Director: Dave Ohlson
Story: Darren Lund, Andy McDonough, Dave Ohlson, and Jason Reid
Cinematography: Dave Ohlson
by Jon Cvack
A buddy of mine has started going to some climbing gyms and mentioned how he’s been watching some climbing films and was interested in one day trying a mountain. I had watched Touching the Void, which I consider one of the greatest survival films ever made, but hadn’t really checked out much else, until I watched Everest (2015), which I didn’t love but combined with my buddy’s new hobby definitely piqued my interest in the subgenre. I remembered the K2 cover, which only had a three star rating. Having some interest, I typed in K2 and came along this film, thinking it was a sequel to the original K2 (it’s not; as K2 is a ridiculous 80s narrative and this is a documentary).
K2: Sirens of the Himalayas follows an international group of climbers who range from returning for another attempt at summiting K2 to a first attempt at the summit; ranging from Fabrizio Zangrilli who has officially spent a year trying to climb the mountain to Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a world-famous female mountain climber who would eventually be the first woman in history to summit all fourteen 8,000+ kilometer summits without oxygen. There’s an Englishman Jake Meyer (I might be getting this name wrong), who’s wild optimism and determination are inspiring, along with a handful of other professional climbers.
Back in 2008, nearly a dozen climbers were killed in an accident, which I’ll hold off discussing, and urge you to check out another documentary on The Summit which examines the tragedy. While Everest manages to receive almost 900 summits a year, K2 might go an entire year without receiving a single summit. It’s considered the hardest mountain to climb, particularly because no matter which way you try to go there are countless obstacles in your way - as though the mountain itself has its own set of armor to prevent intrusion. In fact, you can only get to the mountain through a rigorous 36 hour journey, involving flying into Pakistan and driving for another twelve hours along three-quarter wide, single lane roads, along steep cliff faces.
The first question you find yourself asking is why anyone would want to do this - climb up to the peak of mountain, in which the hardest part of the journey is called “The Dead Zone”, so depleted of oxygen that even with supplemental oxygen your body begins breaking down. Because the air’s so thin no helicopter can come to your rescue, and the local law is that it’s better to save yourself if there are few other options than to risk doubling the possibility of death. It’s difficult to grasp this concept amidst a world of hyper connectivity - that there remains an endeavor that is so cut off from humanity that beyond some radios and oxygen masks there is nothing to be done when danger strikes - whether out of exhaustion, snow blindness, or overwhelming fear.
When the team arrives they immediately receive a taste of danger when a pair of climbers ski down the mountain, with one taking an accidental turn, falling hard across the rock face, getting killed. This was an experienced climber and he died right before their eyes.
Given how much you have to carry and wear, this is not like Cliffhanger or K2 (the little I saw) where you hang from cliffs with your fingertips. Instead, it involves climbing steep ice faces, using nothing but your pickaxe and spiked boots, attached to a skinny piece of rope to guide your movements, all while breathing becomes increasingly difficult. The climbers mention the state of mind the pursuit requires, as even a few hundred meters with no air can take an incredible toll on the body, and yet when you realize how close you are, there’s additional motivation. And yet you have to be smart and humble enough to accept defeat, as the Englishman does when he’s just a few hundred meters from the summit. He knows he would only endanger himself if he went any higher. And considering that most accidents happen on the descension, it’s best that he return to base camp.
In the end, none of the climbers make it to the summit. They approach the “bottleneck” - an area where the dozen climbers were killed in a single day; where precarious ice cliffs hang hundreds of meters high, able to break at any moment - and they turn back, either because their bodies can’t handle it, or because they don’t trust the mountain to hold. As a few of them mention, though, it’s not about the summit so as much as the attempt. Of course, you want the summit, but it’s really just an added bonus to the journey. I can’t help wondering if this is true, as what else would drive these individuals to risk their lives again and again and again other that that the top is very much important, to the point of obsession. We later learn of Kaltenbrunner’s success a few years later, when she tried taking a different route. We witness the bond these teams develop as they work toward summiting. The film makes me hungry for more mountain adventure films. I checked out The Summit immediately after and loved every minute.
BELOW: The film's intro. Should be enough to pique
Director: James Vanderbilt
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
by Susan Bartley
On the one end you had Spotlight go on to take Best Picture, exploring the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal. It was an incredible picture, though as Bret Easton Ellis mentioned, it wasn’t the most cinematic picture, playing more like an HBO or Showtime film. As great as the film was, I was re-watching it and its effect was greatly diminished. Having been in gross ignorance of the entire scandal, and being absolutely floored and terrified by the films concluding credits highlighting cities across the world that dealt with a high volume of abuse cases, all while sitting in a packed theater, I was proud to see it win Best Picture for how important the story was (though, again, The Revenant will go down as a Great American Film and should have won the statute for its phenomenal level of craft that pushed the boundaries of cinema). I direct everyone to check out All the Presidents Men, The Killing Fields, or The Insider to see how you can indeed take a serious and sensitive subject and make it cinematic.
So while Spotlight played as a good HBO movie, Truth played like a Hallmark film. The story involves the CBS 60 Minutes’ team botched investigation of George W. Bush’s going AWOL during National Guard service, after receiving alleged forged documents, facing severe legal action as a consequence. The first half of this film has some of the worst directing I’ve ever seen in my life, in which James Vanderbilt seemed utterly incapable of covering any scene beyond a series of close ups. In fact, when he finally does go into a wide, the blocking was so generic that I called what they were going to do.
For example, in wide, you had researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace) lying on the couch, playing catch with himself, with Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) in the foreground on the phone, and Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) entering the room. I knew, for reasons of seeing this so many times, that Mike would start talking about food, “Pizza sounds good. Yeah… I think I want pizza” is the original line Topher was given or approved by the writer who gave us Zodiac. I then knew Charles would of course catch the ball out of Topher's hands and the scene would cut. It was the Hollywood version of opening a film school short with an alarm clock going off. Again, Vanderbilt wrote one of the 00s greatest films (Zodiac), but that in no way means he was equipped to get behind the camera. For the first half, each scene felt flat and uninspired.
In another absurd sequence, when the news team writes about a dozen names on the board of people to contact to corroborate the scandal, Vanderbilt takes us into a montage of phones hanging up, angry responses, generic answers, sitting on the ground in a dark office, and all the frustrations you’d expect from not getting anyone on the line. Only problem is, because every single person was unwilling to talk, there was absolutely no tension. This all could have been done in a single shot. The team tried calling, the person did or didn’t answer, then they'd move onto the next one. For crossing off twelve names on a whiteboard this was the most elaborate montage for a sequence that resulted in nothing. Better, they could have just fast forwarded the narrative, started from having eleven of the names crossed out, explaining why, and saying, “Yeah, we couldn’t get anyone else on the line except this one person.” Boom - five minutes saved.
So after I was nearly bored out of mind, and only continued to watch the film because I had the strange opportunity to sit in first class on a trip back from Germany with endless wine and a strange affinity for Investigative Journalism pieces and nothing else looking too good, I figured I’d see where it went. It does get better, especially once we discover that the documents could have been forged. Except again - and this is more a criticism of the history than film - the idea that no one realized that the Times New Roman font could be recreated in Microsoft Word from the time when the document was written was so enraging that I really didn’t care to root for the characters. Additionally, the fact that we don’t know whether or not the documents were ever genuine makes it all the more enraging, especially since the film takes an opinion that left a bad taste in my mouth. If we learned in the end that they were real that would have been fine. But in a sequence involving Mary Mapes before a Corporate Lawyer Team, reviewing her conduct, she gives an in depth answer about why she thinks she was right. Only problem is - we never know if she was, and so the film editorializes the issue, essentially and indirectly defending their actions, when in fact, we have no idea whether or not it was true.
The film does get into interesting explorations of journalistic ethics, providing an interesting glimpse into why the last nonpartisan name in news finally fell. Similar to The Insider, which is difficult to even put in the same sentence as this film, is the idea of corporate control of media. In a scene that's interesting in theory but was cringey in practice, Mike Smith returns to the office to get his things, facing an Executive Producer who threatens to kick him out, leading Smith to unleash a diatribe about the endless corporate mergers and control of media, with a pending piece of legislation that would cut into their profits (possibly at risk due to the scandal), pending approval by Bush, which was actually interesting, though completely and wildly out of place, and felt like a forced moment where Vanderbilt was able to inject his own insights into the media-political machine, without really having much motivation. If we deconstruct this a bit, who would Mike be talking to in this case, other than the viewers, since the EP doesn’t give a shit and wants him out, and everyone else in the office is probably aware of the deal, thus creating a strange breaking of the fourth wall without looking directly into the camera.
We then have Cate Blancett enter into breakdown mode, which if it weren’t for her power as an actress, would have been equally cringey, though it comes fairly close as she starts drinking and letting her hair go, and after she gets on the phone with her abusive father who accuses her of being a liberally biased feminist, to which she responds with something along the lines of “Please daddy, please stop doing this” (emphasis on the word ‘daddy’, which also felt out of place). I’m sure the stress and frustration was in earnest, but something about it felt inappropriate in the narrative. Nevertheless, Blanchett’s performance is the best part of the film.
In the end, we don’t know if the documents were forged. Instead we receive an incredibly liberal slant to the material, which is a bit hypocritical given that the film criticizes any accusations of liberal bias. It was a look into a controversy that I knew little about, and hate that my belief about Bush’s AWOLness was uncorroborated, and still hasn’t been and therefore continues to be perpetuated by liberal bias. I appreciate the film’s mission in supporting journalism’s mission to ask questions and find the truth. Unfortunately, for a film that criticizes critical individuals, battling against some grand conspiracy which is never really supported, the pride of neutrality is portrayed in a film that fails to achieve neutrality. If Mary Mapes pride that she could do no wrong with Rathers at her side was a bit more fair minded, rather than celebrating her as some type of righteous crusader, I could have enjoyed the film. As is, I saw someone that made a serious mistake, right or wrong.
BELOW: For anyone that's forgotten the scandal, here's the 60 Minutes segment
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
by Susan Bartley
I’m not sure I’ve heard one good thing about this film yet. Still, with Mendes back at the helm, and after Skyfall provided such a transformative moment in action cinema, riding off the Nolan tailwinds, in that maybe giving a film a great director and veteran photography could actually make a great movie. Spectre disproves this theory. The movie plays like a bad sequel to Skyfall, in that everything seems to be trying imitate the former film.
Hearing the film was budgeted at $250 million I was hoping to see things I’ve never seen before - the pinnacle of gorgeous photography and elaborate sets and action sequences. Instead, the movie is like all of the other James Bond movies out there, with a plot that is so formulaic it’s shocking. How does $250 million dollars with an A-list director produce a film that’s so generic? All I’m left with is the script as I’m fairly certain that if you took out all lines of dialogue that’re directly related to the plot, 99% of everything else has been said in one way or another in a previous Bond film. This isn’t an exaggerated joke. I’d love to have someone run a script and find out.
I had watched the film after failing to participate in a conversation during a job. I heard them talk about a shitty Bond woman, a shitty car chase, a cool opening shot, and a shitty reason for the story to exist. Although I appreciate their willingness to explore private data and the increasing centralization of it, the story was borderline absurd, with a brand new NCS building (National Center of Security) springing up out of nowhere, putting an end to the 007 program (this is point one of where I swear this has already been the plot at least a few times throughout the series). Of course, 007 was involved in the unbidden chase of some bad guy, set during the Day of Dead festival with an almost cool opening shot that doesn’t really go anywhere, which is further aggravated by a building collapse sequence that looks like shit and plays like a video game, to then get aboard a helicopter, all while thousands of people stand below, most of whom look like bad CGI creations, though it could have, I guess, been where they put in half the budget to get real actors.
Bond is then chewed out by the new “M”, with a brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes in seat, who has decided to inject nanotechnology into Bond in order to prevent him from going on anymore renegade missions. Of course, he talks to Q and gets the nanotechnology shut off, eventually making his way to Rome, where he comes across the "Spectre" criminal organization, led by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who I’m not sure how, but is given hardly anything that meets his talent as an actor, instead exploiting his German accent and creepy smile, hoping that his mansion and drilling machine would handle the rest. Eventually this leads Bond to Mr. White, who abandoned Spectre and is dying from thallium poison, who admonishes Bond to protect his daughter and future Bond girl Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), which of course he does, eventually ending up at Oberhauser mansion, facing the drill machine that was mildly uncomfortable to watch, except I’m still not sure how 1) when the drill went into the other side and he was suppose to forget anyone, nothing happened and 2) he was able to simply break away from the braces just to throw the bombs, but not to prevent a drill from going into his face.
Strange enough, even though I’m writing this a few weeks after it came out on video, I came across an article on Reddit discussing all the plot holes. Without going into all of them, I’ll highlight the hole of Bond’s assassin trying to kill them on the train, even though they were suppose to be delivered safely to the base, along with the entire final scene, where Bond somehow happens to hear Swann in the room, seemingly sacrificing any and all tension in order to get to the explosion as quick as possible. I’ll let you read the rest, as they’re not even worth listing, though I will note that seeing that this film was somehow supposed to connect the other three, which is interesting, and Oberhauser’s relationship to Bond was interesting, except that neither were adequately explored, leaving you to wonder how many studio heads got into the development meetings, telling them to move things along so they could spend more of that $250 million.
Also in the comments of Reddit is the idea that there are absurd moments in Bond films and it’s return to formula is almost a tradition at this point. Understandable, but at least Skyfall took those conventions and advanced them with beautiful and unprecedented photography. I even recall the cool room with the servers, and how it all verged on the surreal, yet never drawing you out of the picture. Spectre sacrificed all of what worked in Skyfall with redundant and uninspired set pieces. Hoytema's photography couldn’t shine because there was nothing to make it shine toward. Mendes couldn’t work any magic because the script was awful and there’s only so much you can do.
I recall the billboard that made the film look awesome, with Bond in the Day of the Dead mask, and I was thinking we were going to turn Latin American countries for this one, exploring all the great architecture and landscapes of that culture, creating beautiful set pieces for Mendes to work his magic. Instead, we were in London and Rome and some desert compound. Again. It makes you realize that without the phenomenal photography and set pieces, this series is going to die if it keeps repeating these formulas. It’s why Casino Royale worked so well - they tried to create a new Bond and succeeded. Spectre abandons all that. It abandons everything that works and gives us a highly forgetful addition.
BELOW: An almost cool long take with a terrible conclusion
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
by Jon Cvack
Rahmin Bahrani’s filmography is one of the most underrated of all working filmmakers. Although I haven’t yet seen At Any Price ('12), it seemed a significant departure from his first three incredible and perfect films - Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, and Chop Shop, with Goodbye Solo being my favorite of the three. Bahrani is one of the few Great American Filmmakers; a pure indie version of Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen Brothers, creating films that put a microscope to the DNA of American life and culture. His films leave you wondering why and how the story feels so unique and plays with such engagement, all with such minimal style and amazingly simplistic stories. Even after seeing four of his five films, I don’t know how he does it. His ability to hook viewers in without offering any carrots, bells, or whistles is something that only the great classical Euro masters achieved.
99 Homes takes place in present day Orlando, Florida, dealing with the lingering effects of the ‘08 Florida housing crash. In his best role yet, Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a construction worker, long past due on a loan for some equipment, putting his house up as collateral. He has a son Conor (Noah Lomax) and lives with his mom, Lynn (Laura Dern). Unable to pay the loan back, their house is reclaimed by real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) who’s the first character in a film to pull off smoking a e-cigarette without looking ridiculous. Having foreclosed on so many homes, Rick has a relationship with the police, who refer to him as ‘Chief.’ He also has a crew that’ll guts the homees after the people are kicked out. And so Dennis, although told that he had thirty days to work out the default, is caught off guard and forced out of his home in the movie’s best scene. It’s at this moment where Bahrani’s talents shine, as you don’t know what it is precisely that makes the scene so powerful, though ostensibly from some combination of perfectly balanced, minimalist camera work, strong performances, and great natural dialogue.
So we’re thrown into the common core of any Bahrani film; that is, a seemingly small problem leads to gigantic consequences. Dennis, Conor and Lynn all end up at a run down motel, with neighbors who’ve also been kicked out of their homes. When Dennis tries to get a job, realizing his tools have been stolen by Rick's crew, chasing them down in order to retrieve them. A fight erupts and Rick breaks it up and decides to bring Dennis onto his crew. It was at this moment that the logic seemed a bit too Wallstreet ('87) for my tastes. I’m not sure why Rick brought Dennis on. I suppose it’s because he seemed smart and passionate, but it also seemed like a very convenient solution to get us into the foreclosure world. Has Rick never met anyone else that could take on the role? All that aside, Dennis starts making some serious money as he takes on the dirty job of kicking people out of their homes, and living the lavish life that he thinks he always wanted.
What I liked most about the film is that it gets into the details of the Fannie Mae government housing programs, in which a person facing mortgage default can receive $3500 for their home, no question asked, if they allow for a quick foreclosure. Another program involves realtors receiving some form of appliance or repair subsidy in the event of their theft. So if the air conditioner, pool pump, or cabinets are stolen from the foreclosed property, banks can received a significant cash injection from the government to make the repairs and preserve the home value. Rick flings Dennis a carrot, getting him to make the bogus thefts, and later promoting him to kicking people out of their homes in return for returning Dennis’s old home, which he soon doesn’t want since he’s beginning to make enough money to build an even bigger house.
It’s here where the story starts to stray from the hyper-realism that Bahrani does so well. For instance, when Dennis purchases a new mini-mansion, overlooking the ocean, with a private pool that his son wanted so bad, Conor and Lynn hate the place. It is a moment of such self-righteous, first world privilege that I was nearly shaking my head. Here you have a father that’s working his ass off for his family, buys them a beautiful home, and his mom threatens to move back to Tallahassee and take Conor with him. For all Bahrani does to show us real Americans, this seemed about as far as he’s ever strayed from realism. I don’t know much about living in a motel, but I do know that, as a child, shocked to accepted that my family and I were kicked out of our homes, and after balling my eyes out, watching my entire room tossed out into the streets, only to discover a few months later that things were fine, and even better than before, and that the entire nightmare was over - that at the very least, I would have appreciated the house that my dad worked so hard to get. A much cleaner, though far less dramatic alternative would have been to show their disapproval without the screaming and ultimatums.
At the time I was willing to overlook it, assuming that the film would continue on the predictable path and I’d soon forget the problem. Yet it descends into another cookie cutter Hollywood ending. What makes his first three films so great is their very pure and real endings, neither happy nor sad. After Dennis needs to deliver a forged document to the court in order to ensure that 100 homes are ready for foreclosure in order to make way for a bulk purchase by some large corporation, Dennis is overcome with guilt. He can’t turn it in. Nevertheless, someone tracks him down and rips the forged document from his hand and the deal goes through.
The last homeowner then needs to get kicked out. Dennis heads to the site and the man pulls out a rifle, threatening to shoot anyone that comes near him. Unfortunately, if there’s a moment that Bahrani seems to have entered into cookie-cutter Hollywood tropes it is here, as Dennis raises from cover behind a police car, walking toward the window, arms raised, even while the man is threatening to shoot him dead, and finally confesses that the paper was a forgery, somehow placating the man, who lowers his rifle. It’s the type of ending that makes you feel the studio execs strong arming Bahrani into a more redemptive conclusion. He can’t just ditch the big home and quit the job. He needs to risk his life to proclaim to the world that he did wrong. Again, the self-righteousness is laid on thick. I’m not saying that Dennis shouldn’t have felt guilt, but I think, at most, he should have just quit the job. He could have cashed out, given up the wealth, and returned to his small place. Instead, we get this grandiose and unrealistic scene that doesn’t really make all that much sense when deconstructed; that is, if I was the cop watching this bizarre spectacle I would probably assume that Dennis was attempting to mollify the situation, rather immediately assuming guilt and tossing Dennis into the squad car. There were no questions asked. His life is ruined, all because he couldn’t stand to see other lives ruined.
The ending was verging toward Hallmark movie and I’m hoping that for the next one Bahrani returns to the reality which makes him such a powerful voice. It was so great up to this ending. It’s worth checking out, even if you just turn it off right after the court scene and use your imagination for how it all finishes.
BELOW: Dennis and his family get kicked out
Director: Asif Kapadia
Cinematographer: Matt Curtis
by Jon Cvack
I didn’t know pretty much about Amy Winehouse prior to watching this film, figuring she was just another hot pop star per the likes of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, etc. that met a tragic end. It’s a moment where I’m a tad embarrassed of my pop culture ignorance, and only knew this film was worth checking out after hearing about the documentary on Slate Political Gabfast during Cocktail chatter.
It’s now that I’m a ew years past that legendary age of the infamous 27 Club - including members such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin - that I realize how young it really is, as I don’t feel that old, and all of them are starting to look younger and younger. Winehouse also passed at that age, revising the peculiarity of that number (though it has been disproven as statistically irrelevant; see the link above). From what I’ve read and seen about most of these individuals, they all dealt with significant inner demons, finding solace in drugs and alcohol. It’s Amy Winehouse who might be the most tragic, where her good looks and edgy appearance became a goldmine for the record companies and pop fans alike, all while battling with a strong heroin addiction. As the documentary repeats again and again, she just wanted to play music and on her terms, but the fandom made her all the more reclusive. It made me recall a moment from Kurt Cobain: Soaked in Bleach where a B-roll video showed Kurt discussing how his dream was to grow old like Johnny Cash, playing his guitar and make music on his own terms. To think both individuals met the same fate is eerie.
The film explores the problems in becoming an ostensible overnight worldwide star, and the pressures it creates on the artist who realizes they’re now responsible for millions and millions of dollars of other people's money. Typically when you hear these types of issues you think it’s the definitive example of first world problems. Instead, the documentary shows us what happens when an individual goes from creating music in a small studio apartment to an entire machine that centers around you. It’s not just the record company, marketing team, and fans, so much as the pressure it puts on the artist to maintain the same level of quality day in and day out for all those depending on you.
Like any great artist, Amy looked to her personal life for her inspiration. What the documentary does so well is demonstrating the personal conflicts she had with relationships, family, and her addictions and how they made their way into the music. We listen to her sing while the lyrics pop onto the screen after having just watched the event that likely inspired them. It’s haunting in how, while the world takes the music as entertainment, Amy was spilling her guts out, using the music to go deep inside her soul and explore the issues that ate away at her. I wasn’t a fan before, but I’m a big fan now. As Tony Bennett mentions, she was up there with any of the great jazz singers - Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, etc. - individuals who put their heart on the table, giving every ounce of themselves to their music, and creating something real and incredibly rare in the process. The loss of Amy wasn’t a loss of a talented pop star; it was the loss of what was destined to be one of the all time greatest artists of our generation.
I’m not sure why those rare creative geniuses who push the bar forward often end up with their addictions killing them, or killing themselves. I always think of what Hendrix, Cobain, or Morrison would look like as old men. This year Kurt Cobain would have been fifty years old. What kind of music would he be creating? If David Foster Wallace never died, what would he say about social media and these modern methods of communication? Although relatively old, what else would Hemingway have given us during the Nixon administration or Vietnam War? It seems that with all great geniuses who struggle to control the obstreperous carnival in their head is the additional pressure of meeting the expectations of both the fans that love your work and the machine that got you to them, all while trying to control inner demons, accepting that they'll never go away. Amy stuck with me for a few days. It’s a tragedy that seems to happen all too often. What else could they have done? What other magic could they have produced?
BELOW: Giving you a decent taste of her talents
Director: Jeff Prosserman
by Jon Cvack
I have a borderline obsession with documentaries and narratives that explore Wall Street. Casino Jack, the multiple Frontline series about the financial crash, and most recently The Big Short. All of these films provide both a breakdown of complex economic ideas and the fascinating characters behind these decisions. I had seen and a read a bit about the Madoff Affair. Most recently there was a meme mentioning how Madoff went to prison because he screwed over the 1%, while none but one CEO went to jail for the ‘08 crash because they screwed over the other 99%. Whether valid or not, it does provide a macro understanding of the situation. Bernie Madoff started an exclusive hedge fund, in which he took money from some of the world’s wealthiest people and created one of the most sophisticated and lucrative ponzi schemes in history.
Three New York bankers understood the fraud nearly a decade before Madoff’s scheme came crashing down - Frank Casey, Neil Chelo, and Harry Markopolos. Markopolos really steals the film’s focus, utilizing his sophisticated mathematical and analytics skills, discovering that it was all bullshit. While the men warned the SEC, nothing happened, and so the film cuts back again and again to the multiple SEC investigators who explain how and why they failed to follow up the investigation, castigated for their negligence by numerous congressmen. From my understanding, the problem was rooted in the SEC’s gross underfunding, preventing them from following up with each complaint; though how they were capable of ignoring countless complaints with so much evidence provided is beyond me.
Nevertheless, the documentary is just not that great. The title is misleading, though in all fairness, I guess it makes sense when you really think about it. No one is really ‘chasing’ Madoff, so much as the three men are trying to inform the SEC, while Markopolos’ paranoia starts to reach staggering proportions. He starts carrying around a gun and checking for bombs, and proceeds to repeat this point multiple times. The guy is smart and arrogant, joking about how he was "wayyy too young" to get married at 45. He reminds you of that smart nerd type who went to Wall Street and made some money as a way to get vindication for all his gawky teenage years, developing a gross amount of arrogance along the way. When he finally abandons his position at the hedge fund in order to become a private frauds investigator you start to give him some respect. Problem is, beyond the general details, I had no idea what was going on.
The number one rule when making a film about the financial industry is to break down complex ideas in order to make viewers understand how they worked and where they went wrong. Chasing Madoff ignores the details, focusing instead on the characters, which just weren’t all that interesting. They get into strange and distracting stylistic choices, floating between strange editorial wipes to make it seem as though their subjects are sitting next to each other, when we know they aren’t, and periodically cutting to Markopolos’ office with black and white, film noir elements, including louver blinds, a twirling fan, and harsh shadows. Combine this with a highly superficial explanation of Madoff’s dealings and it gets boring pretty fast. They kept putting up an ornate graphic involving hundreds of white orbs pointing to a big red orb, demonstrating what the ponzi scheme looked like, but doing a terrible job explaining 1) why people would fall for it, 2) how Bernie and his team were convincing people for so long, 3) how they recruited new customers, 4) why the SEC failed to investigate, and about a hundred other questions. It seemed like the filmmakers thought they had solid subjects, and for a short film, this could have worked. Instead, although only 90 minutes, I found my attention wandering, pondering over certain questions and making a mental note that I should check up on it when I was all done with the film.
The film is an okay supplemental to other Madoff documentaries, but it’s best to pick up a few books and watch the Frontline documentary first. Chasing Madoff felt lazy and I was left wanting to know far more than I learned, and not in the good way.
BELOW: Slim pickings for scenes on the YouTube front, so here's a DP/30 interview with Markopolos (which must be better than the film as I've never seen DP/30 do a two-part interview)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray; A Captain's Duty by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
by Jon Cvack
This is the second time I’ve watched this film, and checking it out at home I can say this is very much a movie theater movie, though really only up until Philips is in the lifeboat. The wide, expansive ocean and massive barge, blasting those far reaching water streams just isn’t captured on a home television. When I finished this film in the theater I was blown away, mostly because I had no idea what the story involved. I knew Captain Phillips warded off some pirates, but knew nothing about the life boat, or extravagant involvement of the US Military.
Philips mentions the difficulty in working your way up the ladder. Similar to nearly every other industry, things just aren’t what they used to be. You have to know the right person or you have to have the proper and expensive education. Tom Hank’s role is one of perfection, where he’s able to demonstrate once again, that although he’s America’s most beloved actor he’s capable of playing a man that doesn’t command presence so much as earn it. Captain Phillips gets aboard his ship, checking to make sure that it’s prepared for an attack. We get to see the crude and simplistic ways they have devised to fight off pirates, including water canons across the ship's perimeter, and cage doors that fall upon the staircases, preventing access. Phillips’ faith in these devices assures us. They must do something if he’s so adamant about their functionality.
When I think of history’s great boat captains I imagine Sean Connery from The Hunt for Red October, Jurgen Prochnow from Das Boot, Jeff Bridges in White Squall, Robert Mitchum in The Enemy Below, Gene Hackman from Crimson Tide, and Charles Laughton from The Mutiny of the Bounty. Hanks earns his place alongside these men for standing out so distinctly. He is not a commanding or threatening presence like his predecessors. He’s an extremely smart, sensitive, and calm individual who’s able to get the job done. We see his mind working with such subtlety, as Hanks knows the pirates aren’t stupid. If he doesn’t come across as fully trusting while figuring out what he has to do, then the whole crew will die. Think about how difficult that is to accomplish as an actor. Greengrass could have had him act more aggressive, or if performed by someone else, they might have come across as more intimidating. Like all of his greatest work, Hanks embodies this role. He provides such subtle depth to the character that I fully believe he’s the person. I wondered how I would respond to the closing sequence the second time around, as he realizes that he’s safe and unable to hold back the tears. Often we cry with characters. Philips was trying to hold it back, and then got completely washed over with emotion. I’ve had this happen probably three times in my life - to be able to try to contain such unstoppable emotion isn’t easy. This second viewing, I was more impressed with Hank’s ability to pull it off more than getting whisked away with the emotion.
Of course, it was Barkhad Abdi’s role as leader Abduwali Muse, who’s caught between a life of piracy and going straight, that really steals the show. We get the impression that Muse was unable to escape the hardships in Somalia; that while the straight life was tempting he was never able to find the work he needed. While Greengrass doesn’t beat us over the head with the larger picture, he does make it clear that piracy did not just sporadically rise up in Somalia, but was rather a result of complex economic policies, where similar to gang organization, pirates offered an alternative of protection and stability, if little chance of escape once joined.
Abdi was chosen from over 700 auditions, attributing his success with a higher power. The role was so authentic that I actually was certain that Abduwali was played by a Native Somali. Muse shows such inner conflict, knowing that he can’t escape the choices he made, while forced to both remain a leader to his temperamental crew whose addiction to coca leaves and cigarettes makes it all the more challenging and also to remain alert to Phillip’s ruse. Phillips has genuine respect for the guy, seeing that a straight life could have served him well if given the opportunity. Throughout the story is the mildly condescending though engaging exchange between the two men as Muse takes pride in being the new Captain, with all of the responsibilities and leadership it demands. Phillips understands and respects this about him, seeing a good man beneath the harsh surface. Adbi makes us feel sympathetic, almost wanting to given him another chance at the straight life, believing that maybe America would and could serve him best.
It’s this form of American exceptionalism that the film pulls off with an amazing balance. There's been a recent rise in pro-Military badassness, as seen in Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty, amongst others. While the 00s were riddled with anti-War texts (and one from Greengrass, in particular), the last five or so years has been a celebration - and rightfully so. Counter to Tom Hank’s more muted and calculated Phillips, the Navy Seal leader is an intimidating GI Joe gung ho bro, complete with thick muscles, southern accent, and hit-em-hard attitude. It’s more fun than ridiculous, but it also gets a little close to the stereotypes. Nevertheless, to think what lengths the military were willing to go for Phillips and his crew poses an interesting question. Did they want to protect the cargo, or the person? Because in the film, I’m fairly certain we hear off screen that they can’t let Phillips be taken to the mainland, suggesting that killing him with the pirates is preferable to letting the pirates get away with him. It’s pretty twisted. I understand it’d likely create an international scandal as an American Captain was getting tortured and held for ransom, with America not being able to do all that much, since as movies have taught us, we can’t negotiate with terrorists. The scandal it’d create is obvious and realistic. The movie suggests that this was the ultimatum, though. Either they get him off the boat or they all get killed. I would like to know who this was coming from - the White House, Pentagon, State Department? While I'm not sure of the facts around this issue, it seems like too heavy a matter to embellish.
The conclusion is a celebration of American Might, as we witness what happens when even the smallest of dangers tries to fuck with us. There was something surreal about seeing three battleships, a helicopter flying overhead, and the world’s most elite force getting ready to kill. It made feel glad and secure that I live in the USA; not out of some great American Exceptionalism, so much as feeling bad that others don’t have the same convenience. Imagine living in a place where the government had nothing to offer in that situation. At a very primal level, it feels good to have that type of protection, however rare it’s used; like when you’re a younger kid and have your older cousin who says he’ll help you out when in trouble. Captain Phillips was one of the amazing crop of 2013 films; what I consider to be one of the finest years in film ever.
BELOW: Acting is reacting, and knowing that this Corpsman was a non-actor makes Hanks' performance all the more incredible (though knowing this trivia now pulls me out)
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer:Phyllis Nagy, based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematographer: Edward Lachman
by Jon Cvack
Similar to Bridge of Spies, it feels as though Carol had time traveled back and captured 1950s New York City life, in a way that I haven’t seen a film do since Buffalo ‘66, The Christmas Story, or after seeing a revival last night, Inherent Vice. We see the pastel green of diners, with that floating film grain that most photographs from the period contain. It’s not the most beautiful film of the year, but in terms of immersing us within its environment it’s one of the most effective.
I haven’t yet seen Brooklyn, but I’m amazed that Carol wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Buzz about the plot was superficial. Although nobody said it specifically, it seemed like everyone was referring to it as "another" Gay Film. While the plot between middle aged housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) did explore their lesbian relationship, Todd Haynes somehow made the film less political than most other recent films exploring similar themes. It was a beautiful love story, plain and simple, told within Haynes’ 1950s melodramatic style, which is all the more impressive when you check out the original master of the genre, Douglas Sirk, and his magnificent body of work that clearly inspired Haynes. The story is melodrama first and gay themed second, and I think it’ll be regarded as one of the first films that was in no way trying to make some grand political statement about gender and sexuality, so much as to explore love and how such a relationship would operate in 1950s NYC.
Carol feels trapped in her life, living in a large mansion, provided by her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) who demands a certain kind of life, which Carol simply can’t provide. Carol’s one joy is her daughter, who is caught in the middle of their feud. Harge is borderline abusive. Chandler’s performance is incredible, as he struggles to fight for what he wants and contain himself in order to avoid hurting the person he loves. We witness an absence of reciprocation that’s as good as any; where we feel his pain, and if not for his moments of aggression and invasion, we’d probably feel absolute heartbreak for him. We learn that Carol has explored her sexual urges a few times in the past, retaining the friendships, much to the frustration of those previous lovers. It’s clear that she too must have wanted a certain kind of life, hoping that a family, big house, and endless amounts of clothes and lavish decorations could provide her with contentment. I got the feeling that Carol’s exploration was relatively new, given her age, as though boiling up, believed to be tamed by a grand life, and no longer containable.
In some ways I got the impression that Therese reminded Carol of her own youth, when the world took on grand possibility, quickly smothered by marriage and family. Mara communicates such intelligence and understanding all without uttering a single word at times, until she finally breaks down in one of the film’s finest scenes. What brings them together is Therese’s own uncertainty about what she wants. Carol’s approach offers her an alternative. We get the impression that until the road trip Therese wasn’t entirely certain of where it was going.
Todd Haynes was able to provide us with a film that was so in sync with the classical period of American cinema that it left me with such a beautiful post-film feeling. I had been completely transported back in time, getting to see things as they were. Nothing felt artificial or manufactured. It was all so real, as though Haynes and Co. traveled back in time. This film will be remembered as ushering in the first wave of apolitical LGBT film; where it’s not about drawing attention to the subject matter and producing grandiose commentary so much as telling an amazing and beautiful story.
BELOW: Short clip showing the amazing set design and photography (be sure to watch in HD)
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jon Favreau
Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau
by Jon Cvack
I had heard great things about Chef, but the preview really made me take my time getting there. It’s an example of where I’m sure Favreau had the control to limit what was revealed in the marketing and unfortunately, with a filmmaker who’s had some hits and misses, I kept thinking the whole movie was a comedy about a food truck, focused more on humor than character. It was only after I started The Way (2010) and immediately turned it off out of absolute awe that it was as corny as it was, as though a 90s made-for-tv movie, that I figured I’d check out the first 45 minutes of Chef and head to bed, and ended up watching the whole thing in a single sitting, staying up until 2am with no concern for work the next day.
Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper as an LA chef that’s heading up some swanky restaurant, owned by Dustin Hoffman, who plays Riva, in possibly one of his best roles since Meet the Fockers. There’s a big food blogger, Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), who’s coming to visit and they need to ensure that everything’s perfect. Although Carl is known for his eccentric and creative dishes, he’s beseeched by Riva to keep the menu traditional and simple. It’s Carl’s decision, but he’s been warned. Carl’s co-workers, Molly (Scarlett Johansson), Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Martin (John Leguizamo) urge him to take the risk and do what he wants. Carl acquiesces to Riva and delivers the normal menu to a devastating review.
It goes without saying that this movie is phenomenally well cast. Aside from the names is how real each character felt - Favreau was able to make Johansson feel accessible, somehow reining in her mega stardom; Martin is one the great best friends in a movie, probably not seen since Superbad; Oliver Platt perfectly captures the essence of a smug food critic; and Favreau was willing to pack on some pounds and return to his roots of insecurity, playing a character that seemed an extension of Mike Peters who might have dropped from acting and pursued the culinary arts (and I don’t mean the same character, but as though we were revisiting Mike twenty years later and witnessing how adulthood had taken its effect).
I wasn’t sold on Sofia Vergara, who while I understand was required for the whole Cuban turn the film takes, could have been played by a much more realistic actress. She is so overwhelmingly gorgeous that you constantly wonder how Favreau could have possibly gotten together with her in the first place and how he could have destroyed it later on, with the latter point being the most glaring weakness. She must have done something absolutely terrible to have had him leave her, though given their healthy friendship, I can’t imagine what this could have been been - with the exception of maybe Carl pursuing cooking so diligently that he started ignoring her, in which case I kind of don’t like him since 1) he had Sofia Vergara and 2) she was extravagantly wealthy, so how bad could his life really have been (in a First World problem kind-of-way)? I could keep going with how he fell into a deep existential crisis and/or how she treated him poorly, but the point is that none of this was suggested or explored, and for a film that was so well casted it seemed like this was a gratuitous choice to appease some investor or something, or through a marketing team knowing how obsessed some of the fans would be who might be attracted to the film by her name alone.
The film does one of the best jobs of using social media of any show or movie I’ve seen, up there with House of Cards use of texting messaging as when the nasty review comes out, Carl has his kid set up a Twitter account, and not knowing that messages go out into the world rather than directly to the user, he castigates Ramsey Michael and it goes viral. The exchange continues and results in Carl inviting Ramsey over for the meal he actually wanted to cook. However, moments before the show begins, with all of the ingredients purchased and recipes prepped, Riva shuts down the idea. Carl had already screwed them over once. Riva believes Carl probably had a bad night, forcing him to cook the same conservative meal or walk.
He walks and heads home to cook the meal he wanted to, starts exploring Twitter, fuming with ire, and then marches back into the restaurant and confronts Ramsey, which of course gets recorded and uploaded and goes even more viral than his initial mistake. The whole series of events is done so perfectly, with Favreau posting and exploring realistic ways of using social media that avoid the cheap jokes often associated with trying to integrate the technologies.
The event leads Carl to purchase a food truck in Florida, where he'll sell Cubano sandwiches, and drive the truck back to Los Angeles, making stops along the way. All the while, his kid Percy (Emjay Anthony) captures the entire journey on Instagram, from the food truck’s instauration through touring New Orleans, subsequently creating a massive following, prepping crowds who anticipate their arrival at each city. There’s a beautiful moment when Carl checks all the photos that really sums up how powerful social media can be, as it both helped sell their business and was able to capture a son’s love for his father.
The movie reminds of those long past feel-good mid-budgeted 90s films - something that wasn’t about politics or concerned with taking itself too seriously. You could see how much Favreau had consumed and learned to prepare for this movie. In fact, I just saw him post a photo on Reddit of a fresh made Cubano sandwich, that he was taught and studied in preparation for the film.
We discover that Carl cooks as a way to express himself. It’s his art, no different than a writer, musician, or painter. When we see stories of people who simply love what they do, performed by someone who had an extravagant amount of respect to learn the discipline, you can’t help but be enraptured. Seeing Favreau cook makes your mouth water and you also want to learn how to do what he does; the way another classic mid-range film That Thing You Do ('96) made thousands want to pick up percussion. Still, I try to think of a movie that I could compare it to, and it’s difficult. I know I’ve felt a similar way watching other films, I just can’t think of where they’d fit in relation. Chef is an absolutely incredible movie. The rare story that I could easily watch again and again.
BELOW: Making the Cubanos (don't watch while hungry)
Director: Travis Rummel & Ben Knight
Cinematographer: Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, & Matt Stoecker
by Jon Cvack
Not to be confused with Bela Tarr’s film, DamNation was produced by Patagonia and could take a strong lesson in objective reporting. The premise is pretty interesting in that since the New Deal over 75,000 dams have been built in the United States. That number is absolutely staggering, both for the impact it has on the ecosystem and for the incredible feat in constructing so many in only about seventy years (that’s about 1000 dams a year, or three a day; so they say). The problem is that the film spends very little time in describing why these dams are so disastrous.
There are three issues throughout the film - they deracinated Native American lands; they have destroyed rich archeological and natural sights; and they have really taken a toll on local Salmon populations that can no longer swim upstream, adversely affecting local industries that depended upon them.
Going in order, I completely agree and understand the Native American anger toward a government that had, once again, destroyed their culture and displaced their community, contributing to a very long, terrifying, and largely ignored tradition of the American government completely fucking over Native Americans, which is only a slight improvement over the mass genocide the government carried out a century prior.
Secondly, the filmmakers highlight an incredibly rich and relatively unexplored area of ancient tribes, where countless objects meant for museums were left abandoned until a trio of young explorers discovered them. The only proof left of their existence is some 8mm film . To think that these objects were undiscovered until about fifty years ago - again, objects from ancient times - really demonstrates our country’s youth. To avoid going too far out there, it’s when I see moments like this that I grasp how dangerous it is to assume that America will always be a perfect place or that we're somehow in a perfect culmination of history. Our country is so young that your grandfather could have discovered an ancient abandoned village that has been untouched since the tribe lived there tens of thousands of years ago.
Aside from that tangential wake up call, is that the government came in and decided to flood the entire area before a proper archeological team could excavate the property. Now, to be fair - 1) they might have done this before the flooding, as the filmmakers never let us know, and 2) teams probably could and already might have dived down to explore the site and retrieve whatever’s valuable. Or maybe the entire site was destroyed during construction. There was no counter this example and I’d bet there’s more information than they provide.
This brings us to the last issue, regarding the destruction of Salmon populations due to their inability to swim upriver. I had never thought about a dam’s ability to impede human travel and the film does provide a pretty good scene where the narrator and another kayaker try to go through the channel and transfer upriver through the locks rather than taking their gear out of the water and walking it down. The tension is built up a bit, but to see a government official threatening their arrest, especially under suspicion of terrorism, brings me back to the above point, in which aside from the terrible things our government did to Native tribes in the past, are the strange moments like this where our country looks like a police state. The guard basically states that federal law trumps their state rights to ride kayaks through the locks. I get that it’s not really that big of a deal to take your kayak out of the river, but to hear that it’s for reasons of terrorism is kind of disconcerting.
When I thought about the issue and why it was wrong, the best I could come up with is that rivers provided a natural route of travel. To impede upon that seems wrong. Is it that big of a deal to have to take your kayaks out in order to provide natural power to hundreds, if not millions of people? I’m torn.
Worse are the Salmon, who because of these wild obstructions are no longer able to get upriver. Miraculously, regardless of impediment, every year a few Salmon some way, some how make it through dammed up channels. I believe the number one was tossed around, which may not seem a lot, but when you see these dams you understand how crazy even a single salmon making the journey really is. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain the reason Salmon swim upriver, instead offering a very spiritual and hippie dippie explanation which is a shame because the actual reason is crazy. In brief - Salmon live in the ocean, then swim upriver, struggling against rapid currents and severe obstructions to lay their offspring on a gravel bed, to then die, and offer their bodies as food for the local animals (namely, bears). The eggs then hatch, the babies swim down river and out into the ocean, to then grow up and repeat the mission. That’s one of the most poetic life journeys I’ve ever read about.
The issue with the Salmon being unable to swim upriver is that, even with Salmon farms, it’s endangering the species, though again, we don’t get to know what makes these farms bad or what useful purpose they might be serving. I understand that dams are disrupting the ecosystem and the Salmon paths are suffering.
Aside from what I mentioned, my biggest issue is the filmmakers' complete failure to explore why dams might be useful at all. They include individuals who are against shutting down dams, but it’s often portrayed as due to their jobs, with the local pro-dam advocates shown as your average rural Republican farmer, angry at the hippies. Around Los Angeles, water cutbacks have enraged farmers. They have to conserve more water, and abusing that results in fines, which affects their growth, so they pay the fines and then have to raise the price of crops, or they don’t grow anything and the limited supply will drive up the demand and also raise prices.
In the case of dams, I assume it’s a similar issue, both with providing an ample water supply, or generating power. I would have liked to know what happened to the few big dams in Oregon that got knocked down and what those who were depending on them experienced. I wonder if their farms were ruined, or if electricity costs went up, businesses left, or food prices rose. I'm especially in the last point, as it would conflict with anti-dammers overall politics, in that, without dams, lower class families would have less access to fruits and vegetables since they’re getting more expensive. I don’t mind focusing on all the terrible things about dams, I just didn’t hear a fair assessment of the other side. These are complex issues and the documentary’s agenda was very clear. Unfortunately, it pushes the film out of journalism and into activism. At the end of the film, I don’t know any of the good. I just know some of the bad.
BELOW: A conversation with filmmakers Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, and Matt Stoecke (beginning at 33:00)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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