Friday, January 27, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life'

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life

Dir: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack

Scr: Terry Ramsaye

Pho: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison

Ed: Terry Ramsaye, Richard P. Carver

Premiere: March 20, 1925

71 min.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is one of the most extraordinary records ever put on film. It captures a way of life thousands of years old, before modern technology eliminated it. The second important ethnographic documentary to be released, after Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, it vividly illustrates film’s ability to bring us sights we might otherwise have never seen, lost to history forever.

Merian C. Cooper was a journalist and explorer. Ernest Schoedsack was an adventurous cameraman. Marguerite Harrison was a journalist and part-time spy for the U.S. Together, they conceived of making a documentary about Kurdish tribes in Turkey, but when they got there they found the prospect wasn’t as photogenic as they had hoped. Casting about for a subject, they came upon word of the Bakhtiari people of southeastern Iran. After an interminable journey across Turkey and Arabia, and after much negotiation, the three were allowed to accompany the Baba Ahmedi tribe on their yearly migration.

The tribe, consisting of 50,000 members, and trailing half a million horses, cattle, goats, and sheep, made the trip from the withered grasslessness of valley summer to the high plains of the mountains every year – a 48-day journey that involved crossing a half-mile-wide river and ascending a 12,000-foot mountain range. The grueling migration kept the flocks and herds in fodder year-round.

The film traces this journey. The sights becoming more and more impressive as the film goes on. To cross the River Karun, the tribesmen must create rafts held up by inflated goat skins, and ferry their livestock and all their possessions from one bank to another, a process taking six full days. The extreme peril undergone by all involved is astonishing. After this comes a climb over the mountains, through thick snow, to mountain pasturage. The Bakhtiari hack a path through the snow with picks and shovels; the tribe makes its way over the crest in bare feet.

All the camerawork is incredible – night shots, early in the film, are Rembrandtian, and the rest is carefully framed and observed. (The intertitles are jokey and condescending.) One particular shot, of thousands on the march from the mountain pass to the plains below, stretching away for miles, would not be equaled until the revelation of Wadi Rum in Lawrence of Arabia.

The incredible hardiness of the nomads is on clear display here; it is difficult to conceive of a life lived so close to nature. Undoubtedly, they would not be pastoralists unless necessity made them so. Cooper and Shoedsack later considered a sequel to this film, but by that time rail lines and roads had come into existence, making the Bakhtiaris’ travels much easier. By and by, their migrations have lessened, become more streamlined. With the amount of connection and advances, it is difficult to conceive of a nomadic lifestyle persisting as recently as 100 years ago. Cooper and Schoedsack preserved it for us. It is still compulsively watchable.

What did they do for an encore? They made King Kong.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan.'




Sunday, January 15, 2023

What's up with DC Studios?

Superhero movies are still the rage, despite growing genre fatigue on the part of audiences and critics worldwide. These films are incredibly popular, and profitable. So talk of their success or failure is relative. They are not doing poorly, and they have created an immense and crowded industry to craft them.

By superhero movies, I mean Marvel superhero movies. The grand plan that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to reveal itself with sets of Phases that advance character and plot in a neat, tidy fashion. Marvel superhero movies have a base line of quality and high spirits that enliven even its misfire fare -- I’m looking at you, Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Morbius

Not so with DC Studios. Those responsible for the cinematic careers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest have a much shakier record. A greater percentage of their films has done poorly. More than once, a corrective recut of a flawed film has been reissued. In fits and starts, actors have been shuffled in and out of iconic roles. Entire films, basically completed, have been scrapped (OK, a bit of a familiar story in Hollywood). Why are its superhero movies so problematic for DC?

It wasn’t always so. In the pre-CGI era, DC led the way, and produced iconic superhero films -- the original Richard Donner Superman and Tim Burton’s two Batman films, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But then there was Superman Returns, an aborted attempt to reboot the series that was later recasr as an homage sequel to the original two Superman movies. By that time, computer-generated imagery developed, allowing filmmakers to create visuals that could match the most extravagantly imagined superhero stories. 

We dwelt in a singular narrative DC timeline from 2013’s Man of Steel through the recent, disappointing Black Adam -- the so-called Snyderverse, named for DC director Zack Snyder (some of the groundwork can be credited to Nolan and his frequent collaborator, David S. Goyer). Now, the Snyderverse is dead. James Gunn and Peter Safran are in charge now, and are developing a new slate of DC films, rebooting the narrative yet again. 

A few films are nearly complete and scheduled to be screened in the near future -- a Flash film, and sequels to Aquaman and Todd Phillips’ dark Joker. But the new direction or directions the studio may move in are unclear. There’s plenty of speculation on the part of fans and people in the industry as to what will come next and in what form. Why is there so much confusion?

I get the feeling that the enormity of the responsibility for bringing in a successful superhero film has intimidated rather than empowered the creative powers that be at DC. In contrast with Marvel’s lighter touch, DC’s films seem grim and grandiose. There is an odor of sanctity about the intellectual property involved, as though the reputations of Superman, Batman and the rest were too weighty to be trifled with. (Admittedly, DC has skewed darker over the decades.) Despite the astounding visuals, the plots stagger, the characters are flat (something Marvel struggles with as well), and the action leaks out through the seams. There are sweat stains on DC films.

There is something lacking in creative work that rises from trepidation instead of enthusiasm. 

It remains to be seen in what direction DC will head off this time. Interestingly, the silliest and most relatable of the DC heroes, Shazam! (aka the old Captain Marvel) returns in Fury of the Gods on March 17. In it, young Billy Batson, like us, is astounded by his transformation into the aforementioned, lightning-emblazoned superhero. Can DC astound rather than stupefy? We shall see.


Friday, January 13, 2023

'Avatar: The Way of Water': Splashy


Avatar: the Way of Water

Dir: James Cameron

Scr: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno

Pho: Russell Carpenter

Ed: David Brenner, James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin

Premiere: Dec. 16, 2022

192 min.

James Cameron is driven. He makes film spectaculars, and he keeps topping himself -- and everyone else in the industry -- with his new and fanciful creations. The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic, Avatar. One record-breaking event after another. He seems compelled to create, literally, a new filmic landscape with each new project. We have waited for 12 years to see what’s on his mind now.

Technically, it’s a whole new ball game. Most impressively, he shoots much of his film underwater, and does so as fluently as he films above the surface. He then retools that reality with his amazing use of CGI and what must be the most advanced visual effects department in the world, crafting a new and complete ecosystem, rendered down to the most exacting details. In that sense, it is perfection itself.

This is a classic fantasy epic. That being said, it is one whose plot and themes a retread of previous Cameron narratives. We are once again on the beautiful, unspoiled planet of Pandora, inhabited by giant, blue, tailed, super-hippie indigenous people called the Na’vi. These noble savages (it is easy to conceive of it as Dances with Wolves in outer space) are uniquely attuned to the natural world, and interact with it in perfect symbiotic harmony.

Until the %#$*(% humans show up. Yes, they’re back, and this time they’re not after Unobtanium, they’re here to colonize Pandora to escape the dying Earth. Yes, we Homo sapiens are the villains, and Cameron’s contempt for humanity was never clearer. He is agonized about our inability to stop contributing to our own environmental destruction, and The Way of Water is very much a plea on behalf of the Earth, in cosmic trappings.

The hero of the last film, human-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is now a father and tribal leader. Conveniently, the evil Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Jake’s nemesis, has been reborn as a Na’vi avatar as well, and he loses no time in going after Jake, the head of resistance to the human incursion. This quest for vengeance defines the rest of the film. Even the benign Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) returns, in altered form.

A flight from the dangers of being hunted leads them far away from their homeland, to another tribe that lives in sync with the ocean. What follows is about an hour of illustrating the created environment, leisuring in its wonders like a troop of travelogue-struck tourists. This guided tour of the oceanic life of Pandora does little to advance the plot, but it gives us a lot to look at and to ponder.

Did I mention the magical psychic whales? There’s plenty of them. You see, they’re being hunted, illegally, as they produce a substance that stops aging (a new Unobtanium, if you will). It is this hunt and its thwarting that take up the last third of the movie, propelling us along in a fast-paced, back-and-forth manner (how often can those kids get captured? In that way, it’s remindful of Peter Pan, with Quaritch as Captain Hook.) 

So the whales and the Na’vi and the humans get it on, and it all winds up as you might expect. 

So is it worth it? At three hours, the extreme vividness of the experience tends to overwhelm. It floods the senses, makes it hard to maintain focus. The middle third of the film is a stroll through visual effects. The cliche “kill your darlings” applies here. There is no one to tell Cameron if he’s gone overboard in the world-building department. His tenacious, exacting manifestation of the results of his imagination is an amazing sight. 

Those looking for a new narrative experience will be disappointed. Stick around for the visuals.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

A bleeding-heart liberal's guide to 'Top Gun: Maverick'

 Top Gun: Maverick

Dir: Joseph Kosinski

Scr: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie

Phot: Claudio Miranda

Ed: Eddie Hamilton

Premiere: May 27, 2022

130 min.

 Hoo boy. Well, it’s a good thing I waited this long to see and review this movie. That’s because it’s critic-proof. Not that many critics disliked it. In fact, pretty much everybody loved this movie. Predictably, I didn’t. Why?

First, I am immune to the charms of Tom Cruise. We are about the same age, and I grew up with his movies. But somehow, his earnest and cocky persona didn’t cause that kind of affection and admiration in me that I feel for the great white male stars from earlier years. I know intellectually that he has the stuff of which leading men are made, but I don’t feel it.

Now he mints his greatest financial win with this film, a sequel to the original Top Gun from 1986. It’s a new and improved product, engineered precisely to evoke heart-pounding, fist-pumping ecstasy in the viewer. And, if you are a male ages 13-18, I guarantee this will provoke that.

But what if you’re older and simply have given up on the glorification of the military and the assertion of the righteousness of violence? If that’s true, then there’ nothing in this film for you. If you don’t accept Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as the World’s Greatest White Man, this film will be an empty exercise in action virtuosity.

You see, Mitchell is still a rebel, 36 years after the first film. He’s also still only a captain, when his friend “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) has by now become an admiral. Why? Because he’s a rebel, dang it! He gets in trouble all the time, and Iceman saves his bacon. This time, he’s the pilot of a experimental craft, and by golly he flies even though he’s told not to, and then flies it faster than it’s supposed to go, so it breaks and apart and he bails out. What a man.

So, do we see this character as an emotionally retarded man-child, struck in Oppositional defiant disorder? No, we see him as the apogee of male aspiration – free, irresponsible, disturbingly ageless. He indeed possesses the biggest penis in the universe.

He is reassigned to his old combat school, the Top Gun of the title. Now he has to pull together a ragtag assemblage of earnest and cocky youngsters who yearn to be schooled in the Tom Cruise academy of rule-breaking charm.

It turns out they have to attack a foreign uranium-enriching plant, run by a country that shall remain nameless (rhymes with Schmiran). This righteous task is a deadly trip through a winding canyon, bordered by missiles, protected by enemy fighters, with a minimal chance of success and no margin for error! It’s basically the final sequence of Star Wars, with Cruise as Luke Skywalker.

That’s right! Little old Tom Cruise goes from coaching the jet jockeys to getting back into the game, leading the mission himself. WHOOSH! BAM! BOOM! What do you think happens? What we would all like to have happen. Then there’s another climax! And another!

Wow. Smoke a cigarette and calm down. What else? The homoerotic sublimation is there in spades, so there’s that. There’s Val Kilmer, the same age as Cruise, looking old enough to be his grandfather. There’s the typical hard-bodies-on-the-beach scene, the meditative motorcycle ride, the second chance with an old flame. All the biggest hits are there, strung like beads on a wire.

It’s a triumph of the industrial cinema. It is wired to stimulate your pleasure zones. Unless you are like me, in which case you’ll go back to watching your weird old foreign art films.


Thursday, January 5, 2023

'The Menu': horror comedy skewers haute cuisine

 The Menu

Dir: Mark Mylod

Scr: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy

Phot: Peter Deming

Ed: Christopher Tellifsen

Premiere: Nov. 18, 2022

106 min.

If you have ever been in a food service job, you will get it. If you’ve ever been to a fancy dinner where you didn’t understand what was going on, you will get it. The Menu is a dark satire that takes on the ridiculousness of high-profile fine-dining experiences, but its tale of madness and obsession is familiar both to those who dish it out and those who take it.

Taking it is, in fact, what the diners of The Menu must do, in ways they’ve never taken it before. Several super-wealthy patrons take a boat to a private island, where they will enjoy a multicourse meal prepared by the quietly remote master chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes at his icy best). Slowick is king of his world, a master chef whose every command is obeyed by his homogenous staff.

The guests consist of a wealthy couple, a washed-up movie star and his personal assistant, some crypto bros, a critic and her editor, and an obnoxious foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his paid escort, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, who is in everything so why not in this as well?). Slowick’s mother quietly drinks herself to sleep in the corner.

As the meal progresses, the courses get stranger. Chef talks about his impoverished and abused childhood. The maƮtre d, Elsa (Hong Chau), starts abusing the guests. All the while, a sprightly sommelier continues to ply everyone with the appropriate accompanying wine. A sous chef performs a staged suicide.

Then it gets weird.

The filmmakers exercised due diligence in making the film look as convincing as possible – hiring food designer Dominique Crenn and using second unit director David Gelb, who created the Chef’s Table TV docuseries, to make the tone of the film conform to that of the high-end food show. The Menu’s restaurant is all too familiar, an intimidating high-tech, uneaseful space that emphasizes the dominance of the adjoining kitchen.

 The players all maintain straight faces as the carnage begins, and the filmmakers play it straight, too, never tipping their hand or getting ahead of the audience. The airy ridiculousness of fine dining’s conceits and conceptions are skewered thoroughly here.

As the evening unfolds, a laundry list of woes peculiar to the restaurant business are recited – the ingratitude for the effort and energy put into creating nourishing entertainments, the stubborn whims of the customer, who must always be accommodated, the dependence on other peoples' money, the lack of a real life in the business. The NO SUBSTITUTIONS policy. Any cook or server who ever dealt with a recalcitrant patron will savor the various punishments meted out to the assembled customers.

In the end, it’s the pumpers versus the dumpers, and everyone collaborates in their own destruction, save for the cynical and resourceful Margot, who serves as the Ishmael of this fishy tale. An ominous joke of a film, The Menu masterfully deconstructs the curious carapace of conceptions we have constructed around the simple act of eating food.



Tuesday, January 3, 2023

'Cinema Speculation': Tarentino's love letter to movies


Cinema Speculation

Quentin Tarentino

New York: Harper


Here’s what happened. I picked up this book, and read it all the way through, without stopping. That’s the highest recommendation I can give.

This excellent set of essays on film history and aesthetics is the first non-fiction work from director Quentin Tarentino. I am a fan of his work, but not a blindly unquestioning one. So it’s not just a worshipful gushing I give when I say this is the most engaging book about film I have read in a quite a while.

First and foremost, Tarentino writes in what has been called a “conversational and amusing” style. He’s not a stuffy film scholar. Neither is he an arrogant and jaded film professional. Instead, he proves here that he’s still one of us – a regular guy who happens to love movies.

His excitement is infectious. He gives us a childhood in movies watched, takes us on a guided of tour of some of his favorite genre films, and takes a look at the waves of the New American Cinema. He doesn’t like Truffaut, but I forgive him.

It helps immensely that he is of my generation, born three years earlier than me. The films he references watching as he grew up burst immediately to bloom in the minds of any contemporaneous readers. (I spent much unsupervised time at the cinema growing up.) Hey, he hates and fears Bambi, too! And FINALLY, thanks to him I understand the difference between the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids, the Little Tough Guys, and the Bowery Boys! Who knew?

Tarentino starts by giving us a look at his childhood, one spent most impressionably in movie theaters, watching films not really for children (Dirty Harry? The Outfit? Black Gunn?). His penchant for creating dramas of vengeance undoubtedly stems from early exposure to grindhouse fare. Cinema Speculation is precisely that – an expansive and entertaining discussion of the glories of movies (that’s movies, not cinema).

Best of all, in a tribute to second-string L.A. Times film critic Kevin Thomas, Tarentino praises his optimistic, open-minded approach to writing on movies, and even cites his opinions as being influential in practical choices Tarentino made in making his own films. This affirmation of the critical role in the movie process is tremendously heartening.

Like the film writing he admires, Tarentino’s essays are straightforward, unaffected, and compelling. Whether you appreciate his insights or not, his book is a good time.