Director: John Badham
Writer: Norman Wexler
Cinematographer: Ralf D. Bode
by Jon Cvack
I remember my friend told me about the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in my fourth grade class, and for Halloween he dressed up John Travolta’s iconic white suit. I recall picking up the VHS and popping it in and ‘Staying Alive’ lit up the speakers and I was hooked. I’ve heard this song so many times that it’s completely lost its magic. I hadn’t watched this film in over a decade, back when I was nineteen years old. I always enjoy discovering a central character in a film who I considered so much older and mature, is now years younger, with his immaturity and irascible attitude coming out in brilliant and awkward moments.
The story is of dancer Tony (John Travolta) living in Brooklyn during Disco’s peek. What I love about the film is its ability to portray a moment in time. Soon Disco would become the brunt of jokes, with the great album burning at Wrigley field, and even up through the nineties, when I first saw the movie, there was still a sour taste for the era. In 2017, the first film I could compare it is to The Naked City, in which we got a genuine taste of the spirit of 1948 NYC. Saturday Night Fever is not a great film, but it does capture a very unique and niche moment in time, which really has no other competitors.
Tony is surrounded by his dead beat friends who enjoy drinking, snorting coke, and taking turns with girls in the back of their one car. The film has moments of such grotesque misogyny that I was more terrified over the fact that such behavior was evidently more regular back then and acceptable for the screen, further supported by a recent interview I listened to with Norman Mailer back in 90s on Book Worm where he mentions that 9 out 10 men genuinely believed that “No” in no way meant no, and allows you to at least rest assured that we’ve come a long way with how popular cinema portrays women.
For instance, in one of the film’s more powerful scenes, in a relentless and demeaning attempt to make Tony jealous, a friend zoned Annette (Donna Prescow) takes up with one of his friends, Gus (Bruce Ornstein). The pair leave with Tony and his other buddies, start having sex in the back of the car, and just when it’s over, Annette is forced to stay in the back while Double J (Paule Pape) then rapes her, with Tony and the others doing nothing, until they stop at a bridge, where their diffident and diminutive friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller) ends up falling off the bridge and Tony castigates Annette for having done what she did. It’s a scene that leaves you feeling dirty, despising Tony in a way that the film never really vindicates.
The film abides by the presently uninspired, mumble core premise of working a dead end job, going out on the weekend, partaking in the same debaucheries night after night, living paycheck to paycheck, always hoping for something more. That all changes when Tony meets the older and more mature Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) - a masterful dancer who could provide Tony with a genuine shot of winning the 2001 Odyssey Disco Dance Club grand prize of $500. Tony is enamored with Stephanie, though constantly puts his foot in his mouth as his refractory short temper is unleashed time and again, such as when he can’t walk her home he kicks a garbage can; when he catches Stephanie dancing with the Dance Studio owner he flips out and storms away; when he can’t get the afternoon off he unleashes a profane maelstrom against his boss, finally quitting. Individually, these tirades are some of Travolta’s most brilliant moments. In terms of overall story, they have the opposite effect. It creates a person who is so volatile you can’t understand why anyone would give him the chance, whether for his love or for his talent. The only defense I can muster is believing that it was all about the dancing, acting as some type of noble pursuit, in which case the era's hilarity returns as you wonder how Disco Dancing could ever possibly hold this much meaning for a person, with so many willing to overlook his volatile temper, violence, and intensity just because he’s that good at Disco Dancing.
Tony’s brother Father Frank Manero, Jr. (Martin Shakar) is one of the film’s great roles and characters, along with their mother Flo (Julie Bovasso) and Frank (Val Bisoglio) as the father. Flo embodies the spirit of late middle aged dissatisfaction, compulsively crossing herself at every single mention of her son Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar). Shakar is a flawless cast, falling far short of Tony’s good looks, appearing a bit awkward, but with a respectable persona, looking like someone you could spill your guts to. Finally, we learn rather creatively that Frank, Sr. has been laid off from his job, with most of the information exchanged through passing moments, rather than someone coming into the kitchen and declaring it. Midway through the story we learn that Frank has left the parish, no longer interested in the priesthood. He comes home and heads out with Tony.
While he watches Tony dance, Bobby C. (pre-suicide) asks him about an abortion for his girlfriend and Frank has little beyond hallow platitudes. Frank, Jr. then takes off the next day. They built up a character as a legend, and when he finally arrives he runs away. A perfect opportunity for insight and direction was all prepared, and the story wasted the opportunity. I suppose I can imagine some type of silence acting as a metaphor, but I think it could have been done better with Tony’s flaring temper and Frank, Jr.’s empathy coming into battle.
A lot of the film feels like should have turned right when it went left. While I once recalled this as a melodramatic story told amidst a shitty moment in time, I now would put this more in the direction of A Bronx Tale, Diner, or Liberty Heights, albeit falling far a bit short. Historically, it’s as good as it gets, especially understanding that it’s appealing to the generation that enjoyed Disco. I wouldn’t look to this film for universal truths or grand philosophies but rather as a historical piece. It makes the darker scene far more dark, as you realize that men like Tony and his friends are meant to look like the Male Ideal. It was meant to inspire, and we have this story to highlight that moment in time with genuine Sexist Disco Bros.
BELOW: One of the strongest hooks in popular cinema (at least in terms of simplicity)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai
by Jon Cvack
Check out Part 1 of the essay...
Returning to Ebert’s famous declaration and Ran’s making-of history, seeing Hidetora as an extension of Kurosawa and his fame, you can’t help wanting to revisit the film (although I’m glad that the first two times I’ve seen it were without knowing this fact). To think that the story is as much about the old filmmaker, reflecting on a lifetime of his work and how he was treated in his later years all makes complete sense. The obvious comparison is to Hitchcock, however, while Hitch gradually drifted into mediocre productions, Kurosawa’s descent was swift, and it was only after being provided the opportunity to direct these epic masterpieces that audiences and studios discovered that Ran was to be his magnum opus. And yet, to think that Ran dips heavily into the idea of retribution, with Hidetora believing his tragic fate was based on a lifetime of warfare, murder, and greed, it makes you wonder what Kurosawa had thought he’d done. Did he live a dishonorable life, leading him to believe his cinematic fall was based on a coup de grace? Or as Ebert keenly observes, “Did [Kurosawa] reflect that while the West was happy to buy, gut and remake his work, he had lost all power and respect in the country whose films he once ruled?”
As numerous articles have mentioned, the film offers a distinctly nihilistic view of the world, which operates according the Hobbesian state of nature, in which without the state or social contract, the world falls into chaos and disorder. One of the greatest features of Ran is how the story operates within a nebulous empire, where there is nothing beyond the three castles; a type of expansive chamber drama, where we get to witness the complete destruction of the world, which takes on apocalyptic proportions as we watch Hidetora and Kyoami (Pîtâ) navigate the barren landscape, which Kurosawa shot at the base of Mount Aso, an active volcano. Allegedly, Kurosawa saw the story as a metaphor for Nuclear Warfare told within a post-Hiroshima age, stating that, “All the technological progress of these last years has only taught human beings how to kill more of each other faster. It's very difficult for me to retain a sanguine outlook on life under such circumstances.” Fingers have pointed to the arquebus, a muzzle based firearm, which essentially phased out the art and practicality of samurai warfare, and was used in one of the film’s most tragic scenes where the samurai cavalry is mowed down like fish in a barrel. It’s highlighted as the beginning of the end, when hundreds of soldiers could be wiped out without ever engaging one another. In the age of drone warfare and the associated ethical problems, where a device floating thousands of feet in the sky can wipe out targets with an operator hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, demonstrates how the issue remains relevant. It has become easier to kill, and the more an individual is removed from the person he is destroying, the easier it is to destroy life.
Of course, it’s the film's photography, set design, and costumes that allow it to soar above and beyond most films ever made. The story was the most expensive Japanese production of all time, with the costumes taking three to four months to produce, extending over a period of three years, for 1,400 individuals to wear. The costume designer Emi Wada rightfully won an Oscar, as it’s what stands out most, as though we are going into the past, instead of trying to recreate it. Kurosawa had planned out every single shot of the production across a decade, from the mid-1970s when he first got the idea. What I love most about the film is the slow burn, where it takes about forty five minutes for much to happen both on screen or between characters, until suddenly erupting, as though we’ve fallen asleep, having our dreams transport us back in time. The cinematography is so brilliant and beautiful, with gorgeous, David Lean-wide shots, produced on real, true to size sets, and others utilizing longer lenses, set up hundreds of feet away, static, objectively observing the action. But it’s the blocking of these sequences that's burned so heavily in my mind; where Kurosawa has three planes of action, the foreground, middle, and background, each with a different kind of troop, moving at a different pace, with their colorful flags held eye, creating a threatening and chaotic movement in the frame that has yet to ever be replicated, living up to the Japanese meaning of ‘Ran’, which is chaos. There is so much to unpack in this film - from the political motivations to how individual scenes were constructed to the pacing - it would require a book’s length to do it justice. What you see is craft at the highest level, where you can feel the meticulous planning that went into one of the greatest works of cinema ever created.
BELOW: A.O. Scott's video essay on the film
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai
by Jon Cvack
Having only seen this movie twice, I still feel ill-equipped to offer anything beyond superficial insights. The movie contains such a vast amount of depth and humanity, based upon director Akira Kurosawa’s lifetime of education and filmmaking that I’m certain to only graze the surface. Like most of history’s greatest films, this is another that failed to receive the accolades it deserved, having been completed past the Cannes deadline, instead premiering at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which Kurosawa failed to attend. As a result, Japan refused to enter the film as a nominee for Best Foreign Film Academy Awards, and while it was still recognized for directing, costume design (which it won), cinematography, and art direction, it would have likely brought home the statue for Japan.
Ignorant of Kurosawa’s history, I was stunned to learn that by the 1970s, he was considered old fashioned and struggling to get his films financed. Although between 1948 and 1965 he made over seventeen of his finest films. Yet between the periods of 1965 and 1993 he only made seven(!) pictures. Financing fell through for many, he was once attached to direct Tora! Tora! Tora! (‘70) and was quickly pulled from the project when his perfectionism bordered on “insanity”. Of course, one wonders how much better the film could’ve been if he remained at the helm. A year after he finally got his first film in six years completed, Dodesukaden ('70), which later flopped, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, believing his career over and his best years long behind him.
Thus, Roger Ebert was famous for declaring that Ran was as much about Kurosawa’s life as it was an adaptation from "King Lear". In fact, while the two share many traits, the film’s are significantly different, with Ran focusing more on Hidetora’s comeuppance for a lifetime of warfare, murder, and greed, while Lear focused more on the king’s general foolishness. Nevertheless, the story of a maddened King and his jester, wandering around their former empire, is retained, with Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora offering one of the great performances of the decade.
The story begins with Hidetora having a dream that tells him he must divide up his kingdom to his three sons Taro (Akira Terao) , Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), with the eldest Taro receiving the prestigious first castle, and Taro and Saburo accepting the second and third. Hidetora believes that so long as they stick together they will remain strong. He hands around a single arrow which is easy to break, but when bundled together it’s impossible. Of course, Saburo puts the bundle against his shin, putting a bit more power behind the attempt, foreshadowing his alliance with warlord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), who’ll join forces to battle the other brothers. His spoiled son’s immediate dissent and dissatisfaction of Hidetora’s decision indicates where it’s going. In no way is there going to be a peaceful alliance between the three, not so long as the innate desire for power and prestige exists.
BELOW: A short clip of the castle attack, providing a decent glimpse into the film's beauty (now just imagine it on a big screen in 4k)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Samson Raphaelson; based on Birthday by Leslie Bush-Fekete
Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager
by Jon Cvack
In the Criterion Collection’s bonus features there was a discussion between film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris, which while not all that interesting, contained a brilliant point about how we’re now so self-conscious about class that films like this are no longer allowed. Haskell brings up Spanglish (2004) and how, while exploring an upper middle class family, is more about the guilt of having a servant and living a privileged life than it is about the beauty of such privilege. I never really thought about how few films portray wealthy family’s or characters these days, allowing escape to those experiencing economic hardship as seen in many of the films between the 20s and extending up to the early 1950s (Downtown Abbey is as close as I can think of). Woody Allen might be the one director who has continued the exploration, though he also idolizes this period of films, having grown up with them. Haskell is right, if such films continued, social media would have a field day. Audiences have difficulty accepting the escape such stories can provide, instead criticizing the material as disconnected.
Heaven Can Wait follows the life of Henry von Cleve (Don Ameche) from the moment he dies and finds himself in purgatory, having to explain his womanizing to the devil, named His Excellency (Laird Cregar), in order to fast track his plunge to hell. Thus begins his childhood, when his parents hired an attractive French Maid who Henry thrillingly accepts as she promises to teach him the ways of women. In this post-code film where men and women couldn’t even be shown in the same bed together, let alone suggesting sex, Lubitsch shows us the life of a womanizer and philanderer without ever explicitly stating it, to the point where if you’re not paying attention, you’d miss it.
After discovering that his successful lawyer cousin Hugo von Cleve (Charles Coburn) has brought home a girl Martha (Gene Tierney), whom Henry had met just moments before at a bookstore, pursuing her with all the charm he could muster. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, you know it’s the classical period of film when a man is willing to marry a beautiful woman literally within a day of meeting her. Thus, at the engagement party between Hugo and Martha, Henry lifts her away and they elope. Martha’s parents then disown her, vowing to cut off the dowry.
Ten years into the marriage, the couple have a child, and Henry receives a telegram from Martha, saying she ran away back home to Kansas. Again, given the code, Lubitsch’s subtly could easily be missed, as Martha produces a receipt showing that while Henry spent $10,000 on a diamond necklace for her, he also spent $500 on a bracelet which she’s never seen. At first I figured there was an excuse, and then realized, or at least suspected, that this wasn’t a mistake; that Henry actually had cheated, and Martha’s rejection of any and all of his excuses were based on a decade long era of cheating and womanizing. Of course, we don’t see any of this, and given that we don’t see it, for a moment I was on Henry’s side, until I pieced together the whole story and realized that the reason he was in Purgatory was for the fact that he had spent a lifetime cheating on his wife.
Of course she forgives him, and the two approach their silver anniversary, with their son Randolph (Louis Calhern) having taken up with a beautiful dancer who Henry hopes to pursue on the side, while also attempting to sabotage their relationship in order to prevent any damage to the family name. In a great scene, we see Henry discover his own age, realizing he’s no longer the young “casanova” as many compare him to, but a middle aged man who has begun to grow a tummy. Still, I wasn’t sure if the two ever had relations, or if it was simply a professional arrangement to get the dancer away from Randolph.
Eventually, Henry puts aside his pursuits, appreciating beautiful women, but more appreciative of Martha who has stuck by his side. And so when he discovers that she’s ill and that their 25th Anniversary has been their last, he regresses back to his old ways. Once again, we don’t see it, so much as watch as Randolph castigates Henry for being too old to be going about the way he is. Henry’s love of women is so strong that even on his deathbed, as the ‘ugly’ nurse is replaced with a beautiful blond, the narrator tells us that it brought about such a strong rush of blood that it ended up killing him.
In the end, His Excellency believes that Henry has a place in heaven; that what he was did wasn’t all that bad compared to others. It’s a testament to the way things once were, where woman were so subservient to men that they essentially had to put up with infidelity or risk losing the life they had. Still, the film is beautiful in its light approach to infidelity, showing that lust doesn’t necessarily mean love. With the Lubitsch style and touch we got to witness a world so different from our own, full of beautiful people and expensive homes and lives so far removed from most of our, shot in gorgeous technicolor. It’s a great film from the classical period.
BELOW: A taste of the film's wealth, class, and race privilege
Director: Luchino Visconti
Writer:Antonio Pietrangeli and Luchino Visconti
Cinematographer: Aldo Graziati
by Jon Cvack
Easily one of the best classic films I’ve seen all year, La Terra Trema is Luchino Visconti’s class conscious film about a small fishing village, Aci Trezza, economically stymied by the merchants who pay slave wages, keeping the townsfolk in abject poverty. The majority of the cast was pulled from the Sicilian village where it was filmed, and yet you’d never know you’re watching non-actors, with the people so embodying the film’s spirit it’s as though they’re of the highest training. The lead in particular, Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacano), is so good that I had to double check that this guy was a non-actor. The story is very much a Marxist tale, in which the proletariat finally rise up and challenge the bourgeoisie owners. As the final image conveys, it’s exploring life in a post-Mussolini world, as communism triumphed only hundreds of miles away, not yet demonstrating its own terrors or obstacles. If you wish to see a film that embodies the Communist Manifesto look no further.
Ntoni and his brothers are continuing the family’s long tradition as local fishermen, who head out every morning before dawn, facing the tumultuous weather day in and day out, working twelve hours a day, without weekends, without vacation, without any way to save money, forced to live in the same house, sharing bedrooms with their fathers and grandfathers and mothers and brothers. In an era when half of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in their savings accounts, this film shows what happens when there’s little opportunity beyond fishing, forcing all of them to remain in poverty, with little to dream about beyond. The only other job is construction in which Ntoni’s sister, Lucia (Agnese Giammona), is attracted to a local bricklayer, whose precarious employment leads him drifting across the country, never certain where the next job will end or when he’ll return. Her only hope for escape exists in the town sheriff Don Salvatore (Rosario Galvagno), who’s twice her age and excessively creepy.
Every day, the fisherman bring their catch to the piers where the merchants pay them pennies on the dollar for what will sell for numerous times the value. None of the fishers seem to question the practice, accepting the Sisyphean life as inescapable. That is, until Ntoni finally reaches his breaking point, thinking he could challenge the merchants’ practice by selling straight to the market instead. He decides to mortgage the family house, recruiting his friends and brothers. The idea is honorable, but the practice is challenging. Ntoni quickly discover that the endeavor is far easier said than done, and after investing most of the money into salting materials to preserve their catch, a botched job destroys thousands of fish, leaving nothing to sell, and nothing to pay the bank. The family is shamed and laughed at. How stupid to have assumed they could’ve changed precedent. Ntoni, in particular, is ostracized, considered a supreme fool for even considering the strategy.
Given 99 Homes and The Big Short’s examination of the housing crisis, it was fascinating to see a similar exploration in a film that’s deriding capitalism, made across the world, and nearly seventy years prior. Unable to pay back the loan with their slave wages, the bank forecloses on their home; the one asset they have, forcing the family out and into the streets. Although Lucia is forewarned against getting too close to Don Salvatore, desperation drives her closer, sacrificing her youth and innocence for the superficial gifts of the town’s one burgher. Shamed, Ntoni is no longer welcome on the piers, regressing to a life on the streets, taking up with hoodlums, trying to find a way to escape the vicious spiral down. The bank has no concern for what could be paid back. The load defaulted and it’s now on them to hand over the keys. I was floored by the film’s prescient, and again, given 99 Homes entire plot revolving around this exact feature, which Visconti was clearly comparing to fascism, makes you hopeless. So little has improved. No, Americans are not living in such destitution, but the problem of advancement and doing better than your parents or prior generations is just as relevant. It’s eerie to consider that, while American poverty lines have been raised, we’re still dealing with the issue of many being unable to save, along with paid wages that require one to bounce from paycheck to paycheck, one professional or health catastrophe away from being tossed into the streets.
Eventually, the clouds part, and Ntoni returns to the docks, seeking work, and returning to the life that he had before pursuing his entrepreneurial endeavor. He is the butte of laughter, known for having destroyed the family name, and sending them all to the streets, with the family now living in a shack by the seaside, unable to save a nickel to get their house back. In the film’s final scene, as Ntoni is signing up to return to the piers, wearing the one torn up sweater that he owns, Visconti moves the camera from Ntoni to the recruiter to the graffiti of Mussolini's name painted onto the stone wall with below stating, “Go with determination toward people.” Although Italians have escaped his imperious rule, the economics remain the same, with no relief in sight. This is the best Visconti film I’ve seen, showing us the almost cursed life that those in poverty live in. There are no dreams, there are no hopes, there is only the work at the end to provide you the bare minimum. As with many neorealist films, the conclusion is one of hopelessness; offering a particularly tragic conclusion as we follow these characters finding the one glimmer of progress, only to watch it crash and burn before them, with nothing else left to pursue beyond a return to the water. This is an amazing film. One of Italian Neorealism’s best. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it.
BELOW: Not much on the YouTube front, so here's a documentary about director Luchino Visconti
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
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
Thoughts on films, old and new
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