Friday, September 29, 2017

3:10 TO YUMA - #657

Based on a story by Elmore Leonard (Justified [review]), 3:10 To Yuma is a tight little thriller of a western. Shot by Delmer Daves a year after he made Jubal [review], it flips the script on that earlier morality play. Though don’t be fooled by its stripped-back cast and lack of color, 3:10 to Yuma is anything but simplistic or black-and-white.

Glenn Ford returns to Daves’ set, but this time as the bad guy. Outlaw Ben Wade gets himself into trouble when he uses a farmer’s cattle as a roadblock to rob a passing stagecoach of its gold. Little does he know, this careless act makes a reluctant hero of Dan Evans (Van Heflin, The Prowler), who just wants to keep his home intact until the longstanding drought breaks and gives his farm life again. Echoing Heflin’s role as the father in Shane [review], Dan’s inaction during the initial robbery causes two separate reactions in his sons: the older sees the sense of avoiding a gunfight with a dozen crooks, his youngest son thinks his dad should have taken them out singlehandedly.

When Wade ends up getting himself caught stopping for a little romance in the nearby town, the local marshal (Ford Rainey) and the owner of the stagecoach (Robert Emhardt, No Time for Sergeants [review]) concoct an elaborate plan to distract Wade’s gang while Dan and the town drunk (Henry Jones) sneak him to Contention City (what a name!) where they can put their prisoner on the titular train to Yuma. Spoiler alert: things don’t go as planned.

3:10 to Yuma has plenty of shootouts, but the real thrust of the story is the dynamic between the two men, between the family man and the outlaw. Though their lives are very different, at the core, they are essentially the same, they just made different choices. Both abide by their personal sense of right and wrong, which is largely defined by their isolationism. Sure, Wade steals from other people for a living, but he’s mostly willing to leave anyone alone who leaves him alone. The cash his action brings him would solve plenty of Dan’s problems, and Wade uses that to lean on the farmer, to try to bribe him into undoing his handcuffs. At the same time, Wade sees something peaceful and honorable in the family life Dan has chosen. It’s a different type of security than money can buy, though for Dan to have his ideal and take care of his family with no outside help, it seems money is necessary. The tensest scenes come when the pair is locked in a hotel room, watching the clock, and the slick criminal is working on his captor’s conscience.

Ford strikes me as a better heavy than he is a straight leading man. Here he is confident and charismatic, aware that he is the smartest man in the room, and yet rarely showing that conceit to any of his marks. As the villain in this piece, he is defined by two conflicting actions: shooting his own man at the stagecoach rather than see the heist go south, and wooing the barmaid (Felicia Farr, also playing the opposite to her Jubal character, trading her blonde hair for dark) with what appears to be genuine affection. The cold first action is what heightens the urgency of the manhunt, and the warm second is what brings that hunt to a close. One can surmise that the dalliance with the girl was worth it, though one is also sympathetic to her poor decision. Daves chooses to film them after the deed in an uncomfortably close two-shot, Wade’s face partially obscured, hers fully exposed so that we can see she is at once satiated and broken-hearted, knowing that there is no tomorrow for this one-night stand.

On the other end of things, Dan’s thoughts are all about tomorrow. If he gets through this, he can get enough money to purchase temporary water rights from his neighbor. At the same time, he holds out hope that the rain will come, that a man will be rewarded for doing the right thing, that he won’t need to indebt himself to another. Though religion never really comes into it, not even in the tangential way it influences Jubal, Dan’s is the plight of the religious man, with his sons representing the angel and the devil on each shoulder, pride and reason, and his wife (Leora Dana) providing the center. She makes her own dumb choice in the final third of the film, but at the same time, it’s one motivated by her dedication to her marriage, and one that fortifies Dan’s resolve, even as most of his allies desert him.

Of course, this isn’t a true religious parable, nor does man need religion to adhere to an ethical code--something a lifetime of westerns and noir will teach any cinephile. The action here is all ground-level, and the temptation earthly. There is also a fundamental plot that is so pure here, James Mangold barely messed with it for his excellent 2007 remake [review]. That last rush to the station is still a rush! When it comes down to it, it’s all about keeping on the right path, about getting the bad guy to his destination regardless of the obstacles that appear in front of you. Thus, if Wade is the true devil, he offers Dan true redemption, even giving his own helping hand at the end.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


This review was originally written for in 2012, and sometimes refers to features on the DVD release.

Jean-Luc Godard's 2010 cinematic essay, Film Socialisme, his first major new work since 2004's Notre Musique [review] (and, of course, followed several years later by Goodbye to Language [review]), opens with the image of a roiling sea. The water looks black, almost like oil, a visual juxtaposition that is clearly intentional, as the first subtitled narration is three choice words: "Money Public Water." It's an intentionally vague statement, a provocation from a master provocateur. But as where that term has become a negative referring to empty sensationalists, the great French filmmaker is working on a whole other level. He wants to stimulate political discourse through cinema. He is poking at your brain, not at your libido.

The darkened ocean is not actually the first image in Film Socialisme. That is actually the short flash of two brightly colored parrots that appear just before the start of the credits. This is likely meant to be a joke, Godard the prankster poking fun at the chatter that is to follow. Film Socialisme is not a narrative film, not in any conventional sense. It's also not a documentary. It's more the latest fruit born of an ongoing experiment that the director has been engaging in since his first feature, Breathless [review], more than 50 years ago. Godard structures Film Socialisme as a three-point argument. The first segment takes place on a European ocean liner, with Godard's camera following passengers, young and old, on their journey of never-ending pleasures, from buffet to nightclub and back to the buffet again.

The travelers are of every stripe and every nation, the cruise ship is world culture in microcosm, bringing us all together (a major theme of Film Socialisme), even if it's just for banal synchronized dancing. Shot in digital, the images range in quality from beautifully realized high-definition to cheap and pixilated. Godard and his team both observe the unaware and track specific characters, all the while using their monologues and disconnected voiceover to cover a range of topics, largely centered on the self-absorption of modern culture, sins of the past (Germany, Moscow, and Israel/Palestine are regular targets), and the role of popular art in curtailing man's self-destruction. Amongst the invented personas are also real people, including musicians Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye and economist Bernard Maris.

This initial portion establishes Film Socialisme's difficult aesthetic. It's not just the images that are disjointed--there is no such thing as a "complete" scene here--but also the spoken word. Or, more specifically for English speakers relying on subtitles, the written word. Godard has chosen to make Film Socialisme even more challenging for his Western audiences. Rather than subtitling every word you hear, he has chosen to translate the material into "Navajo English." The name is a rather risky joke, referring (one assumes) to the style of broken English spoken by Native Americans in old Westerns. Thus, something like, "I am hungry, and I want to eat" will instead be "Me want food." While Kino Lorber has offered a fully translated subtitle option on their home video release (as well as the choice of none for those who speak the multiple languages heard onscreen), to go with those almost seems like a cheat, like watching Memento in its chronological order. Film Socialisme is a leading puzzle that beckons the viewer to follow the fractures and divine his or her meaning from the clues left along the way. The incomplete subtitles add another layer to what is being shown. The combination of words can be perfectly clear at times, but they can also be laced with a double meaning, loaded with ironic context or sharp political rhetoric.

The second part of the film leaves the cruise ship and goes to a small, family-run gas station that is struggling to survive in the lopsided world economy. The politically minded nuclear family is being visited by a film crew who are, for all intents and purposes, shooting a film within a film, though often to the reluctance of the subjects. Some of what they capture is "documentary," some of it is purposely staged; yet, Godard suggests that all culture is now imitation. The young son of the family is a bit of a precocious prodigy, mimicking orchestra conductors, blowing his straw like a saxophone, and painting his own version of Renoir masterpieces from memory. While his family worries about money and the possible change in public policy due to an upcoming election (one which family members are also candidates, so threatening domestic policy, as well), the boy worries about not revealing where his talents come from. That, and the camerawoman's posterior. (Oh, Godard, you rascal.) Social change and governmental policy are all theatrics; there is no longer a line between the authentic and the contrived.

The last third of the film shifts completely from any pretense of traditional storytelling and becomes full-on collage. This, one could surmise, is really the meat of Film Socialisme. Godard begins the segment with footage of the cruise ship landing, as if to suggest that we, as an audience, have finally arrived at our destination (being, of course, all in this together; entertainment is the truest form of socialism in current times). Using archival footage from news networks, historical records, and old motion pictures, Godard lays out a history of war and oppression, touching again on Palestine and Nazi Germany, as well as military dictators like Stalin and Franco, not to mention dialing all the way back to the origins of civilization itself. Title cards and an alternating male/female narrative team (those parrots from the opening?) explain, in their way, what we are seeing, working with the visuals to build to a crescendo of stimuli. The last words of the movie are "No Comment." Again, this is loaded with meaning. It could be that Godard has no more to say and no intention of explaining himself, or perhaps it's really a comment on the film audience at large. We passively view our blockbusters without ever asking what price we pay as a species by not demanding more of what is easily the most influential and potent art form of the past 100 years.

Make no mistake, Film Socialisme is not going to be to everyone's liking. It's intentionally hard work, and it requires the viewer to accept and go with its strange and often maddening flow. The closest thing I can liken it to in recent memory are the seeming tangents of Malick's Tree of Life [review], the segments showing the universe being born and developing that on first blush might come off as the worst kind of self-indulgence. In both cases, however, for those who want to give it a go, there is far deeper and satisfying treasures to be found by jumping in and digging through the primordial ooze. You might not "get" either the first time--I just wrote 1,000 words about Film Socialisme and I don't even really get it--but nothing that is truly enriching ever really is. Getting there requires a little faith in the artist, and also in yourself.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


This review was originally written in 2009 for

Jean-Luc Godard was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the early 1960s, producing a string of exciting, creative films that, as Susan Sontag once wrote, work as one long piece of cinema, an evolving, ever-expanding movie from a singular artistic source. Of those early movies, one of the least talked about seems to be Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman), his 1964 study of one woman's emotional dilemma. Perhaps it's just that the movie fell between the more popular Band of Outsiders [review] and the sci-fi detective film Alphaville [review], and so the less flashy feature got lost behind the spotlight. Regardless, it's an unfair development. A Married Woman is a worthy companion piece to Godard's divisive 1963 masterpiece, Contempt [review], exploring many of the same themes of infidelity, changing affections, and performance, but this time more sympathetic to the female side of the story.

Macha Méril stars as Charlotte, a young wife married to Pierre (Philippe Leroy), an older man whose previous marriage ended after two months, leaving him a cuckold with a young son. Despite going through the motions of wife and lover, Charlotte has grown tired of the arrangement, and she has sought extramarital passions in the arms of a handsome actor, Robert (Bernard Noël). Robert wants her to leave Pierre and be with him, and Charlotte has agreed to get a divorce so they can make that happen. Yet, pulling the trigger is not so easy.

A Married Woman is told in a series of distinct chapters, opening with a rendezvous with Robert, transitioning into Charlotte's return to family and time with Pierre, then a little girl talk, and finally back to Robert. Far from a conventional narrative, A Married Woman is composed of Godard's usual aesthetic, like a series of cut-up snapshots rearranged and pasted together. The final product is a little like a parlor-room drama given a modern remix. Continuing his groundbreaking experiments with music, advertising, and slogans, Godard splices conversations with movie posters (as well as his usual self-reflexive references to the same), ads for brassieres, and the sights of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and a Jean Cocteau window display. Instead of the usual talking heads, he presents conversations as one-sided, having each character look directly into the camera and state their business, with their partner sometimes posing questions off-screen. Thus, discussions are more like filmed interrogations than an exchange of information, each lover demanding to know if they are loved and how much. Just what are you prepared to do for me?

Ever the trickster, Godard plays fast and loose with the idea of the male gaze in A Married Woman. The lovemaking scenes are staged using strictly framed shots, focusing on different parts of Charlotte--the back of her neck, her bellybutton, her legs. It is both reverential and objectifying, loving and lustful, a dichotomy Godard is acknowledging as existing in both of Charlotte's male partners. As she will figure out, they want to possess the parts, but not necessarily the whole. She wonders why both of them don't want to see her in her complete nakedness, Robert even imploring her to put on a shirt as she wanders their shared boudoir in panties and nothing more--though even in her exhibitionism, she hides a little, covering her breasts with her arm. Then again, if Robert would express his desire to see them, she'd reveal all. Interesting, too, that both the husband and boyfriend end sexual encounters with talk of pregnancy, of each wanting to give Charlotte a baby. Her nervous reluctance is refreshing. Not all modern women want to be mothers, after all, and the implication is that the men see this as a final stamp of ownership, the way to shackle her. The men are frighteningly interchangeable, especially the way Godard regularly shoots only the backs of their heads or leaves them off camera entirely.

Marriage didn't go so well for Pierre the first time, something that comes to bear in his new relationship, and Godard is sharply aware of the double-standards that come to play in a male/female relationship, especially in regard to sexual freedom. Charlotte says as much when Pierre questions her past history, and she knows he doesn't trust her because of his own history. As a pilot, Pierre is often gone, and in his absence, he once had a private detective follow Charlotte, catching her in her early flirtation with "that actor." As she tells him, even if his suspicions are correct, it doesn't give him the right to have her tailed.

Godard is smart to have Charlotte be such a conflicted character and not altogether wholesome. She is often childish, fighting over whether she can play some records or worrying about her bust size. The auteur is fascinated by the division between youth and age as much as he is the division of gender. There are ongoing discussions of memory vs. action, past vs. present. Pierre is hopelessly stuck in the past, whereas Charlotte only cares about right now. In one of his usual extreme juxtapositions, Godard introduces us to Pierre just as he is returning from having been to Auschwitz to watch the trials of Nazi war criminals, all of whom profess to not being able to remember the atrocities. Is Charlotte's disinterest evidence of a flighty personality, or is Pierre merely an intellectual poser? In the middle is Pierre's guest (director Roger Leenhardt playing himself), an even older man who is more in tune with where these things intersect. Intelligence, as he says, is the ability to compromise, to be able to assess all factors and proceed accordingly.

Ultimately, this is what Charlotte must do, particularly after a mid-point twist where she realizes she is pregnant and has no idea which of the two possible candidates is the father. Macha Méril is wonderful to watch in the movie, making Charlotte more than an empty vessel for Godard's philosophy--even if her discussions of acting with Robert bring to mind some of the theories of Robert Bresson, who saw actors as models to be posed. (A brilliantly choreographed meeting between the lovers, showing the lengths they'll go to cover their tracks, also reminded me of Bresson. Specifically, the scenes of thievery in Pickpocket.) As an actress, Méril is always aware of both her surroundings and the internal debate that Charlotte is having. She always appears to be thinking, she is never blank. Her performance serves Godard's subversion of the male gaze quite well, actually, and Raoul Coutard's gorgeous photography practically dares you to get lost in her beauty and forget that there is a brain in her head. Good luck, because Méril makes it pretty much impossible.

The tragedy of A Married Woman, then, is that for as much as Charlotte may want to weigh her options, what she discovers in her final tryst with Robert is that the choice is ultimately out of her hands. Any relationship lives or dies on the vagaries of its participants, and so as much as Pierre's mistrust of her is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so too is Robert's status as an actor and his role as the other man going to make him a capricious lover, someone for whom permanence is not truly viable. As in life, the end of the film is abrupt, coming before Charlotte--or the viewer--is ready, and thus hitting all the harder.

Friday, September 22, 2017


This review was originally written for the Essential Director Series boxed set from Wellspring in 2007 and published at

Coming right on the heels of Breathless [review], Michel Subor's Bruno in Le Petit Soldat is like Belmondo's Michel if he had actually been able to outrun those bullets. A French deserter living in Switzerland, Bruno has gotten out of one life and is looking to engage in a new one. At the very beginning of Le Petit Soldat, he informs us in voiceover that he's getting too old to be stuck in the action, he needs to get serious about life, the lesson Belmondo should have learned. Currently, Bruno is using his job as a photographer as his cover for his activities as a secret agent on the side of the French nationalists in the war against Algeria. Yet, with all the macho posturing--how many times does someone ask him if he's scared?--it usually appears that Bruno is just playing at being a secret agent, just like Belmondo was playing at being a gangster.

Jean-Luc Godard is in scrappy form in Le Petit Soldat. The plot is just as simplistic as Breathless, but that's not the point. Any clenched first can punch you in the face, it's how you swing it. Bruno wants to be a secret agent, but he can't bring himself to kill. He is all mixed up and in love, chasing the beautiful Russian model Veronica Dreyer--likely named for the Danish director but played by Anna Karina, the iconic actress in her first role. Bruno crosses the French, then he gets in trouble with the Algerians, and then he doubts the girl and wonders what it's all for. Most of the movie moves at a fast clip, just like most early Godard, and with the quick cuts and change-ups, you have to be on your toes and stick with it. It only drags some in the middle when the scenes of torture Bruno suffers at the hands of the Algerians goes on a little too long--even despite the narration noting that torture is boring and promising to move through it quickly. Then again, this could also be the director's commentary on the public's laissez-faire views of the issue. (One wonders what Jean-Luc would make of 24.)

It's actually that torture that got the movie banned by French censors for several years, since Godard includes references to the French resorting to the practice, not just the Algerians. In a way, it's fitting that there would be so much contention over Le Petit Soldat, since the auteur appears to have been in a contentious mood when he made it. Not just about the politics of the war, either, but about cinema and possibly his place in the movement he had helped start. Bruno has a monologue where he condemns actors while praising cinema (the famous "Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 frames a second" quote). Connections are drawn between Bruno shooting with his camera and shooting (or not shooting) with a gun, including the self-reflexive quoting of the movie's cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, who coined the term "the great hassle." He likely meant it in terms of movie making, that when you try to shoot a film on the street, street life gets in the way; here, it refers to the continued blocking of Bruno carrying out his assigned assassination.

Ultimately, this metaphor leads to Bruno questioning the difference between doing nothing and hollow action. Is it really better to take up arms for a cause if the fundamental precepts of that cause have not been thought through? Is it okay, for instance, to love France for their cinema, but dislike the Arabs because they live in deserts and you can't stand the heat? Is deconstructionist theory enough reason to make a motion picture? Bruno may eventually make his move, but it feels more out of necessity, of being stuck in the flow of things, than it is any settling on a particular conviction. The questions still hang in the air. Yet, the existential futility, the unstoppable events that happen around him, end up giving him that independence he seeks.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


This review was originally written for in 2010.

Howl was the definitive poem of the Beat era. Published in 1955, it chronicled the decadence and madness that its author, Allen Ginsberg, saw as lining the underbelly of the American psyche. Combining jazz-age slang with the flowing lines of Walt Whitman, the frank and often vulgar imagery in Ginsberg's new expression sparked a firestorm of controversy and caused its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to be charged with obscenity. The trial that ensued, the circumstances of his life that lead Ginsberg to compose the piece, and the lingering meaning of the poetry is the subject of the movie Howl, a sometimes delirious, often compelling dervish of style.

The script for Howl is constructed using various interlocking stories. There is the younger Ginsberg, shot in black-and-white, as he composes the poem, and then there is a slightly older, bearded Ginsberg in color, giving an interview to an unseen journalist while the obscenity trial is being carried out elsewhere. In both, Ginsberg is played by James Franco (Pineapple Express [review], Milk), and it's amazing how a change in film stock and the addition of facial hair can differentiate two stages of a performance. Franco is exceptional in the role--sometimes too exceptional. Particularly in the interview sequences, his impression of the poet is so spot-on, it's almost impossible not to notice. The quality calls too much attention to itself, demanding you recognize that it's James Franco being Allen Ginsberg and not just a conventional approximation of the same.

Howl also cuts away from the author to show us Ferlinghetti's trial (the publisher is played by Andrew Rogers, though I don't think he ever gets a line). David Strathairn (Temple Grandin, [review]) plays the prosecuting attorney, while venerable character actor Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) sits on the bench. The defense attorney Jake Ehrlich is played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm, who brings an intelligence and presence to an otherwise standard role. Co-writers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who previously made the documentaries The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk, bring their fact-based approach to this dramatization, working with court transcripts and public record to recreate the events as they happened. This means some exceptional closing speeches from Hamm and Balaban, as well as some surprisingly small-minded testimony from expert witnesses, with Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels taking those cameos.

These fairly straightforward elements are regularly interrupted by the poem itself. James Franco performs the piece in both cases, sometimes on camera in a café reading (with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in attendance), sometimes off camera. In the latter case, the material is brought to life using animation designed by Eric Drooker, who was the illustrator on several collaborations with Ginsberg (including a comic book version of Howl). These sequences look very cool and are full of movement, even if some of the imagery is a little on the nose. Personally, much of Ginsberg's work, and the Beats in general, strike me that way, so it seemed right-on to me. The Beats sometimes come across as comical, a little too insistent on the coolness of their own hedonism.

Epstein and Friedman use this approach to zero in on the importance of Howl, its artistry and social impact, while also avoiding the standard problems of a biography picture. The aesthetic reminded me a lot of American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's portrait of autobiographical comic book writer Harvey Pekar. American Splendor was phenomenal in how it introduced audiences to not just Pekar the man, but Pekar the artist, blending the individual with the work. In that, Howl is successful, as well. The film requires no prior knowledge of Ginsberg or his poem, but you will walk out feeling like you know it inside and out.

If there is one thing I wish Epstein and Friedman had borrowed from their predecessors, it's that maybe they had included more documentary footage of Ginsberg outside the very tiny snippet we get at the close of the film. Maybe that would have added a little more weight to Howl. The movie dazzles on a technical level (it was shot by the marvelous Edward Lachman, who has worked with Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, and others), and Ginsberg's lyricism still has the power to hypnotize over half a century later, but as cinema, Howl somehow ends up feeling very light. The filmmakers have a greater point to make about social identity, expression, and the gay experience--Ginsberg was a gay poet, and his work never hid that fact--and all of that comes across, but it feels oddly clinical. It's like a history lesson more than it's drama.

Still, for anyone who is interested in art, writing, or the power of either to effect social change, Howl still has a lot to offer. The story is a triumph of the system, an example of how the law can work and how reason can prevail. At a swift 90-minutes, Howl moves with breathless precision, and though it probably won't spark any revolutions itself, the movie is definitely illuminating.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


The rhythm of life is a quiet beat. For most of us, our day to day may feel dramatic, but to the outside eye, it likely lacks the energy and histrionics that we perceive from within our own sphere.
This is something that filmmaker Kelly Reichardt seems acutely aware of. Her films, even when drawing from events that seem ideal for a fiction plot, operate at a familiar tempo. Take her last movie, 2013’s Night Moves [review], about eco-terrorists--it’s told less like a crime film and more like a personal drama. Reichardt doesn’t feel the need to dress it up.

It seems only natural, then, that the director would turn her lens on genuinely quiet lives for 2016’s Certain Women. Working with stories from author Maile Meloy, Reichardt stitches together tangentially connected tales of four different women living in rural Montana. Laura Dern (The Master [review]) plays a personal injury lawyer whose lover (James Le Gros) is married to Gina (Michelle Williams, Reichardt’s muse in both Wendy and Lucy [review] and Meek’s Cutoff [review]), a mother adrift and in search of a natural experience. Gina’s path takes her by the ranch where a lonely Native American woman (Lily Gladstone) works, and after the girl makes a connection with Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria [review]), a young teacher, she also ends up brushing up against the lawyer.

Certain Women is essentially a movie about striving to connect with other people and not quite succeeding. In each section, the characters find themselves trying to form a meaningful bond with someone, and not having it go as planned, be it a coworker, a family member, or in the case of the ranch hand, we’re never quite sure if she is looking to Elizabeth for romance or friendship. It doesn’t really matter. All that counts is that she has found someone she can talk to, and who talks to her in turn. The film’s most vulnerable moment is when the rancher brings her horse to give her teacher a ride to post-class dinner, a grand gesture to both let Elizabeth into her world but also carry her into another of their own making. These are women who somehow don’t belong--the lawyer who feels she’s stuck in a man’s game, the mother whose family only indulges her, the farmer looking for a friend or maybe lover--and where each of them stumbles is in trying to carve out space for another, to find a sense of belonging by inviting someone else to their side.

What keeps Certain Women from being a downer is how resilient each character is despite their failure. In the lawyer’s coda, she tries to make amends with the client she couldn’t help (Jared Harris, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [review]); in Gina’s, she steps away from her family to enjoy a moment by herself. Michelle Williams is a soulful actor, and she can do more with this silent reverie than most of her peers. There is relief in her expression, in her body language, in her breathing--relief tempered by the weight of all that she still carries, it never leaves her shoulders, she never fully relents. Williams is perhaps so successful in her collaboration with Reichardt because she makes the most use of the space the director provides her. The actress seems to carry her every life experience into the film with her.

Not that her costars are slouches. Laura Dern tempers gravity with compassion, and Kristen Stewart’s distracted energy serves well to give her an aloof allure that draws the audience to her as much as it does the ranch hand. For her part, relative newcomer Lily Gladstone is a convincing observer, letting Stewart work around her, patiently establishing the interest her character has in the other woman.

This also might be a good way to describe Reichardt’s storytelling style: patient interest. She is content to just hang back and let the action unfold. Which isn’t to say she isn’t thinking about the image frame or an artfully composed shot. Right from the get-go, with the strikingly arranged divisions within the apartment that separate Laura Dern and James Le Gros, we can see that Reichardt and her longstanding cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring [review]) know that just because life is quiet doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. That’s why sometimes it might feel like they just set up the camera and let things unfold, like leaving it behind in the wilderness and recording nature as it happens.

When all is said and done, what sits with you about Certain Women is how intimate it is. Reichardt has let us in to share some of her subjects’ most difficult moments, and how they get through them. In each, there are also silent reflections, where as an audience we can sit with these women and empathize. We inhale and exhale in tandem. And though they never connect with each other on screen, we connect them in our watching, meaning that ultimately through our observation, we all end up in this together.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


I was about to write about the Newport Folk Festival as the stuff of legend, referring to it as an entity of the past, but a quick Google search reveals that it’s still going, an annual event where fans and musicians gather to enjoy a weekend of music. This past summer’s performers included Fleet Foxes, Wilco, Michael Kiwanuka, John Prine, and many more, bridging many generations and styles. From all evidence, it looks like a big production, its scale having evolved since its more humble beginnings in 1959.

It’s certainly more of a spectacle than what we see in Murray Lerner’s documentary, Festival, a compendium of performances from Newport, spanning 1963 to 1966. The material captured in this black-and-white film shows a modest stage and modest accommodations for the attendees, with barely anything separating the two levels, the audience from the musicians. As we witness from the footage and hear from the testimonies, this is by design. At that period, folk music was considered to be the music of ordinary people. The ones on stage look just like the ones in the audience. And the audience is not excluded from performing, there are spontaneous eruptions of song all around the periphery. The Newport Folk Festival was a happening where everyone was intended to be equal.

Not that it was entirely successful. The elevation of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as “stars” contradicts this ethos, regardless of how much Baez tries to rationalize her own deification. Then again, they both stand apart as individuals, showing a certain style and wit not always evident in their colleagues. Dylan has the same undeniable charisma we see in Don’t Look Back [review], and Donovan still pales in comparison. Even so, the most interesting bits are not what Lerner picks up from the stage, but when he talks to the young fans and gets their takes on what folk music means and what they are seeing. Some find greater meaning and a social message, others just want to listen to music and turn off. One thing is for sure, though, white hipster kids always thought they had it figured out.

Festival is less a strict reporting of what went down and more a survey of all the things the Newport Folk Festival encompassed. Lerner wants to show you the breadth of it. He mixes up different styles, creating a collage of singers and songs. Some of his arrangement is meant for effect, such as juxtaposing white and black choirs or dancing performers versus static traditionalists to show the different levels of energy and interpretation. The oldest singers, many of whom were there at the roots of the craft, talk about tradition while the film cuts back and forth to Dylan doing a soundcheck for his electric debut, a scandal in the folk community.  Likewise, Son House schools us on the strict parameters of the blues in direct contradiction to guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s celebration of modern expansion. There is definitely a political commentary being made here, though Lerner seems to be more on the inclusive side, highlighting the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which Mike Bloomfield was a part of, right after. From this distance, however, Son House wins.

What’s interesting, and what Lerner’s montage demonstrates, is that audiences and performers alike believe they are seeing something authentic--and Lerner’s lack of adornment only enhances that ethic. Though, again, thinking about what Son House says, you may wonder if there is a sort of ghetto tourism at work. How do some of the urbane performers and attendees connect with songs about green corn and dead geese? What life experience are they drawing on, or are they imbuing these specific narratives with their own metaphors, and thus contradicting the experience...?

For its part, Festival tries to show everything. Multiple cameras move around the stage, focusing on different players--which highlights all, for the most part, though this sometimes means the film also highlights none. There are no indicators of who is who, no song titles proffered, so if you don’t recognize anyone beyond the obvious--Baez, Dylan, Judy Collins, Donovan, Johnny Cash--you may never know who you are seeing*. And the lack of complete performances means that one bleeds into the other, few have a chance to emerge, except maybe as we progress into different styles.

That all said, Festival is a beautifully photographed primer of Newport, and just like if you were there--or at any music fest, really--it won’t all be to your taste. Even so, it never bores, and with this new 2K transfer and uncompressed soundtrack, Festival on Criterion looks and sounds fantastic. Two major bonus features talking to the filmmakers and performers shed light on the production, both the in-front and behind-the-camera situations, and whether you’re interested in the music or just in seeing a snapshot of an intriguing cultural convergence, Festival is well worth checking out.

* I've been informed that there is a function on the disc that allows you to turn on titles, though the original release of the film did not contain them.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, September 11, 2017

JUBAL - #656

You know, sometimes I think it’s giving the good Lord the worst of it to say He invented people.”

Loosely based on Othello, the 1956 western Jubal is a cowboy picture of intimate proportions. It focuses on Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford, Gilda [review]), a self-described victim of bad luck, who finds one good turn, only to be undone by another. From the sound of it, this is his circle of life. Same sheep dip, different day.

The script by director Delmer Daves (3:10 toYuma) and Russell S. Hughes, based on a novel by Paul I. Wellman, opens with a surprising image of a man falling down a mountain and onto the open road, where he is found nearly frozen to death before being taken to a nearby ranch to warm-up. This is Jubal, a lone wolf who left a gig sheepherding--a lowly position in the eyes of the other ranch hands--and stumbled into hard times on his search for someplace to hang his hat. The owner of the ranch, Shep (Ernest Borgnine, From Here to Eternity, and the star of the Marty motion picture) takes pity on the lost soul and offers him a job, despite the protest of one of his men, the acerbic Pinky (Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront, and star of the television version of Marty [review]). I suppose it’s just good instincts that make Pinky hate Jubal from the get-go, and not just the smell of lamb on him. Jubal is as honest as Pinky is craven, he is as hard-working as Pinky is shiftless.

So it is that Shep’s young wife Mae (Valerie French, The 27th Day) fails to seduce the new employee the way she did Pinky. Not that the truth matters. Pinky will later use the idea of an affair to turn his boss against his rival. He is the Iago who plants doubts in Othello’s head, only this time Desdemona has much to answer for, and the would-be Cassio takes center stage.

I would say that Daves works in broad strokes, but the charm of Jubal is not just how simple the plot  but how complex the characters. The landscape is wide, but the people are small and driven by specific mechanics. There is plenty of life being lived here, on the screen and off. Shep and Mae have a complex relationship, where he loves his wife completely, perhaps partially because he knows he is a bit of a Frog Prince and no one expected him to be the man she’d end up with--though, given that this is Borgnine performing at his most gregarious, we don’t begrudge him this good fortune. Jubal is the straight man, but he is also a bit of a brooding anti-hero, running from a trauma in his childhood, caught between the femme fatale and the sweet blonde who could give him a happy life (Felicia Farr, Kiss Me, Stupid). And just what the hell is wrong with Pinky? Steiger plays the bad guy with an indefinable weirdness. He has a certain charm, yet like everything else about him, it’s impermanent. Pinky is a chameleon of convenience, his lies transforming with such ease, no one around him seems to notice he is changing his story.

Even amongst the “Rawhiders,” ultra-religious nomads that end up on Shep’s property, Daves doesn’t paint an exact picture of moral goodness. In fact, their leader, Shem (Basil Ruysdael), named for the son of Noah who’s lineage gave birth to Abraham, notes that following the commandment of “love thy neighbor” is the hardest to stick to. The struggle of the characters in Jubal is to do right by one another. Jealousy, greed, and ego all threaten to knock man and woman alike from the proper path. Outside of the religious camp--which itself features dissenters and sinners--the most true to his code is Reb (Charles Bronson, Once Upon a Time in theWest). Even Jubal faces temptation and blinks (though just barely). Reb tells him, “You don’t have to play every hand you’re dealt,” yet Reb never once attempts to turn in his own cards and take care of himself first.

The ability to show how insignificant man is compared to the rest of the world is arguably exclusive to two genres: war films and westerns. In both, the landscape can overtake the individual, and the natural world tends to carry on while humans cut each other down. In Jubal, Daves and director of photography Charles Lawton Jr. take time to step back and enjoy the countryside. The widescreen photography shows the Wyoming wilderness in its full breadth, extending far beyond the petty concerns of the men who work it. Though we never see the characters going against the elements, there are hints of it, particularly how these transplanted predators are left to fear the unseen native predator, a mountain lion that is attacking their livestock. Pinky plays the wolf in sheep’s clothing when rescuing a calf whose mother has been taken down (maybe he’s the one who really stinks of sheep dip), and the cat is also used as a ruse to get Jubal alone with Mae on the night when it all goes wrong. But is that Mother Nature having the last laugh, or once again man using her as an excuse to do bad things?

The ending of Jubal has some predictable elements, but also some darker details. Punishment is meted out to just about all who’ve earned it (though Shep doesn’t really deserve his fate, and Mae’s comeuppance is disproportionate to her misdeeds, the usual outcome for a femme fatale), and happiness comes to those who deserve it, too. In that, it avoids being the sort of tragedy that gave the script its jumping-off point, but I guess that’s the Hollywood innovation on the classic, the addition of the American Dream to Shakespearian formula: in the saddle, the good guys usually win.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


You’ve got the subtlety of a bullfrog.”

I popped Things to Come into the player expecting to see a quaint vision of modern times as imagined in 1936, fodder for my own fantasies that the here-and-now could, indeed, be better. What I found was something altogether different, and yet also apropos in its own strange way. For this film, Alexander Korda enlisted H.G. Wells to adapt his own novel into a screenplay, and then charged effects man William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Bagdad [review]; Foreign Correspondent [review]) to direct. Seeing what they came up with, I find myself less concerned with how Things to Come reflects a potential 21st Century, and more fascinated by what it must have looked like to its original audience...and even moreso how they might have been shaken by it just a short while later.

Wells sets his story in the far-flung future of 1940, and the movie opens on Christmas of that year, with England on the brink of a second World War. Amidst pleas to focus on the yuletide, two men debate the prospect of conflict: John Cabal (Raymond Massey, 49th Parallel [review]) sees it as inevitable, while Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman, Rembrandt [review]) believes man will not make the same mistake again. Naturally, the more optimistic of the two is wrong, and Britain engages in a decades-long war with their aggressive neighbors.

H.G. Wells, actor Pearl Argyle, and Menzies on the film’s Everytown 2036 set.

Though billed as “Everytown” throughout the film, these opening scenes look distinctly like London, and so the wholesale destruction of the city must have been extremely disconcerting for contemporary British audiences, especially if they had memories of having seen Things To Come when the German raids on England began just a few years later. I imagine it would have been something akin to what we might have felt had aliens come and destroyed the White House after the release of IndependenceDay. Menzies’ attention to detail is still: the images of bodies amongst the rubble of a one-time thriving community deliver a potent anti-war message. And as the battles rage on for the next several decades, only coming to a sort-of end in the mid-1960s, I can’t help but think of the open-ended war America currently finds itself in.

The Everytown scenario ca. 1966 is one of tentative peace. The townspeople are still at war with the hillspeople, and true to Cabal’s predication that war will stifle progress, technology has taken a few steps back. Fuel is scarce, and machines don’t run. Cars are now pulled by horses, just like the carriages they are meant to replace. The remaining citizens have also just come through a zombie-like plague, “The Wandering Sickness,” conquered not by medicine but by brute force. His plan to shoot anyone infected has elevated the Boss (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]) to a place of leadership. More Donald Trump than Hitler, “the Boss” continues to rule through fear and bullying, mostly content to close Everytown off from the rest of the world rather than expand too far into other pterritories. It’s a successful plan, and he would have gotten away with if if not for an aged Cabal arriving in a high-tech plane, wearing spaceman armor, and touting a new peace under the rubric “Wings of the World.” The Boss naturally distrusts this man from the skies, as any tyrant opposes science and invention that he can’t bend to his will. Cabal promises there are more like him coming, and the future of civilization depends on whether Everytown will join this cultural elite or be crushed by them.

Looking back over the cycle of history, I wouldn’t exactly call H.G. Wells or Things to Come prescient. Mankind is far too predictable for that, it’s more that Wells has correctly identified a tragic cycle. Even so, it’s amazing to see how past generations grappled with their fears of oppression and being left behind by change, and how slow progress really is, war be damned. The key to putting Everytown back on the map is oil, and a battle is waged over a coalmine that will give them enough fuel to best their foes. Keeping the people ignorant is key to the Boss’ continued rule, and while men of skill are bullied into servitude, women’s ideas are still dismissed out of hand.

That Wells seems to be on the right side of these things speaks well for his philosophical character, but the future utopia he offers as an alternative seems ironically shortsighted. When Wings Over the World come in and unseat the Boss, using a “gas of peace” to put the townspeople to sleep, effectively removing their choice of whether to join or resist (and presented as a noble alternative to the poison gas we see in a depressing wartime scene early in Things to Come), it’s hard not to view the new management as more fascistic than what they’ve come to replace, good intentions opening the highway to hell as they do. This is even harder to ignore as we jump ahead in the 2000s and see the utopia that the airmen are ushering in: it’s sterile, impersonal, and referred to as “white” in a way that feels for more loaded than anyone intended, given that there is not one person of color in all of Things to Come. Likewise, the terraforming that makes this new civilization possible looks more like an ecological disaster now than the triumph of industry it must have appeared to be in the ’30s.

That said, the special effects that Menzies achieves, working with such talented people as production designer Vincent Korda (To Be or Not To Be [review]), special effects artist Ned Mann (The Private Life of Don Juan [review]), and director of photography Georges Périnal (The Blood of a Poet), are nothing short of astonishing, including the scenes where gigantic drills destroy an entire mountain. The future world that follows is a self-contained, towering labyrinth--reminiscent of Krypton, all artificial structures and impossible curves, brought to life by a nigh-seamless melding of models, rear projection, and full-size sets. This imaginative future is made all the more believable by the complicated tableau of Everytown. Menzies and his team give as much attention to the city in ruins as they do the world of tomorrow, bringing a realism to Shakespearian drama that essentially gives Things to Come its spine.

Here Theotocopulos looks more like an imposing fascist than what he opposes.

Even with all that to appreciate, though, it’s hard to tell what message Wells is trying to convey with his future society, and whether or not this brave new world is as difficult to maintain as other fictions have led us to believe. Things to Come creates a dissenting voice in Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke, Richard III), a man that asks if there has been enough progress, if we should not focus on the society that already exists, and the initial debate from the 1940 scenes is reignited via Cabal and Passworthy’s grandchildren (played again by Massey and Chapman). Yet, there is something sinister in Cabal’s dismissing of Theotocopulos as merely representing “artists” whose work will be made small by his scientific accomplishments, especially when Cabal wins, successfully launching a rocket around the moon with his “space gun.” In his closing speech, Cabal declares that mankind cannot be stopped, nor should they. “All the universe or nothing,” he tells Passworthy, his face in profile, framed by the universe in all its sparkly glory. Is Wells not merely trading an ignorant tyrant for an intelligent one? Hitler and Mussolini dethroned in favor of Gore Vidal and Neal Degrasse Tyson. (And is this not what Superman’s parents warned us about?!)

With nothing really to balance that ending out, we can only presume that Wells believed some of what he preached, even if his cohorts in Things to Come merely wanted to make a timely motion picture with some pretty cool special effects. Their speculative fable was likely a rousing glimpse of better times that would become much needed in their immediate lifetime. Now it is an inadvertent time capsule, not of history as it was, but as it could have been. It’s also no less a meaningful parable all these years up the road, if perhaps a bit more complicated and in need of a more nuanced interpretation.