Director: Dave Ohlson
Story: Darren Lund, Andy McDonough, Dave Ohlson, and Jason Reid
Cinematography: Dave Ohlson
by Jon Cvack
A buddy of mine has started going to some climbing gyms and mentioned how he’s been watching some climbing films and was interested in one day trying a mountain. I had watched Touching the Void, which I consider one of the greatest survival films ever made, but hadn’t really checked out much else, until I watched Everest (2015), which I didn’t love but combined with my buddy’s new hobby definitely piqued my interest in the subgenre. I remembered the K2 cover, which only had a three star rating. Having some interest, I typed in K2 and came along this film, thinking it was a sequel to the original K2 (it’s not; as K2 is a ridiculous 80s narrative and this is a documentary).
K2: Sirens of the Himalayas follows an international group of climbers who range from returning for another attempt at summiting K2 to a first attempt at the summit; ranging from Fabrizio Zangrilli who has officially spent a year trying to climb the mountain to Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a world-famous female mountain climber who would eventually be the first woman in history to summit all fourteen 8,000+ kilometer summits without oxygen. There’s an Englishman Jake Meyer (I might be getting this name wrong), who’s wild optimism and determination are inspiring, along with a handful of other professional climbers.
Back in 2008, nearly a dozen climbers were killed in an accident, which I’ll hold off discussing, and urge you to check out another documentary on The Summit which examines the tragedy. While Everest manages to receive almost 900 summits a year, K2 might go an entire year without receiving a single summit. It’s considered the hardest mountain to climb, particularly because no matter which way you try to go there are countless obstacles in your way - as though the mountain itself has its own set of armor to prevent intrusion. In fact, you can only get to the mountain through a rigorous 36 hour journey, involving flying into Pakistan and driving for another twelve hours along three-quarter wide, single lane roads, along steep cliff faces.
The first question you find yourself asking is why anyone would want to do this - climb up to the peak of mountain, in which the hardest part of the journey is called “The Dead Zone”, so depleted of oxygen that even with supplemental oxygen your body begins breaking down. Because the air’s so thin no helicopter can come to your rescue, and the local law is that it’s better to save yourself if there are few other options than to risk doubling the possibility of death. It’s difficult to grasp this concept amidst a world of hyper connectivity - that there remains an endeavor that is so cut off from humanity that beyond some radios and oxygen masks there is nothing to be done when danger strikes - whether out of exhaustion, snow blindness, or overwhelming fear.
When the team arrives they immediately receive a taste of danger when a pair of climbers ski down the mountain, with one taking an accidental turn, falling hard across the rock face, getting killed. This was an experienced climber and he died right before their eyes.
Given how much you have to carry and wear, this is not like Cliffhanger or K2 (the little I saw) where you hang from cliffs with your fingertips. Instead, it involves climbing steep ice faces, using nothing but your pickaxe and spiked boots, attached to a skinny piece of rope to guide your movements, all while breathing becomes increasingly difficult. The climbers mention the state of mind the pursuit requires, as even a few hundred meters with no air can take an incredible toll on the body, and yet when you realize how close you are, there’s additional motivation. And yet you have to be smart and humble enough to accept defeat, as the Englishman does when he’s just a few hundred meters from the summit. He knows he would only endanger himself if he went any higher. And considering that most accidents happen on the descension, it’s best that he return to base camp.
In the end, none of the climbers make it to the summit. They approach the “bottleneck” - an area where the dozen climbers were killed in a single day; where precarious ice cliffs hang hundreds of meters high, able to break at any moment - and they turn back, either because their bodies can’t handle it, or because they don’t trust the mountain to hold. As a few of them mention, though, it’s not about the summit so as much as the attempt. Of course, you want the summit, but it’s really just an added bonus to the journey. I can’t help wondering if this is true, as what else would drive these individuals to risk their lives again and again and again other that that the top is very much important, to the point of obsession. We later learn of Kaltenbrunner’s success a few years later, when she tried taking a different route. We witness the bond these teams develop as they work toward summiting. The film makes me hungry for more mountain adventure films. I checked out The Summit immediately after and loved every minute.
BELOW: The film's intro. Should be enough to pique
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1....
After the battle ends, Quintard takes Staros for a walk, asking if he is willing to sacrifice any of his men, which is a fair question. Malick avoids creating an overly righteous individual, holier than all others, but instead provides us with a flawed individual, who might be allowing his relationships to the men jeopardize the overall mission, however slight. Later, the two share another scene where Quintard relieves Staros, stating that so long as Staros avoids formal objections to Quintard’s irresponsible orders, Staros will go back to the states, with no consequences to face and with a much safer and more manageable role, away from the action.
Throughout the film, Staros is seen praying with all his might, hoping to make it out alive. It’s clear what the deal means, and what’s more nuanced is that he takes it with minimal resistance. We never know if he cherished the opportunity to escape, or knew that prolonging the situation would only make things worse. The best part of this scene is its similarity to an earlier moment, when a pudgy soldier feigns a stomach ache right before the initial battle charge, begging to go back. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) scolds him for cowardice and orders him to prepare to charge. The man starts drooling and shaking, a look of fear strewn across his face. 1st St. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) intervenes, and excuses the man, much to Keck’s disagreement. Earlier in the film, we see Welsh castigate Bell (Ben Chaplin) for going AWOL, demoting him back down to private, where he’ll now help the medics with the wounded. In the scene, Welsh declares that any man like Bell is a weakness to the unit and unfit for combat.
So why would Welsh allow the pudgy man to head back down the hill? It was only this round that I think I finally understood - as the last thing any of the men needed to see at that moment was someone scared out of his mind, pretending to be sick, possibly forcing Keck to take drastic action - either continuing to yell at the soldier, making him grow increasingly frantic, or killing the man, exasperating the fear all the other men are trying to contain.
This is the same deal as Quintard provided Storos - an easy way out for Storos, that would have the littlest effect upon the man and most positive result for Quintard. There seems a genuine respect for Storos and what he did, as is evident by the tears and bargaining. But again the performance comes on. He can’t empathize too much. You get the sense that Quintard would like to open up and explain that he understands. Perhaps Quintard was not offering the deal as a way to save himself, so much as reward Storos for having saved so many men. Quintard wasn’t strong enough to question his superior. Storos was and Quintard respected that. In the end, we don’t know what Quintard exactly believed. You could argue either way. The character embodies emptiness; where the further you go the more it leads to uncertainty.
It was during the charge through the weeds that I remembered an essay I read about the opening shot with the alligator head dipping into and out of the swamp; a perfect image for unpredictable death. I’ve written on the idea in other films - I can’t understand overcoming the fear to charge into battle. There are books like Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and All is Quiet on the Western Front, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and When Trumpets Fade, even a few songs that I’d be embarrassed to mention specifically for fear of misinterpreting their meaning - all which can make you come as close as possible to understanding the fear a soldier faces. To know that you are, whether agreeable or not, in a situation where you must charge into battle, where people will die all around you, and the only difference between living and dying is pure luck, chance, or randomness. The alligator doesn’t care which human it wants to eat, but it is going to eat. The battle commences and between Hans Zimmer’s score and Malick’s direction and Toll’s photography we are completely immersed within the minds of these men. There is nuance and depth, and each of us is able to interpret the vast array of characters in such unique and subjective ways, it’s as though we’re there with them, following the movie forward.
Allegedly Hans Zimmer recorded over four hours of music for the film, meaning the original film ran over that amount, eventually trimmed down by an hour and change to its 170 minute running time; Billy Bob Thornton had recorded an hour of voice over, none of it used, with Malick opting to use other characters; in a Hollywood Reporter interview with Christopher Plummer and George Clooney, Plummer vowed never to work with Malick again after how he cut the film, with Clooney stating that Adrien Brody actually had the lead in the film, only to be almost completely edited it out. While the trivia is fascinating, I can’t help imagining what else this film could have been - not better or worse, just different. Rarely has one film’s history illustrated that this story could have been assembled in a myriad of ways. Now that I’ve accomplished seeing this film in the theater, I can only hope that eventually that four hour cut is discovered. It has to be somewhere and what an experience that could be. I consider this one of the finest films ever made; where Malick accomplished the rare feat of introducing an entirely new cinematic style, that was only recently adopted by the more mainstream and accessible The Revenant (and done marvelously, at that).
The closing scene, as the men are charging through the gate, as Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line” kicks in - what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of film score ever created - and we follow the men as they head into one last dash, so close to coming out alive, and filled with such rage that you wonder what rumors the Japanese passed on afterward. I wasn’t able to finish these thoughts before that post cinematic feeling wore off. It stuck with me for a long, long time. There was so much else I wanted to explore and simply did not have the time to write it down. Even with just a few weeks and a half dozen films taken in since then the details are muddied. There is a power that this film contains. When I hear actors complain and that the film is too abstract, it all adds up to the epitome of talent. Malick had the rare privilege to create and explore a film that would completely stray from what anyone expected. Somehow the stars don’t feel like stars; the don’t pop out at you; they assemble, and like the marines they play, they each have a role. It is not about them. It is about the grander story, in which you can truly feel the craft behind each shot and scene. It’s rare that even after five viewings there’s more discover. I won’t return too soon. A film like deserves time between viewings; so that you forget where it goes, allowing it to pierce deep into your soul and transport you to a place that film and only film could ever accomplish.
BELOW: The opening scene and an alligator
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Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
When I first saw The Thin Red Line it must have been on a VHS tape on my family's old 31” CRT television. My parents had taken me to see Saving Private Ryan a few months before and that opening scene was burned into my mind forever since. I remember a friend’s mom saying she refused to take her kids due to the violence, never considering that maybe that’s why they should see the film; to understand the horrors of war, so often missed. It was a film that achieved the amazing feat of remaining apolitical. It’s equally a celebration and caution, exploring sacrifice and bravery, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Similar to 2008 with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Saving Private Ryan had a brother. Although many sources say 1999, The Thin Red Line premiered on Christmas Day, 1998. I recall being a twelve or thirteen year old as the nonlinear narrative began, with scores playing throughout scenes that were cutting back to flashbacks and giving us random exchanges between soldiers, who often never returned to the story. I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it.
I’m not sure when I returned to the movie, but like all my favorite films (ex-Jaws), what began as a misunderstanding evolved into a deep love affair. Bit by bit I began to understand what Malick was doing. The older I became and the more I read and learned the more I was beginning to understand what the film was trying to explore. As in any Malick film, there’s no one idea or theme. Rather it’s a symphony of meditations, allowing the viewer to take and reflect upon whichever moment strikes them hardest.
I believe it was the third or fourth viewing that I realized that I was watching one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. As the men work their way through the weeds, which expand like water across the steep hills, with the wind and sun swooping across the grass. Similar to the alligator in the film’s opening scene, which drops beneath the water, waiting to strike, the men sink below the grass, hardly seen, inching forward. It’s after the first shots break out that some of the most intense action of any war film takes place. I recall watching it during this third or fourth time and feeling fear, imagining being in the soldier’s situation, not sure where the enemy is, forever nervous that they’ll be called to lead the way, knowing they’re essentially bait for the men in the rear. By the fourth or fifth time I watched it this effect wore down a bit. It was though I was recalling the feeling rather getting the feeling; the sad sign that a movie’s power to transport you was fading as you realize there’s nothing more you can do. I believe I was in college when I first noticed the movie’s brilliance. Since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to see the film in theaters and have Zimmer’s score, Toll’s camera, and Malick’s direction transport me as I was meant to be transported. It’s films like these that make you understand the need for movie theaters, as it’s not so much that you can’t experience the same effect at home, so much as you wouldn’t be able to - there’d be a wife or kid, or you’re in an apartment, or you can’t get the room dark enough. The Thin Red Line demands a black room with amazing sound. After ten years of waiting, I finally got to experience this and it was one of the finest moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Nick Nolte plays one of my new favorite characters of all time, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, who has found the politics of military promotion frustrating. His immediate superior is Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), who for a moment is a friend and then backhandedly compliments Tall for refusing to enter into the politics toward becoming a general. Without having to dive into the details, we get a taste of the military where, similar to civilian life, there is no escaping the ruthless tenacity in being so close to that first star. We want to think of Generals as beyond politics, and yet some are ruthless in the pursuit. It’s easy to miss the scene’s details as you’re so enamored with the beauty and voice over. Malick provides us with a man who is putting on an act as a deferential second to Quintard, proactive in lighting the man’s cigarette, even after having his leadership questioned. When the movie ends you recall Tall’s shouting commands, with every iota of energy, his neck veins popping, sweat pouring out of his head. Contrary to his introduction, we see a man that is willing to expend any man to achieve his mission. Later, we discover that he felt overlooked; that victory on this mission could finally get him the star he coveted. We see that contrary to the other soldiers he’s a man that seems to have no empathy or concern for his men. Fortunately, his Platoon Leader Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) eventually refuses to follow his orders, knowing that to keep on pushing will come at great expense to the men he has trained and cared for, each realizing the vast unlikelihood that they’ll make it out alive. Quintard is speechless, and yet Nick Nolte is such a master, able to communicate supreme frustration and empathy, while also knowing that he can’t show too much of the latter, returning again to the act as leader. More simply, we get to watch Nolte create a character that acts as a leader, all while overwhelmed by the terrors around him. In one of the most revealing moments, after the film’s most powerful scene, we see Quintard break down, with the reality finally catching up to him, though only for a moment.
BELOW: The greatest piece of film score ever created
Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder
Cinematographer: Robert Burks and J. Peverell Marley
by Jon Cvack
This film was a failure when it first came out, with Jack L. Warner stating “It the most disastrous failure we’ve ever had”, only pulling in $2.6 million of its $6 million dollar budget Many blamed the casting of 47-year old James Stewart in the role of 25-year old Charles Lindbergh. Not knowing any of this before I went in - I was surprised. This is a great and beautiful film; part chamber drama, part bio-pic, and part epic tale. For a story that is simply about a flight over the Atlantic from New York to Paris this was a thrilling (and yes, I’m aware that at the time it was a huge deal. My point being that at 135 minutes I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect).
James Stewart dies his hair blonde and plays a determined and death defying Charles Lindbergh, as one of the earliest proponents of air travel, understanding its vast potential. The movie takes you back to an era when these types of international races were things to celebrate, with Wilder including the Times Square footage of Lindberg’s parade, where millions of people marched into the streets, celebrating his victory. A similar race would carry out toward space, with America championing once again. When I hear activists and politicians talking about the need for a climate change race I couldn’t agree more. It’s moments like this - where the entire country could gather together and celebrate magnificent accomplishments - that is currently missing from the American collective. The recent SpaceX landing was a perfect follow up to this film. I just wish more people cared.
The story is told in a nonlinear manner, cutting back and forth between Lindberg’s start as a pilot and his mission to fly across the Atlantic. We see him as a stunt pilot, offering $5 rides at public fairs, and joining others in walking the wings and taking the aviation to its utter limit. Beneath it all is an unexplainable reason as to why someone could be so attracted to air travel, explored during a moment in the grass when Lindberg and Bud Gerney (Murray Hamilton; later as the Mayor in Jaws) share a moment’s reflection. There’s a freedom to flying and utilizing the nascent technology, unsure of where it’ll lead, knowing it’s the future. Lindberg’s tenure as a stunt pilot eventually fades as, I assume, the work slowed down as planes became more ubiquitous. He turned to mail delivery and flying lessons. It’s the former that opens the movie, as Stewart gets caught in a thick fog and has to abandon ship.
Knowing that there’s a race to fly across the Atlantic, Stewart visits countless banks, looking for an investor for his intercontinental plane. The scene made me recall the moment in Contact when Jodie Foster lobbies an investment firm for the money to finance her search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Stewart tries to smoke a cigar to blend in with the Money Men, choking on the few tiny puffs he receives, before finally getting approval.
He enlists the help of an engineering company, greeting the President as he fries fish on a piece of scrap metal, heating the pan with a blowtorch. It’s a scene that sticks in your head as many of Wilder’s film does, in which he finds the small moments that add that additional layer which elevates him to greatness. This is most apparent during the flight, when Stewart fails to get any sleep the night before, not wanting to think about the forty hour trip that lies ahead of him. Throughout the film I was wondering how Wilder would make it interesting - a man sitting in a plane isn’t the most exciting concept. You could see Wilder trying to defend the idea to his investors as much as Lindberg defended himself to the bankers. After seeing the marvelous and exciting way they built the plane, creating the engine from scratch, doing everything in their power to make it as light as possible, creating everything from a form of periscope so Lindberg could navigate, to using a mirror in order to look at the compass since a different method would add needless weight to the hardware’s design.
The morning of the flight is one of the most beautiful from the period, as a gentle haze sits above the dewy grass, with the dirt runway now a slog of mud and puddles. A scene succeeds when you absolutely know it will and yet you still question whether it can. As the crew pushes the plane out the runway, the plane starts up, and Lindberg begins accelerating, knowing that if he doesn’t make it past a certain point he’ll crash into electrical wires - I was blown away by Wilders ability to fuse great cinema with tension and beauty. Of course, Lindberg takes off, and in moments, as the engine’s white noise cuts in, Lindberg recalls that by the time he lands, he won’t have slept for almost 60 hours. With nothing to do except stay awake and keep course, we immediately realize how difficult it is.
The first of Stewart’s inner dialogues was his fascinating calculation of how many times the engine would combust across the forty hour trip - moving from the combustions per second and eventually reaching per hour, discovering it’d be over a million times on a plane that’s never been tested. Soon the exhaustion creeps in and remains for the rest of the flight. After hearing about the few others who had died attempting the trip, you discover that probably wasn’t mechanical or bad flying, but due to falling asleep. Wilder’s direction in this section is miraculous.
Not being sure of this actually happened - Wilder has Lindberg joined by a fly, allowing Lindberg to express his thoughts and strategies out loud. If this fly never existed, we would have had to listen to an entire inner monologue, instead this minute element was added, and like Wilson from Cast Away, we see the creature as a passenger rather than an insect. Eventually, Lindberg falls asleep, with the plane spiraling downwards. Rather than relying on a crazy special effects sequence - although there’s some - Wilder awakes Stewart by having the sunlight reflected upon the compass mirror (which was given to him by Amelia Earheart), flashing past his eye and eventually waking him up. It’s a beautiful and poetic moment, perfectly encapsulating the film’s themes of spirituality and friendship. Lindberg is an atheist in the film, which is incredible both to know and to see included, and Wilder never necessarily offers a conversion. He respects Lindberg’s belief and the respect Lindberg gave to the others.
As the planes reaches the Irish Coast, exhaustion really begins to seep in. The fly now leaves, and though abrupt and seemingly insignificant, we as the audience then start to feel the exhaustion - as Stewart’s eyes start to close and as the engine continues to hum. By the time he reaches Paris, not knowing there’d be any celebration at all, Stewart struggles to make out the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people beneath him. Although there are matted out plane effects, I wonder if these were added by the studio, as Wilder captures some of the most beautiful, real plane footage, over what looks to be Europe. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the big screen.
Lindberg finally lands, with the French charging past the barriers and carrying him off. It’s difficult to think of what it meant - that people no longer had to take the week long trip across the Atlantic and risk their lives doing so. In this era of hyperconnectivity, I think Lindberg’s flight was one of the most significant reflections of things to come.
I’m truly don’t get why the film failed. Wilder had followed this film up after a truly unbelievable string of back to back successes - Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch (the range alone of these films is remarkable). The Spirit of St. Louis is not as perfect as those, but it’s as close as you can get without joining their ranks. Although 1957 had some great American films - Paths of Glory, 12 Angry Men, The Bridge Over the River Kuai, I just don’t see what would have drowned this picture out and provide such ill-success. Especially given that Around the World in 80 Days had just won Best Picture the year before it - though maybe people had enough of air travel. This film remains underrated. I pray to see it in a theater - Wilder’s use of cinemascope would make it absolutely breathtaking.
BELOW: It's this takeoff that really makes ya wish you were watching it on the big screen
Director: Éric Rohmer
Writer: Éric Rohmer
Cinematographer: Néstor Almendros
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t really enjoyed much Eric Rohmer. The few I've see, particularly Suzanne’s Career and The Bakery Girl of Monceau have been overtly misogynistic. Typically you can forgive certain films as a reflection of the times, but these two were particularly harsh; appearing as though an extension of Rohmer’s personality. Love in the Afternoon contains elements of both, yet with a restraint I hadn’t yet seen. Eerily similar to Truffaut’s Bed and Board (Love in the Afternoon was made two years later), the story revolves around a middle class man, Frederic (Bernard Varley), who has a beautiful pregnant wife, great job, lavish home, and has lately developed an insatiable attraction to all things female. Similar to Antoine Doinel in Bed and Board it all seems rooted in a longing for youth, realizing that middle age and adulthood have arrived, creating a nostalgia for the pursuit, back when sex was a pursuit filled with a sense of excitement and mystery; you never know who the next woman would be or when it’d arrive, but that the passion will fire up your entire body, while unfortunately, domesticate life’s familiarity has grown dull.
Amidst these obsessions, one day his friend’s old girlfriend shows up - Chloe (Zouzou [no last name]). Chloe embodies the unhinged ex-girlfriend, very attractive, yet with an exotic eccentricity that demands apprehension; she can’t hold a job and doesn’t really care to try. Contrary to Frederic’s stable life Chloe has embraced adventure. While we don’t get many details, it’s suggested that she had been visiting the past men of her life for awhile now, looking for brief and passionate affairs before either party ends it, leaving Chloe to move on to the next one.
The two begin spending afternoons together, and what I found myself most surprised by was the restraint. It makes me wonder if Rohmer simply didn’t want to completely rip off Bed and Board, as by refusing to have the two finally hook up he creates an unbelievably fierce sexual tension throughout the second half. Each moment they get together you’re expecting it to finally occur, that come the end, in one of the most sensual and arousing scenes I’ve seen from the period, Frederic helps dry Chloe off after a bath, somehow excusing himself as she lays on the bed, ready for him.
Returning to his wife Helene (Francoise Verley; who I assume was married to Bernard, which is interesting), she breaks down in tears. We never learn what the cause is. My guess is Helene had cheated on Frederic, either moments before he showed up, or having had the guy escape before he could see. Earlier in the film, Chloe says she’s been seeing Helene with a man, which both we as the audience and Frederic dismiss as an uninspired ruse. I think it did actually happen, as I’m not sure how Helene could’ve suddenly cared all that much about Chloe, especially given her involvement with Frederic throughout the film.
Rohmer provides us with a fascinating look into the controllable urges that haunt men. As Stephen Pinker wrote in "The Blank Slate" - men are designed for quantity, women are designed for quality. There’s no problem with desire, and rather than showing the devastation and deceit of acting upon it, Rohmer instead shows a man who’s struggling to control himself; who moments before Chloe’s arrival was really struggling for excitement. Most guys I know in relationships have the same feeling - the exotic fantasy of returning to the single life, getting with as many girls as possible, because it’s only now that they know how to get the women. Of course, this fantasy ends when you think about what you’d give up. The problem is when you meet a woman who has an equitable sexual appetite; with little concern for work and family; so much as finding the next adventure. Frederic seems to know that there would be few strings attached, at least in the long run.
The film was made at the peak of the counter-culture, where gender norms were breaking down, and the sexual revolution was at its peak. Frederic is a man who was years too late to the party, wondering what he could done and been a part of. It’s common for anyone to reflect back on their lives, wondering what a difference a few years could have made for their careers, education, or relationships. Some moments will weigh you down more than others, offering long reflections of regret and dissatisfaction. Perhaps all that’s needed is the fantasy and the possibility. Similar to the talisman fantasy earlier in the film which would allow Frederic to seduce any woman he pleases, Chloe provided him a similar fantasy, a “What if?” that can now take him into fatherhood and offer comforting thoughts when his wife isn’t around, without the baggage of betrayal.
BELOW: An example of the boiling sexual tension between Chloe and Frederic
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writer: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy; based on Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers
Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino
by Susan Bartley
This film starts out strong, reminding me of many of the great 90s adventure films - Alaska, The Edge, The Perfect Storm, Alive, etc. The story involves author Jon Krakauer and the famous 1996 Everest disaster which claimed the lives of four in his group, and fifteen throughout the year. Krakauer would later write the highly successful Into Thin Air about the tragedy, though its clear the filmmakers had abandoned his point of view in favor of author and fellow mountaineer Beck Weathers. Coincidentally, the number of fatalities was matched months before filming Everest, with 2015 later pushing the year total fatalities to nineteen after a severe Earthquake took place. One of the most disturbing things you can look up are the dead who’ve been left on Everest, frozen, with their clothes still on, forever memorializing the mountain’s strength and power.
When I saw the preview about a year back I was blown away by the cast with Jason Clarke, - who’s becoming one of my favorite actors whose casting alone can draw me to a film - as Robin Hall, Adventure Consultants' Sherpa who leads a group of men and women who’re ready to give Everest a shot. We got Josh Brolin as the film’s most well rounded character, playing Texas conservative Beck Weathers. Krakauer is played by another one of my new favorite actors Michael Kelly of House of Cards fame. John Hawkes plays mailman Doug Hansen, who raised the $65,000 fee with the help of some elementary school kids back home, going on on his third or fourth try. And there’s Emily Watson as Adventure Consultants Base Camp Manager, whose eyes alone, as alway, command each and every moment.
So as we’re getting to know a bit about thee characters and the story progresses, we start to realize that it’s all been going on for a while, and even though it’s one of the best casts of a modern adventure film, we don’t know anything about them after nearly an hour and fifteen minutes. And when the terrible weather finally comes along and every character is wearing an oxygen tank and mask, you have no idea who is who, where they are, where they are in relation to other people, and what they’re thinking about that situation. While we explore Beck Weather and discover he failed to tell his wife he was going to Everest, first meeting him with a Dole for President t-shirt, incredulous that a mailman can get up the mountain, and then panicking when the first near-accident occurs, everyone else - ex-Rob Hall, kind of - gets a single moment where they’re asked “Why climb Everest?” by Krakauer and no one really answers except with the joke that I think everyone has heard at least once - “Because it’s there!” they say in synchronicity. Rob Hall talks to his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), but we’ve seen so many of these moments where a couple and/or man and wife are on a phone, long distance, talking about how much they miss one another, until events turn sour. Only difference is that I didn’t know the ending of Everest and, in reflecting on the moment, it was pretty fucked up, yet impressive (in a technological way) to know she was talking to him moments before death.
The thing is I just didn’t care about anyone else, especially surprised with John Hawkes who can make any character real and human; Emily Watson whose eyes penetrate your soul; and Michael Kelly who was playing Krakauer - the story’s most interesting character. Krakauer criticized the film for making it look like he didn’t want to go back to help his friends; something his book Into Thin Air would better explain and defend, though I can say it’s pretty messed up to think that a person can have the world view them dishonorably because a movie embellished a bit, or chose one story over another.
Ultimately, just as Rob Hall would probably have taken the blame, director Baltasar Kormakur should do the same. He failed to develop the characters, even after taking the first hour and fifteen minutes of the two hour story before getting into the tragic series of events. Perhaps if the action came sooner it would have been excusable. Instead, the movie builds up rather nicely and then flat lines for the remainder, leaving you wanting more. There were great moments here and there, but overall the focus seemed to shift out of sync with what the story demanded. When it should have gotten close it went far and vice versa, from everything from the effects to the characters and moments they shared. It’s a fun film, and honestly, like The Perfect Storm I might go back to it here and there again. The cast is just that good, no matter how much more they could have given.
BELOW: To think of all the amazing directions this scene could have gone...
Director: George Pal
Cinematographer: Paul Vogel
Writer: David Duncan, based on The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
by Tory Maddox
Reading The Time Machine when you’re fourteen and reading it when you’re twenty nine is a great demonstration of improving literacy. A friend of mine was over while I was finishing up the novel, wondering how I could even find it entertaining, as when he had read it while he was fourteen it was impossible to grasp. I too gave it a go back and then and recall thinking the story read as though written in the 1800s, like Wuthering Heights or Madam Bovary, it provided dense and confusing prose. This second round I was surprised with the beautiful and accessible language, proving why it’s remained timeless - gorgeous characters, fascinating ideas, and great action. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to get to this DVD after having to leave town and so the comparisons are far less ripe.
The first thing to know is that this is not in any way a faithful adaptation of the novel. I even believe that given the fantastical nature of the novel, that H.G. Wells story would have an incredible difficult time ever getting a faithful adaptation, unless from David Fincher (who was once supposed to do a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) or Terry Gilliam, on account of Well’s ability to blend insight with action. It’s a good movie, taking the most general and superficially exciting moments from the text and leaving everything else behind. Nevertheless, the opening scene between the five friends is great, with George (Rod Taylor), showing a functioning miniature model of the time machine, and raising a question I never considered - does time travel adapt to the space in which one is traveling; that is, if I time travel a quarter of a year into the future, would I simply plop into the empty space of Earth’s orbit, or does time operate alongside space, allowing me to stay on the planet? And was this what Wells was exploring during the famous concluding sequence?
George then embarks on his first experiment with the machine, and in the film’s most incredible sequence, in which the director uses stop motion to show plants and animals growing and decaying; along with a highly creative portrayal of time passing as George overlooks a dress store, with the latest fashions coming and going. It’s here that the film takes liberty, placing George midway into the first world war where he meets his best friend’s son, then later travels to an alternative 1960s alternative universe, again meeting his best friend’s son, which then gets attacked by a nuclear weapon, shifting into an incredible use of a miniature city, destroyed by lava - it’s absurd, it’s simple, and looks absolutely ridiculous and amazing.
Unfortunately that where’s the story essentially peaks out, as once he gets to the year 802,701 where, coincidentally, everyone seems to be wearing a rendition of 1960s clothes and has haircuts from the period. As mentioned in Fahrenheit 451, I do not understand how a director that was so creative with the production special effects couldn’t see that his rendition of over 780,000 years into the future looked exactly like the period in which the film was made. This is one of those mistakes that’s up there with computers making sounds while loading files or clicking buttons; it pulls me out every time.
The film then kind of returns to the novel, except not at all expanding on the convolution and specificity of Wells’ story and instead upon the macro idea about monsters living beneath the planet. One of the greatest parts of the novel are the politics you miss when reading it too young. In the novel, George believed that the Eloi had miraculously produced a utopia where everyone is free to do as they please and live in bliss. Discovering the Morlocks, he then believes the Eloi were evil byproducts of a fierce capitalist system, enslaving the lower class people for their benefit. What’s especially dark is his exploration over how it was insurmountable; as though this result is the end product; that no matter what we attempt to do this end result is inevitable.
Earlier in both the film and book George discusses his fear of advancing technologies and where they’ll lead . Given that the film came out only fifteen years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was a perfect chance to represent these fears, which culminates in showing the bomb drop. In the book it remains more abstract, making it all the more timeless as the methods to kill have become more efficient (though this does raise questions about drone usage and what Wells would think). So, it seems as though Wells was pointing to slavery as the worst potential effect of the far distant future, where weapons in the hands of the powerful few could tame and confine those who could not fight.
Once George returns to his spaceship, the movie completely fails to even attempt to create the actual ending, where he travels 30 million years into the future, finding giant red crabs wandering across desolate beach fronts, then further into the Earth ceasing to spin, entering into a severe ice age where every living thing dies. I want to compare this to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think that 1) Kubrick got the idea from Wells; at least in part, and 2) that 2001 doesn’t even come close to capturing how crazy this scene is, which I also get frustrated with because it makes me think of your generic psychedelic trip scene, from a film or modern book, even though this story came out in 1895.
Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an awesome and amazing film that gets drowned out by what you’d consider the best sci-fi films of the 60s were - 2001, Planet of the Apes, Alphaville, The Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead, etc. This film still has a family feel to it, but it at least takes mild cue from the novel and explores some pretty heavy stuff with some pretty fun effects.
BELOW: The brilliant first travel sequence
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)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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