Colossal ***1/2 (2016)

Colossal blends two genres, Indie Mumblecore and the Monster Movie, and does it with intelligence.  Anne Hathaway stars as "party girl" Gloria who returns to her hometown after a break up.  Back in town she meets up with former High School Classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who runs the local bar.  He offers her a job, but their attention soon shifts to a monster attacking Seoul.  After some initial shock, Olivia discovers she may be connected to the mayhem in Korea.

Many of the Indie Drama's conceits are addressed in Colossal, the cliché of returning home and discovering the real meaning of life being among them. It's also a hangout movie with a crew of barflies who engage in Cheers like conversations on life.  Pick your indie to parody, Garden State immediately comes to my mind.

Alcohol also figures into the story, there's constant drinking throughout.  Drinking never helps the characters, it holds them back and prevents them from moving forward.  The bar itself, the setting where most of the movie takes place, looks and feels more like a purgatory - like that one in The Iceman Cometh.

As with all monster movies there's deep metaphor running through the picture.  Watching Colossal it's hard not to think of it as a commentary on America being the richest (and most disruptive) country in the world.  Americans have the right to act like irresponsible, drunken fools if they feel like it.  Unfortunately American actions have repercussions for the rest of the world - which literally happens in Colossal.  Look no further than the past election, the rest of the world, not just the U.S.A., will have to deal with whatever shit the administration stirs up.

Politics and drinking aside, Colossal is also well written and acted.  No one plays passive- aggressive better than Sudeikus, his nice guy façade takes some ominous turns, a troll who lives a double life on the web.  And Hathaway does an amazing job with the absurd material, moving from apathy to awareness in a believable character arc. One of her best performances.

With a year full of other monster movies due for release, Colossal will easily be remembered as most in tune with the times.

The Founder *** (2016)

The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, the man who popularized McDonalds and fast food culture.  Played with subtle menace by Michael Keaton, Kroc's story is an all too familiar one in the lives of successful Americans.

Kroc begins as a typical Willy Loman type, a middle aged salesman barely eking out a living.  A seller of milk shake machines, one day Kroc discovers a revolutionary roadside restaurant managed by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who are able to serve delicious hamburgers and fries in under thirty seconds. Blown away by their system, Kroc begs the McDonald Brothers to franchise their idea.  They've tried before, but were unable to make it work.  Kroc convinced them into entering an agreement with him and he made it a regional and eventual national phenomenon.

The McDonald Brothers symbolized the mythical American idea of business: you have an idea, build a small business through hard work and guts, and make it thrive to improve the community.  Kroc's ethos looked further to the future, a business model of expansion, homogenization, and obliterating the competition. The brothers got a raw deal, representing a swath of the business community politicians pay lip service to every election, who at the same time arguing a corporation is a person.

Keaton brings humanity to an unlikable character. While struggling on the road he listens to Norman Vincent Peale records on the power of positive thinking after going through years of rejection.  He finds the country club world his wife yearns for, played by Laura Dern, static and dull.  Success changes him, but unlike the real estate men in Glengarry Glen Ross or the bible salesman in Maysles Brothers documentary Salesman, he triumphs over all. 

The art design and direction capture the 1950s as the decade is mostly remembered - all blistering sunshine boldly striving into the future.  In the current cultural moment Americana makes us nervous and pensive for a past we barely recognize, yet at the same time provides a burgeoning faith that the project is redeemable.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Circle **1/2 (2017)

The Circle imagines a near future world with a catch all social network that dominates the media landscape.  Tom Hanks plays the creepy-nice CEO and comedian Patton Oswalt co-stars as his henchman who envisions a "post-privacy world" where people will live in total transparency, meaning anybody, anywhere can monitor each other at all times. A brave new world of newsfeeds and minute by minute status updates. Based on the Dave Eggers novel of the same title, I hate to pull out the "book was better" cliché, but in this case it's true.

Emma Watson stars as Mae, the company's latest recruit who rapidly climbs the ranks after leaving a boring temp job.  Mae's the ideal millennial: bright, compassionate, awesome social skills, tech savvy, and attractive.  The script, unlike the Dave Eggers novel, doesn't give Mae much to do.  She mostly interacts with people without establishing anything beyond a surface relationship -  no one is allowed to develop.

At its best The Circle satirizes the false optimism Ted Talks speeches and 21st century workplace culture.  The company, obviously inspired by Google and Facebook, looks Utopian on the surface. Most employees live on the "campus" where there are endless extracurricular activities and social events.  Their motto is "sharing is caring" which they repeat like a well behaved cult during the Steve Jobs-esque presentations.

The dark underside of social media is handled with sharper wit on TV shows like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. The Circle works more as a sardonic companion film to the 2013 comedy The Internship with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, an amusing commercial for the Google worldview.

The design of The Circle and the music are both well done, obviously inspired by David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network.  But Fincher's movie kept the focus on human relationships and had a heart within its dark soul.The Circle is a jumble of half baked themes.

Hanks is never convincing as the nefarious CEO and Oswalt is given little to do.  The same goes for John Boyega as the mysterious genius who started the company, he only gets one worthwhile scene that's all exposition. Bill Paxton appears in one of his final roles as Mae's father. Karen Gillan stands out as Mae's co-worker/frenemy Annie.

So The Circle disappoints, which is a shame considering the timely subject matter and the strong source material (Eggers did get a script credit).  The ending feels especially rushed and ineffective. The final result is a milquetoast of a movie that's too timid to fully explore the questions it attempts to raise. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Five Came Back **** (2017)

The new Netflix documentary Five Came Back is a moving and poignant three part series on five American directors and their experiences during the Second World War. The five filmmakers chronicled are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.  Five contemporary directors provide excellent commentary: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Tero, and Lawrence Kasdan.

Before the war Stevens, Capra, and Wyler were known for making comedies and crtically acclaimed dramas.  Ford had built his reputation by directing historical films and Westerns like Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach, while Huston was an up and comer known for The Maltese Falcon.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor instantly mobilized Americans and these directors all wanted to serve in some way.

Ford, a hard drinking Irish-American, served in the Pacific theatre. He was present at the Battle of Midway and made a film based on the footage he shot.  Battle of Midway and many other films were heavily edited to reassure the homefront. Ford also supervised a film crew during D-Day, capturing the horror and desperation of the Normandy invasion. 

Capra's assignment was to educate the public, most importantly the soldiers entering the armed forces. His series of films entitled Why We Fight did just that. After the war Capra started his own studio, Republic Pictures, which made only one film in its short existence, It's A Wonderful Life, which went unnoticed upon release.  The rest is history of course, few films better captured the spirit of post-war America. 

Spielberg tells Wyler's story, a Jewish-American who lost family members to the holocaust. Wyler's documentary Memphis Belle followed a B-17 bomber crew that flew missions in Europe, getting footage Spielberg calls some of the most spellbinding ever put on film.  After the war Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, a classic that captured the sense of lost time and sadness of the WWII generation, but also looked ahead to a brighter future.

George Stevens filmed the brutal 1944-45 campaign that ended with Germany's defeat.  He also took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and made a film that was shown at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of Nazi atrocities. Stevens was haunted by Dachau for the rest of his life.  His later film were more serious in tone and explored the nature of good and evil.

John Huston also saw his share of action.  His film The Battle of San Pietro was banned by the military for being too graphic for the public, it went unseen until 1982.  Huston also made one of the most poignant films of the war Let There Be Light, a documentary about a group of soldiers recovering from PTSD. Coppola named it one Huston's finest moments as a director.

Five Came Back also raises important questions about artistic freedom and democracy.  How does one be patriotic and critical at the same time? How do movies shape and control public opinion?

All the documentaries mentioned are also available for streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Salesman *** (2016)

Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for the 2017 Oscars.  In protest to the Trump Administration's travel ban directed at Iranian nationals Farhadi did not attend the awards ceremony.  That's a shame, because I think if more Americans watched movies from other cultures reactionary politicians would never introduce such policies.

The Salesman tells the story of an Iranian couple played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti whose lives get turned upside down after a home invasion.  The film begins with a harrowing sequence as their apartment building begins to collapse.  Forced to find a new place, they settle into a two bedroom apartment.  Emad (Hoesseini) teaches literature at the local High School and directs a production of Death of a Salesman by night. His wife Rana (Alidoosti) acts in the play.

One night an intruder enters the apartment and attacks Rana.  Insulted at the attack on his wife, Emad is torn between the conflicting emotions of revenge and being supportive to Rana.  A thoughtful man who his students look up to, he is unable to deal with his emotions, handling it with an uneasy stoicism.  What is expected of man in that situation? Meanwhile Rana struggles to deal with trauma and her husband's desire for revenge.

The filmmaking style achieves a sense of realism, immersing the viewer in the urban milieu of modern Iran.  One gets the sense of urban blight that infects so many cities around the world.  People go on with their lives the best they can and not lose hope.

As The Salesman wheels towards a heady climax, the film is interspersed with scenes from Emad's production of Death of the Salesman, a play with deep resonance to the themes in the film.  Everyone aspires to achieve dreams and sometimes expectations are not meant. Whatever happens we have the power to control our own reactions  An immersive film with impressive performances all around, The Salesman is a sensitive meditation on empathy and conflicting emotion.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Robert Osborne

A generation of movie fans were introduced to classic film by TCM host Robert Osborne. Mr. Osborne passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He served as the affable movie host during prime time for TCM from 1994-2016.  Before each film Osborne talked about the making of the film and afterwards shared trivia and some final thoughts.  Starting in 2006 he was joined by a rotating group of co-hosts for the weekend series The Essentials.

Turner Classic Movies continues to show countless movies on television no one else will show, ranging from silent cinema to obscure films impossible to find anywhere else.  As a commercial free network, TCM epitomizes counter programming for the 21st Century media landscape. With the proliferation of streaming services and home entertainment systems, the network remains vibrant and innovative.

A film historian and journalist, Mr. Osborne was a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. He appreciated all genres; never patronized his audience. We'll miss his incisive commentary and passion for film. 

Logan ***1/2 (2017)

Logan, starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, perhaps the most popular of the X-Men, will go down as one of the greatest superhero films ever made. After two unremarkable stand alone films, Wolverine X-Men: Origins (2009and The Wolverine (2013), Logan brings a powerhouse of pathos and emotion rare in comic book movies.

Most Marvel movies are entertaining enough for at least one viewing, but Logan transcends the limitations of the genre.  Deeply inspired by the Western, evident in a poignant reference to Shane, Logan eschews fantasy in favor of a gritty realism.  By far the most violent Marvel film ever produced, it also provides some of the best performances from Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and newcomer Dafne Keen. 

Logan is a changing of the guard story told in the context of a world that eerily reflects our own, or what it could become.  Will Logan point the way forward for future movies of its genre, just as Deadpool did last year?  Or will it be a stand alone oddity in the Marvel universe, not unlike the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Whatever happens, Logan tells a modern myth with extraordinary grace.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HyperNormalisation ***1/2 (2016)

HyperNormalisation, a 2016 BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, takes an insightful look at the past 40 years of history to comprehend the existential cul-de-sac of the current moment.  The film examines international politics, technological developments, the media, pop culture, and corporate power.  Nearly three hours long, HyperNormalisation may not be the definitive statement of modern history, but a place to begin the conversation.

The film begins in 1975 when New York City faced bankruptcy and urban decay, in a desperate move the city turned over its finances to private bankers. Young real estate developer Donald Trump saw an opportunity and secured loans from the banks to build luxurious hotels, rising him to celebrity status. He came to personify Reagan era capitalism and excess.

As the counterculture went into terminal decline in the 1970s, artists turned inward in the hope of inspiring change through self expression, in an archival interview with Patti Smith she reflected on the loss of hope among artists to effect any political change through mass movements. Pop Culture began to neutralize radical art, Nike once used the Beatles song "Revolution" in a TV ad. Madison Avenue made radical the new cool, but a toothless one.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted to build a balance of power in the Middle East, which entailed playing Arab countries against each other. The Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad felt betrayed at Kissinger's duplicity, warning him it would have unthinkable consequences for the West and the region. I remember a history professor beginning a lecture on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy with the caveat, "he's not welcome over there anymore."

Cyberspace brought hope for some, prophets from the 1960s envisioned an online world of people communicating and acting without government or corporate interference, a realization of the 1960s dream of a participatory democracy. But as the early hackers demonstrated, corporations were already using the cyber world to gain ever more control over citizens by mining their financial data.  

After the Vietnam debacle Western governments increasingly used the media to blur reality, utilizing "perception management" to mislead people. Libyan leader Gaddafi was made into a villain by the Reagan Administration only to become an unlikely ally in the 2000s for agreeing to halt his already defunct "weapons of mass destruction" program, moving from "fake villain" to "fake hero." 

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe in 1991 prompted euphoric declarations of "the end of history," a new golden age for liberal democracy. Yet anxieties of the future persisted. Conspiracy theories proliferated and became part of pop culture on TV shows like The X-Files. HyperNormalisation notes how movies were seemingly preparing people for a major catastrophe with recurring images of New York City and Washington D.C. being attacked. The future landscape looked like a scary place and politicians adjusted their rhetoric accordingly, reaching apotheosis with the 2016 Trump campaign.

When the catastrophe did arrive on 9/11/01 politicians spoke of more security to prevent future attacks to a jittery populace, while destabilizing the world with aggressive foreign policies in the name of security and protection from "weapons of mass destruction." The movies had prepared us. 

Yet there were encouraging signs. In 2008 Americans elected Barack Obama President, a watershed (and sadly divisive) moment in American history.  The Arab Spring portended a new wave of democracy in the Middle East. The Occupy Wall Street Movement fired a salvo at the exploitative financial establishment.  Yet Obama's presidency ended with America more divided than ever, while the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street quietly dissipated.

In Russia Vladimir Putin built an autocracy out of the old Soviet Union, emphasizing national pride and militarism as an alternative to Obama's globalism.  Putin kept his opponents confused, a shape shifter with ambiguous motives and talent for leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.  Others took notice (and delight) at Putin's methods. 

The year 2016 brought about a perfect storm of "reality distortion." The Trump campaign launched a movement spearheaded by the nationalistic alt-right who found true love in their own American Putin. After years of repressed rage at politicians and the establishment, Americans between the coasts were ready for an outsider to disrupt Washington. As Trump broke the rules of campaign etiquette and horrified his critics, Red State America went into happy dance mode. In melodramatic stump speeches, influenced by WWE wrestlers, Trump promised to bring back jobs, crack down on illegal immigration, get the terrorists, and negotiate fantastic trade deals. He had them at hello.  

Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, albeit the winner of the popular vote, epitomized establishment politics and failed to win pivotal swing states in the Rustblet. Trump used social media to control the narrative, always a few steps ahead of the competition. Social media mutated into an echo chamber and the terrain of trolls free to express their retrograde politics in the relative comfort of cyberspace. Social media, heralded as a decisive factor in enlarging democracy, took a macabre turn foreseen in the Netflix series Black Mirror.

One may not walk away feeling better about the current situation after watching Normalisation, but it will provide context and knowledge.  In an interview Curtis talked about change being possible if enough people can come together want it. If you sensed things were not quite right before the election, now things really feel disjointed. And that could result in more collective action for the future. Hopefully. The early signs are encouraging. 

So society has arrived definitive moment with a stark choice: retreat into further alternative realities of empty pleasures or work towards alternatives through community and real world action. HyperNormalisation features many competing narratives that do not add up to any definitive answers - that's the point. 

Also dig the eclectic soundtrack, a free association of pop culture references. 

(HyperNormalisation is available for free on Youtube)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Alien **** (1979)

Alien still stands as one of the most terrifying films ever made. Ridley Scott's film attacks the unconscious, the subterranean stratum of the mind. Alien reminded me of the Wilco song "Company in my Back"  that opens with the lyrics "I attack with love, pure bug beauty/curl my lips and crawl up to you."  The creepy verse encapsulates Alien to perfection. 

In the near future the crew of the Nostromo are awakened from hyper sleep to explore a planet hiding deadly secrets.  When a crew member gets attacked by "face hugger" it's revealed they use human bodies as hosts. Grisly details aside, Alien's realistic tone also made it unique.  The cast did not look like a typical Sci-Fi cast. The script's free of the goofy techno dialogue in Star Wars and Star Trek, the actors delivered their lines with a gritty self-assurance.

Alien is all about exploitation.  The "Company" that owns the Nostromo sends the beleaguered crew to a planet to respond to a distress call. The life forms they discover manage to exploit the crew in every way imaginable.  Many have written on the sexual nature of the attacks. Film critic John Kenneth Muir explains the sexual symbolism in his detailed analysis (also check out the insightful podcast Faculty of Horror).

Ridley Scott wisely allowed the audience to learn about the characters in the first 45 minutes, so when we lose them, we feel it. 

John Hurt as "chest burster" Kane seemed like a nice guy, but we hardly get to know him. Harry Dean Stanton as working class schlub Brent brings some humanity to the movie. Tom Skerrit as the intrepid commander fails miserably and meets a particularly gruesome fate (see the DVD extras). British villain/android Ian Holm personifies the dour corporate stooge.  Yaphet Kotto, another great screen presence, is the macho man Parker. Veronica Cartwright really looks terrified, a stand in for the audience.  And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley emerges as the unlikely heroine, a revolutionary moment for a Sci-Fi film.

If the history of modern Sci-Fi film begins with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien kicked open the door to another era, building upon those two films. John Carpenter's Dark Star, written by Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, works as a goofy rough draft to the events on the Nostromo

A multi-layered film with compelling themes, Alien still challenges and unsettles audiences. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Casablanca **** (1942)

Watching Casablanca in 2017 makes for a harrowing and almost spiritual viewing experience. Set in Morocco during the Vichy/Nazi Occupation, most of the film centers around the goings on at Rick's, a night club run by a mysterious American played by Humphrey Bogart who will find himself at the center of international intrigue.

Rick's known to be apolitical and unsentimental towards the political situation, he simply wants to manage his club and turn a profit.  He maintains an uneasy working relationship with Vichy officer Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official also in it for the money.  Despite Rick's "isolationist" politics we learn he once fought the Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.  When his former fiancee Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his place one night his life will be forever changed.

For Ilsa is now married to a leader in the French Resistance Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). In a flashback we learn Rick and Ilsa had a brief romance before the fall of Paris and were considering marriage.  Rick is clearly still in love with Ilsa, but also finds himself in a position to aid the Resistance. Laszlo is an honorable man as well. All realize they are caught up in a cause greater than themselves.

Few films have better blended international intrigue and romance better than Casablanca. The pacing and editing are flawless, way ahead of their time in narrative drive.  And unlike a James Bond film, Rick's not a cold blooded killer but one who quietly helps people who have no where to go. In a moving scene he secretly helps two Bulgarian refugees fleeing Nazi Europe.

What are some of my favorite moments?  My favorite exchange happens when Rick defies a couple of Nazis. He suggests the Germans stay away from certain sections of New York City. Quiet confidence defeats blustering arrogance.

Perhaps the most memorable part is when the band plays the "Le Marseilles" to defy the Nazi occupiers - an inspiring moment that encapsulates the 1940s struggle against Fascism. Many of the extras were actual refugees from Europe.

Rick and Ilsa must decide whether to get back together or to do what's best for the cause. Like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Rick decides to sacrifice himself for something greater.

As movie critic Leonard Maltin once observed, Casablanca proves the old Hollywood studio system could produce great art.  Although not as innovative as Citizen Kane that came out the year before, Casablanca exemplifies superior storytelling told with punch and verve.

As the world once again faces a refugee crisis and a resurgence of coarse nationalism, we realize how fragile democracy can be and how it must be defended at all costs. Casablanca reminds us people have faced these challenges before.

And last but not least, the Bogart persona remains ever more relevant. Rick meets the chaos of the world with a wry shrug of the shoulder. In the face of stupidity and outright villainy he quietly takes action on the side of good.  That's the resonance for 2017.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

La La Land **** (2016)

By sheer force of will alone, Damien Chazelle's La La Land charms and entertains. Shot in beautiful technicolor that includes a quiver of cinematic flourishes, and two passionate performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land reminds us movies can still be magical.  Unashamedly retro without being derivative, it's nostalgia in the best sense of the word.  

The opening sequence recalls old Hollywood magic as a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway morphs into a grand song and dance sequence.  Jazz music figures into the story as well, a reminder of what culture can be and what is lost if we don't cherish it. Gosling plays a struggling jazz piano player Sebastian enamored with the history of jazz, a romantic who wants to keep the art form alive.  When a rival musician played by John Legend, chides him for being a traditionalist and not a revolutionary, Sebastian reluctantly agrees.

Meanwhile Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress looking for her big break. She meets Sebastian and they get together in what may be a star crossed romance.  As his career takes off and Mia's slows down their relationship gets tested.  The story might sound thin, but La La Land is anything but that.  Each sequence after another brightens the screen with sound and color.

The title La La Land seems subversive in itself, daring audiences to take it seriously. Don't be fooled, bittersweet themes roam beneath the surface as well, for the story deals with a fading musical genre in the form of a fading film genre.  But La La Land banishes cynicism with a mere wave of the hand, like The Wizard of Oz, it dwells in the possibilities of dreams. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

De Palma *** (2016)

Filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow sat down with legendary director Brian De Palma to discuss his long and varied career.  A native New Yorker, De Palma attended Columbia Film School and was a contemporary of Martin Scorsese. Like many of his generation De Palma started out by making "arty" low budget films. His early efforts like Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970) were inspired by the French New Wave and featured a young Robert De Niro.  A Hitchcock disciple, De Palma modeled his early style on the master of suspense, most notably in the thrillers Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976)and Carrie (1976). DePalma also talks about his friendships with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  De Palma famously ripped Star Wars apart when Lucas screened it for his friends, with the hilarious comment, "What's All This Force Shit?" To his credit, De Palma helped Lucas by writing the iconic opening crawl. Ironically, like Lucas, De Palma focused on making Box Office Hits in the 1980s. Many of his best movies under performed upon their initial release such as Blow Out (1981) and Scarface (1983), both are now considered triumphs of form and style.  Others were notorious flops like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1991) and the Sci-Fi misfire Mission to Mars (2000). In any case, DePalma has created a diverse body of work that any film fan should check out.  An excellent overview of the man and his work, De Palma is bolstered by compelling clips and the subject's forthright honesty about his craft.  

My Top Five Brian DePalma Movies:

1) Blow Out (1981) - John Travolta stars as sound engineer who may have witnessed a political assassination. One of the last great paranoid thrillers, unrelenting edge of your seat suspense told from a world weary perspective.
2) The Untouchables (1987) One of De Palma's most successful films, a potboiler on the 1930s battle between G-Man Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and Chicago gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro).  
3) Carrie (1976) - One of the best adaptations ever made of a Stephen King novel that deals with High School bullying and telekinesis.
4) Casualties of War (1989) A worthwhile Vietnam film on the immorality of that conflict.
5) Scarface (1983) Another mob epic on the rise and fall of a Cuban gangster played by Al Pacino in an over the top performance.  One of the essential movies on 1980s excess.

I still need to see Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Raising Cain (1991).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Infiltrator (2016) **

The Infiltrator tells the true story of Robert Mazur, a Custom Services Special Agent who in the 1980s worked undercover as a money launderer for the Mexican drug cartels.  Bryan Cranston stars as Mazur in a sort of in-joke performance as the antithesis of his Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White. But the direction, editing, and script are jumpy and fail to establish any momentum.  Mazur is a family man on the verge of retirement who decides to continue his undercover work to bring down Pablo Escobar's drug empire. The story frequently makes awkward transitions between Mazur's dangerous occupation and relatively stable family life. As the film rushes through these plot points there's a total lack of coherence. Fast pace editing when done right can make for dynamic filmmaking, here the frenetic pace induces boredom.  The Infiltrator covers ground done much better in countless other films, most notably Donnie Brasco and Blow. Go back and watch some Breaking Bad episodes.