Showing posts with label Film Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Film Review. Show all posts

December 27, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)

Daisy Ridley's Rey wields Luke's lightsaber in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

It's a fascinating time for the Star Wars franchise. Despite huge box-office receipts for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, some naysayers are questioning its long-term future. Critical and audience response has been very positive, but a vocal group of fans has spewed vitriol about certain story choices. In particular, the depiction of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and some new Jedi powers have drawn scrutiny. A lot of the anger is silly because it's so hyperbolic. On the other hand, that doesn't mean all of the issues should be tossed aside. Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) has crafted a film that's brilliant, daring, and quite divisive. I love the fact that fans are having tough discussions about this new chapter.

I was a little behind the curve and caught up with The Last Jedi this past Friday. I managed to avoid spoilers and entered the theater mostly cold beyond the basic elements. This led to a fun and surprising experience that kept me on my toes. I really liked the movie overall, though a few choices didn't stick as strongly. A big selling point for Johnson's film is the fact that I want to see it again as soon as possible. So much happens within the 152-minute running time, so I need more time to digest it on a rewatch. Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver are all excellent, and the two young actors shine in developing their characters beyond The Force Awakens.

My full review of The Last Jedi was just posted tonight on my other blog at The Tomorrow Society. That site focuses on theme parks, especially Disney, so it made sense to write about that studio's blockbuster film on that blog instead of here. If you're a fan of Disney World and other theme parks, you should also check out my other blogs and podcasts on that topic. Regardless, I'd love to hear what you think of my reactions to The Last Jedi. You can check out that review by clicking here.

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September 21, 2017

Anthony Desiato’s My Comic Shop Country

Poster for the upcoming film My Comic Shop Country by Anthony Desiato
Back in 2011, I covered my hometown St. Louis International Film Festival for the now-defunct Sound on Sight and also published the reviews on this blog. One of the surprises was My Comic Shop DocumentARy, an up-close look at the Alternate Realities store in Scarsdale, New York. What made the documentary charming was the close perspective on both customers and employees of this comic shop. It was directed by Anthony Desiato, who worked at Alternate Realities for more than 10 years. His personal experience with the shop and owner Steve Oto made the film more engaging than I expected. Desiato did a Q&A at the festival, and it was clear how much the store meant to him.

Since that time, Desiato has directed several other documentaries on the interesting people that he’s met along the way. By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story focused on the eccentric guy we first met in My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and Wacky Man: The Rise of the Puppeteer covered an idealistic puppeteer. Desiato also created the podcast My Comic History to chronicle the sad closing of Alternate Realities. In the third season of that show, he traveled to comic shops around the country to uncover the business side of running a store. I’m not a comics expert, but it’s still intriguing to learn more about what happens behind the scenes.

Desiato’s next project is a feature film called My Comic Shop Country, which will continue the work from the podcast. He’ll visit comic shops around the nation to explore how local stores function and the communities around them. Desiato has set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this new film. Judging by his other work, this documentary should have plenty to offer for anyone interested in the industry or even how small businesses thrive. To give a better idea of Desiato’s style, I caught up with other films that he’s created in recent years.

The poster from By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story, a documentary from 2014

By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story (2014)

The first line of By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story is the title guy saying “fuck technology!” into the camera. It’s a sad time for parts of the industry that have been forced to change to survive. Meisel isn’t exactly a technologically advanced guy, so moving to the digital realm is unlikely. The big character spends his life in a tight spot among the comic books in the Empire State Flea Market. He’s a fiery, old-school New York guy that grumbles at customers. Of course, this doc shows how his gruff demeanor hides an endearing soul beneath the surface.

It’s the small touches of Meisel’s personality that make him engaging. He buys movie posters that aren’t particularly memorable and rarely sells them. He’s doesn’t seem that forward-thinking when it comes to other cultures, though he’s hardly that simple. The sad cloud hanging over the film is the impending closure of the flea market. It’s not like Meisel has done anything else for decades. He refuses to go on eBay and instead uses his garage. The whole thing is unfortunate.

Desiato clearly likes Meisel, and the loss of his shop feels tragic. Watching him trying to sell products out of the garage is sad. His former spot is empty and won’t be the same even when new tenants buy the space. A montage of happy interactions between Meisel and various customers pinpoint what’s now missing. It was more about the human connections than the individual comic books. This sweet film shows how many people a guy like Meisel charmed during the numerous years in his shop. Like My Comic Shop DocumentARy, it reveals wonderful characters that we often don’t see on our screens.

The poster from Wacky Man: Rise of the Puppeteer, a film by Anthony Desiato.

Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer (2016)

How does a person become a puppeteer? Zach Woliner has that dream and created the character Wally Wackiman to make that happen. Jim Henson set the standard with The Muppets and related projects, but there are still limited professional roles for puppeteers. Can Zach do it? That quest is the subject of Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer. Recording videos at home with his wife Veronica, Woliner is idealistic but recognizes that challenges he faces with this dream. Balancing it with a full-time office job makes his goals even harder to fulfill.

Woliner’s brother and parents give some background on the life that inspired him. It’s clear that this passion for puppetry has been central since an early age. You don’t get the sense that anyone pressured him to give up the dream, and that’s important. The chances of success are slim, but Woliner makes an impression at a puppeteers’ workshop. There’s something inside him that might click with others if luck goes in Woliner’s favor.

Wally Wackiman is a self-aware puppet, which opens up a new realm of comedy for Woliner. It’s sometimes tricky to separate Woliner’s persona from the puppet. The segment on that separation is one of the most interesting parts of the movie. We also see the possible limits of this character in YouTube videos. Woliner is a talented guy, but there are so many entertainers competing for our time. Observing the DIY approach of the videos shows the hard work that’s involved with online production. Parties are no easy feat either.

What rings true in the ups and downs of Wacky Man is Woliner’s heart. This isn’t a callous guy with an obsessive dream. The strong relationships with Veronica and his brother keep Woliner grounded in a challenging field. Sesame Street is the dream job, and the moment when Wally hits the stage with Oscar the Grouch is charming. But can he break through and reach that level? The commitment is there in spades, though it may take a lot more to achieve his dream.


Interview with Anthony Desiato

Desiato was kind enough to answer some questions about My Comic Shop Country, the Kickstarter campaign, and why he’s so interested in making this project happen.

1. What initially attracted you to comics and working at a comic shop when you were younger?
The character of Superman drew me in initially when I was five, but as I got older and my reading selections expanded, I came to appreciate everything the medium can do. Comics invite the reader to engage with the material like prose books, but they also offer the visual dimension like films and television (albeit with unlimited budgets). As a medium, you really get the best of both worlds. As far as working at a comic shop, if you're a comic fan looking for an after-school job, there's really nothing better.

2. You’ve visited stores across the country for the My Comic History podcast. What inspires you to dig further and produce the documentary?
The styles of storytelling in a podcast vs. a documentary film are distinct enough that each project will stand on its own. For example, if there's a story that takes five minutes to recount, that's perfect podcast fodder, but it would be an eternity on film. At the same time, podcasts are an auditory medium, so I'm tremendously excited to SHOW these stores in the documentary. I've discovered some terrific stores with eye-catching layouts, merchandise, and displays, and I can’t wait for viewers to see them.

A poster from the podcast My Comic History from Anthony Desiato

3. Your podcast often delves into the business side of running a comic shop. What interests you about exploring that aspect of running a store?
Maybe I secretly wish I had gotten my MBA instead of my law degree? It's funny — I'm not entirely sure why the business of comics retail appeals to me the way it does. I think it has to do with the fact that most retailers (it seems) start as fans and collectors first who decide to pursue comics as a career. The process of turning your passion into a business can be a tricky proposition, and I’m always curious to hear how people navigate that. I’m also keenly aware of the challenges retailers face on multiple fronts. However, rather than take a doom-and-gloom approach, I love to hear HOW retailers are responding to these challenges.

4. In both the feature My Comic Shop DocumentARy and your short film By Spoon!, we see the ways the industry has changed and even left some people behind. Why have some comic shops been able to thrive in this evolving world?
There are a lot of ways to answer that, but I think your question gets at a critical point. The industry has changed and continues to change, and the stores that recognize that and are willing to innovate are the ones that may just make it.

5. What continues to interest you about comic shops today?
Well, for the longest time I thought it was only MY comic shop that interested me, but when Alternate Realities closed, I re-examined that proposition and realized that the local comic shop as an institution held great appeal to me. I had captured the community of AR on film and in podcast form, and I wanted to try to capture the larger comic shop community as well.

A look at the comic shop Alternate Realities, which closed a few years ago.

6. How did you choose the comic shops to be featured on the podcast and the upcoming documentary?
It was a combination of factors both creative and practical. I knew I wanted a cross-section of stores in terms of geography and history. There were stores I already knew; I solicited recommendations; and I looked at trips I was already taking (for work, weddings, etc.) to see where I could tie in shop visits.

7. You’ll basically travel the country as a one-man crew for this film. How challenging with the production be for you to shoot all the footage?
These days, I have my wife traveling with me, which has been a huge help. I’d also think about bringing in a crew person if possible.  But as far as shooting everything myself, it's all I know! That's how I've made all three of my previous docs.

8. How long do you anticipate it will take to shoot and complete the film?
The plan is to shoot and edit next spring and summer, with an eye toward completing the film in Fall 2018.

9. One of the highlights of My Comic Shop DocumentARy was spending time with all the unique figures that inhabit the world of Alternate Realities. Do you hope to connect with similar characters around the country in your new film?
Absolutely. With everything I’ve done, it's always about the people above all else. Comic shops are perhaps the best place to find colorful personalities — on both sides of the counter.

10. The Kickstarter rewards include some pretty cool incentives for backers, including a cooking class with you and your wife, a portfolio review, and a superhero photo shoot. How did you go about putting together the rewards?
When I turned my attention toward designing the reward structure, I wanted to make sure there was variety in both the prices as well as the rewards themselves. Whether you're looking to contribute $5 or $5,000 — or anywhere in between — there's something for you to choose. I thought about what might appeal to someone who's followed my past work (hence rewards like exclusive podcast episodes and the My Comic Shop DocumentARy Blu-ray), but I also considered the folks coming into this cold, who might be interested in the original art, custom toy, or portfolio review rewards. There are essentially five reward categories: digital, physical, one-of-a-kind, experiential, and sponsorships.


Learn More

Check out the My Comic Shop Country Kickstarter page to learn more about the film and the benefits of supporting the project. Stay updated through the My Comic Shop History page on Facebook.

August 25, 2017

Van Johnson Blogathon: The Caine Mutiny

Van Johnson stars with Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

It’s easy to look at The Caine Mutiny as an actors’ showcase. Humphrey Bogart chews up the scenery and gives an iconic courtroom speech that stands alongside Nicholson’s work in A Few Good Men. Fred MacMurray excels at playing a morally flexible soldier, and a quiet Van Johnson struggles with the burden of removing his superior. Even the bland Robert Francis gets a lot of time on screen as the idealistic young newbie. We recall these guys playing off each other, but that focus pushes aside the other predominant theme on the destructive power of war.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, this film doesn’t glamorize life at sea during World War II. The Caine is a beaten-down vessel that needs an extended stay at dry dock. Instead, it’s given a new captain and pushed to the front once again. We spend limited time in battle with this crew, but the impact of war stands out on the face of guys like Bogart’s Captain Queeg. His obsessive ticks help cope with the horrors that play constantly in his mind. He desires control over every detail yet has little ability to secure his own impulses.

A cynicism about institutions and authority permeates the story, even when it’s patriotic on the surface. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a member of the Hollywood 10 that eventually testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk did not write the adaptation, but it’s fairly easy to connect his experiences to this tale. When the government prosecutors grill Francis’ Willie Keith and Johnson’s Steve Maryk about their involvement in the mutiny, it easily connects to the anti-communist investigations.

Maryk spends the final act with a pained look that reveals the turmoil beneath his choice to mutiny against Queeg. It’s like he’s carrying a giant weight on his shoulders, and even ultimate vindication won’t remove that burden. The real scar on Johnson’s face seems fitting given the emotional scars he’s carrying for this choice. The stoic Johnson is the right choice to play a well-meaning guy thrust into an unenviable position. He gets no joy out of removing the unfit leader from his position. Johnson remains in the background while we stick with Keith for the first half, but he’s a lot more interesting once the plot kicks into gear.

The mystifying part of The Caine Mutiny is how much time we spend with Keith and his story away from the ship. The conflict between his devotion to his mom (Katherine Warren) and love for singer May Wynn comes from a lesser story. Francis’ flat vocal delivery stands out next to pros like MacMurray and Bogart. He’s a young guy with the right look but is in over his head. That sense actually works for his time on the ship because Keith is new to war. The problems appear when he’s separated from the army. Wynn (who took the character’s name as her stage name) has charm but can’t do much with Keith and the predictable domestic material.

Disregarding the lesser parts, this story clicks as a tight drama. Queeg’s presence keeps everyone on edge, even a smooth guy like MacMurray’s Tom Keefer. Queeg disrupts the ecosystem of The Caine with more than just careless orders. The courtroom scenes are gripping, particularly due to a knowing performance from Jose Ferrer as defense attorney Barney Greenwald. The way he rips apart Queeg’s façade is frighteningly precise. He takes no joy in it and knows it will destroy a man’s career. It’s eerily similar to the way Chuck disintegrated in Better Call Saul this year. Once the house of cards breaks, the fall is swift and destructive.

There’s a gripping 90-minute courtroom drama trying to break out of the two-hour film. On the other hand, it could work as a three-hour epic with more back stories for the other characters. Instead, The Caine Mutiny straddles the middle and provides great scenes and lost moments. Led by Bogart’s stunning performance, the actors keep us invested through all the ups and downs. Regardless of screen time, the cagey veterans rarely miss a beat.


This article is a contribution to the Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Check out all the great articles from this blogathon here.

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

July 15, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford stars as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.

It’s rare to have a Western with a female lead, particularly in the 1950s. Joan Crawford’s Vienna is hardly just eye candy either. She owns the screen with a look and refuses to tread in the confines of her civilization. For that reason, Vienna is a threat to everyone in the local town. Accepting her claim to valuable real estate near the railroad makes Vienna an equal to the guys, and perhaps even superior to them. It’s a clever shift in gender dynamics, though Johnny Guitar doesn’t completely bypass those norms. The title reminds us that men still try to remain front and center. The love story must drive the plot, even if it’s the least interesting part of the story.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, who exists mostly to protect Vienna from the blood-thirsty townspeople. In a similar fashion to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in this year’s Wonder Woman, Guitar (whose real name is Johnny Logan) clearly plays second fiddle to the main character. He’s a past love that once lived a life of crime, but now his attention is all on Vienna. There’s an odd conflict between romance and self-determination in Vienna’s heart, and that fight exists within the film’s themes. Crawford’s Vienna is so focused that she hardly blinks, but then she falls into Logan’s arms multiple times. The script from Ben Maddow indicts McCarthyism yet can’t help but give the characters something beyond the ideological fight.

The standout among the forces of civilization is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna with all of her being. She’s jealous of Vienna’s relationship with “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), who’s hardly a kid and doesn’t dance. Brady was 30 when Johnny Guitar was released and looks even older. McCambridge and Crawford reportedly did not get along on the set, and that hatred emanates from the screen. It’s easy to believe that the characters want to kill each other, particularly Small. The look on McCambridge’s face when she burns down Vienna’s place is chilling. It’s a vision of evil from a villain technically on the side of the law.

Ward Bond’s John McIvers may believe he’s running the show, but it’s Small that’s driving the furor against Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. It’s the crowd mentality that drives the push to not only drive them from the town, but to hang them. The dark middle act reveals how far bloodlust can take even normal people. It’s only after the first killing that it subsides, at least for most of them. It’s easy to draw parallels between the falsehoods that drive this mission and the evils of McCarthyism. Maddow had to use Phillip Yordan’s name on the script due to his past issues with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The final showdown is the only place where Johnny Guitar slips a bit. The shootout has power yet seems too conventional given the earlier scenes. It does include a quick stop that reminds me of the brief cease fire during Children of Men. Bond’s haunted face shows how quickly a quest for justice can get out of control. On the other hand, the last shot indicates that the love story is the driving narrative. That feels like an over-simplification given what we’ve witnessed up to that point. Vienna has lost her home and livelihood, but at least she has love. This moment ends the story on a hollow note; we root for Vienna but not in this way.

It’s easy to view Johnny Guitar as a revisionist western, but there are still parts that are genre norms. Its primary conflict is between the forces of civilization and the wilderness, order and freedom. Vienna wants the chance to go her own way, but the crowd wants to stop her because she’s an outsider. Her bright red lipstick and colorful outfits aren’t the typical garb for a woman in the “civilized” world. Crawford’s intensity sells the idea that Vienna is a singular individual that won’t cater to any societal norms. She falls for gunslingers and refuses to indict them for the behavior. It’s an entertaining twist on the conventional structure, though the end result doesn’t completely upend the typical narrative.

Johnny Guitar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. Johnny Guitar
3. They Live by Night
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. On Dangerous Ground

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

June 20, 2017

The Fourth Kingdom and the American Myth

The Fourth Kingdom depicts life at the "Sure We Can" redemption center.

Amid today’s onslaught of claims about illegal aliens and dangers to a blurry concept of traditional “America”, it’s easy to bypass the human side. We can hate the fearmongering by power-hungry leaders, but what about the people it impacts? Taking a breath and looking closer is hard to do sometimes. In their short film The Fourth Kingdom, Adán Aliaga and Àlex Lora accomplish that by depicting a small group of people at the Sure We Can recycling and community center in New York. They depict individuals of different races and backgrounds, and each one has a unique story.

It’s easy to tie everything to a discussion of Trump’s policies, but there’s no need to make it blatant. With the exception of a brief shot of the President on TV (before the channel changes), there’s no direct mention of him. Even so, his presence hangs over each scene. When a man speaks about the difference between labeling people as “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants”, it brings us right back to the hate speech. Hearing him speak about walking to the border without any planning is striking. A later shot of the guy going to bed in extremely cramped quarters says plenty. He came looking for the “American Dream”, but what he found instead was something less inspiring.

I shouldn’t focus too much on the political aspects; that’s more of a backdrop than the focus. The residents of this center largely seem content and aspire for a better life. One man spends his time chatting with a friend and wondering about theories like God's involvement in The Big Bang. It’s the type of conversation that you’d expect to hear among friends at a park or coffee shop. Another guy has a personal goal of acquiring 2,000 bottles, and the process makes him happy. He spent 3-4 years at one point living in the streets, so finding a purpose is so important.

Aliaga and Lora find inventive ways to avoid using just a fly-on-the-wall style. One slow-motion shot of a beer bottle opening is beautiful in its simplicity. They also use audio from a vintage promo about plastics throughout the film. That overly positive look at the artificial substance mirrors the way the dream has been diminished for some residents. Plastics took hold of our culture during the post-war era of the ‘50s and connect to the rise of the American myth. The bags of plastic have their own charms, but they also reveal the leftovers of a wasteful society.

While the narrator describes the “dream of the future”, shots of heaping bags of bottles and cans tell a different tale. Stories about alcoholism and homelessness drive home the point that we’re a long way from that idyllic dream. This kingdom of plastics offers respite for people that are barely hanging onto hope. They’re just living day to day and working tirelessly to stay afloat. The Fourth Kingdom finds peace in their efforts, despite the difficulties of each day. It’s a brief glimpse at a world on a separate plane from the grand claims of politicians. Those leaders are stuck in the fantasy described by the deceptive narrator while life continues in the world around them.

The Fourth Kingdom is currently playing the festival circuit, including the Palm Springs Film Festival on June 21. It also recently won the Best Short Documentary award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Learn more at the official website.

June 19, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground.

For his seventh feature, Nicholas Ray ventured into the crime world that served him well in his debut They Live By Night. Released in 1951, On Dangerous Ground depicts a cynical cop that’s lost his way in the dark city. It’s the type of character that we still see today, particularly on prestige TV series. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a grim anti-hero with no interest in playing by the rules. There are even Dirty Harry-like moments where the Chief tells Wilson that he must tone down his behavior or risk losing his badge. He’s a loose cannon that must be controlled!

Robert Ryan (The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock) is the perfect choice to play this unhinged guy. His expressive face says plenty with limited dialogue. When Wilson mercilessly beats a suspect, the camera stays on Ryan’s face. It’s a frightening look inside a cop that has seen far too much. Screaming “You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!”, Ryan is quite believable. There is no doubt that Wilson is going to gather the info he needs no matter what it takes. The line between cop and criminal is razor thin, and Wilson might be worse because he’s acting with the arm of the law.

An effective opening sequence presents a series of nighttime calls to cops for an extensive search for suspects. The emphasis on the procedural aspects is surprising from a director like Ray, who often seems more interested in a story’s emotional context (that comes later). During the first act, there’s little sense that we aren’t going to stick with the cops. I knew little about the plot going into this viewing, and the fast-paced opening works well. Ray puts the camera inside the cars and gives us obstructed looks at the action in the city’s back alleys. This helps set the mood of a depressing crime world, and even the audience is likely on board to escape it.

What makes On Dangerous Ground stand out is its odd left turn during its second half. Sending a city cop to the country to investigate a murder isn’t that surprising. What makes the shift different is how little Ray and Co-writer A.I. Bezzerides seem to care about the case. It’s really just a set-up to bring Wilson into contact with Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). She’s blind and living mostly alone in the snowy wilderness. Lupino’s glassy stare helps make sure we get the point, even if Walter Brent (Ward Bond) can’t see that she’s blind for a while. His revenge-minded father of the victim is so blinded by rage that he almost clumsily burns down the cabin. The hard edges of the first act disappear, and we’ve shifted into a family melodrama and love story.

Before Wilson and Brent meet Malden, they join a town-wide manhunt for the killer. It’s the film’s most epic sequence and has a strange town mania for the chase. It’s the most exciting thing to happen in the town for quite a while! In this revenge-fueled setting, Wilson doesn’t seem like he’s out of line. In fact, his measured approach in the new setting is a contrast to the townspeople’s. Bond is dialed up to 11 as Brent, and Wilson seems eerily composed by comparison. Part of the change is this wide-open landscape plus an interest in Malden. The change of scenery pulls the darkness away from Wilson, and he’s comfortable here.

Lupino and Ryan do their best with the material, but the story grinds to a halt in the third act. It’s a surprising move to slow down so much in what’s essentially the movie’s climax. Even when Brent and Wilson chase down the suspect, the result seems more inevitable than thrilling. An exception is the one-on-one meeting between Wilson and the killer, which works because of the cop’s internal conflict. His interest in both Malden and this small-town life means more than catching the bad guy. The conflict appears mostly in Ryan’s facial expressions, which shift as his demeanor softens with Malden. Taking care of her gives him a much-needed mission.

Despite some awkward moments, On Dangerous Ground is a worthy noir because of Ray’s direction. He finds inventive places to put the camera, especially in driving sequences. One crash gives the sense that you’re inside the car as it tumbles over in the icy snow. This film also runs a brisk 82 minutes. A two-hour version of this film would be tedious. A slow Bernard Hermann score adds to the sleepy tone of the scenes inside the house. Wilson needs this quiet life to push back his demons, but it’s less inspiring to us. What clicks is the way his demeanor shifts back to depression when he drives back into the city. That world would eventually kill Wilson’s soul, and he must escape or risk falling prey to the worst parts of himself.

On Dangerous Ground is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon.


Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. They Live by Night
3. Rebel Without a Cause
4. On Dangerous Ground

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

June 13, 2017

Blackhat: The Director’s Cut

Chris Hemsworth stares down the villain in Michael Mann's "Blackhat".

Released in the January dead zone for movies, Michael Mann’s Blackhat drew little attention from audiences. My theater was basically empty, and I saw it on the opening weekend. Despite its commercial disappointment, this film has its share of devoted fans. This is especially true of cinephiles, who are drawn to Mann’s technical mastery even when the plot falls a little short. I count myself among this group of defenders that will go to the mat for his divisive movies like Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Ali. Many people love Heat and Collateral, but it takes a certain type of person to love the deeper cuts. Blackhat is a movie for that vocal group.

Mann constantly tinkers with his movies, and his latest project was no exception. In early 2016, he screened the Director’s Cut of Blackhat at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It seemed like that would be it, so I was stunned to learn that F/X would debut that version on May 9th of this year. While the overall impact is similar to the original, there are some major changes to the film’s structure. I’ve already written twice on this movie — an initial review and a detailed look at five key shots. Therefore, I won’t dive into all the specifics once again. For this post, I’ll stick with the changes in the Director’s Cut. For one last time (I think), let’s talk about Blackhat!

I don’t enjoy watching films with commercials, even when using the DVR. There's a choppiness that you can’t escape no matter how good the material is. I made an exception here, but it does halt the momentum. With that said, I don’t believe F/X needed to make significant cuts to adjust this story for TV. This is not a hard R, and the violence falls in line with modern television standards. Because of the limited availability of this version, catching up with it on the small screen was an easy sell.

A Different Attack

The most substantial change in the Director’s Cut involves the placement of the nuclear meltdown that drives much of Blackhat’s story. It occurred at the film’s opening in the theatrical version but has now moved well into the second act. The Chicago hack to increase soy futures becomes the event that jumpstarts the plot. The opening shot of this version is a quiet scene of papers flying inside the empty Mercantile Trade Exchange. It’s a more effective moment and reveals the danger lurking behind the scenes. The attack happens in a deserted space and from outside of public view. It’s an eerie scene that reinforces the story’s primary themes.

Another positive is removing some confusion from the arrival of Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) at the nuclear facility. It seems like the attack just happened, and that is the case in the Director’s Cut. The original version felt more jumbled, and this scene came out of nowhere. The “stock footage” marker still appears over the disaster scene, but it’s a minor quibble. It’s a more epic attack, so the shift to the introduction in the theatrical version makes sense. However, that move helped support a feeling that the plot was thrown together into an incoherent mix.

Character Beats

On casual glance, you could miss a lot of the other edits to this Director’s Cut. The original love scene offered subtle details on Hathaway’s back story, but that is gone now. The result is a more conventional moment between Chien Lien (Tang Wei) and Hathaway that’s easily forgettable. There’s a recurring theme to most of the edits — less emphasis on Hemsworth’s character. This allows a little more room for Dawai and Agent Barrett (Viola Davis), which is always welcome. One new scene reveals her uneasiness about Hathaway and Dawai’s trust in his buddy. It creates more of an ensemble feeling that adds weight to their fates down the road.

One thing that’s harder to fix is Hathaway’s awkward introduction, set up to be cool but really making him look like a poseur. The longer conversation in the restaurant with Lien also lands with a thud. His claim that the “time isn’t doing me” falls shot because Hemsworth doesn’t sell it. He’s more at home when the action starts, especially in the final act. Mann shares that ability, and a new tense moment with a revolving tail in Hong Kong is quite effective. It reminds us how well Mann can shoot even the most straightforward scene, especially in a crime film.

Blackhat’s Legacy

The Director’s Cut’s best achievement is to shine a clearer light on what already worked in Blackhat. It’s an effective crime film that depicts a believable world of hackers, their henchmen, and the agents that pursue them. There’s a sense of confusion on what’s really driving the villains in the modern world. We’ve come a long way from robbers strolling into banks and stealing the loot. The villain of this film is a nondescript guy hiding out of sight. When we encounter him in person, he seems less imposing and fairly easy to defeat.

Mann still has many supporters, but I wonder if he’ll direct another feature. He is 74 and hasn’t had a commercial hit in a long time. A biopic of Chicago mob bosses Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana may be in the works. More recently, Mann and Michael De Luca purchased the rights to Mark Bowden’s book Hue 1968 to develop a miniseries. I’m hopeful that one of these projects will happen, but Mann isn’t that most prolific. It’s been more than two years since Blackhat’s release, and we’re still a long way from his next work. In the meantime, it’s intriguing to look at a different cut of his last film. Whatever comes next, I’ll be one of the first people in line for Mann’s future projects.

This article is part of the Investigating Michael Mann series, which takes a close look at his remarkable films. Check out all the reviews on this page

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

June 5, 2017

The Fun and Importance of Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot stars as Diana in the Patty Jenkins movie Wonder Woman.

What more can be said about Wonder Woman? It’s already become a blockbuster hit, which is thrilling given the intense focus on its success. In the world of Trump, an extremely rare superhero movie with a female director takes on much greater meaning. Far-right trolls were just waiting for Wonder Woman to fail. Instead, Patty Jenkins’ new film is closing in on box office records. I took my daughter to see it on Saturday, and it was heart-warming to observe such a diverse audience. She’s eight and maybe a little too young for some parts, but I decided it was worth it because of how uncommon it is to have a female lead in a superhero blockbuster.

Looking beyond the cultural significance, this isn’t the most impressive summer slate for big-budget movies. Logan was a surprise hit back in March, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did monster business. Plenty of other wide releases have failed, and there are candidates for a similar fate on the way. Wonder Woman was hardly a surefire hit, but positive word of mouth and the lack of much competition helped its cause. It’s also an entertaining movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a welcome change to see a movie that doesn’t feel loaded by its franchise. There are no extra scenes in the credits that tie in to other films. With the exception of brief references to Bruce Wayne, there’s little mention of other parts of this comics universe.

The highlight is a glorious action scene that reminds me of why I love movies. The sequence begins with a gloomy look at the horrors of trench warfare, but that’s really just a set-up to let Diana take matters into her own hands. When she stands up and fights, the stark difference between this moment and other gloomy DC superheroes is remarkable. She’s facing down a storm of bullets and actively changing the narrative. Without malice or anger, Diana blazes across the battlefield and inspires the troops behind her. This scene culminates in a nearby village with Diana using a makeshift trampoline and blasting through a tower to stop a sniper. It’s such a fist-pumping moment that it’s hard for anything to match it the rest of the way.

This sequence epitomizes the difference in direction and tone for this movie. The stakes are still high yet they never weigh down the audience. The main reason is Diana herself, who can’t help but be a hero. Gal Gadot perfectly embodies the self-motivated, powerful force that no one can stop. She’s graceful in the action scenes in a way that doesn’t feel like a CGI trick. There’s also a glint in Gadot’s eyes that reminds us that what we’re watching should be fun. This tone carries over into the quieter scenes, which offer laughs and heart that were definitely missing from Batman v. Superman. Jenkins’ direction rarely pummels us, and the screenplay from TV vet Allan Heinberg doesn’t hammer the obvious themes.

This fresh take is evident in the “fish out of water” scenes in London after Diana leaves her island home of Themyscira. She arrives in a man’s world, but we don’t see too many one-note caricatures of sexist villains. A subtle comment from Diana comparing secretaries to slaves is a lot more effective than boorish enemies. The men in Parliament are bewildered by her arrival, and that says plenty. Diana’s lack of decorum is played for laughs but not at her expense. She’s the extraordinary person in a world that has a long way to go. We still do.

This restrained approach works because it’s unexpected in a big-budget superhero movie. It’s also fun to just spend time with the characters, particularly Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). There’s also a fun turn from a nearly unrecognizable Lucy Davis (Dawn from the British version of The Office) as Steve’s assistant Etta. The scenes in London complement the action and keep it grounded. There are plenty of fireworks to come, but that means little if we don’t want to join the trip. Taking a breath and then starting the next journey is so important. The deft pacing is what helps the story avoid losing steam after its opening act on the island. There’s still a little too much of the kitchen sink in the final act, but it takes a long while before we reach that point.

The opening act could easily fall prey to exposition syndrome, but it never falls into that trap. It helps to have Robin Wright as the fierce military leader Antlope and Connie Nielsen as Diana’s mom Hippolyta. Both sell dialogue that could be silly in lesser hands. It’s easy to see what Diana is giving up by leaving this paradise. The film’s 141-minute running time is a little bloated, but the cuts shouldn’t come from this section. It’s necessary to understand Diana’s world and why she’s initially confused by the different culture. It’s also a gorgeous place that doesn’t seem like just a CGI creation. A director like George Lucas would have piled on over-the-top scenery and creatures and lost the reality. Jenkins doesn’t fall into that trap and creates a believable location.

Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are less thrilling as the two main villains. They’re the typical one-note characters (especially Ludendorff) who mainly exist to give the hero someone to battle. The saving grace is that we don’t spend that much time with them, but that makes their defeat seem less uncertain. The final battle includes a surprise twist, though it’s telegraphed due to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters. That moment adds some depth to the conflict, yet it starts to fall apart when the scene keeps going and going. It’s a minor quibble in a very entertaining movie but dulls the final impact just a bit.

What sticks with me about Wonder Woman is the excitement in seeing a modern blockbuster that works as a classic adventure. Gadot and Pine have good chemistry as a pair, and their connection does not distract from the plot’s forward movement. The World War I setting builds a sense of place in a similar way to Captain America: The First Avenger. Both don’t have to create fake countries or grim cities to sell their narrative. The war also makes the horrible acts of the villains feel more natural. It’s not that much of a stretch from the trench warfare that actually occurred. Diana’s powers stand out but don’t overwhelm the other characters’ struggles.

I’m thrilled to see great success for Wonder Woman, which does more than validate an entertaining film. I can’t overstate its importance to the larger struggle, especially with Jenkins as the director. There’s still a long way to go in multiple realms, but this is a major step in the right direction. Trolls can gripe about all-woman screenings and spew hate, but they look even more ridiculous now. It’s sometimes hard to stay positive with a madman leading the country and terrible news each day. The achievements of a blockbuster film might seem trivial, but they make a difference. Young girls like my daughters will see a role model like Diana on the big screen and believe they can be heroes.

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June 1, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: They Live By Night (1948)

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell star in Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night.

We’ve reached a saturation point when it comes to new content, particularly with movies and television. My backlog of films and shows to catch up with from even the past year is massive, and it keeps growing. Finding the time to look back at past greats is harder than ever. It’s also much easier, though. Streaming services like Filmstruck, MUBI, and Fandor offer so many past gems for cinephiles looking to expand their knowledge. I’m a subscriber to Filmstruck and appreciate how they spotlight legendary directors.

A perfect example is the work of Nicholas Ray, who directed nearly 30 films during a lengthy career. I’ve only seen two of his pictures — In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. While those movies represent his best-known work, there’s a lot more to uncover. During this series, I’ll dive much further into Ray’s output and write about each film on this site. I’m starting back at the beginning with his debut feature They Live by Night. If this experience gives any indication, I’m in store for plenty of interesting material during the upcoming weeks.

In his first project, Ray displays a confidence that makes it easy to stick with the action. The striking helicopter shots of the escaped prisoners bring an epic feel that’s rare for the time period. It’s a grand way to introduce what’s essentially a pretty small story. Reportedly the first use of a helicopter to shoot an action scene, the sequence helps distinguish this movie from the typical crime film. Ray incorporates several other helicopter shots into the mix, and it also makes the camera feel like an ominous watcher. We’re observing the characters from afar and aren’t on their level.

Not Part of Our World

This gloomy atmosphere stems from a strange introduction that precedes the helicopter footage. We see Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in love while title cards explain that “This boy...and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” Throughout the film, characters talk about being real people and finding regular life. Because of the prologue (and our knowledge of the genre), we know it’s a fool’s errand. Even with the best of intentions, there’s little chance for the young couple in this rotten world.

Circling back to the escape, our vantage point above the convicts builds a distance at the start. It’s also just a cool shot. When the getaway car fails, we quickly see what kind of guys we’ve joined. They don’t murder the innocent driver but do beat him convincingly. These aren’t vicious killers but are hardly innocents either. T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) are veteran bank robbers, and Granger’s Bowie is their young understudy. Those guys are too far gone to reform, but Bowie still believes there’s a chance for a normal life.

Bowie and Keechie share a meet cute while he’s recovering from an injury at her father’s house. Both have an innocence that the older characters are missing. Her dad is a drunk that can do little without grabbing the bottle. It’s the naïve innocence that draws Bowie and Keechie together, and Granger and O’Donnell are the right choices for these characters. Even when he’s acting tough, it’s hard for Bowie not to seem like a kid. Keechie is upbeat but has seen the rough edges of people through his father’s experience. Her eyes convey more reality than what she says.

Farley Granger and his fellow hoods flee the law in They Live By Night.

A Bad Influence

This world’s rough edges appear in the form of Chickamaw, a one-eyed and angry guy with few social graces. Whatever you do, don’t mention his eye. He takes a strange interest in Keechie, drinks heavily, and smokes cigars. There’s a surprisingly nasty moment with their associate Mattie (Helen Craig) that happens with Chickamaw off-screen. Her behavior in the aftermath strongly implies that Chickamaw tried to rape her. There’s nothing explicit due to the Production Code, but it’s pretty easy to read between the lines.

Da Silva plays Chickamaw like a sexually frustrated subhuman that needs to rob banks for satisfaction. To quote Heat’s Michael Cheritto, the action is the juice for him. Ray makes this explicit later in the film when he faces down Bowie. The crazed look on Chickamaw’s face resembles a monster, especially due to his missing eye. I recognize Da Silva mostly from his goofy turn as Ben Franklin in the musical 1776, so this is quite a different side of the big guy.

His counterpart T-Dub seems like the friendlier associate for Bowie, though he’s really just subtler. Flippen’s hardened face makes T-Dub seem older than the actor’s late 40s age would seem. Bowie looks at him like a father figure, but it’s all business for the long-time criminal. When he reveals his true colors to Bowie, the friendly mask disappears. Bowie is an investment, not a friend of a protégée. There’s no escape from guys like T-Dub and Chickamaw once they’ve entered your life.

I must take a moment to express my love for all the different character names within this movie. Bowie and Keechie seem fitting for the innocent young couple, while Chickamaw and T-Dub match the images of the grizzled criminals. Other names like Mattie, Mobley, and Hagenheimer fit nicely too. If these characters were named John, Sally, and Bob, it wouldn’t have the same effect. Using uncommon names also contributes to the idea that these characters aren’t part of the regular world. They’re on a different plane and won’t connect to everyday society.


Singular Thinking

Bowie is a character type we often see — the idealistic young criminal blinded by love. He can be tough but doesn’t have the grit to overcome life on the run. Keechie is more interesting because of the piercing facial expressions from O’Donnell. Her singular approach is naïve but with some rough edges beneath the surface. She spent her young days working as a mechanic in a cold household. This is a fantasy life for her, and Bowie better not lose it.

One scene that solidifies her worldview is her comparison of women to dogs. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that feels especially prescient in the time of Trump, but it helps explain Keechie’s approach. She’s all about building this life with Bowie and has few aspirations beyond their family. What’s less clear is whether her comments are meant to be cute or as an expression of love. That’s a frightening concept but not outlandish in this late ‘40s noir world.

Keechie is on board to escape to new life with Bowie, and the glowing look on her face when he tries to hold a stranger’s baby reveals other aspirations. It’s all part of the American dream! The trick is that Bowie seems really uncomfortable with the baby and might not fit with family life. Keechie may have chosen the wrong guy, even if he means well. An escaped convict is not usually the right choice to elope with and start a family.

Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger are Keechie and Bowie in They Live the Night.

A Fantasy Life

The closest that Bowie and Keechie come to finding that dream is a run-down cabin in the woods. They buy fancy items and convert it into a place that resembles a comfortable home. The cash from the bank robbery makes it easy to slide into this happy dream. They’re married and in love! What can go wrong? Ray shoots the pair with regular close-ups of their smiling faces, and it’s almost possible to believe they’ll be okay. The cracks are still there at each step, however.

There’s something off about the late-night wedding, and it isn’t just its cheap price. Bowie and Keechie are happy in love, but the reaction from the wedding chapel owner Mr. Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) tells a different story. He recognizes that they won’t succeed here and should get out of the country. Presenting his pal in Mexico is a scheme, but Hawkins probably only mentions it when the patrons fit. When a desperate Bowie circles back later to accept his offer, it’s too late. Hawkins drops his fake business persona and tells Bowie there’s no hope. This bitter and honest take is the last straw in destroying the couple's fantasy.

The cabin owner Mr. Lambert (Byron Foulger) also seems friendly, but it’s mostly an act. A suspicion lurks beneath his smiling face, and it’s only a matter of time before they contact the authorities. Each step along the way, an apparently happy moment is undercut but something fake. Bowie and Keechie spend a night on the town and enjoy an energetic performance from a singer played by Marie Hill. Ray also focuses on the way she grabs tips while singing for the audience. There’s always an ulterior motive. The magical night also ends when a drunk stumbles into the couple’s table. There are no happy endings in this realm.


No Daylight

The previous cracks were just the set-up for the ultimate fall during the final act. Chickamaw and T-Dub enter the picture (and quickly fail), and it foretells Bowie’s eventual fate. The normally exciting revelation of Keechie’s pregnancy brings no joy and only nastiness on both sides. Keechie’s “you don’t see me knitting anything!” reveals how even her idealistic self is gone. They’re forced to travel by night however they can, and that’s no way for a pregnant woman (or anyone really) to live.

The film’s title connects to this part of the movie, where traveling during the day is too dangerous. They Live By Night does imply some type of life for this couple. The desperate final scenes make it clear that living anywhere is impossible. Even other criminals want no part of Bowie due to his fame. One hood sees him in the restroom and offers him a gun but also orders him to leave town. Mattie is their last safe haven, and she makes a deal with the cops to save her husband. It’s all over.

They Live by Night is familiar because many more recent films have used a similar formula. Despite that fact, it still retains its charms thanks to interesting techniques from Ray and the way the lead actors (especially O’Donnell) dive into their parts. Ray’s shots from inside the car are quite striking even today. He also creates a subtle feeling that the walls are closing in on the couple. Bowie is frequently shot from behind a fence or bars, and it shows that he’s still in prison even while on the run. There’s plenty to like in this story, which represents a remarkable debut for a talented filmmaker.

They Live by Night is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon

May 19, 2017

The Bone-Crushing Brilliance of Logan

Hugh Jackman stars in Logan, the latest Wolverine film from James Mangold.

We’ve spent considerable time with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in six X-Men films and two past solo projects, yet there’s still more to mine with this character. In the latest incarnation in Logan, he’s a middle-aged guy slumping through a dreary life. He’s well over 170 years old, but who’s counting? The title character drives a limo and transports partying youngsters and other patrons through an oblivious world. This 2029 resembles our time, and it’s a sad place when seen through Logan’s eyes. Mutants have largely disappeared, which makes him a lost soul.

There’s a definite western vibe to this film, particularly once Logan returns to a dying Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) south of the border. This bleak landscape matches the depressed Logan’s outlook on life. He’s basically a weary Tom Doniphon watching civilization take hold. It’s no coincidence that James Mangold uses Johnny Cash over the closing credits. Logan is a true outsider that only sees the danger and violence surrounding him. Most of his friends (and apparently his love Jean Grey) are dead. He’s just moving slowly towards a sad end.

Parts of Logan resemble a post-apocalyptic film, especially the giant abandoned plant where an ailing Charles and his caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) live. It’s easy to view this place as the next step in our ugly Trump-led world. We see working-class people and immigrants struggling while an abusive band of Reavers kills without a second thought. There are superhero elements to this low-key story, but they never overwhelm the connection to present-day life. It’s easy to sympathize with Logan’s emotional disconnect from everything around him.

Making Logan a mentor for the young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) is a standard plot trope, but the script from Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green dodges the obvious beats. Logan doesn’t magically find meaning in life through his fatherly connection and initially dismisses her. It takes a lot to get him to make the trip to North Dakota with Laura (also known as X-23). He also has little choice once Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and the vicious Reavers arrive. They’re interested in reclaiming their property and will kill any obstacles along the way.

Mangold tackled similar territory in The Wolverine, particularly with Logan struggling to overcome past trauma. I enjoyed the more serious take, particularly during its first hour. This film doubles down on that approach and works even better due to the R rating. There are many brutal stabbings and other grim violence, but it sets the right mood for the material. The fights are visceral and cruel, especially when innocent people end up in the crosshairs.

One lesson to grab from this film is to never help Logan. When Will and Kathryn Munson (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal) invite him for dinner, they’re doomed to tragic deaths. Next time, Logan might want to warn kind people that he’s being chased by violent enemies. The way that the X-24 wipes out the Munson family (and their teenage son Nate) reminds us of this world’s unflinching cruelty. Created from Logan’s DNA, the X-24 has the skills but not the emotions. He’s basically the Terminator from the first film, not the friendlier Arnold from later projects.

There are quite a few connections between this film and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There isn’t an impending apocalypse here, but the atmosphere of doom is quite similar. Like John Conner, the mutant children are looking to escape from forces that would seek their destruction. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is technically human, but his face is devoid of emotion. He’s a monster that has no compassion for anyone, particularly mutants. The bleak desert environment also matches James Cameron’s world of T2. Even before the world explodes, people already live off the grid.

I don’t want to undersell the thrills; there are quite a few action scenes, and most are very effective. The violence is right in your face, and Mangold doesn’t cut away before the killing blows occur. Viewers accustomed to the Marvel framework may not be ready for this level of bloodshed. There’s little security for anyone on screen, even our title character. Villains nonchalantly kill innocent bystanders that get in the way while pursuing their top prize. Few will survive unscathed during the ugly, difficult march to freedom.

Logan follows the classic road movie structure and finds room for character drama within the 137-minute running time. Unlike a bloated project like Batman v. Superman, the extra space here is refreshing. Jackman, Stuart, and newcomer Keen all give strong performances within this airy framework. It makes the final act more powerful because of how much time we’ve spent on the road with this trio. This resonance should bring staying power to this film beyond its original release. It’s a fitting end for Wolverine and a perfect swan song for Jackman in the iconic role.

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May 3, 2017

Two by Chris Marker – Three Cheers for the Whale and Junkopia

A fish from the Junkopia space near San Francisco in Chris Marker's film.

French director Chris Marker is known primarily for his 1962 sci-fi short La jetée, which inspired the Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys. That film remains quite powerful today, but it only scratches the surface of the work from this prolific filmmaker. Marker worked steadily for more than six decades going back to the early ‘50s. A large portion of his career has included documentaries like 1983’s Sans Soleil, a brilliant look at connections across different cultures.

Marker rarely takes the expected road when approaching a documentary subject. His films often maintain an eerie quiet because they aren’t packed with explanations. He is a skilled thinker who is able to put together an interesting film with limited resources. La jetée is mostly just a series of still images, but its story resonates because of the excellent craftsmanship. A large collection of Marker’s work is now available for streaming on Filmstruck. For this article, I caught up with two of his documentary shorts that had previously escaped my attention. Each is remarkable in its own way and shows the breadth of Marker’s talent.

A painting from Chris Marker's 1972 short film Three Cheers for the Whale

Three Cheers for the Whale (1972)

For this 17-minute short film, Marker teamed up with Italian filmmaker Mario Ruspoli to offer a quiet plea for protecting whales. Composed mostly of still photographs and paintings, this piece makes a convincing case against industrial whaling. Leonard Lopate and Emily Hoffman provide the narration for the English version, which was prepared by Marker in 2007. Their words help chronicle the history of whaling from the Eskimos’ utilitarian approach to the factory-like approach of Japan. To the latter group, the whales’ status is now solely for commercial use.

This material hardly feels new today, particularly given the spotlight on films like Blackfish and The Cove plus the TV show Whale Wars. There’s an interesting connection between that series and this film in the form of the Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru. It appears briefly here and was pursued by the Sea Shepherds on the show. It reminds us of the long history of whaling, which was already a major issue in the ’70s. The message of this film is positive about love for whales yet doesn’t shy away from the dangers posed by humans.

The final section of Three Cheers for the Whale includes harrowing footage of a whale being shot and killed by a harpoon gun. The idea that “nature is no longer neutral” continues today with regular attempts by politicians to gut the environment. It’s too easy to look at countries like Japan and Norway as the lone enemies. We do plenty on our own each day to make wildlife the enemy. Marker and Ruspoli’s work remains poignant in our ugly modern climate.

Some artwork from the Junkopia short film from Chris Marker

Junkopia (1981)

Our modern world is constantly moving, particularly for those who live in the cities. It’s rare to experience a moment of calm without cars, machines, and other people infringing on our space. When we see a quiet place, it can feel eerie to escape the madness. Marker captures that sensation in his 1981 film Junkopia. The six-minute short presents a collection of artful contraptions on the beach near San Francisco. Ominous music and ambient sounds just add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of this undisturbed spot.

The “junk” in this location includes driftwood sculptures in the shape of a turkey, an airplane, and even a moon lander. The work from the anonymous artists washes away due to the tides, so a few are seen floating out in the water. Although they occupy a tranquil setting, the art can also deliver chills when presented in a different way. Marker shoots the shadow of an old sign that resembles a looming monster when shot from that perspective. He reveals a mastery of creating moods and shifts gears with a single cut.

The illusion of Junkopia is shattered when Marker cuts to a highway and reminds us of the daily grind. There’s an ugly contrast between the cars slowly moving along the freeway and the creative expressions on the beach. It’s a glimpse at a place that no longer exists, and the sense of loss permeates this footage. Marker shot it with a Zoetrope Studios crew during the production of Sans Soleil and captured a moment in time. The final shot of a wooden boat drifting away in the waves says it all. It may seem like junk, but Marker finds plenty to make them worth a look.

May 1, 2017

Faces of November Review (Robert Drew)

A shot from the funeral of John F. Kennedy in Faces of November

Back in November, I wrote a short piece about Robert Drew’s documentary short Faces of November with thoughts of putting together a longer piece about his work. It was shortly after Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and I was still in shock about the results. While I’m less freaked out with our situation, the negative impact remains every day. I haven’t decided to dive back into Drew’s films since that point. It wasn’t a conscious decision but probably related to a desire to escape from a very different vision of the presidency.

Since Drew’s films are no longer streaming on Filmstruck, I decided to post my thoughts on Faces of November now instead of waiting to pull together a longer essay. I did see Primary back in 2011, and I’d like to dive further into his works on Kennedy and others. Perhaps completing this article will inspire me to allot the time to uncover more gems from Drew’s career. Without further introduction, here is my unpublished review from November about his 1964 film.

Faces of November (Robert Drew, 1964)

We’re living in difficult times following an election result that has traumatized many of us. Even so, it’s still hard for me to contemplate the national climate following an assassination. This is particularly true for a popular leader like John F. Kennedy. Faces of November does an excellent job in capturing the outpouring of grief in the faces of onlookers at the funeral.

This Robert Drew documentary doesn’t overdo the importance of the historical event. Instead, he places us with the people as they say goodbye to Kennedy. We see the resolute look on Jacqueline Kennedy’s face as she tries to stay strong. Bobby Kennedy stares into space like he’s seen death itself. No dialogue is needed to feel the grief emanating from their entire bodies.

Faces of November opens with an image of trees while gun shots blare in the background. Rain pelts the Capitol at night and the wind blows strongly the next day. It’s like nature recognizes the blow to a nation’s consciousness. Drew doesn’t cram too much into the 12-minute timeframe. The camera stays with an interesting face and connects with us through the onlookers’ emotions. Soldiers maintain their composure as the camera draws close looking for a crack. Men and women openly cry while “Taps” plays at the funeral.

It’s a quick glimpse at a pivotal U.S. event, yet the people are the story. The lone exception is a grand shot inside the Capitol, and it’s more about beauty than scale. It’s a quick reminder of what we all can do, despite the odds against us.

Faces of November is available to rent on iTunes and buy on Blu-ray through Criterion.

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April 28, 2017

Bone Tomahawk Review (S. Craig Zahler)

Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins star in Bone Tomahawk.

It’s no secret that the Old West is not a hospitable place. Outlaws roam the countryside, and there are constant dangers for “civilized” folk. Even so, movies and TV series have given us a romanticized vision of the frontier. There are villains to face, but there are also the wonders of the open land! I’m speaking in general terms of course. Modern revisionist westerns like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada have depicted a much darker side of frontier life.

Joining this established band is S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk, a brutal genre mash-up with little optimism in sight. Released in 2015, the grisly story often veers into straight-up horror with a Western backdrop. This grim outlook is evident from the very first shot of a robber cutting his victim’s throat. It’s hardly the quick slice of your typical action film either. This act is vicious, bloody, and seems like it lasts for an eternity. Zahler presents a mission statement for his worldview right at the start. This is an unforgiving, nasty world.

This opening scene also reveals monsters that lurk behind the scenes and overwhelm the typical brigand. They kill without warning and have no regard for who’s on the other end of the arrows they shoot. The change-up in this prologue sets the stage for frequent surprises from Zahler, who rose to prominence as a writer after the success of his novel A Congregation of Jackals. He frequently avoids the expected beats, particularly with the dramatic shift in this film’s third act.

Before we reach those twists, a less confident set-up introduces the main characters in the town. It feels like Zahler just wants to blitz through this section and move back into the wild. We meet the grizzled Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his drunk deputy Chicory (a nearly unrecognizable Richard Jenkins). There’s also the cute young couple Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). The town’s citizens include head-scratching cameos from Sean Young and Fred Melamed, who disappear once you realize they've arrived. Matthew Fox also shows up as the well-dressed gunslinger Brooder.

These scenes feel like a throwback to classic Westerns, but not always in a good way. We meet the film's lone African-American character, and he’s immediately killed in a brutal fashion. Zahler introduces Samantha as a strong woman with medical knowledge and a confident attitude. Sadly, she’s quickly abducted by the unseen monsters that we saw at the start. A scene where Hunt questions and quickly shoots a suspicious guy plays out strangely and like a rehash of better scenes in other films.

Before continuing, I’d like to take a moment and discuss the two couples in Bone Tomahawk. More specifically, the age gaps between the actors involved are unsettling (though predictable). Russell is 66 years old, and Hunt’s wife Lorna is played by Kathryn Morris (48). She only appears briefly, yet it’s still a noticeable gap. Wilson is 43 and 20 years older than Simmons (23). I’m calling this out because it’s so normal. It would be more surprising if Lorna was actually played by an actress in her 60s.

Thankfully, the early scenes are merely a set-up for the moment when Hunt, Chicory, Arthur, and Brooder set out to rescue Samantha and another settler. Zahler’s direction and writing immediately feel more confident in this setting. The pace remains deliberate, but it’s easy to spend time with these actors. Russell and Jenkins are sharp as expected, and Fox surprises in a role that is more nuanced than I expected. Wilson has a challenging role of hobbling around behind the others, but he injects Arthur with a determination that’s easy to respect.

What sets this story apart from a typical Western is the way Zahler depicts the enemies. They’re often called “savages” and would be Native Americans in a lesser film. Instead, the troglodytes feel like a mix between people and sub-human animals. An eerie whistle signifies their impending arrival, and there’s no way to stop them. This sound plays a larger role because of the lack of a typical score in this film. We’re out there with the characters and helpless to save them. The slow capture of Hunt and Chicory is horrifying because it’s so slow and unstoppable.

Zahler takes a slow-burn approach, which gives us time to understand the characters. It also helps to increase the tension, particularly when intruders unexpectedly appear. There's little of the openness you might expect from a trip into the wilderness. Instead, Zahler builds a claustrophobic feeling that only increases as the guys draw closer to the troglodytes. The payoff is mostly worth the time, though it still feels a little padded at 132 minutes. The long journey obviously recalls John Ford's The Searchers, though the final destination is quite different.

There’s one moment that pushes Bone Tomahawk into a different realm, and no one will forget it. The violence is so over-the-top that it’s nearly laughable, but it doesn’t move into camp. Shot in close-up, Russell’s face reveals a horror that drags us back into reality. The workmanlike way that the cannibalistic troglodytes execute their jobs adds to the queasy feeling. There are no clever quips or mustache twirling to let us off the hook. We’re stuck inside that cage with Hunt. It’s an inconsistent but incisive debut from Zahler, who’s a filmmaker to watch. Working with a limited budget, he creates a vivid world that’s safe for no one, including the audience.

Bone Tomahawk is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Squeamish viewers should look elsewhere.

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February 25, 2017

Black Panthers Review (Agnès Varda)

A striking image from the 1968 documentary Black Panthers from Agnès Varda.

It’s easy to look back at the Black Panthers as a small piece of history from a chaotic time. Founded in 1966 and active until the early ‘80s, the Black Panther Party took a militant approach to black nationalism. On the other hand, they also promoted education and built social programs that made a difference in the community. Agnès Varda’s 1968 short film Black Panthers gives an up-close look at a group that was hardly one-note. Also known as Huey, this 28-minute documentary offers a human portrait of a complex organization.

The opening shot depicts a sign displaying the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” in large letters. This statement reminds us that the Black Panthers had an uplifting message. Shots of kids playing and dancing at the outdoor event are quite a contrast from the usual images. Despite the live music and happy children, an unidentified female narrator reminds us that “this is no picnic in Oakland”. It’s part of the “Free Huey” movement to protest the arrest of co-founder Huey P. Newton for the shooting of police officer John Frey. Varda gives a snapshot of the Black Panthers at a specific moment in their history and reveals quite a bit in a short time.

Varda’s camera delivers some remarkable shots within the fly-on-the-wall framework. One stunning image presents an extreme close-up of a serious face in the foreground while a speaker addresses the crowd far in the back. It shows both the commitment and the education from the Black Panthers all in one shot. The speakers include Stokely Carmichael, who makes a convincing case that the U.S. has “declared war on black people”. It’s easy to connect his words to what we’ve seen recently with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more.

There’s also an interview with Newton, who talks about his poor conditions in prison. He seems optimistic about his case but recognizes that the deck is stacked against him. Newton was only 26 at the time and looks even younger, but he makes valid points. It’s tricky because we only have a small portion of the story. Varda is French and presents the Black Panthers from an outsider’s perspective, but also with respect for their views. This empathy makes it easy to understand their struggle, especially given the forces marshaled against them.

Varda also focuses on positions of power for women in the Black Panthers and their choice to go with natural hair. Kathleen Cleaver is a memorable figure that speaks passionately about her role in the party. She’s now an accomplished lecturer and academic, and that’s no surprise after seeing this film. It’s clear from her brief scenes that she’s intelligent and committed to making a difference.

Black Panthers plays differently in the Trump era as many of us look for ways to resist his policies. A statement that describes the U.S. as “this racist nation” rings true when you consider our current leadership. Militant actions may not be the best choice today, but the commitment that we see from the Black Panthers does connect to the struggle now. An effective mix of activism, greater education, and a convincing message should help to change the tide. It helps to know more of the past, and this film offers a glimpse at a small part of the bigger picture.

Black Panthers is currently streaming on Filmstruck in a restored version.