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
Directing: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert Everything Everywhere All at Once
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
Animated Short Film:The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
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 isDaniel 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.
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
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
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.
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 (Requiemfor 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.
Ladies and gentlemen, the post you’ve all been waiting for. My picks to win the 89th Academy Awards. This year’s nominees gives us hope that the Academy has at least made some effort to look across the wonderful diversity that makes up the filmmaking community. The Academy released a list of 683 new members last year, which is a record. It’s encouraging to see 46% are female and 41% are nonwhite from 59 different countries. There were also a small number of members who were transferred to “emeritus” status. Without the further wasting of pixels, here are the picks.
Hidden Figures is worthy for uncovering an amazing piece of history. It was important for NASA and for the history of on way in which African Americans have advanced our country. Throw in the fact that they’re women and you’ve got something very powerful. I wish the filmmakers had a bigger budget (estimate $25 million) that would have allowed them to up the production value and perhaps expand their impact.
Moonlight is the other film that should worry La La La Land, with it’s ground zero approach and quiet choices. The arc of this story is very long and the main character evolves across three different actors. The way this film is presented might look simplistic but simple it is not. This film takes it’s time for a reason and could sneak in.
Arrival is my favorite among the nominees. It’s a story of time, memory and language. The main character, Louise (Amy Adams) knows what’s going to happen in the future. Not everything but some things for sure. She uses her training in linguistics to communicate with beings who visit earth and the two become entwined in a fascinating personal story.
Fences is non-stop. A theatrical performance, but this time your vantage point is not Row E, Seat 17. We get to see inside these characters. What motivates them, enrages them, satisfies them. Once you have the script for a film like this, you need talent to deliver. Denzel Washington, who also directed, is a national treasure.
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who wound up in the bloody battle over the island of Okinawa. He selflessly saved over 70 men without ever touching a gun. The back story is business as usual, but the battle scenes are almost in a class on their own. We begin to understand at least a little, Doss’s vow and struggle to succeed.
Hell or High Water evokes many films and combines a number of genres but manages to carve out it’s own brand. Texas brothers need to pay off the ranch and set out to rob banks until they have enough to meet the reverse mortgage debt taken out by their mother. It’s smart and solid with a twist of sticking it to the banks.
Manchester by the Sea has so much to offer. Script, performances, humor, tragedy and yes hope. It starts where it ends, on the sea. A story about what draws people, the workings of their soul and what happens when those workings break.
Lion, another true story, tracks the life of a young Indian boy from the time he becomes misplaced by chance to a new and full life a continent away with adopted parents. Both the adopted family and the parents that lost him are on constant guard. One side always hoping, the other always wondering.
The La La Land factor may be too much for the other films to overcome. Good musicals are rare and beloved by the Academy. Mia and Sebastian have dreams, then they find each other. First by fate on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, then through relentless pursuit by each. Their relationship leads them to the dream they cannot achieve together.
Pick: La La Land
Actor in a Leading Role
Tough category. From a purely acting perspective I would rank them in the following order; Casey Affleck, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield. Casey has a dark cloud over him offscreen which could cause a problem. Denzel’s performance is the powerful remaking of a stage play, beautifully transformed to fit the screen. Viggo is surrounded by a bunch of kids in the wild. A bit unorthodox but he has definitely reached back to his Aragon character for inspiration. Ryan, well he’s Ryan. Andrew is the story in the vehicle picture Hacksaw Ridge. I preferred him in Scorsese’s epic and overlooked picture Silence.
Pick: Casey Affleck
Actress in a Leading Role
First I have to get something off my chest. The fact that Annette Bening didn’t receive a nomination for her amazing portrayal of Dorothea in the time capsule of a film 20th Century Women is at least a misdemeanor. Now back to the post. Natalie Portman brought a new perspective to a subject that has been examined to no ends in Jackie. It was obvious she did her homework and was up to the courage it must have taken to play such an iconic persona. Great work. The picture Loving shares a high level theme with Hidden Figures, Fences and perhaps even Moonlight. Ruth Negga gives a tour de force performance as the wife of a white man who’s love is so strong it rises to the Supreme Court. Isabelle Huppert is delicious and mysterious and has been one of my favorites for many years. But the film is in French, so maybe not. Then there’s Meryl Streep. Nothing more needs to be said. But I don’t think it’s her year. That leaves us with a darling of the Academy, Emma Stone. In La La Land she showed more range and what sold me was her ability to be hopeful and defeated at the same time.
Pick: Emma Stone
Actor in a Supporting Role
This one is not so hard. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water was great, but he was Jeff. He’s so good that I expect him to excel. Lucas Hedges as the lost teenager in Manchester by the Sea was asked to pull off a difficult character and did it beautifully. He was funny and desperate and, well a 16 year old. Dev Patel was amazing as the adult lost soul in Lion. But the real art performance was turned in by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Calm on the outside but you know he’s a steeping pot. Although his character took a few wrong turns, we see a coach and perhaps even a mentor in his surprisingly tender approach to a young boy. His choices are careful and measured, putting aside the chaos that surround his current profession and environment.
Pick: Mahershala Ali
Actress in a Supporting Role
Naome Harris in Moonlight. Amazing performance of a woman trapped in a personal prison without bars, but unable to escape. Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Smart, driven and won’t take no for an answer. When she had enough she took it to the next level and when at along last was given the stage, she owned it. Nicole Kidman in Lion as the mother who adopts two children from India and takes it all the way to the end once she finds out what her adopted first son really needed. Michelle Williams is the heartbroken wife in Manchester by the Sea. Despite her short screen time, Ms. Williams stands up to tragedy that could be beyond recovery and takes the next steps. Lastly Viola Davis is the wife in Fences. She stole the show in my opinion. In scene after scene she stands out with strength and valor. Pride is important, but her inner compass allows her to ensure her conscious and heart will forever be in order. She does all this without ever forgetting her responsibility as the pillar of the family.
Pick: Viloa Davis
When you decide to write a script you always start from scratch. Certainly life experiences and artistic influences provide inspiration, but in the end it’s the writer, alone, that chooses how to string together the words. All five of this year’s nominees for original screenplay are stand outs. The top two for their power and weight are 20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan. Both weave numerous complex characters through a maze of personal emotions and cultural circumstances. Mr. Mills perfectly captures a time and place. A single mother in the ’70’s is bringing up a son at the same time the country is in the midst of cataclysmic shift on how it views women. Mr. Lonegran drops us into a family minefield. It’s full of seminal moments that never go away and we are always wondering how the characters will respond. Of course there’s La La Land by wunderkind Damien Chazelle. It’s less a script and more of a visual score with lyrics. An amazing piece or work that sets the entire experience in motion. Lastly we have Lobster, which I would categorize as a species unto itself.
Pick: Richard Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Arrival (Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang) avoids the bent on destruction visiting aliens and instead turns it into an intergalactic story of compassion and a study of time that may hold the secret of our survival. Fences (August Wilson, based on his play) boils down a broad cultural macrocosm into a local microcosm of the lives of a family and the strong personas of a husband and wife. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroder and Theodore Melfi) lets us in on a piece of history that reminds us how easy it is to cover things up. Lion (Luke Davies from the book by Saroo Brierley) spans two continents and beautifully exploring the powerful themes of choice, assimilation, chance and search. and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins from a story by Carell Alvin McCraney) outline the essentials of three acts in the lifetime of an African American growing up in the slums of Miami.
Pick: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
The usual suspects are represented. Arrival, Fences, HiddenFigures and Lion. The fifth nominee is Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal campaign into faith. The look of this picture is lush, textured with the quality of a fine oil painting. By far the best work done by Rodrigo Prieto out in the wilderness under stark weather and light conditions, this effort easily exceeds all others.
Pick: Rodrigo Pireto for Silence
Scores the year were a nice mix and I enjoyed listening to them well after I had seen the films. The soundtrack for Hollywood’s favorite, La La Land (Various Artists), is energetic, but mostly I only remember City of Stars. The work done for Jackie (Marci Levi) was deeply sonic and captured the gravity of those few weeks after the assassination of JFK. A personal, singular statement on the widow and mother. Passengers (Thomas Newman) is intriguing and helps the film hang onto it’s mysterious qualities. With no less than twenty-six tracks Mr. Newman tries to keep up with the speed of their spaceship Avalon. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell) draws on a collection of works in order to cover the significant passage of time, and like La La Land, the music is as much inside the movie as outside of it. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka) add to this picture’s story in a very special way. It’s the closest to a classic score as we have this year and I think that without it the film would be significantly diminished. My pick is off book, but here goes.
Pick: Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka for Lion
This category is either obvious or too close to call. This year it’s the latter. Arrival (Joe Walker), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom cross), and Moonlight (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) are all so very well cut. Each required a different strategy to help the Director bring to the final vision. The one that stood out because of it’s sheer size and scope was Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert). The battle scenes alone was worth an individual achievement.
Pick: John Gilbert for Hacksaw Ridge
Space, WWII, the streets of African American neighborhoods in Miami, and an activist wizard from England visiting New York on his way to Arizona provided great challenges to the seamstress artists this year. My pick is made based on the need for variety, an adherence to an undefined period as well as making it all look really cool.
Pick: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
This category doesn’t ever get much attention. The art of the documentary is lost on the majority of moviegoers in the United States. I fear that it might become more obscure as production costs drop and video technology becomes easier to use. That coupled with the rise of streaming services could marginalize this genre even further. I was riveted by Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. A tale of culture that cuts through race, sports, fame and money. Worth a look from end to end despite it’s 467 minute running time.
Pick: O.J.: Made in America
My favorite was Kubo and the Two Strings. Mystical, unique with just the right amount of peril. Moana is a close second. I always love the strong girl figures who hold their own against all odds. But I think this year they’re gonna give it to the bunnies.
A film’s Director is it’s visionary. The steward, project manager, father, soul and so much more. Without him or her, there is no compelling story even if the village of people behind it do their jobs amazingly well. This year’s offerings tell subtle stories. Their narratives are in some cases based on truth but all are fresh tellings of the human condition.
The nominees are Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Mel Gibson, welcomed back into the tribe for Hacksaw Ridge. Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve for Arrival.
The decision to make Jackie was a risky one. Millions of people have strongly engrained beliefs of that famous first lady, while millions more have little to no connection at all to her or what happened on November 22, 1963. But the topic of Camelot and Kennedy royalty cannot be visited enough, and so we have the film Jackie. Noah Oppenheim wrote the detailed script and a talented filmmaker from Chile, Pablo Larraín, who had no first hand experience with that slice of history was asked to direct.
Making a film is a collaborative process. Hundreds of talented people work to tell the story through their own craft. No different here, but this film truly belongs to Mr. Oppenheim, Mr. Larraín and Natalie Portman.
This is not a biopic. It’s the story of a mother. A mother of two children who also became the mother of a mourning country, thrust into that role by the untimely death of her husband and President of the United States. When you lose a president in office you also lose, in a way, a father.
The script is often highly prescriptive, providing not only exceptional dialogue but also a blueprint for the director in the way of visuals, editing and at times even the sounds.
The directing decisions Mr. Larraín makes are frequently up close and more than you may be prepared for by the last reel. We see Jackie filmed head on, face filling the frame. She is confronting the tragedy and doesn’t blink. Only in the presence of her trusted assistant does she drop her guard, a signal that she is looking for a reassuring word or helpful guidance. The filmmakers are dealing with emotional, global history as the entire picture takes place in the days following the assassination. No matter how Mr. Larraín decides to use his camera, it’s Ms. Portman who ultimately forges the feel.
Ms. Portman obviously poured herself into research to prepare for this challenging role. I was most struck by how she used her voice and accent to communicate the emotional toll that Jackie must have been feeling. She takes control of the funeral arrangements, modeling it after President Lincoln’s. The talk with her priest while walking through a quiet preserves gives us an important piece to her puzzle. I came away with a new understanding of her and the Kennedy’s. Quite something to say for someone who has studied that chapter extensively.
We see the story solely and completely from her perspective. Jackie kept in the background during President Kennedy’s term and so the country did not see this other persona. The one that must have emerged during these tragic weeks. The first persona was on public display. The second, at least as told in the film, was more forceful and questioning. Ms. Portman gives us searing deep dive into the second Jackie.
Right after the assassination Jackie read what was being written about her husband and was displeased. She summoned a famous journalist, Theodore H. White (not identified in the film) to set the record straight. Billy Crudup plays the journalist and challenges her perspective by carefully asking key questions. The film largely plays back and forth between these interactions and the surreal events of the killing.
In case you’re wondering, the filmmakers do include shots of the actual assassination. This is necessary as it’s the catalyst for everything else that happens in the film. I have never seen these few short moments handled in such a way. Largely from above in drone-like perspective, swooping into the limousine and zooming in on Jackie’s lap. I always marvel when a director can turn out a visual treatment of something all of us have seen over and over and make it completely new.
Mica Levi’s minimal and haunting score might be a bit of an overreach in the sadness category. The tenth track, Vanity, goes deep inside the character’s mind. Someone who puts a high priority on her physical appearance suddenly finds herself being dragged down by something evil. Someone, a nobody, has ended the shining light of her John.
Technical aspects of the film are solid. Weaving in special effects to recreate the fuzziness we witnessed on black and white television was highly effective.
It’s been nearly impossible for this country to shake off what happened in Dallas, which is what I believe this film is all about. Highly recommended for discerning fans of serious cinema.
Moonlight, a film by Barry Jenkins, is a deeply moving, personal and challenging 111 minutes. Mr. Jenkins’ screenplay is based on the story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, might just be the biggest small film I’ve ever seen. It carefully and painfully captures the life-arc of a black man struggling to find his place in a world that is in no way made for him.
Picture is framed in three acts, and titled as such on-screen. In the first act we are introduced to a boy who is dubbed Little by a fellow grade-schooler. He has a drug addict mother, no father in sight and lives in a tough Miami neighborhood housing project. He’s on his own most of the time, pushing through the difficult days and nights. Juan, a local drug dealer sees him and tries to help, but Little has few words. Mahershala Ali plays Juan, delivering a masterful performance as a man with two sides. One street tough the other tender and understanding. He unlocks something in Little’s soul. Plants a seed that will sprout later in the film.
In act two Little has grown into high school and becomes Chiron. We’re thrust into a more frightening world than before. Chiron does not dress like the others but carves out a semblance of a friend in Kevin who is used against him by the bullies in a violent way. Chiron has hit his breaking point and a single act changes the course of his life forever.
Chiron’s mother, Paula, is played by Naomie Harris. She delivers a combustible performance that is enhanced by Mr. Jenkins’ choice in framing and at times, silencing her dialog. One of the most impressive things about Moonlight is the quality and consistency of the acting. Role after role, actor after actor the characters are laid bare and the audience is drawn in; transported from spectator to witness.
In the final act we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes). Grown now. Changed but still on a difficult journey. He has had time to ponder the past. In some ways he learns, in others he falls victim. Eventually Black catches up to his past.
The craft of Moonlight coupled with the amazing performances reminded me of Spike Lee; especially Do the Right Thing. The camera revolves to cover the story. We get dozens of perspectives and strong angles, but when necessary, it holds still, capturing the moments of truth, allowing us to process how far we as a culture and country have to go.
It’s always a tough decision. Do I buy a ticket to yet another dystopian, futuristic, science fiction bleak house of a film? Last year I bought one for Ex Machina, which caught me by complete surprise. Armed with that memory I decided to take a chance on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
The carefully crafted screenplay by Eric Heisserer is based on Ted Chaing’s vignette, Story of Your Life, published in 1998 and winner of several prestigious writing awards. Mr. Heisserer spent years going studio door to studio door, reworking the script at each turn. It was finally picked-up by 21 Laps Entertainment. Good call ladies and gentlemen.
Arrival stars the always cerebral Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a world renowned linguistics expert who, thanks to a hypnotic opening sequence appears to be damaged goods. She teaches at a university and is annoyed at how on this particular morning the cell phones of her students keep interrupting her class plan. All for good reason. Twelve bean-shaped massive crafts have descended from space and are hovering just above ground across the globe.
In short order, Colonel Weber, played with earnest calm by Forrest Whitaker, shows up in Dr. Bank’s office on campus with a recording of the voices from the beings inside those beans. She’s recruited along with Dr. Ian Donnelley (Jeremey Renner) a scientist, to enter the craft and try to communicate with the heptapods, labeled for each having seven legs.
Most of the film is about the process of trying to record and decode the heptapods, named Abbott and Costello by Dr. Donnelley. It is a arduous process that requires patience. Something the politicians and military leaders don’t have. The filmmakers inject bursts of how the other eleven sites are progressing around the world, as well as military-political aspects are influencing the mission.
Predictable world chaos ensues. People panic. The military overreaches. Countries collaborate at first, but over time mutual distrust causes them to drop off the grid, keeping their growing lakes of data for themselves. As if that will save their way of life, while others are eliminated by the current disruptors.
Despite all those side stories the filmmakers need to deal with, they make ample time for the real stuff. Arrival is about learning, communication and above all understanding. Dr. Banks insists on focusing on the the basics to build vocabulary and understand syntax to avoid dangerous confusion later on. She and Ian work together and slowly decode the heptapod’s language and begin to hold primitive dialogue. Mr. Heisserer’s script demonstrates her reasoning.
Her persistence and instinct is recognized by Colonel Weber, who allows her the space she needs to make a connection. Over time she removes her hazmat suit and lets them see what she really is.
The most interesting scenes in the film involve Dr. Banks’ encounters with the heptapods. She is able to show them she’s serious and respects them. Their speech is meaningless, but when they write, it’s art, poetry and meaning integrated in circular symbols. We realize that all new things require building blocks. The present cannot understand the future without them. In a way, Arrival is a parent / child relationship story. The heptapods and humans play both roles in order to make the connection and understand each other’s basic objectives.
Watching Arrival propelled me back to many other films that fall into this category. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. All thee films explored this fascinating and important theme of being an earthling in a world where there are non-earthlings. What if we’re not alone and what would happen when we found out we weren’t?
Arrival takes it a step further by intertwining the heptapods with the psyche of Dr. Banks, who has unusual powers of intuition for a human. Those gifts (or not) led her to make some decisions in her life which cast her into an relentless unhappiness. In the end she finds her compass and so do the heptapods. Each of their missions can be considered, for now at least, a success. It’s only the beginning.
The technical aspects of this picture are excellent. Ms. Adams stands out for her courage and ability to manage this overwhelming situation. The soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is hard to listen to outside the context of the images of the film. Works on screen, but is a bit repetitious.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score can be heard on Spotify.
I would recommend this picture not only for its cinematic craftsmanship but as a reminder that we live in a vast and mysterious universe. It helped me move beyond the hype-moments we see today.
The Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will will hold their 88th award ceremony Sunday, February 28th. I will not be discussing the over indexing of whiteness among the nominees, except to say it is something that certainly needs to be addressed. My interest here lies in the films, filmmakers and artists that were nominated by the Academy.
2015 brought us a raft of thoughtful, sometimes uneasy and exciting films, including pictures and performances that didn’t make the coveted short list. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq comes to mind. His films are always on a mission and he tackled a huge problem we have here in Chicago.
Overall I feel we seem to be on an upturn of quality out of Hollywood lately, potentially teetering on entering a period that blends eras, as excellent artists who have paved a path mixed with new, emerging talent. We got to see once again Charlotte Rampling, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Sylvester Stallone. All excellent performances that bring back the emotional memories only the art of film can divine.
The major film studios dominated the noms as usual, with Fox leading the way with 12 (see table below). Tech firms like Netflix and Amazon are trying to carve out their own slice of original content, but they seem better suited for the smaller screen format and have yet to master the vast drama needed for the main cinematic stage. Netflix did have 2 noms, both documentaries. Turns out some industries are harder to disrupt than others.
Hollywood is still holding on to the sequels/remake formula (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed). They are doing a better job at selection than in the past. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly wasn’t phoned in. However, I’m thankful it was a small list, leaving more room for original stories. The material that made it into production was top shelf. A discriminating mix of stories derived from books (The Big Short, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn), journalism (Spotlight), culture (Straight Outta Compton), icons (Steve Jobs, Trumbo), organized crime (Sicario, Cartel Land), dystopian artificial intelligence (Ex Machina), complex relationships (Carol, Anomalisa,The Danish Girl, Inside Out, Room) and finance (The Big Short). Then of course there’s that stand alone category called; Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).
We are seeing cinematic technology become more and more digital which lets filmmakers do things that were very difficult to do on celluloid. CGI dominates, but a number of films chose a more traditional approach to making their film. In Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle shot the first act on 16mm, the second act in 35mm and the last act on digital. Likewise, For The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino dipped deep into the Panavision vault for original 70mm lenses and had them retrofitted to the current camera format, complete with larger than normal film magazines. The result was stunning.
On the other hand, acting performances do not necessarily benefit from technology advances – in fact they can make it harder (Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina) to connect with the audience. Many of the performances this year rose above the project, escaping the gravitational pull of the story. Writers worked over time to give them this power and pitch perfect dialog. It was indeed a choice year for actors and they took full advantage of this prime opportunity to cultivate characters and perhaps, for a few moments, wrest the helm away from the director.
I’m changing my prediction format this year. Instead of listing my picks, I’m dividing them into who I think should win (my pick) and who I believe the Academy will pick. I wondered why so many are doing that, but then I realized it gives one wiggle room. It gets harder each year. Here goes.
Actress in a Leading Role
Should win and Will win: Brie Larson for Room. Space, time, parenthood and courage in the face of agony conspired against Joy to go on for years with her small son. Ms. Larson’s performance shattered that tiny skylight in the Room. By the way, the boy, Jacob Tremblay was amazing.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Should win: Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs – Will win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. The energy inside the inspired three part script of Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin was a marvel in word arrangement. Ms. Winslet took those words and never looked back. Then we have Ms. Vikander. When you look at her versatility you are in awe. Her Ava in Ex Manicha was calculated and cunning; hidden away in the novelty of her artificial intelligence. In The Danish Girl she was exactly the opposite. Not made up of 0’s and 1’s, but deep emotions for her husband who lost his gender.
Actor in a Leading Role
Should win: Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs – Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. Mr. Fassbender combined dialog mastery, comic timing, anger and crass genius in his portrayal, not of Steve Jobs, but of an inventor for the mind. Mr. DiCaprio will win and he deserves to be recognized for his growing body of excellent work. Go back and look at his portrayal of Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Exactly. I was not a fan of The Revenant, but I very much respect the work as a whole.
Actor in a Supporting Role
Should win: Christian Bale for The Big Short – Will win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed. I will not be that guy who denies Mr. Stallone another chance to be recognized, Rocky Balboa is a fixture of hope and victory done with hard work. Nailed it. However, Mr. Bale delivered something quirky and entertaining, while being smart and, oh yes, right under extreme pressure. And it was a true story.
Should win and Will win: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight. Outstanding and courageous effort to revisit a coverup by the Catholic Church that impacted so many for so long. Mr. Singer and Mr. McCarthy recreated the time and temperature of Boston in an unflinching, but respectful manner. Their ensemble cast took it over the finish line.
Should win and Will win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short. One would have thought it was impossible to turn Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations into entertainment. Turns out you need a lot of F-words. The screenplay extracts the essence of Michael Lewis’ book and spins it at a hundred miles an hour. It’s not perfect, but there is not a fraudulent bone in it’s body.
Should win: Hank Corwin The Big Short – Will win: Margaret Sixel forMad Max: Fury Road. This is probably the most difficult category to call. Both Mr. Corwin and Ms. Sixel were faced with how to assemble the footage given them by the director. I leaned to Mr. Corwin because the way the film was shot offered many more possible ways the film could be cut. In a way they took the same path; orchestrated collision. Without their ability to manage the heartbeat, these films would have turned out less thirst quenching.
Should and Will win: Ennio Morricone forThe Hateful Eight. The ultimate composer/maestro gets better as he gets older. I listened to this score before seeing the film and my reaction was guarded. It didn’t captivate me. But once I saw the film with his powerful score supporting it, I was hooked. Cinematic orchestra does not get any better than this. His arrangements are complex and layered and lead the film’s sentiment.
Should win and Will win: Richard Richardson for The Hateful Eight. Here we have one of the greatest, working cinematographers who raids the Panavision vault of their 70mm lenses and adapts it to current day motion picture technology. The result is beyond parallel. If you missed 70mm Road Show you certainly missed a once in a lifetime experience. This large story and even larger dialog demanded a big window. Mr. Richardson gave it the biggest window available.
Production Design Should win: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road – Will win: Jack Fisk for The Revenant. So many films could be in contention for this award. Mr. Gibson turned a dictatorship desert into something beyond belief. On the flip side we have Mr. Fisk who had the same task but with wilderness. This one is a toss up. It will depend on which landscape the Academy prefers.
Costume Design Should win and Will win: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. The Academy likes to award costume to period pieces. And yes, that’s very tempting indeed. In Mad Max we get a new period piece and it’s inspired. The reason this stands out is because of the sheer number of different tribes that need wardrobe.
Should win and Will win: Makeup Department for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only way the Academy would not pick this is the sheer number of people involved in creating the amazing makeup. There were 53 professionals needed to pull off the many looks.
Should win and Win win: John Lasseter, Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera and Andrew Stanton for Inside Out. Depth of story combined with a terrific script and voice performances make this a sure bet. The level of animation storytelling that can be achieved is startling these days. Fear, joy, anger, disgust and sadness are acted out in rich vignettes inside the mind of Riley who experiences change and awkwardness. Join the club Joy.
Should win and Will win: Adam McKay for The Big Short. Sometimes it’s timing. Other times it’s timing. So timing is pretty much kind of important. Mr. McKay is all about timing. Certainly there are challenging moments in this picture where it drifts. Perhaps some of the choices are not exactly right. But taken as a whole this film is important. And importance is one of the things a director strives to deliver. Along with truth.
Should win and Will win: The Big Short. An epic entertainment romp through the deep, dark underground of big bank greed. When you have smart people who only want money, everyone else is in for trouble.
Good luck on your picks. But remember, it’s about the films, not the Academy. If you enjoyed, select it.
Oscar nominations by Studio
Photo Credits: Thank you to the studios who allow images from their films to be shared throughout Social Media.
Adam McKay’s take on the bestseller by Michael Lewis is an investigative romp leading up to the financial meltdown that began in 2007. It’s full of colorful characters and even more colorful language. Mr. McKay uses voiceover and direct talking into an always moving, manic camera. He intercuts images, sounds and liberal use of the close-up in an attempt to show us that chaos was taking place, not simple financial transactions.
Picture begins by explaining that banking was essentially a snooze of a career. Boring, “comatose” and not very profitable. That all changed when Lewis Ranieri, bond trader at Salomon Brothers, invented mortgage-backed securities. Essentially mortgage loans, very stable and reliable, are packaged together and are sold as securities to buyers. When Mr. Ranieri did what he did, the Genie was let out of the bottle.
The casting was inspired. We get Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, an awkward but brilliant numbers guy who takes the time to read what’s inside the mortgage packages and takes a bold risk. Burry is not in New York, but California and Mr. Bale plays it laid back and barefoot. We often see him in his office blasting heavy metal music and banging drumsticks on his knees. He wears a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Thorn Guitars logo, a California-based custom guitar company founded by Pete Thorn.
Burry wants to short the mortgage business and gets the big Banks to create an instrument that allows him to do it. He invests $1.3 billion of his small funds money, much to the dismay of his investors.
Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennet who works at Deutsche Bank in New York. He identified the loans were made without proper income verification and many of the borrowers have unacceptably low FICO scores. In short, they were going to default.
A wrong number call to Front Point Partners, a small hedge fund, lets the founder, Mark Baum into the game. Baum is played by Steve Carell who is in constant manic scream mode, fueled by his disgust of big Bank greed and a personal family tragedy that haunts him everyday. Mr. Carell is fantastic from the moment he learns the truth about what’s inside the mortgage-back securities from Vennet, right up until the final scenes when the meltdown unfolds before the whole world.
Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, a retired big time trader now living off the land somewhere in Colorado. He is contacted by Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two guys who started a hedge fund (Brownstone) in their garage and have also gotten wind of the possibility to short the system. They are too small to be taken seriously and don’t have access to the big boy trading desk. That’s where Rickert comes in. Through his connections he enables Brownstone to play.
Based on true events, there is obviously some poetic license taken to condense the events and make them fit inside the 2 hour and 4 minutes running time. The script works hard to weave in easy to understand explanations of complex financial instruments. Chef Anthony Bourdain uses his kitchen and fish to illustrate how bad loans can be magically transformed into something completely new, but still be bad. We even get a scene in a Florida strip club that turns out to be the tipping point for Mark Baum to pull the short trigger on the system.
Ultimately the dominos fall and slowly each of the players sells and makes amazing amounts of money. Especially Jared Vennet, who fondles a check for $47 million, how bonus for the sell.
The picture is often funny but also makes room for a few moments to digest just how much damage the behavior by the Banks and rating agencies did to the economy. Lost jobs, homes, pensions, savings. It all went south quickly.
In his desire to cover as many bases as possible, Mr. McKay hits a few flat notes. The Florida scene seems out of place and the so called debate between Baum and a rival in Vegas is nothing but a couple of personal comments. Despite these minor flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture.
If you Google Mark Baum, you won’t find him. And Mark Baum isn’t the only character in the movie whose name was changed from its real-life counterpart. Ryan Gosling’s character, Jared Vannett, is based on Greg Lippman, a Deutsche Bank trader; Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert is based on Ben Hockett, a partner at Cornwall Capital partners. The only main character in the movie with a non-fiction name is Christian Bale’s role as hedge fund manager Michael Burry.
View the financial crisis full timeline from the Federal Reserve Bank.
Photo Credit: Plan B Entertainment and Regency Enterprises
Mars has long been the muse to writers, scientists and moviemakers. A wikipedia search for “films about Mars” will yield a page that lists 66 titles although many of them were television shows. The most common plot line that emerges when Mars and Earth are in the same script turns out to be mostly bad for Earthlings. We often survive in the end, but, on my, the destruction.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the novel by Andrew Weir with screenplay credit going to Drew Goddard, is all Hollywood. It’s playful and goes out of it’s way to be entertaining. But it should get noticed for something rare. A movie largely about Mars, science and NASA, completely devoid of little green Martians. Thank you Mr. Weir.
The film opens with a group of astronauts already on Mars to continue studies, presumably preparing for colonization. Suddenly a raging storm rolls in and the team must make an emergency launch to avoid their vehicle from tipping over. In their rush, Mark Watney, played with delightful snark by Matt Damon, is left for dead after a horrible accident prior to boarding.
The Captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is riddled with guilt at having left behind a crew member who was in her charge. Ms. Chastain has become one of my favorite actors to watch. Her ability to shape her characters with genuineness, display smartness, not smart-assness, and be an irresistible woman is a winning combination. Mr. Scott is keen on strong women roles and this tradition continues.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is left to tell the world that Astronaut Watney will not be making the return trip with the rest of the crew. He lies in state on the surface of the Red Planet. Mr. Daniels is as reliable as ever, sporting his wide vocabulary and the doing math in his head.
Mr. Weir has given us a futuristic shipwreck story. It’s a classic theme. A solitary survival tale of man vs. his environment against seemingly unsurmountable odds. But Mr. Weir has a major advantage; technology. In this new age much more is possible. Innovation and disruption for once provides hope of survival and not just monetary wealth.
When Wantey regains consciousness he takes us through a series of amazing feats of survival, physical exertion and some kick butt farming. He overcomes one obstacle after another, fulfilling his determination to survive until a rescue mission arrives. Through good old fashioned NASA trained ingenuity, Watney reanimates the Pathfinder hardware from a decades ago mission and uses it to communicate with NASA. The news that Watney is alive causes even more problems for Sanders, who eventually organizes a rescue mission.
The film frequently shows us Watney through the voyeuristic lens of a Go Pro camera, but with his full permission. It’s a video instagram stream that is expanded to include the left behind artifacts of his crew. The most prominent of which is Commander Lewis’ obsession with music from the 1970’s and ’80’s. The lowest rung on the music one hit wonder ladder. Mr. Scott uses those tunes to great effect, but my ears! He did redeem himself when David Bowie’s Starman came across the speakers while Watney gathered his things for another expedition away from home base.
Eventually Sanders has to tell the crew that Watney is still alive, which brings into focus the other major theme of the story, being part of a team. A mission to Mars means you are going to adopt a new family while leaving your existing one behind. It’s a serious commitment. Nothing else matters but your knowledge, your team’s knowledge — carefully designed to fill in the gaps—and the Earthlings at the Johnson Space Center. Space travel is new territory and despite the fact we have been studying it since Galileo, it stands to reason that we are not close to being prepared for what it can bring.
The world is enthralled with Watney’s plight, including the Chinese who offer to help. Soon the United Sates and China are collaborating to bring him home. Eventually, Watney’s crew mates are offered a choice. Come home, or return their ship, the Hermes (The God who protects travelers) around and endure hundreds more days in space. Spoiler alert, yes they decide to rescue Watney.
The final reels of the film are filled with frantic action to capture a now floating Watney, who has launched himself into space with a vehicle placed on Mars in preparation of another mission. It’s all very unrealistic but so enjoyable to watch.
Top notch technical work all around matches the acting performances, all stewarded along by veteran Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. Many will remember the interspersed pop songs that help us laugh during the long, lonely moments. But it’s the deeply intellectual, sonic snippets by Mr. Greyson-Williams that reminds us of the seriousness of each day, while binding together the collective progress of both Watney and the Earthlings.
This is the third year in a row Hollywood has produced a high quality film set in space. Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and now The Martian. I hope this trend continues.
Robert Zemeckis has given us The Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away and Flight. These are formidable works that strike a cultural nerve and straddle past, present and future. Indeed, Mr. Zemeckis has a way of transporting us across the space-time continuum with flair and style. He weaves humanism into his stories of adventure, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to simply entertain.
His latest film, The Walk, seems to be a clear labor of love. It’s based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds. Mr. Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 stands as one of the most amazing human accomplishments ever, driven entirely by necessity, courage and the belief that art should play on a larger stage. His story becomes more important with each passing year we live in a post Tower world. This fact alone is more than a sufficient reason to bring the story back for a modern look.
Mr. Petit named his project le coup. it was by definition done undercover and on a tight budget. There was no investment put into capturing it beyond the amateur photographer accomplices who wore many hats that day, including the unlikely role of archer. Hence we have only grainy and mostly black and white archive images of his amazing feat. James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar winning feature documentary Man on Wire was the first time we got an up close look at Mr. Petit and his carefully planned caper. His documentary is the definitive chronology of what happened in New York on August 7, 1974, and I watch it every year on September 11th.
The Walk borrows heavily from documentary style that includes frequent cuts back to Philippe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perpetually perched on the torch of Lady Liberty. It leverages much of what was in Man on Wire, because that’s what’s written in To Reach the Clouds. It validates Mr. Marsh’s work allowing Mr. Zemeckis to focus his 3D, IMAX, big Hollywood budget on putting us on the high wire.
The early reels of the film seem to be from another story. We learn how Mr. Petit came to be drawn by the lure of the wire. There are sequences from his childhood that briefly include his parents and his early mentor, Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley, who apparently can’t function without his hat or his dogs. He meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Both are street performers in search of a dream. Mr. Petit has his dream clearly defined and is now on a journey to attract the people and fortune to carry it out.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt has taken some flack for his accent in many reviews. When I look at his performance on the whole, he delivers on the things that matter. Heart, passion, drive and art. He captured Mr. Petit’s ability to envision and then achieve something most of us don’t even think about. The quality of his accent is of little importance in my mind.
Philippe and Annie make their way to New York and emerge from the subway to the staggering sight and enormity of the Towers. Momentarily discouraged Philippe is given and opening. A door is left ajar and he runs through it, climbing the stairs to the top of the Tower. Once there. Once he looks at the void between the twins, his will is cemented.
A band of characters is assembled to pull off the caper, but there ends up being just a couple who are committed enough to Philippe’s dream to see it through. On the day they decide to carry out the feat, they face numerous obstacles, all of which are somehow magically disappeared. There was a moment when the cable had been hung and Philippe was ready to make the walk, when a businessman emerged from below, surveyed the situation and simply walked back down without saying a word. Perhaps the Towers themselves somehow intervened, seemingly longing what was likely the only above ground physical connection each would have with the other.
The last forty minutes will make you squirm as the wire walker performs. In the documentary Man on Wire, we don’t see any footage of Philippe walking the wire. Only stills. Mr. Zemeckis gives us that gift in The Walk. We are there for every step on the wire hastily strung and secured. It’s worth seeing in IMAX 3D and if you were ever in the Towers, or gazed up or looked down from the observation deck, be prepared for what you will feel.
The technical aspects of the film are exceptional all around. Highly recommended and rated PG, so take your children and have that discussion. The official website is horrible. I’m so disappointed in how the studios uses their movie sites now.
Photo credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Magnolia Pictures
It takes a while to get into the flow of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s latest film odyssey. But that’s not a problem because with a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes you don’t need to be in a hurry. Mr. Nolan combines a number of narratives and even more visuals into a celestial maze of chaos and hope that holds the survival of human life in the balance.
The story opens as Cooper, played with an easy intensity by Mathew McConaughey, is working his farm somewhere in rural America. It’s set in a world ahead of today and the climate, or blight as it is called, has infiltrated our atmosphere and has been systematically killing off all the food even as it grows in the fields. Things have become so dire that just about all that can be grown now is corn. Cooper lives with his son, Tom and daughter Murphy (Murph). Cooper was a pilot and I think an astronaut, but we don’t get a clear picture. He is a widower and relies on his father-in-law, Donald, played by John Lithgow to help raise his kids.
Murph is a bit of a prodigy and Cooper is an engineer; both are off the IQ charts. The space program has been shut down and funds diverted to trying to solve the food problem, so farms are the new “caretakers” of the future of human existence. Cooper turns his skills to making the farm equipment run autonomously with computer programs and sensors.
One day the field equipment goes haywire and they all head back to Cooper’s house and stop. This the first clue we get that magnetism and gravity will play a very large role in unraveling this interesting weave of a story. Murph claims there’s a ghost in her bedroom and indeed when a super dust storm comes through, a message is spelled out on her hardwood floor. Mr. Nolan has bridged us into an M. Night Shyamalan movie for a few moments. Common, everyday images and goings on, but very much askew. Quickly he moves on.
In a wonderful sonic transition we are launched into space with Cooper commanding the Endurance with three scientists on board, including Ameila Brand (Anne Hathaway). I have always been fascinated at how many people are not fans of Ms. Hathaway. In my opinion her performances are both fragile and strong, and she comes through once again. An interesting debate at a cocktail party might be who was the best space woman; Ryan Stone from Gravity or Amelia Brand. I know Ripley is seething right now. Despite a brief sidetrack, Brand, not unlike Ryan, finds herself being thrust into the role of keeping the mission on track, no matter what.
The Endurance mission is a follow up to the Lazurus Project, which years ago sent brave souls through a wormhole to investigate a number of potential planets on the other side for human colonization. Endurance was to also navigate through that same wormhole and then determine which planet or planets they should visit to see what their previous explorers had found. They are looking for a new earth. Their findings would be radioed back where Ameila’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) could analyze the data. He was preparing to make something quite amazing happen.
Murph has grown up, now being played by Jessica Chastain, and has turned her intellectual skills to helping solve the larger problem of re-colonization. She has teamed up with Professor Brand and they feverishly and tirelessly work to make his theory real.
As you can imagine, a variety of events occur on the mission and a significant amount of time has passed. The Endurance flight members are caught in a time warp thanks to the physics of the wormhole. One minute on the planet they first explore is equal to seven earth years. Things become more dire on earth.
Writing much more would require a spoiler alert notation, which I am always reluctant to do because I prefer my readers see the films. So I’ll leave the story and subsequent details about the ending here with one additional thought. Professor Brand recites a poem written by Dylan Thomas as the Endurance mission breaks through the gravitational pull of the earth.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The technical aspects of the film are nothing short of astounding. From earth to space to the wormhole to the depths of the horizon of a black hole known as Gargantua, our eyes are transported to new worlds. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has lensed a work of art. Mr. Van Hoytema brought us the deep digital look of Her last year and has now propelled film beyond escape velocity into a new dimension. One could compare his work to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights of the wormhole for example. Perhaps it was a homage.
The climax before the climax is fascinating. Mr. Nolan dips us into a condensed world. One where everything exists at all times. All realms of existence available in a single life moment. This story push makes us think harder while at the same time helping us believe what we are seeing. It helps us accept the core of the story.
Hans Zimmer’s score at times also evokes 2001, but he was challenged to score earth, space and a a third dimension wrapped in a dimension that already had five layers. It works, but the visuals overpower the score.
Highly recommended to those with a mind as open as the vastness of space and time.
I first saw The Counselor when it was released in 2013. I was attracted to it because of the strong cast (Brad Pitt, Javier Bardhem, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender), a solid director in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy as the screenwriter. Mr. McCarthy has reached esteemed status as a novelist and his screen adaption of No Country for Old Men in 2007 earned him an Academy Award. He has authored a number of original screenplays but none of them were every brought to the screen until The Counselor.
Coming out of the showing I found myself torn about how I felt about the picture. It was quite dark and intense (good things for me), but I felt it best to put it aside for a while. That “a while” continued. Eventually I did something I rarely do; read reviews of the film. This film evoked quite a lot of backlash. In my unscientific survey the comments were about 80% negative as in WTF did I just see, 15% were completely lost on all levels. If you dug for it, about 5% of critics found some merit.
This led me to a decision not to write a review because the polarizing nature of the reaction left me unsure that I could provide a thoughtful contribution. Time has passed and the Unrated and Extended Version has been released on DVD and Streaming services and so I gave it another longer look.
What I saw this time answered several questions that were hanging for me, even still a few are left open. But the the real power and narrative of this film is more clearly revealed in this longer cut and so, here goes.
The Counselor is a deep, dark odyssey that grabs the main character, The Counselor, played with mashed teeth by Michael Fassbender, and drags him into a world he could never imagine on his own. He is a public defender who has some kind of money trouble he wants to cure quickly so he partners with an old friend on a get rich quick drug deal involving the Mexican Cartel. His fiancee, Laura, is played by the beautiful Penelope Cruz. She unfortunately has the worst part in the film, as the Counselor leaves her completely in the dark even when things go very, very bad.
The director, Ridley Scott, has pretty much taken the entirety of Cormac MaCarthy’s script and brought it to the screen. It’s almost word for word, and those words are heavily stylized and heady. The screenplay is written more in the form of a novel than a script, with most of the ink devoted to dialog instead of atmosphere. You can download a copy of it here.
The Counselor has befriended Reiner played by Javier Bardhem. Mr. Bardhem has black spiky hair, big tinted glasses and a flashy wardrobe. He juts into and out of the frame throughout the film spouting words that long for sentences but are very compelling to listen to with his deep voice and accent. He actually doesn’t deliver the lines. It’s more like his mouth is repeating a script he’s read to many partners over the years, right before they commit to being involved. Reiner always gets to the point by way of not getting there.
REINER You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.
Reiner’s girlfriend is Malkina played by Cameron Diaz who approaches her role with a bleak coldness. Malkina is brilliant, has Reiner wrapped around her finger and is hatching grand designs to get her portion of the take on each deal. You never know what she’s thinking but you know it’s definitely not good.
MALKINA When the world itself is the source of your torment then you are free to exact vengeance upon any least part of it. I think perhaps you would have to be a woman to understand that. And you will never know the depth of your hurt until you are presented with the opportunity for revenge. Only then will you know what you are capable of.
The other key player is Brad Pitt playing Westray. He’s the middleman who brokers two sides (usually more than two sides) so a deal can be done, and charges his fee. Mr. Pitt is the clever street smart one and plays the Texas part with a white Stetson and tailored western suits. As with all Mr. McCormak’s characters he speaks in philosophical riddles that sound confusing, but with a second thought you realize he’s dead on. Here Westray is trying to communicate the seriousness of what they are about to set in motion to the Counselor.
WESTRAY Good word, cautionary. In Scots Law it defines an instrument in which one person stands as surety for another… The problem of course is what happens when the surety turns out to be the more attractive holding.
There are so many people involved in this deal it’s impossible to keep track. You see $20 million attracts a crowd. The meaning of the story lies in the fact that these conversations and events occur in another world. A world far away from the one we live everyday as law biding citizens. Reiner, Malikna and Westray have been inhabiting that world for years. It’s taken their toll on each one in different ways. The Counselor lives in an entirely different world. The world we live in. And thus, that’s why, in my opinion, so many critics had trouble accessing the altered reality that Mr. McCarthy has clearly written and Mr. Scott has so faithfully and rightly preserved in his translation to the screen.
The film propels itself and soon things go wrong, double crosses are set in motion and eventually the violence comes. It’s Coen Brothers style and extremely graphic. The Counselor’s world becomes a free fall into an abyss that we know has a bottom, we just don’t know how far he has to fall until he hits it.
In the end the Counselor gets a one to one conversation with the ultimate Kingpin, Jefe, played by Rubén Blades. Mr. Blades summons all his acting experience which is needed to explain the entire purpose of the story to a hapless and helpless Counselor.
JEFE I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.
…life will not take you back. I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than those it wears, but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less… There will be other worlds. Of course. But they are the worlds of other men and your understanding of them was never more than an illusion anyway.
The Counselor is of another world. Not a film world we are used to seeing with the familiar and expected three acts of beginning, middle and end. This world is very different. It is dark and cautionary, but in it are meaningful performances and lessons.
The technical aspects of this film are top shelf all around. Camera, sound and editing come together nicely. The set decoration and production design deserve strong recognition. A new world needed to be created to offer a fitting stage for this unique story. It was handled skillfully.
I enjoyed Daniel Pemberton’s score. It is a layered and well integrated soundtrack. He ignores the choppiness and wild swings in the script and seamlessly stitches the various worlds together.
I cannot recommend this film to the general public. It is best served to stalwarts of cinema who crave a challenge. If you are one of those, then by all means spin it up. The Counselorofficial movie site relies heavily on an Instagram feed that was used on the run up to the release of the film.
Photos: 20th Century Fox
Dialog excerpts from Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor: A Screenplay (Vintage International Original). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It’s that time again. The Academy hands out their picks for best of every category. They can select 10 films for best picture, but apparently could find only nine worthy of the crown. The pictures span history, deep drama, AIDS, hijacking, swindle and a celestial exploration of the human spirit, untethered in space.
Observations. Although the themes are familiar and tightly bunched, the styles and settings are nicely varied. My overarching take is that Gravity overwhelmes all the others for technical achievement. I’m predicting a mini-sweep for Gravity in the technical categories and the film’s director for being able to successfully stitch it together. The softer, more artistic awards will be sprinkled across the vast field based on the individual effort and ultimate impact they contributed (screenplay, song, etc.) on the film as a complete work. Four of the nine best picture nominees have one word titles. with another two managing to use only two words. The Wolf of Wall Street has no chance.
A decade or more ago I was a whiz at picking these. I would have seen all of them in the theater, many twice. Read Variety each week and closely followed the pop discussions found in the likes of Entertainment Weekly. Much of that study time has been re-purposed by a busy career, fatherhood and being a husband. No complaints from me.
Since my extremely active involvement in film has been reduced, my record of wins has become uneven but that doesn’t deter me from making predictions. Let the annual ritual begin.
Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity
Actor: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Actress: Amy Adams for American Hustle
Actor in a Supporting Role: Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips
Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: American Hustle
Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Animated Feature: Frozen
Film Editing: Gravity
Visual Effects: Gravity
Sound Editing: Captain Phillips
Production Design: The Great Gatsby
Original Score: Alexandre Desplat for Philomena
Original Song: Let it Go from Frozen
Costume Design: The Great Gatsby
One more thing. Can we please stop complaining about how long the awards show runs?
I was contemplating whether or not to blog about why I’m on Twitter and how I use it. My first Tweet was February 23, 2008. For some unremebered reason I put it on my iCalendar that day with a perpetual repeat. The internal food fight of whether I should give it life here went on in my brain for days. Guess which side won? Just couldn’t help myself.
Twitter is now a public company that requires it to adopt a solid business mindset. Quarterly earnings calls, more scrutiny and less tolerance for missteps. The platform continues to evolve as do the people who use it regularly. I’ve been pretty strict about who I follow and I am unfollowing more than ever.
Some still miss the basics after all these years and numerous resources to help do it well. Some of the duh’s are; no profile description, no photo, no location, and on and on. I have begun to use a new measure for who to follow. Their photos and videos. These are the visuals of their feed. I find the selection of what images people share reveals perhaps even more of who they are. If the images are lame, I think twice. If I’m on the following fence after reading a sampling of their Tweets, a compelling image footprint can nudge me to click the follow button. Is it varied? Humorous? Interesting? Numerous? The eye matters as much as the hand.
Today I see less spam on the service and have grown new friends. I’m noticing a cycling of connections. There’s a group of people one engages with for a period of time, then they fall out of the river of characters. You check back and find they’ve unfollowed you. I don’t’ take it personal. Chalk it up to the natural flow of life.
The parody accounts are becoming more interesting. There’s a whole cast of Mad Men accounts that are hilarious to engage with. They take it seriously. I haven’t gotten into following celebrity or sports figures. Most of the people I’m interested in wouldn’t follow back or engage. Many may have their PR teams reply.
I have engaged in dialog with Tom Peters, the business genius who wrote “In Search of Excellence” and invented the term MBWA, Managing by Wandering Around. I’ve heard him speak and have learned so much from him about many things. He followed me back years ago and we connected from time to time. In one exchange he gave me real mentoring advice and challenged me to get better. That would have never occurred without Twitter. Mr. Peters continues to follow me.
I’m keen on film. Have you noticed? I became hooked in the 1970’s and ’80’s, which were the best decades for movies during my lifetime. One of the producers I admired was Robert Evans. He was the real Hollywood in my book. He ran Paramount Pictures and turned it into a profit machine for the then parent company Gulf+Western. During his tenure the studio turned out an impressive list of pictures including; Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, The Italian Job, True Grit, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, Save the Tiger, The Conversation and The Great Gatsby.
I responded to a random Tweet from someone that had attached a photo of Mr. Evans in his prime, sitting by the pool reading a stack of scripts. My response to that Tweet was followed up a few days later by a follow from Mr. Evans. He followed me! Another Twitter moment. Having that brush with history was a thrill. As of the writing of this post Mr. Evans continues to follow me.
The longer one is on Twitter and maintains connections, the more of a view one gets into life’s passages. People get fired, start businesses, become ill, get married, grow older. You name it they express it on Twitter in 140 characters. I love the spontaneity. One’s true self comes front and center when they commit to Twitter.
I don’t spend much time thinking about how long I’ll stay engaged on Twitter. I’ll know when it’s time to fade away.
The Department of if You Care: Previous blog posts on my Twitter adventure: 2013, 2011, 2008.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has the ability to nominate ten films for best picture in any given year. In the 1930’s and 1940’s eight to twelve films were nominated, but in the 1950’s there was a conscious decision to limit it to five. In 2009 that rule changed, allowing ten films to be nominated. This has helped films that can’t afford to lobby the Academy members to be on the ballot for the top prize. Ever since that change ten films indeed were nominated each year up until 2013. This year’s crop consists of only nine.
The Academy has also evolved the category name several times outlined below.
1927/28 — 1928/29: Academy Award for Outstanding Picture
1929/30 — 1940: Academy Award for Outstanding Production
1941 — 1943: Academy Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
1944 — 1961: Academy Award for Best Motion Picture
1962 — present: Academy Award for Best Picture
Which one of the nine nominated films was your favorite? I’m not asking you to try and predict which film may win. Which one did you enjoy most?
Was your favorite not on the nominated list? Let me know what it was and why.
Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street, Mean Streets, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.
It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.
I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.
When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.
Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.
Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.
Black Monday was Belfort’s first day as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.
He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.
From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.
Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.
As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.
We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.
DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.
Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.