Saturday, November 16, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Two

I have some thoughts about my favorite films of the 2010s. This is Part Two in that series. You can read Part One here.


In “Introduction to the Documentary,” film theorist Bill Nichols discusses the power of the “indexical whammy” in non-fiction filmmaking. To grossly oversimplify, Nichols argues that when we watch film footage that we recognize to be linked (indexed) to real events we react differently than when we watch footage we recognize to be make-believe. We may feel horror or sympathy while watching news coverage of a real tornado ripping through a real town, but even if the images looked identical, we might have fun watching that tornado shred a make-believe town in a blockbuster film. It's not the footage itself, but the received context that determines our experience. If we recognize it as originating in the real world, the image carries a different and often more potent force.

I believe something roughly analogous to the indexical whammy can be at play when dealing with film adaptations. A character or scene or setting very faithfully adapted from book to screen can produce a potent reaction for a fan of the source material: “That's how it really happened!” Y'know, for real, in that fictional novel. There's a distinct thrill in recognizing that moment in the movie as being linked to that “real” source. Perhaps a more useful way to sum up the power of the indexical whammy in this scenario is with four simple words: “They got it right!”

The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies have been getting it right in this manner from the beginning, relying heavily on the real books and characters as their lodestars. Since, in some cases, these characters have existed for more than half a century and their personalities and mythologies have been fleshed out in thousands of installments by hundreds of writers and artists, there's a substantial body of pre-existing comic-book reality to “index” to. Producer/overseer Kevin Feige has wisely counseled the many MCU filmmakers to “get it right” as often as possible.

For comic-book fans, this can lend the films a special heft (whammy!) one would not expect from tales of spandexed people who call themselves Scarlet Witch or Starlord and fly around and shoot energy bolts at space gods. I fully understand why non-fans would scoff at such a notion or perhaps diminish it as fan service. Quite frankly, I'm surprised so many non-fans of the comic books like these goofy escapist movies so much, though I'm delighted that they do. I'm just telling you that, for a life-long reader, that power's real and the Marvel filmmakers understand that (unlike their not-so-distinguished competition).

I've loved most of the MCU movies (not you, Guardians 2!) and I could have easily chosen “The Avengers” (2012), “Black Panther” (2018), or “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for this list, but I'm going with “Captain America; Civil War” because it produced the most “They got it right!” thrills for me of any of the movies. Also, I think this is the MCU movie that Film Twitterati dumped on the most, persuasive evidence that it gets it right.

When Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) makes his first MCU appearance in costume, the sun glinting off that sleek costume as he prepares to spring into action, wow do they get it right. Then they top that by introducing Spider-Man to the MCU and within five seconds of hearing Tom Holland speak, I'm there screaming (silently – I'm not an “out loud” kinda viewer) “Oh my God, that's Peter Parker, just leaping off the Lee/Ditko pages right onto the screen! That's him! They got it right!” Actually, as it turns out, the MCU Peter Parker is way more chipper than the morose, self-pitying wallflower of the early books, but there's no need to get webbed up on minor details.

And oh, man, there's that beautiful, silly airport battle, a big old messy, hyper-kinetic comic-book fight adapted flawlessly from splash page to cinema. A dozen or so heroes divide into factions and slam-bam-kapow into each other in different combinations with no concern whatsoever for mass property damage, all capped off by my favorite moment in the MCU. Teensy-tiny little Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) presses a button on his glove and explodes into the towering Giant-Man who's so big and strong now that he can just reach out and pluck War Machine (Don Cheadle) out of the air with one hand. The action stops so we can focus on the giddy look in Ant-Man's eyes as he actually giggles loudly because he can't freaking believe what he just did. He's laughing because being a super-hero is so damn cool and so damn much fun, which is the primary source of pleasure in comic books in the first place.

Those sparkling eyes are the pulsing heart of the MCU. Face front, true believers, because they sure got it right!

17. SILENCE (Scorsese, 2016)

Of course, even the finest of the MCU movies can't match up to the best films of a true maestro like Martin Scorsese. For me, “Silence” is by far Scorsese's greatest accomplishment not just of the decade, but of the 21st century.

I had the odd experience of finishing Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel “Silence” a week before I read the first announcement of Scorsese's planned adaptation. I struggled to imagine how even Scorsese could translate this story for the big screen (I was also unaware of Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 film adaptation, which I still haven't seen). A tale of Jesuit priests in Japan persecuted for their religion is one thing, but how do you express on film that ineffable moment when a man makes not a sacrifice FOR his faith, but a sacrifice OF his faith as the most Christian act?

Heavy narration would seem the most obvious choice to provide access to characters' interior life and Scorsese employs a little of that, but he's more interested in situating the viewer in a devotional space, one of both distance and powerful tactile evocations (mud and wind and water). Scorsese's greatest act of faith is believing in an audience that has the patience to go on such a journey, and that may be the most inspiring aspect of this stark, rigorous work. In a film industry increasingly built around tent-pole properties, test screenings and big-data-refined pandering, Scorsese trusts that you'll meet him in his terms and that you might even choose to do so at the multiplex. He's had fifty-plus years to build up the justified confidence to make such a gamble, but at a time when my own commitment to the cinema isn't as unwavering as it once was, I'm moved by his gesture.

I was perhaps slower on the uptake than some other cinephiles, but “Silence” was the movie that solidified my belief that Adam Driver may be the most compelling actor of his generation. I don't intend to slight the film's lead, Andrew Garfield, who is phenomenal in a trying role, but Driver's face is the image that lingers in my memory the most, a face that I think could pull me into any time period or milieu from working-class Paterson, NJ to the 17th century to long, long ago in a galaxy far away. Need a convincing face for your upcoming biopic about a forgotten Italian renaissance painter? Adam Driver's your man for that too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My Top 20 Films of the Decade - Part One

Finally, I can announce the launch of my long-unawaited Best Films of the 2010s series. I should begin by noting that I watched far fewer films this decade than in the previous one, and far, far fewer in the second half of this decade than in the first half because I realized I needed to spend much more time reading books and studying for Jeopardy! even though I'll never get on the show. We love you, Alex!

Therefore, I can't claim any authority regarding what's actually best, but then again nobody else can either. So consider this my Top 20 Films of the Decade Out Of the Relatively Limited Selection I Saw And That I Can Remember Right Now.

20. ENTERTAINMENT (Alverson, 2015)

Most films that set out to provoke audiences fail to do so, in large part because they try to shock with content. Just try to forget our graphic gang-rape scene, so lovingly rendered in hand-held close-up for ten minutes! We can go fifteen minutes if that's what you want. Just pretend you don't know it's all pretend and you'll be absolutely appalled!

Rick Alverson's “Entertainment” provokes much more effectively through lack of content. Gregg Turkington portrays a stand-up comic condemned to a no-budget tour through the hollowed-out purgatory of Mojave Desert California, where both prisons and dive bars feature the same apathetic audiences. The film's long silences and unpopulated marginal spaces evoke “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) but now imagined as the comedy set to nowhere.

The Comedian's stage act is a mutated version of Turkington's real-life (if that's the right term) persona Neil Hamburger, the greasy-haired anti-comic whose phlegm-choked “epater la bourgeoisie” act is rendered impotent in this desperate hellscape. How do you puncture the illusions and delusions of consumerist society for audiences who've already abandoned all hope? How do you offend people who don't even care enough to pay attention anymore? Uncertain that his “mission” still has any relevance, The Comedian gradually cracks up which, to be fair, seems like an entirely reasonable reaction to the modern iteration of the American Dream.

I'm sure many viewers will stare blankly at this idiosyncratic film, perhaps the same ones who can't even begin to understand why Neil Hamburger is the funniest comedy act of the century. But “Entertainment” captures a sense of American malaise so vividly and so perceptively that I can't stop thinking about it more than four years later. I also love the fact that perhaps the single scene in American film this decade that so perfectly captures how I feel about the culture right now is currently indexed on YouTube as “Fart Trophy.”

“Entertainment” is the defining film for Fart Trophy America.

19. A QUIET PASSION (Davies, 2017)

I can understand just about any reaction to “Entertainment” from love to hate to boredom to bewilderment, but I'm completely baffled by viewers who found Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of Emily Dickinson to be alienating or unlikeable. I cannot think of a more moving performance this decade.

Director Terence Davies and his crew construct a formally restricted world, not just of tight interior spaces but also of a society of increasingly limited and unappealing choices, and Nixon's Dickinson is a spirit so expansive she can't help but slam into its walls every day, and every bruise she absorbs in the process draws us deeper into her experience. Her righteous anger at a world that can't accommodate her talent is perhaps the most lingering impression, but there's so much more to her performance, such as the simmering joy that struggles to find an appropriate outlet when she interacts with friends and family.

And, man, what a screenplay by Terence Davies. His dialogue is every bit as formally restricted as his sets and it's magnificent from start to finish. And all the more reason to shower praise on Cynthia Nixon because only a handful of actresses could have embraced that clipped diction with such, well, passion. I watched a few clips online to refresh my memory for this capsule write-up and I'm astonished anew at how brilliant Nixon is. I'm trying to think of a better author biopic, and not coming up with any obvious contenders. Though I suppose it's fair to resist applying the term “biopic” to a movie with so much more on its mind. Perhaps it's only appropriate that audiences failed this movie as badly as we all failed Emily Dickinson.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Tell Me Who I Am

TELL ME WHO I AM (Perkins, 2019)
Netflix Streaming, Release Date Oct 18, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

When 18-year-old Alex Lewis woke up in a hospital bed, he immediately recognized the young man standing faithfully by his side as his twin brother Marcus. As for the woman also in the room, Alex didn't have a clue until Marcus informed him that she was their mother.

It was the beginning of a new pattern for Alex, relying on Marcus to fill him on all the details of a life he no longer remembered as the result of the motorcycle accident that sent him to the hospital. In the first act of director Ed Perkins's documentary “Tell Me Who I Am”(2019), Alex recounts the early months of this reconstruction project, a disorienting and arduous process also laden with moments of humor. Marcus reintroduces Alex to his longtime girlfriend, and the now-adult Alex (54 at the time of filming) jokes that this provided him the unique opportunity to lose his virginity to the same girl twice.

With Marcus's help, Alex gradually readjusts to the family household, run by his disciplinarian father and a vivacious mother who's always the life of the party. Young Alex, having no memories of his own life, let alone anyone else's life as a comparison point, remains largely unaware of how unusual their domestic situation really is, but it doesn't take long before viewers realize there's a dark secret lurking beneath the semi-placid surface. Perhaps the secret is hiding in the upstairs of the house from which the twins are forever banned.

Perkins delays the big reveal for an uncomfortably long stretch, a dramatic technique I sometimes find ethically questionable when filmmakers deal with true stories. In this case, however, the elongation of tension replicates Alex's real experience. For years, he unquestioningly believed everything Marcus told him about their shared lives. After all, if you can't count on your twin brother, who can you trust? Only after their parents died, did Alex come to realize that the normal, happy childhood he now knew about was largely a work of fiction written by his twin.

I'm hesitant to reveal much more. Suffice it to say that while “Tell Me Who I Am” begins with a story remarkable enough just based on the barest facts (twin brothers – one with no memories, one with all their memories), it soon delves into more profound and unnerving territory. Marcus has very good reasons for this seeming betrayal of one of the most intimate trusts one can imagine, so much so that many will see him as a noble figure who makes a tremendous sacrifice as an act of compassion for the person he loves the most. On the other hand, it's not difficult to understand Alex's anger at Marcus. When the only memories you have never really happened, how can you possibly know who you are?

Perkins mostly relies on Alex and Marcus to speak their truths to the camera, each of them filmed separately for the bulk of the movie, though he also shoots some limited recreations, explorations of the dark spaces of the mysterious house, for example. He returns to select images over and over, a technique which pays off in the film's most poignant shot, that of just one of the twins, as boys, sleeping in their shared bedroom, the other bed empty. It's one of the most emotionally potent moments I can recall seeing in a documentary in quite some time.

Alex has to recreate his identity because he lost his memories. Marcus has to (and perhaps wants to) recreate his identity because he no longer has another person who shares his memories. In its brief running time, “Tell Me Who I Am” can barely touch on the immense burdens confronting each of these men, but it presents their stories with grace, clarity, and humility. Nobody who watches this film will ever forget about the Lewis twins.

“Tell Me Who I Am” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Monday, October 21, 2019

When We Were Kings

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

You've probably heard some variant of the claim that movies are primarily made in the editing room. Orson Welles, for example, said, “(F)or my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is THE aspect.” You won't find many more illustrative examples of this maxim than the documentary “When We Were Kings” (1996).

Director Leon Gast was hired to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, the music festival scheduled to accompany the massively hyped Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight fight between champion George Foreman and a scrappy little underdog named Muhammad Ali in Zaire (today The Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert would feature an all-world lineup mostly headlined by African and African-American artists, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and many more.

A lineup like that couldn't possible miss, but when the Rumble was delayed because of a sparring injury suffered by Foreman, the show still had to go on, to a largely empty stadium since it was no longer attached to the biggest fight ever (free admission helped pack the stands on the final day, at least). After this major setback, Gast struggled to find funding to complete his project and hundreds of hours of footage would sit unused for many years.

In the late-1980s, Gast continued to shop his footage around and found a new booster in the form of lawyer and music manager David Sonenberg who became a producer on the new film-to-be. But was there really demand for a movie about the ill-starred Zaire 74, no matter how great the music was? Maybe, but in transferring and revisiting the old footage, Gast and Sonenberg (perhaps others were involved in the decision – I don't know) realized they were sitting on a trove of crackerjack material of Foreman and, especially, the photogenic and always media-available Ali, as they prepared to rumble. There would certainly be demand for a documentary about Muhammad Ali and the fight of the century.

Thus was born “When We Were Kings”, a documentary released twenty years after its main subject, which the filmmaker wasn't even directly pursuing at the time. It turned out to be a commercial hit and even an Oscar winner.

“When We Were Kings” still plays a bit like a concert film, and not because of the snippets of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, and others still in the movie. Ali, today described by some as the original rapper, entrances audiences of all kinds – groups of admiring children in Zaire, gaggles of giddy reporters, the filmmakers themselves – with his perfectly polished rhythms and cleverly scripted rhymes. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait til I kick Foreman's behind.” And “(I) injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali doesn't just bust rhymes (or skulls), of course. The film poignantly evokes the thrill Ali gets from being in Africa – in one of the most memorable scenes, he can barely contain the pride and joy he feels when flying on a plane staffed entirely by a black crew. Fans from Zaire were every bit as proud of Ali, who arrived as a legend and left as a demi-god (I'm understating the matter here). It's actually tough not to feel bad for the young Foreman whose chief sin was not being Muhammad Ali, and thus being identified by many as the evil American imperialist. “Ali, bomaye!” the crowds chanted. “Ali, kill him!”

The fight itself only takes up a few minutes running time in the documentary, but it remains a mesmerizing spectacle today, even for those who can't stand boxing. Ali's winning rope-a-dope strategy has been much discussed, but watching it in action provides a reminder that the Greatest's plan relied on two keystones. Step One – letting Foreman tire himself out by throwing flurries of punches while Ali leaned against the ropes - makes perfect sense. However, Step Two involves Ali resting up and conserving his energy by letting George Foreman beat the hell out of him for several rounds. I guess it works if you're Muhammad Ali.

The film also incorporates some newly-shot interviews which consist primarily of way too much Norman Mailer, not nearly enough Spike Lee, and just the right amount of George Plimpton. Their retrospective views are useful (just about everyone thought Ali would lose, Plimpton feared he might be killed), but the stars of the documentary are Ali and the people of Zaire. They truly loved Ali and, at least judging from what we see on screen, Ali loved them. The film captures that dynamic quite touchingly, which makes this something more memorable than just another boxing documentary.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” The 16 mm archival footage looks surprisingly sharp in this high-def transfer, at least as sharp as you could expect given the source material.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't called on to do much with most of the interviews and archival footage, but the film includes some brief snippets of great music from the Zaire 74 concert as well as the title song for the film. The lossless audio treats the music quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The first extra on this Criterion release is a 1997 interview with director Leon Gast which only runs 4 minutes. The interview doesn't reveal much except the degree to which Ali was quite media savvy and helped set up some of those great “spontaneous” shots.

We also get a new 2019 interview (16 min.) with David Sonenberg, the producer who proved so pivotal in getting “When We Were Kings” made and released nearly two decades after Gast originally shot the footage. He speaks in detail about the unlikely and complicated process of converting an old concert movie into a fight documentary (though, of course, it's much more than that).

The star attraction in the Extras collection is “Soul Power” (2009, 92 min.), the concert movie also made from the footage shot in 1974. This film is directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (one of the editors on “When We Were Kings”) and showcases numerous great acts from Miriam Makeba to James Brown and so much more. It's a real blast and further proof of the degree to which a film is made in the editing room, though of course it helps to have music superstars to work with in the first place.

The slim, fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer Kelefa Sanneh.

Final Thoughts:
There's a whole subindustry of Muhammad Ali documentaries, but none are better than “When We Were Kings.” And if you already own it on DVD, there's still a good reason to upgrade in the form of the extra documentary “Soul Power.”