The White Dawn is a rugged, cold, manly film, directed with an intense muscularity by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers). Released in 1974, the film tells the story of three whalers who become stranded in the Arctic Circle in 1896, and details their rescue by Inuit strangers. Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr. are the three men trapped in the barren tundra, unaware of how their cultural differences could potentially lead them down a path of violent conflict with their saviors. Shot on location on Baffin Island in Northern Canada, the film feels desolate and forbidding, with the constant snow and wind peppering the visuals and soundtrack with an icy chilliness that you can feel in your bones. What’s more, the filmmakers employed authentic dialect on the part of the Inuit characters, in many instances sans English subtitles, which ratchets up the tension and the verisimilitude of the entire project. Based on the 1971 novel The White Dawn: An Eskimo Saga, original author James Houston was able to co-write the screenplay with producer Martin Ransohoff and Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter), which details how the whalers ingratiate themselves into the Inuit tribe, and then how they slowly try to take control over the group by foisting their American/European values on a group of people who have become accustomed to a VERY particular way of life. Warren Oates makes the biggest impression (no surprise) out of the trio of rapscallions, playing a boozer who is more than happy to teach the natives the values of the drink and gambling, while Bottoms’s affair with one of the women certainly raises some local eyebrows. But the most impressive aspect of this production was clearly the physical demands that Kaufman placed on his brave crew and dedicated cast, many of whom were clearly amateurs. There are shots that defy logic (especially for the time and on the relative miniscule budget when compared with today’s blockbuster standards), with Michael Chapman’s bleak cinematography offering up a blunt, unassuming, and matter of fact view of this harsh lifestyle, while the musical score by Henry Mancini is appropriate in all respects, never overpowering the story, but contributing to the overall sense of exploration and finally dread that settles in for the characters. This is a macho stuff, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes survival based cinema.
**CAUTION – SPOILERS**
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
-The First History Man
George Miller’s Fury Road is the most progressive, thematically subversive, studio-funded blockbuster I’ve ever seen. Last weekend, upon first viewing, I was totally overwhelmed and gob-smacked by the intense physicality of the production; it felt as if my eye-balls were melting. Today’s second viewing has confirmed it: The is not only the best action movie of my lifetime, but it’s easily one of the best, most visually creative, and all together absorbing films – in any genre – that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Now that I knew what to expect from this beast on a narrative and physics-defying level, I was able to really sit back and allow the story, of which there’s plenty, to wash over me, along with those pulse-pounding visuals matched by the thoroughly amazing musical score, instead of just staring in slack-jawed amazement at the screen. This is the most disciplined summer movie that I can think of, not a hair over two hours, knowing exactly when to call it quits, ending on a narratively satisfying note that doesn’t require a sequel to be fully pleased with. It’s also, without question, one of the finest (and most overt) Anti-Religion statements to come out of Hollywood in a long while; Miller clearly shows a disdain for the notion of blind worship, and it’s exhilarating to see all of the pieces come crashing down around Immortan Joe, a brilliant creation that seems like a visual and sonic hybrid of Darth Vader and Bane with all sorts of psychological internal logic that’s gone greatly askew. This is the strangest movie ever to carry such a lofty price-tag, and when coupled with the decidedly adult R-rating, it’s a film that boldly changes the game for all other impending spectacles. I’ve grown increasingly tired of the Marvelization of action films, with the PG-13 rating blurring the line repeatedly between honesty and disservice – give me something that grabs me by the balls (and heart) like Fury Road any day of the week over the latest exploits of computer-crafted superheroes who constantly need to deliver a joke at the end of all the mayhem.
Miller shrewdly uses CGI only in spots that are absolutely necessary (the sand-storm, body replacement, crowds of extras), and even more so than the first time, the stunt work and assorted acts of bodily insanity are positively transfixing to behold. This movie is bonkers at all times, showing you sights that you’ve never seen before – and to be honest – why else should we be going to the movies other than to see something new and exciting and potentially unhinged from the cookie-cutter norm. And when Miller unleashes his big CGI money shot right at the close of the final action scene, it’s all the more impressive and allowable, because he’s gone out of his way NOT to bombard you with stuff that takes you out of the reality of the situation. Even during the big sand-storm set-piece, there’s a surreality to the visuals that cancels out any feelings of artificiality; it’s here that Miller embraces the pop-art aspects of comic-book-inspired filmmaking and takes it to the extreme, way past the next level, practically inventing new levels along the way. But Miller isn’t just content to slam us with insane action scenes – he demands that we pay attention to the kinky subtext and surreal flights of fancy. Those lactating obese women chained up to produce gallons upon gallons of “Mother’s Milk;” the Crazy Electric Guitar Guy who serves as a version of a Revolutionary War-era bugle boy who just so happens to be wearing a mask made from the facial skin of his dead mother (or so said an interview/article I just read…); the willowy and sad “stilt-people” who are glimpsed during that eerie mid-film sequence bathed in varying shades of desert nighttime blue, suggesting years of forgotten starvation; the extrication of a dead fetus from its recently slain mother, a woman who would rather have been killed (along with her unborn child) if it meant that she’d have to spend any more time under the power of Immortan Joe – this is a filmmaker who threw it ALL in there, and it all adds up to a wild explosion for the eyes, ears, and brain.
The final 30 minutes are tantamount to the best extended action scene ever devised, inviting a sense of awe and loony madcap into the proceedings which felt cut from the same exuberant cloth that Miller’s masterful Babe: Pig in the City originated from; the bad guys swaying back and forth on those long pogo-sticks are a dead ringer for Babe and all of his animal friends swinging from the rafters of the grand ball-room at during the wild climax of Pig in the City. The editing by Miller’s wife, Margaret Sixel, is beyond incredible to witness, as thousands of cuts rush before your eyes yet still retaining a coherent fluidity, not to mention an extreme emphasis being placed on geography and spatial distance between characters and objects. Exposition is close to non-existent, backstory is conveyed visually, hokey dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the primal, internal method-acting stylings of Tom Hardy brilliantly counterbalance the unleashed ferocity and fuck-it-all-attitude of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who will go down in history as one of the greatest action heroes of all time. Sick and tired of seeing the five captured women being raped and humiliated (because, after all, that’s what these women are – rape victims), she says enough is enough, and kicks anyone’s ass who comes into contact with her. Nicholas Hoult is spectacular, even more so on second glimpse, as an alliance shifting Warboy, a slave to Immortan Joe, who really loves to spray that silver paint in his mouth to get that one last high right before he heads off to Valhalla. I fucking LOVED this movie on every single level. You have your head in the sand if you’re ignoring this monumental piece of cinema. As I said last weekend – cancel the rest of the summer movie season because nothing will be this show-stopping, this visceral, this in your face. Miller has bitched-slapped everyone. The contempt that he shows for the ideas of mass worship were bracing and awesome for a non-believer such as myself, and I loved how the unrelenting energy of the entire film extends from one scene to the next, even when the story is clearly trying to catch its breath, which is a nearly impossible task. John Seale’s radiant and eye-popping cinematography at times recalls the work of David Lean, shooting vistas with a master’s touch, and then getting up close and personal to the vehicular destruction and carnage that is so lovingly displayed in real-time with real stunt men and women and real explosions and real debris and real sand and real smoke by people who seemingly could have cared less for their safety. Make no mistake – I’ll see this film again for a third time in theaters.
I’m a big fan of vigilante revenge movies. Harry Brown is a terrific example of an effective genre piece, stripped down to its base elements, shoving a nasty and grim narrative in our faces, and providing for an excellent performance from Michael Caine as a widowed Royal Marine veteran who becomes incensed over the violence and depravity lurking in the shadows of his hardscrabble neighborhood. He gets especially pissed off when his best friend is despicably murdered by a group of thugs. Aggressively directed by Daniel Barber from a ruthless screenplay by Gary Young, Harry Brown lives in the same world as potent flicks like Death Wish and Gran Torino, offering up a nasty set of violent showdowns that pit Caine against a series of young hoodlums, who are slinging drugs, murdering innocents, and showing a casual disregard for human decency. I get a charge out of seeing bad things happen to bad people, so a film like this one is right up my alley, playing to my primal instincts, allowing for amazing emotional catharsis as Caine dispatches one piece of human garbage after another. Emily Mortimer is solid as a local cop looking into the various crimes that feature in the hostile and angry story; there’s a bitterness that permeates almost every scene of this dark, sordid film. If you don’t get a charge out of seeing Caine taking out the trash, and make no mistake – the baddies in this film are ugly and BAD – then I’m not sure what to tell you. Extremely well written with great observations and insights into the damaged male psyche and directed with a violent urgency that compliments the slow-burn nature of Caine’s work and Young’s hard-charging script in general, Harry Brown will make you sit up and take notice, as it’s a film that shows you societal ugliness right up front, never taking the audience out of the grips of a brooding, sometimes nightmarish scenario where anyone is fair game. A pre-Unbroken/Starred Up/’71 Jack O’Connell has an small but impressive role as one of the weaker hoodlums, who becomes prey to Caine’s unrelenting sense of vengeance.
I had an absolutely highlarious time watching the long lost cult classic An American Hippie in Israel. Made without an ounce of filmmaking polish by Israeli writer/producer/director Amos Sefer, this aggressively asinine counterculture relic from 1972 was recently rediscovered, refurbished, and released on Blu-ray by that fine man of cinematic idiocy Bob Murawksi over at Grindhouse Releasing. Clearly, the film was made with a purpose and intent, but the filmmaking chops are so non-existent that you just sit back and groove with the shenanigans, if you’re up for this sort of demented and stony silliness. I kept asking myself throughout the first hour — why is there an echo quality to the dialogue and a laugh track, as I was totally not getting the importance or significance of having a studio-audience-esque laugh track accompanying every scene. Maybe for a stab at satire? Maybe just to be a clown? Then, about an hour into the film, I realized that the disc had booted up with the “New Beverly Audio Experience” special feature, where you get to hear a live audience’s reaction to a special screening of the film. that was recorded in Los Angeles at the famed theater. LOL. Then, I figured, what the hell, I’ll watch the rest with the Hebrew subtitles running at the bottom of the screen, because, well, why the hell not? Was everyone literally blasted while making this film?
There’s blatant amateurish laughter from almost every main performer and extra that the camera passes by, and the film was clearly made with a love for the ideas but without a shred of filmmaking prowess. Honestly, it’s perfectly terrible in every department, with the “narrative” resembling a loose jumble of scenes and ideas, revolving around a 20-something American hippie and Vietnam war veteran named Mike (the impressively horrendous Asher Tzarfati), who travels to Israel after serving time in the war. He hitchhikes a ride with three random strangers, who then take him to an island community of hippies and freeloaders, where they can live a life of peace and harmony, while frequently undressing and ragging on the government, ripping doobies and often times twirling around in place. But the revelers are not without their issues, as a seemingly random set of bullying mimes show up from time to time to inexplicably annoy the crunchies; my guess is that they are supposed to represent “The Man,” who Mike is so agitated with all throughout the story.
There are lots of scenes of people driving in a convertible along the Israeli coast, lots of detours for dirty, unkempt lovemaking, tons of female nudity, with the addition of a live goat spicing up the proceedings for a bit. The film ends in fabulously chaotic fashion with tons of screaming, yelling, phony violence, and arm flailing. It all has to be seen to be believed. It’s wildly funny at times, whether intentional or not, and it’s never boring despite it feeling wholly slapdash and incredibly off-kilter. Ya’ackov Kallach’s cinematography is actually kind of cool to look at despite the budget being obviously low. Tzarfati gives a fabulously terrible lead “performance,” seemingly inventing new wave-lengths of awfulness as his performance “progresses.” Driving in circles seemed like THE thing to do!
Out of all of the films that David Mamet has directed that I’ve personally seen (House of Games, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, State and Main, Heist, Redbelt, and Phil Spector), his underrated 2004 effort Sparta is easily my favorite. Mamet has long been one of my favorite writers (ask me about the letter I wrote to him in high school…!) and I loved how ballsy this political action thriller is, and I’ll always be continually fascinated with the i…dea that he wrote pretty much the entire film in code and technical jargon — you REALLY have to listen to what’s being said in this ultra-cryptic film. Not that it’s not coherent, it is, it’s just that nothing is traditionally spelled out, and you definitely have to be up for some back-story digging and you’ll need to be able to make some logic jumps on your own.
The film has a 70’s meets the 90’s vibe, with a pessimistic narrative and slick cinematography; the climatic sequence at a private jet hangar is shot with some seriously awesome lens flare POWER, and I loved how gritty Mamet made the early training sequences, where we see two potential black ops recruits being placed in a room, and being told that only one of them is allowed to leave alive. Val Kilmer, on paper, may not have seemed like a logical choice for Mamet’s brand of staccato and stylized dialogue beats, but he’s right at home in one of his best, most focused performances. The excellent supporting cast includes Ed O’Neill as a take-no-bull-shit government worker, Derek Luke as Kilmer’s partner, William H. Macy as a corrupt government official, Clark Gregg, Steven Culp, Johnny Messner, Tia Texada, the always great Said Taghmaoui, and Kristen Bell as the president’s daughter, who has been kidnapped and potentially sold into the EurAsian sex-slave market, with Kilmer and his team trying to relocate her before the press catches wind of the situation.
The events in this film are often far fetched, but I never cared, because everyone takes it so damn seriously, and with Kilmer leading the charge in a totally committed and visceral performance, any plot contrivances are made up for with the ear-catching dialogue that’s filled with numerous lines worthy of quotation and the propulsive direction that Mamet brought to the table. “Where’s the girl?” POWER.
I love Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian has a nearly flawless track record as a big-gun Hollywood screenwriter, and his directorial efforts have also been excellent (A Civil Action and the underrated All the King’s Men), but his first film is a nearly perfect, humanistic piece that zeroes in on character in a way that few dramas ever dare, especially when considering that the film is told through the POV of a 10 year old chess prodigy, who likely has some developmental and social anxieties, if not outright disorders. I’ve been obsessed with this film for over 20 years. I viewed it in the theater at 13 years of age, it was a go-to film when it endlessly played on HBO back in the day, and throughout the years, I’ve turned to this great, unassuming, patient work at least once every 365 days on my well-worn DVD, because it reminds me of how effective a simple story can be when the acting is extra-precise and when the writing compliments the direction and vice versa. It also helps to have Conrad Hall calling the shots behind the camera; this is yet another beautifully textured and composed piece of work from one of the most legendary of cinematographers ever to grace the medium.
The plot centers around a kid named Josh who is discovered to be a chess whiz by his parents and family members. They encourage his passion and gift, which leads him to an extremely intense and strict instructor named Bruce (played with devilish charm by Ben Kingsley), who pushes young Josh both emotionally and psychologically to be the best chess talent he can be, along with never forgetting how to be a decent person along the way, without sacrificing a competitive edge. Bruce continually hypes up and compares Josh to chess great Bobby Fischer, allowing the youth to develop the idea that one day, he might be as great as that iconic yet mysterious figure. There’s also an affecting subplot between Josh and a speed-chess hustler named Vinnie, perfectly captured with great spirit and flair by Laurence Fishburne. And let’s not forget about the incredibly moving family dynamics between Josh and his parents, played by the brilliant team of Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen, both of whom radiate warmth and respect and support for their son, even under the most trying of situations and circumstances.
And over the course of the film, it’s remarkable to witness Josh become his own person, after so many others have projected what they want him to be or to become, without ever asking Josh what it is that he really wants to do. The lead performance from then eight year old Max Pomeranc is nothing short of sensational; there are adults who have been acting for years who don’t come close to the complexity that he delivered in this challenging piece of work. It’s also interesting to note that Pomeranc was an actual chess player before filming began (even appearing on a Top 100 list for his age group, according to Wikipedia), and that he never went on to act in another substantial film again. But he’ll always have his tremendous performance in this amazing film to hold close to his heart. Zaillian has long been a considerable talent, expertly balancing his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the studios who are always courting him for big adaptations or structural work. It’s not hard to see why. This is a great film and Zaillian is a class act.
The Offence is a deeply upsetting movie, thoroughly downbeat, and anchored by a riveting performance from Sean Connery, who was clearly working overtime to shed the image of James Bond in his first post-franchise starring role. Directed with customary precision and intensity by Sidney Lumet, this is a stagy, depressing film that pits Connery, playing a dogged British detective who has seen one horrible crime too many, going up against a supposed child rapist/killer, played with menace and questionable intentions by Ian Bannen. Most of the action is confined to an interrogation room, a room which is continually made to feel smaller and smaller thanks to the expert camera placement and air-tight editing, which goes a long way in producing a disquieting and unnerving sense of claustrophobia. There were some early visual cues that reminded me of what Roger Deakins was going for in some stretches of the similarly themed kidnapping film Prisoners, and I loved how Connery never wavered from delving into such a disturbing lead role, one that was clearly intriguing to him for being so far removed from the screen-defining role of 007. The early sequence where Connery discovers the narrative’s chief victim is scarily believable and tears-inducing (for me, anyways…), and it was a further reminder of how when a scene is so well directed, fear and tension cab be so well conveyed without ever resorting to gratuitous tricks. But when Lumet wants you to feel the punches and taste the sweat and blood, he’s not afraid to unleash an ass-kicking, but it’s never unimportant to the narrative, or without motivation from the characters, which always makes for a more honest story. The themes of revenge and transference are probingly discussed and the finale, while mildly ambiguous, allows for the viewer to know that nothing will ever be OK for the people within the framework of this relentlessly grim worldview. United Artists released The Offence in 1973, and while it would be a box office disappointment (it was barely given a European release with the country of France skipped entirely), it has gained a reputation for being a unique item in Lumet’s massive filmography, and a challenging piece for Connery, who should have gotten more respect for his work on this film at the time of its release. Also, it must be noted: Connery says the phrase “bloody” a lot in this film. A bloody ton. It’s sort of comical.
The staggering and wildly undervalued 2004 film A Very Long Engagement is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking, representing the greatest and grandest achievement yet for visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I feel that’s saying something, as this is the man responsible for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen, to name just a few (the latter two being collaborations with Marc Caro). Melding the bubbly romantic whimsy of Amelie to the gritty and grimy battlefields of WWI, this is a true genre-bender, a war film with a bleeding, aching heart, boasting a finale that’s incredibly poignant without being overly sentimental; it never fails to devastate during the final moments. It’s utterly criminal that this film was buried with a half-hearted domestic release by Warner Independent (why bother getting involved in the first place if you’re aren’t interested in supporting an endeavor such as this one?!) and it’s a joke that the film is only available as a Region B Blu-ray (thankfully, I have a Region Free player). Hollywood has long held a fascination with all aspects of WWII, with WWI movies in short supply by comparison; every future film to explore the rigors of trench war fare should be compared to this one. Jeunet co-adapted the storybook-style screenplay with Guillaume Laurant from the original novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and he brought his handmade style to every facet of this enormous and elaborate production. I adored his idea to shoot some of the flashback scenes in Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black and white, which gives those beats the sense of archival footage, when in reality, they feel like their own short film embedded into this massive canvass of people, places, and things.
The busy narrative of A Very Long Engagement pivots on five French soldiers, all of whom have been convicted of self-mutilation in an effort to ditch their remaining service time and be sent home and away from the horrors of battle. One of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Audrey Tautou), and all he can do to mentally survive is continually think of her and how strong the love is between the two of them. Sent to “no-man’s land” (the highly dangerous and deadly area of land in between the French and German lines), Manech and the other solider-prisoners meet their individual fates in ways that I won’t dare spoil, but I will allow that the tale is told in slight Rashomon style, with various versions of the events explained to Mathilde as she works to put the mysterious pieces together of her future husband’s whereabouts. She sets off on an epic quest with the help of a private investigator to collect information and meet the wives of the other four soldiers that Manech was condemned to death with, leading her to some truly dark and upsetting revelations, but despite all of the sadness around her, she never gives up hope in finding the one person she loves the most. There’s a poet’s sense of the fragility of life on display all throughout this carefully mounted film, and the intricate storyline engrosses the audience immediately from the start, with the startlingly beautiful images washing over the viewer like a suffocating lather of exquisiteness. Bruno Delbonnel’s bronze-tinted and utterly ravishing cinematography, is, simply put, some of the best I’ve ever seen on a big screen, small screen, whatever size screen. Each shot is post-card ready, boasting immaculate vistas, raw and immediate battle footage with lots of graphic carnage, a sumptuous color palette, and grand and sweeping camera movements that defy logic and give you perspectives that you’d never expect. A late set-piece involving an exploding hydrogen blimp inside of a makeshift triage center is horrifying and beyond comprehension, and the various sequences of bloody combat are handled with extreme technical finesse without ever sacrificing grit and muck.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with the appropriate supporting actors hitting their moments of expertly placed comedy in perfect ways to lighten the dramatic load, while Tautou and Ulliel are left to do the majority of the heavy emoting and dramatic lifting, and both are more than up to the task. Exuding a palpable chemistry and a deep longing for each other that’s wonderful and heartrending, the two of them were a perfect match. Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster both have knock-out extended cameos, especially Foster, and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon makes his customary appearance. A Very Long Engagement would only be nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the Oscars (rightfully so, but predictably, it won neither award; The Aviator took both), which seems massively shortsighted, but because this film wasn’t a true Hollywood production, it was up to the French government to select their country’s film for Academy consideration, and they didn’t go to bat for A Very Long Engagement. I’ll never understand why. The film grossed $70 million theatrically worldwide, with only $6.5 million of that total coming from United States ticket buyers, a fact that makes me sick to my stomach. This is epic, massive filmmaking of the highest order, made by an artist who is totally in love with all of the visual and narrative possibilities of the filmic form, and I’ll always be blown away by the handcrafted feel that A Very Long Engagement possesses; it’s so enormous yet at the same time feels so intimate and fragile, an attribute that’s incredibly hard to find.