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: Federico Fellini & Alberto Lattuada
Writer: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, & Ennio Flaiano
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
by Jon Cvack
After penning the script for Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Il Miracolo (1948), and penning nearly a dozen produced feature screenplays in total, Fellini teamed up with Alberto Lattuada at the age of 30 to co-direct his first feature Variety Lights. Immediately we witness what would become his magical realism style, with the story centering around a traveling theater troupe, led by Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Filip) and his wife or girlfriend (I was unsure) Melina Amour (played by Fellini’s actual wife and classic collaborator Giulietta Masina). While traveling on a train, Checco meets the drop dead gorgeous Liliana ‘Lily’ Antonelli (Carla Del Poggio) and develops an infatuation, working his angle of being a theatrical director in order to get her to join the troupe. Excited, she accepts immediately.
We get a taste of the ragtag crew, with very little talent to boot. We get a sense that each performer has failed to move up the ranks, sticking with the troupe more out of necessity than choice. Lily lands in the dance troupe, standing out as the most beautiful and therefore the most threatening. The others are all a bit overweight, out of sync, or not that talented. Del Poggio has a timeless beauty, where even in today’s environment, she would rocket up to A-list level. It was a brilliant casting decision, allowing the audience to commiserate with Checco’s obsession, much to the frustration of Melina, who’s aware of everything Checco’s doing. In a heartbreaking scene, as the troop is forced to walk to the next town, we see Lily place her tired head upon Checco’s shoulder, who accepts excitedly, while Melina is forced to help the older and decrepit glasseater who’s fading fast. She looks over as their walking ahead, expecting Checco to help, and witnessing where the relationship is going. Tears gather up in her eyes as she knows there’s no way she could ever compete with such beauty.
The troupe ends up at a local aristocrat’s mega mansion, under the impression that he wants to help them out and see their performance, though clearly has an equally unwavering desire for Lily. In a hilarious comedy bit, Checco does everything in his power to prevent the owner’s seduction, eventually sabotaging their stay at the mansion, forcing everyone to leave in order to avoid losing Lily.
With Checco’s urging, Lily soon takes over the show, and her humble personality is replaced with ceaseless demands and ego. We’re not sure if Checco ever gets further than his obsessive and pathetic pursuit of Lily. She begins to go on dates with other wealthy men, forcing Checco into a position of such disgraceful subservience that we’re left cringing as he attempts to invite himself out on one of her dates, getting left behind, and forced to hang out in the middle of the streets all night.
Checco isn’t a bad person, so much as a child in a man’s body who’s unable to control his urges. We mostly feel bad for Melina, who’s fully aware of Checco’s determination. Even when she goes off to start her own company, and Checco petitions for her help in getting his own program restarted after everyone abandoned him - though solely to offer Lily a solid role, competitive with her larger offers - Melina acquiesces. She’s willing to help him out, as her love and loyalty are so strong, and Checco remains oblivious. Thus, when Lily finally leaves the theater altogether to get married to a young and attractive aristocrat, Checco is left with little after all his efforts. Similar to how the film began, he’s on the train, heading to the next town. He’s back to Melina who we resent has gone back to him, and yet kind of understand. And then another beautiful woman enters, sits near him, and he starts up his routine all over again.
Checco is one of Fellini’s great characters, as we can all understand the power of beauty and those carnal desires that extend beyond logic. I remember reading a neuroscientists explain why men are so easily able to abandon any sense of right or wrong when sex enters the picture. Pardoning my superficial understanding, the frontal lobe’s ability to keep our behaviors in check is a relatively recent brain development in humans. By comparison, the sex drive isn’t connected to this modern gatekeeping ability. Thus, even when some men know it’s wrong they literally cannot control themselves. Checco reflects this flawlessly. We see an old man who should know better, making a complete fool of himself, all for a girl that is far beyond his age, which we know has no realistic chance of ever ending well. It’s a thrill to watch. And for Fellini’s first picture, this is one of the better debuts from a first time director.
BELOW: Most of the videos are in Italian, but this one gives you a taste of Fellini's magical realist style
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: Errol Morris
Cinematographer: Robert Chappell
by Jon Cvack
I first saw this film when it first came out, watching it with a buddy of mine who was far more into politics than I was at the time. He loved it and I thought it was just okay. I remember we played pool afterwards and I struggled to defend what my problem was. I figured it might have been my ignorance, as at the time I wasn’t all that interested in politics or the war. With now a near-unhealthy addiction to politics, I figured I would take on a new appreciation of this movie, though again, I found it lacking something; the same something that was missing the first time.
The film is divided into eleven of Robert McNamara’s life lessons, who served as Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For each section, he recounts what led him to that conclusion. They include:
McNamara went to UC Berkeley where he studied mathematics and philosophy, then going on to Harvard to get his MBA. After a year of working at Price Waterhouse, he returned to Harvard to teach making somewhere along the lines of $4000 a year. A few years later he enlisted in the Air Force where he worked in intelligence, providing statistical analysis for bombing runs in order to increase success and efficiency, both in completing missions and in the technologies and methods of air transport.
Recently I watched a ‘Faster Horse’ which highlighted how important McNamara’s role was in saving Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford II nearly drove the company into the ground. McNamara took his team from the Air Force and brought them to the ailing company, soon becoming the famous “Whiz Kids” who examined the data in order to - again - drive up speed, success, and efficiency. McNamara worked his way up the company, becoming a millionaire, and charging up such projects as the Ford Falcon and increased safety features, such as the seatbelt, which allowed them to significantly cut down on driving injuries and fatalities (and therefore legal costs). Eventually, McNamara became the first President of the Ford Motor Company outside of the Ford Family.
The documentary doesn’t really analyze the reasoning as to why JFK wanted McNamara to become his Secretary of Defense. Wikipedia mentions that the job was originally offered to Robert A. Lovett who was Secretary of Defense under Harry Truman. Still, it doesn’t mention the reasoning or logic and I’m failing to understand. I even posted the question on Quora, but have yet to receive a response (the initial draft of this post was written over a year ago).
Regardless of the reasoning, McNamara ushered in a new of era or statistical and data driven analysis in order to come up with sophisticated formulas that would minimize casualties and increase destruction, in order to carry out what he referred to as a ‘proportionality’ that would limit the amount of excessive force used that could kill innocent civilians or damage the environment. As he discusses these issues Morris rolls math formulas over the newsreel footage of the extravagant and incredible use of weaponry during the battles. McNamara is under no pretense that the fighting between humans was going to end any time soon, and therefore worked to ensure that the United States fought as justly as possible, meaning that civilian and military casualties unfortunately had to function as nothing more than statistics, which isn’t necessarily wrong, though grossly disconnected, yet better than not regarding them at all, as Nixon would later be accused of during his Cambodian bombing campaign.
Having watched this only a few weeks after HBO’s Path to War, it was fascinating to get insight into the individual that was pushing LBJ to undergo additional aggression as it looked to end up in their favor. Throughout the documentary Robert McNamara seems to have good, but not great insight, as though his entire world view was limited by analysis and assessment. Nothing he says is particularly profound so much as pragmatic. He wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t perfect either. For anyone who believes that complete pacifism is an answer, I’d urge you to watch this film, which shows a little bit of what you don’t know, including the three times that McNamara says we came within a hair of nuclear catastrophe with the Soviet Union. Still, I’m not sure what was missing. I suspect it was the complete detachment McNamara had regarding his insights and the gross destruction of life had a role in playing. There didn’t seem to be much regret or concern for the casualties that were victims of the lowest common denominator. It’s interesting, it’s just not fascinating.
BELOW: #11: You can't change human nature. We all make mistakes
Director: John Irvin
Writer: James Carabatsos
Cinematographer: Peter MacDonald
by Jon Cvack
John Irvin needs to make a war film about Iraq. After watching his highly underrated When Trumpets Fade I was thrilled to check out Hamburger Hill. When you see Best of Vietnam War lists you often get the classics - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen Hamburger Hill on a few lists, yet it never seemed nearly as revered. This isn’t to say that it’s equal to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, though it’s vastly superior to Platoon.
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the story contains countless layers of military life, focusing primarily on the relationships between the soldiers, though extending to race relations and many of Vietnam’s futile missions. We follow three new recruits who are shipped to the front lines: Beletsky (Tim Quill), Langiulli (Anthony Barrile), and Washburn (Don Cheadle), Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow), and Galvan (Michael A. Nickles), each with their own personalities, all determined to stay alive. They’re led by Squad Leader Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott), who while watching them messing around, admonishes that while his duty is to try and keep them alive, they’re equally responsible for his life. It’s a frightening moment of reality. Frantz doesn’t want them to die because it’d require him to have to train a whole new crop of soldiers, while their negligence will increase the chance of his own death. During a brief explanation on how to properly brush their teeth, medic Abraham ‘Doc’ Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) who on takes the prescient look of a New York hipster, scolds one of the FNGs (‘Fucking New Guys’) as they fail to brush for as long as ordered. Johnson uses the moment as an example of how to end up dead - orders are carried out to keep soldiers alive, plain and simple, no matter if it’s brushing your teeth to avoid decay or during battle.
The Platoon is led by Sergeant Dennis Worcester, played by the excellent and lately absent Steven Weber of Wings fame who, no matter the role, is able to convey hilarious sarcasm. Weber and Frantz are close, hitting up the local brothel, getting drunk and trying their best to stay alive no matter the overwhelming odds. They seem to serve as the remaining soldiers from their own class of fresh recruits, most who have been KIA. Amidst the strict discipline is the camaraderie between men, which counter to Platoon, isn’t riddled with grandiloquent, officious commanders and subservient men, but rather with realistic relationships (which isn’t to say Platoon doesn’t have its moments - such as the first time Taylor smokes weed - so much as that many of the character feel more like exaggerations than real people).
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the platoon is commanded to take Hill 937, which served little strategic significance and would later get abandoned once captured, much to great public and military criticism given the 72 killed and 372 wounded. John Irvin’s style was similar to what Spielberg would adopt with Saving Private Ryan, in having the men actually participate in boot camp in order to build authentic camaraderie, along with shooting in the Philippines which was undergoing its own war, causing some of the production to face sniper fire while en route to set. During the taking of the hill, Irvin set fire to countless tires in order to create a thick haze of black smoke, shooting in the rain and generating as much mud as possible to ensure the most authentic recreation possible, which was celebrated by many Hamburger Hill veterans
Once the Battle of Hill 937 began, the futility of war followed. We weren’t sure what the point of their mission was, other than to keep pushing up the hill, doing your best to keep yourself and the man next to you alive. Watching this film and knowing how the entire would eventually end makes you furious. To undergo such conditions, all for such little significance, costing as many lives as it did, seems to reflect the entire war. I don’t know much about military tactics, but I do know that having a high point advantage while an enemy approaches from below is one of the most favorable in battle. It makes sense - while you get fortify yourself, the enemy is forced to run up a hill, with no clue as to where the fire is exactly coming from.
While Platoon is very much an anti-war film, Hamburger Hills shows the hypocrisy of criticizing the soldiers who chose to honor their country’s demands. The men might not have wanted to go, or might have enlisted to at least ensure they had a choice over what they did, and yet the stateside criticism was horrendous. In one heart wrenching scene, Bienstock receives a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend who met a new guy that told her it’s immoral for her to support him. In another emotional scene Sergeant Worcester recalls his recent leave home where he faced severe criticism from the community, leading to the collapse of his marriage. Later he received calls from a good friend, who was driven to an emotional breakdown when college students harassed him about his son who was killed in Battle of la Drang. Irvin's horrific portrayal of the conditions these soldiers were forced to live in makes the scene all the more bitter. As his friends are dying all around him, as he’s fighting for his own life, with limited food and supplies, wet socks, and nowhere to sleep, he’s told that all he’s doing is immoral. I can’t imagine what effect that must have had.
At least in World War II the soldiers were told they were heroes. In Vietnam, there was a very uneasy and tragic sentiment that, beyond one’s family, no one really cared or supported them. Irvin demonstrates that regardless of the politics of war, the soldier is not the one responsible. There is no reason to pass judgment on their actions. They are heroes because they are willing to do what their country orders them to do, and because they’re most concerned with keeping the man next to them alive. To think that privileged college kids would pass judgment makes me furious. I don’t think anyone wanted to be there, but there was no other option. As other films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper would explore, for many of the soldiers, it wasn’t about the mission, so much as lending their expertise and experience to save lives.
This film opened to the #5 slot at the box office, only taking in about $13.5 million. Compare this to Platoon, which opened at #1 and $138.5 million dollars. Platoon premiered on December 19, 1986, going wide on February 7, 1987, placing it in perfect Oscar Position (of which it’d take Best Picture, amongst others). Hamburger Hill rolled out in that dead movie month of August 28, 1987, a bit too early for awards fair, and I assume, similar to The Thin Red Line, was drowned out by Platoon’s success. I think it’s a much better film and one of the greatest Vietnam movies of all time.
BELOW: Steve Weber needs to make a comeback
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin
Cinematographer: Peter Biziou
by David Duprey
It was the giant. That is the answer to what set off a long span of creativity within myself when I was young, the beast’s slow, looming, arrival and its imposing presence that utterly shifted the direction of my imagination. That and the Ogre. And the dangling cages. And, well, all of it, truly. Terry Gilliam’s endlessly fascinating, metaphorical fantasy adventure remains one of the most affecting movie experiences of what can best be described as my film addiction, and one that still keeps secrets waiting to be revealed.
The story centers on a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock; in his only film appearance) who lives in the heart of England, awash in commercialism and vapid material wants. His parents, while not abusive, are neglectful as such, spending their time sitting on plastic-covered furniture watching banal TV programs that advertise futuristic kitchens and games shows that put people in absurd predicaments (with host Jim Broadbent). They are complacent members in the modern machine.
An avid reader of history, Kevin sits well away from the influence of the screen and goes to bed one night only to find a knight on a white horse bursting from his wardrobe, riding off into the woods that have suddenly appeared in his bedroom. The next night, it gets even more peculiar when a group of dwarves arrive carrying a large map, running from The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). The map is no ordinary map though, as it is reveals time portals throughout the universe and the dwarves, who work for and have recently been demoted by the Being, have stolen it to travel about time and get rich. The problem is, their actions have drawn the attention of Evil (David Warner), who sets his minions out to steal the map for himself and reset history in his own name.
Mixing basic creationist themes with science-fiction fantasy, Time Bandits is a clever balance between children’s story-telling with some decidedly adult inclinations. Through a series of historical and legend-inspired vignettes, we travel about time with the gang, taking part in well-known scenes of the past a full thirteen years before Forrest Gump did. Written by Gilliam and Michael Palin, who also appears with other Monty Python member John Cleese (a quick note is to mention how each member of the Monty Python troupe is said to be represented by one of the dwarves), the story is ostensibly about a boy and his dreams but touches on a number of philosophical directions, leading to an ending that is both ambiguous but with purpose. A kid’s movie by design, it appeals to them because of its vision, but grows with them as a tale rich with unanswered questions that beg for one to fill in the gaps.
From the opening moments in Kevin’s room, filled with clues as to his coming adventures, we are meant to consider the parallels between dreaming and reality, yet Gilliam and Palin aren’t just content with drawing a single line of which side to choose. As the stories within the film unwind, we see the boy's growth as well as sharp jabs at the world he lives in, with nearly every character and situation serving as commentary on his life at home.
In Gilliam’s uniquely blended vision of real and imagination, we witness scenes that are layered in frights and laughs, such as the introduction of Evil, played with menacing fun by Warner. As a child, Evil’s quick undoing of his minions, who constantly question his validity, are objectively gruesome and yet there is great humor to it as well, something that Gilliam masters throughout. The gritty, earthy feel to it all makes every frame feel authentic, even as it spirals into the fantastical.
For adults, the movie is a criticism of consumerism, with the gang in the film eventually deceived by Evil to pursue “The Most Fabulous Object in the World.” This leads the narrow-sighted thieves along a path of hurdles that could and should stop them, but in their thirst for something no one else has, manage to trek ever on, eventually finding themselves suspended in cages over oblivion; another terrific visual metaphor. What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover.
With that said, it is a challenging ending, one that for children will seem funny and clever and perfectly free of questions, but for everyone else, opens a box of mystery that, for people like me, inspire great conversations about possibilities. Who is that Firefighter? What really happens to Kevin’s parents? What will become of Kevin? And many more.
And so it brings me back to the giant. At one point in the film, the dwarves and Kevin find themselves atop the bald head of a giant who has emerged from the ocean, themselves on a wooden sailing ship. Notice how Gilliam frames the towering figure (played by Ian Muir), which lends him great majesty while generating an amazing sense of height and presence. Even now, it is a stirring sequence that, in an age of incredible CGI, stands far above it. This is the greatest achievement of Time Bandits, a film that, much like its premise might allow, has become timeless. It’s time to watch it again.
BELOW: The Supreme Being explaining why Evil exists
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Frank Pierson; based on "The Boys in the Bank" by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen this movie since working my way through the AFI Top 100 - the mission any fresh cinephile completes. I must have been eighteen or so and honestly I just didn’t like the film all that much. Still, I purchased the Special Edition Double Disc which doesn’t really make sense, though probably because it was directed by Sydney Lumet and felt cool to put another one of his films on my shelf. With nothing looking good on Netflix and having just moved into a new place, it was sitting on top of my rubbermaid bin that held all my films. I popped it in and for the first five minutes I was bored, remembering why I didn’t like the film. After five minutes, as the bank robbery was getting under way, with all its farce and hilarity, I was hooked and wondered what I had missed the first time around.
This film has everything - incredible characters, a fresh take on an old story, it looks at media and entertainment, gender and sexuality, and that which links us all together. What we discover very quickly is that Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Their third partner Stevie (Gary Springer of Jaws II fame) ditches out and so they’re left trying to figure how to pull the heist off, managing the six bank tellers/hostages, led by their supervisor Sylvia (Penelope Allen) who fluctuates between finding the situation thrilling and growing overwhelmed with fear.
The situation is kicked off with Sonny trying to remove his gun from the flower box, as it gets caught on the ribbon, which many know was a mistake made by Pacino that he played through, portending the entire story in that Sonny and Sal have no idea what they’re doing. The three grand they were looking for hasn’t arrived and so they’re left with $150. Fortunately, Sonny knows banks; what to do with and where the cameras are. He decides to burn the teller receipts, which in a pre-computer age is pretty brilliant as it’ll wipe away the money record and avoid anyone tracking them down. Soon the cops arrive. Sonny tries putting the tellers in the bank vault, and then one of them has to use the bathroom, where he then discovers another woman who failed to notice the robbery at all.
The demonstration of what media would become is eerily prescient. There’s the moment when the Bank Manager turns on his small television, which has a news anchor discussing the breaking story. Sonny gets on the phone with the anchor and begins explaining the situation before launching into a perverse tirade, only to have the program cut to black: no matter violence, networks have a zero tolerance policy toward bad language. Of course, this then makes the tellers even more excited, seeing themselves as characters in a national news story.
One of the film’s great characters is Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) who is one of cinema's all time greatest detectives. Eugene’s trying all the tricks in the book to placate and satisfy Sonny, but as the crowd falls in love with the guy, Eugene quickly learns he’s dealing with a fairly smart robber who knows a con when he sees one. In the film’s best scene, the two argue over one another, edited with such lightning speed that it plays like a great jazz song as they rapid fire exchanges and insults with such awesome intensity that you find yourself catching your breath at the end.
It’s when we learn that Sonny has a gay lover, and that the money he was attempting to steal was all for this person’s sex change that there’s a sudden shift. The crowd that loved him now voice their bigotry. They can’t be on the side of a homosexual; once again serving as a harbinger of the politics to come. It’s been over forty years since the film was released, and with such vast progress having been made with gay rights, there still remains a solid minority of folk that despise homosexuality and transgender folk. Lumet was willing to examine this hate; to put a magnifying glass upon it light years ahead of when anyone else would, placing it within a story with extraordinarily badass characters, completely disrupting the stereotypes that so many hold.
The film’s humor was much more apparent now that I’m older. John Cazale delivers a magnificent and creepy performance. Watching the "Behind the Scenes" his involvement was due to Pacino, who urged Lumet to hire him rather than - what I believe - was suppose to be a much more vanilla casting decision. Cazale is quiet in the beginning, though after the robbery gets underway and the cops arrive, with Sonny threatening to kill the hostages and kill themselves if the police try anything, Cazale looks right in his eyes and asks if Sonny is serious - because he is and they agreed to go all the way. I don’t know many actors that could pull off this line without slipping into melodrama. Cazale’s delivery is so frightfully candid, with Pacino’s reaction driving it home, that we truly believe we’re watching a madman unwind. Every line and interaction he has feels as though he’s about to snap, standing to kill everyone in the room.
I had forgotten how the film ended exactly. I just knew they didn’t get away. A solid gauge for any film is to maintain an irrational hope that the characters act a bit smarter the second time around - that Sonny would direct them to pull closer to the plane, or keep a closer eye on Agent Murphy (Lance Henriksen). I’m not sure where this comes from, or how our minds can create such a silly hope that maybe the film will play differently. It seems a symptom of any great movie, where you love the characters so much that you’re willing to excuse your own irrationality in order to root for their success. The ending is dark, with Sal getting shot in the head, and Sonny taken in, knowing he’ll spend the majority of his life behind bars. And yet beyond his individual punishment is realizing the people will no longer care; his wife and children will remain on welfare; his mother will never understand; and the world will hate them after what they learned.
BELOW: The best scene of the movie (and the entire period)
Director: John Huston
Writer: Tony Huston; based upon "The Dead" by James Joyce
Cinematographer: Fred Murphy
by Jon Cvack
I checked out James Joyce’s story before visiting the film. My aunt had gifted me a version that included the story and then four essays focusing on historical and psychological analysis, deconstruction, and feminist theory. Learning that many consider "The Dead" one of the finest short stories written in the English language, and after finishing Ulysses and failing to understand more than a few pages out of the 750 and presently trying to wade through Finnegan's Wake (and having the most frustrating reading experience of my life), I was excited to check out something a bit more accessible. It’s a solid story, involving a dinner party between old friends, each with rich personality, ranging from alcoholism to artistic talent to supreme intelligence. It’s a snowy night and Joyce splices in pop culture, political, historical, and cultural references. For anyone that’s a critic of films that include direct modern cultural references, you needn’t point to the finger at Tarantino, but rather to Joyce, as the text is filled with so many references of the time that the footnotes take up a David Foster Wallace portion of the book.
The supplementary critical essays ranged from fascinating to academically absurd - the type of analysis that makes you wonder who reads it beyond those who would write equally dense pieces. We learn about the political and social environment in Ireland during the time, as it was struggling with complete severance from the UK, discussing a return to Native Gaelic in order to preserve its identity, as expressed by Molly Ivors. We learn that the snow must have represented the vast wasteland and hopelessness experienced by Joyce during the time, who might have placed part himself into main character Gabriel Conroy (played by Donal McCann in the film), looking out into the future of his country and remaining uncertain over its future. We learn that the women were treated as inferior, with Kate and Julia Morkan having little to say about culture and functioning as superficial hostesses rather than contributing substantially to the dialogue.
The book had mentioned John Huston’s adaptation, specifically it’s concluding montage as the snow is falling. It was Huston’s last film after a career that spanned 46 years, beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941), going on to provide us The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with many great films, concluding with The Dead, in which he died shortly after. The closing moment, as Gretta Conroy recounts the story of her past love in youth, who died from tuberculosis, shortly after he journeyed through the cold snow to visit Gretta one night, of which the memory was brought on by a song sung at the party, is something I found myself unable to forget and grew excited to see come to life. There’s an intimacy with the story, as we see how everyone is willing to let loose a bit, enjoy some drinks, good food, great discussion, and lifelong friendships all while a melancholy extends throughout the story. I assume John Huston knew that his life was coming to an end, and that this film would likely be his last; that he too would be staring out into the cold snow, not knowing what was next, only that the uncertainty was overwhelming and smothering to the mind.
The film made me recall those rare moments when all the friends you hope to gather at a party are finally able to arrive. It occurs only once across years, no matter how hard people try. There’s always the one straggler that you wish could have made it. In those rare moments you spend a few moments reflecting on past memories, and move on to discussing the present and future. You talk about jobs and prospects; films, shows, books, and new ones to come; you discover how some relationships have evolved, others have remained, and a few have ended. The night’s always end far too quickly, and there’s a melancholy at the end, as you wonder when, if ever, you’ll all assemble again, knowing that it’ll take years more, and who knows what might happen.
It’s captured so perfectly by the closing line by Joyce, as Gabriel stares out into the cold snow, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Gabriel wonders if he ever loved Gretta as much as the boy she mentions, causing him to reassess his life and all he experienced. I think Huston, having such a monumental body of work, wondered if it was all worth it; if he got all he wanted out of life; if he too could have done better, or something more. He was one of the rare directors who transitioned to color film with grace, never allowing his style to age, as happened to many others from the classical period. He accomplished the rare feat of adapting one of the most revered stories in literature, and doing so with such compliment. The film's not better, it’s supplemental. He immersed us within an environment that Joyce brought to life. At only sixty pages, the story feels so real. Huston puts images to those words, and I’d bet the closing images would have made Joyce proud. You feel cold while reading the story and watching the film, wanting to sit next to a fire with some bourbon and those you love. For two giants to elicit such a reaction is incredible. I loved it.
BELOW: The beautiful finale, both for the film and for Huston. Rarely does such a revered moment from a book adapt so well to the screen
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)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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