Director: Christopher Bell
Writer:Christopher Bell, Alexander Buono, and Tamsin Rawady
Cinematographer: Alexander Buono
by Jon Cvack
The oughts might have been the golden era of documentary filmmaking, as the cheap technology allowed any individual with a camera and a little bit of funding to tell the story they wanted to tell. I had known about Bigger, Stronger, Faster for a long time, with my friend frequently mentioning the film during conversations about steroids, saying how he doesn’t have a problem with them. Having just read the book "Baseball: Between the Numbers", which contained an essay by Nate Silver about the data behind steroid use, and how it doesn’t really make much of a difference to “big and strong” players like Barry Bonds, but really only for the middle-lower class players, I was interested in checking out the subject.
The film is told in that Michael Moore style of rapid editing, in some ways honoring the cinéma vérité style of constructing a narrative based on the information provided by the subjects. It starts with narrator Christopher Bell, a former high school athlete, who follows his brothers who are both taking steroids; with one hoping to become a professional wrestler, and the other struggling to be a record breaking powerlifter. The film is very much focused on the idea of Male Body Image, where in contrast to women who are told to be as skinny as possible with busty features, men are told to gain mass and muscle, in order to come ever close to the archetypes of alpha-maleness - epitomized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan, and others. The problem is that while these men embody the spirit of what is Manly, professing the benefits of exercise and taking care of yourself, they also used steroids in order to achieve their success, demonstrating that basically, in order to acquire such success, you need a competitive advantage against others, as there’s only so much the natural body can achieve without assistance.
The overarching question is why do steroids receive such a bad reputation when used by only a handful of individuals, with very little lethality or harmful side effects; especially in a nation that condones so many other drugs that are equally, if not more harmful? As Bell demonstrates, America wants its athletes to win; we are a competitive nation by design, and we often shun those who are defeated and celebrate our greatest athletes who push their bodies to the utter limit. We don’t criticize kids who take amphetamines for ADD and the edge it gives them; we don’t criticize individuals who need Xanax or other anti-anxiety medications who experience extreme nervousness or anxiety; and we don’t criticize our air force pilots for taking supplements that increase their focus when in flight (though most people probably don’t know this). So why are athletes the ones who receive the bulk of criticism, going so far as Congress hosting hearings on steroid abuse in order to try and quelch the problem, castigating the athletes for their use?
In a brilliant scene which I think Bell knocked out of the park, he interviews a man whose son died, which he attributes to steroid use. After hearing the evidence, Christopher asks the father if there’s not a degree of hypocrisy in criticizing steroid use amongst professional athletes, who are participating in games in arenas where they sell alcohol that causes far more deaths per year to which the father remains silent about. The father gives a mumbled and unclear answer, mentioning something about how because alcohol and other prescription drugs are presently legal that it’s insignificant.
We often hear endless stories about women who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the perfect body, even if it means causing harm to themselves. But there’s little discussion about the problem of male perfection. In another great scene, we see how the male body’s ideal has progressed over the years, with a doctor holding up action figures throughout the last three decades, with the first GI Joe looking like a scrawny male figure and slowly evolving to become bulked up with arms larger than their heads and veins sticking out, showing boys that this is the ideal they should strive for. We see that the entire workout supplement industry has revolved around this point, which is exempt from FDA approval, meaning that consumers have no idea what they’re taking, and should make you extra cautious given that other nations have banned many of the supplements the states allows to be legal. We see how the before and after photos are often done on the same day, using a mixture of tanning, shaving, posture, and photoshop to show how greatly you could improve in order to sell you the latest supplement.
And so the conundrum is posed - until we redefine what a successful male athlete is, in which a person can be appreciated for their abilities given their natural bodies, rather than celebrating the biggest, strongest, and fastest, there will always be those looking for competitive advantage. Because if they don’t look to synthetic supplements, then they’re not just more likely, but very likely to fail in the pursuit. It was heartbreaking to watch Christopher’s brother, who essentially did everything he could, including steroids, to achieve his dream of professional wrestling. As silly as it initially looks, you realize that this man was essentially trying to follow in the footsteps of all those we idolize. He moves to California, hoping that his chances for discovery would increase, even though his body’s aging, long past its prime, and the possibility is dwindling. We see as his wife remains at his side, but even Christopher asks how long he expects the dream chase to last.
Should people take steroids? Not necessarily. However, the science about their danger is flawed and selective, never really demonstrating the benefits they have for those who need them. But if an athlete feels like it will help them to achieve the body that they need for success, then that is their choice. What we need to do is much more difficult, and that’s redefining what success is. Until we no longer celebrate and revere the biggest and the strongest as the ideal version of athleticism and Maleness, then people will find ways to use steroids in order to achieve them. But that would force Americans to take a hard look at what they view as success - perhaps by looking to intelligence and creativity as more honorable pursuits, but then you wonder what drugs would be arrive that would benefit those with these raw and natural abilities. The alternative to appreciate people for who they are with what they got, and unfortunately, I just don’t ever see this happening. So long as greatness makes for ostensibly great lives, then people will aspire for such.
BELOW: The idolatry of Buff Males
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Director: Christopher Guest
Writer: Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
Cinematographer: Roberto Schaefer
by Jon Cvack
With the exception of This is Spinal Tap, I haven’t seen any Christopher Guest films until Best in Show. Back when I was in high school in the 00s when he seemed to be most popular I didn’t really enjoy the deadpan, improvised humor. It’s not the funniest movie in the world, but there are definitely moments, such as Harlan Pepper (who I’m embarrassed to have discovered is Christopher Guest) talking about nuts. It’s a clip that I’ve watched probably a dozen times in the last year after a friend shared (see below).
The entire story revolves around a Dog Show, with an amazing and hilarious cast, including Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara playing Gerry and Cookie Fleck as a unbalanced couple where Gerry is forced to contain his jealousy as Catherine’s approached by her endless barrage of ex-lovers, ostensibly every man Catherine has ever met, each without any concern in the world for Gerry’s feelings; Parker Posey and Hamilton Swan as Meg and Hamilton Sway, both with braces, who met at a Starbucks, trying their best to keep their tempers cool; Jennifer Coolidge and Leslie Ward Cabot as Sherri Ann and Leslie Ward Cabot, with Sherri Ann having a secret lesbian affair with their trainer Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch); and John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean as gay couple Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof.
Christopher Guest does an a pretty good job of taking couples from all walks of the sexual spectrum - heterosexual, single, and gay (albeit all white); all with their own issues and problems. Aside from the exaggerated humor, they all feel extremely honest and true, with Guest allowing us to develop our own insights based off their interactions and personalities. Meg and Hamilton Sway are the couple who each seemed to struggle to find someone willing to put up with their high maintenance personalities, which at first seem easy going and manageable until the slightest thing goes wrong, and they explode at each other and anyone around them.
With Gerry and Cookie it’s clear that Cookie has the vast upper hand, likely bouncing from man to man, each with their own unique and despicable disdain for women, until finally shacking up with Gerry who’s clearly willing to put with anything. Scott and Stefan are the most endearing couple, as their fights rarely extend beyond innocent banter. Of all the couples, they feel the most real. Although some of the actors are so big compared to the common characters they play, Michael McKean was able to transcend the problem and embody his character, thanks to how incredible his partner Michael Higgins was. While Leslie, Sherri, and Christy’s was a bit more direct and superficial, Jennifer Coolidge’s seemingly complete uninterest in the entire situation, even with her lover Christy, did create some pretty great moments, particularly in the closing segment as they show off their Dogs in Movies pinup calendar project.
I haven’t seen any other Guest movies since, but I’m already fascinated by his distinct voice and style. Best in Show somehow locates that perfect balance between plausibility and satire. The dog show is kind of absurd, but the characters are portrayed with such strong passion, personality, and conviction that we buy into it, wondering how it all connects together. I enjoyed how all of the couples won the initial round, providing us with such a simple answer to the question “Why these people?” Having them all as winners let’s us imagine what the other owners would have been like. It so heavily honors the style of documentary filmmaking, with the interviews looking straight out of an Errol Morris film, and showing us the action the way we’d imagine in an actual documentary.
You’re left wondering how much is improvised, how much is written, and how much was collaboration for each particular scene. To see a documentary about the making of this film would be incredible.
BELOW: Best clip of the movie
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Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
by Jon Cvack
I saw this film a few years after it came out as my cinephilia was just revving up. I had seen Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in a French Cinema course back in college, knowing that it inspired this piece. I had loved the movie, but was far too green to comprehend both how beautifully and intricately shot the film is. Each frame looks like a painting, with a perfect combination of light and blocking, in which even the most mundane moments are exceptionally cinematic.
Like Altman’s other ensemble pieces, he assembled an all star cast, including Maggie Smith playing the accessible and humorous Constance Trentman; Clive Owen as a once orphaned and newly recruited servant Robert Parks; Michael Gambon as the estate’s owner and philanderer William McCordle; Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Sylvia, whose promiscuities are abundant and whose look is a perfectly suited for the 1930s era; Emily Watson as servant girl Elsie, whose exudes sexual confidence and independence; Helen Mirren as one of the servant heads Mrs. Wilson, who shows us at her most raw and vulnerable; John Atterbury as the film’s most hilarious character, playing Hollywood producer Merriman; and even Ryan Philippe as Henry Danton, who feigns servility in order to research an upcoming movie role. Honestly, go just check out Wikipedia cast page and you’ll be blown away. It’s one thing to have maybe two or three of these talents in a single film; Gosford Park has one of the most impressive ensembles in all of cinema history.
The story is fairly simple. It takes place entirely within an English mansion in Gosford Park during a hunting party, exploring both British Aristocracy and the servants beneath them. I kept recalling a book I read in college for a few classes “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society” by Irving Goffman, which took Sartre’s ideas of bad faith and expanded upon them sociologically. At its simplest, it explores how we’re all actors in our everyday lives, with Sartre’s famous example involving a waiter who pretends to have a highly accommodating and servile attitude in order to win the favor of the restaurant's patrons, either for his own personal financial benefit, or because he has such pride in the work, wishing for the patrons to have the best experience possible. Goffman believed that most jobs require this degree of acting, as the individual can’t properly function without it. A stockbroker will take on the image of a stockbroker; a teacher will act as the strict disciplinarian; an artist might take on the pretentious role of a tortured soul.
Gosford Park provides us a glimpse into the inner workings of servant society. Lovers of "Downtown Abbey" would love this film, and I’d bet that the creators looked straight to it for inspiration. While serving their boss and his guests, the servants treat the job with the utmost care and attention, anxious to attend to every detail, to the point of anticipating what is needed before being requested. Yet downstairs, the gossip is abundant, varying from crude jokes and insights, into the sexual escapades between the help, with Elsie entering into relations with Elsie (in a scene that reminded me of a similar relation seen in Fanny and Alexander). What we discover is that the servants don’t necessarily hate their jobs as much one might expect, any more than the aristocrats enjoy their privileged lives as we much as we’d expect. In a great scene after the first night’s dinner ends, Henry Danton, tricking himself into being one of the servants, joins them at dinner and asks if they ever thought of doing anything else. Some are offended, remaining silent, with Robert Parks saying he could have done anything he wanted, having chosen to be a servant.
Amongst the upper classes, we see that life is equally unsatisfying. There are bad business deals, unsuccessful careers, unpaid debts, secrets and lies. While everyone tries to maintain an image that they are fine and collected, we learn that everyone is simply putting on act of varying degrees - pretending a happy marriage, fidelity, success, confidence. When the murder finally occurs deep into Act II, the situation never really amounts to as much as you would like. It almost serves as a distraction, making us desire a return to its simple observatory approach the first half and change provided. When we learn the situation between Mrs. Wilson and Robert Parks, it was an interesting development, but felt unnecessary, as though tacked on for fear that the loose, floating narrative wouldn’t have been strong enough. Shifting from character to character with such fluidity and grace and then immediately diving into the immense depth of motherhood and murder was interesting, and Helen Mirren’s performance during her closing scene was flooring, but something felt off about it. Still, the movie is so beautiful, and the performances so strong that all is forgiven. It makes you miss Mr. Altman, and that increasingly classic method of intricate camerawork to tell an complex and rich story.
BELOW: Absolutely nothing on YouTube, so here's Altman winning Best Director at the Golden Globes
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Director: Errol Morris
Cinematographer: Robert Chappell
by Jon Cvack
I first saw this film when it first came out, watching it with a buddy of mine who was far more into politics than I was at the time. He loved it and I thought it was just okay. I remember we played pool afterwards and I struggled to defend what my problem was. I figured it might have been my ignorance, as at the time I wasn’t all that interested in politics or the war. With now a near-unhealthy addiction to politics, I figured I would take on a new appreciation of this movie, though again, I found it lacking something; the same something that was missing the first time.
The film is divided into eleven of Robert McNamara’s life lessons, who served as Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For each section, he recounts what led him to that conclusion. They include:
McNamara went to UC Berkeley where he studied mathematics and philosophy, then going on to Harvard to get his MBA. After a year of working at Price Waterhouse, he returned to Harvard to teach making somewhere along the lines of $4000 a year. A few years later he enlisted in the Air Force where he worked in intelligence, providing statistical analysis for bombing runs in order to increase success and efficiency, both in completing missions and in the technologies and methods of air transport.
Recently I watched a ‘Faster Horse’ which highlighted how important McNamara’s role was in saving Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford II nearly drove the company into the ground. McNamara took his team from the Air Force and brought them to the ailing company, soon becoming the famous “Whiz Kids” who examined the data in order to - again - drive up speed, success, and efficiency. McNamara worked his way up the company, becoming a millionaire, and charging up such projects as the Ford Falcon and increased safety features, such as the seatbelt, which allowed them to significantly cut down on driving injuries and fatalities (and therefore legal costs). Eventually, McNamara became the first President of the Ford Motor Company outside of the Ford Family.
The documentary doesn’t really analyze the reasoning as to why JFK wanted McNamara to become his Secretary of Defense. Wikipedia mentions that the job was originally offered to Robert A. Lovett who was Secretary of Defense under Harry Truman. Still, it doesn’t mention the reasoning or logic and I’m failing to understand. I even posted the question on Quora, but have yet to receive a response (the initial draft of this post was written over a year ago).
Regardless of the reasoning, McNamara ushered in a new of era or statistical and data driven analysis in order to come up with sophisticated formulas that would minimize casualties and increase destruction, in order to carry out what he referred to as a ‘proportionality’ that would limit the amount of excessive force used that could kill innocent civilians or damage the environment. As he discusses these issues Morris rolls math formulas over the newsreel footage of the extravagant and incredible use of weaponry during the battles. McNamara is under no pretense that the fighting between humans was going to end any time soon, and therefore worked to ensure that the United States fought as justly as possible, meaning that civilian and military casualties unfortunately had to function as nothing more than statistics, which isn’t necessarily wrong, though grossly disconnected, yet better than not regarding them at all, as Nixon would later be accused of during his Cambodian bombing campaign.
Having watched this only a few weeks after HBO’s Path to War, it was fascinating to get insight into the individual that was pushing LBJ to undergo additional aggression as it looked to end up in their favor. Throughout the documentary Robert McNamara seems to have good, but not great insight, as though his entire world view was limited by analysis and assessment. Nothing he says is particularly profound so much as pragmatic. He wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t perfect either. For anyone who believes that complete pacifism is an answer, I’d urge you to watch this film, which shows a little bit of what you don’t know, including the three times that McNamara says we came within a hair of nuclear catastrophe with the Soviet Union. Still, I’m not sure what was missing. I suspect it was the complete detachment McNamara had regarding his insights and the gross destruction of life had a role in playing. There didn’t seem to be much regret or concern for the casualties that were victims of the lowest common denominator. It’s interesting, it’s just not fascinating.
BELOW: #11: You can't change human nature. We all make mistakes
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writer: Daniel Giat
Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt and Nancy Schreiber
by Jon Cvack
I’ve been discovering a handful of phenomenal HBO made-for-tv movies, kicked off with the absolutely incredible and underrated war film When Trumpets Fade, revisiting Kevin Spacey in Recount, and finding Path to War now available on HBO Go. The film came out at the height of the Iraq War, and the parallels are striking. The entire film takes place in the LBJ’s White House, shortly after he won re-election, vowing to avoid escalating the conflict in Vietnam, and doing a far better job of exploring the man than HBO’s 2016’s All the Way (Bryan Cranston's performance aside).
At this point, LBJ has retained much of Kennedy’s Cabinet, including Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense (in another great 90s-00s role from Alec Baldwin), who believes that heightening American involvement in Vietnam is better for national security. LBJ (played brilliantly by Michael Gambon) struggles with the decision, especially as he promised to push for Civil Rights and his War on Poverty, which he would eventually go on to accomplish. LBJ brings his old friend and successful private lawyer Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland), who’s hesitant about what he can offer to the White House, other than consoling his old friend, though eventually even he shifts his view of the situation, believing that a brief escalation might be the only option to get out clean from the messy and complex situation.
The more I read U.S. Presidents the more I find them such fascinating characters from a a narrative POV. Reading Joseph Ellis’s or Malone’s biographies on Thomas Jefferson, or David McCullough’s on Truman and John Adams you realize how fortuitous most of these presidencies were. Or I watch Oliver Stone’s W. and see that some individuals are born with the opportunity, requiring only the commitment, some charisma, and a bit of a nudge. I don’t care who's running and how down to Earth or accessible they appear, all these individuals are aware of their place in history. All of the Founding Fathers knew that every single thing they wrote would be remembered, dissected, and discussed for hundreds and hundreds of years. This isn’t to discount the vast amount of talent required to become president, so much as highlighting the incredible amount of narcissism. To believe that you can lead and direct the country in the right direction requires an extravagant arrogance. For all the acting, handshaking, rhetoric, and selling/begging it takes to become the supreme leader no individual is exempt from the narcissistic requirement. It’s also one of the jobs where such a trait is easily excused. I don’t want some some humble person. I want absolute confidence. Unfortunately, balancing this trait with intelligence (which demands humility) is the hard part.
Lyndon Johnson had a fear of failing during his run for the Democratic Primary, getting completely blown out of the water by Kennedy, accepting the Vice Presidency as a result. LBJ was the Senate Minority Leader up to that point, a formidable politician, later known for his “Johnson Treatment” philosophy that’d carry on into the presidency. So connected was he to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle that some wonder if the Civil Rights Act would have passed if JFK was never killed, given how weak JFK’s relationships were to other congressman.
In terms of narrative, I always wonder what it must have been like to have to take the seat of the man who was so beloved by the country. To have to sit before his predecessor's cabinet and continue the legacy to the best of his ability. LBJ had to stare these men and the nation in the face and do his best to maintain the direction promised to the people. Interestingly enough, JFK had only won by 0.17% of the popular vote, in one of the closest elections of all time, while LBJ would go on to win forty states plus DC, taking 22.6% of the popular vote. The country supported the man, that’s for sure. So why did he give it all up?
This is where Gambon’s performance is so memorizing. We see a man who was loud and rambunctious. He liked to drink and tell stories and had a commanding presence. While he was able to navigate domestic policy with vast success (especially by today’s standards) he was also up against a country that saw no reason to go war, pressured and too entrusting of his cabinet and military advisors who kept telling him that slight escalations in troop size or bombing runs would eventually lead to victory and a quick conclusion. It’s here that the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are eerily similar and incredibly sad given how much history would look to repeat itself.
Now that the Iraq War has ended and begun to take its place in history we are seeing that it indeed was a stupid and pointless war, destroying the area, the country, and hundreds of thousands of lives, both American and Iraqi. Similar to LBJ, Bush was clearly pressured by the intelligence he received. While some wish to maintain the belief that the administration deliberately lied to us, I do believe that they were selectively choosing to err on the side of caution (albeit, with flawed intelligence), while understanding the short term benefits it could possibly provide.
LBJ didn’t decide to run for re-election as he was facing a primary challenge from Robert Kennedy and the country was spiraling out of control. Clearly, he would never have expected Robert’s assassination only a few months later, and I’m not sure it would have mattered. The man knew he led the country astray and it was time for new leadership. There’s a PBS "American Experience" documentary that showed, come retirement, LBJ grew out his hair and returned to work on his farm, referring to how he adopted the image of all the hippies that protested against him. Still, in terms of domestic policy, with his War on Poverty and Civil Rights legislation, issues that would never even come close to seeing the light of day in today’s political landscape - he accomplished quite a lot. The film shows the frustrations of a man who finally met his match in governing a war that was beyond any set of laws or modes of conduct.
BELOW: A great scene of a president facing a tough decision with only bad options
Director: Randall Wallace
Writer: Randall Wallace
Cinemtographer: Dean Semler
by Jon Cvack
I’ve checked out this film about three times now. I didn’t like it the first time, fairly certain I didn’t make it through the second, and finally slogged through on the third. It starts off as a solid movie, following the training for a new type of air cavalry program, which involves dropping off groups of soldiers via helicopter straight into the hot zone. They’re led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), as your classic best of the best man; a Harvard grad who saw combat in Korea. His right hand man is the stoic, bad cop, tough as nails, M16-denying Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley (Sam Elliot), who whips the troops into shape and somehow can stand up as bullets fly in every which way, killing most men around him.
In an engaging and creative scene, as the officers are going for a run through battle, the radio team catches a live feed from Vietnam in which the broadcasters are slaughtered in a gunfight. What was once a noble and respectable pursuit suddenly takes on a new reality. As Moore forewarns, this is combat, men are going to die.
Other members of the cast involve the jock from American Pie, Chris Klein, who plays a “born leader”, but in no way can escape his role as the stolid Oz and demonstrates why his career lasted about three years. We also have Greg Kinnear as Major Bruce P. Campbell; an ace helicopter pilot that drops off and picks up the hundreds of soldiers fighting in the hot LZ. The best role probably goes to Barry Pepper who plays Joe Galloway; author of the source material, introduced as an ambitious war photographer.
The men complete their training, they graduate, the women start a club to find out where to buy groceries and do laundry. There’s one woman who’s confused over why the laundromat only allows for ‘whites only’ and no colored clothes. You can literally feel Wallace patting himself on the back for how creative this moment is, and instead we cringe our way through, when the generic snappy black woman talks about how her man doesn’t ask for respect from no white man. I understand the need to include issues of the time., but to portay women as entirely ignorant about the major civil rights issues going on is fairly offensive.
The war arrives, and in a fairly awesome scene with a great score, the 400 American soldiers unknowingly land into an enemy training camp where over 4,000 enemy soldiers are garrisoned underground and within the hills. And then the movie takes a major dip.
I was only about sixteen years old when this film came out. Having been blown away from Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, I was waiting for the Vietnam equivalent, which many tried and no one came close to accomplishing. The issue with We Were Soliders is that for about 75% of the 2 hour 23 minute running time, we have absolutely no sense of the geography. We follow one small platoon as they get lost in the hills, under heavy fire, but even with them we have no idea of their position in relation to the HQ. I understand that by keeping it confusing we were experiencing what the Americans were - enemies coming in from all directions, seemingly out of nowhere, and unendingly. Perhaps it could have worked with a 90 minute film. But once we start pushing the 1 hour and 45 mark, I was exhausted. The formula became increasingly played out. Soldiers would go on the offensive, enemies would appear, the Americans would get drilled down, Greg Kinnear and Co. would drop off fresh soldiers, pick up the dead, and then repeat the process. I didn’t understand where they were, what they were trying to do, what the strategy was, or how they won. One moment they were completely overwhelmed by enemies, and the next they blasted through a small camp and the battle’s over.
It all goes to show that the audience needs to know the motive behind actions. The film periodically cuts to the underground bunker, gratuitously revealing their enemy’s battle plans, and then cutting back to hundreds of soldiers rising from the ground and running down the hill. Even if they cut into a map, showing where everyone was, at least I could have understood the progression. Instead, it seems as though once everyone takes their position, that’s where they remain for the entire two hours. There’s only so much blood and carnage you can take before wanting to know what the strategy is.
I am in awe of what these men went through and am interested in checking out the book. To think that this battle went on for over nine days, with constant attacks, and that hardly anyone probably slept and still had to keep on fighting is incomprehensible. I don’t think those men got the movie they deserved.
BELOW: Definitely gets you pumped - just not as much as other films
Director: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
by Jon Cvack
Metallica was one of the first bands I ever fell in love with. It’s a group that contains so many songs that I associate with particular moments of my adolescene and early teen years, that most of their albums now provide me with such a stronge sense of nostaglia that I don’t think I could ever view the music objectively. Ride the Lightning reminds me of when I had to go on college tour trips with my family, as my sister was looking at schools in the vast farmlands of the MidWest. For a 7th Grade music class we had to write a short story inspired by a song we loved and I chose "Nothing Else Matter" because it was really deep. The Unforgiven II reminds me of my first kiss and major crush, and how the situation unraveled shortly after. I took percussion lessons and aspired to be Lars Ulrich (in the pre-Napster days, though after Napster my loyalty to Metallica was greater than any fan backlash - I also didn’t really understand it). I still consider Kill ‘Em All as one of the greatest metal albums, and "Seek and Destroy" as one of the best metal songs of all time. They were a badass band and my first favorite.
This movie is essentially your average music documentary meets American Movie (1999), where contrary to all their badassness, Metallica had opted to recruit a psychologist to help them with their next studio album and paid him $40,000 per week for his services. He teaches them to share their feelings as calmly and directly as possible and so throughout the story we hear a lot of “I understand what you’re saying, but…” and “I respect your opinion, I just don’t think…” and other incredibly tame and light hearted language that is about as in opposition to their music as it could get.
There’s a moment when James Hetfield is warming up his vocals with the classic “me-me-me-me-me”, which sounds far more like a parody than reality. Turns out he had blown out his voice while recording the Black album and has been using the cassette tape ever since. We learn that their bassist Jason Newsted was fired from the band because James didn’t want him splitting his time between Metallica and anything else, essentially forcing him into an ultimatum and - good for him - he left the band, and probably millions upon millions of dollars a result.
Contrary to their typical process, which involved Lars and James writing the music and delegating to the other band members, they wanted everyone to have an equal say, including Kirk Hammet and their producer Bob Rock. As a result, and along with their psychologist’s coaching, they each get to say what works and what doesn’t from everything from the drum beats to the lyrics. Early on in the development, James randomly checks into rehab in order to seek treatment for alcoholism, putting the album on hold. When he returns he tells everyone that he can’t work any longer than eight hours a day, and everyone else is prohibited from listening or discussing what they did that day until they all return to the studio.
In a great scene, Lars talks about how shitty it is for the rest of the members that they have to essentially cater to his schedule. While we agree with everything Lars is saying, it doesn’t help that he’s one of the most passive aggressive characters in the movie. For instance, while laying down a drum track, James criticizes Lars for trying to make it too complicated. Lars responds by saying he doesn’t want to play the same old stuff, and then - like a child - says the fault might actually be James’ for laying down uninspired guitar riffs.
What’s most hilarious is that in the end, St. Anger is a terrible album. Not just by Metallica standards, but any metal standards in general. It makes you wish there was a documentary highlighting the making of And Justice for All…, Ride the Lightning, or the Black album, when the original process was preserved and the alcohol was running rampant. Because whatever happened there is definitely not happening here. As usually occurs to most great musicians, the latter stuff soon starts to suffer, with the members trying to constantly push the boundaries and create something new and original, rather than trying to reproduce what worked best. Here we witness the train wreck coming, making it all the more hilarious every time we see James singing without music in the background (and how horrible it sounds).
At one point they share their music with their Tour Manger, who says it’s really falling short of what he considers Metallica to be. Lars invites his dad into the studio to give it a listen, who also thinks it’s far inferior to all they’ve done. Lars’ passive aggressive laughter makes you want to slap him across the face, as he’s one inch away from lashing out and going full teenage “You just don’t understand me” in response. The thing is they’re all right.
All the while, we see Kirk Hammet, who seems like the one reasonable guy in the room, trying to tame the power struggles between Lars and James. You keep wanting him to say, “You know, how about you just go back to the old style and tell us all what to do.” It’s clear he knows it’s not working, and given what happened to their bassist, he fears what could happen to him as a result.
You can’t help seeing Bob Rock as attempting to do or say anything he can in order to just finish the album. I got the sense that while he wanted to make a decent record, he knew that - regardless of how it was welcomd- it would rocket to the top of the charts and sell millions of copies, making them all the richer, regardless. His mission is to just make it to the finish line.
It’s such an incredible story of the creative process, and what happens when those at the top are no longer part of the world in which they were once rebelling against. Similar to comedic actors (who once super stars, often crash and fast) it was that integration in the world and witnessing how difficult it could be that created some of their best music. There was an authentic and raw energy to it that really started to take a dive with Reload. I kept wondering why they were so committed to do doing something fresh when their process had demonstrably worked so many times in the past. It’s like a bell curve, in which young kids try so hard to be badass and express real feelings through their music, but not having anything to really worry about in their sheltered, suburban, middle class homes.
While once Metallica was eating what they called “Bologna on Hand”, sharing a rundown apartment, and consuming copious amounts of Jagermeister, now they’re fantastically wealthy, with nothing in the world to worry about, except for James who struggles with alcoholism, though even those lyrics are trite and sophomoric. Lars even decides to sell his paintings (which actually are pretty cool) and makes nearly ten million dollars with the sale. James rides to work every day in a different vintage car. The only individual that has any heart seems is Robert Trujillo who we see living in a small studio apartment with a mini fridge, quickly learning that his role in the band is obstensibly irrelevant by all comparisons.
So with that in mind - why not just do what worked? I suppose and understand that it would have been boring, but what if, now that they all have equal say in the development, they attempted to outdo the style of their first four albums? The whole time I just wanted to be there and offer what I would’ve liked to hear as a fan. The risk is mediocrity, but that’s exactly what was delivered.
BELOW: One of the best moments
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
by Jon Cvack
I watched this and When Trumpets Fade ('98) back to back. I figured When Trumpets Fade would be cheap and cheesy, and Tigerland would be a decent film. It has 7.0/10 on IMDb, which means it’s a good enough move to check out on my meter (which - with the exception of cast/director/writing/awesome concept/horror film/and a few other reasons - anything equal or below a 6.9 will probably get ignored more often than not). Tigerland was directed by Joel Schumacher of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin fame, who made the fantastic choice to shoot the whole film on 16mm. I will admit that my HBO Go connection was about as low as it got, so I really missed out on a lot of the grit, and believe this did impact the viewing. Nevertheless, this was one of the stranger movie going experiences I’ve had. The whole time I was expecting to follow these soldiers from boot camp to the camp close to Vietnam called Tigerland and then finally onto the front line. I swear, when this movie cut to black, I thought it was only ⅔ ‘s over and the action was finally about to begin.
It takes uninspired cues from two films - Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket, which is glaringly obvious that I’m almost glad my connection was so bad just so the plagiaristic Saving Private Ryan photography wasn’t as clear. The problem is that instead of presenting interesting situations and characters - as presented in nearly every war film - Tigerland relies on one mildly interesting character, Private Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell), who's a rebellious soldier with absolutely no respect for authority. Beyond him, the only person that I can recall with any semblance of distinction, was an idealistic college kid who wanted to write about the war, Private Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis).
I came across one review (which after looking at BBC, New York Times, SF Gate, and Rolling Stone I still can’t find and don’t care to look) proclaiming how great Farrell’s accent was, which is strange because I kept thinking how often it was cutting back to his Irish droll, particularly after they were crawling through barbed wire and, contrary to their squad leader’s orders, Bozz instructed the men to stay down, starting a massive shit storm, though it wasn’t entirely clearly what the problem was with moving forward, forcing Bozz to have to explain himself and his Irish Brogue really came out.
There’s a lot of reflection amongst the characters about what it all means, and there’s one kid in the dining hall who talks about the moon shining, but I was so cringed out that I actually stopped listening to what he was saying and started thinking about how much it’d suck to have to peel that many potatoes. The movie was completely and entirely too heavy and all too often. Everything and everyone was the extreme. We meet Sergeant Fillmore (Michael Shannon, which was a pleasure to see), demonstrating how to use a field radio to shock enemy testicles; how one soldier is just so mad at Bozz for his rebellious and cavalier attitude that he’s willing to pull a formula somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and Chucky 3, weighing toward the latter and considering placing a live round into his gun to shoot him during a field exercise; and we learn how the only thing you need to go home is a solid excuse and Bozz is the one who can get that excuse, and yet he never actually uses the excuse because, well, that would be too obvious and less complex.
The movie was so determined to be real and serious that the little humor it contained was lost completely. As makes any film bad, there was just too much serious stuff going on, never allowing us to see the bonds of war. While watching this, I was taking a Coursera Course from Princeton which I recommend, called ‘Paradoxes of War’. One of the lessons was about the inevitable and incredibly strong camaraderie that develops in battle. It’s an idea that I recall hearing most clearly in Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers; that what’s most important is not killing the enemy, nor the greater battle or war, but those who are around you; like a chain, you are bound by the understanding that they will fight for you and you therefore need to fight for them. Such conditions forge some of the most important and significant relationships of these soldiers lives. It’s what was missing from Tigerland. With the exception of Bozz and Paxton it all felt so empty, and even they didn’t feel that genuine. The characters were so flatly drawn out. A writer and rebel; that’s really all we get from them. No nuance, and no more than each other. I was disappointed.
BELOW: Slim pickings on the YouTube front, so here's Colin Farrell's audition tape
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Mamet and Steven Zaillian
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
by Jon Cvack
I’m not sure why I wasn’t interested in ever checking out this film. I assume it had something to do with Silence of the Lamb’s greatness and not wanting to tarnish its mythology, the way sequels and prequels often do. But it’s been slim pickings on the instant views between HBO Go and Netflix so I figured I’d give it a go.
There’s something about films made in the late 90s/early 00s - up there with frosted tips and carpenter jeans with those loops midway down that I still don’t understand (though assume could hold a hammer) - that caused filmmakers to make really gross and cheap choices, specifically with the use of slow motion when the film wasn’t shot in slow motion, achieved through a mixture of blending the frames while slowing them down. It’s easy to blame some studio heads who needed this effect in order to enhance the emotions; I just don’t think that’s necessarily who was calling the shots. Hannibal contains this effect more than one time, which is about 1 + n more times than was needed, even going so far as to cut and blend as many frames as possible to really make it look like an even bigger piece of garbage.
Aside from Clarice Starlings’ (Julianne Moore) storyline, the story is actually pretty good. Except why does it seem that sequels need to take their very clear and defined heroes and find an absurd way to discredit everything they’ve ever done? I can’t think of many films off the top of my head and assume it’s because it happens so often for equally uninspired story progressions that they’ve all melded together. Regardless, after a drug bust gone wrong, Clarice Starling is now on ‘thin ice’ and put back on the Hannibal case, lobbied by the wealthy and powerful Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), whose mask is pull-you-out bad (though the eyeballs are pretty awesome). I had no idea this was Gary Oldman, who allegedly put up a huge fight to get billing, and I don’t think a single viewer would know it’s him either (and maybe that’s why he wanted it).
Any way - Verger petitions Justice Department Official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) to have Clarice reassigned and it’s clear there’s some dirty business going on. You see, Verger was once attacked by Hannibal Lecter and has dedicated his life to hunting him down. Meanwhile, in Rome, Itally a police inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Gincarlo Gianni) is investigating the disappearance of a library inspector, replaced by a strange and eccentric gentleman named Dr. Fell, who is of course, Hannibal Lector. Pazzi discovers that Verger is giving away $3 million dollars to whoever can find Hannibal, so rather than launching a proper police investigation, he instead opts to assist the bounty hunters.
And so begins a very exciting and entertaining story, with a closing scene that is one for the books, particularly when the young girl on the airplane inquires as to what Hannibal is eating (this image has been stuck in my mind for about a week now). It’s crazy to think this film came out in 2001, just seven years after the original, when it feels so new and fresh by comparison. The trivia for this film alone is fascinating, with David Mamet allegedly penning one of the earliest drafts and Steve Zallian going on to do the rewrite since Mamet was directing a film and couldn’t afford the time; Jonathan Demme expressed interest in directing the project but abhorred the gore and feared he couldn’t make it as great as Silence of the Lambs (makes sense); the ending in the book has Clarice and Hannibal run off together as a couple (what?!); and Ron Vawter played the original ‘Justice Department Official’ in the original draft.
Hans Zimmer thought that the film was a modern Romeo and Juliet, with Hannibal and Clarice taking on the two iconic roles. Given the novel’s actual ending, I’m anxious to read the book to see it's pulled off. Currently, I just don’t see that much attraction from Clarice, neither in the original nor in the film. It’d be a tough balance to find for any performer; to deal with the conflict of attraction toward someone so reprehensible. I’m also not sure audiences would have enjoyed it, but it would have been different, that's for sure. Perhaps some of the issues will get resolved in Red Dragon, which is the last in the series I have to check out.
BELOW: Brain on the Plane
Director: David Twohy
Writer: Darren Aronovsky (very cool), Lucas Sussman, and David Twohy
Cinematographer: Ian Wilson
by Jon Cvack
I remember a buddy of mine telling me about Below - "It’s a scary movie set on a submarine" and so went one of the most effective descriptions I've ever heard. This was about eight years ago, and for as much as I enjoyed the film back then, for some reason it just didn't work this time.
Almost everything in this movie feels and looks cheap - from the lighting to the VFX to much of the action; I’m talking movie-of-the-week level of polish. I suppose it’s the natural lighting in the sub, which allowed the photography to get a bit more expressive as the the story progressed, but after you see Crimson Tide, Das Boot, or even U571, you question whether this was a deliberate choice and how much they might have regretted it.
Zach Galifianakis is in the film, which I suppose is helping the film's shelf life. While his character plays strange and paranoid fairly well, you never for one moment believe that this is a person from the 1940s. He looks and acts exactly the same as he does nowadays. Once again, I’m confused over how uncreative some of these choices were. And this isn’t to criticize Galifianakis so much as the director or studio who kept on pushing this goofy approach to the material, which I guess is the comedic relief, but is more like comedic distraction. Perhaps it’s only because we now know Zach G. as a Goofy Guy, but he played his role in Birdman so well that I just don't get it. When I’m suppose to take a line seriously, or get frightened by a particular event or moment, every time they cut to him and he’s wearing a necklace full of Cracker Jack prizes - I'm immediately pulled out. And that's because he's funny, and the movie isn’t engaging enough to make you forget that it’s funny, rendering all of the thrills and chills ineffective.
Nevertheless, it is a cool setting for a film that takes its fair share of liberties in order to move things along. For instance, setting fire to the entire crew in some sort of freak accident that I don’t understand, except that it involves fumes, though I still question how that could have charred all of the men. Or how the oil is leaking out yet there’s hardly a sign of any oil in the water when the men swim through it. Or that the men would have been so frightened about having to own up to the ship that they decide to kill their own captain, rather than stating that it was a honest mistake, since the ships did look nearly identical. Repeated viewings don’t really help these illogical decisions. They just become more noticeable.
Submarine movies succeed by their claustrophobia and isolation. If you die under water you will die a miserable death. The movie plays with this, especially as they're attacked by those hooks hanging off the German ship (I wonder if these are real things, as they do make sense). Yet there’s something that seems to be missing, as though they just grazed the service of what could have had so much. I keep leaning toward the horrible cinematography. If it just felt like I was on a ship in the 1940s I think I could have had an easier time believing all the other moments.
BELOW: All of the puns I can think of are too terrible to include. Here's a clip that gives a taste
Thoughts on films, old and new
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