Friday, December 28, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

I managed to find a theater yesterday that still had available seats for Peter Jackson's WWI documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. It was being presented as a special event, in select cinemas with a limited number of showtimes, and every theater I checked was sold out. I finally managed to find one, over an hour away, that had seats available. I'm glad I made the effort, because THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD is possibly the best film I've seen this year...certainly the most powerful.

The story behind this is that the Imperial War Museum commissioned Jackson (who is a huge WWI history buff) to make a documentary culled from their more than 100 hours of archival footage and 600 hours of interviews with British veterans.

They give him carte blanche to use whatever he wanted, however he wanted, and to tell whatever story about the war he wanted. Their only stipulation was that he had to use the footage in some unique or original way.

His solution was to use the footage as the starting off point to create a totally immersive experience that would put the viewer straight into history. He used state-of-the-art technology to stabilize, restore, and even colorize the footage, and added sound made up of new recordings of authentic artillery (again, culled from his personal collection of vintage WWI artillery) and hiring lip readers to translate visible on-screen speaking, which was then dubbed by English actors in the correct regional accents based on where the regiment hailed from.

Aside from the occasional dubbing, he made the decision not to use any narrator or historian voice over, and instead to use only the interview audio of actual veterans.

What an amazing film, capturing the experiences of WWI and told by the men who lived them. What Jackson does with the archival materials immerses you right into history.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This is a great collection of Western Tall Tales, as only the Coen brothers could tell them. There are no other directors working today with their obvious love of storytelling for its own sake. Here, they've crafted six unique stories set in a mythical version of the Old West, tied together by their exploration of the theme of death, ranging from the comic ("The Ballad of Buster Scruggs") to the ironic ("The Gal Who Got Rattled") to the downright morbid ("Meal Ticket"). 

The Coens have an incredible gift for creating richly-drawn characters, and these stories are populated by the types who are the stuff of Western legend, acted by a talented cast including Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Tyne Daily, and Saul Rubinek, among others. 

Visually, the film is stunning, with breathtaking cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel rendering the sprawling scale of the Western landscapes with painterly detail. There are some shots, particularly in the segment "All Gold Canyon", that are so rich that the images seem to pop right off the screen, aided by vibrant color that recalls the lush tones of the classic Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s. Also harking back to the classic Westerns is the rousing score by Carter Burwell, which perfectly evokes the majesty and epic qualities of the West.

There is some unevenness between the stories, which is understandable given that the project was initially commissioned by Netflix as a series. At some point, the decision was made to bring all of the segments together to create an anthology film, a kind of cinematic storybook. This approach works well enough, with each story given its own chapter in an on-screen book with accompanying illustrations to represent each tale. At a total running time of almost two-and-a-quarter hours, the segments could also be enjoyed individually, just as one might read a collection of short stories.

The Mule (2018)

I have not seen a new Clint Eastwood film since his last starring vehicle, GRAN TORINO, back in 2009. Almost a decade later comes his return as a star in this drama about a 90-year-old man who has fallen on hard times due to the economic collapse, and becomes a drug runner for a cartel in order to earn some cash.

If this plot sounds a bit far-fetched, keep in mind it was based on a true story that appeared in a NY Times Magazine article, so Eastwood's choice of this role is not entirely an exercise in vanity. It's just unfortunate, as is often the case with Hollywood films, that this incident, which reflects the difficulty of our times and the lengths that desperate people will go to in order to survive, is whittled down to its most trite, cliched, and predictable elements in the name of good storytelling.

The premise is that Eastwood has been an absent husband and father (missing seemingly every milestone in his family's lives) due to his passion for horticulture. It's never really explored at all why he couldn't find room for both in his life, or whether his love of horticulture was a stand-in for an inability to love and connect with those closest to him.

It is his fractured relationship with his family that sets the plot in motion, in one of the film's many highly-contrived scenes. Showing up at his granddaughter's engagement party, an argument erupts when his ex-wife and daughter find out he has been invited. Before he leaves, one of the guests -- a young man with family connections to a drug cartel -- senses that Eastwood is in financial trouble, and tells him of an opportunity to earn some money as a "mule", driving drug shipments for a cartel. Next thing you know, Eastwood is pulling into the garage that the dealers operate out of (in broad daylight, in what appears to be the middle of a busy suburban commercial area), in order to pick up his first load.

Everything goes well. A little too well, in fact, because eventually, Eastwood attracts the attention and respect of the cartel leader (who even brings him to his estate in Mexico for a big celebration). The problems begin when the cartel leader is assassinated, and Eastwood's new "handlers" have no patience for his rogue methods. On top of which, the FBI has been following these developments, and is zeroing in on their target and getting ready to drop the net.

These kinds of plot developments are typical of the film's problems, that rather than letting any situations develop at their own pace, every scene feels shoehorned to serve the narrative, and the growing implausibilities of the situations work against any kind of investment in the material. One aspect of Eastwood's character, never really explored, has him revealing his casual racism and sexism, and imply that perhaps his character is growing based on his interactions with different kinds of people for the first time.

However, some of these situations, such as his encounter with a black family stranded on the side of the road during one of his many trips, strain credibility that he could be quite so out-of-touch. As a result, his interaction with them feels false and hollow, there only to serve the purpose of some vague "character development" that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. (Also straining credibility are two scenes in which Eastwood's character engages in threesomes with women who appear to be a quarter of his age).

Still, Eastwood's sincere affection for his working-class characters is rare in American cinema. There is an interesting moment when he attends his granddaughter's graduation ceremony, but she is graduating from a cosmetics school rather than a university (in Hollywood, everyone seems to graduate from either Harvard or Yale). This fact is presented entirely without comment, and it's refreshing to see the pride and accomplishment of the graduates as they walk up to collect their certificates rather than being treated like a punchline. Similarly, a scene where Eastwood has paid for the renovation of the VFW hall for his fellow veterans and they come together in celebration, is touching.

That seems to be the central issue in THE MULE. Eastwood uses the severe economic plight of 2010s America as a backdrop for this Robin Hood story of a man who will do anything to provide for himself and set things right with his family, but does seem to be interested in the bigger picture of how conditions got to this point in the first place.

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

I've been meaning to write my thoughts down on this really remarkable film, which I saw on Netflix when it premiered back on November 2 of this year. It is a film that I feel I would need to re-visit in order to catch everything that is going on it, but I wanted to record these initial impressions before the end of the year.

It's very much a film of its moment (it's an evocative snapshot of Hollywood circa 1970 -- with cameos by the likes of Claude Chabrol, Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, and others), but also incredibly fresh and vibrant. It was also very "experimental" for Welles, I thought -- there were some psychedelic fantasy sequences that were absolutely mind-blowing, particularly in the film-within-a-film starring Oja Kodar. There were moments reminiscent of what Welles does in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. It was also very Altmanesque in terms of how Welles uses the ensemble cast converging on one location. Welles uses some familiar faces to great effect, fine character actors like Edmond O'Brien, Paul Stewart, Cameron Mitchell, Mercedes McCambridge, Lilli Palmer and, in one of the film's real revelations, an incredibly poignant performance by Norman Foster as the aging producer.

John Huston plays a hard-living, hard-drinking macho director of the old school, who is making a new film to demonstrate how "with it" he is in the Hollywood of the early '70s. The implication, revealed throughout the course of the film, is that Huston may be attracted to the handsome young male star of his film, and deals with Huston's frustration and resentment at being rebuffed by the young star, who walks off the picture and declines to attend Huston's 70th birthday party. Also explored is the relationship between Huston and a film critic-turned-successful director (played by Peter Bogdanovich), whose own success in this New Hollywood has surpassed that of his aging mentor, resulting in some very complicated frictions between the two of them (especially when Huston is forced to ask him for money to help complete his film).

Guiding some of these character dynamics is a female critic modeled on Kael, brilliantly played by Susan Strasberg. The men denigrate and deride her, but she sees past their macho posturings.

 I've been thinking about the film ever since I watched it, and it's remarkable just how layered and complex it is. Even more remarkable is how well all the threads come together for a film that was in limbo for so long.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Cleo Madison

Cleo Madison (1883-1964), pioneering film actress, screenwriter, producer, and director of 16 shorts and two features for Universal Pictures in 1915-16.

 Key films include Her Defiance (1916), Eleanor's Catch (1916), and Triumph of Truth (1916).

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Lule Warrenton

Pioneering filmmaker and actress Lule Warrenton (1862-1932) -- after a career on the stage, she began directing for Universal in 1916 where she had her own studio and gained a reputation as a strong director of children's films. She worked for Universal from 1913-1917 as both a director and actress (including several films with director Cleo Madison), and had a brief stint as an independent filmmaker before returning to acting at Universal. Warrenton left Universal in 1922 to join the San Diego Conservatory of Music and reportedly organized an all-female film company in San Diego.

Her son, Gilbert Warrenton, became one of Universal's top cameramen in the 1920s.


Ernestine Jones in WHEN LITTLE LINDY SANG (1916)

Monday, October 15, 2018

Film Review: Brotherhood of the Popcorn (2015)

Brotherhood of the Popcorn (2015) is a nostalgic, touching, and often warmly humorous portrait of "The Cliffhangers", a group of senior citizen film buffs who meet twice a month to screen their favorite classic films -- especially serials, Westerns and Film Noirs. A lively and entertaining documentary about a group of film buffs and their love of cinema, it has all the elements of a good film itself.

The film conveys the real sense of friendship that exists between the members of "The Clffhangers" themselves: Woody Wise, Eric Harrison, Bill Exter, Rocky Sportelli, Richard Mottern, Dennis Penna, Jack Tuerk, and Tim Walker. Over the course of the documentary, we learn about each of the men, about their lives and their passions, and what draws each of them to their love of cinema.

Watching how much film means to each of them, and how it has served as a driving force in their friendship over so many years, it is really a testament to cinema's power to convey timeless stories and larger-than-life images that stick in our memories over the years, and how much they mean to us in our lives.

Anyone who loves movies knows that a big part of the fun is watching them with other people and sharing that experience together, and that's why movie buffs will enjoy watching "The Cliffhangers" come together at Woody Wise's house, catching up over donuts and coffee, paging through classic movie magazines and reminiscing about their favorite films and stars, before settling in to Woody's screening room, with its own projector and big screen, and the walls decorated with vintage movie posters. It's hard to think of a better way to enjoy a movie then with your friends in your own private cinema.

Highlights of the documentary include an appearance by the late, great Peter O'Toole at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, and a visit to the Lone Pine Film Festival, where Woody Wise volunteers each year as projectionist. This is probably my favorite segment of the film, showing off the unique landscape and breathtaking vistas of the Alabama Hills in the area, which have been used as a filming location in countless Hollywood Westerns over the years. Watching that segment of the film makes me want to visit Lone Pine myself someday!

I should mention that although Brotherhood of the Popcorn was released back in 2015, it took me a while to catch up with this film. I'm glad that I finally did. I rented it to stream on Vimeo a few months ago and recently found myself wanting to watch it again. It still captivates on repeat viewings.

Ultimately, Brotherhood of the Popcorn succeeds as a beautiful tribute to the magic of movies.

Brotherhood of the Popcorn was produced by Predator Productions, directed by Inda Reid and executive produced by Woody Wise. Visit the official website here. You can buy the movie digitally to stream on Vimeo here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): An Appreciation

I wrote this article in November 2015 for a friend's independent film zine in Brooklyn. It is an account of my re-visiting David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in 70mm -- for the eighth time -- at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, during the summer of 2015.


On a warm summer night in August, I made the trek out to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens for what would be my eighth time seeing David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia projected in 70mm. The Museum of the Moving Image was having a festival of 70mm films called “See it Big!” and even after having seen Lawrence seven times previously in that format over the years, I knew that I could not pass up the chance to see it again.

I settled into my seat and as the opening timpani beats of Maurice Jarre's overture rolled out across the theater, I was overcome with a sense of familiarity toward the experience. Even though I was sitting in a theater in Queens in 2015, mentally I was transported back to my very first viewing -- which remains perhaps the single most powerful moviegoing experience of my life.

I had come across Lawrence of Arabia almost by chance in the fall of 2002. I was still living in Maryland, just 18 years old and recently enrolled college. Living only an hour away, I began to get out and explore more of the movie options that Baltimore City had to offer. The Senator showed mostly first-run movies, but occasionally played classics. An historic theater dating from 1939, it remains a beautiful venue and a great place to see movies on the big screen. I saw that Lawrence of Arabia was playing there soon and so I ventured down to the theater to check it out. I had never seen the film before, aside from a few snippets here and there, and I felt that I owed it to myself to see it properly, since it was being shown in 70mm.

I was not prepared for what a totally overwhelming experience it would be. I had never seen a movie that big before, one that seemed to present a larger-than-life world that existed beyond the confines of the screen. As a budding filmmaker, I was in awe of David Lean's direction – in fact, I had difficulty imagining how one man could “direct” such a massive production. I still do, actually. Imagine looking through the viewfinder of the camera and seeing the seemingly endless desert landscapes and thousands of extras! I was so moved by the experience that I went back to see the film four more times during its run, dragging everyone I could get to come along with me to see it.

Flash forward five years to the fall of 2007. By this time I had graduated from film school and started making films of my own. I saw that Lawrence of Arabia would be returning to the Senator, in all its 70mm glory. I ended up going to see it twice during this run, remaining just as overwhelmed by it as I had been the first five times. It was an experience that felt very familiar to me – especially seeing it in the same theater – but this did not lessen the impact film had on me. If anything, it strengthened it and I found myself thinking about how much the film meant to me -- how much it inspired me.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I prepared to see Lawrence of Arabia for the eighth time. A lot had changed in my own life in the eight years since I had last seen the film. I had moved to New York and was working in the distribution end of the film business, while continuing to make my own films. I couldn't help reflecting on all the changes that had occurred in my own life as I listened, with my eyes closed, to the familiar music of the overture booming throughout the theater. As the house lights came down and the curtain opened, I found myself once again drawn into David Lean's masterpiece.

This time, however, it played like a familiar memory rather than the totally overwhelming, visceral experience it had been for me in the past. The film is certainly just as impressive as ever. I don't mean to suggest that my opinion of it has lessened in the intervening years. After all, the film hasn't changed; I have. It's difficult to put my finger on, but perhaps the experience of seeing the film has dulled somewhat due to my familiarity with it. But my reaction did serve to remind me how our circumstances, and the place that we are at in our lives at the time we see a certain movie, can affect our reactions as much as anything about the film itself. I look forward to my next encounter with Lawrence of Arabia at some future date so that I may see how it holds up for me at that point of my life.

One thing is certain: when I do re-visit the film, it will have to wait until I have the opportunity to see it projected in 70mm again. Seeing Lawrence of Arabia in that format remains one of the defining moments of my life, giving me a whole new appreciation for the presentation of movies, and inspiring me in my own work. Even though I own copies of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, it is one movie that I cannot imagine watching anywhere than on the big screen – the way it was meant to be seen. To see it any other way would be like watching a different film.

Thanks to Ben Hozie for permission to re-print this article here.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Cecil B. DeMille's Film Style

CECIL B. DeMILLE (1881-1959)
One of the true pioneers of the American film industry and the cinema's ultimate showman, Cecil B. DeMille helped put Hollywood on the map with THE SQUAW MAN (1914), pioneered the use of high-contrast lighting in THE CHEAT (1915), played a pivotal role in the founding of Paramount Pictures (and became the studio's first head of production), his THE KING OF KINGS (1927) had -- at one time -- been seen by more people than any other film, and his most famous film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) is still run on American TV each year.

DeMille's critics have, at different times, held him up as an emblem of commercial Hollywood filmmaking at its most crass and overblown, whose films may be seen as tacky, vulgar, campy, old-fashioned, theatrical, and so on. And on a personal level he has been criticized for his rough treatment of actors, his right-wing politics during the McCarthy era, and his religious hypocrisy.

But whatever criticisms can be made against DeMille's films, it cannot be denied that he knew how to create great and memorable images.

I was recently going through the flood sequence of Michael Curtiz' DeMille-inspired NOAH'S ARK (1928), trying to find an image I could freeze frame and pull to illustrate my write-up of that movie. As I went through each shot, I could not find a single one that could stand on its own as a great image. Added up, sure, the sequence is impressive enough, but when you begin to look at how it's put together, it becomes clear that Curtiz was throwing a lot of coverage shots together hoping they'd stick. Curtiz could imitate but it never feels like the real thing, never adds up to anything other than an imitation.

DeMille, on the other hand, had a clear vision and purpose for every image that he put into his films. When you look at a sequence like the parting of the Red Sea in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, you can find numerous images that work on their own, which also add up to create a cohesive and spectacular whole. Many of the criticisms of his work remain perfectly valid, but running throughout that work is a cohesive artistic vision that was all DeMille's own.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Hollywood Party (1934)

This chaotic mess of a film took over a year to complete, with eight directors (including Richard Boleslawki, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Chuck Reisner, Roy Rowland, Sam Wood, and George Stevens) taking turns at the helm. Jimmy Durante plays as a Tarzan-like jungle movie star who throws a big party in order to convince Baron Munchausen (Jack Pearl) to let him use his real lions in his next picture and add some real thrills to it for a change. Polly Moran, Charles Butterworth, Eddie Quillan and June Clyde are among the cast who appear in the various scattered threads of the plot, which is peppered with cameos by Robert Young, The Three Stooges, and even Mickey Mouse, in an animated sequence provided by Walt Disney. Incredibly, the whole thing was shot by the great James Wong Howe, whose talents were certainly wasted here.

 Laurel and Hardy steal the picture when they show up toward the end to deliver the lions, and quickly become engaged in an egg-breaking battle of tit-for-tat with Lupe Velez. This sequence, the highlight of the film, was directed by their old cameraman George Stevens, whose masterful handling of comedy is evident in giving Velez and The Boys room to perform the routine without any unnecessary intrusions. It says so much about Laurel and Hardy's incredible gifts for comedy that they could do more with a little scene like this than MGM could with all of its mighty resources poured into the film.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Film vs. Movie

I was recently began teaching a course on the history of film at a local university. A friend asked whether I make a distinction between a “film” and a “movie” when discussing the subject.

I knew what he meant by this: the idea that a “film” is something to be taken seriously, something worthy of being studied, while a “movie” is something essentially disposable, lightweight, for entertainment only.

Thinking for a moment, I replied that, no, I do not make such a distinction, and that, if anything, I take very much the opposite point of view when discussing cinema. Rather than drawing an arbitrary distinction between a so-called serious “film” and a frivolous “movie”, I prefer to take the approach that all films are equally valid, and worth considering on their own terms.

This, of course, is not to argue that all films are equally successful, only that as works of art, they deserve to be viewed and considered on their own terms. A phrase that I often use is, “a movie is a movie”; meaning that, whatever else their individual merits, all of these works are part of the rich tapestry of cinema, and should be allowed to speak for themselves.

To illustrate how detrimental imposing such limiting viewpoints can be, consider the large number of films that were embraced and acclaimed upon their initial release, but have seen their reputations slip in subsequent years, usually due to a shift in the artistic or social values that the film represents. Or alternatively, think about how many films are widely cherished today that may have been ignored or dismissed when they first appeared.

Shifts in critical consensus reflect a change in values, and these shifts ultimately reveal how fleeting such values are.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

For Heaven's Sake (1926)

One of Harold Lloyd's more lightweight features (running just under an hour), but also one of his funniest. Lloyd plays a wealthy idler who inadvertently helps a minister save his struggling mission, and quickly becomes invested in his newfound philanthropic venture after falling in love with the minister's daughter.

Though there are plenty of good gags throughout, this plot serves largely as a setup to the impressive chase sequence that occupies nearly the final third of the film. Filled with breakneck stunts, expertly-staged car chases, and enough gags for two or three movies, it's easily one of Lloyd's best set pieces.

In addition to the brilliance of the comedy, one also has to appreciate the brilliance of the filmmaking, especially Walter Lundin's shimmering cinematography. Directed by Sam Taylor. Written by John Grey, Ted Wilde, Clyde Bruckman, and Ralph Spence (titles). With Jobyna Ralston, Noah Young, Paul Weigel, James Mason.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Hail Caesar (2016): A Hollywood Fable

I watched HAIL CAESAR, the most recent theatrical film by the Coen Brothers, again last night, this time on my 100" screen in my basement theater. It's a movie that I fell in love with instantly the first time I saw it, even though it took me a second viewing to really get adjusted to just why I loved it so much.

Released to mixed critical reviews and frequently negative audience response, HAIL CAESAR is, to me, one of the very best of all of the Coen brothers' films, a loving tribute to the magic of movies. The episodic plot follows a day in the life of a harried studio executive, brilliantly played by Josh Brolin, as he struggles to bring to completion the studio's big Biblical epic "Hail Caesar", after its star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and held for ransom by a group calling itself "The Future", all the while dealing with his stable of eccentric stars and their various personal problems in order to maintain equilibrium behind the scenes of his Dream Factory.

More than most films dealing with the movie industry, HAIL CAESAR explores the religious aspect that movies can play in our lives, and the power that they have to shape our dreams and our vision of ourselves. The film is set in the early 1950s at that moment just when the seams were really beginning to show at the edges of the Movie Capital of the World, and directors like Billy Wilder were beginning to explore the seamy side of Tinseltown in films like SUNSET BLVD. This image of a Hollywood gone to seed has been mined before in films like LA CONFIDENTIAL, HOLLYWOODLAND and even Tim Burton's ED WOOD, but the Coens approach it with a deft combination of lightness and grandeur that beautifully contrasts the tangled web of behind-the-scenes goings-on at the studio, and the projected illusion of fantasy that we continue to believe in.

The brilliance here lies in the fact that the Coens convey this magic through the use of movie archetypes in the characters in situations, and by structuring the film around the production of a biblical epic about an arrogant Roman officer who is blinded by faith after encountering the face of Jesus. By extending the religious metaphor to the power of film itself, the Coens create one of the medium's most insightful commentaries on itself.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Borderline (1950)

A pair of narcotics agents, unaware of each other's identities, go undercover in Mexico to bring down a big-time drug smuggler. A light little crime drama from Universal-International, with lively performances by MacMurray and Trevor as the agents, and a suitably menacing turn by Burr as the smuggler they're after.

Starring Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor, Raymond Burr. Directed by William A. Seiter. Seen on PizzaFlix 6/1/18.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The Lion's Den: New Independent Comedy from Ben Hozie

My friend and fellow independent filmmaker Ben Hozie has just released his latest film, the "video comedy of errors" THE LION'S DEN, available for free streaming on vimeo. This is a very funny and on-point satire about a group of Staten Island revolutionaries who plan to kidnap a high-power corporate CEO, but instead pick up a low-level accountant by mistake. And that's just the beginning, as the group of radicals begins to devolve into in-fighting and romantic jealousies.

You can learn more about Ben's other film projects at his website, Pretorius Pictures.

Check out THE LION'S DEN here, and support truly independent filmmaking!

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Phantom Lady (1944)

PHANTOM LADY is an atmospheric little thriller from Universal in 1944, directed with great visual flourish by Robert Siodmak. The premise is intriguing: a man's wife has been murdered, and the only person who can provide a concrete alibi for his whereabouts at the time -- an unknown female companion wearing a distinctive hat -- has completely vanished into thin air; even the witnesses who remember the man's presence in the bar, in the cab, etc. the night before swear that he was alone. When he is sentenced for his wife's murder, time starts running out to identify the woman and clear the husband's name.

This is the kind of sleek, economical picture the studios could do so well in the '40s, with the pistons firing on all cylinders -- unpretentious yet stylish, with a good cast and a smart script. Franchot Tone delivers a good performance with tongue just enough in cheek to suggest he doesn't take the proceedings too seriously, while Ella Raines and Alan Curtis make an appealing and earnest leading pair. There's a fun nightclub number, too, performed by Aurora Miranda (Carmen's sister). And Elisha Cook Jr. is in top form as a sleazy jive band drummer -- in one scene, he pounds away feverishly at his drumkit, obscenely stroking away so furiously that he appears on the verge of either a heart attack or an orgasm.

Friday, April 20, 2018

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema by Ira Gallen

Ira Gallen's study of the early career of D.W. Griffith is one of the finest books on the subject of film published in recent years, and certainly one of the most thorough published about the complex, often contradictory, still controversial man who did more than any other figure to advance the art of film in the medium's formative years.

Gallen, a film & TV historian, collector, and archivist, has done tremendous work in recent years in championing Griffith's legacy, between authoring this book, and editing Seymour Stern's writing on Griffith's still-extremely controversial masterwork, The Birth of a Nation, which must certainly rank as one of the most important contributions to silent film scholarship. (He also has posted a number of videos of Griffith's Biograph shorts on his YouTube channel, contributing a valuable online archive of Griffith's early films.)

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is focused on Griffith's early life and his career in film up through his final year at Biograph. By concentrating his study on this, the most fertile period of Griffith's career, Gallen provides a comprehensive overview of the innovations that the director was making in leaps and bounds during those years. This study, which contains analyses and production histories of key Biograph short subjects, clearly establishes Griffith's contributions to the development of film grammar, without either the hyperbolic and exaggerated claims that have been made in Griffith's favor in the past, or the tendency in recent years to downplay Griffith's contributions in favor of shining a (deserved) light on the achievements of other directors of the period.

The final sections of the book contain details about Griffith's producing arrangement with the Aitken brothers, which resulted in The Birth of a Nation, and a scrapbook of photos from the Biograph company. Gallen also includes commentary on Griffith's legacy from leading film historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Arthur Lennig, and addresses the cowardly and shameful removal of Griffith's name from the DGA's career achievement award in 1999, solely on the basis of the racism of The Birth of a Nation. Sadly, such an act seems somehow appropriate given the film industry's shabby treatment of Griffith during much of his own lifetime as well.

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is a first-rate piece of film scholarship that does justice to the complexity and importance of its subject, and Gallen is to be commended for his in-depth study of this master filmmaker's formative years, which are really the formative years of the art of cinema.

Buy the book at Barnes and Noble:

Ira Gallen's Website:

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Schindler's List, Gilliam, Porter

I watched SCHINDLER'S LIST tonight for what I realized was the first time in 21 years, the last time being when it aired, uncut, on NBC in 1997. I had picked up the DVD recently on a trip to Barnes & Noble, and was interested in revisiting the film as I've re-watched many of Spielberg's films in the past few years. I don't know why it's taken me so long to come back to this one, though. It's undoubtedly one of the strongest works in Spielberg's filmography -- powerful and moving while only very occasionally (near the end of the film) moving toward the kind of manipulative sentimentality that often mars his work. Technically it's brilliant, and in terms of the ideas, certainly one of Spielberg's most sophisticated (and sincere) films.

I remembered that Terry Gilliam had criticized SCHINDLER'S LIST for what he saw as Spielberg's neat and reassuring conclusion to the events of the film, and quoted Stanley Kubrick as saying that SCHINDLER'S LIST “is about success. The Holocaust was about failure”.

Without disputing his point, I'm not sure it's fair to criticize Spielberg for not making the film that Kubrick would have made.

There's also a very powerful visual touch -- the young girl in the red coat seen early on in the film, whose reappearance later on is made all the more visceral by the standalone use of color. This device recalls Edwin S. Porter's use of the hand-colored red coat worn by a little girl in his film, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, where the selective use of color was also an effective form of visual punctuation.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Christine (2016)

As most viewers going into the film are presumably familiar -- as I was -- with the tragic story of news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on live television, CHRISTINE works in reverse, looking back from rather than leading up to its conclusion (which, crucially, is tastefully portrayed with a sobering matter-of-factness).

Perhaps because of this, the film rises or falls on its depiction of Christine, and thankfully, Rebecca Hall turns in a fine performance that fully works to center the film and hold it all together. She brilliantly conveys the pain and frustration of the aspiring news anchor's personal and professional struggles.

Especially poignant is the moment in which Christine learns that her colleague has received the promotion which she desired so strongly for herself. It's a heartbreaking moment, for sure, but Hall plays it with an astonishing restraint and honesty that makes it all the more painful to watch.

Currently streaming on Netflix.


Friday, April 06, 2018

Pocket cameras, 3D

After writing about Sony's Bloggie 3D camera the other day, it occurred to me that these kinds of pocket camcorders are quickly becoming a thing of the past due to the ubiquity of smartphone cameras. That's understandable, but I hope they don't go away completely. The Bloggie that I have was listed as out-of-stock even when I first began looking into getting one three years ago.

I currently have a smartphone that I use mostly for work, and while it has a nice camera on it, I find it less convenient to use than a pocket camcorder. For one thing, the storage space fills up more quickly, and getting the video off of it can be a bit of a hassle, but overall I can certainly see why most people would be perfectly content to use the smartphone as an all-purpose still- and video-camera.

Still, I hope that the market for these pocket camcorders holds on. I remember the first one that I ever bought, back in 2009, when I was making the switch to shooting in HD. I didn't want to spend a small fortune on an HD camcorder when I wasn't quite sure what to do with the format yet, so I bought one of those cheap Aiptek cameras at Best Buy. I can't recall how much I paid for it now, but I believe it was less than $100, maybe even less than $75. The only things I didn't care for about it were the fact that it had a very close lens (which I was able to workaround by adding my own attachment for a wide-angle adapter), and the fact that it had absolutely no image stabilization whatever, which made it almost impossible to get decent handheld shots. Other than that, it was the perfect transitional camera when I began shooting in HD.

My modified Aiptek with wide angle lens attachment (2009).

I also had one of those MiniHD Flip cameras for a short time, which I had been given as a gift, but I can't say I used it very often. It was a very convenient little pocket camera from what I recall, and it came in very handy for filming a conference presentation I gave at NYU around the time I had received the camera. Unfortunately, it seems that the battery began to fail rather quickly, and I could no longer re-charge it via the USB stick. The Flip cameras were discontinued not long after I had received mine -- no doubt another casualty of the Smartphone market.

The Sony Bloggie 3D works great, though, and after looking into some new editing software, I'm drawn to the idea of starting to shoot more 3D footage. YouTube used to automatically convert the left/right images into anaglyph 3D, but did away with that feature, so I now have to figure out how I can do that with the editing software I have (although it looks like I'm going to have to upgrade that in order to be able to do so. I love the idea of having the option to record in 3D on a regular basis. I'm hoping to put together a new short film project this summer and, if I can get the technical issues sorted out, would like to make it my first short film in 3D. The little Bloggie will be getting a good workout on that project, I'm sure!

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Day for Night, Cinema is King

I screened a clip of the "Cinema is King" montage from Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT and was struck once again by how well it captures the joy and triumph when the making of a film comes together. Godard attacked Truffaut for romanticizing and sugarcoating the filmmaking process. I still find DAY FOR NIGHT more resonant of my own experiences on making my own small little movies, than any other film on the subject (Tim Burton's ED WOOD comes close, actually). In contrast, I found Godard's take on the process in CONTEMPT to be a little too jaded and cynical. While I have no doubt Godard was sincere in his attitude toward the process, it doesn't ring as true for me as the joyful sense that Truffaut conveys so well in his film. With Truffaut, there is no doubt that -- for him -- cinema is king.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


I began watching Scorsese's HUGO again the other night on DVD. It's a film I want to like a lot more than I do. It fell flat for me even when I saw it in its 3D presentation and theaters, and a subsequent viewing on Netflix did little to improve my overall impression of it.

Still, there are some moments that really work. The re-creations of Georges Melies' studio and the making of his films are vivid and work quite nicely. I could watch those scenes again and again.

There is a really odd moment somewhere toward the middle of the film, when the two children take a journey through the history of film. Scorsese puts the film on hold while he delves in to an appreciation of the magic and power of cinema. It's obviously a highly personal moment for Scorsese, and there's no denying that there is something powerful about the sequence, but it still stands out quite sharply, almost like a scene from another movie.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Godard, Sony Bloggie 3D

Jean-Luc Godard filming with the Bloggie 3D camera
I had received one of these little cameras as a Christmas present a few years, and still love using it. I believe they went on the market back around 2010 or 2011, and by the time I had got mine, the cameras had apparently already been discontinued by Sony, so they're harder to come by now.

I was thrilled to learn about the options for budget 3D cameras on the consumer market,and the Sony Bloggie 3D produces a nice image. Up until a few months ago, you could view the footage in 3D by uploading it to YouTube and watching it with red/green 3D glasses, but they have since disabled this function. The nice thing about the camera is that you can toggle between 3D and 2D filming options. I use the latter just as often, because the camera's size and light weight makes it the perfect pocket camcorder to take on trips or just carry around in your pocket.

Browsing the web last night, I came across this image of Jean-Luc Godard using one of these cameras, presumably during the shooting of his 2014 3D film Goodbye to Language. I love that this most innovative of filmmakers continues to find new ways to use consumer tools.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

I saw Spielberg's new film, Ready Player One, on its opening night. There's rarely any film that attracts me enough to see it on the day of its release, and I have zero interest in the current crop of slick, overproduced, corporate blockbusters, and about the same amount of interest in video games. But I was interested enough to see what Spielberg had done with the material.

Set in the near future, it deals with a lonely young man who spends his days inside the fantasy world of an immersive role-playing video game. His only friends are his virtual ones, and his life experiences are limited to being tethered to the virtual reality station. When he begins to fall in love with a female avatar in the game, and has to stop an evil corporate scumbag from hijacking control of the entire game for his own nefarious purposes, the lines between reality and virtual reality begin to blur.

This is another one of these science fiction stories reflecting the anxieties of our obsession with technology, our loss of humanity within the fantasy worlds created by social media, the stunted development of generations raised perpetually plugged-in to electronics and glued to screens, etc. None of it is explored in any real depth here, and the ending is too facile in its dealing with any of these ideas to offer much to think about afterward.

It's a little difficult to buy any such idea from this film, anyway, when it's obviously conceived as an escapist withdrawal into the world of '80s and '90s pop culture nostalgia. The result is such a hodge podge that you come away from it feeling a little dazed.

I will say that I enjoyed it considerably more than his previous film, The Post, which is Spielberg at his safest and most ossified, and totally predictable, yet -- perhaps like the nostalgia mined in Ready Player One -- there can be something oddly comforting in that.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Mystery Liner (1934)

I came across this little Monogram thriller -- based on an Edgar Wallace story about an ocean liner that is being controlled remotely -- last night on one of the public domain Roku channels. It was just over an hour long and looked like the perfect thing to watch late at night before bed.

One thing that always strikes me about these Poverty Row productions of the '30s is how often it appears that every scene was shot only in a master shot, presumably due to scheduling issues. And not only that, but that you can sometimes see the actors hesitating or pausing between lines, or starting to speak over each other, as if a re-take was called for but the time and budget didn't allow for one. It gives these movies a pace and feel all their own, one that is really accentuated when watching them late at night.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a brilliant satire -- funny, touching, surprisingly honest and profound. It follows a well-off, upper-middle-class Southern California couple who return from a New Age retreat changed by the experience -- or so they think. The couple uses the teachings of the encounter group as an excuse to escape their comfortable middle class trappings and explore their muddled, newfound ideas of "sexual freedom" by cheating on each other, but are finally forced to confront the emptiness of their new pursuits when they bring another couple -- their best friends -- in to the experience with them.

At first, it seems that Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice could be a freewheeling sex comedy taking advantage of the new permissiveness of the late '60s. But soon something sadder, more desperate, more neurotic comes through. The brilliance of Mazursky's approach involves using such attractive characters who seem to have it all, which makes their supposed "enlightened" attitudes toward sex all the more seductive. Interestingly, both Bob and Carol defend and justify their infidelities by describing them as empty experiences. Although both characters eventually seem satisfied with this justification, it does eventually raise the question: if it is such an empty experience, just what exactly is the point?

That is the question that the two couples are forced to face at the end of the film, which provides them with the realization they have been seeking. As the song says, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love."

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Sower (1850)

These farm scenes in Griffith's A CORNER IN WHEAT (1909) -- modeled after Millet's "The Sower" (1850) -- were shot in Jamaica, Queens. I loved that this shot turns up in WALL-E (2008) as an artifact of planet Earth for people of the future.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Streaming: "Desk Set" and "Rashomon"

I recently watched a couple of films on streaming. The first was Desk Set, available on Netflix through the end of January. I thought I had seen this one a few years ago, but apparently not, as it was definitely new to me. I suppose I was just familiar with the premise and could imagine how it played out so that it felt like I'd seen it.

Desk Set is one of the last Tracy-Hepburn pairings. Tracy plays an eccentric computer engineer who has come to the research department of a big TV network in order to install his machine to streamline the research process, and Hepburn is the brilliant, long-time head of research who sees the computer as a threat to her future at the company. The plot is pure romantic comedy silliness, although Hepburn and Tracy certainly lend the material a certain charm and dignity that always keeps things interesting. Most striking is the use of big splashy DeLuxe color and enormously wide CinemaScope framing, in which characters can become practically lost when watching the film on the small screen. The computer-as-villain is sort of an interesting counterpart to the usual TV-as-villain trope that appeared in Hollywood films of the time. All in all, an enjoyable if forgettable trifle, acted by two first-rate stars.

Next up was Akiro Kurosawa's Rashomon. Unfortunately the version I saw on the streaming channel I was watching (MyRetroFlix on the Roku device) cut off after an hour, but I was so thoroughly engrossed in the film that I had to pull out my DVD copy to watch the remaining half hour. I had last seen this one about ten years ago, in a beautiful 35mm restoration on the big screen of a local historic movie theater. Watching it on the small screen couldn't compare to that, of course, and yet I found myself more struck than ever by what an incredibly beautiful film it is. I do not use that term loosely; I watched transfixed by the power of the images Kurosawa captures, especially those shots looking up through the trees, with the sunlight poking through between the branches. And that torrential rainfall, pouring down over the roof of the structure where three men debate the different testimonies heard at the trial that frames the narrative of the film -- what an image! So haunting, so lyrical.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 10: Current Film Culture -- Baltimore Film History Series

Final part of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing how Baltimore's film culture has changed since he first became involved with it during the 1960s.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 9: George Figgs & The Orpheum Cinema -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part nine of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the importance of Baltimore's Orpheum Cinema.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 8: Filmtalk Series -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part eight of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the Filmtalk series at Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 7: Film Scholars -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part seven of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing film scholars based in Baltimore and film education in the area during the 1960s-80s.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 6: Baltimore Film Festival -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part six of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the early history of the Baltimore Film Festival.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 5: Film Exhibition & Festivals -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part five of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the Baltimore Film Forum's relationship with the independent film industry including exhibitors and film festivals.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 4: Baltimore Film Forum -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part four of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the Baltimore Film Forum.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 3: John Waters and Stan VanDerBeek -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part three of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing filmmakers John Waters and Stan VanDerBeek.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

I had the opportunity to see John Huston's film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tonight on the big screen, thanks to the Fathom Events series which brings classic Hollywood films back to theaters for select engagements. I mention this because such a thing would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten, years ago -- that you could go to your local megaplex and there, alongside the latest blockbusters, have a chance to see one of the great films of Hollywood's Golden Age right there in a state-of-the-art theater.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a film that I would count among my favorites. It is certainly one of the bleakest films to come out of the Hollywood studio system, with its story of three men torn apart by greed and paranoia. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his very best performances as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American in Mexico who teams up with a couple of his displaced fellow countrymen -- Curtin, a laborer (Tim Holt) and Howard, a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) -- for a gold prospecting expedition in to the hills. It is Howard who plants the seed of this idea in to the minds of Dobbs and Curtin, but he also warns them of all the dangers that come with it, not least of all the temptation to keep accumulating more and more gold -- a compulsion that, like a gambler on a winning streak, often results in losing it all.

Sure enough, the men do strike gold, but it's not long before their suspicions begin to get the better of them, and they find that despite having to do battle with bandits, wild animals, and the elements, the greatest danger they face is their own human nature.

John Huston adapted the script from the novel by the elusive B. Traven (who supposedly worked on the film as a technical advisor under an alias), and took the unusual (for the time) step of shooting portions of the film on location in Mexico, which certainly lends it an air of authenticity and grittiness missing from most studio films of the period. The sense of atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Ted McCord's excellent cinematography, which masterfully contrasts between the unrelenting brightness of the hot day sun, and the menacing shadows of the dark night. Max Steiner delivers a typically fine score, though -- as others have similarly noted -- it is sometimes a little too grand, a little too bombastic, in a way that works against the realism that Huston works to achieve in other aspects of the film.

In addition to Bogart, mention has to be made of Walter Huston's wonderful performance. He brings an impish sense of humor and world-weary wisdom to his role as the voice of reason among the three men. Tim Holt has perhaps the best role of his career (with the possible exception of his George Minafer in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons) as the honorable young prospector who finds himself at the mercy of Bogart's increasingly paranoid and violent behavior, and Bruce Bennett brings just the right balance of sympathy and menace to his brief role as a Texas prospector who intrudes, fatally, on the group's venture. Another standout performance in the film is Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit Gold Hat, who manages to be extremely intimidating by oscillating between jocularity and threatening outbursts in his dealings with the prospectors. (He also gets the film's iconic line of dialogue, when asked to show his badge.)

In retrospect, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an interesting transitional film -- on the one hand, it's very much a film in the Classic Hollywood tradition, a studio picture and a starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. But it is also a sign of things to come, with its personal authorial vision from writer-director John Huston, to its use of Realism in favor of Big Studio gloss, and the existentialist nature of its conclusion. If there is a precedent for Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the American cinema, it is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, a film it resembles in both theme and imagery. When Bogart's unshaven, dusty Dobbs walks his burro through the sparse, barren fields, collapsing of heat exhaustion, toward his ill-fated destiny, it brings to mind the protagonist of Greed, stranded without water in Death Valley, handcuffed to his murdered rival, his dead mule lying beside him as he awaits his own inevitable fate.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserves to be seen on a big screen, where the full scope of the cinematic canvas that John Huston uses so brilliantly can be seen in all its glory.

Marc Sober Interview Part 2: Baltimore Film Culture -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part two of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the film culture of Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Marc Sober Interview Part 1: Theaters & Johns Hopkins Film Society -- Baltimore Film History Series

Part one of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing Baltimore movie theaters and the early days of the Johns Hopkins Film Society.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wall Street (1987)

A stinging indictment of unbridled, corrupt capitalism that, like so many social critiques, seems to only become ever more relevant with age. Oliver Stone creates a taut crime thriller with this rise-and-fall story about an ambitious young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) who becomes seduced by the instant gratification and big rewards of insider trading, but quickly gets in over his head when he finds himself an unwitting part of a plot that would destroy the company his working-class father has devoted his life to.

Although Michael Douglas' performance is rightly the one that everyone remembers, the quiet dignity that Martin Sheen brings to his role as the union leader father is a remarkable performance in its own right. Stone populates his supporting cast with top actors including Terence Stamp, James Spader, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Hal Holbrook, James Karen, John C. McGinley, Saul Rubineck, among others, who make the most of their roles. Robert Richardson's enthralling moving camerawork brings you right in to the frenzied world of the trading floor and effectively conveys the sense of money-fueled mania.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Charles Laughton and "The Night of the Hunter"

CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the most thorough and revealing looks into the making of a film that I've yet seen. It provides a fascinating look at the different takes of each scene and how Laughton coached the actors through them. It's like watching the movie take shape before your very eyes.

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is such an utterly unique film that I've often wondered what specific influences may have shaped its style. With this in mind, it was interesting to learn that during pre-production, Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez spent a good deal of time at MoMA watching silent films for inspiration, many of them early films by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish.

The influence of silent film acting relates directly to something that always deeply impresses me about Mitchum's performance in the film, in that it is such an intensely physical performance. He twists and contorts his body into the very personification of evil.

The entire 2 1/2 hour documentary of CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER can be found on Disc 2 of Criterion's excellent Blu-ray edition of the film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Watched this again recently for the first time in years and am still processing the film's powerful effect. It's one of the great counterculture statements put on film and just as relevant as ever (if not more so) -- an explosive indictment of institutional abuse, the scourge of authoritarianism, and societal pressure to conform and obey.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched is the personification of "the system", of cold, heartless authoritarianism, enforcing the rules at the expense of the humanity of her patients. Her cool, calm demeanor belies her sadistic nature and one can sense the pleasure she derives from wielding her power over the patients in her ward.

Jack Nicholson's McMurphy is an explosive force that upsets the order of hierarchy and turns authority on its head, a non-conformist who fights the system but is ultimately crushed by it. Even though he represents a triumph of individualism, it is his concern for the happiness of his fellow men that reveals the hypocrisy of the institution supposedly responsible for caring for them and wakes them up to rebel against the injustices and humiliations they suffer under authoritarian control.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

"True Grit", Melodrama, and Landscapes

Since seeing True Grit again two nights ago, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the film. As I was laying awake, sometime around 2 AM, and running through some of the film's images that stuck in my mind, that where the Coens take True Grit from being an exceptionally well-made Western and into the realm of something else entirely occurs toward the end of the film.

I suppose I should issue a "spoiler warning" here before proceeding, for anyone who has not yet seen the film. If you haven't, I highly recommend doing so at the earliest opportunity.

The pivotal moment for me occurs during what it supposed to be the dramatic climax of the story we think we have been watching up to this point, when Mattie Ross finally gets the drop on Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, and shoots him in the chest, sending him backward over the edge of a cliff. It mirrors a scene earlier in the film during her first encounter with Chaney, when they spot eachother while getting water from a stream and Mattie wounds him with one shot before running out of bullets.

After Mattie blasts Tom off the side of the cliff, she is propelled backward by the force of the gun, down a hole in the mountainside, where she gets tangled up on a vine that breaks her fall, but also traps her down in the hole next to a nest of snakes, one of which bites her on the hand.

All of this seems quite melodramatic at first glance, a fast-and-furious race of events, one might even say conveniences, to place Mattie in ever-greater danger at the last minute and heighten the suspense. But what follows is essential to understanding the film. Mattie's rescue by Rooster Cogburn is central to the film. Cogburn descends into the pit, frees her from the vine, and cuts her hand with knife to suck the poison out of the snake bite. From there, it's a race against time to get Mattie to a doctor before the poison spreads further.

Their ride takes them across the landscape at a furious speed, riding first across a spectacular sunset, and then under a starry night sky that appears almost stylized in its sheer grandeur. The Coens have always had an eye for landscapes, from the bleak frozen terrain of Fargo to the sprawling rural backwoods of O Brother Where Art Thou, and many others. The vast wilderness of True Grit is the environment in which the Coens place their characters to undergo this transformative experience. It is at once beautiful and dangerous.

Under that starry night sky, Mattie's pony collapses in exhaustion, and she watches in pain as Rooster puts it out of its misery with a gunshot to the head. Rooster then carries Mattie in his arms the rest of the journey. This is the moment of Mattie's transition into adulthood, and Rooster's spiritual redemption, pushing himself to ever-greater physical and emotional limits to save the life of another person.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Coens and "True Grit"

Joel and Ethan Coen are such offbeat, unique filmmakers that it was surprising when they chose to make True Grit, a film in the Western genre, and to do so with a straight approach that respected the conventions of the genre and one that was both a literary adaptation and a remake of an earlier film (Charles Portis' novel, and Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version, respectively).

The Coens' film of True Grit is one of the best films of its decade, and one of the best films the Coens have made, though it is unlikely to go down as one of their best-remembered films, though that is only because it is so different in approach from the style of their most popular movies.

There is so much to praise in True Grit, from the impeccable design and period detail, to the startling maturity and emotional honesty of Hailee Steinfeld's performance, but in my estimation, two things really make it stand apart in a class by itself: the writing by the Coens, and the starring performance of Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. The 1969 film of True Grit provided the iconic John Wayne with one of his best roles, but Bridges manages to completely embody the character and make the role his own here.

The script is one of the best that the Coens have ever written, taking a sincere and straightforward approach to the material, the characters and dialogue imbued with honesty and poignancy without ever sliding into easy sentimentality or hitting a single false note. It's truly one of their finest achievements and, without exaggeration, one of the finest films yet made in the 21st century.