Sunday, December 15, 2013

Memories of Youth

If I told you that the latest film from Disney was warm, uplifting and moving, your reaction might be, "I've seen this before." Well, guess what? You haven't. Saving Mr. Banks does have all of those qualities, but it also has an emotional depth that you don't see in many commercial films these days. Yes, it's heartwarming and it's for the child in all of us; it's also beautifully written, directed, photographed, edited and acted and takes the viewer on a sensitive journey that addresses topics such as trust, friendship and the loss of a loved one. It is the best film I've seen this year.

The film is set primarily in 1961 as P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, is persuaded by her agent to go to Hollywood and accept the offer of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make her book into a feature film. Travers is set against this, fearing her beloved creation will be "Disneyized" and made into a cute family film, but as sales have dried up and royalties are shrinking, she changes her mind and makes the flight to Los Angeles, for what she thinks will be a relatively brief period.

Once there, she meets Richard and Robert Sherman, who are assigned to writing the songs for the film; Travers doesn't even like the idea of this film as a musical, so you can imagine how well she gets along with them. She's quite bitchy in her attitude toward everyone from her driver (Paul Giamatti) who picks her up every day for the ride from her hotel to the Disney offices all the way up the ladder to Mr. Disney himself.

This situation alone would have made for a good film, but this work takes on greater complexity, as we are given the story of Travers as a little girl in Australia early in the 20th century. It's the relationship she as with her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell in a gem of a performance), who takes her on flights of fancy with her imagination, that reveals much about Travers' insight into writing her book as well as why she fears the Disney treatment of her work. The flashbacks are filmed with such detail and visual beauty (cinematographer John Schwartzman is keen on the soft sunlight of the Australian frontier in these segments); clearly this was a time in her life that has remained deep in the psyche of Travers.

Combining these two stories works well for numerous reasons. As moments of her past are revealed, we understand why Travers loved her father so much and why she wants the character of Mr. Banks in the film to be so precise. There are other requests - seemingly trivial at the time - that the author makes to the creative team that make a great deal of sense, once we learn of her childhood.

Arguably the finest sequence in the film is the one where director John Lee Hancock meshes the two worlds together; as the Shermans perform the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" song for Travers at the rehearsal studio, flashbacks take us to a particular moment in her life where she saw her father in a new light, one that would take on a deeper meaning in her soul. The whimsy and energy of the Sherman brothers performing their latest creation contrasted with the melancholy of Travers as she remembers a significant moment from her childhood is a key to understanding what both Travers and the Disney team must do if they are to make this film. The surface level of Mary Poppins as a book or movie may seem light and fluffy, but at the core, this is a disturbing memoir for the author.

The two leads, Thomson and Hanks, are marvelous performers and have a nice chemistry together. Emma Thompson is especially wonderful, as she basically has to play a bitch, yet she wins us over with her honesty, determination and finally her willingness to work together with the creative team. I can't imagine another actress in this role. As for Hanks, while he has received a great deal of notice for his excellent work in Captain Phillips, I think he is even better here, as he brings a minimalist approach to the character of Walt Disney. He's on screen only about half as much as Thompson, but when he speaks, his words are well chosen for effect. This is one of the most enjoyable and precise performances he's given in sometime.

This is a technically accomplished film; lensman Scwartzman, editor Mark Livolsi and costume designer Daniel Orlandi are deserve special mention and are worthy of Oscar nominations. Thomas Newman's original score, which will probably be overlooked amidst the famous songs the Shermans wrote for Mary Poppins, is excellent, setting the emotional tone throughout the film in a sensitive and mature manner.

Hancock takes a relatively light approach with this material; yes, this is highly emotional and many audience members would be smart to bring their Kleenex, but his direction is not heavy handed. He deals with the personal moments of Travers's memories with the proper attitude and lets the story play out with all its joyful and bittersweet moments. Hancock's last work was the saccahrine-infused The Blind Side; this is a much better film and the director handles this material with greater sensitivity and style.

I walked into Saving Mr. Banks expecting an interesting film to be sure, but honestly did not know how lovely this work would be. Credit to everyone - including screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith - for making such a moving film that deals with the memories of youth in such an honest and enchanting way.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Setting Things Right

Philomena, the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, is a rewarding film about setting things right. The focus of the film is about a terrible experience from one woman's past and her desire to learn the truth. But this work is just as much about one man's quest to find himself and his real worth, even as he goes to great pains to help this woman.

Judi Dench stars as the title character, who is living in a small town in Ireland. Fifty years earlier, she became pregnant and delivered a son; that behavior was frowned upon at that time for a young Catholic girl in her environment, so she was sent to a local abbey where the nuns would care for her child. This was essentially punishment for being so free with her body, as the Catholic church would have her believe; thus she was forced into long hours of demanding work, while only being allowed to see her child for one hour a day.

Her son, as with most of the other children of the young mothers, was eventually sold for a tidy sum to American parents who wanted to adopt a child in the 1950s. Philomena hasn't seen her son since and wonders whatever happened to him - did he grow up to be a success or was he a failure in life?

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter who was demoted due to a political scandal and is now a freelance writer, learns of Philomena's story from her daughter and even though he isn't excited about writing a "human interest" story, he agrees to help her; after all, his upcoming work on Russian history probably won't make him a lot of money, so that can wait.

Their journey takes them to the United States, where Sixsmith can better investigate immigration and adoption records. His editor is paying for the trip, so Philomena and he can fly business class and stay at an expensive hotel in Washington, D.C. As she has never traveled far from her quaint surroundings in Ireland, all of this luxury is eye-opening to her. She wants to know if Martin has received a mint under his pillow in his room and then calls him on the hotel phone to make sure he has a bathrobe as well; she has two in her room and would be happy to share one of hers. These scenes are quite charming and heartwarming.

But when she finds out the truth about her son, the tone of the film changes and both characters become more introspective. She must learn everything she can about her son, no matter the reality. For Martin, he constantly questions Philomena's faith in Catholic doctrine; after all, the nuns took her child, sold him for a handsome profit and never gave her any information about his whereabouts. Their code of silence amounted to little more than a betrayal.

There are so many strong elements to this film, none better than the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope (Coogan also was a producer of this film), based on the true story of Philomena that Sixsmith wrote in 2009, titled "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." The screenplay is nicely organized, as we follow the events of their search, but there is much more depth in the script, as we learn so much about the world view of these two individuals. She's not educated in the ways of the the modern world, so she can learn a great deal from Sixsmith. But he's cynical about a lot of things and he needs her to set him straight on his journey, not only the immediate one, but also his life's quest. It's a first-rate screenplay, one that goes directly to the heart.

It's also nice that the two actors are quite charismatic and have great chemistry with each other. I've loved Dench for years - has she ever given a routine performance? - and here she offers a turn as a simple, yet richly endowed character; she may not be giving instructions to James Bond here, but she's just as strong emotionally. As for Coogan, who is usually relegated to small, off beat roles (the Night at the Museum films, e.g.), it's a pleasure to see him tackle a role of greater signifigance. It's a complex character, one who is not afraid to conceal his anger towards what the Church has done to Philomena, yet he is also filled with personal angst and often feels guilty about his behavior. Coogan handles this role with panache, flair and introspection.

Alexandre Desplat, who I believe is the finest composer working regularly in films today, has written a sensitive, relatively quiet score that is proper for this film. While this does not break any new ground for the composer and does not rank with his very best (The Ghost Writer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Zero Dark Thirty), it is a very fine piece of work that meshes perfectly with the emotions on the screen. Too often, film composers write "big" scores with melodies that you can hum after you leave the theater, but may overwhelm the action in the story. Desplat has always been very good at writing music that plays up to the moment and while you may not notice this score, that's a compliment, as that means the composer has done his job.

Stephen Frears directs this film without getting too mawkish; after all this is a highly emotional issue, so it could have been a film loaded with melodramatic scenes and cheap emotions. It's a credit to him - as well as the performers and the intelligent script - that this is a work that feels just right. We're glad to have met these characters and are just as pleased that we took this journey with them.

I for one hope that Frears can make more films such as this. His best-known work The Queen (2006) was a perfectly watchable film, but one that played it safe and took no chances. I never felt watching that film like we really knew what Queen Elizabeth was going through at that time, despite the excellent work turned in by Helen Mirren. Thankfully, Frears has done more than coast here while telling his story; he has directed Philomena with a sensitive heart and hand.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beating the Odds

Dallas Buyers Club is a resolute film about a crisis in one particular individual's life and how that man fought to save not only his health, but also his dignity. It's a bit uneven (especially in the latter stages of the film), but overall it's a vital work that's uncompromising in its look at the sadness and uneasiness of his immediate world.

The film takes us back to 1985 when the AIDS crisis first caught everyone's attention around the world, especially with the news that Rock Hudson was dying from the disease in a Paris hospital. In the midst of that, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) a heterosexual man in his 30s, is afflicted with the HIV virus, due in large part to his frequent sexual activities as well as the large amounts of alcohol and drugs that weaken his immune system. When Woodroof learns of his condition from his doctors, he vehemently rails agains them, stating that this is a disease that only affects homosexuals; in his mind, his doctors have mixed up the blood results as he can't possibly have this condition.

He's told that he has thirty days to live, but he's too strong and too stubborn to believe that, so he fights. Woodruff has been battling with others as a routine part of his life - he's not a model human being - so he's not about to back down when confronted with the biggest challenge of his life. He bribes a hospital employee for samples of the test drug AZT, but when that supply dries up, he drives to Mexico to acquire other drugs. He can afford it and soon sets up a buyers club for other AIDS patients, who are also trying to purchase medication.

Soon, Woodroof meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite also afflicted with AIDS. He needs medication and is willing to pay Ron whatever amount of cash for the drugs. Woodroof takes his money, but at the same time, makes fun of him and his cross-dressing ways. Yet he soon realizes that Rayon can help his business, as he can attract clients who are in desperate need for any sort of medical help. The relationship these two share is the core of this film and it's no wonder that the scenes these two actors appear in together are the most convincing and moving of this work.

Along the way, Woodroof learns that AZT may not be the wonder drug that the medical and pharmaceutical industries claim it to be, so he is able to find other medications that can at least provide a longer life for AIDS patients. During this part of the story, the FDA comes into play, as agents do their best to shut his business down for various reasons. This section of the film, though expository and somewhat necessary if only to learn of the struggles that Woodroof goes through in order to survive, is not as well directed as the first half. Here is where the film loses some of its steam, as we're witnessing another "man against the system" story. It's entirely watchable, but it's just not as fascinating - especially in cinematic terms - as the initial personal battles we see Woodroof endure early on.

Jean-Marc Vallée directed the film and he does so with an obvious empathy for the two main characters and their personal conflicts. There are some nice visual touches here, as when Woodroof is shown alone in the stands at a rodeo. He sees a rodeo clown appear out of a barrel and then, an instant later, Woodroof sees nothing- is this a dream or reality? This depiction of what is real and what isn't in Ron's life early on is fascinating to watch. It's a pity then that the film becomes more routine as the plot devices come to fruition. The film is just a few minutes under two hours and it clearly feels a bit long - trimming 10-15 minutes would have helped - but overall, the film is very good and is often excellent and I applaud the filmmakers' decision to make this an honest film, even though what we're experiencing may not be so pretty.

It's the performances of McConaughey and Leto that truly make this film shine. In the hands of another actor, the role of Rayon could have been high camp or an easy call for sympathy. Leto has to underplay his part here and walk a bit of a tightrope, as this is a character that could easily be viewed as a stereotype, with all the obvious baggage that comes along with the portrayal of such a character. We do feel for Rayon, especially as we learn more of his story, but these emotions are earned. Leto's performance is a gem.

As for McConaughey, this role is the latest in his recent decision to do more than merely get by on his good looks. He gave a charming, almost effortless performance in the underrated The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and later that year gave a remarkable, chilling turn in Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin. It was while I was watching this film that I finally saw the potential McConaughey had promised early on and realized what a strong actor he really is. He has to be an S.O.B. for much of this film and he's totally convincing at that, but he's also marvelous when he has to tone his hate down and see the humanity of others. It's easily his best performance, one that's sure to earn him an Oscar nomination. If you told me three or four years ago that I'd be writing that McConaughey would be in the running for an Academy Award, I'd have told you that you were a bit crazy, so how nice that that actor has proven many of us critics wrong.

While Dallas Buyers Club in the final analysis is not as solid a film as I would have liked, it is a memorable one, an important one and an honest one. I'm happy with that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Rich Man

"All I ever wanted was a new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)

Woody Grant lives in his modest home in Billings, Montana with his cantankerous wife June, yet you'd hardly call his time spent there a life - existence is more like it. He seems as though he has nothing to live for, but one day, he receives a document in the mail stating that he has been selected as the winner of one million dollars. This is one of those phony gimmicks by a clearing house to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody doesn't see that; all he knows is that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize and he'll get there, come hell or high water.

That's the plot device that sets Nebraska - a moving, endearing, whimsical and introspective film - in motion. Grant, in his mid-70s, knows he has to make this journey before his time runs out. It's just that his wife as well as his two sons David and Ross do everything they can to persuade him not to make the trip, as they know that there is no prize money for Woody. But given his stubbornness, he won't or can't see the truth, so Will finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln, if only to get him out of the house and stop driving his wife crazy.

As directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and written by Bob Nelson along with the unforgettable visuals provided by director of photography Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is a look at the heartland of our country, as well as the meaning of love among family members as well as lifelong friends. The one million dollars that is supposedly out there is the MacGuffin that makes people do some strange things. When David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, he makes plans to stop along the way in Hawthorne, Nebraska, a small town where Woody grew up. This section of the film represents the meat and bones of the story, as we get to know the more about father and son as well as the townspeople and how they react to Woody, as they learn of his supposed good fortune.

During this adventure, Woody sees a tavern and decides to sit down and have a beer; David sits with him, but orders a soda, telling his father he doesn't much care for alcohol. "Come on, have a beer with your old man," says Woody. "Be somebody." David does and it's during this scene that we start to learn of the true relationship of father and son. Is the father proud of the son? Is the son embarrassed by the father? In a film filled with many moments of lovely observations about human flaws, this scene is one the most revealing.

As Woody, Bruce Dern is mesmerizing; it's been a long time since he's been given such a meaty role (Coming Home, 1978) and he handles it with a great understanding of who this character is. With a head full of unruly hair going every which way and a frazzled white beard combined with his deliberate, slightly off kilt walk, he just looks and feels old. We wonder about the sanity of such a trip and at times, it seems this quest may just about kill him. But for Woody, it's about making things right, whether that means arriving in Lincoln to claim his prize or settling the score with an old crony, Ed Pegram (beautifully played by Stacy Keach). Dern is pitch perfect here; how nice to see this veteran actor finally get a chance to shine like never before.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) is a memorable character, one who is going a bit awry trying to deal with Woody's unpredictable behavior. She makes no bones about what she'd like to see happen and is as direct in her feelings about her husband's condition as she is about her former lovers (there is a hilarious scene in a cemetery where she talks to the deceased in very frank terms about her body). Squibb, who had a small role in Payne's About Schmidt, has the time of her life with this role, yet she never overplays her hand; her performance lends a nice mix of bitterness and warmth to this film.

As mentioned previously, Papamichael's photography is a major strength of this film. At time beautiful (landscape images of cattle grazing in vast fields, cars moving along on interstates) and at times bleak (the scene where Woody and Will search for Woody's teeth along some railroad tracks is particularly arresting, as are the visuals of the near-empty streets of Hawthorne), the black and white images are ideal for the wistful mood of Nebraska. I think it's great that Payne had the courage to make a black and white film; his trust in Papamichael to deliver the proper visual emotions have been greatly rewarded.

I've admired Alexander Payne's films for many years now, especially the way his stories have such a nice mix of sweet and sour (often more the latter than the former). Nebraska to me is his finest work, both visually and organically. His world view - in this case a few small towns and their unique inhabitants and their dreams - has never been so fully realized and I've never been quite as delighted with the final product as I was when Nebraska came to its lovely conclusion.

For all of us who realize that becoming rich is more than just having enough money in the bank, Nebraska is a must see.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Masterful Look at Deception - A Sad Portrait of a Cheater

As I walked out of the theater where I saw The Armstrong Lie, I stopped to ask a gentleman who had also viewed the film if he could believe the story he had just seen. I didn't know this person, but I had to talk to someone right away about this experience; that's how strong a film this is. This gentleman, by the way, merely shook his head, confirming what I thought. 

The Armstrong Lie is the latest work of documentarian Alex Gibney, whose previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007); this last work was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary. Gibney is fascinated by famous individuals who lie; the common theme in these films is that power can - in the minds of these people - become such an overwhelming drive in their behavior, that they can't even recognize they are lying, or if they can, don't see their mistruths as harmful.

The story of Lance Armstrong - overcoming testicular cancer and then winning the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race seven years in a row - is well known by now. Of course, anyone who's familiar with this tale also knows that Armstrong was accused of cheating via doping and other means almost from Day One after his first victory in France. Armstrong was eventually stripped of his seven titles and himself admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfey that he did take illegal substances during these races.

It's a story that has dominated headlines almost around the world for the past decade and given the sensational nature of the details, I would think that any filmmaker with average talent could make a watchable documentary about Armstrong and his adventures. Thankfully, Gibney is far more than an average craftsman, as he has certainly become one of the most important documentarians in America, but also arguably one of the three finest (along with Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris). One of his strengths is taking a complex story, compiling all its elements and turning it into a very watchable film. That talent was certainly on display in Enron an it's a major strength of this multi-layered tale as well.

Gibney goes even deeper here, as he had access to Armstrong while all this was going on. The documentarian originally set out to make a film about Armstrong's comeback at the Tour de France in 2009; after having won the race every year from 1999-2005, he walked away. Yet his competitive nature drew him back a few years later; that and a desire to clear his name, as he told Gibney he was going to ride "clean," so no one could ever accuse him again of doping, especially if he won in 2009. However when the accusations became truths, Gibney had to abandon his film, at least as far as being about the comeback. Now his new film, after the rider admitted his transgressions in 2012, would be about the big picture - why did Armstrong cheat?

The centerpiece of the film is a brief interview Gibney filmed with Armstong five months after his appearance with Winfrey. The athlete admits, quite often, he believed in what he did was right "at the time" (he uses that phrase several times) and clearly seems at least a bit embarrassed by his previous actions. Yet he still maintains that he did not cheat, his reasoning being that if every cyclist in the Tour did things illegally (doping as well as blood transfusions), he fit right in - he wasn't violating any set of rules, at least in his mind.

The fact that Gibney trusted Armstrong - as did millions of people - puts a clever spin on the filmmaker's work, as he feels betrayed. So it becomes more than an objective piece of work - though in reality, what documentary can be 100% objective? - and is realized as a masterful telling not only of Armstrong's cheating, but also his despicable actions against his former teammates.

There is so much to admire in this film, not only in the way Gibney arranges this work to help the viewer understand all the components at work here (such as explaining how blood transfusions help a cyclist achieve a higher performance level), but also visually. There are images, both of the Tour de France as well as the Giro d'Italia - a race that takes place a few months earlier each year - that are simply beautiful. There is one shot taken with a long focal length lens of a man sitting with his family  in a field watching the riders race along; he waves a small flag and we are transfixed on that flag as the cyclists travel by in a blur. It's also neat to see his camera closeup during the actual race, as we see how close the public, lining the roads, get to the athletes; it must be a bit claustrophobic for the riders. We come away with a great feel for what it's like to watch as well as ride in this race. Yes, there are simple images of documents as well as straightforward interviews, but when Gibney fixes his cameras on the athletes, the film becomes beautiful; his compositions in this work are among his very best.

Gibney does balance out the film, documenting many things in Armstrong's life, from dramatic photos of him after his cancer surgery to scenes of him visiting cancer-ridden children in hospitals - the athlete seems genuine in his concern for the ill youngsters - so this is not a one-sided view of this story. But the filmmaker clearly feels for the many victims in this saga, especially one of Armstrong's former teammates, Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, who were treated as though they were lower than dirt after accusing the rider of injecting himself with a banned substance. Andreu's tale is a somber one and it shows how despicable Armstrong's actions were, as well as giving us insight into the power he once had; if Armstrong said that their accusations were worthless, we (at least most of us) believed Armstrong. It was the power he branded over others that may have been the worst part of this tale, Gibney seems to be arguing throughout much of the film.

This is an important documentary that goes far beyond telling this story; it's an examination of hero worship in America and around the world and it leads us to think about how we can be so easily deceived. Perhaps we need heroes so badly that we can't see clearly when they turn out to be flawed creatures. 

Alex Gibney has made an exceptional film, one that challenges the viewer far beyond the details of this saga. Terrific work, Alex!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Man and the Sea

All is Lost, the second film from J.C. Chandor, has a storyline as basic as time - survival at sea. We've seen stories of this nature before, but as far as I can recall, we really haven't seen this particular story before or at least not one told as well as it is in this remarkable film.

Robert Redford, still a physical presence at 77, is the sole character in this film; referred to as "Our Man" in the closing titles, he is maneuvering his small craft in the Indian Ocean on what we presume to be his attempt to sail around the world. He wakens one morning to see his boat has taken on water due to a collision with a shipping container that left a hole in the side of his craft; he repairs this as well as possible, but soon, the fierce nature of the sea is too much for the small boat and Our Man has to go it alone in a life raft.

That's the plot and yet much more happens, though I don't want to spoil it. What's marvelous about this film is how we watch this character adapt to a life and death situation; here is a man without a tiger (or other CGI creatures) for company, as in last year's Life of Pi. No, it's just Our Man against the sea. He could complain about his fate, but for the most part he doesn't, save for one well-chosen four-letter word.

That utterance, along with a short message he desperately tries to leave on a short-wave radio, are the only words Our Man speaks in the entire film (there is also a brief narrative speech that opens the film - we are led to believe that he is speaking the words he wrote in a note to his family/loved ones near the end of the film).

So while some have commented that this resembles a silent film, we do have the advantage of sound, which is beautifully handled, especially when it comes to the noise of the waves crashing against the boat and of Our Man battling his way underwater during a few critical moments. There is also a nice minimal score by Alex Ebert, who thankfully knew that a soundtrack can be quite effective when there is not music underlining the on-screen action (compare this score to the almost wall-to wall effort of Henry Jackman for Captain Phillips). These sounds - and silences - are crucial to the primal nature of the film and to our emotions watching this work. A big thumbs up to sound designer Steve Boeddeker and his team for their first-rate craftsmanship.

The work of the two cinematographers on this film - Frank DeMarco above water and Peter Zuccarini underwater - also add to the awe and wonder of this film. The success of their work is vitally important, as the action is limited to a very small space; technically, the photography is excellent - it's a beautiful looking film - and on an artistic level, the blues of the sky and the sea have a shimmering, yet haunting look to them.

Of course this film would not have worked had it not been for two other individuals; Redford and Chandor. The actor is perfect for this role, as he is a pillar of strength amidst potential disaster. Redford works beautifully with his hands - really his entire body here - giving us the certainly that he can handle this perilous situation; you just believe in him from the first frame he appears on screen. He is a model of self-confidence - he will do just enough to survive and if it means shaping a device to filter sea water to make it drinkable or learning how to use a sextant to read the stars, that's what he'll do.

Chandor directs the film with great fluidity, avoiding clichés and obvious moments. This is such a basic story in its nature and the director knows he doesn't need to trick things up. Watching this adventure is something of how-to manual of how to survive at sea and Chandor along with Redford's work help give this film its tone and shape. Interesting that Chandor's first film, Margin Call, was filled with dialogue, while this has less than 10 words spoken in the body of the film. While both films deal with an individual (or individuals) dealing with a crisis - Margin Call was about a specific problem at a brokerage house during the 2008 Wall Street mess - one could hardly imagine two more different films, visually and aurally from the same creator.

I also want to point out one particular image of great beauty and sadness, as we watch a flare that Our Man has lit as a signal to a passing commercial ship at night; the crew aboard this large vessel cannot see such a small figure up close, so as the flare falls to its descent on the left side of the screen, we see the ship sail away on the far right of the screen. Visually, Chandor has presented us with a beautiful composition, while emotionally, this is a shattering moment, both for Our Man and for the audience.

At times, existential in nature and at times religious, All is Lost succeeds on many levels, especially when it comes to putting the viewer into the midst of danger. This is one of the year's most singular - and finest - films.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Finding Pleasure among the Pain

Emile Hirsch (l) and Stephen Dorff 

The Motel Life - great title - is, at its heart, a film that honors the human spirit, especially when that spirit has been battered and bruised and more often than not, disappointed. Directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky with a script by Micah-Fitzerman Blue and Noah Harpster based on the eponymous 2006 novel by Willy Vlautin, this is an honest, poignant film that is among the year's finest.

The story deals with Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan (played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively), two brothers in their 30s that live in a motel in Reno, Nevada. For most of their lives, they have learned to deal with the fact that their existence will not be paved with gold. Their mother died when they were teenagers and their father Earl (nicely played by Kris Kristofferson in a small role), has little time for them, as he manages a used car lot not far away. Jerry Lee had one of his legs amputated below the knee after an accident with a train when his brother and he were running away from home; Frank, sensing the helplessness of Jerry Lee, has traded in many of his dreams for a life of caring for his brother. 

Without giving away too many plot details, I can tell you that Jerry Lee is involved with a fatal accident; he tells Frank about it, but their decision is to not admit to anything. Jerry Lee becomes more worried and despondent, while Frank decides to drink even more than he usually does, if only to ease the moral pain of his choice.

The model of two brothers (or male friends) caring for each other has been the basis of several novels and films, from East of Eden to Midnight Cowboy. In fact, there are times when the harsh realities forced upon the two brothers remind us of Ratso and Joe in the latter film. Yet, this is a more subdued, more introspective story, realizing many more quiet moments of reflection. At one point, Jerry Lee asks Frank "what woman is going to make love to a man with one leg?" It's moments like this one that are among the film's most perceptive.

The primary emotional release for the two brothers is a marvelous device - Frank tells Jerry Lee wild stories from his imagination, dealing with slightly crazed dreams about gorgeous women who will do anything to please them as well heroic tales of them as fighter pilots and even one far-out tale about a cross-dressing captain on a pirate ship. As Frank tells his brother the details of these stories, the screen comes alive with animation of the incidents; the stark gray and black and white drawings (by Mike Smith) draw us into the psyche of the brothers. Clearly the dreams - or are they nightmares? - are escapes from their everyday troubles. 

I love the fact that the stories are so absurd in their nature with such vivid imagination of guilty pleasures, as these two have such a troubled existence. The more despair the brothers feel, the film seems to be saying, the more extreme the release exemplified by the dreams must be. It's a nice understanding of how these characters survive their seemingly drab existence.

I say "seemingly drab" as actually the two brothers are rich in terms of their shared humanity. This is in part a love story between the brothers with absolutely no homosexual overtones. They merely love each other as brothers do, devoted to seeing that the other is rewarded with some sort of pleasure in his life, no matter how small. There's a beautifully realized scene in a motel where Frank has to help Jerry Lee take a shower, and Jerry Lee, slightly embarrassed says to Frank, "I'm naked in front of you." "It's alright," replies Frank. Simple and honest emotions - these are what The Motel Life is all about.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this film is that never sinks to a level of pathos. It might have been easier to make this film a tear jerker, complete with a soundtrack with weeping strings (thankfully, David Holmes' score is subdued and minimal in its nature). The intelligent screenplay along with the straightforward, uncomplicated direction by the Polskys assures the humanity of this film. The writers and directors never once ask the audience for their sympathy; we're not asked to feel sorry for the brothers, merely we are asked to become involved in their lives and hope for some sort of small exit from their troubles. Perhaps in this age of pop psychology, the filmmakers could attract a larger audience by taking the easy way out, so I give them high marks for making an honest film that rewards an audience that wants to watch an intelligent human drama that can affect viewers without underlining the emotions on the screen.

One final note about this film; the performance of Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee is nothing short of amazing. There's a weariness and confusion about his character that is seen in his face and heard in his voice, yet there's also a nice sense of joy that emerges, whether it's simply drinking a can of beer or petting his dog. This is a young man who understands that his days are numbered, one who at times feels sorry for himself, yet he loves life. It's a beautifully written character and Dorff presents us with a fully realized portrait of this individual. 

This is so far removed from the super-hero, comic book explosions that have hit the screens in recent years. How nice that The Motel Life gives us a particular slice of a few lives that draw us in to a world that many of us can understand - after all, most of us have disappointments that we have to deal with from time to time. I'm betting that enough people will make this film a success, not with huge box office figures to match Hollywood's megaproductions, but a success on a level the filmmakers are looking for, which is, "did we move people when they watched this film?" The answer for me is a resounding yes.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Life on the Border

"We lost our very first language that connected us all. We tore it apart into a thousand pieces. And in the madness that followed, we discovered violence, hate and finally, separation." - Narration from Purgatorio

Purgatorio, directed by Rodrigo Reyes, is a look into life on the US/Mexico border. At first, this may seem like another discussion of the immigration debate, but the film takes us much deeper into the lives of these people as well as into our souls as human beings, giving this film a depth far beyond mere politics.

This is the second documentary for Reyes, a native of Mexico, who lived in both his home land and in California as a youth, as his family shuttled back and forth. That experience, along with his studies in political science as well as his work as an interpreter - first at a hospital and now in the courtroom - has given him a unique viewpoint for making this film. You realize this is a labor of love and his message is how we are all human beings that need hope in our lives. The evidence in this film is that many along the border realize that a better life for them is only a dream, not reality.

Reyes deliberately takes this film beyond facts in an argument about whether or not the border should be open. He talks to poor Mexicans as well as one government official as well as a number of Americans that deal with this situation, one patrolling the border, another working on identifying Mexicans that try to cross illegally - or have died trying.

At no point does Reyes ever give the identity of any of these people; this is clearly not a public news approach to the problem. Reyes here wants to give us a snapshot of the times, yet does not want the film bogged down in details. I would imagine this approach will frustrate some looking for answers, but to me, this was a fresh and proper manner in which to get his message across.

A major strength of this film is the striking cinematography of Justin Chin, who gives us a broad palette of images ranging from a lovely seaside setting with the crash of gentle waves to the dirt and grime of a dump lined with the twisted metal of abandoned automobiles, many of which are ridden with bullet holes. The bright, sunny visuals are in stark contrast to the despair of many poor Mexicans that populate this environment; one man speaks of how his life is the same every day and how he believes he is already dead.

At one point of the narration (written and spoken by Reyes), he states that while it takes courage to leave your home, sometimes it takes more courage to stay. I would have liked to have seen Reyes go into more detail regarding this point. It's a valid one, but he skims over this. It's a criticism, but about the only one I have of this film.

As did John Steinbeck back in the 1930 and '40s, Reyes links animals with people; this conjunction is especially apt with the poor. Both Steinbeck in many of his works as well as Reyes in this film seem to be saying that some view the lives of the poor in the same way as a dog wandering the streets. Reyes takes things further here, as one of the sequences deals in depth with the mechanics of canine euthanasia, as we listen to a man who puts dogs to sleep (we see the machine that is the tool of death, but thankfully, any grisly details have been omitted). At first glance, this sequence seems unnecessary, yet upon reflection, it makes perfect sense here, as life and death are mere moments in one's existence - be it a man or an animal; our souls seem to have been beaten down by the system.

Purgatorio does not take the easy way out and for that Rodrigo Reyes is to be congratulated. It's a challenging and at times, a puzzling documentary that has scenes that don't necessarily flow smoothly from one transition to the next. Yet, thank goodness that the filmmaker has opted to challenge us. The immigration problem is one thing, but our existence with our fellow man is another far more diverse and troubling topic; Reyes wants us to never forget that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jennifer Lynch tells it like it is

Jennifer Lynch (r) with director Penny Vozniak (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Jennifer Lynch, daughter of famed film director David Lynch, was in Chicago recently to promote the film Despite the Gods, a documentary directed by Penny Wozniak. The film traces Lynch's time in India in 2008 directing a Bollywood production called Hisss. The shooting was plagued with all sorts of problems and afterwards, the producers recut the film without Lynch's approval; she has since publicly disavowed any connection with it. 

I sat down with Lynch and Vozniak at the offices of the Chicago International Film Festival to talk to them about this film as well as Lynch's experience making it.

Tom Hyland: I never did understand. Why did Govind (Govind Menon, the producer) ask you to direct this film? Did he ever explain why he chose you?

Jennifer Lynch: He never did, but I have my impressions. He saw Surveillance (a 2008 film directed by Jennifer) and I was a female who was a filmmaker and I had a famous last name, so there was a lot to be said for going to India with a Lynch for a Hollywood/Bollywood production. I think within that he had anticipations of how he could promote it and even after reading my script, I think he still thought this was the kind of movie he would be making, not the kind of movie I would make. To me, if you've seen Surveillance, you know what kind of filmmaker I am.

To me that was the most heartbreaking, strangely illuminating part of this; the fact that Penny was able to show me things I couldn't see, but now with time, you know I can look back and realize that he hired me for a different reason than to be myself and never told me. Maybe he didn't even know himself - I'm not suggesting there was any malice in it. I think that he saw an opportunity as a producer to make a big sound.

TH: Clearly he was very impatient with you. Do you think that was the system of getting this movie done or was it just him or was it any number of things?

JL: It was a lot of things. It was a very trying situation for everybody. You know, nine months - you can imagine the footage that isn't in there!

Something was going unexpectedly every day. I can't guess, I can tell you that my biggest sadness is that after an experience such as that is Govind and I don't speak. I'm sorry that he felt the only way to gain control of the movie was to take me out of it, instead of communicating with me like "actually, here's the kind of movie we need to make. Let's sit down and make this movie together."

Whatever my part in that is, I'm sorry. I'm a work in progress like the rest of us. I can't guess what his motivations were. My heart tells me that none of it was malicious. I think that he hired someone who had a stronger and more individual voice than he anticipated and I don't think that he was willing to communicate to me at any point - whether he realized it or not too late or earlier on - exactly what the deal was. "Actually what we need to do is to make this kind of movie and I'm using your name and this is what has to happen."

You know, I'm not retarded. I get that this is a money making business. But I was told the opposite - make your movie. Again, it wasn't every day that he and I were butting heads, but those were the most exciting days for Penny.

I can't guess. I can say respectfully I shared many good times with him and I shared a lot of drama with him. I wish we could have come out on the other side with some sort of communication, because it was brutal.

TH: (To Penny Vozniak): How did you get involved in this project?

Penny Vozniak: Actually, I wan't meant to be in India. I was on my way to Afghanistan as I got a grant to make a little project there. I stopped in Mumbai because Govind was an old friend of mine. I had been in India several times before just visiting and I stopped in Mumbai and he asked me if I could do a big favor and stay an extra week and babysit Sydney Lynch, Jennifer's daughter (she was 12 at the time, TH).

I didn't really want to, I didn't want to babysit, I wanted to make a film. But I wanted to help my friend, so I babysat Syd and she was adorable, which was fun and we hung out and then I got to know Jennifer over that week and by the end of it, I was very curious. I fell in love with them, as everyone does when they first meet them. Jennifer wanted me to stay as well and she talked to Govind and they came up with this idea that I'd shoot a behind-the-scenes.

I don't like behind-the-scenes, I don't even think I've watched one, as they doesn't interest me. I'm not interested in the movie making process at all. I'm interested in stories and people's dynamics.

TH: Had you made documentaries before?

PV: I had been working on a documentary at that point for four years and I'm about to finish it now. It's about the world's real-life super heroes. I just wanted to make my own stories with real people. That's all I've ever wanted to do. So I didn't want to make this film in India, but I was offered a bit of money for it and I thought that this would help my other project, so I'll do this as a paid job.

But then about two weeks in, I was getting stuff that they would not want to use in the DVD extras, this is scathing, like Jennifer talking about getting her period and sex and I'm thinking, maybe this isn't appropriate. So I remember at one point, I said to myself I'm going to make an observational documentary about Jennifer. She's a misunderstood filmmaker. She's not everything you think she's going to be. It's very easy to look at Jen and think, "Oh, she grew up very priviliged. Hollywood royalty, the daughter of David Lynch..."

TH: I wouldn't think that, Hollywood royalty with David Lynch...

JL: Bless your heart!

TH: If you were Cary Grant's daughter, I might think differently.

PV: But to me as an indie filmmaker lover, this is the pinnacle of it. She's got this wonderful kind of legacy.

I wanted to show the quiet moments, not just how do you make a film.  I wanted to show the dynamics between the mother and the daughter and Jennifer and the actors and Jennifer and the producer. That's what interested me, so that's the story I wanted to focus on. I don't think anyone really knew, including myself, for up until about six months what I was really doing. I just kept turning up on the set thinking I'm filming something.

Then about halfway through the story, I went, "I'm filming this story about Jennifer." It's about this, it's about something I won't realize until I get to the end, but I loved that, it's a treasure hunt.

TH: Two things I noticed as I watched the film again. One was a member of the production team saying about two-thirds of the way through the film, "This is mayhem. This is India. Isn't it beautiful?" I thought it was a great line.

Then there was a scene where a medicine man or priest throwing oil on the script or blessing the production and then there is a cut of you winking, like, "OK, see what I have to go through." I thought that was a perfect moment.

JL: Yea, this is what you do. It's also that the crew had become superstitious and it was Christmas, so they put the slate down on a plastic chair in the jungle and we all sat and closed our eyes and listened as he prayed. And if you thought about it too much, you'd kind of lose your mind and yet it was this beautiful thing we're celebrating. And we're all a little afraid as every day something goes what you would call wrong. And I kept trying to be Zen-enough about it, to make some sort of day out of it.

There it was, of course, it's a plastic chair in the jungle and we're throwing flowers on it and burning incense. What else could it be? Oh, and it was beautiful, so when I saw she had the camera on me, I winked. I remember the moment. I was thinking, maybe this will help.

PV (speaking to Jennifer): Yes, you were on the ride!

That's what I loved about those subtle moments - they didn't need any words.

TH: Two final questions. Ok, let's pretend that Penny's not here. Objectively speaking, if someone saw this, they would think this is not a very flattering portrait of Jennifer. What do you say to that?

JL: You know, part of me agrees and part of me says, that's who I was there and that's a lot of who I still am. I hope that there are some flattering moments... put it this way - that's who I am. So the terror and the joy in letting her film me and forgetting quite often that she was filming me is...

TH: You're a creative person...

JL: That's what happened and she didn't change that. I can't say, "I didn't do that. That actress didn't portray me correctly." It's authentic.

TH: Last question. I see that you're working on a film and your father appears in it. (A Fall From Grace.)

JL: I'm about to shoot this film and yes, he is playing a very beautiful sort of dementia-ridden older man in it. It's a very small role.

TH: Knowing the type of filmmaker he is, I would imagine he would let you do your thing.

JL: Oh, yeah. All we ever say to each other is, "it's common fucking sense. Go have fun."

And as absurdly simple as that sounds, that's what it is. And in any situation... so suddenly this blew up. OK, it's common sense. I've got to get from here to there.

He said no at first, "I can't do it. I won't be good enough." But then we talked about a few things and he got a look on his face and a tear welled up as I was saying some things to him and I said, "That's it. That's William right there. Can you do that?" And he said, "yeah."

You remember, he was in that movie with Isabella Rossellini (Zelly and Me, 1988), so he's acted several times.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The Verdict" and "I Will Be Murdered" - Chicago International Film Festival

Koen De Bouw in "The Verdict" (Belgium)

Two films about justice - or lack of - are among the highlights of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. The Verdict from Belgium asks some tough questions about the legal system in that country, while I Will Be Murdered, a Spanish production, details a famous recent murder in Guatemala, bringing up numerous questions about the violence there; both films are highly recommended.

The Verdict, directed by Jan Verheyen, gets right to the point, as its opening titles are a quote from Albert Camus; "There is no justice, only limits." Our faith in the justice system will be sorely tested during this riveting film, a story of a successful businessman, Luc Segers (Koen de Bouw), who sees his wife brutally beaten and is in turn assaulted by the same criminal. He wakens from a coma a few weeks later to learn that his wife died in this attack. 

He identifies the suspect soon afterwards and the police arrest him. But a procedural error in the paperwork before the court means that the alleged criminal must be released. This is an outrage to Segers and the public in Belgium as well, as this story is reported on the evening news.

Segers has a difficult time dealing with the loss of his wife, as he focuses on seeing that justice is served. If the legal system has let him down, he will do whatever it takes to realize the criminal's guilt. The way he goes about this is the crux of this fascinating story and I won't give away any more plot details. 

On this level alone, The Verdict is an excellent film. But this movie tells two stories; the second being a look at the justice system in Belgium (and in reality, the justice system in many countries). How is it that a murderer can go free simply because of a procedural error? Yes, the film argues, there are regulations in place to protect suspects, but should someone who commits a brutal murder be allowed back into society because a lawyer forgot to sign a piece of paper?

Verheyen, who also wrote the excellent script, turns in a wonderful job of direction. He was undoubtedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock; this will be apparent from the overhead camera shots that isolate Segers and make him seem insignificant. Yet, this is not an instance of a director borrowing heavily on Hitchcock's visuals, as Verheyen has his own style. This is a beautifully directed film, especially in the courtroom scene that concludes the film. Each side's argument is carefully presented with great zeal as well as common sense; if you were on this jury, you really wonder what you would do. Incidentally, I love the way Verheyen presents the reading of the verdict, as the words of the chief judge are slowly drowned out as the sound is muted; we only hear cheers and boos in the courtroom after the decision is announced. We don't know for a few moments what that decision is - it's a marvelous scene.

Credit also to Johan Leysen as one of the lawyers in this film - his performance is mesmerizing. High marks also to the subdued score of Steve Willaert, the marvelous job of cinematography by Frank Van Den Eeden and the exqusite production design of Johan Van Essche; this is an outstanding technical production. 

While The Verdict is based on a fictional story, I Will Be Murdered is a documentary about a famous murder, in this case, about the death of Rodrigo Marzano in Guatemala in May, 2009. Marzano, a respcted attorney, recorded a video a few days before he was assassinated; that video, transferred to a CD, was passed out to mourners at his funeral. 

Marzano's message is political dynamite, as he claims that he was killed by the president of Guatemala, as he was researching a double murder that was carried out by hitmen; Marzano believe that the government may have had something to do with these deaths, so he recorded his video in which he states that anyone watching it would know that he blamed the government for his death.

This is a riveting film, directed by Justin Webster, that takes the form of a police investigation, but in this instance the whos and whys of the crime are looked into by an official of an organization set up by the United Nations to look into mysterious political situations such as this. Slowly this prosecutor, Carlos Castresana, pieces together the elaborate details of this bizarre case, talking to Marazno's son, chauffeur, best friend and several other individuals. As he discovers more and more details, the case becomes more mysterious and his final opinion on the events of this case are controversial, to say the least.

As with The Verdict, the system of justice and government come into question in I Will Be Murdered. The filmmaker supports Marzano's belief that violence is intertwined into the culture of Guatemala, so perhaps the government did kill Marzano, if only to shut him up. Then again, there really is no proof, so the final decision will probably catch the viewer off guard. There is a point made early on in the film that half of the Guatemalan people immediately believe the government was behind Marzano's murder, while the other half think it is a coup to try and overthrow the government. The answers are not so easy.

Both films deal with justice - one with a fictional story, the other with a true one. Both leave us wondering about the people that are sworn to protect us on an everyday basis. As one lawyer remarks in The Verdict, the main character was "let down by the legal system." Tough words to think about.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chicago International Film Festival - "The Harvest"

There are certain movies you just have to see. Maybe the cinematography is breathtaking or there's a bravura performance by a performer that will move you. Perhaps the music is unforgettable or the overall film is a great technical achievement.

Then there's a film such as The Harvest, the latest work from John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory). You have to see this film if only because you may not believe what you're seeing on the screen - and I mean that with great praise. This is one of the most bizarre stories I've ever seen and it's handled with great assuredness by McNaughton, who takes us on one wild ride. How else to describe a modern day horror/love story?

I can't even begin to describe what happens in this film and I certainly wouldn't want to give much away, so the little I can tell you about the plot deals with a young boy of about 12 years old named Andy (Charlie Tahan), who has a physical condition that has left him very weak (basically, he can't walk more than a few feet) and is limited to his bedroom, except when he joins his parents for dinner, as he maneuvers his wheelchair to the kitchen.

He lives in an isolated countryside setting along with his parents, Katherine, a medical doctor (Samantha Morton) and Richard, a registered nurse (Michael Shannon). They are his life support team and do what is necessary to improve the boy's condition.

One day, a young girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis), who is about the same age as Andy, moves into a house not far away. She is cared for by her grandparents, as her father recently passed away. As she is in a new place, she is understandably forlorn, as she misses her old friends.

One day, she sets out for a walk and finds the house where Andy is living. She sees him in his bed and Andy lets her in through the window, as he is both curious and in need of a friend his age. However, once Katherine discovers this, she clearly doesn't approve of Maryann being around and tells her so in no uncertain terms.

Why she doesn't approve is the basis of the story and as I said, I won't spoil anything in this review. The plot takes several turns, all the while pitting Katherine's strong will against the wishes of Maryann and her son to become friends.

There's a bit of dark humor here and there, but this is definitely not a comedy. McNaughton takes the material and finds all sort of oblique angles here and there, all the while keeping the action flowing. This may be a slightly offbeat story (OK, more than slightly), but it's a pleasure to watch the director at work here, teasing us with a shot of an open doorway or window that may or may not lead to safety.

What most people will be talking about after they see this film (apart from the plot) is the performance of Samantha Morton. There will be some that will say she is over the top, but I think she is wonderful in the role of a woman who slowly has been losing her sense of reality for some time. You can't take your eyes off of her in this film, that's for sure!

I'd love to write more about this film, but I don't want to reveal its secrets. Go see it - you won't forget The Harvest anytime soon! I loved the film, and while I am certain there will be some that think this is a bit absurd, I'm betting a lot of people will be discussing this work for quite some time - and in a positive way. John McNaughton, welcome back!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

War Horse - A re-evaluation

When I saw War Horse during its opening week of December, 2011, I recall liking the film very much. Yet, I didn't review the film at that time, probably as I was busy trying to see several other "big" films that month, released during the holiday season for Oscar consideration. Those other movies included The Artist, The Descendants, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, making it a pretty good month for cinema.

Maybe though, I didn't review the film as it didn't impress me as much when I thought about it a few days later. I was definitely moved by the beauty of the film as well as its message, but I was soon fascinated by a few of the other works I mentioned, especially Tinker Tailor, Hugo and The Artist.

But seeing a film a second time can be an eye-opening experience, no matter what Pauline Kael wrote many years ago. That was certainly true for me with War Horse when I recently saw it again for a second and third time. This is far from a great opus, as the film does have some problems, especially in certain parts of the screenplay. But it is immensely watchable and deeply moving and to me, this is a film that Steven Spielberg was born to direct.

I'm sure everyone by now knows the story of this film, that of a horse named Joey, a thoroughbred, who we follow from birth to a few years of age working on a British farm to a few years later, employed by the German army in World War One to pull tanks. Linked in spirit with this horse is a boy named Albert, who is a witness to Joey's birth (there is a marvelous image of Albert watching through a fence; we see his face framed by this, as in a portrait) and feels an emotional link with him, especially after his father buys the horse at auction. Joey the horse is the spirit that will drive Albert to discover that there are far greater things in life than simply existing.

The opening auction and the sequences where Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey, first at simple tasks and then, arduously, at wearing a harness and plowing a rock-strewn field (this set near Devon, England) are beautifully and precisely directed by Spielberg. When Albert's father Ted (Peter Mullan, in a very natural performance that is sadly underrated), sees that his son is having trouble getting Joey to move, so as to start plowing, he mutters, "It'll take the whip to move him." As he recites this line, Spielberg dollies on him, which is immediately followed by a cut to Albert's face, as we see that he realizes he must take the whip to his beloved horse. This coupling of father and son is a subtle moment, one that is very effective, especially as the son saves his father from financial ruin in this scene, much as the father opened up a new world for his son when he purchased the horse.

After some misfortune, Ted must sell Joey to a captain in the British cavalry, in order to save the farm; this over the protests of Albert. We follow Joey in his life as a war horse, from practice runs to actual battles in open fields against the Germans. The first battle in the story is magnificently directed, filmed and edited (by Spielberg and his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn) as we see the soldiers atop their horses rise up out of the wheat fields, first individually and then as a group (in some beautiful overhead and side shots). They take a German batallion by surprise at first, but are eventually overwhelmed; their defeat means that Joey and a few other horses that survived the carnage will now be working for the German army.

Throughout the film, Spielberg's compositions are first-rate. Along with the sequence described above, there is a striking sequence in which two young German soldiers who have left their ranks with Joey and another horse are captured and then shot. Spielberg films this scene from above, as we look down on a windmill the soldiers stand along side of. As the fatal shots from the firing squad are squeezed, one of the blades of the windmill covers our view of the young soldiers at their instant of death. It is truly a haunting image, one that has a powerful impact in its simplicity.

Another beautifully filmed scene is the gas attack in the trenches, as the British soldiers are completely taken by surprise. Kaminski shoots this so that the clouds of gas emerge rapidly in this claustrophobic environment, with the screen eventually turning to white. Is this white light a reflection of heaven, as these will be the final moments on earth for some of these young men? This scene, like the ones mentioned above, brilliantly display the random and sudden nature of the finality of war.

Kaminski certainly contributed a great deal to the overall effect of this film, his images varying from the sun-kissed hills of Devon to the dark earth tones of the battlefields. In keeping with the historical look of this work, the cinematographer - who has been Spielberg's director of photography since Schindler's List (1993) - has done his best to recreate the Technicolor images of the Golden Age of Hollywood. While I think he went too far at times with the dramatic, deeply saturated clouds, I will admit to being impressed with his filming of the final scene, complete with its hommage to Gone With the Wind, especially with the deep orange/russet skies. It's a marvelous moment, one that some may see as a bit over the top (especially critics who viewed this film as too sentimental), but I thought the visuals here were quite remarkable and perfectly fit the moment. (A note: Kaminski shot this movie with actual film and NOT with a digital camera. There's nothing wrong with someone using digital technology these days, even on the most expensive productions, but today when almost every film is shot via digital, it's refreshing to see that at least one great cinematographer continues to use film.)

War Horse generally received positive reviews (it's listed at 77% recommended by critics at the website Rotten Tomatoes), yet there were few raves about the film. Maybe the film wasn't serious enough for most critics; while a film about the brutality of World War One would seem to be a "weighty" subject, I'm guessing that most critics saw this as a story of a boy and his horse. In other words, this was a work that had some of the classic heartwarming overtones of many of Spielberg's works, a la E.T. or Empire of the Sun. Interestingly, Spielberg did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work on War Horse. When you consider that the two Best Director awards he did win - for Schindler's List and Saving Prviate Ryan (1998) were for "serious" war films, maybe the snub was not a surprise, given the human and his beloved animal angle. When you consider that he was nominated for Best Director for Lincoln the following year, it seems evident that the Academy - along with many critics - expect a virtuous film from Spielberg and will shower praise on him when he undertakes works of that tone. But make a "warm" film, well, that's not the Steven Spielberg those individuals fawn over.

This review is not to say that War Horse is a great film or even one of Spielberg's top three of four achievements. But it is a beautifully made, lovingly directed film that deserves a bit more respect than it's been awarded. Take another look at this film, as I did, and see what you think. At this particular point in his career, Steven Spielberg made a film he believed in and brought all of his skill and energy to this project; I think he succeeded admirably.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Film Noir - The View from a Devotée

Alan K. Rode

"People hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people." 
Alan Rode, member of the board of directors of the Film Noir Foundation

Recently in Chicago, I attended two films shown at the Noir City festival at the Music Box theatre. Before each screening, Alan K. Rode one of the programmers of the event, gave a brief introduction to the movie, detailing not only the plot and production details, but also the film's historical signifigance. Rode was extremely well prepared and organized; he is also a highly engaging speaker and his seven to ten-minute speeches were models on how these things should be done.

I spoke with him briefly before one of the films (The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948, Paramount, directed by John Farrow) and asked him if I could speak with him at greater length about his work as well as film noir in general. He graciously agreed and I spoke with him in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Tom Hyland: Is there a typical fan that attends these Film Noir festivals? Why do people come to see these films? Is it because they are starved for a well-crafted film considering all the garbage that dilutes movie screens these days? Is there an element of nostalgia? Or is there a dark side to all of us that we want to see on the big screen?

Alan Rode: I think it's a combination of all of them. Certainly at the Noir Festival in Palm Springs (Rode hosts the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival there), there is an older audience, so nostalgia is part of that. These are people that grew up watching these films.

It's really encouraging to see young people come to the films. But more so, people hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people. Scenes of men in fedoras or people talking on phones with big, clunky dials might be hard for modern audiences to understand, however the themes of treachery, lust and greed are viable in modern life. Everyone can identify with noir.

People can identify with a well-told story. They're tired of special effects. Hollywood has settled on a certain type of model and a certain type of audience.

Film noir was made during the post-World War Two years when America lost its innocence. People of different age groups are drawn to this.

Also, these films are 70 and 80 minutes long, unlike the two and two and a half-hour films of today. The makers of these film noirs told their stories with brevity and sharpness.

Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw in The Narrow Margin (1952, RKO), one of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: This may be a difficult, if not impossible question, but how do you define film noir?

AR: When you have a situation where people are doing something that is wrong and they know that it's wrong, but they do it anyway. 

There are other aspects, such as the immigrant directors that came to Hollywood to make these films, the photography - day for night - for example. Film noir is a combination of ingredients. 

It's not a genre, like a western or a musical, where you can identify it right away. Noir is like beauty - it's in the eye of the beholder. Noir does have some demarcation markers, from the 1940s to the 1960s. It's definitely a post war phenomenon.

TH: If a contemporary film wants to be known as a film noir, does it have to be set in the past?

AR: Noir is a style that people use in modern day films. It doesn't have to have a story that's set in 1937, as with Chinatown. In large measure, the strains of the noir style that we see in present day films originate from those timeless dark films from the classic noir era: Double Indemnity, LauraOut of the Past, to name a few. Many films have borrowed from those works and improved upon them.

Richard Conte and Jean Wallace in The Big Combo (1955, Allied Artists), another of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: Do you have a favorite line of dialogue from a film noir that offers classic wisdom or advice on life?

AR: In The Big Combo when Richard Conte says, "First is first and second is nobody." That line also describes Hollywood.

Also in The Killers (1946, Universal), at the beginning of the film outside the diner, the young man (played by Phil Brown, who later was Luke Skywalker's uncle in Star Wars) asks Burt Lancaster why two hitmen are going to kill him. "I did something once," is Lancaster's reply and we spend the rest of the film finding out what that was.

Thanks to Alan Rode for his time and his wonderful stories (a few of which I can't repeat here!). Rode has written a marvelous book on Charles McGraw, one of noir's greatest actors, entitled Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (see information here).

He is currently finishing a biography of the famed director, Michael Curtiz, who best-known for classic films such as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, also made film noir, the most notable being The Breaking Point (1950), his retelling of the Ernest Hemingway story To Have and Have Not, starring John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter. Rode calls it, "the last great film Curtiz made at Warner Brothers. Information about the book, Michael Curtiz: A Man For all Movies can be found here.)

Article ©Tom Hyland