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)