A very different trail. Rocky all the way around the loop. Lots of interesting mineral rocks and mountain outcrops. Wildflowers still showing off their colors and ability to grow anywhere.
Author: Steve A Furman
Pinnacle Peak Hike – Scottsdale AZ
Stunning day for a hike. Clear skies, mid 70’s and low humidity. At the entrance to the trails a volunteer had a solar telescope set-up trained on, you guessed it, the sun. They use special filters to ensure safe viewing. When you look at the sun through these filters you see a red ball of fire. The glare around the sun that we normally notice during the day is gone, replaced by flames shooting up from the sun’s surface, each one larger than 40 earths.
The trail is quite wide and switchbacks nicely to the top. You meander up then down before ascending again. Due to cooler and more moist winter, the wildflowers are flourishing.
Tom’s Thumb Hike – Scottsdale AZ
A relatively short hike but affords great views. The trail is narrow. Trail head facility is well kept and staffed with very helpful folks. Click any image to enlarge.
My 2023 Oscar Picks
It is tempting vote for everything Everything Everywhere All at Once was nominated for, but I don’t believe it is that kind of film. I recognize why it is so popular and perhaps even influential on future films, but there are other great efforts to recognize. But, who knows what will happen this year???
Actor in a Leading Role: Austin Butler Elvis
Actor in a Supporting Role: Ke Huy Quan Everything Everywhere All at Once
Actress in a Leading Role: Michele Yeah Everything Everywhere All at Once
Actress in a Supporting Role: Kerry Condon The Banshees of Inisherin
Animated Feature Film: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Cinematography: All Quiet on the Western Front
Costume Design: Elvis
Directing: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert Everything Everywhere All at Once
Documentary Feature: Navalny
Documentary Short Subject: The Elephant Whisperers
Film Editing: Top Gun: Marverick
International Feature Film: All Quiet on the Western Front
Makeup and Hairstyling: Elvis
Original Score: All Quiet on the Western Front
Original Song: Natal Natal from RRR
Best Picture: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Production Design: Babylon
Animated Short Film: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Live Action Short Film: An Irish Goodbye
Sound: Top Gun: Maverick
Visual Effects: Avatar: The Way of Water
Adapted Screenplay: Sarah Polley Women Talking
Original Screenplay: Todd Field Tar
My Oscar Picks for 2022
The 94th Academy Awards of Motion Pictures is Sunday, March 27, 2022. The ceremony has changed formats many times over recent years in response to cultural, social and ratings issues. Cries are always many, “It’s too damn long; lose the hosts; bring back the hosts; show more clips; stop reminding us who died…” I was happy with the way it was and didn’t mind the length. However, I always want to see more diversity in the nominations and winners. Here are my picks.
Actor in a Leading Role: Will Smith, King Richard
Actor in a Supporting Role: Troy Kosher, CODA
Actress in a Leading Role: Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Actress in a Supporting Role: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Animated Feature Film: Encanto
Costume Design: Cruella
Directing: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Documentary Feature: Sumer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could not be Televised)
Documentary Short Subject: Audible
Film Editing: Dune
International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
Makeup and Hairstyling: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Original Score: Dune
Original Song: Billie Eilish No Time to Die from No Time to Die
Best Picture: CODA
Production Design: Dune
Animated Short Film: Robin Robin
Live Action Short Film: The Long Goodbye
Visual Effects: Dune
Adapted Screenplay: CODA
Original Screenplay: Belfast
Oscar Predictions 2021
A tougher than usual year to choose in the wake of a pandemic, intense political events, our continued struggle with race relations, and plethora of acting performances. This year we have a seriously diverse set story lines and filmmakers. Makes things more interesting, but so much harder to cast votes. Without fanfare, here are my picks.
Actor: Chadwick Boseman
Actress: Frances McDormand
Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya
Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn
Animated Feature: Soul
Costume Design: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher
Documentary Short Subject: A Concerto Is a Conversation
Film Editing: Sound of Metal
International Feature Film: Another Round
Makeup and Hairstyling: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Original Score: Soul
Original Song: Speak Now
Production Design: Mank
Animated Short Film: If Anything Happens I Love You
Live Action Short Film: Two Distant Strangers
Sound: Sound of Metal
Visual Effects: Tenet
Adapted Screenplay: The Father
Original Screenplay: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Best Picture: Nomadland
Today is a milestone. It seemed so far away, so long ago. In one’s youth, which you are sure will never end, there are no thoughts of aging. There are times when you wished you were older, for lots of reasons. Can’t wait to get out of the house. Stop bossing me around, etc. No time, none, was wasted thinking about middle age or old age. And that’s exactly the way it should be.
But the arrow of time is strict and true and flies in only one direction. At least as far as we know. Our brains have an astounding ability to monitor time. Down to parts of a second. However, wrapping our minds around large blocks of passing time, to look out over the horizon of our hurtling life, is not as easy. There are examples everywhere. Where does the time go? Is it almost Thanksgiving? How did that happen? I’m short on time, so give me the quick version.
Then there’s that chilling bit of lyric in Pink Floyd’s classic song Time.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.
In my 20’s that song was on an endless loop and every once in a while I would think. Yeah, I should get busy.
Today I am 65 years old. I feel somewhat prepared for it. At least I think so. Retired from the formal working world, having put in forty-two years. My first official day of work was the day Elvis Presley died, August 16, 1977. I was getting ready to report to work in a local bookstore when the news came over the television.
I had the good fortune of never having been without a job during that time. Was not fired, laid off, furloughed or pushed out. That is as much about luck as anything else.
I am in good health, but of course I’m slower and more forgetful. Many of my body parts ache and my skin is thinning. I cannot reverse it.
Growing old is not for the timid. In fact, my recommendation is don’t do it.
One must try and see the positive things in all situations. I am more pleasant now, I believe. I smile more easily and am less cranky. I see beauty everywhere. Age is the gift of time, but time doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It doesn’t care if you waste it or use it wisely. Kill time and you murder success the saying goes. That is mostly true.
I have a wonderful, beautiful wife and two amazing sons. Even in these stressful times I feel more secure now than ever. Perhaps I am growing up. And not a minute too soon.
Time written by: David Jon Gilmour / Nicholas Berkeley Mason / George Roger Waters / Richard William Wright
The Twilight Zone Through the Eyes of Jordan Peele
The idea of being able to watch The Twilight Zone as if one were seeing it for the first time is very compelling. Hearing only two or three bars of Marius Constant’s chilling theme (actually two different compositions he wrote mixed together) triggers a Pavlovian response that floods my mind with mystery, fantasy and the macabre. To this day, whenever I hear Rod Serling’s monotone voice the hair on my arms still stands up.
I was a young boy when I first discovered the original Twilight Zone and it made quite an impression on me. Serling made all the difference. First, it was what Serling said, then how he said it. Then his appearance.. The trim suit, a trail of smoke from a cigarette seemingly attached to his fingers, and of course, the manner in which he nonchalantly appeared on the set as if he was introducing a nursery rhyme. He was always with us on these short and troubling journeys, but somehow it made no impact on him.
The latest Twilight Zone reboot has the formidable Jordan Peele (also an executive producer) doing the introduction and closing orations. He tries hard to not just stand in for Mr. Serling, likely realizing he was walking into a cultural land mine. The result is not as impactful, but Mr. Peele is straight ahead; no nonsense. His use of props from the episode (Samir’s notebook and bar glass) are an excellent, bringing him and us closer to the character. At the writing of this post there have been only two episodes released; The Comedian and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet. Of the two I preferred The Comedian. It gave me hope this project has a chance to live up to it’s lofty aspirations.
The new episodes, thanks to streaming, run almost twice as long as the original series installments and can vary to match the story. The budget CBS has bestowed on the producers is rich and can be seen on screen. The original TZ budgets were around $70,000 per episode and the actors were seldom allowed more than one take to save money. In this reboot everything feels handmade and bespoke in a way a feature film would be produced. Sets, costumes, cast, music, along with top shelf production values make these very watchable. Of course these are in color.
In behind-the-scene clips the actors and filmmakers describe their personal connection to the original series and it’s clear that passion was brought on set.
The Comedian is the story of Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) trying to get his stand-up career off the ground. It’s obvious he’s not a fit for the job. After bombing on stage he contemplates his future and finds himself sitting next to the premier comedy talent of the time, J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan). He asks for advice. His first mistake. His second mistake is taking it.
The results are immediate and strict which makes most of the story elements predictable even before Mr. Peele’s introduction. We know what’s happening, we just don’t know how it will hit Samir. This is where the beauty of the cinematography and lighting take over as uncredited stars. It’s gorgeous to look at and listen to.
Mr. Peele’s style fits nicely with Mr. Serling’s proclivity to entangle the audience, and main character, bit by consuming bit until everyone is up their eyeballs in peril. Lots of homages to the original work throughout.
Episodes air only on CBS All Access which is free, unless you want commercials.
Apollo 11 – Film Notes
50 Years Ago, Man Walked on Moon
Two Americans walked on the moon July 20, 1969. It was not the product of an internet start-up. No one Instagrammed the launch, and hashtags were not used to power the Saturn V rocket. Silicon Valley was just getting off the ground and mainly concerned with transistors. Well before all the “Making the world a better place” and “Do no evil” sideshows.
The Apollo 11 moon landing made the planet a better place by including the world’s population. It connected 14% of the earth’s population; all spellbound, in awe and looking up at the vastness of the universe. Not down, tapping endlessly on glass. For those nine days, time was suspended, and it only resumed once the crew had returned safely to earth.
Todd Douglas Miller’s latest film Apollo 11, compresses this historic mission into a 93 minute visual and audio experience that should not be missed. His work transported me back to that summer. The day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, our family was crowded around a small black and white television inside my uncle’s lake house cabin in Michigan. The film’s simplicity is what gives it such power. Mr. Miller fits together this impressive and what will prove to be durable work from 177 reels of 65-millimeter film NASA had given to the National Archives for safe keeping. Most of the footage were still only color negatives, never processed. There is no written dialogue in this script. The voices we hear are from news broadcasts and 11,000 hours of digitized recordings, meticulously curated by Ben Feist, a NASA researcher. Matt Morton provides the original score, that pounds out an adrenaline heartbeat when the Saturn V engines ignite and then into a spiritual refrain as the Eagle settles in on the Sea of Tranquility.
The space program was accelerated out of fear the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union with the launch of Sputnik. Once the U.S. got going there was no stopping us from claiming moon front real estate. President Kennedy’s visionary proclamation sealed the deal.
It wasn’t one rocket launch in a nice tidy package as shown in the film. The moon landing was a carefully designed process that began with the Mercury program, was continued by Gemini, and finally culminated with Apollo 11. Once the uncrewed Apollo missions were complete it was only two and a half years from Apollo 1, which tragically took the lives of astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee in a pre-launch fire, to the moon mission of Neil Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. and Michael Collins. Astonishing that so much could happen so quickly. Apollo was a miracle orchestration of science, technology and human courage driven by the country’s character, and an authentic citizen collectiveness that was not perfect then, but now seems to have gone completely missing.
The picture opens with shots of the monstrous crawling machine slowly transporting the Saturn V rocket to launchpad 39A. The juxtaposition of the mechanical crawler carrying a space rocket with over two million computer systems gives us not only the sense of scale, but how far man had come.
There is helicopter footage of people jamming hotels, shopping center parking lots near Cape Kennedy and pitching tents by the water so they could bear witness to the event. America was not all happy and together. The Vietnam War was tearing at the fabric of the country, as was the civil rights struggle. Perhaps Apollo 11 played a significant role in keeping things from disintegrating further.
Damien Chazelle’s excellent film First Man released in 2018 focused primarily on Neil Armstrong and the impact the space program had on the astronauts and their families. It was underrated in my opinion. Taken together, First Man and Apollo 11 provide us with a fuller understanding of what was sacrificed as well as achieved.
The pre-flight scene when the astronauts are suiting up and then making their way to the launch pad gives us a sense of duty everyone was feeling, along with the massive burden. Doing one’s job was never more important than here. You can see in the astronaut’s faces they were fully aware of the seriousness of what they were about to embark on.
Mr. Miller doesn’t tinker with the footage. Instead he smartly lets the story tell itself by focusing on the key chapters of the mission. Superimposing data points like the velocity of the spacecraft, or how much fuel is left in the Lunar Module or the heart rates of the astronauts while descending are his dramatic contributions that remind us this was precise, dangerous and at times violent work.
The care and foresight NASA had to film and preserve that nine days is what made this documentary possible. Except for the clothes and haircuts, the look of the film doesn’t seem 50 years old. The filmmakers must have known immediately what they had when they got their first glimpse of the footage. To their credit, they continued the exactness, respect and creativity shown by all those who took part in the mission.
It might have been beneficial we did not see the footage immediately. We were all in shock for a while and probably would not have appreciated it’s importance. To experience it (re-experience in my case) 50 years later was moving. After seeing what we’ve done with data, digital devices and the internet of things, I am more confident than ever the moon landing achievement eclipses what Silicon Valley has wrought by light years.
Late in the film we see astronaut James Lovell, who was the back-up commander for Apollo 11. He appears several times watching intently at the screens in mission control. Probably reflecting on his Apollo 8 mission that was the first to enter lunar orbit, but unaware he would swap places with the Apollo 14 crew to lead the Apollo 13 mission. “Houston we have a problem.” I met Mr. Lovell several times at his restaurant in Lake Forest, IL. He was always willing to sit and chat. Amazing man.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, the NASA footage did not show any people of color. Thanks to the film Hidden Figures, we know that women, especially African American women, played a significant role in the math behind the rocket science. Katherine Johnson along with many other or her contemporaries, were the “human computers” that propelled the space program. I did see one woman in the footage of Apollo 11. A young white woman, but hoped there would be a wider representation.
SpaceX has rekindled the romance for space travel with their Falcon Heavy rockets and Occupy Mars mantras. Their recent successful docking mission with the International Space Station offers hope. All their flights to date have been unmanned.
Apollo 11 is a valuable history lesson. It reminds us what can happen when a country comes together to tackle something very large. Highly recommended, especially for my millennial readers.
Visit the official Apollo 11 movie web site.
Although not part of the film, a lunar reconnaissance orbiter camera captured a startling image of the Apollo 11 landing site years later. All of what the Apollo 11 crew left, including footprints, still remain. The astronauts ventured only a few city blocks away from their landing module.
Artivism as Activism in Laguna Canyon
It was only recently that I learned of the term “artivism.” It came to me through a friend by way of an amazing project and a book. The project emerged from the mind of Mark Chamberlain a California artist who used his formidable photography talents to mobilize a community. With the efforts of hundreds of citizens and through the lens of a mural, the beauty and history of their landscape was forever preserved.
In the newly released book, The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism we are immersed in an inspiring story of how the power of photography combined with activism can prevail.
Mark Chamberlain drove west in the winter of 1969 from Iowa to the sunshine promise of California. Eventually he was stopped by the Pacific Ocean at the end of Laguna Canyon. He found his new home. At that time that area of California was populated by a small art colony that began in the early 20th century. There he stayed, making the project certain.
In the 1920’s, Hollywood studios were accelerating their output and found Laguna Beach a convenient and beautiful shooting location. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the 1954 version of A Star is Born are just two of the dozens of films and tv episodes shot there. Several actors used it as a respite from the stress of the industry with many of them eventually settling in. The canyon also hosted music festivals and counter-culture gatherings that grew larger and larger crowds each year. They made the city leaders uneasy and moved to shut down these events, but an awakening had already begun.
As commerce expanded to the south of Los Angeles, developers created a master plan to eradicate orange groves, build housing, business centers and of course strip malls. The locals wanted to preserve the natural beauty and protect the environment, but began to feel their power waning. The Laguna Canyon project gave them a focal point to band together, increasing their power.
Mr. Chamberlain put into motion a multi-phased plan to photograph the entire nine mile canyon stretch as well as collect garbage (dubbed a “garbological” study) to create an immense visual archive. In the book we are taken from phase to phase, complete with images of the time, as the community comes together to make their cause known.
All the work and effort culminated in a 636-foot long sculptural mural consisting of thousands of photographs of ordinary California life. The mural is essentially a wall with a wooden supporting skeleton where these photos would be placed. When viewed from a distance it took the shape of a reclining female figure. The mural was named “The Tell,” taken from the archeological term referring to a mound of earth that has buried civilizations over time.
The timbers for The Tell superstructure cost over ten thousand dollars, January 1990
An overview of The Tell under construction
The result was astounding. As most of the images were small snapshots, the mural resembled a neo-impressionist painting of tiny dots. The genius was how the images were sorted and assembled. Content, color, character and many other criteria were taken into account and helped determine where the images would be pasted on the surface. Needless to say, hundreds of people volunteered their talent and resources to achieve the visual language goal of the mural.
Diving Figure in the early stages
Over time the natural elements worked their own magic, slowly shaping the experience by washing out or enlivening the colors of the photos themselves. The mural became integrated into the beauty of the canyon – claimed by the land – thereby increasing the power of the work, which in turn broadened interest and attention.
The project was so effective that in 1990, ninety-eight percent of Laguna Beach residents approved a vote to increase taxes enough to purchase the land outright. It is now a key part of a 7,000 acre wilderness park.
Although it is a slim volume, it packs a cultural punch and a reminder of the power of collective art. It combines Mr Chamberlain’s personal thoughts integrated with supporting contributions by Mark’s long-time partner, Jerry Burchfield, along with academics, advocates, writers and artists. The images chronicle the journey from beginning to end and provide a genuine sense for the scope of the project.
Mr. Chamberlain on June 21, 2010. He passed away April 23, 2018 at the age of 75. Photo by Diana Drake
Order your copy directly from Laguna Wilderness Press.
More about Mark Chamberlain by Liz Goldner.
All unattributed photographs are from the BC Space archives.
My 2018 Oscar Picks
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold it’s 90th awards ceremony this Sunday. Controversy within the industry continues. Most organizations are slow to change and this one is no different. Changes were made to the voting members to include more minorities and women. I’m hopeful that as a result, there will be equal access to the amazing talent that exists without bias. Here are my picks from this year’s nominations.
My Best Picture Pick: Get Out
Get Out This has been one of the most talked about films of the year. Jordan Peele borrows from a number of film genres but assembles them in his own unique way and gives us an experience that is truly groundbreaking. We get an entirely new take on race relations in America that pierces all veils of shrouded truth on the subject. Excellent performances all around. I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele does at the helm of The Twilight Zone reboot.
Call Me By Your Name A 17 year old young man has his life altered forever during a summer spent in Italy. He meets a doctoral student who is working as an intern for his father. They are attracted to each other and Italy takes care of the rest. Outstanding performances are supported by the delicate and effective choices made by director Luca Guadagnino.
Darkest Hour We never seem to tire of productions about British royalty. The Crown, Victoria; it never ends. All you need to know about Darkest Hour is two words: Gary Oldman. Beautifully photographed, witty and amazing attention to detail right down to the Churchill War Rooms. This picture is loud, large and filled with smoke. But the Brits are likely a bit overexposed for the Academy to choose it as best film. My full review here.
Dunkirk More British, Churchill, stiff upper lip. The only best picture nomination not to have any actors on the ballot. It’s Christopher Nolan all the way as he painstakingly revisits this pivotal moment that could have tipped the balance towards Hitler if private seamen hadn’t rescued 400,000 trapped troops backed up against the sea on the Dunkirk beach. No detail has been overlooked in the recreation that makes this moment of humanity the main actors in this monumental film.
Lady Bird The product of a young writer/director (Greta Gerwig) telling close-up and personal story. A Mother / Daughter relationship growing up is tough picture that struck a nerve with audiences. This film snuck up on me and has an outside chance of being chosen. My full review here.
Phantom Thread Brilliant psychological study of a brother and sister team that rule the London fashion scene in the 1950’s. Paul Thomas Anderson creates yet another quirky world surrounded by a frame story that leads to a very surprising ending. No doubt the Academy will be tempted to vote for this pure cinema starring, for the last time, Daniel Day-Lewis. He has announced his retirement from acting. My full review here.
The Post Spielberg, Hanks and Streep. The triple threat combine for a spellbinding look at the release of the documents that probably ended the Vietnam War. High production values all around and Spielberg’s signature filmmaking style is on widescreen display. Very timely reminder of what happens when Presidents and his administration become drunk with power.
The Shape of Water There is haunting beauty in almost every frame of Guillermo del Toro’s spectacular story. He stacks the deck with reams of social content. A mute woman who has no known past is abused by overbearing men in the workplace. A gay commercial artist neighbor who was ousted from his job for drinking too much and lives with cats. The military industrial complex. Russian spies. Set in the Cold War 1960’s. Oh yes there’s that amphibian man. Ultimately it’s a love story.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Small midwest town sheriff can’t solve a brutal murder of a woman’s daughter. The mother is not satisfied with law enforcement’s efforts and goes into the advertising business by co-opting three billboards on the road into town.
Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman is beyond splendid in Darkest Hour, his portrayal of Churchill. His physical largeness was perfectly sculptured by a prosthetic body suit and superb facial make-up by Kazuhiro Tsuji. How an actor today could take on such a large figure that so many have tried in the past is a sign of courage. Inhabited is the word that comes to mind when I think about how Mr. Oldman plays the character. I have always admired his skills which have been carefully honed over years and the 92 characters he has played. I did catch a glimpse of Mr. Oldman here and there, but for the most part I assumed I was there in the room with the real Winston.
Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand
Frances McDormand never disappoints. Sturdy and funny, delivered in a fervent voice emanating from her face of endless character. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri she calls in some favors from characters she has played in the past and merges them anew, as a tortured mother wandering in a living nightmare. She is tough as nails, but on occasion she lets us inside that tight drum revealing a much softer side. She is beyond determined to goad the local police to revisit the murder of her daughter. Ms. McDormand is a force of acting nature.
Actor in a Supporting Role: Sam Rockwell
I will admit that on my first viewing I wasn’t that impressed by Sam Rockwell’s performance. I couldn’t put my finger on why. After a second screening it began to sink in. So much pain coursing through this character, constantly fueled by what he sees as injustice all around him. Race plays a big part as does loyalty to the Sheriff, and drowning all of this at the bottom of a glass. I realized he was modeling the southern cops we saw from the 1967 masterpiece, “In the Heat of the Night.” A fixed, narrow view that is one day turned completely upside down. Mr. Rockwell gives a character that at first can’t handle that inversion, but then rights himself, remembering the oath he swore as a law officer.
Actress in a Supporting Role: Allison Janney
It’s hard to believe that’s really Allison Janney behind those glasses and oxygen tube. The story of I, Tonya wasn’t that interesting to me and I almost didn’t buy the ticket. That would have been my loss. Ms. Janney plays Tonya’s mother, LaVona, with a hateful glee I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Her role as mother is just about all we need to know in explaining what happened. I think it’s safe to say she never received one of those Best Mom Ever mugs. What struck me about her performance was how Ms. Janney was able to keep up a continuous, matter-of-fact approach to cruelty. She delivers a dozen or more lines like this one. “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes!”
Original Score: Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Alexandre Desplat is simply in a class by himself. He has composed over 170 scores, of which I have many favorites. His work for The Shape of Water grounds a fantasy from some other world, and compels us to try and understand. When he first saw the film, Mr. Desplat wrote in his notes that it seemed to be like a musical for which the music was yet to be written. He fixed that. Favorite track, Decency.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Original Screenplay: Jordan Peele – Get Out
Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Film Editing: Lee Smith for Dunkirk
Production Design: Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau – The Shape of Water
Costume Design: Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Makeup and Hairstyling: Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick – Darkest Hour
Animated Feature: Coco
Director: Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
“Phantom Thread” Fashion, Power and Poison – Film Review
I always feel the need to prepare myself, at the very least, for an unfamiliar world before I see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. That’s a given. As part of that preparation I did some serious research ahead of my recent viewing of Mr. Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread. Everyone knows by now this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film. Who voted for that? Loosing a huge talent like Mr. Day-Lewis means a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe has been set in motion. It’s like the passing of the torch with no one to pass it to. He is a pure in camera actor. Method. One of a kind.
Mr. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrity fashion designer and dressmaker in 1950’s London. He tends to the design, construction and fitting of the dresses, as well as CIO, chief idiosyncratic officer. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) takes care of the business end of things as well as manages, controls actually, Woodcock’s life. Reynolds is easily distracted and cannot have his schedule disrupted even in the slightest way. If it is upset, or “ambushed” as he puts it, his concentration breaks for the entire day.
In the first reel we see him at breakfast with Cyril and his current muse who has apparently run out of the juice she used to have to propel Reynolds onto the next design. This prompts Cyril to send her packing. Sister suggests Reynolds take a weekend getaway to the country to clear his head. Capital idea.
They have a country home in addition to their posh London residence where Reynolds can go to collect his thoughts and in this case perhaps mourn the loss of yet another young muse.
At a local breakfast place the next day he is instantly charmed by Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a young fair-skinned, red-haired waitress who is introduced to us via a clumsy stumble. She takes his breakfast order which is large enough to feed a team of carpenters. Welsh rabbit with an egg on top, but not too runny. Scones, bacon, sausages and lapsang tea, etc. Reynolds has a big appetite when happy. He asks her to dinner and the muse grooming begins.
Mr. Anderson sets-up a frame story that he returns to throughout the film. It’s Alma sitting by a fire in a drawing room of some sort and telling a man the story of her and Reynolds. I think this is a terrific device and it helps us in the long run to sort out the three acts.
At dinner Reynolds tells Alma about how he sews secrets into the garments he makes. Notes, coins, even locks of hair. Fabric is his canvas and his paintings (dresses) are worn by his clientele.
He takes Alma back to his country home and describes his love for his mother, who taught him his trade. Reynolds made his mother’s wedding dress when she remarried following the death of his father. He had to do it all by himself. His nanny wouldn’t dare help him. It was thought that if you assisted in the making of someone else’s wedding dress you would be cursed and would never marry. That curse could be cast even if all you did was touch the dress. A beautifully tailored dress has immense power.
Mr. Anderson introduces us to the sorrow in Reynold’s life early on. His sadness is potentially inescapable and only expands as the arc of the story unfolds and we see Reynolds devolve into child-like state. Eventually sadness emerges as one of the most important elements in the story.
He wants to make Alma a dress and begins taking measurements. He asks Alama to lift her arm or look up as he lays the tape across her body; but they are really instructions. She willingly follows. Has she become a mannequin? Cyril arrives to check out the new muse candidate. Reynolds calls out the numbers to Cyril who records them in a ledger.
Cyril tells Alma she is a perfect physical specimen. Her digits combined with the girlish charm that has enchanted Reynolds seals the deal.
In no time at all Alma is back at their Georgian apartment in London and is seamlessly assimilated into the House of Woodcock.
Each season takes more and more out of Reynolds as he labors to complete his spring or fall line. In his desire to create the one of a kind wedding dress for a Countess he has been dressing her entire life, he hits a brick wall over breakfast. Everything revolves around breakfast in the house. Alma suddenly grates on his nerves as she butters her bread and pours the morning tea. Cyril suggests that perhaps it’s time for Alma to depart, but Alma is smarter than the average muse, at least the ones these two have dealt with.
This is where the story turns toward psychological thriller. We see Hitchcock influences enter the film’s design as the three of them battle for control, but each in very different ways.
Reynolds becomes ill and is forced to curl-up in his bed unable to do anything and unwilling to see a doctor. Alma seizes this moment for herself. She alone can take care of Reynold’s needs and eventually he welcomes it. The power of control shifts to Alma. Cyril is furious that her control levers no longer function as efficiently. But the business must continue. Dresses must be made and fittings completed.
Once Reynolds recovers he asks Alma to marry him.
The House of Woodcock is all Cyril has. Everyone seems to have only one thing and are terrified that it will be taken away. She encouraged Reynolds to find new muses to inspire him, and showed them the door when there abilities ran out. But Alma is different. She wedges herself in-between brother and sister, gives herself a promotion from muse to wife and becomes an unexpected threat to Cyril.
Mr. Anderson served as his own director of photography, a first for him. The result is a lush look to the picture filled with jewel tones, purples, brilliant oranges, reds, royal navy, yellow and green. It feels like a 1950’s picture with its inevitable trajectory racing toward intrigue and tightly packed with lots of delicious details.
Whenever we see Reynolds driving he is speeding recklessly from place to place as if fearful of being caught outside the safe zones of his apartment, country house or favorite brasserie.
We glimpse almost no life for Reynolds outside his studio. No newspapers or television. The only time we see him listen to the wireless was on New Year’s eve. Perhaps he was making a desperate attempt to connect with a world that Alma knew and didn’t want to give up.
When we do get outside, the daylight is usually overcast and gray. The narrow house and winding stairway represents his vessel of creativity. His personal currency is routine and it makes him its slave. He knows steady flow is absolutely required for him to work. If that flow would ever be interrupted, all will dissolve. In the end Reynolds and Alma settle on a symbiotic relationship that I believe few will see coming.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is everywhere in this film. It fills the scenes but doesn’t overpower. I prefer scores that know when to be silent. In Phantom Thread the music really doesn’t give us much of a break, but it didn’t bother me. I could still feel the acting.
I wonder what the Academy will do with this picture in the current climate we find ourselves in. I loved this picture and all of the performances. Mr. Day-Lewis of course. Vicky Kreips plays Alma beautifully. She balances naiveté with a slyness and holds her own in her scenes with DDL. Lesley Manville’s Cyril made my blood run cold several times with her steely eyes and strong comebacks. Highly recommended.
Side note. Between Reynolds, Cyril and Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep’s character in Steven Spielberg’s The Post) you will witness a master class on how to hold horn-rimmed glasses.
Listen to Jonny Greenwood’s score on Spotify. Track 13 (of course) “House of Woodcock” is the piano love theme.
My Podcast of this review on Soundcloud here
“Lady Bird” Cinematic Album of Greatness – Film Review
One of my favorite films of 2016 was 20th Century Women. I’m a sucker for these social/cultural concept pictures that have a big cast, all with issues. They transport me back to my youth. Lady Bird is cut from the same celluloid and although it doesn’t take me all the way back to my boyhood, it comes close. The problem for me is I never came of age, so when I see all these coming of age films and identify with just about everything in them, I’m confused. But I digress.
Greta Gerwig played Abbie in 20th Century Women. She took it upon herself to explain to Jamie, the young son of Dorothea (Annette Bening) some of the basic facts of life; of course from a girl’s point of view. Lucky guy.
In Lady Bird we have Greta Gerwig again, but this time as writer/director. Her protagonist is Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who feels trapped in her Catholic Sacramento high school, lives on the wrong side of the tracks, and has her attitude set on attending college far, far away. Lady Bird is the name bestowed on her by herself.
Her best friend and ruiner of dreams is her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The film opens with them lying side by side in the same bed. There’s an amazing scene in a car listening to the last few sentences of “Grapes of Wrath” via book on tape. Both cry. Not moments later they are discussing colleges and when Lady Bird indicates she wants to get out of California, her mother has a fit. Lady Bird abruptly ends the discussion by opening the car door and jumping out while traveling at a high rate of speed.
That explains the pink forearm cast she sports for the next quarter of the film. And that’s how this film is unpacked. Again and again we get snapshots of the story, as if one is turning pages of a book, but it’s right there on screen one scene after another that adds up to the movie. We’ve seen this technique before, but seldom is it done with such skill and with so many characters that move in and out of Lady Bird’s life whether she likes it or not.
We see the usual high school drama. Wishing they looked like other girls, wondering what it takes to be cool, hoping boys will choose them. Ms. Gerwig extends it to the neighborhoods and even the homes. Lady Bird sees her dream home and wishes she could live there. Later on she is escorted right to the front door by a bright young boy, Danny (Lucas Hedges) who is bringing her to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.
Lady Bird was the miracle baby her mother thought she’d never have. As a result she has an adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), that is we think he’s adopted. The story doesn’t dwell on it. Miguel has a wife. Some things are just a little bit askew, and in a good way. Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) is an engineer type in a company that’s failing and her mother works at the hospital in some sort of psychological help role. Ms. Gerwig doesn’t feel compelled to tell us everything, which is how it is in real life. Her father seems to get her and supports her big dream of attending college on the east coast.
Despite the friction with her mother the still manages to have conversations that only a mother and daughter can have. Like, when is it the right time to have sex? Which of course was brought up after Lady Bird loses her virginity to one of the school’s bad boys who smokes his own hand rolled cigarettes and is trying to opt-out of the economy.
This passage from the screenplay is between Lady Bird and the high school counselor discussing a strategy for selecting a college. It’s a spot on example of what Lady Bird’s life is like day in and day out.
Just as with the particles of visuals, we get fragments of music to go along them in Jon Brion’s (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) soundtrack. Twenty-three individual compositions ranging from seventeen seconds to the closing track which is five minutes and ten seconds. I love the looping, jigsaw approach he has taken to the film. Fits Lady Bird perfectly. Mostly slow, sad and brooding with moments of reflection. My kind of score.
We can identify with wanting to get out of Sacramento, everyone wants to leave their hometown. But there are gaps. The religious school choice doesn’t really show up anywhere else in the film, especially not in the family scenes. Her situation is not great, but it’s not dire. She has friends and makes them as well. Is this just normal teen angst?
The film has been nominated for four Golden Globes including Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as Lady Bird for Best Actress. She carries the film from cut to cut. Funny and determined, she sells the eccentricity of the picture with ease, and when called on to make the metamorphosis to adulthood, she makes it look like the time is right. I breathed a sigh of relief in the final frames, for throughout the entire film I worried for her sanity and later on her safety. I cared about her.
Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother got the Best Supporting Actress nod. It is truly a mother/daughter focused story and if Ms. Metcalf was not this strong it might have been passed over for Best Musical or Comedy nomination.
Ms. Gerwig took the fourth one for Best Screenplay, but was denied Best Director recognition. It’s tough to get both but I think the strongest of the two properly won out. It’s refreshing to see a picture with young people not constantly on cell phones. Where things are slowed down and we see lives played out in human time instead of social media time. It’s a real cinema experience.
Jon Brion’s score on Spotify
I would recommend this film to anyone.
Images courtesy of Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360 and IAC Films
“The Big Sick” Romantic Comedy Remade – Film Review
I really enjoyed The Big Sick. l think in large part for its ability to make me laugh even through a life or death circumstance. Michael Showalter directs this surprising gem written by married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley). Its based, I’m assuming, on their real life exploits, but maybe not. No matter.
Kumail (played by Kumail) is a Pakistani man who is struggling to be a stand-up comic, performing regularly in a small club in Chicago. He has strayed off the culture reservation his parents and brother faithfully live. The connections he has built with other comics also have big dreams and this is how he keeps it together. During one of his sets he is heckled by a young graduate student, Emily (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks, What If). Later that night he spots her in the bar and has a brief back and forth. Soon after they end up at his apartment. We sense an immediate but cautious mutual attraction that neither will admit to or cash in on for many days.
The early reels of the film focus on Kumail and how he circles the uneasy relationship with his mother who parades a constant stream of hand-picked Pakistani women before him each time he’s home for dinner. Kumail is not honest with himself or anyone else. When his parents remind him to pray, he retreats to their basement, but instead of praying, he practices his one man show. He is lost between two cultures, hasn’t picked a future and runs away from a past that was never his to begin with.
The relationship between Emily and Kumail begins to bloom. Both are guarded about their past, which is the catalyst for a stressful breakup, Emily falls seriously ill and her roommate phones Kumail insisting he go the hospital and report back. He does and is forced to make a decision that could determine Emily’s future.
Enter dad and mom. Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). The picture shifts gears and reveals the universal message in the story that almost every character will face. Mr. Romano and Ms. Hunter have terrific chemistry and breeze through the film despite Emily’s dire condition. Kumail’s persistence to be present begins to resonate with them, cracking the door open on their true selves and what it has meant to their marriage and child. This unveiling hits Kumail particularly hard and that of course extends to his parents, especially his mother.
The writers cycle us through a lot of will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he? Will they or won’t they? This technique often causes me to want to take a walk, but the filmmakers manage to pull off these swings with enough skill to keep me around. In the end I was glad I did.
Zoe Kazan, who played Emily (granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) is one to watch. Her character is in a coma for a good portion of the picture so she had to work hard to ensure we wouldn’t forget what she stands for. Ms. Kazan nails it.
Production values are just a couple of notches above a a solid Television pilot but we don’t really care. The Big Sick was snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press (no Golden Globe nominations), but it could sneak in with an Oscar nom. It’s happened before.
Listen to The Big Sick soundtrack by Michael Andrews on Spotify.
Enjoy, but stream it.
Rated R, 120 minutes
Images courtesy of Aptow Productions, FilmNation Entertainment and StoryInk
She holds all the Cards. “Molly’s Game” – Film Review
Every time I go into a theater or turn on a TV that has a script written by Aaron Sorkin, I’m convinced this is the time he will run out of words. That trading his soul for the talent to write unending, spectacular dialogue will have finally run out. Well, I’m happy to report whatever it is that supplies the words is alive and well. And I was just kidding about that deal with the devil thing. Mr. Sorkin has not only written the script, he makes his directing debut at the encouragement of his producers. No surprise, his directing mirrors his writing style; frenetic.
Molly’s Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (book with the same title) played by the always strong Jessica Chastain. She is a highly competitive skier and sharp as a tack from Colorado. Her father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) a university professor, was uber-focused ensuring his kids were overachievers in academics as well as sports. Molly’s two brothers were at the very top of most everything they tried. A a million to one freak accident derailed her from a final run bid to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the freestyle.
The skiing injury caused her to take a step back from her a law school goal and instead took a year off to live in Los Angeles. A waitress job helps her along until she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who hires her to be his assistant. The job pays horribly and the hours are 24/7, essentially doing anything Dean wants or needs. Pick-up dry cleaning, buying bagels and oh yes, being the punching bag for his faltering business.
Dean is starting up a weekly high stakes poker game and tells Molly that she is now going to help run that as well. The players are famous movie stars with a buy-in of ten grand and the blinds (forced bets) are fifty/one hundred. You learn a lot about poker watching this movie. Molly sends an invite email to all the names scribbled on the pad and everyone replies within minutes that they’re in.
With a poker game you might expect the occasional quite screen time as players size each other up looking for a tell. If you’ve watched Poker on cable you know it’s a bunch of guys sitting around a table, inside, wearing sunglasses. But this is Sorkin. There are some moments of brief pause, but we have lots of cuts and constant dialogue or Molly’s voice-over. It keeps you on your toes. Words come flying out of actors’ mouths in a constant stream. If you’re not listening to every word you miss a lot. It almost seems too perfect.
Mr. Sorkin cleverly conceals all the famous people’s identities by giving them screen names like Player 1, Player 2, and Player X (a quiet but chilling Michael Cera), who turns out to be the sharpest player in the room as well as the most dangerous to Molly.
Ms. Chastain was a great casting choice. She is strong, but has a vulnerable side, and she brings both to bear with great effectiveness. There is no doubt that she relished this part.
Carefully observing all the details of the game, listening for the tribal poker keywords and Googling them gets her up to speed quickly. She invests in a new, sexy wardrobe and hairstyles. When things get slow at the table, she brings in new fish. A fish is a new player to the game who has money, plays loose and is good, but not too good.
Mr. Sorkin shuffles the scene order, cutting from the main story line of Molly in game mode to her in court mode. The feds have arrested her and drained her bank accounts. She needs a lawyer and finds her man in Charlie Jaffey. Idris Elba plays Jaffey with just the right dose of seriousness and humor. I can’t help but feel that he reminds Molly of her father after a discussion with his middle-school daughter related to academic expectations. During the client/lawyer discussions he sees lots of red flags but is fascinated with the case as well as Molly’s strong personality and ethics.
Dean’s business is not doing well and he is no longer winning at the table. In a conversation with Molly he informs her to no longer expect a salary for her day job. The money she gets from the game is enough. Molly is not pleased and goes into action to set up her own game.
Soon he fires her, which is the worst thing he could have done. Molly hands over the game to the new girl hired to replace here. The transition consists of texting random phone numbers instead of the real player’s numbers. She then contacts the regulars and tells them the game has moved to a luxury hotel, but doesn’t tell Dean.
The film takes a fateful turn when Molly is forced out of L.A. in a dirty-handed move by Player X and chooses to start over again, this time in New York. She is a full-on pro at this, but just like the players she becomes addicted; but for her it’s drugs to stay awake and sharp. The longer she stays in, the deeper she sinks into a dark place with some very nasty people.
Eventually she has to face federal prosecutors who want her to cooperate in exchange for leniency. Her father (Kevin Costner) has been following her exploits and catches up to her with the hopes of reconciling, at least partly, for their falling out. A deep discussion between them reveals a lot about their relationship and some of Molly’s choices.
I think it was an inspired choice to select Charlotte Bruus Christensen as the cinematographer (Fences, The Girl on the Train). A woman photographing a woman results in a different feel than we would get from a man behind the camera. Angles, lenses, lighting and other subtle choices.
Molly and Jaffey are the primary players, but a lot of time is spent developing the secondary and even the background players, each doing their part to tell this complicated and fascinating story.
Top production values all around and of course that crisp Sorkin dialogue. It clocks in at 140 minutes just making it under the contractual limit. Yes Sorkin likes them long and I’ll bet there was a lot left on the cutting room floor.
Listen to Daniel Pemberton’s Score on Spotify.
Images courtesy STX Entertainment
Another side of Churchill in “Darkest Hour” – Film Review
Oftentimes we hear of the larger than life figures of history through a fairly narrow window. Their stirring quotes and courage summed to make decisions, all the while carrying the weight of a country on their shoulders. Certainly if you read in depth biographies you get to see various sides, but the number of people who take the time to do that is quite small.
Whether intended or not and I have no idea if it was, Darkest Hour could be looked at as a comment on the political situation we find ourselves in across the globe. This film is about courage and leadership for an entire country. Not just a popular idea, or a subset of the population.
In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), significantly shorten the story horizon while putting their Churchill on the defensive in Parliament as well as himself. It takes place in a span of less than a month; from the time he becomes Prime Minister due to Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) ousting, through the exiting of the British solders stranded on the Dunkirk Beach.
They give us a seasoned politician who has been through the ringer, drinks constantly and smokes like a chimney. During the crisis moments he is hesitant, demanding and absolutely certain that he has figured out how to deal with Hitler. Despite knowing the outcome, the filmmakers manage to build suspense through great pacing and the urgency of saving 300,000 troops.
Gary Oldman is splendid in his portrayal which is given a huge push with a near perfect prosthetic body suit and superb facial make-up by Kazuhiro Tsuji. I have always admired Mr. Oldman’s skills which have been carefully honed over years and dozens of films. There’s the action Oldman; Romeo is Bleeding and Air Force One. He looks different from movie to movie, paying special attention to the physicality of who he is playing. His performance as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK and Shelly Runyon in The Contender are two of my favorites. I can’t see anyone else ever playing Oswald again. His Runyon character was a warm-up to Churchill; cigar included.
Near the end Churchill must address Parliament to lay out his next steps and overall vision. He observes ordinary Londoners walking the street and entering the Underground. When his limousine stops he gets out and walks onto the Tube. He has warm exchanges with the working class going about their day. I don’t care if this actually took place, but this film made me want to believe it had. This grounds Churchill who had never been on a bus or a subway before. It also validates his thinking.
The film is shot almost entirely in a fog; either from all the smoking or the filmmakers foreshadowing the coming fog of war. Britain was unprepared for the German Blitzkrieg and no one was really sure Churchill was up to the task; him included. Once installed as Prime Minister by King George IV (Ben Mendelsohn) in a most informal manner, things get into high gear very quickly.
Early on we meet his new aide. A young woman who is thrown into the lion’s den of Churchill’s constant drinking and smoking and oh yes; his lack of manner. Elizabeth Layton apparently drew the short straw and despite a shaky start, gives it the still upper lip, much to Churchill’s advantage. Lily James (Baby Driver) plays the part with a straight spine and regal neck. She’s also a perfect typist. When Churchill does let his human slip show, it’s done more often with Layton than anyone else besides his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas). Ms. Thomas shows up just at the right time to both support and advise her husband as well as provides some needed comic relief.
Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) a prominent conservative and personal friend of the King was Foreign Secretary at the time and wanted to negotiate a peace deal with Germany. He viewed Churchill as a war hawk with no room in his head for dealmaking. As if there wasn’t enough friction in Churchill’s life, this one had the potential to derail many things. Mr. Dillane has one of the best lines in the film. After listening to Churchill’s first speech as PM he turns to Chamberlain and says, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” It had a double meaning. Indeed Britain would surely go to war and it sent a clear message to Hitler that the storied history of the kingdom would not lie down as Europe had done.
Much of the film was shot in the Churchill War Rooms, nicely recreated for the film. I went back and looked at the photos I took in those rooms on my last visit to London, and was impressed at how faithfully and how much attention to detail the set designers took. Small historical inaccuracy. Churchill didn’t use the War Rooms until late in 1940 because there were no air raids yet.
When the story ventured outside London we mostly see only overhead shots from the vantage point of Luftwaffe bombers pounding Europe below. There are also no live shots of German soldiers and Hitler is only seen once, on the cover of a newspaper and heard once in the War Rooms. Even the opening credits show the Nazi war machine in black and white stills. They hadn’t yet crossed the Channel and Britain was still untouched.
The only Golden Globe nomination for Darkest Hour went to Gary Oldman for Best Actor in a Drama. Mr. Oldman is the film and his performance is worthy of serious recognition. If Dunkirk hadn’t come out in 2017, this film might have faired better with audiences as well as in the upcoming awards season. If you want to see a veteran actor perform his craft beautifully and are keen on WWII history, you will have an enjoyable experience.
Soundtrack by Dario Marianelli and Vikingur Ólafsson
Images courtesy of Focus Features
mother! Breaks the Hollywood Mold and It’s Terrifying! – Film Review
mother! defies description! For those who took the leap or were led there unwittingly by a friend or spouse, you found yourself peering into the abyss. Writer, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was written in five days. It may take me five months to be satisfied enough about the whats and whys to let it go. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Silence last year has a picture stuck with me this long.
One cannot categorize mother! into one of those tidy film genres. But let’s give it a go. Definitely a horror film. It’s also an allegory (not a standard movie category). But first and foremost it’s a product of the filmmaker’s deep passion and a desire to make something very different. To take the necessary path. To be true to the idea. Attend to every detail. To the art of it. That demonstrates courage. To stop at nothing to collect all the artifacts required to make the film. To have the confidence in the larger team to pull it off.
There was considerable secrecy during production. People didn’t really know what it was about which could have contributed to some of the negative reaction it received once released. “Hey, it has Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. That’s going to be fun.” Not even close.
The final product has been controversial to say the least. I must admit that there were times during my viewing when I felt uneasy, but the craft of the picture along with the amazing performances caused me to lean in. To pay close attention. I found myself dissecting mother! on a granular level. There is so much to unpack and discover.
Many of the films now made in the U.S. look and sound the same. Shot on digital. Packed with CGI. Story retreads. Everybody is a Super Hero. Repetitive music. Explosions. Have you noticed a certain deep sound that comes standard in almost all previews you see before your feature begins? The bass drop sound effect (called “Bwah” by insiders) is standard in almost every trailer.
Hollywood has always been a bit of a copycat business. Studios now prefer to latch onto a franchise that allows them to turn out multiple films which is much safer for them financially. But studios now have a lot of new competition from Netflix and even Amazon. I’m glad Paramount took this chance and did it right.
Does mother! go too far? Was this shot choice or those words written necessary?…
Picture opens on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), engulfed in flames. Bruises and blood dots cover her scuffed face. A tear begins to fall from her right eye. Cut to Him (Javier Bardem), placing a large crystal on a pedestal. His hands are dirty, as if they have been digging in the earth. A sly smile appears on his face.
In a heartbeat we learn we are entirely on our own. There will be no Cliffs Notes version. Nothing clearly spelled out. No narrator or helpful on-screen hints (“Three years later…”). Even though we are thrown into the fire from the first frame there are hundreds of clues sprinkled throughout. Those clues and their connections add texture and stick in your brain for days.
No character in this film has been given a name and there is no music soundtrack.
Mother awakes in an empty bed. She is the restorer of this house that suffered an intense fire. She is the project manager and has done all the physical work “wall to wall” while Him, the great writer, broods and waits for inspiration.
One evening while they are in the drawing room there’s a knock at the door. Man (Ed Harris) enters and immediately captures Him’s attention. Regaling him with stories and offering praise for Him’s work as a writer. He is also called the poet. Numerous aliases. Man fires up a cigarette using a lighter adorned with an odd symbol. Mother informs him that there’s no smoking, but he is indifferent to her request. Soon Him shows Man to his study and points out the beautiful crystal we saw at the beginning of the film. Man is captivated by its beauty. He constantly coughs and drinks too much, so Him invites Man to stay the night without consulting Mother.
The next day Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Man’s wife, shows up standing on the front porch, roller bag in tow as if she just got off the plane and is arriving for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon they talk about family and Man shares photos of their two sons. Mother is unsettled that Him invites them to stay as long as they like. And just like that the Jeannie is out of the bottle and Mother is powerless to stop it.
After an awkward exchange between Mother and Woman, Mother uncovers a suspicious item in their luggage. While discussing this with her husband, Man and Woman steal away to the third floor study. They want to see the crystal. Suddenly we hear breaking glass. The crystal hits the floor and shatters, setting off a fit of anger in Him.
He boards up the study and in a fit of spontaneous rage, snaps off the door knob with a swift barehanded blow. It tumbles off the stairs to the floor below. Mother picks it up and places it on the breakfront in the foyer.
The sons of Man and Woman suddenly enter the house. They are loud and rude. A fight breaks out between the brothers over a trust document their father (dying of a disease) has written. As the scuffle escalates, the oldest son finds the abandoned door knob on the breakfront and strikes his brother resulting in a grave injury. Him accompanies the family to the hospital.
Mother has a deep emotional relationship with the sprawling house which is located in a vast green meadow in the middle of nowhere. “This is home.” She always goes barefoot, caresses the walls and occasionally goes in close to hear its heartbeat. While in the basement, she comes across some, well, shall we say odd things. An exploding light bulb. Blood running down the foundation walls. Mother is curious as a cat but we don’t know how many lives she has already used. Scratching at the wall with a pair of channel lock pliers she opens up a hidden space packed with massive steel tanks and a hopping frog.
She experiences episodes of stomach pain and chases it away by mixing mysterious, but effective golden crystals with water. It soothes her and allows her to return to what has now become an ongoing nightmare. Her elixir is kept in a brown, antique glass bottle with a well-worn label making it difficult to read. The only words I could make out were “remedy, pharmacy and Buffalo, N.Y.” There are a series of numbers at the top of the label “096” followed by a symbol that seems to match the one on Man’s lighter. Some have identified it as the Wendehorn symbol.
Shortly after Him returns from the hospital, Man and Woman also appear, closely followed by a number of friends. The group was invited by Him to mourn the loss of the younger brother, but they lack manners and Mother is more and more becoming a steeping pot, and not the good kind. People continue to arrive swarming the three level structure and eventually collapsing a sink that has not been properly braced in the remodel. Water pipes burst, flooding the kitchen. Mother snaps and her roar drives out the unwanted guests, leaving her and Him to have a brief, private exchange.
They consummate their marriage; something we can believe has never take place. Mother awakes. Her face bathed in beaming sunlight. She is absolutely radiant and dead certain she is with child. Suddenly he finds lighting in a bottle and begins to write. He produces his opus.
The Poet’s book sells out on the first day. To celebrate, Mother prepares a feast fit for a god and sets the table for an intimate dinner for two.
Her carefully planned celebration is interrupted by a large group of people descending on their house, which is now a vessel adrift in the ocean of the darkness of humanity. They want to see the Poet. He has written an algorithm for human salvation and purpose. His desire to be loved by everyone has come true and the ultimate sacrifice is now inevitable.
Him’s publisher Herald (Kristen Wig) arrives with the second printing and a book signing takes shape. Later we see that Herald has a much more serious role than a simple messenger.
The crowd moves slowly at first. Then more aggressively through measured small annoyances; people helping themselves to food or the bathroom. Soon things get out of hand and all out chaos takes over. Worship of the Poet is the unspoken excuse. Him has given them permission to make his home theirs. “Share, like the Poet said. Share.” They move from wanting to see him, to getting his autograph, to touching him, to stealing something he owns. There will be more desires to satisfy. Him adores it. He cannot create without a mess. Others must sacrifice.
The house is transformed into Dante’s inferno with each floor becoming another gate of hell. People are tied-up, put in cages, shot at point blank range. Soldiers burst in, molotov cocktails are thrown. Mother is nine months pregnant and finds herself crawling over dead bodies covered in ash throughout the house. Contractions are coming faster now. She wants desparately to get out of the house, “The door! The door!” Him finds her, but Instead of leaving he takes her to the third floor study.
Mother gives birth to their son. Him wants to hold the child but she will not have it.
The final scenes are difficult to watch as they involve the infant and some brutal treatment of Mother by the followers. The door knob Him snapped off the study and used by Man’s son to kill his younger brother is now in the hand of the Zealot (Stephen McHattie). He wields it and brings Mother to the floor.
With nothing left to lose, Mother takes matters into her own hands. She has found Man’s lighter and sets off a fury that completely transforms the situation. All has changed. Him and Mother have one last exchange, but Him still needs more.
“…Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was… I need one last thing.”
Mr. Aronofsky was inspired by his work with The Sierra Club and concerns about climate change. Humans are destroying mother earth. There are obvious Biblical references that are woven into the complex message. Or perhaps it’s a strong commentary on society today.
One of the promotion posters used by mother! was obviously modeled after the ionic image Roman Polanski chose for his breakthrough film Rosemary’s Baby. Both stories center around a pregnant wife, an artistic husband struggling to find his way and religious beliefs that humans twist into a cult. Controversy surrounded each picture.
About halfway through mother! I recalled Luis Buñel’s brilliant, surreal masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel. In the film, a group of high-society friends are invited to a mansion for dinner and find themselves inexplicably unable to leave. Power and helplessness are enduring themes.
William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was made into the movie event of 1973 by William Friedkin. Audience reactions to it visceral. Again, religious motifs. But The Exorcist was a bestseller and the story widely known well ahead of the film’s release. mother! had no such pre-launch.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is packed with symbolism. Base commander and Brigadier General Jack Ripper’s gone mad. His word game; “purity of essence, peace on earth,” and the mythical CRM 114 Discriminator are carefully planted elements that weave the fabric of the film at the edges and slowly tighten it around the story.
mother! with all it’s careful production and staging is wonderfully balanced between a film and a play. The stage, an amazing eight-sided, three floor mansion is the perfect venue for this story. There are no dead ends in the house, just more passageways to mystery.
Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fantastic performance as Mother. It was obviously a challenge physically, but mentally this must have pushed her into a new space.
Javier Bardem is essentially a chameleon, delivering new versions of himself in each outing.
The eye-popping film is due largely to Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi) 16mm handheld photography. His camera constantly whips through the house and encircles the characters. Three basic shots are all that are used to tell the story. His camera is a personal diary of the story.
The sound design is truly astounding. The endless tight shots are paired with sounds and dialogue coming at you from all angles, giving the experience more depth. Andrew Weisblum’s editing (Black Swan, The Wrestler), which took 53 weeks, really is a miracle given the framing limitations and complexity of the shot list.
Although it is difficult to give this a whole-hearted recommendation. If you are a serious film-goer and appreciate high-level craftwork then this is a must see. mother! is a rare find these days.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures. Thank you.
“California Typewriter” QWERTY Shines in Important Documentary – Review
This post has been updated: Since writing about this film. I purchased two typewriters. A 1954 Smith Corona Silent and a 1958 Olympia SM-3. The Olympia is a work of art.
Despite the abundance of digital software applications available to web designers, many prefer to sketch out their initial ideas with pen and paper. It’s faster than using digital tools and forces your brain to think in a different way. Even if you know the designing program well, a significant part of your brain’s energy is used up remembering commands, menus and locations of the software interface. With a pencil in hand your brain sends creative signals directly to it without interference. The result is you get more bang for your creative synapse.
The same approach can be applied to writing on a typewriter vs. computer keyboard. But none of us do that because pencils and paper are plentiful in every home or corporate office while typewriters are completely absent. It is highly likely that anyone reading this post has never used a typewriter. Or if they have it was decades ago. And that’s a darn shame.
This week I caught up with a wonderful little documentary called California Typewriter, directed, photographed and edited by Grammy winner Doug Nichol. Mr. Nichol centers his story around a small typewriter repair shop in Berkley, California owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III, a former IBM employee who serviced the brand’s Selectric typewriters for over twenty years. He bought the store – called California Typewriter – about the time computers were starting their rise in offices and homes, but has always remained steadfast that the typewriter will always be an important cultural tool.
We get to know Herb, his daughter Carmen and Ken Alexander, a master typewriter repairman over the course of the film. They have lots of ups and downs economically, but their love of this machine always wins the day, and somehow they mange to keep the business going.
The film’s other story is how the typewriter has sunk very deep roots in American society and are cared for not only by this team, but by thousands of other enthusiasts across the country.
The film opens with a dramatization of the American artist Ed Ruscha’s photo book Royal Road Test from 1967. In this spiral bound publication Mr. Ruscha carefully documented in black and white photographs and short prose the roadside remains of a Royal typewriter tossed from a speeding 1963 Buick LeSabre, California plate FUP 744. At the time the car was hurtling west on U.S. Highway 91 outside of Las Vegas when the deed was done. They turned the car around and went back to photograph the wreckage as well as the three men who committed the act. This and other books he created at the time paid tribute to the romantic vision of being on the road in the American West.
Mr. Nichol includes four accomplished artists in the telling of this story. Each incorporates the typewriter into their daily lives. These profiles are critical to helping us understand that for over a hundred years, analog was how work got done in the U.S. It gave meaning to traditions and even how happiness was experienced in the pre-digital age.
Tom Hanks has 250+ typewriters in his personal collection. He is passionate about the typewriter and when asked which of his machines he would take if stranded on a desert island he chose the Smith Corona Silent (circa 1950’s).
The rise on the keys is almost perfect. Going from an “n” to a “y” requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action. This is a solid piece of machinery. It’s got beautiful highlights… With a good case this would be thee one typewriter I would take if stranded on an island.
— Tom Hanks
David McCullough is the brilliant writer of The Wright Brothers, 1776, Truman and other critically acclaimed works. Every morning after breakfast he enters a small stand alone structure behind his home and goes to work on his second hand Royal Standard typewriter he paid $25 for in White Plains, NY. He has written his entire body of work on this machine.
People tell me that I could do much better. I could go faster and have less to contend with if I were to use a computer. A word processor. But I don’t want to go faster. If anything I prefer to go slower. To me it’s understandable. I press a key and another key comes up and prints a letter on a piece of paper… It’s tangible. It’s real.
— David McCullough
American singer-songwriter John Mayer has opted out of digital tools for writing his songs, doing it now on a typewriter.
I’m not picking the typewriter because I think it’s hip. It’s the best version of the idea that’s ever come around. For me I think the best way to live is to incorporate the best of the last 100 years into a hybrid that works. Write a book on a typewriter and promote it on Twitter. Use the spectrum.
— John Mayer
Pulitzer winning playwright and author Mr. Sam Shepherd would prefer to ride horses than drive a car. He describes in great detail why he prefers a typewriter. Here’s a snippet.
You have to feed a typewriter paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. So a letter will go bam, but along with it the ink flies into the paper.
— Sam Shepherd (1943 – 2017)
More elements of the story begin to emerge. Devoted typewriter collector Martin Howard, whose license plate is QWERTY 1, has studied the invention of the typewriter and its impact on our society for twenty-two years. He loves the beginning of things which explains why he collects typewriters from the 1880’s and 1890’s. He specializes in typewriters of non-standard design.
We’ve now seen typewriter repairmen, collectors, and writers that use them to create their work. But still more protagonists tell their stories. Although we have seen a healthy dose of passion about the typewriter up to this time, these two artists have an almost mystical relationship with the typewriter. Jeremy Mayer is a sculptor who uses parts and materials from typewriters in his work. He studies nature and human anatomy along with typewriter anatomy and combines them to create amazing objects.
If the typewriter had a mind as it was being invented, Silvi Alcivar is what it might have conjured up as someone who would use it. Machines were never viewed as a serious threat to humans unlike robots and artificial intelligence warnings of today. There is nothing artificial about a typewriter. But in the hands of Ms. Alcivar typewriting takes on new meaning. She is a poet and occasionally you might find here on a sidewalk or in a museum at her pop-up poetry store. Give her a couple of thoughts and she will type you a poem on the spot. She trusts that the words will always come and hugs her Royal typewriter close, but no one else can use it.
To help balance out the serious and spiritual themes, Mr. Nichol brings in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. They write and perform songs using typewriters. No lyrics, simply percussion interpretations. They are serious in a Monty Python kind of way. Not too much so, but enough to make us pay attention. Apparently there is no end to the uses of a typewriter.
In the movie we learn that Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first commercially viable typewriter in 1868 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first keyboard had QWERTY on the top row. Something that has never changed. How did QWERTY get on the keyboard? No one knows for sure. It has been said that it came about to aid salesmen who couldn’t type. They could easily peck out the word typewriter as all of the letters fell on the top row.
Sholes became disinterested in his machine and sold his design. It was made of wood and he sold the rights to the metal gun manufacturer, Remington Arms. They were looking for a new way to keep the factories in operation. The Civil War came to a close so orders for guns had slowed dramatically. After a year spent on developing a metal typewriter successfully, mass production began.
Thousands were made and sold, but there was a shortage of people who know how to use them. The first typing school was established in New York in 1881. Six women enrolled in the six month class at a YWCA. When they completed the course all immediately had job offers. Better paying jobs than factory workers or school teachers. The introduction of the machine helped women enter the male business. They were called “typewriters.”
I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a high school typing class. Yes, there was a class called typing. I had a choice. Take typing or home economics (HomeEc) which was code for cooking and other household chores. I chose typing. Before I finished I was up to 55 words per minute with almost no errors. A skill I have used my entire life.
Late in the film we hear from Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution: A typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. A book I just finished. In fact, because of this documentary and the book, I bought a Smith Corona Silent manual typewriter. I’m cleaning it up as I write this and hope to be up and typing very soon. Mr. Polt also wrote The Typewriter Manifesto.
I see a close relationship between the typewriter and the vinyl record resurgence. Music is written and recorded. A record is pressed. It’s a physical representation of the music that springs to life when a diamond needle rests on this sacred platter at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. True sound. Pure sonic. Emotive. Tribal.
The typewriter is the confluence of mechanics, art and psychology. When embraced they become a tactile paradise for the mind to enjoy. They command one to think. To slow down and not be afraid to stop. There is no stream. However, ink is necessary. Paper is required. You publish while you write. It occupies space. No need for the cloud. Digital forgives. Typewritten pages are chiseled, archival records.
In a way the typewriter acts as a mediator. Everyone in the film speaks about this machine as if it was alive. It speaks to you. Always at the ready to amplify the true nature of your being.
Highly recommended for everyone interested in typewriters, documentary fans, or if you’re looking for something interesting to watch. Official site here.
Paris in September
“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” — Victor Hugo.
I recently spent a week in Paris with my oldest son. It was a return trip for me but first time for my adult son. We had a great time. Not as crowded with tourists and cooler weather.
We enjoy museums, which made Paris an ideal destination. So many to visit and we covered almost our entire list. The Louvre, Muse d’Orsay, Rodin, Picasso and the Pompidou Center. Our favorite was the d’Orsay. Fantastic setting inside an old train station and a killer collection with more Impressionist paintings than you can handle in three days.
We took the time to get all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph as well as Sacré-Coeur on beautiful sunny days.
One of the most interesting attractions were the catacombs beneath Paris. Amazing to see the bones of tens of thousands of Parisians who died and were relocated underground to prevent the spread of disease.
Everyone treated us with kindness and respect and went out of their way in restaurants to accommodate my son’s allergies. Terrific culture, food and of course wine.
We ventured away from our usual airlines and took a chance on Air France. Their service was premium all the way. Boarding, seats, entertainment choices and the food get top grades. I would recommend them.
My wife and I are discussing living in Paris for a summer after retirement.
My Paris album on Flickr is here https://flic.kr/s/aHsm5r4Xqq
The Battle of the Sexes Revisited – Film Review
In The Battle of the Sexes, co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, written by Simon Beaufoy, revisit an early and important story of Women’s Liberation movement.
Tennis was dominated by men, even though there was a small group of dedicated women players who would have to tag along behind and pick-up the scraps of promotional opportunities, attention and prize money. Billie Jean King, the number one women’s player at the time, was sick of it. She knew people enjoyed seeing women play and felt it unjust that they would make only a fraction of the money even though the stands were just as full for their matches as the men.
The women’s movement was not the only thing complicating U.S. culture during this time. There was also the escalating war in Vietnam and the ongoing challenges with racism and general unrest in the population. Change is hard.
Emma Stone bravely steps into the role of Billie Jean King and she shines. Ms. Stone transforms herself from the wispy, inexperienced budding actress we saw in La La Land to a powerful, activist athlete who stands up to the status quo and works tirelessly for women’s rights. That’s an amazing story on its own, but there is another storyline, Her journey to discovering her real sexual identity.
Just about everyone seems to be standing in her way. Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) heads the lawn tennis organization that schedules the tournaments and manages the rules of the association. He sets the men’s prize money at eight times what the women players will earn and doesn’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.
Then there’s Bobby Riggs, played with frightening precision by Steve Carell. Mr. Carell recreates the antics that the real Riggs staged as part of his one-man circus. Riggs was the ultimate chauvinist and a showman who wouldn’t stop talking. And he relished any and every opportunity to prove it. Although accomplished and largely self-made, he didn’t hesitate to indulge his desires at the expense of his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) even thought she was from a well to do family and supported him. Riggs has idea after idea and eventually comes up with an epic one. The ultimate battle of the sexes on a tennis court in front of a global audience with lots of money on the line. He tracks down Billie Jean who is on tour, waking her in the middle of the night to try and sell her the idea over the phone. She doesn’t bite.
The filmmakers weave together three individual constructs. The scenes with only women. These are by far the most interesting ones. The scenes featuring only men and groupings of segments where the men and women are in each other’s company, or watching each other on television, or speaking over the phone. This device is highly effective in sharpening the various points of view.
The scene that turns the tide is between Billie Jean and a random hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett. Ms. Barnett is played beautifully by British actress Andrea Riseborough who is a flower child of the time; both vulnerable but adventurous. One day Billie Jean appears in her salon chair waiting to have her hair done in advance of an upcoming tournament. She gets much more than a good cut. Their interaction moves from a casual discussion about what to do with her hair, to a moving and intimate experience. The filmmakers slowly tune out all other sounds in the salon and close in on the quality of Ms. Barnett’s voice. A calming cadence and warm tones that you hear only from a select group of people. A masseuse, a dental hygienist. a therapist, or in this case a hairdresser. They are trained to use their voices to instill calm and to allow the other person to relax and open up to the moment. Both people know exactly what has transpired. Ms. Barnett has become the catalyst that awakens Bille Jean’s true sexual self.
In contrast, the scenes with only the men are very boring. They are staged in stuffy clubs or locker rooms with the men always at the ready to banter about their superiority and enjoy the comfort in their place at the top. To them it’s always about the sport, the gamble, with little regard paid to woman’s potential. This might be somewhat of a harsh depiction, but it’s very effective and necessary to telling the story.
The production values of the film are solid. The filmmakers try to over produce. The pace is properly matched to the storytelling. They take their time and let the performances sink in. They also skillfully weave in numerous characters, adding depth and amusement to the picture. The final puts us right there in the Houston Astrodome alongside the 90 million people who tuned in.
Crisp performances by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, manager of the new women’s league and Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals, a top player and key to the success of the Virginia Slims tennis circuit.
Good artists are aware of their place they occupy in history. Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton have done society a favor by taking up this story now. Their timing amid the breaking news of women being abused by men makes this film more important and thereby elevates it above what it might have been if tackled at a different time.
Podcast of this review can be found on SoundCloud:
Soundtrack to The Battle of the Sexes by Nicholas Britell on Spotify.