The other day I watched the film for the first time since I was a kid. The 1973 Western was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood. I had forgotten what a good film it was.
We see few Westerns made today because they tend to do horribly at the international box office. I think High Plains Drifter could be made today and could probably see profit. The beauty of the film is in its simplicity. It's based on character much more so than plot.
Clint plays a stranger who rides into a small Western mining town, gets into immediate trouble at the saloon, proves his skills at shooting a revolver, and is then hired to defend the town against a gang who will be coming to cause havoc. What makes the film so interesting is the cast of characters that inhabit the town, and their interaction with the stranger who has them do outrageous things in preparation for the final showdown. It's that simple. They prepare for the gang, and then the gang rides in at the end.
The film ends with an ambiguous/supernatural tone that isn't needed at all. It tried to go a bit too far. But besides the over-the-top reveal, it worked well throughout, and in very limited locations. Ninety percent of it takes place in a small town, one that was obviously built for the shoot. There are the scenic shots of the vast plains of the American West to add cinematic value, all of which looked to be simple, easy-to-shoot setups.
Fascinating characters who are well cast are what makes High Plains Drifter work. It is in some ways the anti-Western with a true anti-hero. It relies on character to make up for the limited space in which it takes place. It hits its notes well, and besides the disappointing try at the end, it doesn't attempt to be more than it should.
It's definitely worth the watch.
This is full of spoilers, so please don't read on if you haven't seen the movie.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote an incredible script. However, I'm not satisfied with his ending. This is the second fantastic movie from 2016 (the other being Hell or High Water) that went with a soft ending to the detriment of the film. This is breaking with the tradition of having a climax, and then a denouement to finish the story.
Manchester by the Sea ends with Lee, sitting at a dinner table, telling his teenage nephew Patrick that the family friend George will adopt him so that he can stay in Manchester. In the following scene, Lee and Patrick walk down a road, bouncing a ball. Lee tells Patrick that he can't stay in Manchester because he "...can't beat it," meaning he can't beat the bad memories of the place, and that he'll look for a two-bedroom apartment so that Patrick can visit him. The film closes with the two going out on the boat to fish.
The reason why this ending is so unsatisfying is because it ends with a reveal and not a completion of Lee's character arc.
A much better ending would have been: Lee drops off Patrick at George's house. They hug and hold back the tears outside of the house as Lee hands Patrick off to his new family. Let gets in his car, turns it on, and starts backing out of the driveway. He stops at the end of the driveway. He contemplates. A tear drops down his face. We see a CU of his hand fumbling around the keys near the ignition. The hand shakes. He turns off the car. Cut to Black.
This would have shown that Lee finished his arc: that he had grown to a place where he'd be willing to face all of his demons in order to honor his dead brother and take care of the nephew who he really loved.
I can't argue with Lonergan's decision. He made one of the best films of recent memory. However, I'm sick of these soft endings attached to otherwise fantastic films. This devastating film would have been so much better by alluding to greater hope for Lee's future. It would have made all the pain that we suffered while watching through the incredible sadness dissipate away in a most satisfying way.
Pop the balloon. Don't let the air squeeze out of a pinhole leak. That's no way to end a great story.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the film in the theatre, so like most of the world, I waited around for it to get to Amazon Prime. I'm not sure why, but for some reason, I didn't believe I'd like this film as much as the critics. Maybe it was the Matt Damon connection, not sure.
Turns out, I was wrong. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best American films in recent memory.
For a sub-$10M picture, this film is extremely well-crafted. Yes, there's the occasional poorly framed shot, or cut that doesn't work as well as it should. But for every one of those instances, there are many compositions and sequences that blow you away. There are scenes that are fantastically well done, like a funeral scene without dialogue. It's done entirely in slow motion (and I usually detest slow motion) under music, and all you can do is read the actors' lips, but you don't need to, because the performances are so strong, you understand what was being said.
I now understand why Casey Affleck won that Academy Award. This is a performance for the ages. Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams are superb as usual. And Lucas Hedges kills it as the teenager trying to deal with the death of his dad. But the excellent casting doesn't stop there. From top to bottom, this film is solidly acted.
Yes, this movie is heartbreaking. It's so emotional, it's hard to sit through at times. But it's so well written, acted, and directed, it's something to be appreciated. The nuances in the relationships are absolutely incredible. It makes this story believable. The scenes ring so true, it's almost as if the film bar has been raised.
There are two minor problems with the film. First, it pushes too far in some instances. A bit of restraint would have been more effective. And second, (minor spoiler alert), I'm not a fan of the soft ending.
That being said, Manchester by the Sea is a prime example of storytelling done right. You could teach a semester-long filmmaking class on this movie alone. So if you haven't seen it, grab that Kleenex box, and turn on your Amazon Prime.
One last note: thank God that Matt Damon had to drop out of the lead because of scheduling. Without Casey Affleck, this wouldn't have been half the film it turned out to be.
My rating: 9.8/10.
With a 98% RottenTomatoes rating and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, I was looking forward to seeing Hell or High Water. I hadn't heard a negative thing about it, but unfortunately wasn't able to catch it during its short run in theatres. After all, who could pass up seeing Jeff Bridges play a Texas Ranger in West Texas? That alone sounds like a formula for great success.
The story covers two very seasoned Texas Rangers, one played by Bridges, the other by Gil Birmingham, who chase a couple of young bank-robbing brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The relationships between each pair of partners is what makes the film. The brothers, in dire straights, have nothing but deep, open love towards each other. The Rangers, coming from a more reserved generation, show their fellow admiration through more strained methods. Bridges, as we would expect, is absolutely terrific in the role. We feel his pain as he nears the end of a career that is the prominent part of his life, in a vast, barren world that doesn't seem to give a damn.
The open plains of West Texas are the perfect landscape for this story, and DP Giles Nuttgens captures them well, allowing the film to play much bigger than its meager $12M budget. But, this movie isn't at its best in the grand exterior scenes. Where Hell or High Water really shines is in the confined hotel room, where the two Rangers have to indirectly discuss life, or in a backcountry steak house, where they have to show ultimate respect to an old, ornery waitress who commands nothing less.
If I had to nitpick the movie, I'd point to the soft ending, which I'm sure many people found underwhelming. It was a creative choice that plays on the long, slow life of the Rangers in that part of the country. It's delivered with a little tack hammer that I'm afraid will keep this movie from having a chance of winning Best Picture. But I was okay with it.
The four leads did a fantastic job. However, I feel that if a bigger name was attached, the movie would have had better success at the box office. This is a modern Western, and any Western tends to run into trouble with the international box office. Having a not-too-successful domestic release, the foreign release was very limited. When a critically-acclaimed Western sputters with movie-goers, that doesn't bode well for green-lighting future pictures in the genre.
Yet, I still loved this film. Yes, a greater punch in the gut at the end would have made me love it more. That being said, I do feel Hell or High Water is very deserving of its Best Picture nomination.
My rating: 9.1/10
I recently rewatched The Sixth Sense for the first time in years. I remember seeing it in the theatre in 1999 and being absolutely wowed. I've seen it several times since and have read the script more than once. I still absolutely love this movie. Everyone raves about the twist, but I love everything else about it as well: the pace, the dialogue, the compositions, the acting—it's all fantastic. It's one of my favorite films of all time.
Although officially M. Night's third film, I feel to most of us, it feels like it's his first. It gave us enormous expectations for his future films. They came, and each one, unfortunately, seemed to be a little worse than the previous. For every person that loved Signs, a few less loved The Village, and a few less loved Lady in the Water.
None of M. Night's movies resonated with me nearly as much as The Sixth Sense, but I found some amazing quality in all of them (I didn't see The Last Airbender or After Earth). I did see The Visit, M. Night's 2015 low-budget return-to-horror flick, and liked it a lot. I'll go see his upcoming film Split as well. I think for too long he was far too intent on smacking us with a twist ending. None could ever live up to The Sixth Sense reveal.
M. Night comes out with a new film about every couple of years. That means that he's probably only taking six months or so to write each script. I wonder what would happen if he took a couple of years to write each script and came out with a new film every 3-4 years. I'm not sure he could afford to do it, but I bet it would increase the quality of his films dramatically.
I'm still an M. Night Shyamalan fan. I hope he ends his career with films that are his best yet. That will be tough to do. A good sabbatical might do him well in the mean time.
My rating for The Sixth Sense: 9.7/10
This morning I rewatched Rogue One, this time in 2D on a normal=sized screen. In my previous review, I pointed out the two biggest flaws I found with the film: weak character development and an almost complete lack of LS's. Since 3D tends to make big shots look small, I was interested to see the film in 2D to see if it played larger.
During the second viewing, I had the exact same problems I had during the first. The character development was thin. Who the hell is Saw Gerrera? Why is he in this film? Cassian Andor? What's his backstory? At least we learn a little about Jyn, but not enough to make her as satisfying as she could be. Bad-Guy Orson? Why wasn't he developed at all?
Seeing the film in 2D did very little to hide the fact that besides the large XXL CG shots, 90% of this film is shot too close.
When low-budget indie filmmakers shoot their films, they often rely heavily on MCU's in order to hide the fact that they can't afford extensive sets to paint the background with. It makes the film feel low-budget. There is never an excuse to do this in any large action film that you don't intentionally want to feel cheesy.
An example: what does Saw Gerrera's HQ's look like? We only see tight shots of it, along with terrific XXL's when it comes crumbling down. But we never get a feel of size and shape like we did inside of Jabba's chambers.
This is most noticeable in the first two acts. By the third act there are so many CG shots, it covers it up some. Having to squeeze in a big Walker does force the LS. But in crucial moments, the MCU's are used as cheats and it's very annoying. One example is when Jyn jumps onto the data storage tower. We correctly start with a LS of her jumping, and then cut to a MCU of her arm and head as she grabs the tower. This is a cheat. They then do it correctly with Cassian, showing his whole body make the jump. It's much more satisfying.
If 20% of the shots were shot too close or too zoomed in it would be annoying. But with a Rogue-One, it's the vast majority of shots. I guess the director, Gareth Edwards, and the cinematographer, Greig Fraser, have to share the blame. There just isn't any excuse for a movie with a $200M budget to be shot like this.
I still loved that third act though. And of course I still loved Felicity Jone's performance.
Although a very good film, with an outstanding third act, Rogue One has some serious flaws. But I guess with the subpar quality of the last few Star Wars films, we should be happy with the greatness that does exist within it.
Two viewings of Rogue One is satisfying. A third would be too many. That puts the film close to Return of the Jedi quality, and a huge notch below New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, yet far above the other films.
Few things are as frustrating as what has been done to the Star Wars universe, post-Revenge of the Jedi. While most people seemed to think that The Force Awakens was adequate redemption for the three films which preceded it, I disliked the film, and thought it to be a squandered opportunity.
Hence, when I walked into the 3-D, AMC-mini-IMAX viewing of Rogue One, I came with low expectations. Very few films would justify my losing of a Jackson and +2 hours of my time. But Star Wars still holds a strong place in my heart, and I wasn't going to wait around to watch this film on my TV.
First the bad news: Rogue One mostly squanders two acts on mediocre film craftsmanship and character development. There are far too many MS's and MCU's prior to the third act, making the film look cheap. The occasional XXLS looks fantastic, but there is an extreme dearth of LS's, to the detriment of the film.
There is not one character in Rogue One that is as well established or as engaging as Luke, Han, Leia, Ben, R2D2, C3PO, or Vader. Though I liked many of the characters, they were awfully thin. Some of the casting was great. Felicity Jones was fantastic in the lead as Jyn, and Ben Mendelsohn of Blood Lines fame, is terrific as a higher-up Emperial officer. How the hell they returned Peter Cushing from the dead, I'll never know, but they did it in very convincing fashion.
To repeat: the biggest flaw of this film is the weak character development.
After those two very mediocre first acts comes some of the best Star Wars filmmaking we've ever seen. The third act is an enormous, world-class crafted, epic masterpiece that is as great as any of the previous Star Wars films. It's a battle that happens on land and in space, with a well-paced build-up of tension, that leads to a fulfilling transition into A New Hope.
If only the characters had been crafted as well as the ones in New Hope.
However, this is a one-off, and as a big spectacle popcorn movie, it greatly succeeds. I couldn't fall into it during the first two acts, but I'm sure most people did. I enjoyed the hell out of the third act up on that big screen. To me, it is easily the fourth best Star Wars movie, and is a much better film than The Force Awakens.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Disney has made with the Star Wars franchise was separating from Michael Arndt during the early stages of pre-production on The Force Awakens. He is exactly the type of scribe they need to bring Star Wars back to where it deserves to be.
Though I had my issues with it, Rogue One, if for but 30 or 40 minutes, brought me back to the Star Wars of my childhood. And for that I'm happy and satisfied. And just to be clear: I think Felicity Jones is a huge star in the making.
My rating: 9.3/10
Ever since the positive buzz surrounding the film during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, I've been looking forward to seeing Arrival, a movie that critics and audiences have both seemed to love. Intelligent, emotional, astonishing--or so say many of the reviews. Since well-produced sci-fi is so hard to come by, my expectations were high.
I'm not going to give much away. Arrival is a story that begins with alien ships arriving in different parts of the world. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is hired by the federal government to try to figure out what the aliens are saying (their speech sounds like whale grunts, and their writing is a series of very complicated looking circles). There's a love interest played by Jeremy Renner who is some sort of scientist, also hired to figure out what the aliens want.
To be honest, this was the first film I fell asleep during, in many, many years. I don't think I missed much, as my snoring quickly woke me up in the crowded theatre. One could easily snooze through fifteen minutes of the first hour of this film and not feel like you missed a beat.
Hence the problem: this is an alien movie with little excitement. Adams decodes the alien language in a ridiculously and completely unbelievable short period of time. We don't feel part of this finding, as it's just shown that she has the moment where the circles make sense. Awful story telling at this key moment ruins the entire film.
Though Adam's performance is terrific as usual, it can't save this story, whose last act is exactly the opposite of what the critics claim it to be. It's not intelligent. It's dumb. It's very dumb.
This film tries so hard to be something from the mind of Terrence Malick or Christopher Nolan, but ends up being a poor man's version of either. I hadn't believed an ounce of it throughout, and the big attempt at a spiritual conclusion fell extremely flat with me. Arrival ended up being a solidly-crafted, well-acted film, that suffered from poor story conception by the writers.
I'm glad an adult sci-fi drama is doing well with critics and audiences, however. Hopefully, we'll see a bit of resurgence with the genre. And with a bit of luck, every ten years or so, we'll be able to see a top-quality epic like Tree of Life or Inception, and a bunch of films, like Arrival, that attempt to be such a masterpiece, but end up falling far short.
My rating: a very generous 7/10.
Love him or hate him, Mel Gibson has been on an extraordinary run as a director. Braveheart ('95), The Passion of the Christ ('04), Apocalypto ('06), and now Hacksaw Ridge. These are all first-rate films, and few directors have matched Mel's consistent high level of quality over the last twenty years.
Hacksaw Ridge, based on an almost unbelievable true story of a man who enlisted to fight in WWII, but who refused to carry a gun, is the type of character-driven drama that Mel exceeds at directing. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Mel takes a more traditional war movie pace, starting with a slow, small town establishment, upping the stakes and action through a somewhat reserved boot camp act, and finishing with some of the most vicious war scenes we've ever seen on the big screen. Andrew Garfield shines in the lead, playing a conflicted character, who so badly wants to help the American cause, but who needs to stay within his firm belief in the Ten Commandments.
Simon Duggan does a fantastic job with the cinematography, especially during the brutal wars scenes. The size and scope of the battle, although not the largest ever, certainly feels epic in size, They somehow pulled off shooting this important part of the invasion of Okinawa, and the rest of the 131 minute film, extraordinarily well, for only $40 million. This is a huge accomplishment for Mel and his producers. I don't remember ever seeing such a large, epic film shot on such a medium-sized budget.
Hacksaw Ridge is clearly the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan, and deserves to be mentioned in the greatest war movies of all time. This is definitely the type of film you want to see on the big screen. If you can stomach the brutality of hand-to-hand combat, complete with flame throwers and machine guns, please go see Hacksaw Ridge, not only to experience filmmaking at its best, but to learn about this true story of bravery, the likes of which will blow your mind.
My Rating: 9.5/10
Below is one of my all time favorite scenes, from one of my favorite films. It's wonderfully written to capture the nuances of the Upper Midwestern culture. It's fantastically acted. The pace is perfect. And Joel and Ethan Coen masterfully decided not to include the reversal shot.
Even though the framing is awful, the image of small town humanity in front of the large Midwestern industrial mill is highly fitting within the themes of the film. It's scenes like this that I love to study in order to better appreciate the brilliance of great filmmaking.
I wish I was able to write something as amazing as this scene. This is why Fargo is such a classic movie:
I've watched all 464 minutes of the five-part, much-acclaimed ESPN series by Ezra Edelman. It's a quality, painful look, not only at O.J., the crime, the trial, and all within, but also at the long, complex racial history of Los Angeles, and how O.J. and Nicole fit within that history.
It's the length and depth that makes this documentary so wonderful to watch. Most of the main players are interviewed at length. The details that we've long forgotten, and many that we never knew about, keep coming at us at a pace fast enough to never allow us not to be glued to the screen. The different, strong, viewpoints, as passionate as ever, twenty-one years after the verdict, hook us back into the story and the drama that went down throughout.
But a word to the wary: this documentary will upset many of you, unlike anything you've ever seen. You will see how the defense team played unconscionably dirty tricks. You will hear and see the history of how O.J. beat the hell out of Nicole on so many occasions. You will see gruesome crime scene photos. You will hear a juror state outright that the majority of jurors thought their verdict to be payback for Rodney King because "We protect our own," and how she thinks she might vote differently had the trial happened today.
In other words, it's ugly. But it's a well-crafted ugliness that teaches us so much beyond that which is O.J. and a knife.
If you can stomach the horrible nature of the content, I'd highly recommend it. Though it might get a bit too preachy at times, especially early on, it's a very satisfying watch at the end of it all.
My rating: 9/10
I hadn't planned on going to see Kubo and the Two Strings, but there was a call to arms on Reddit about the film, since it was flopping pretty hard at the box office, and so many felt it deserved to do better. The reviews by the Redditors made it a must-go for me (along with the 96% RT rating).
Kubo is a charming, odd, heartwarming, adventurous tale of a young boy in search of his true family history. It doesn't shy away from being dark. In fact, it's pretty frightening for a kid's story. Its humor is reserved compared to most animated films (though it does have its moments). Its cast is not broad, and that's a good thing, because the few characters that have a lot of screen-time are well developed. The plot kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.
But where Kubo really shines is in two particular places:
The first is its absolutely stunning stop-animation visuals. I don't remember seeing an animated film that looked so gorgeous, in every frame. It's enough to take your breath away. Most compositions are fantastic. The blocking of the characters, especially in the fight scenes, is terrific. But the quality of the animation, from the forests and sunsets, to the monstrous waves rocking the ship, is mind-blowingly awesome.
The second place where Kubo shines is in the morals upon which the story plays out. This film has heart, mountains of it, unlike few films you have seen. It, like Toy Story 3, is enough to make a grown man cry.
I only have one minor complaint. I think Charlize Theron was miscast, but it's nowhere near a deal-breaker.
If Kubo and the Two Strings is still playing on a big screen near you, go see it! If you can't catch in the theatre, make sure you see it on the biggest, sharpest screen you can. It's an absolute classic. And keep that Kleenex next to you, to wipe those tears away.
My rating: 9.7/10
I finally got around to watching Richard Linklater's groundbreaking film that follows the life of a family over the course of twelve years (using the same actors throughout). The film has a 98% RottenTomatoes score and a 100% on Metacritic. It simply doesn't get any better than that.
During the 165 minute journey, Linklater casually tells the story of a young boy growing up within a broken family in different parts of Texas. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the parents as superbly as we would expect them too. The boy, whose journey we are experiencing, is also played extremely well by Ellar Coltrane, who through the course of all the years, becomes an excellent actor right before our eyes.
There is plenty of drama, as different father figures come and go, and as the adults make various decisions which turn out to not be the best. They, along with the kids, realistically mature throughout the narrative as they pass through different stages of life, and just as in our lives, their decisions start getting better.
This is fundamentally a story about the boy, Mason, who has far too many adults pushing him to commit to a direction throughout his childhood, when he has no idea upon which path he should take. At an early age, he learns how chaotic life can be, and he learns how hard it is to choose the correct answers when they seem so fuzzy at times. As adulthood is pushed on him by his parents, we feel the weight and pressure of the over-parenting.
The story itself is wonderful. It's easily relatable which is what Linklater does best. He delivers moments where we're thinking "Oh, we've been there. Yes. We. Have."
What's frustrating is that this excellent film could have been a masterpiece if it weren't for some very suboptimal execution mechanisms. One of the most annoying is how Linklater continually uses dialogue far too blatantly to dictate to the audience how much time has lapsed. If Mason walks into his birthday party, someone has to ask him his age right off the bat to alert the audience where we are in the timeline. It's distracting, completely unneeded throughout, and felt forced every single time.
The film also lacks subtlety in many scenes that would have been played more effectively had they been cut down. Ethan Hawke was well established early on as a father who tried too hard--that pushed his children to believe his views too much. Then it's reinforced again, and again, and again. One particular scene that would have played out much better was one where Mason sits in the minivan with his father and his new wife, and it's revealed that the father had sold his old sports car to pay for the minivan. The scene then drags on with Mason getting upset because it had been promised to him when he was a young kid, and with his dad blathering about how cars are bad investments. The point is that the dad had gotten to the point in life where he had to sell his dream sports car because his priorities had changed. That would have been enough to shock Mason into seeing his dad differently. All the rest was excess that just dragged an already too-long movie further than it needed to go.
Some scenes are handled brilliantly, however. Mason talks to his dad in an empty balcony of a club, while a band tunes up on the stage below. After some needed small talk to establish the scene, Mason asks his dad what it (life) is all about. His dad reveals that even at his point in life, he has no idea, and nobody else does either. It's a great moment between father and son, and shows a very specific couple of points in life that they had each grown to. Linklater's handling of the scene was superb.
I love how Linklater ended the story. It was laid back in his usual style, yet it was profound as well, and a fitting conclusion to Mason's arc of childhood. As the credits roll, one has to just sit back and think about what all has been absorbed. It's a heavy moment.
I think Linklater deserves an enormous amount of credit for daring to get this film made. IFC Films also deserves credit for taking a chance on such a long-term project. Hats off to the actors as well. This movie is truly groundbreaking, something that is rare in the current era of film.
Though I had some problems with it, I did fall quickly into the story and truly did want to see where the characters were going. A few unwanted annoyances did kick me out at times, but each time I was able to fall right back in. It's hard to complain about such a huge undertaking that was crafted so well for just a few million dollars. Richard Linklater has done some remarkable work. I think he's proud to have this project on his mantle.
My Rating: 8.7/10
I've talked about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian on this blog before, not only for my love of the novel, but because there have been several attempts to adapt it into a film (most recently by James Franco)--something that many in the industry feel is an impossibility to do well, given the novel's immense violent nature. In fact, Ridley Scott, who once tried to get the project off the ground, famously said that "It would have been rated double-X."
A few years ago, William Monahan (who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Departed), was given the chance to adapt the novel. I've long wanted to read his draft, and thanks to a nice redditor, was finally able to get my hands on it.
Monahan's first act was written extraordinarily well. I fell into the story as quickly as I did the first time I read the novel. Although no one could match McCarthy's vivid description of mid-1800's Texas, Mexico, and California, Monahan does a serviceable job to say the least, especially with the limited amount of space he had to work with. The Kid's travels down to Texas, the Glanton gang's move into Mexico, the initial battles with the Apaches--it's done well.
Then the Judge is established, and it's clear where Monahan diverges from the book--to the detriment of the story. The master-craftsman McCarthy brilliantly layered the Judge within the multitude of members of the Glanton Gang, The character is slowly established, and it's not until deep into the novel that we realize his true significance, not only to this story, but to the world as a whole.
Monahan was restricted by time, so he hacked out most of the other character's dialogue. He gave the Judge much more prominent of a place in the story--right from his establishment. This ruins the whole character, and frankly, does immense damage to the story as well.
However, with the exception of this unfortunate fact, the Monahan script is relatively strong, specifically in the first act, and first-half of the second. The end of the second act and the entire third act do need some work. But, this is a very workable script, much to my amazement.
Monahan changes the ending (one of the greatest endings in fictional history, in my opinion), and absolutely crashes and burns with it. One has to wonder what the hell he was thinking. It's bizarre that he would even attempt to alter such a brilliant end to an amazing story. But he does. Probably an ego thing, but when you're adapting arguably the world's greatest living writer, don't fuck up the ending. Is that too much to ask?
I think with a bunch of work, which would definitely include the removal of (perhaps) 70% of the Judge's dialogue, and with the beefing up of some of the side characters (such as Toadvine and the Delawares), this script could be made to work to the level of our high expectations attached to McCarthy adaptations. Above all, that ridiculously bad ending would have to be changed back to McCarthy's original intention. (The greatest scene in the whole book is removed for some reason).
So, overall, I was impressed with Monahan's attempt. This is truly a near-impossible project. He took a hard shot, and it ended up being decent. In fact, the first third of the screenplay is pretty incredible. As it stands, however, I'd hate to see this script shot. The magic of who the Judge character is would have to be added back in, and that addition would certainly be made through substantial subtraction.
There's a fascinating article at theverge.com entitled "Does 'Unfilmable' Really Mean Anything Anymore?" The author, @TashaRobinson, makes a fascinating claim: Cormac McCarthy fans say that Blood Meridian is unfilmable, but they know their claim is untrue. In fact, they don't want the movie to be made because they're afraid that it'll never live up to the greatness of the book.
Tasha then goes on to state other projects that were once thought to be unfilmable, such as Blue is the Warmest Color and Game of Thrones. She claims that there are very few books which are truly unfilmable today, and goes on to state Lolita and House of Leaves as examples.
This is a fascinating argument to me. There's a lot of truth to it. Tasha states that most of us would be frightened by the casting of The Judge because it would be hard to find someone who would live up to that role. I agree with her that it would be hard but not impossible to cast that iconic character. She implies the tone would be hard to capture and that the visual medium would be different, but not necessarily a letdown. Perhaps that's true as well.
I'm torn on this because I see both sides of the issue.
Yes, we're afraid to have this movie made. In our minds, it is near impossible to be as good as the book. If it's butchered, it will butcher our hearts. We can truly be hurt if it goes South, and we're afraid it will affect the legacy of the book. I'll admit all of that.
However, Tasha gets some things wrong in her assessment. For starters, whereas Lolita is truly unfilmable, it's not because of child pornography laws. A movie adaptation of Lolita wouldn't be hampered severely by lack of explicit sex scenes. Lolita is unfilmable because the beauty of the story is within the wicked thoughts inside of Humbert Humbert's head, and even with v/o, this could never be effectively translated onto the screen (the two adaptations failed horribly at this).
In the same vein, the absolute brutal nature of Blood Meridian wouldn't translate well without unspeakable violence committed on the screen. This would make it nearly impossible to reap significant box office returns. No studio is going to give someone $100M or $150M to make this Western (a genre that almost always does poorly in the international markets) and allow an NC-17 rating. Remember, the remake of Lolita, which was only an R rating, had an enormously difficult time securing a distributor. It was released in the U.S. on Showtime before getting a very limited theatrical release and bombing at the box office everywhere.
So, yes. I do agree with some of the thoughts in this article. We are afraid to see someone try to adapt Blood Meridian. It would just be too hard to pull off. It could never live up to our expectations.
But, part of this is because in the current marketplace for films, realistically speaking, the story is 'unfilmable.' That might change in the future, but as it stands today, I see no way that this could be pulled off to the satisfaction of most Cormac McCarthy fans, fear or no fear.
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, published in 1985, is an absolutely brutal and beautiful novel written by Cormac McCarthy, perhaps our greatest living author. Since then, there have been many ramblings here and there about a film adaptation being in the works. The latest such was to star Russell Crowe, and was to be directed by James Franco. Today, The Hollywood Reporter stated that the deal has fallen apart because of rights issues.
Part of me wants to see a Blood Meridian film and part of me doesn't want it ever be attempted. The Coen brothers did a fantastic job with their 2007 version of No Country For Old Men, and were deservedly awarded Academy Awards for Best Directing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and for Best Picture. However, the 2009 version of The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, although a decent movie, was not nearly as good as the book, which remains one of the best I've ever read.
So that's the scary thing about adapting Cormac McCarthy. You're starting with material of the absolute top-tier quality, and if you don't do it right, it's going to be a monumental disappointment. Blood Meridian is something unique, though, even when compared to a dire tale like The Road.
You cannot possibly do Blood Meridian justice with an R rating. It would have to be one of the most violent films ever made. I'm talking absolutely horrific levels of awful brutality. If you tone that down, you've lost a huge part of what makes the story so special.
Violence--extreme levels of violence--is the main character of Blood Meridian. If you tone that character down, it's no longer what Cormac wanted it to be. Hence, to do it right, you'd have to make an American Western (and they rarely pull much of any overseas box office) with an NC-17 rating. The press surrounding the finished product would certainly be negative. It seems like a hard financial bet at best.
So I'm perfectly fine if Blood Meridian never gets adapted to the big screen. But if it does, I'm hoping and praying it's done right, and that seems like something that's highly unlikely given the gut-wrenching nature of the subject matter.
On May 5th, 1941, Citizen Kane premiered at The Palace in New York City. I'm not sure how many times I've seen the film, but I'm pretty sure it's at least ten times. My guess is that fans of popcorn action flicks would probably be bored by it, but for those who are fascinated by great characters arcs, I have not seen a film with an arc that is more intriguing.
Someday, I might get around to writing down all the things that I love about Citizen Kane. But for now, I want to share the fantastic closing paragraph from the original NY Times Review (May 2nd, 1941):
We would, indeed, like to say as many nice things as possible about everything else in this film—about the excellent direction of Mr. Welles, about the sure and penetrating performances of literally every member of the cast and about the stunning manner in which the music of Bernard Herrmann has been used. Space, unfortunately, is short. All we can say, in conclusion, is that you shouldn't miss this film. It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than fifteen other films we could name. And, although it may not give a thoroughly clear answer, at least it brings to mind one deeply moral thought: For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
The remake of The Magnificent Seven (which of course was a remake of The Seven Samurai), has been in development for a few years, with many big names supposedly attached at various points. I was glad to see the trailer finally drop today.
I'm so happy that Sony is taking this huge risk. American Westerns are incredibly hard to make because they tend to pull so little money overseas. Of course there are notable exceptions (i.e. Dances With Wolves), but they're rare. Even The Unforgiven grossed under $60M internationally.
Denzel, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard--that's quite a cast of quality actors, so I'm guessing the script has to be decent.
What I don't like is the release date: Sept. 23rd. Damn, that's too late in the summer season. I'm worried that it'll fail to rock the box office hard enough to pay all those heavy salaries. Then it'll be blamed on genre and not release date. Hence, we won't see any more Westerns for awhile.
But let's hope it's exceptional and pulls in big box office numbers. Bravo to Sony & MGM for taking this risk. Check out the trailer:
A couple of days after AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a Variety interview that his company was considering allowing phone use during movies (in order to attract Millennials), he wholeheartedly rejected the notion via Twitter, stating that: "NO TEXTING AT AMC. Won't happen. You spoke. We listened. Quickly, that idea has been sent to the cutting room floor."
Great. So now that you've trashed that horrible idea, here're a few you should consider:
I just saw a clip on the local news regarding AMC Theatres. They're trying to come up with ideas to attract Millennials. One idea is to start allowing people to text and use their phones in certain sections of their theatres.
This will all but assure that I never step foot in an AMC theatre again.
There are three AMC theatres in Burbank, near where I live. For the most part, people behave. Since Burbank is the center of the world's film industry, patrons tend to have respect for others who come to watch a movie. Rarely do I see someone start up their smartphone mid-movie. But when I do, the damn thing is like a spotlight that is beyond annoying.
What AMC is going to do is irritate patrons who are over thirty years old in order to try to bring in more teenagers and people in their twenties. That's fine. But be aware that there are other avenues upon which to watch movies. I don't have to go to an overpriced theatre that isn't exactly the fanciest place on Earth to watch what I want to watch.
AMC Entertainment is making a huge mistake if they go through with this abhorrent idea. But then again, it wouldn't surprise me. I used to step into an AMC theatre about once a week. Now, I rarely do. I go to a much nicer theatre that serves my needs as a customer, and one that would never cave to children who can't behave themselves.
Since there haven't been any African Americans nominated in the top four categories for two years straight, we're seeing a boycott of this year's Academy Awards by a few artists. The Economist ran a piece with the data that seemed to show that African Americans aren't substantially biased against when it comes to the Oscars. Although potential racial bias in the Academy is an important topic, it's not the bias subject that I'd like to talk about now.
There is definitely one substantial bias in the Academy Awards. It's a strong bias that everyone knows about and accepts, even though it is wrong. I'm talking about release date bias.
A university in the Netherlands ran through the data. What they found is that more than 1 in 5 films nominated are released in December, and there has never been a film nominated that was released in July. The bias skews towards October, November, but especially December.
If we look at the Best Picture Nominations for this year, we have the following release dates:
May 15, 2015
Oct. 2, 2015
Oct. 16, 2015
Oct. 16, 2015
Nov. 4, 2015
Nov. 6, 2015
Dec. 11, 2015
Dec. 25, 2015
If you look at the other nominations you get a similar tale. The further you push the release in the year, the the better the chance that you'll get a nomination.
The May 15th release on that list is obviously Mad Max: Fury Road, which is one of the best action movies ever made. If it had been released in December, it would probably clean up at the Oscars. How do you know a film is great? Release it in May, and see if it still gets nominations.
On the race debate, I think if Straight Outta Compton had been released in December, it certainly would have been nominated for Best Picture, and Jason Mitchell would have been nominated for Best Actor. But, it may not have done as well at the box office, so that's the game you play.
There are probably many biases that affect the outcome of the Academy Awards to some degree. But I believe they all pale in comparison to release date bias. If Twelve Years a Slave had been released in February (instead of November), my guess is that not only would it have not won Best Picture, it may not have even been nominated.
So while there may not be heavy social implications to release date bias, I do believe it's the easiest bias to prove and the bias that most greatly affects which films are nominated and which films win Academy Awards. I truly wish we could rid it from the Academy so that films that happen to have an early release date aren't unduly punished.
That Dec. 25th release? The Revenant. You now know where to put you money down for a Best Picture win this year.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat all by myself in my new favorite theatre, the MGN Five Star Cinemas, in Glendale, CA, while my waitress served me popcorn, pizza, and drinks, and while I lounged back, and watched The Revenant.
There were several reasons why I went to see The Revenant in the theatre. First off, I'm a big Leo fan. He is one of the absolute best A-list actors of our time.
I'm also a big Tom Hardy fan. I've been critical on this blog in the past about his lack of A-list shine. Nonetheless, he has incredible talent as a player on the big screen.
The movie was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. If you give Alejandro $135M, and tell him to go make a historical epic in the outdoors, this is something you go see.
The most important reason why I wanted to see the film, however, is I'm intrigued by cinematography in forests. It's damn expensive and hard to light epic scenes in the middle of trees. Many films don't even try to light in such tricky outdoor environments. Emmanuel Lubezki DP'd two of my favorite films of all time: Children of Men, and The Tree of Life. I really wanted to see how he approached this story with lighting.
The first fifteen minutes or so of this film is a brutal attack scene where Indians absolutely crush a large group of hunters who have stacks of pelts piled up on the river near their boat. Immediately, a few things are apparent: there is no exterior lighting done on this film, the scenes are extremely graphic, and the shooting style is largely roaming camera capturing bits of action.
I tend to like nontraditional shooting styles. It's done rather well throughout this movie, but does get a bit gimmicky at times. We really could have used some large establishing shots in scenes like the opening attack. Obviously, the filmmakers want us immersed in the action. That's great, but it's done at the expense of scope, and the way it is done during The Revenant only furthers the film's major drawback, which I'll discuss later. I love that the filmmakers took a chance with this style, and although I'm nitpicking it, for the most part, it works rather well.
The first act of the film effectively establishes the protagonist—Hugh Glass (Leo), and the antagonist—John Fitzgerald (Tom). What becomes obvious very early on, and is just cemented in fact throughout the film, is that Leo does give a tremendous performance, but that Hardy outshines him brightly and gives a performance for the ages.
Tom Hardy's performance blew me away. This upcoming Best Actor Oscar is going to be handed to the wrong person. It should be handed to another actor in the same film! Hardy's performance alone is worth the price of admission and then some. What a ridiculously talented actor!
Something major happens (the bear scene) and at this point, the film's primary weakness is revealed: believability. This can be broken down into two parts.
1. The stuff that Glass has to go through in this film is so far from being believable, it prevents this from being the utter classic film that it deserves to be. It's not even close. Without giving away too many spoilers, Leo's character goes from one utterly unbelievable event to another. He goes from having a broken foot in one scene, in which he's still able to crawl around the entire West, to not having a broken foot in another scene and is capable of running. It's absurd, and an absolute shame, because it holds back the potential greatness of this film.
2. The CG stuff looks weak. That bear, who supposedly isn't CG, looks very CG, until it's dead. Buffalo, wolves, avalanches—none of it looks real. It would have been better to tone down the scenes and use real practicals, because at least at that point, sophisticated eyes in the seats aren't going to be thinking about how great the scene would have been without the CGI.
I won't go into the rest of the film. What I will say is this: from beginning to end, The Revenant is a fantastic film (with a world class performance by Tom Hardy) except for the fact that almost the entire movie is utterly unbelievable. If the filmmakers would have toned back the completely unrealistic and unneeded insanity, and kept this tale in the realm of the real world, The Revenant would be added near the top of the list of all-time greatest American survival period pieces.
As is, The Revenant is definitely worth seeing, but for reasons that aren't getting much buzz. That bear scene is not terrific. The characters, especially the non-Hugh Glass characters, are very well-written, and all of the acting is terrific. When the camera movement stops, and sticks on epic outdoor shots, they blow you away. The gruesome nature of what was the American West at that time is captured well. But, above all, see The Revenant to see Tom Hardy's best performance of his young career. It is ridiculously fantastic.
On IMDB I gave The Revenant 8 out of 10 stars. If it would have been more believable, it would have easily been a ten out of ten.
Don't read on if you haven't seen the movie yet. Come back after you have.
Seriously, don't read it.
******* MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW ********
I had a tremendous amount of hope for Star Wars: The Force Awakens for about a minute. When Michael Arndt was hired as the scribe, I really thought this would be a fantastic film. Arndt is known for two things: ridiculously well fleshed-out & developed characters, and well-written emotional scenes. When Arndt was dropped from the project, a split rumored to be over a disagreement with the direction of the story and the time needed for it to be written, my hope was gone. JJ and Lawrence Kasdan reportedly finished the first draft of the script in only six weeks.
Once the movie premiered in Hollywood, the tweets from people who watched it were very positive. The reviews came out, and they were rather good. Everyone I knew who saw it ranged from liking it, to loving it. So I almost had a bit of hope again.
Unfortunately, I had to work Thursday through Monday, swing-shift, with a couple of long shifts in there, so I could not see the movie until Tuesday. Several people kept yapping to me about the film, even though I told them not to. One coworker even told me that he had heard that a much-loved character dies at the end (and gave me two options as to who it might be). I instantly knew it was Han Solo. Disney was not going to repeatedly pay him $25M a pop when they could get away with paying the other actors a few million per picture (and when they could put anyone in a Wookie or droid costume). The movie was ruined for me before I ever stepped into the theatre. The psychology of people who ruin narratives for other people is something else, and will be talked about in a future discussion.
I sat down in the luxury lounge chair and reclined back with a diet coke and a Sam Adams on my table. The film started, and like every other Star Wars movie, I was immediately sucked in by the prologue roll. Unlike every other Star Wars movie, I was immediately kicked back out during the first scene.
It was instantly apparent that this film was not going to be well blocked or well shot. Every, and I mean every single fucking shot of the whole damn movie, should have been shot at a shorter focal length (wider angle). This is a space epic, not a damn soap opera. The set and costumes in the first scene looked so fake that I almost cried. Never before had storm trooper armor looked like cheap plastic. Like the rest of the movie, the first scene felt entirely too small in scale. Some of the framing looked so amateurish I wanted to yell at the screen. And I completely missed the fact that Finn was an actual Stormtrooper. I thought he had somehow just stolen the cheap, plastic, armor.
Compare the first scene of Force Awakens with New Hope. In New Hope, we're at the edge of our seat the whole time because it's so well shot and written. It's full of tension. Darth Vader is immediately established in a powerful way. The droids are well established as well. The scene is a true inciting incident that pushes the story forward in an unabashed way. The opening scene of Force Awakens does nothing well. Absolutely nothing.
The rest of the first half of the movie is a series of ridiculous coincidences, poorly constructed scenes, and almost no serious development of our two new main characters, Rey and Finn (who are well cast).
Rey is tough. We eventually learn that she is strong with the Force. But who the hell is she? She's waiting for her family to come back. Is she Skywalker's daughter? If so, that doesn't have to be revealed, but we need to know something about her. We need an establishing point, and an arc. Otherwise she's boring, just like all of the characters in episodes 1, 2, & 3, who were all grossly underdeveloped.
Finn. Well, turns out he was an actual Stormtrooper. He's running from it. But what else? Who is he? He flirts with Rey. Okay. What else is he? What is his arc? What are his multi-dimensions?
Compare this to how Han and Leia were established in New Hope. You knew in very short order who the hell they were as human beings. You knew their strengths, their weaknesses. You believed what came out of their mouths because it fit the characters that were developed. You believed the tension between them because you knew who the fuck they were. And best of all—they had arcs.
Remember this Obi-Wan line from New Hope?: "Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious." First off, Obi-Wan was terrifically established in short order (as was Luke) in the first act of New Hope. Not only that, this one epic line of dialogue establishes Mos Eisley better than a dozen scenes ever could. What line in the first half of Force Awakens even compares to that? Not only are the characters not well developed, the environments aren't either. What the hell is Jakku? It's a cheap clone of Tatooine. Tatooine represented a far-away, safe, mostly rural place away from the macro-conflict of the universe, where Luke could grow up to become Luke Skywalker at the start of his arc. Once again, what the hell is Jakku? Well, it's a place where Rey and Finn can steal (coincidentally) the Millennium Falcon, so it can be bounced off of stuff in very CG-looking scenes. Weak.
Even when Rey and Finn finally meet Han and Chewie, the scene isn't amped up emotionally like it should have been. In that scene, Han is written like a caricature of himself. The conversations with the bandits that want Solo really don't do anything. Han is already established. We're not learning anything new there. And the coincidence of the monsters being able to be released between Solo and his attackers—that's just plain dumb.
The interactions between Rey and Solo finally gives us some insight as to who she is. She knows the mechanics of the Falcon on the same level as Solo. Because he's been so well established, that's actually telling us something about her. But where Solo is so satisfyingly flawed as a human being (and as a protagonist), she doesn't seem to be at all. This the mark of an amateur writer (I'm guilty of doing this as well).
Han, Chewie, Rey, and Finn, fly down to planet Takodana (why would you name a planet Taco Dana? That sounds like cheap restaurant), another underwhelming location. They meet Maz Kanata, who for my money steals the show. Kanata is efficiently established, intriguing, and most importantly of all, helps to finally give us some interest in Rey. The vision scene with Rey and Luke's light saber is the best scene in the film, and from that point on, the movie actually looks and feels much better crafted.
I loved seeing Leia again, and seeing her connection to Han. It was well acted and very moving. Then the movie switches to the reveal of yet another spherical bad-guy mega-weapon that must be destroyed by a design flaw. Holy shit. They even have a war room that looks straight out of New Hope. The same fucking X-Wing fighters are going to destroy it after Han and crew sneak into it to drop its shields.
This isn't an homage to New Hope; this is downright fictional theft.
Somehow, Han, Chewie, and Finn, sneak into the enemy base. Han meets his evil son and attempts to convince him to come with him. Then the murder. It's emotional, but not nearly as emotional as it should be. Why? Because Han's son hasn't been well established. None of the bad guys are. We know how they look (menacing). We know they have anger problems. That's about it. A tremendous opportunity comes up short.
So then the day is saved (imagine that). Rey flies off to find Luke. We end with drone shots of Rey handing Luke his light saber. Nice ending, especially because we think she may be his daughter. But...
...imagine what this could have been if Arndt was kept on as the screenwriter. Imagine what it could have been if he had been given time to develop these new characters and worlds, and if this project wasn't rushed by Disney. It could have been spectacular.
That being said, I realize that I'm in the minority. I'm not calling The Force Awakens a bad movie. The first half was horrible. The second half was actually darn good. I'm just really disappointed because it could have been fantastic. If Arndt had been given free reign to write, and if Fincher or Nolan had been hired to direct, this movie could have been absolutely amazing.
When it comes to stories, I'm hard to please. I wanted more. Fortunately, I may be the only one.
****** END OF SPOILERS ******
Did I mention that I loved the opening prologue roll?
The new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted this week during Monday Night Football. Immediately, people took to Twitter to declare how awesome it was and how excited they were about the upcoming film. Ticket sites crashed because of monumental demand. And I was, as I have been for awhile, strangely ambivalent. There was a time when I was enormously excited about the upcoming Episode VII, but that was a long time ago, seemingly in a galaxy far, far, away.
So why do I think that this may not be the great movie that everyone else expects it to be? A few reasons:
1. When Disney had approached David Fincher to direct this film, I was immensely excited. When J.J. Abrams got the job, my excitement tempered. J.J. can be a terrific director, but he is hit or miss (Star Trek vs. Star Trek Into Darkness). One problem that I have with J.J. is that he expects the audience to suspend disbelief to an oftentimes outrageous degree. This can wreck a film faster than just about anything.
2. The Episode VII trailers are unimpressive to me. Great candy shots, but too much fast action, Spiderman-like, CGI, that doesn't feel real.
3. The recent inside Hollywood buzz is that this is not going to be the excellent film that most people think it will be. Buzz is often wrong though, so I hope this time it is.
4. Unlike that last three films, by bringing in the original cast, if this film is awful, it will have a harmful bleed-over effect on the first three. There's just too much riding on it. Too much weight = too much pressure, which is rarely ever good.
5. Most importantly—when I heard who was hired to write the first draft, I was outrageously excited. There could be no better choice than Michael Arndt. But when he left the project, rumored to be because he and J.J. couldn't agree on the focus of the story, my expectations for the film fell off a cliff.
Now, do I hope this film is terrific and it helps everyone reconnect with the Star Wars of old? Yes. I'm going to go into the theatre hoping beyond hope that I'll be blown away.
Do I think that is the most likely possibility? No. My guess is that it's going to be better than Episodes I, II, & III, but not as good as Episodes IV, V & VI. It should make an absolute killing at the box office, and I'm confident that most people will be satisfied.
But, I'm not buying an advanced ticket this time around. No midnight showing for me. I'll pay for an early matinee a couple of weeks after the debut.
And yet, I hope I'm wrong. I hope it's knocked out of the park. And I hope the future Star Wars movies are done well too. But confident about this, I am not. I've lived long enough to know better.
Jon David Rosten, author of
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