Film Log #11 – 8.2023

August 15th, 2023

Vulcan Video died during Covid and I haven’t been particularly motivated to stream new-to-me classics. Thankfully, The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series as well as Austin Film Society’s programming have motivated me to return to the theaters.

1967’s Cool Hand Luke

Adapted from the 1965 novel of the same name, and unless you read it (unlikely), the audience brings very little context into their screening. If you’re familiar with Paul Newman, you’re aware of the talent and aura he can bring to a picture. For most younger contemporary viewers, all one brings is whatever they know about 1960s media productions based on 1950s American culture.

The film opens with an inebriated Luke Jackson (Newman) in a small southern town; presumably after the bars have closed. Luke takes a No. 3 pipe cutter to 3” parking meter pipes and cuts the meters’ heads clean off. He rewards himself with a beer after each parking meter head clunks on the concrete. When the cops roll up and authority shows its face and potential force, Luke behaves as though they were nothing but ladybugs resting on his shoulders.

The first act introduces us to a very specific type of man. This man of stubbornness and certainty. Regardless of circumstance– be it war (WWII), late nights in small towns, or on a chain gang– this man only knows one way to act, with very little regard for authority.

Maybe that’s not heroic, but we see so many characters (or people in our actual lives) mimic, ape, and contort themselves to make it through their days. It’s refreshing to see people/characters who are thoroughly authentic even when it absolutely doesn’t suit them and, in many cases, when it’s to their detriment.

Dragline (Top Dog Inmate prior to Luke’s arrival): “You don’t listen much, do ya boy?”
Luke: “I hadn’t heard much worth listenin’ to. A lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and regulations.”

Throughout the first act, Luke wins over the men in the chain gang while also winning over the viewing audience. As the viewers and chain gang grow to support Luke, the authority figures’ concern about Luke’s motivational power and leadership grows.

Many, many similarities to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shawshank Redemption, and other films about conformist institutions and the rebels determined to break them come to mind. With so many of today’s discussions revolving around anti-heroes, it should be noted that Roger Ebert wrote, “I think he’s [Luke’s] more a willing martyr– a man so obsessed with the wrongness of the world that he invites death to prove to himself correct.”
That’s damned admirable.

The second act masterfully solidifies the bonds we have with Luke. There’s a particularly touching scene as his mother visits the chain gang’s quarters/prison camp. We see personal sides of Luke as he suffers heart-sinking sadness, excruciating indignities, and elating triumphs. It’s a film that puts its hooks in you and makes you feel, really feel for a character (provided you allow yourself to give a shit in the first place). 

Cool Hand Luke places us into an oppressive machine and points out the idiocy and injustice of it all. In the final scene of the film, Luke addresses God– 

“It’s beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside [chain gang, military, etc], outside [as a “free” man], all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

When I describe 60s and 70s cinema as subversive, this is what I’m talking about. He’s questioning religion, an individual’s function within American society, and obviously authority. This was commercially-successful pop art whose main message is that society’s rules and its status quo are terribly backwards. 

With awareness that it’s easier for audiences to connect with characters who share physical characteristics and have been through loosely similar sets of circumstances, I don’t come across too many contemporary characters delivering Luke’s lines–  “You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in?”

Today’s cinematic conflicts feel bonkers-fantastical or incredibly specific to the point that there’s a significant disconnect (with me). Granted, provided my background (admittedly, a demographic that dominated well over seven decades of American media), I understandably haven’t felt like the target market of a culturally relevant art-film for some time. But after anyone has been wrought through the ringer just for being true to themselves, who wouldn’t ask Luke’s final question? 

Chatter about Barbie

Before I write about The Age of Innocence (1993), Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report (1955), F for Fake (1973), Kansas City Confidential (1952), Out of the Past (1947), Casablanca (1942), Lost in Translation (2003), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), or any of the other films that I have watched/rewatched lately, I should take a minute to speak on a film that has so much buzz that it must be addressed:  Barbie.

I haven’t seen it (and maybe I should just shut up– I know), but here are my thoughts before even viewing it. When I reviewed 2019’s Joker (in 2019), I wrote:

The thought I had going into the film was, “The Hollywood hype machine has made it seem that ever since movie studios have simply become creators of serial comic book blockbusters, that this particular film is what high art and Academy Award films are now destined to become.”
While watching the film, all I could do was pout, beg, and hope that this isn’t where art films (or films worthy of high praise) are headed.

To put it another way, we seem to be unable to tell stories without already knowing half the story before buying our tickets. This is a problem. Given that I’m hearing so much about a movie I’ll never even care about, this trend of not only having our shallow BIG TIME Summertime blockbusters built upon previously-established/borrowed/unoriginal content, but also our “high-brow, arthouse, Academy-considered” films are being pulled from similar content is troubling.
So, why is this an issue?

I’d argue that these films are lowering our ceiling of what powerful storytelling can/should be. I’m sure there are arguments that would counter by saying this maximizes our “powerful storytelling” capabilities because it serves a much, much larger audience and perhaps these films will serve as a gateway for many people to dive into Greta Gerwig’s (and other female auteurs’) films.

I get that using the “Barbie/Mattel Universe” as the vehicle to drive a message about the toxicity of the patriarchy we all live in is an easy way to bring this message to a large audience. I get that. However, it is possible to communicate this message without tethering it to a corporate doll. 

Furthermore, I don’t see too many Barbie fans deciding that they’re now going to see Frances Ha (2012, starring Gerwig and written + directed by her then boyfriend Noah Baumbach), or dive into Agnes Varda’s filmography, or what I’d argue are films actually representing female empowerment such as Gravity (2013) or His Girl Friday (1940) [two of my favorites].

What is going to happen is that there are reportedly 45 Mattel film projects in development based on products such as Barney, Polly Pocket, Bob the Builder, Uno, Hot Wheels, Magic 8 Ball, American Girl Dolls, Bass Fishin’, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, He-Man and She-Ra, and I’d speculate that Barbie is more likely to create fans of the Mattel media universe instead of actual “women-powered art films,” but does any of this even matter?

If it’s your optimistic viewpoint that we’re going to receive thoughtful films illustrating a meaningful viewpoint that will help us collectively gain a unique and more learned perspective through these dozens of Mattel Films– then the future looks very bright. As for me, my realistic pessimism will remain that just as I didn’t care for this entire corporation’s product line as a child, and regardless of how much financing and talent they throw at these projects–  I will care even less about these films that the Mattel brand is spawning. 

Maybe some people believe 2019’s Joker does a commendable job of depicting how mental illnesses affect people and we should all be more aware and sensitive of this issue? And perhaps 2023’s Barbie perfectly presents how women have to exist and fight within this suffocating patriarchy?
Those aren’t my experiences. I have, however, felt as though I’ve been wrought through the ringer and shared many of Luke Jackson’s sentiments.

“Sometimes nuthin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Film Log #10 – 3.2021

March 16th, 2021

During the early stages of covid-19 (April 2020), Vulcan Video, my local video store closed its doors. Since then, the entertainment industry has been undergoing substantial changes. The industry was already heading towards an exclusively streaming direction; covid-19 just gave it an unfortunate shove.

Packing up Vulcan Video

Gone are the days where I look forward to my 2-for-1 mid-week deals and have friendly conversations with knowledgeable staff about cinema while making a concerted decision about how I was to spend a specific evening.

What has replaced this is browsing various streaming services’ category of films that are approaching their streaming expiration such as HBO Max’s “Last Chance” section and watching however many worthwhile films before they depart (usually at month’s end).

This is a poor substitute for Vulcan Video, Austin Film Society, and The Paramount Theatre’s Summer Classic Film Series, but it’s what we currently have.

If you have read any of these posts before, it’s obvious that I have a predilection for classic films. I generally prefer most media (film, music, literature) that was created before the 1980s, but because The Oscars are approaching, I had relatively recently figured to give a few contemporary films a shot.

The Beach Bum (2019) – this doesn’t have anything to do with the upcoming Oscars, but it is relatively recent and I’ve been meaning to write about it.

McConaughey, playing a character named “Moon Dog” (it’s unclear if Writer/Director Harmony Korine intentionally gives the film’s lead the same name as respected experimental jazz musician Moondog, either way, odd choice) parades around south Florida in skiffs, tour boats, yachts, extravagant SUVs, sports cars, and other random vehicles performing a hedonistic, ‘let everything come what may’ type of journey.

But, I couldn’t attempt to call this a “journey” or a narrative. After Korine introduces the main characters, he awkwardly thrusts idiotic plot points at the audience and I’m not certain how the people involved in this production could believe an audience could care about any on-screen happenings.

The movie is directionless, pointless, awful. 

Watch it if you genuinely enjoy spending time with this type of cast on your screen regardless of any type of discernible story, character arch, intended meaning.

Nomadland (2020)

Frances McDormand portrays Fern, a recent widow who was committed to a community whose lifeblood was a gypsum plant. We meet Fern after her husband has passed and the gypsum plant has closed. We see a town in decay and a person at a crossroads.

However resilient she may be, Fern’s options look arduous and disheartening.

This film serves as a fairly powerful commentary on corporations that create and discard communities they deem disposable, American family dynamics and how financial gaps strain familial relationships, how the U.S. healthcare system doesn’t have much use for anyone without a secured, corporate salary (seasonal workers, gig workers, etc), and the trials/difficulties that come with living life on the road.

This film was something of a revelation for me.

Dave, played by David Strathairn, repeatedly tries to make inroads towards a friendship or romantic relationship with Fern, but is consistently kept at bay. A connection of sorts is created though as the characters continue to cross paths and keep in touch. 

How was this film a revelation for me? For perhaps twenty years now, there have been repeated calls for the entertainment industry to diversify their protagonists’ points of view. The criticism being, hasn’t our society seen enough films told from a white, male, heteronormative point of view?

My initial reaction to that criticism was, regardless of pov, I simply hope to watch something good.

‘Good‘ is subjective. POV is not.

That acknowledged, I can’t care about shallow, shitty films regardless of whose perspective/story is being told. However, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a good film where I felt myself wanting to know way more about a tertiary character than the film’s lead. During the screening, I felt myself wanting to know more about Dave, Strathairn’s character, and it’s not complex calculus as to why that might be (gender/perspective has something to do with it).
I realized that what I was experiencing while watching Nomadland is what many non-white-heteronormative-males have been experiencing over the course of American mainstream cinema’s history.

There have been countless times where others have experienced, “I want to know more about that supporting character” or “why isn’t someone more like me driving the narrative?”

Due to my personal background paired with my proclivity towards classic cinema that tells stories from a very narrow demographica’s perspective, it is few and far between that I experience this feeling.

My recommendation:  Nomadland was good. I most likely won’t see it again, but it was an extremely worthwhile story that was expertly told.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Speaking of POVs, we come to a film whose only two named white characters are in supporting roles.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a film about Bill O’Neal’s (played exceptionally by Lakeith Stanfield) real-life relationship and conflicted involvement with the Chicago chapter of The Black Panthers.

To continue the discussion on perspective, the character that resonated with me was Stanfield’s O’Neal. This character was approached/preyed upon by the FBI to infiltrate and betray the Black Panther Party. If O’Neal didn’t do what the FBI requested [demanded] of him, O’Neal would be looking at years in federal prison.

Now, I haven’t been faced with a life choice like that before, but I’m very familiar with choices and options that range from “sucks” to “shitty.”

I don’t know many people that would identify with FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) or FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen who doesn’t showcase putting on his jacket in a signature way in this film), but the people I do know would easily choose to see the film from the perspective of a passionate political revolutionary (Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya) or someone who is extorted and forced to survive primarily on self-interest (O’Neal).

That said, if you know your history, you knew where this story was heading. Still, this film is worthwhile for many reasons including the depiction of The Panthers’ attempt to unify and cooperate with street gangs, how the FBI was complicit in disinformation, assassination, and so much more during The Civil Rights Movement, as well as simply guiding the audience through a tough, powerful story about moving characters making principled stands or succumbing to outside pressures.   

I haven’t even touched on the production of this period piece, but almost for the music, cars, and clothes alone, I enjoy watching films like this.

I recommend. It puts a different perspective on “The Rat” trope usually associated with Italian mafia movies. Not only that, but I love the music, respect the subject matter, and believe that Lakeith Stanfield is a star. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead in his career.

Promising Young Woman (2021)

On this particular film log, we’ve covered some bases (gender, pov, subjectivity/objectivity, etc). We now come to intention versus execution. This film has its intentions displayed for all to see (rape and sexual assault are rampant, violent, terrible crimes that are carried out by supposedly “good” guys without any penalty or justice brought to the predators). There’s never a need to ask, “what is this film about?”

That’s not exactly a bad thing, unless the execution of the story becomes an issue.

To borrow a storytelling cliche, this story doesn’t unfold like “peeling back layers of an onion.” Rather, it takes the onion, then grabs your intermediary hammer you received after you outgrew the small one provided to you when you were seven-years-old and proceeds to periodically pound the onion every five minutes.

If you are looking for dynamic characters that are faced with challenges and undergo any type of growth or transformation, look elsewhere.

That said, this film tells its story worse than 2019’s Joker did (I mean that as an insult). I loathed Joker, but at least there was a backwards and twisted metamorphosis of the lead. In PYW, there is a very understandably upset woman on a mission and, though that mission was briefly sidetracked by an inexplicable 15-minute romance complete with the strangest “falling in love” montage that I’ve ever seen, the lead character’s path/arch is essentially a straight and downward trajectory.

While writing about Joker, I mentioned the revenge fantasy film Falling Down. Other than the odd inclusion of a far-from-needed romance, PYW plays out similarly to Falling Down (again, I mean that as an insult).

A quick aside about Bo Burnham’s performance, it’s as though he studied Rich Sommer’s reel from his portrayal as “Harry Crane” in Mad Men and “Alex” in The Office and decided to duplicate that schmucky, unwholesome “ahhh geez, I really like you but I’d really like to be in you” kind of character. He’s about as charming and likable as the title character. That’s saying something.

Speaking of likable characters, there are none.

MOWs (Movie of the Week) were an unavoidable aspect of television from the 1970s through early 1990s. Throughout my primary public education, these films were routinely shown. One that stands out in my mind was about a high school swim team that all got drunk together after celebrating a victory, then piled into a station wagon only to suffer a tragic death due to drunk driving.
These were more Public Service Announcements and less Oscar-nominated feature films.

PYW shares many similarities to any poorly executed MOW.

The intentions of most (all?) MOWs are usually good, but what makes an MOW an MOW is how blatant, shallow, unapologetically scripted, staged, and Styrofoam the narrative can be. I don’t see many differences in PYW. Intentions/meaning are important, but a project’s execution of the narrative is just as important.

While writing about Joker, I posited that “The thought I had going into the [Joker] film was, ‘The Hollywood hype machine has made it seem that ever since movie studios have simply become creators of serial comic book blockbusters, that this particular film is what high art and Academy Award films are now destined to become.’
While watching the [Joker] film, all I could do was pout, beg, and hope that this isn’t where art films (or films worthy of high praise) are headed.”

After seeing that PYW has been nominated for FIVE Academy Awards, this seems terribly prescient and further reinforces my desire to keep contemporary cinema at arm’s length while embracing foreign and classic cinema. 

Contemporary films like The Beach Bum, Promising Young Woman, and the not-even-worth-writing about films like The Little Things (or the never-ending swarms of infantile blockbusters) make me feel more and more comfortable with digging further into historical film studies while paying very little attention to recent projects.

Recommendation for Promising Young Woman, google “women empowerment films” and watch any of those before this one.

A Retrospective on What Shaped My Views on Race – Part I

June 3rd, 2020

Without recounting specific moments of my life, I would like to point to some people who have shaped how one white male’s perspective on race has landed where it currently is.
Here are some ideas/works/videos that shaped me in my earlier days as well as some current videos that have recently affected me.

James Baldwin was brilliant. I was lucky to read Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son while in college and, for obvious reasons, recently picked up his texts again.

“The country will not change until it reexamines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom. In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride, and folly, and the world shrinks around us.
It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself. Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.”

“What it comes to, finally, is that the nation has spent a large part of its time and energy looking away from the principal facts of its life. This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person, and it can only be described as unmanly. And in exactly the same way that the South imagines that it ‘knows’ the Negro, the North imagines that it has set him free. Both camps are deluded. Human freedom is a complex, difficult –and private– thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion. Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.”

— both excerpts are from Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin 1961

Here’s a terrific 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. held at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
It is an hour-long. Baldwin begins his argument around the 15-minute mark, Buckley begins his retort around minute-39.

The 1968 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s renowned play A Raisin in the Sun provides context as to how fleeting, or non-existent, opportunities were/are for minority households to improve their circumstances:

Continuing with the theater, Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the boys (the production premiered in 1982, but is set in 1950) is a powerfully-written play about a white South African boy and his relationship with black employees of his mother’s business and household who had a very active role in raising “Master Harold.”
The play illustrates the ugliness of racism and how it’s able to boil inside someone impressionable and become a privileged person’s last-ditch effort to clutch onto some backwards, convoluted form of ill-perceived superiority.

This scene from The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 had a profound effect on me. When asked by a foreign reporter about the Black Panthers’ violent measures, Angela Davis does a great job at explaining how her entire life has been encircled by state-sponsored violence.

Angela Davis echoes many points made by Malcolm X and if you’re not well-versed in his speeches and what he stood for, please take some time to deep dive his work.
Or, at minimum, enjoy Spike Lee’s direction and Denzel Washington’s portrayal as Malcolm X in the film by the same name (1992):

Speaking of Spike Lee, in 1999, at sixteen years-old, I first saw Do the Right Thing (1989).

To briefly summarize what the film is about– it follows Spike Lee’s character, “Mookie,” who works in an Italian-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Lee does an excellent job introducing the large, dynamic cast while positioning dominoes we all know are bound to fall. The film’s tragedy is initially brought on by civilian stubbornness, cemented by police brutality, and concludes with public rage.

Here are some thoughts from Roger Ebert’s book entitled The Great Movies about Do the Right Thing
“Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He’d made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides, but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.”

———[spoiler alert]———

“On and on, around and around, black and white, fear and suspicion breed and grow. Because we know all of the people [the characters] have spent all day on the street, we feel as much grief as anger. Radio Raheem is dead [video of that scene]. And Sal, who has watched the neighborhood’s kids grow up for twenty-five years and fed them with his pizza, stands in the ruins of his store. A pizzeria does not equal a human life, but its loss is great to Sal, because it represents a rejection of the meaning of his own life, and Spike Lee knows that–feels bad for Sal and gives him a touching final scene with Mookie in which the unspoken subtext might be: Why can’t we eat pizza, and raise our families, and run our businesses, and work at our jobs, and not let racism colonize our minds with suspicion?”

“None of these people are perfect. But Lee makes it possible for us to understand their feelings; his empathy is crucial to the film, because if you can’t try to understand how the other person feels, you’re captive inside the box yourself. Thoughtless people have accused Lee over the years of being an angry filmmaker. He has much to be angry about, but I don’t find it in his work. The wonder of Do the Right Thing is that he is so fair. Those who found this film an incitement to violence are saying much about themselves and nothing useful about the movie. Its predominate emotion is sadness.”

Spike Lee recycled the “Racist Rant” tool first used in Do the Right Thing once again in 25th Hour (2002).
Both implementations of this tool illustrate just how ugly conversations, perspectives, ideologies, etc. are when racism is the principal factor.

Since we’ve made it to Edward Norton, might as well give a nod to American History X (1998) and how that film depicts the philosophical circle of a white man who went from youthful optimism to a garden-variety prejudice that paved his way to becoming a leader of a hate group only to experience just how wrong and hypocritical organizations based on hate are.
This film completes this philosophical arc while exposing the dangers and fallacies of extreme beliefs + briefly touching on systemic racism:

John Singleton’s Boyz N’ The Hood (1991) was released a few years after Do the Right Thing as Hollywood discovered there was actually a market for heartfelt, thoughtful, and profound stories from a minority perspective instead of recycling the same blaxploitation films of the 70s and 80s.

Documentary filmmaking made giant strides in the 1990s. One of the most successful documentary films to date is Hoop Dreams (1994).

When I was in middle school, my brother returned home from Blockbuster with Hoop Dreams in hand. We watched it together and I remember thinking that, though it was slower than Hollywood productions, it was my first non-Ken Burns documentary and I could feel its importance.
Much like the two main focuses of the film –high school athletes Arthur Agee and William Gates– I also had dreams of becoming a professional athlete. That was the most obvious similarity as the differences between the circumstances surrounding these young men in inner-city Chicago and my suburban setting were stark. It injected perspective and gratitude in me at a young age.

Once again, here’s Ebert’s thoughts on Hoop Dreams:

“No screenwriter would dare write this story; it is drama and melodrama, packaged with outrage and moments that make you want to cry. Hoop Dreams (1994) has the form of a sports documentary, but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America. When the filmmakers began, they planned to make a thirty-minute film about eighth graders being recruited from inner-city playgrounds to play for suburban schools. Their film eventually encompassed six years, involved 250 hours of footage, and found a reversal of fortunes the could not possibly have anticipated.”

“The sports stories develop headlong suspense, but the real heart of the film involves the scenes filmed in homes, playgrounds, and churches in the inner city.”

Speaking of sports documentaries and Ken Burns, Burns’s Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness provided a look at the most celebrated African-American during the Jim Crow era:

Of course it’s easy to reference the many comedians who have absolutely nailed race and race relations in the United States. Names like Pryor, Murphy, Rock, Chappelle, and many others repeatedly create stand-up specials, bits, shows, movies, and so much more to add both levity and poignancy to our everyday dialogue.

With that in mind, allow me to bring up an often overlooked comic strip and subsequent animated series entitled The Boondocks. Aaron McGruder created the comic strip in 1996 and it was adapted for television in 2005. The Boondocks welcomed controversy and created outstanding criticism of popular black culture, black media (specifically BET), as well as all politics.
The series is definitely told from the perspective of someone who desperately wishes for everyone in our society to wake up, sharpen up, and become more proactive and resolute.

You’d need an awful lot of context, but the episode that poses the scenario of “what if Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t die from his assassination, but instead remained in a coma until he awoke thirty years later– how would the remainder of his life play out?” is a bitingly critical episode. And it still stays with me.
The entire episode is worth watching, but if you’re limited on time, here’s an animated two and a half minute speech delivered by a hypothetical Dr. MLK Jr. after being put through the grinder of contemporary society.

Of course, even though I saw this show a little late in my life, The Wire is exemplary in showing “the other side of the coin” than your stereotypical cops & robbers or generic Hollywood-stylized look at crime and the criminal justice system.
The Wire presents what life is like for those born into extremely difficult situations and it goes to great lengths, as far as following characters from public education system and onto how they end up in the streets, falling into a career/lifestyle of crime, or finding their way out.

It would be a mistake to not include this monumental TV show and its brilliant, sprawling, and realistic narrative ecosystem.

Last year, I resumed writing for this site by posting a review of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).

The highlight/meat of that review:

“Though the film is about a man’s quest to reclaim what once belonged to his family, the film doesn’t linger too long or incessantly draw from the well of ‘gentrification as the villain.’ Sure, the film includes roles that are very much in line with illustrating just how shitty gentrification is, most obviously a very easy-to-dislike realtor as well as some malcontent techies, but TLBMiSF does an exceptional job of balancing gentrification themes with the challenges Jimmie and Monty, the two main characters, face within their own community.

This culminates in the third act when Jimmie declares that ‘people aren’t ONE thing’ which leads to Monty protesting moments later that [very loose paraphrasing here] ‘people are born into systems and walls. That these walls are what hold people back and that we all need to break through and break free from all the shit and uselessness we’re all born into.’

People are not one thing.
Regardless of circumstances, people should not blindly and willfully perpetuate exactly what they were born into.”

These are just a few examples of how African-Americans and their stories have shaped how I view race.
Even with all of the above, I have yet to even mention sports figures like Jackie Robinson, Bob Gibson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and many others as well as the countless musicians –Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Lightin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix to name a few– who have also influenced me.

The point is– even if you are far removed from any type of diversity or meaningful relationship with someone outside your own race– race, and specifically African-American culture has been ever-present in the books we read, the music we listen to, the films we watch, the sports we participate in, and essentially most things Americans enjoy.
Though I’ve become more politically moderate as I’ve aged, I have difficulty understanding those that can’t see the obvious value and merit in the above perspectives.

For all of my lengthy chatter on the matter, please click on the link to see Langston Hughes succinctly hit the nail on the head in his short poem “Theme for English B.”

Onto what is presently in front of every American.
The 10-minute video of George Floyd’s death.
The video is harrowing.
With a knee on Floyd’s neck and hands deep in his pockets, Officer Chauvin displays a cruel nonchalance and unaffectedness that I’ve never previously seen. No novel, no film has depicted such callousness for human life.
The American public has seen videos such as the billy clubbed abuse administered to Rodney King, a fatally choked out Eric Garner, tragic shootings of far too many–and all of those videos are damning of law enforcement– yet the footage of George Floyd’s death shows an officer so calm and deliberate while ending a citizen’s life.
This isn’t an insecure and frightened cop incorrectly assuming that someone he pulled over may be drawing a firearm (which isn’t forgivable/excusable but a least it doesn’t seem calculated– rather, it fits the actions of one who is easily frightened and doesn’t have the stomach for law enforcement), this is an officer who relentlessly and unmercifully positions his bodyweight and knee on the neck of a man for nearly nine minutes as the victim pleads sixteen times for air before tragically taking his final painful breaths.

Like with any situation involving law enforcement (and I mean any situation– from the most innocuous traffic ticket to a complex conspiracy investigation), there are questions. It’s been reported that the cops were originally called by a convenience store employee because Mr. Floyd allegedly attempted to use a counterfeit $20 dollar bill to pay for cigarettes.

I recommend this New York Times video that does a pretty good job at addressing the obvious questions like how did a disagreement over a $20 bill lead to a 911 call and end with a tragic murder?

Officer Chauvin is unfazed and unconcerned. This is speculation, but it seems as though Chauvin’s attitude is #1 – he, Floyd, shouldn’t have used (or allegedly used) counterfeit money, #2 – he should have cooperated, followed commands, and peacefully entered the squad car, and #3 – since he didn’t peacefully submit to entering the squad car, Chauvin is going to pin him to the ground until the medics arrive.

In a very, very loose world (or in the America depicted in most of the works above– John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, Spike Lee’s many films, James Baldwin’s America, etc), maybe this type of thought process and interpretation of what happened might hold water in a court of law. But the videos obviously show, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the methods used were so extreme, needless, cruel, and without regard for human life.

And now the country is in the understandable state that it is in.
I admittedly haven’t spent a ton of time researching and analyzing all the different types of protests, marches, demonstrations, and unfortunate riots. That acknowledged, there does seem to be a mixed bag of peaceful protests/demonstrations as well as destructive riots.

I’m uncomfortable even attempting to judge what constitutes an “acceptable/understandable” riot or release valve for a distressed community and differentiating that with what appears to be bored kids trying to get away with playing the role of malcontent anarchists.

It seems as though Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta has had enough of kids “playing” the part of civil justice soldiers and participating in this summer’s riots as though they were attending a music festival.
(Please watched the hyperlinked video if you haven’t already. That video is unable to be embedded).

Here’s another intelligent woman in Harlem fed up with rioters who seem to suffer more from FOMO than grief, anger, or rage with societal injustice (explicit language).

One of the more appropriate things I’ve seen shared on social media was an updated repost of Juxtapoz’s write up on Arthur Jafa’s short film entitled Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death.

I remember when this originally came out in 2017. It was powerful then; it’s powerful now. The film moves through seven-plus minutes of representations of Black America and pairs it with the Kanye West gospel track, “Ultralight Beam”.
One can’t help but feel those images. Juxtapoz accurately labels the piece as “bodies in various states of elation and despair.” Accurate.
Being swung in and around this time machine through Black America is nothing if not emotional.

Clearly, we have an enormous problem. Even if you’re a staunch conservative, here’s George W. Bush’s statement admitting as much.
Now comes the hard part, what to do about it?
That will be a more difficult post to write, but it’s forthcoming.

Film Log #9 – 5.2020

May 24th, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

Brendan Gleeson is an often over-looked actor. His contributions to Gangs of New York and Braveheart are certainly memorable, but it was his turn in In Bruges that really made me look forward to his future projects.

In Bruges is an excellent picture made by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) whereas Calvary (2014), starring Brendan Gleeson was made by John Michael McDonagh; Martin’s older brother. Both brothers obviously enjoy shoot’em ups and violence, but where Martin does an excellent job incorporating deeper subjects and themes such as existentialism, morality, and romance into his tough-guy pictures, John Michael falls short.

Other than Calvary, I admittedly haven’t seen much of John Michael’s work, but Calvary seems to be an attempt to make a less humorous, less violent but unfortunately heavy-handed attempt at an overtly cerebral film. And that’s fine, the world needs cerebral films, but this movie never finds a rhythm and, though it has a few good scenes, the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze.

The movie takes place in a fictitious, unsavory Irish town where Gleeson plays Father James; a middle-aged man who joined the priesthood after his wife died.

Calvary begins with a threatening notice from a mystery character informing Father James that he will be murdered in one week. For my money, this type of narrative device rarely works. Why give us a plot point that the entire film balances on prior to revealing any character?

Anyways, as the film moves forward, we are drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Father James. The only thing that ultimately compelled me to stick out the narrative was to see the aftermath of the initial threat. Even then, the ending fumbled.

The film weighs the audience down for 102 minutes. The often despicable townspeople antagonistically question why any man would join the cloth after the Catholic faith has been disgraced by the hundreds of child abuse cases all while unabashedly displaying their own transgressions.

The trailer for John Michael’s The Guard doesn’t look particularly bad as it pairs Don Cheadle with Gleeson, but I’d still recommend brother Martin’s In Bruges or Three Billboards… before giving a John Michael project a shot.

Here is a well-written analysis of Calvary that provides a much more complimentary look at the film and though I understand where the post’s author is coming from, I simply felt the film’s execution is clumsy like a drunk and often communicates like a blithering drunk.

Even though I do like most of what Steven Soderbergh directs, I never saw this when it originally came out (2011). It’s currently available on HBO, and given the world’s present situation, I felt it was fitting to give it a go.

Generally speaking with Soderbergh films, they’re going to be good. Whether a trumped-up, celebrity-fueled caper like the Ocean’s series or a more thoughtful look at unique people and the challenges they face like Erin Brockovich (which looks at how concerned citizens and lawyers take on an industry that appears to be responsible for polluting regional water supplies) or narratives about wide-stretching issues and industries such as big pharma in Side Effects or the War on Drugs in Traffic, the movie is usually going to be well worth your time.

Soderbergh makes a conscientious effort to be unconventional and engaging. That acknowledged, he decided to make Contagion have the narrative not truly follow any particular character, opting instead to focus on the disease itself. The fictitious disease that feels all too real seems to be the main character. For a film about a fast-spreading and fatal pandemic to follow any one particular character would be difficult. That said, Contagion attempts to provide insight at how “regular” folks, political/media types (including fringe political/media types), as well as medical experts would conduct themselves during a world-changing pandemic.

The fictitious pandemic featured in Contagion is certainly far more cataclysmic than what mankind is currently dealing with, but the film does give us an idea of what a worse-case scenario pandemic looks like.

Again, the film is interesting, but the narrative is lacking. The storyline of each character, there are many, only provides a glimpse of what each is dealing with and allows the audience to, more or less, complete the narratives in our heads. This is fine, but it does leave us wanting.

It’s hard to determine whether the film is good or bad, instead, I’ll opt for interesting. Having been released nine years ago, it was interesting to see a dramatized portrayal of hypothesized protocols that politicians, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other organizations respond.

There really aren’t any spoilers to a film like this, but it is interesting to note that pigs that have consumed bat droppings in Asia are the cause of this fictitious pandemic.

If you’re curious about how the gears of a pandemic and the governmental response work, this would be a worthwhile experience.

Last November, I wrote about how during my first viewing of Nashville, I was reminded of some similarities to Short Cuts. It’s true, there are definitely similarities between the two films, but where Nashville captured confusion, frustration, and possible shame of a generation + the 1975 American zeitgeist, Short Cuts seems lost and self-indulgent by comparison.
Maybe that’s the point? 1960s brought on an acceleration of “change” or perceived change, 1970s attempted to make adjustments, 1980s became the decade of self-interest, and the 1990s seemed to have elements of everything that came before but with added complex internal conflicts and confusion (shoot, those decade summations seem obvious if you only study pop music).

Short Cuts, made in 1993, include some terrific individual performances, but the overall project tends to drag and portions of the strewn-about storylines are unneeded. Though it’s fun to see Jack Lemon, Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr., and many more all work together, this film ultimately doesn’t resonate. The payoff one is hoping for fizzles down the stretch.

I’m bias, but the best scenes include Tom Waits + Lily Tomlin or Julianne Moore. Tomlin plays a waitress who is ogled by customers and Waits plays her limo-driving, hard-drinking husband. The two work together remarkably well and provide a very convincing look into a troubled relationship.

Since the film is based on Raymond Carver short stories, most of the relationships featured are troubled and Julianne Moore delivers the best central performance in this regard.

Final recommendation is, watch Nashville before checking out Short Cuts. If you love Nashville and want to see something relatively similar, give Short Cuts a shot. Both films are representational of their eras and the 70s might just be more compelling than the 90s.

Circling back to Tom Waits, I’ve enjoyed his music since 2003. Rarely do I march through an entire discography, but I have with his music. Though his film credits are few and far between, I’ve made a more concerted effort to watch his films recently. This YouTube short helped spur that:

I’ve seen many of those films, but it truly has been too long since I’ve seen Down By Law and I’ll be screening that one again soon.

First off, this sad film only gets sadder. Ironweed, released in 1987, takes place in Depression-era Albany, New York and features Meryl Streep and Tom Waits as terminally-ill vagrants. Main character Francis Phelan, played by Jack Nicholson, is an alcoholic homeless man who lives a life of regret and not-very-well-masked shame.

It’s not a date movie. It’s not a fun movie. The film moves at a fairly slow pace. You know full well that there’ll be no happy endings and you have to go into the experience with the expectation of watching two masters of their craft, Nicholson and Streep, go to work. For all of these reasons, this film isn’t celebrated.

However, if you care about all-time actors working their tails off and you’re the type that “appreciates the craft” of acting, this is one to watch. It’s a gut-punching, tear-jerking character study.
That, or maybe you’re curious how well Tom Waits carries himself next to Nicholson + Streep like I was.

Giant (1956), Hud (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1971) create a powerful trio of Texas films that all weave the plight of rural/small town communities/families with industrial and cultural swings. Later, I’ll have a post that’ll go a little more in-depth on these films, but we’ll focus on the middle brother of the pictures for now.

Hud hit me a little strange. I was expecting a lovable figure that Newman excels in playing like in Cool Hand Luke or The Hustler. What I got in return was a charming jerk whose charm deteriorated as the film progressed.

Hud focuses on the relationships within the Bannon household: Hud Bannon, Homer Bannon (Hud’s father), Lonnie Bannon (Hud’s 16 year-old nephew – his parents aren’t present), and the housekeeper Alma Brown.

The film uses these relationships to tug and pull Lonnie, as well as the audience, towards Homer’s ceaseless virtue or Hud’s horn-dogging recklessness.
The cards are all laid out on the table after Homer + Hud have a row, then Lonnie attempts to defend Hud. Homer, reacting to his grandson’s defense of Hud, delivers the best line I’ve heard in a good, long while, “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire… You’re just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what’s right and wrong.”
Truer words never spoken.

These weighty words are why I watch classic cinema. I’m reminded of an April 2012 post, when I first began to review classic Paul Newman films: The Hustler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. These films also forced audiences to wrestle with topics such as virtue, honor, mendacity, acceptance, self-worth, and other difficult subjects. It’s not that these topics are no longer included in today’s cinema, but today’s culture is much more fragmented and today’s narratives reflect that.

Contemporary dramas that tackle challenging subject matter don’t position the crux of their work on “universal truths.” Instead, the challenges and conflicts in current artistic cinema are very specific topics such as how parents cope with the death of a child, substance abuse, coming to terms with one’s own sexuality, or the like.
That’s not to say that the issues in the classic Paul Newman films were “one size fits all,” but it is to say that these films concerning matters such as overarching morality + a man’s place as one generation gives way to another (Hud), the search for what drives an individual and how to make a career/life out of that passion (The Hustler), or the existential dilemma of how to live and function in a society that seems not worth engaging in (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – I know Tennessee Williams’s play differs from the film insomuch that the film deleted almost all subtext of a homosexual relationship between Brick and Skipper, but the film focuses on mendacity; not sexuality) –– all these themes fit larger audiences than what most contemporary artistic films provide.

Good or bad, today’s blockbusters don’t say anything and the “art” or “indie” pictures say something that’s so damn specific. There was a time when quality films both were great successes at the box office while also fulfilling critics’/society’s needs for “high art.”

I would be remiss to not include a word about Patricia Neal’s portrayal as Alma Brown. Her performance garnered an Oscar (same with Melvyn Douglas’s performance as Homer Bannon) and it’s easy to see why. Neal injects a pleasant and much-needed leveling of the hostility and stubbornness that permeates every father-son scene.

Unsurprisingly, Alma is respected by everyone except Hud. Alma’s presence further exposes Hud for the cad that he is which contrasts Homer’s integrity. Her grace, wit, perseverance, and resourcefulness are an exceptional breath of fresh air that counters Hud’s overall unpleasantness.
As an added note, having been born and raised in Kentucky, it doesn’t seem as though she had to adjust her natural accent all that much as she perfectly handled the panhandle accent better than any other principal actor.

Though I do recommend Hud, if uninitiated with Paul Newman, I’d start with Cool Hand Luke or The Hustler before watching Newman embody the increasingly negative force of a film. He does an excellent job, but I believe it’s important to establish an understanding of Newman’s more established persona before seeing his darker side.

This post should conclude with another mention of Homer Bannon’s quote:

Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire…. You’re just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what’s right and wrong.

Film Log #8 – 4.2020 (the one about Marilyn Monroe)

April 6th, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

After having been so fascinated by Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle (1950, directed by John Huston), I went ahead and rented two more of her pictures: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, directed by Howard Hawks) and River of No Return (1954, directed by Otto Preminger).

I should have known better than to watch a comedic musical in GPB, but because of its iconic status as well as being a landmark for Monroe, I gave it a go. It’s funny when looking at how drastically our culture changed between My Man Godfrey‘s release in 1936 and GPB in 1953.

This isn’t to say that all comedies in a given era are the same, but it is interesting to point out that as the nation/world was struggling to bounce back from economic collapse, we have a movie about a “forgotten man” who carries the film by outsmarting and comically jabbing at the wealthy.
Seventeen short years later (and a conclusion to a world war that placed the U.S. as the foremost superpower) provides a musical comedy about two showgirls each having a goal to marry a specific kind of man. Monroe’s character, Lorelei Lee, has a single requirement– that the man be rich. Jane Russell’s character wishes to marry a tall, dark, handsome, and athletic man.

GPB continues down its path of gags and songs and I simply wasn’t up for it. There are small issues that bothered me, but the main issue is that the entire film is a celebration of superficiality. Maybe that’s the point or the joke, but where My Man Godfrey succeeds by Godfrey (as well as the father character) taking shots at the expense of self-indulgence and importance placed on the superficial, the main characters of GPB are celebrated for using cunning tricks to weasel out of any jam that their superficial desires put them in.

Perhaps it would’ve been humorous to watch that film with a date in the 1950s and begin the post-film conversation with, “Can you believe those people?” But as the earth has circled the sun 67 times since this film’s release and as I’ve seen this film’s influence evolve to iconography, this isn’t a funny joke.

Perhaps I’m placing too much blame on the shoulders of a single film that I’m certain meant well while the project was in production, but holy crap is it depressing to watch a significant historical film and have the “benefit” of reflecting on what happens when generations try to emulate a particular horrible character (or whatever a particular generation’s iteration of Monroe’s Lorelei Lee is)?
Many folks talk about rampant stupidity in our society and reference Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy (a film about a “regular guy” who, by accident, travels into the future and finds a ridiculously dumb society). Often times, art provides us the very time machine we’re looking for and it’s incredible to see what worked and resonated with audiences in the 1950s has created the modern blueprint of how to make wildly and financially successful motion pictures (or even TV shows).

Though GPB plays like a 90-minute tongue-in-cheek joke, it’s hard not to come across certain people (or shows) and feel as though they didn’t understand that the movie was satire. Yet, here we are.

Monroe isn’t ever without her appeal; I just don’t care for this character (much like I don’t particularly care for musicals). But as it is, this film is historically important. If historical importance is meaningful to you, then I recommend this film.

River of No Return didn’t thrill me for an entirely different reason. Once again, Monroe plays a showgirl/singer (and for some reason, we’re inexplicably subjected to three songs) for saloons and casinos in the 1870s American West. Where Monroe played a comical victim of her own character’s desires in GPB, she plays a woman who becomes a victim by the actions of her husband as well as the setting/era/circumstances.

Both Robert Mitchum’s (Mitchum doesn’t begin the film as Monroe’s husband, but is obviously her eventual romantic interest) and Monroe’s characters have their own challenges to overcome, but with it being a Western, the story is able to throw in elements of natural danger anytime it chooses to.
Mitchum’s character, Matt Calder, is challenged by raising his young son while attempting to settle land that will one day be passed on as well as providing an explanation for why Calder was in prison for the the first few years of his son’s life.

Monroe’s character, Kay, has to come to terms with the fact that her husband is a slimy, greedy, miserable male. Those traits are juxtaposed with all the exemplary qualities the Matt Calder displays– and there’s your movie.

What I don’t understand is how two-dimensional Kay’s husband/ex-husband is in the film and how the audience is supposed to immediately understand how this marriage ever came to be. I understand marriage was quite a different agreement/arrangement in those days, but the film leads the audience to believe that there was love in the relationship to begin with, which, I’m the type of viewer that has to see that (I’m not just going to assume that).
But, then again, this is a 1950s Western whose runtime is 90 minutes and they’ve got an awful lot of drama, action, and adventure to pack into that time.

It would be terrible to not mention the exceptional views the film provides (the critics of the time commented on how it was almost too much to bounce back ‘n forth between the the mountains + Monroe).

Last note– Monroe clearly worked with the industry’s best in the tragically short time she had. I’ve seen three of her films. All have been directed by cinematic titans: John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Otto Preminger.

In the end, the movie was good. I didn’t quite buy Monroe as a settler in The Great American West, but the film was entertaining nonetheless.
This is a take-it-or-leave-it recommendation.
I know there are better Westerns.
I know there are better Mitchum films.
and I believe there are better Monroe films.

Film Log #7 – 3.2020

March 23rd, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store, Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

This is a case of the trailer being much, much better than the actual film. Though there were some comedic moments, and even with the knowledge that it is a dark comedy, this movie fell flat.

Even with the film flat-lining, I did appreciate Alessandro Nivola‘s performance. Nivola has delivered meaningful contributions to American Hustle and Face/Off among others, but his role in The Art of Self-Defense appears to be his largest role to date.
I certainly hope the actor continues to be given more advanced roles.

Even with some pretty good performances, I don’t recommend this one.
It’s not completely terrible, but it is below-average, and I won’t be seeing it again.
Whether or not I will make an effort to re-watch the film is my baseline of whether or not I will recommend.

Nicholas Winding Refn‘s films to date make me curious. On one hand, he drove a project that I believe succeeded on nearly every level in Drive (yeah, I bet it’s predictable that I would like that film). On the other hand, he seems to make films that are lost when he’s left on his own to create the narrative (Drive was adapted from a novel).

I haven’t seen Only God Forgives (Refn’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling) based in part to the mostly poor reviews paired with the fact that the lead, played by Gosling, has a grand total of 17 lines. I’m no stranger to silent films, but even some of the more complex silent films have text cards to help with the exposition and story of those films. Refn instead opts to showcase his vision and not be all that concerned with crafting a story or narrative.

I always bring up the point that before an audience can care for a character, we have to at least know the character (at least a little bit). Unveiling who the characters are can easily be botched. There are no certain rules for how to do it well. Most of the time, if you hit the audience over the head with a sledgehammer in regards to character, it won’t work. In The Neon Demon‘s case, we simply don’t know anything more that’s not surface level (maybe that’s part of the point?).
When character is thoughtfully revealed and the audience is able to ascertain concrete truths about the character (or, at minimum, pique our curiosity), that’s when I’ll actually be invested in what actions or plot points take place.

I think back to 2004 when I came across the worst example of a film simply using shocking images to manipulate an audience to care about on-screen happenings and/or characters. This particular film, The Butterfly Effect opens with children beating, torturing, and eventually killing animals.
Before the audience is aware of any character’s name or what the setting is, we’re simply subjected to shocking behavior.

Why do I bring this up? Though The Neon Demon does take its time to deliver some shocking images in the third act, we still don’t truly know anything relevant or below the surface about these characters.

Refn definitely has a vision. That’s his strength. I rented this film based on some stills I came across (I should really stop doing that):

The Neon Demon is problematic for many reasons– I speculate that one of the reasons he made his first film from a women’s perspective is because he simply never had before, and, perhaps, he took some criticism because of that. What’s unfortunately insulting is that when he finally makes a woman-centered film, he makes one about models and the only real, and I mean truly meaty dialogue that takes place is still between two men.

Enter the previously mentioned Alessandro Nivola:

Nivola excels at playing Roberto Sarno (peculiarly uncredited– the man has more lines than nearly ever other male in the production and is, for some reason, uncredited– that’s very rare), a pompous fashion designer. Three models sit alongside Sarno when the main character Jesse (played by Elle Fanning) and her male friend Dean arrive.
A discussion about beauty bubbles up. Everyone of course defers to Sarno. Dean attempts to say that there is more than skin-deep beauty in Jesse, which prompts Sarno to respond with, “Well, if she wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t have even stopped to look.”
This takes place in the middle of the second act.

The film’s first act does provide a women’s restroom conversation that does have weight, but any goodwill the film earned by having that insider glimpse into the catty and competitive world of attractive women is quickly squandered.

The first two acts of the film lead one to believe that the film is going to drive home some idea about beauty and ambition being a prison of sorts (especially for those in the fashion and modeling industry).
That’s at least what I was hoping for… and then the damn wheels fall completely off in the third act.
It went totally bonkers, and might as well have been children torturing animals. Cannibalism, models taking blood-soaked showers, and necrophilia all turn a relatively slow-paced psychological thriller into a barn burner of insanity and senselessness.

This is a very easy recommendation that you pass hard on The Neon Demon as well as a very easy recommendation to watch Drive if you haven’t already.

Let’s return to sanity.
Paris Blues is not for everyone. If you’re looking to take a trip back to an over-the-top and romantic view of 1961 Paris with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong providing the soundtrack and Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll providing the romance, well– then this is your film.

As a tremendous fan of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Paul Newman, I felt like I absolutely had to see this film. That said, I wasn’t knocked out by it. It had its moments and it told a very good story. But in the end, the film didn’t sit or resonate with me.

It was simply a mostly pleasant look at jazz, Paris, and short-term romance.

The film was adapted from a book by the same name. The book, however, told a story of two interracial couples. It being 1961 and such, the studios adjusted (much to the chagrin of the film’s stars). The picture still ended being just fine, though it obviously would’ve been more groundbreaking had the project been a more accurate interpretation of the book.

This is a take it or leave it recommendation. I might see it again, but I’m not hustling out to add it to my collection or anything like that. There are better films from the 1960s and as I watch more jazz-centric films, I hope to find better jazz movies.

Chopper is good enough, but not great. Why I’m chomping at the bit to write about it is because of its director– Andrew Dominik.

Back to Chopper, Eric Bana plays a hard-ass Australian convict/career criminal. The film has a better-than-average story, a pretty good pace, a lil bit of humor and a lil bit of violence. That sounds like a good recipe for a film and the end product is just that.

Perhaps it was the pre-9/11 production or maybe because I saw this director’s other films prior, but this film ended up simply being “pretty good” whereas his other two American-made features (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford & Killing Them Softly) are outstanding.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a criminally overlooked film. The cast selection and their performances are perfect. The crafting and shooting (by DoP Roger Deakins no less) is impeccable. If there is a film to recommend, it’s this one.

I can go round and round about how often I feel like I should simply give this film another screening as opposed to trying something new. Clearly, it’s an old standby of mine.

The depth and subject matter continues to resonate.
The eclectic cast (Brad Pitt, Mary-Louise Parker, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, and Sam Shepard) and their dynamic performances hit me every time.

The film does not have a track-star pace. Instead, it’s a slow cooking pot roast that produces a savory and worthwhile flavor every time. We see Brad Pitt as Jesse James wrestle with his mortality, the skeletons hanging over him, as well as the toll that hiding from the government is taking. We also see Casey Affleck as Robert Ford portray a man who has never received an iota of respect in his entire life and is clearly envious and desperate to make a name any way he can.
This is truly a fascinating and beautiful film. It’s a damn shame that Pitt and the project as a whole didn’t get as much critical acclaim as they should have.

Onto Killing Them Softly.

Brad Pitt plays an assassin in this film that brilliantly weaves modern-day politics into the sordid business of killing people for profit. Whether it’s addressing that even the mafia has fallen victim to an HR mentality or that the streets are simply more kinder and gentler than they used to be, this film is definitely smart and entertaining.

Once again, it’s expertly cast– Pitt, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and Ben Mendelsohn.
And again, the story provides a great mix of humor, violence, and the pace is perfect for my taste.

All of this is to say that Andrew Dominik is an outstanding filmmaker. Those are his three full-length features, but he’s also been a huge part of the Netflix series Mindhunter (which I do have some criticisms about, though I mostly enjoyed), as well as the music documentary One More Time with Feeling about Nick Cave (a film I’ll be seeing soon).

I say that I’d recommend The Assassination of Jesse James first, then Killing Them Softly, and if you like both of those, I see no reason why you wouldn’t go ahead and watch Chopper.

There was a ten-year period of my life (roughly from 1998-2008) when I’d simply purchase used films that I’d never seen before based on the price + critical reception of the film. Sideways was one such film.
I must have purchased this movie for about $6.99 in lieu of renting it for $3.99 or thereabouts.

Anyhow, I recently revisited it and it was just as good as I remembered. It’s a fantastic look at male self-destruction and self-loathing as well as an attempt to find honesty and romance in a world that can sometimes seem as though it’s constructed by shit bricks on a foundation of deceit.
There’s also a quality blend of romance and comedy; it’s simply an entertaining and thoughtful film.

And, of course, there are tremendous moments of heart that are spurred on by wine as well as an abundance of amazing views.

I obviously recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

Film Log #6 – 3.2020

March 20th, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

As a child, I was initially introduced to William Powell by Warner Bros. cartoons (Merrie Melodies & Looney Tunes – see below).

For some reason, these caricatures resonated with me and, early on, I had made it a point to be in on the joke as well as understand why these actors were regarded as they were. William Powell’s name popped up many times in the film texts I read, but, honestly, I generally hadn’t gone out of my way to watch comedies a whole lot; even if they were classics.

However, on a recent trip to Alamo Drafthouse, they were promoting a special screening of 1936’s My Man Godfrey. The trailer looked very entertaining and the subject matter was definitely in my sweet spot.
Powell plays Godfrey, a quick-thinking, fast-talking “forgotten man” (euphemism for “homeless”) living near a bridge on the East River in Manhattan who is attempted to be picked up by a rude debutante looking for a “forgotten man” to complete her scavenger hunt.

Godfrey complies only after choosing to help a kinder debutante, Irene, instead of Irene’s insulting sister, Cornelia. Upon helping Irene win the scavenger hunt, Godfrey is asked to address the crowd. He responds with, “My purpose in coming here tonight was two-fold: firstly, I wanted to aid this young lady. Secondly, I was curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves. My curiosity is satisfied. I assure you it’ll be a pleasure to go back to a society of really important people.”
The “society of really important people” being his community of “forgotten men” living in shanties.

His appearance at the scavenger hunt ends with job offer. He was hired to “buttle” for the very affluent Bullocks. The film then makes its obvious progression and I can’t help but enjoy most of it. It plays out more like a terrific theatrical performance than a cinematic achievement, and that’s understandable given its era.

When interviewed about Dr. Strangelove, William H. Macy said, “When making a comedy, if you’re not careful, the actors will start ‘being funny,’ and what any good director knows is that it’s not an actor’s job to be funny; that’s the writer’s job. The script is funny or it’s not funny. It’s the actor’s job to be truthful, and then the humor will come out.”

As I previously wrote, most comedies are concepts without a legitimate script. They start as an idea, such as, “what if these guys were ice skaters” or “on an ABA basketball team” and so forth. The project continues and eventually they have a few pages and plot points, but the hope is that they assemble a few funny people in a room, play off one another, and after a few takes, someone says something like “I love lamp” and no one during the filming is sure which ad-libbed lines are going to resonate with the audience until the film hits theaters/streaming services/cable broadcasts.

But My Man Godfrey feels and resonates like an Oscar Wilde piece. It’s critical of the affluent day-to-day lifestyle and social events on more than a superficial level. And because I’m terribly hard on films that are so entirely far-fetched and unbelievable, I’ll easily admit that this one is too. The pass that I’m giving it is based on historical significance, intelligence, criticisms of class/status, and a few other reasons.
Whenever I grow weary with contemporary films that seem as though every aspect and situation of the film is frankly unbelievable, those films compound that be feeling by coming off, in the words of Godfrey, as “empty-headed.”

You can find My Man Godfrey streaming on youtube here.
I do recommend it, but you’ll have to prepare yourself. Going directly from watching 2020 comedies to something made in 1936 will be a little jarring, but it is certainly well worth it.
Anyhow, I enjoyed it. I’ll most likely watch it again down the road.

That french line included on the above poster translates to “A formidable thriller in line of Heat.” Perhaps it’s never a good idea to include any mention of any other film on the promotional materials for a new movie because every time one resorts to conjuring up another title, they’re essentially saying that this is a “poor man’s version” of the other title.

But even that would be a stretch. I saw this film 10 years ago when it originally came out. I may have had a few drinks while watching it the first time 10 years ago or I may have been itching to see some kind of “shoot’em up” and simply forgot how dull the film is.

I like Jeremy Renner when he’s not playing scuzzy trash, tolerate Ben Affleck when he’s not playing a hopeless romantic, and look forward to a future when Jon Hamm will be able to play something other than a federal agent. Unfortunately, this film includes all of those things.

The romantic interest between Affleck and Rebecca Hall is particularly bunk. If there ever were a case of men being “allowed” to have three-dimensional characters while women are always pushed to the sidelines and simply play flat nobodies without a shred of dynamism, this would be quite the example.
That’s not to say that the men’s characters are particularly well-shaped and formed, but hell, they’re certainly more developed than the two female leads.

Yeah, I know, “it’s a bank robbery film” and arguably, to call back to Heat (one of my favorite bank robbery/caper films), the worst scenes in that film all include Val Kilmer’s love interest– Ashley Judd, and if I were to be extremely critical of that film, the scenes including De Niro’s love interest also were not good. It would, however, be a failure to not also point out that some of Heat‘s best scenes include Pacino with his love interest played by Diane Venora (pictured below).

With it being acknowledged that it can be difficult to squeeze in a meaningful love story into a robbery/caper film, how is it that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and so many other film noirs were able to do so?
I think that’s what my film study ends up pointing out– cinema used to have a lot more heart. Or maybe I’m just a sap?

In any event, this film, The Town, that I had hoped was going to be a quality shoot’em up, was simply barely tolerable and, if you’re jonesing to see men dressed up as nuns shooting at cops, I propose you stream this one and fast-forward through the failed attempts at story crafting.

Note: there are many benefits to film study. One is, as previously mentioned while talking about the cartoons portraying William Powell, to always be in on the jokes, homages, nods, repurposing, etc.
I noticed The Town paid quite a few tributes to The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
M.G. McIntyre of Film School Rejects writes:

The Town, Ben Affleck’s 2010 ode to Boston and bank robbery, bears more than just a passing resemblance to Yates’ film, despite being based on a different book. Slicker, faster, more overwrought perhaps, yet there are several scenes taken wholesale directly from  Eddie Coyle. The bank hostage forced to walk, blindfolded, toward the shores of the Mystic River, in a wide panorama. The unsettling vacancy of rubber-masked eyes. The penultimate scenes take place at a Boston sports stadium. Affleck’s film takes its cues more from action films, but a straight line can be drawn from  Eddie Coyle  to the modern reinvention of Boston as a crime film location ripe for new stories.

Anyhow, even though I didn’t love either of these films (The Town + Eddie Coyle), it’s interesting to note the connections they share.
I recommend you either pass on this film or speed through it (if you’re looking for a quality action scene or two).

Due to SXSW’s cancellation, Vulcan Video made an early call to host an outdoor screening for any interested filmmakers that had planned to screen at the festival. The team that made The Mystery of the Pink Flamingo took up Vulcan’s offer.

The filmmakers created a funny and interesting way to present a documentary. They crafted a narrative that allowed them to interview these outlandish and eccentric characters all sharing an affinity for kitsch and the outrageous, but did it under the guise of a curious party, Rigo, searching for the answer to the question, “What makes the pink flamingo such a unique, interesting, and beautiful bird?”

That leads Rigo to interview an assortment of folks in both Europe and the U.S., most notably Baltimore-based director John Waters, to get many thoughts on topics such as individuality, style, flamboyance, and, of course, flamingos.
What was so darn refreshing was the entertaining narrative woven around a film that is essentially 90+ minutes of 7+ interviews. Through the many documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve often thought that whether or not I cared for the subject matter, the presentation was flat and not particularly engaging. In The Mystery of the Pink Flamingo, I cared more about the presentation and style than I did the subject matter.

Though I most likely won’t ever see it again, the film was highly entertaining and I do recommend it.

Film Log #5 – 3.2020

March 19th, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

Jojo Rabbit – In order to speak critically about a film that uses the backdrop of World War II to illustrate how senseless fascism, war, and, hatred are, I have to address the concern that this specific era continues to be recycled.

I suspect that storytellers turn to this particular war because the story is already told for us. Very little explanation is required. A human sees a swastika and emotions are immediately triggered. This war eliminates the necessity of world building and stage setting. The chess (or checkers) pieces are easily laid out on the board and the game need not be explained.

This is what I find problematic– what used to be a touchstone of award-winning cinema was how films managed to tackle challenging storytelling and complex subject matter. Whenever I give contemporary cinema a chance, I’m finding weaker stories created by artists who are about as subtle as our politicians with unfortunately increasing frequency.

To return to the film at hand, simply put, I watched this film for Sam Rockwell, Scarlet Johansson, and the kid who plays Yorki (Archie Yates). Those three actors and their characters did not disappoint. They each took turns delivering the film’s best lines as well as its most satisfying moments while the lead did his best to pull us through his journey.

The lead, Roman Griffin Davis, doesn’t perform poorly, but his character certainly is overshadowed by everyone around him. I’m finding it tough to remember a time where I enjoyed a film whose main character was the fourth or fifth best character.

Final point: period pieces that are scored by anachronistic pop music torture me. Jojo Rabbit included The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964), the Tom Waits original “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (1992), Bowie’s “Heroes” (1977), and Love’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live” (1974).
Rarely do modern scores made specifically to accompany the setting and the era of the project work for me, but using a Tupac song in the middle of an industrial revolution film would be jarring and if you believe that’s ridiculous, then you haven’t seen classic rock used as the soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale.

After considering the lazy music choices, reliance on history to propel the narrative, and the lack of interest in the main character, I wouldn’t watch it again.

Without attempting to provide much context on the “big picture” motivations of why all these characters found themselves in the grotesque trench warfare of World War I, 1917 quickly enlists the audience on a dangerous mission. In a certain light, it felt similar to how some video games begin. Normally when I weave an aspect from a video game into a film criticism, that’d usually be grounds for an insult, but Sam Mendes and DoP Roger Deakins stunningly pull this off.

Speaking of Roger Deakins, I’ve already mentioned his work before. The man is arguably the best at his craft. All his films are impeccably shot and it doesn’t take long to realize you’re watching a project that he’s had his hands on.

As mentioned, the film plays out by following two young soldiers who have just been ordered to attempt a dangerous mission. Again, this might seem a little on the “ho-hum” side, but I assure you, this film is meaningful and adept at setting up a scene and delivering.
Also refreshing was the lack of history lessons between each act. This expository curse plagues too many history-driven or action-packed films and, yet, this film barely has any scenes featuring dialogue that feels more for the audience than any character actually in the picture.

I saw 1917 in the theater and it was well worth it. I’m up for watching it in a home theater, but I’ll definitely jump at an opportunity to see it in a large theater once again down the road. This is one to watch.

Have you ever caught yourself watching a show or film where you simply didn’t like any of the principle characters that you were choosing to watch for whatever reason? I imagine this happens when some people watch reality television (not sure, but it must? Right?).

I came across this scene on a film-centric Instagram account:

And, somehow, that’s all it took for me to rent Mike Leigh’s Naked.
That clip, surprisingly, was one of the more “pleasant” moments. This movie basically carried on as two hours and fifteen minutes of aggression, depression, and faux intellect.

It was simply terrible the whole way through. I didn’t believe the main character, Johnny, to be the misunderstood genius that he believed himself to be. There’s also a consummate prick – Jeremy – who is inexplicably injected into the movie to perhaps neutralize (or lessen the blows) any of Johnny’s social ills and out ‘n out shitty behavior, but instead turns the movie into a weird exhibition of how these two men terrorize these poor women who happen to live together (as well as whoever else’s paths they cross).

Sometimes cinephiles need a tough viewing. We’ll need a film that pushes our comfort levels and makes us reevaluate what exactly could be labeled as truly difficult to watch. Perhaps the film will later grow on me? I generally tend to enjoy art that prominently positions the British nihilistic streak found in a variety of art from the 1970s through the 1990s, but this film simply felt like watching two men destroy everything and everyone around them without any recourse.

It truly was difficult to watch.
I don’t believe that I’ll be interested to give it another shot. Ever.
I recommend you pass on this one unless you’re trying to really give your tastes a stretch.

A buddy of mine invited me to a screening of VHYES and I was happy to attend. For as difficult as it is to really enjoy full-length comedic features, I find sketch comedy to be a much more accessible method of enjoying comedy.

Most stand-up specials or comedy sets usually top out at about an hour. VHYES runs at 72 minutes.
I’m not sure why studios try to force some kind of narrative into all of these buddy-cop comedies or buddy-college guy comedies or ladies on a vacation comedies or dudes on a vacation comedies or funny guy dresses up like a lady comedies or funny guy dresses up like a whole family comedies or dudes magically go back in time comedies or mash two people from different cultures together comedies or culturally-specific comedies when it is so obvious that these films are generally built around two or three jokes.

If the folks that make full-length comedy features are happy about their two or three jokes and want to profit off them by unimaginatively constructing a film around those gags, I propose they do what the VHYES team did and simply find a creative way to make a sketch show and instead of serializing it and airing it on television, simply screen it at the theaters and stream it online.

That’s the way I prefer my comedy. The majority of films that attempt to be funny for 90+ minutes are generally terrible by most metrics. In defense of anyone’s proclivity towards full-length comedic features– yes, I have called the sheriff of the “fun police” before.

I enjoyed VHYES. I recommend it over watching 98% of full-length comedic features or re-watching two or three episodes of a comedy program you’ve seen a thousand times.
I’d gladly stream it if/when it’s available.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is an interesting documentary about an intelligent but troubled woman who shut herself off to nearly everyone while she recorded and archived television for 30 years.

Marion Stokes made quite a few prescient decisions that grew her wealth and, at some point, this becomes a film about how wealth allows one to do pretty much whatever they want. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, but only a wealthy person could use eight VCRs and TVs to record and document the media for 24 hours a day for over three decades.

As always, the most interesting question is why? That’s where this documentary shines.

Previously, I’ve pointed out that I’m rarely knocked out by documentaries, and that remains true here. This doc is perfectly fine and worthwhile, but what it boils down to is an 87 minute look at a peculiar and determined woman.

I’ll most likely never see it again and you can take it or leave it as my non-committal recommendation.

The Genius of Jon Bois

February 14th, 2020

Labeling anyone a “genius” would mean that the person doing the labeling views themselves as a subject matter expert in some field or avenue and that’s something that I don’t feel terribly comfortable with or take lightly.

With that acknowledged, Jon Bois is a damned genius. This man uses history, sports, data, new media, and so much more to create compelling stories told in an inventive way.

To speak to his narrative talents, Bois created a two-part, 93-minute long video about how the hypocorism (diminutive form of a name) “Bob” is disappearing in professional sports. In these 93 captivating minutes, Bois tells us stories about athletic greats sharing the name “Bob” such as Feller, Cousy, Gibson, as well as lesser-known Bobs and weaves them all together in a video that feels as conversational and educational as a Ken Burns project yet we absorb these stories in a very original and new format.

Bois is certainly resourceful. His video about Georgia Tech’s football team pummeling Cumberland College’s pieced-together football team 222-0 is a hilarious retelling in part due to how he uses stop-motion animation, figurines, and an almond to recreate moments from the game.
Even though he’s equipped with a signature style and tried-and-true methods, what I truly admire is the way he blends old forms of journalism with new media and evolved methods of storytelling.
His work never relies on large production budgets or a team of artists working around the clock to render his vision – he simply finds an interesting story and figures out how to DIY the presentation.

With the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal a frequent topic, I was recently in a conversation that recalled the last few prominent MLB scandals- PED use in the late 90s through early 00s as well as the rampant cocaine abuse in the 80s. Anytime cocaine use within the MLB is brought up, I have to reference this video about Lonnie Smith. At just under 24 minutes, it’s a very entertaining and easily consumable story. This was one of the earlier videos that sold me entirely on Bois’s work.

Though he does often work on his projects alone, he also teams up with Alex Rubenstein for Dorktown which is an online zine of sorts that features blog posts that blend narratives with statistics, posts that utilize comic-book style storytelling, as well as their signature videos.
I’ve obviously seen them all. They’re all great, but I particularly liked their videos on Rickey Henderson and the 2010 San Diego Chargers.

Dorktown is currently releasing a very entertaining historical account on the Seattle Mariners franchise:

Dorktown is definitely a remarkable project, however, Bois’s strongest and most moving collaboration has been with Felix Biederman. Together, they created a five-part documentary series entitled Fighting in the Age of Loneliness.
Chuck Klosterman’s IV (2006) features the essay “Bonds vs. America” where he states that historians:

…will search for events within popular culture that embodied the zeitgeist of this particular time. Some people will use sports, not unlike the way contemporary historians might use Seabiscuit as an allegory for the 1930s or Muhammad Ali as a means to define the 1960s. And when future historians try to explain what was wrong with the world early in the twenty-first century, I suspect they will use Barry Bonds.

I’m a sucker for writers who, as Klosterman writes early in the aforementioned essay, “consider sports to be a significant and meaningful prism for understanding life and culture.”
This is exactly what draws me to Bois and Biederman’s Fighting in the Age of Loneliness.

As someone who has truly never cared about Mixed Martial Arts, this five-part documentary series pulled me in because of the continual parallels that the two men draw between the emergence, then eventual widespread acceptance of MMA and our society at large.
The series is strong and so well-crafted. It is a poignant, profound look at the culture I have spent my adulthood in.

If you are ever faced with the ridiculous dilemma I believe so many of us face all too often, “Which episode of whatever series should I re-watch for the umpteenth time?” I suggest you kick that silly internal predicament aside and spend some time with the work of Jon Bois instead.

Film Log #4 – 1.2020

January 9th, 2020

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

Let’s take a moment to talk about Film Noir.
One of my earliest introductions to this movement or genre (there’s an academic debate whether or not FN constitutes its own genre or just a movement that has come and gone with the exception of the occasional spoof or neo-noir) was through Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Tracer Bullet, my favorite of Calvin’s alter-egos, is a hard-boiled detective and spoof of what we usually find in FN.

I enjoyed the imagining of this kid governed by so many arbiters of personal behavior as something he so totally isn’t: a Man who plays by his own rules.

The tough talk and dark visuals certainly appealed to me. I, much like Calvin it seems, thought that’s what was waiting for me in adulthood- a life where people lived with much on the line. Where decisions are crucial and consequences weigh heavy.

Onto actual Film Noir. The characters are usually people who live outside of the accepted norms. Sometimes those characters placed or threw themselves into the margins of society, and other times, society pushed them there: career criminals, hoods, street toughs, private investigators, crooked cops, desperate men who had lived on the “straight and narrow” until tragic circumstances placed them ethically between a rock and a hard place.
For the most part, these films live within the gray areas of life.
And it makes perfect sense that the art of this era had no choice but to accept tough realities. Technological advancements came at a much faster pace than societal advancements. The Second Industrial Revolution gave way to a depression sandwiched between two world wars. Much like how the printing press opened a new era in discourse and sharing of ideas, advancements in radio, television, and other forms of broadcasting ideas began to shrink the globe and provide people with new perspectives.

Through a variety of factors including war-time efforts and contributions, women and persons of color had made meaningful steps towards equal rights, yet there were obviously many more battles ahead that continue today in regards to equity and opportunities.
The main point is that the world was moving fast and what many folks used to believe was the correct and virtuous way to live one’s life was morphing. Values were changing.
WWII had ended. Europe was in physical and economic repair. The Allies won, but what the war had shown to many people is that not only is war ugly, but humanity is plain ugly.

Enter the filmmakers of this era. They wanted to depict lives caught in double-crosses, ironclad loves whose fate was to eventually break, and dirty business dealings concluding violently. It’s an era of outstanding photography, characters, subject matter, and intrigue.

I’ve always made an effort to live in a city that provides opportunities for cinephiles. Austin, Texas certainly isn’t an exception. Austin Film Society, as well as the Paramount Summer Film Series, and of course the many Alamo Drafthouses provide many opportunities to experience cinema that I’m very thankful for.

Austin Film Society screened The Asphalt Jungle a handful of times in December. Directed by the much heralded John Huston, it stars Sterling Hayden (who I had only previously seen as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and as Captain McCluskey in The Godfather) as Dix Handley, a strong arm for hire. He’s crewed up with a driver, a safecracker, and an older man who has masterminded a jewel heist.
The only problem comes in the financing and fencing of the stolen goods. Enter Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earliest performances, as Angela Phinlay – the financier’s gal on the side.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen too many of Monroe’s pictures. After seeing The Asphalt Jungle though, I’m going to have to correct that. You’ve heard it all before, the magnetism, the effortlessness (or perceived effortlessness) and it’s totally true. She makes everyone involved in the scene melt and, in the audience, we do the same.

James Whitmore, who worked like crazy from 1949-2007, is easily identified as Brooks Hatlen (the librarian who ended up becoming “institutionalized” as Red phrased it) in The Shawshank Redemption, plays a getaway driver who also runs a diner and seems to be the best adviser that Dix has.

The film world builds perfectly, introduces the characters and explains their motivations, then sets the stage in such a fluid and easy to consume manner. During the heist, a hard-to-believe and fluke occurrence transpires. My ability to sacrifice realism in order to allow myself to enjoy the film took a slight hit. Dix punches a nightwatchmen, knocks him out cold with one punch causing the security guard’s pistol to fall in such a way that induces the firearm to discharge and of course the bullet catches a member of Dix’s crew.

Now, this event essentially closes the second act of the film and it’s the very first time where the film has asked me to give it some leeway in its storytelling. My film companion had noted that when watching many other films, particularly contemporary films, they ask you to accept all of these impossible attributes, otherworldly circumstances, supernatural occurrences, and then also accept some ridiculously fortuitous events in order to propel the story.
I find it more comforting to having only been asked one slight oversight as opposed to what Martin Scorsese recently referred to as “theme park” cinema.

The Asphalt Jungle is worthwhile; would definitely recommend.
I will see it again soon enough.

Not one for getting overly hyped about Christmas, I told myself that I should at least try to see one holiday picture. I remember Scrooged being broadcast on Comedy Central in the late 90s. I caught portions of the airings back then and figured this would be 2019’s holiday film for me.

What a mistake. It’s simply a terrible film. Even with me trying as hard as I could to be in some kind of holiday spirit and enjoy whatever BS that was going to be screened, it was still a very dumb and poorly executed film. While experiencing how bad it was, I googled what Bill Murray had to say about it and it’s clear that there were many arguments during the production of this film.

As I have spoken about Anti-Heroes in the past, what makes them interesting are the complexities and contrasting motivations. Bill Murray’s character is about as flat and unfunny as any character I can imagine. The film attempts to save this unredeemable leading man with a half-cocked cry for help in the last five minutes of the film.

It’s cheap. It’s a waste of time. I don’t see how even the most crazed Bill Murray fans could enjoy it.

Public Speaking is a film by Martin Scorsese about noted writer/critic Fran Lebowitz. It was released in 2010 and I remember Fran Lebowitz describing the “suburbanization of New York” around that time. I obviously was interested in hearing more.

However, even as HBO GO became more prevalent and HBO has allowed the majority of their content to be streamed, this has yet to be offered online (to my knowledge) and I had to rent it from my favorite video store, Vulcan Video.

The film plays out like most biographical docs. Scorsese uses an excellent variety of clips showcasing writers/critics like James Baldwin and William F. Buckley while Lebowitz shares quips and insights about contemporary society.

Her points are interesting, some possibly controversial, but they’re certainly not boring or dumb. And after having watched Scrooged, I was happy to not see anything dumb.

I recommend it.
I’ll watch it again. Which is saying something because I generally don’t revisit docs all that often (American Movie probably being the only exception).

Terrance Malick certainly has his strengths: Photography, the use of natural light, and making a committed effort to showcasing earthly truths are his principle strengths.
Storytelling may not be. Whether that’s true or not, it seems like his scenes play out nearly scriptless. That’s fine. Many landmark moments in cinema have been unscripted, but hell, Malick seems to think that every actor is just as good at improvising as they are at acting.

If you’re not familiar with the story, August Diehl (who was outstanding as Major Hellstrom – the guy who calls out Fassbender for how he uses the wrong hand signal for the #3 in the tavern in Inglourious Basterds) stars as an Austrian farmer who is liked in his community, devout in his Catholic faith, and a very loving husband and father.
That all changes as Hitler assumes power. Diehl’s character, real-life Franz Jagerstatter, can’t swear an oath to Hitler and that’s the crux of the film. The film breaks this conflict down, the excruciating decision Jagerstatter had to make, in so many ways (and so many times!).

I heard a podcaster’s take on The Irishman as, paraphrasing here- we didn’t need six scenes of Pesci pulling De Niro aside and advising him to go calm down Hoffa (Pacino). Two or three would’ve done the job, but they just kept going back and forth with it and it was unnecessary.
Similarly, this film repeatedly presented the same dilemma over and over again and consequently, the film ran upwards of three hours… for a single conflict.

As always, Malick’s visuals are beautiful and there’s plenty of positives to take away from the film, but it can understandably leave one thinking, “why did we have to see the same damn scene over and over again?”

I’ll probably not see again though I did enjoy the film.
Take it or leave it.

I was caught in a strange circumstance where a friend invited me to an afternoon screening of A Hidden Life followed by another asking me to go to a 70mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey later that evening. I happily obliged both invitations.

One of my good friends and college roommate loved 2001 and his DVD copy stayed in my room for a good month or so and though I put it on a dozen times, I’m guilty of having never completed it in one viewing. In recent years, with all the opportunities this town screens 2001 on the big screen, I was committed to finally taking it down.

I was not disappointed. Plenty of people smarter than I have had a ton to say about this film. I’ll simply offer that seeing it on the big screen is obviously a worthwhile experience and Kubrick is basically too good to pass up.

I left the theater knowing that there was certainly going to be a ton of material available to answer the few questions I had.
This New Yorker article helped sort out some questions such as “How many Monoliths were there?” (three), as well as simply needing some clarification on the ending.

Anyhow, it was a spectacle and I’ll probably be seeing it again in the theater in a couple of years.
I recommend.