A Powerful Exploration of the Father-Son Bond

Midnight Special (2016)
Dir: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shephard and Jaeden Lieberher

Back in the day, I watched The Terminator for the first time with my family without knowing a single thing about the movie.  When the sequel came out several years later, I remember how fun it was to see the original without any kind of context or preview – and how that would’ve been to walk the same way into T2.  I bring it up because I had the same experience with Midnight Special.  I just knew Nichols previous works, like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud.  Each one of them had been very compelling, thought provoking and expertly acted.  So, I kind of wanted to go into Special without any knowledge of what the director had in store for me this time…

Assuming you missed Midnight Special, I really hope you do the same.  I inserted the preview below for consistency’s sake below, but Special is on our “Top Ten” list for 2016 because it provided one of the best viewing surprises.  I guess the point I’m making is that we have made such a phenomenon of access to behind-the-scenes and trailer releases, subsequent trailer announcements, etc, that I like talking about a film that truly lets its work speak for itself.  [See our recent review on Rogue One for more on the ideas of the “film behind the film.”]

Midnight Special, at its core, is a story about the bond between a father and son.  Like so many other films, I listened to the DGA/Director’s Cut podcast with director Jeff Nichols talking about the project.  It turns out that his infant son suffered a seizure – non life threatening and completely recovered, thankfully.  But, the incident really shook his perception of fatherhood to its core.  And the idea for a film in which a father essentially struggles with potentially losing his son came to Nichols.  What’s a real tribute to this director and his filmmaking team is that I watched the movie from a completely different standpoint – still with an immense effect upon me, the viewer.

Take the opening scene for context.  Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton’s characters are holed up in a stinky, remote motel.  And, there’s this kid who’s on the floor between the beds of the little room.  It looks like he’s made a fort out of the pillows and blankets and, well.. he’s a little weird.  See, he’s wearing swimming goggles and watching the TV along with the two men.  Everyone’s riveted to the news story about two guys who have taken a little boy hostage.  Oh, dear.  It’s going to be that kind of movie?

And that’s the whole point – it is, and it isn’t.  Subsequent to this scene is an entire congregation of what looks to be fanatical Christians, who are unceremoniously rounded up by the FBI.  Their leader is questioned and Adam Driver is introduced as a kind of researcher for the Bureau.  The FBI really wants access to this child.  And on it goes, the old-school type of hunt is on.  My apologies for the vagueness of this commentary, but I’m trying to pique your interest to see this film and let its story unfold organically for you.

I will say that anyone who composes a “Top Ten” list has got to consider all the elements of a film, and all those cinema tools are a reason why Special made our list.  I think I’ve made clear the script is incredibly unique, not only for its plot but also its universal themes and originality in construct.  The cinematography evolves beautifully between night and day, which is a real key part to the story.  The editing spares no emotion and allows this crazy road tale to unfold in all its suspenseful glory.  David Wingo did the score, which is notable because he collaborated with Nichols on Take Shelter and Mud as well.  This partnership among others was also discussed on the DGA podcast, and seems representative of many great filmmakers even up to the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg: you see a lot of similarities and familiar names in their end credits.

In all, I wasn’t that surprised that Special wasn’t included in the Oscar noms.  Perhaps it was released too early, maybe not Academy voters had access to it or the PR for the film couldn’t compete with other PR machines (to whit, La La Land).  But if I was Nichols and his team, I wouldn’t be too concerned.  I honestly feel that he and Denis Villeneuve are two of the most exciting directors these days – and more awards will certainly grace their careers.

IMDB – Midnight Special

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An Old, Frightening Legend Come to Life

thewitch-online-teaser-01-web-largeThe Witch (2016)
Dir: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw and Ralph Ineson

Some official sources have this title spelled with two “V”s as in “The VVitch,” which seems to reflect the film’s poster.  It harkens back to 1600s New England, when a more primitive form of our English language was in use.  In those days, it was completely plausible that the one book found in a country home would be the family Bible.  Can you imagine such a household?  Not only is the Bible the only literature in such a house, but there is no record player, no radio, no phone connecting it to the town for emergencies.  There’s just.. the family.

Director Robert Eggers does a phenomenal job of doing a whole lot with very little in this little, Sundance winning title.  The Witch is my kind of horror movie.  It’s much more The Shining or The Exorcist and much less Friday the 13th or Saw VI.  I’ve always been more attracted to scary films that are founded on real life or true, horrific situations rather than the mad killer running wild or so-called “torture porn” that was so popular in the past decade.  No, The Witch needs no such frivolity in its depiction of evil spirits and wandering souls in the woods.

The-witch-movie-reviewOh, those woods.  Like any remote area, the woods can be a scary place.  Was that something that moved over there?  Is somebody there that can see me, but who eludes my line of sight?  The feeling depicted in so many overcast shots of the woods in this film have us recalling the atrocities of the witch trials and the suffering of the innocents during dark chapters of American history.  What I liked about The Witch was the “what if” of the whole story.  What if once in a while, out there in the country, there really was that witch that plagued the people?  And Eggers and his team does a fine job of convincing you of this plausible question.  Whether it’s images of these deep woods themselves, blood in a bucket or a sick boy suffering from some unknown, sinister illness, all of the potential horrors of 1600s New England are on display to challenge our very modern perspective on family, home life, communication – and healthcare.

the-witch-thewitch_r2_2-10-1_rgb-799a189ad3ed1bf3c9e0c95cc655271819d40763-s900-c85In the opening scenes, the family is outcast from a town and takes to a small farm, which they will manage as a team in survival mode.  At first, the family feels blessed to be there, as if they’re destined to make a life under God in this New World.  But, as is the case in so many horror films, trouble starts to find this poor family.  The only difference with The Witch is that it all seems terribly possible.  Inexplicably, the eldest daughter Thomasin loses her baby brother, Samuel, while playing peek-a-boo with the infant.  I don’t know about your brand of that game, but when I play, my face is only covered for a couple of seconds.  And so it is in The Witch, when poor Thomasin reveals her face, Samuel has disappeared.  Only the woods remain.

Well, William and Katherine, the mom and dad of this little plantation, are none too happy with daughter Thomasin.  They start treating her like an indentured servant as they continue to find fire wood, milk the goats and do other farm related activities.  They blame her with more and more severity for Samuel’s disappearance and other violence that shakes their remote community.  In fact, it’s the business of the farm work and the authentic use of old English that helps The Witch sell its audience that this is a depiction of what really happened.  Apparently, the director went to great lengths to achieve this authenticity.  The crew made the actual farm.  The director studied old Puritan texts and hymnals and scouted the area for where they should shoot.

You’ll see from the trailer the kind of upsetting imagery and particularly sound design, which further complimented the look and feel of this movie.  The music and sound reminded me very much of The Shining, which was an unsettling film to behold particularly because of its jarring sound design and erratic score.  Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Eggers’ film works because it takes you to a place that feels like it actually existed, with people that plausibly lived through what we’re watching.  In the end, there is a bit of truth to every legend and fairy tale – and The Witch makes you think twice about the validity of crazy old ladies flying around in the night on broomsticks.

IMDB – The Witch

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A Rogue Chapter in the Star Wars Universe, Indeed

Rogue One PosterRogue One: A Star Wars Story
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen

OK, you’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, now let’s talk about it.  Much like last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this title was on everyone’s radar from the moment the idea of producing new Star Wars chapters was announced back in 2012.  It was that year that the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm for the sum of $4.06 Billion.  The “Mouse House” advised that they would not only begin production on chapters seven through nine, but also on some new, “one off” chapters to go with the Star Wars universe.  I, for one, was excited to hear this news.  The idea of moving on from the cumbersome prequels and allowing some offshoots to the “official” volumes in the series seemed like an innovative idea to me.

And, the idea behind Rogue One comes from my generation.  As a kid, I grew up playing Star Wars in the back yard with sticks for blasters and swing sets that doubled as the Millennium Falcon.  Think about it – Han is at the top of the slide and Luke is at the bottom, just like in the original Star Wars’ shootout, complete with laser-beam sound effects.  I’m sure many of you can relate to this memory, as many of us played “Star Wars” for hours in our basement, our rooms, outside and maybe even at Halloween.  For your information, I was always Han Solo, my brother was Luke, the older neighbor boy was Chewbacca, and of course, his sister was Leia.

Now that we have that settled, I thought of all those chapters we used to play out in the back yard when Rogue One started to release pictures and videos.  Who hasn’t wondered how the original Death Star came to be completed?  How did the rebels manage to steal away the plans to this ultimate weapon, only to have Princess Leia unceremoniously stuff them inside of R2’s rusty innards?  What was it like to be a member of the rebellion, as Luke asked C3PO in the original film?  And why oh why would the Imperials leave that exhaust shaft in the dreaded Death Star?

RO First PhotoI’m tilting my hand, but you can no doubt tell I was a fan of Rogue One from the start, particularly from viewing the first trailers last spring.  I mean, look at this picture above, which I believe was one of the first official promotional photos circulated.  It’s got great costumes, authentic art design – and a group that looks like a gang I want to see get into trouble with some Imperial contingent.  The thing is, in today’s world of blockbuster films, there is the film itself, and then there is the making of the film, the backstory of how it came to be and all the drama the leads up to opening weekend.  For now, let’s focus on  Rogue One as a film.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Donnie Yen)
Ph: Film Frame
©Lucasfilm LFL

When I sat in the theater last month, elbow to elbow with other excited moviegoers, and watched Rogue One unfold, I felt like I think we all want to feel in the cinema.  Exhilarated, devastated by the emotion of some scenes, thrilled by the action of others and laughing at the consistent, genuinely funny “zingers” dispelled by Alan Tudyk as K2SO.  I felt closest to Chirrut, played by Donnie Yen, because I feel like his portrayal of the blind swordsman who is dedicated to The Force really captured the spiritual thread-line of the original three films.

RO KrennicSo, from a purely film perspective, I feel one has to give Rogue One its due.  I’ll use a phrase I’ve used in so many other entries, this film was “firing on all cylinders.”  The acting was there – and what an ensemble cast it was!  The pacing and construction of the story actually reminded me of a Ludlum or Clancy novel, where there are several different, interesting groups of heroes and villains whose stories you can’t wait to get back to.  Speaking of villains, part of why Rogue worked for me is Ben Mendolsohn’s portrayal of the Death Star’s grand architect, Orson Krennic.  His obsession with proving his weapon and manipulation of Erso’s dad, Galen Erso, was a huge “win.”  And, the fact the film was viably able to include Darth Vader in all his post-adolescent angst and fury was a treat to behold.

Further, the costume, makeup and art design were all worthy of comparison to the original trilogy.  Despite the opinion articles that circulated in the trades following Rogue’s debut concerning heroine Jyn Erso’s development – or lack thereof – I feel like Felicity Jones did a phenomenal job leading this purely war torn action-adventure in playing Jyn Erso.  Director Edwards and his crew deserve a lot of credit for taking us to that Star Wars universe we grew up loving.

But, we did grow up, right?  We’re not kids anymore, we the original fans.  And I really believe there was a conscious decision made early on to make Rogue One a true Star Wars war picture, a throwback to the Dirty Dozen, the gritty tone of the Alien franchise and even The Wild Bunch.  We live in a world that’s chaotic and fearsome – the news is hard to read most days.  So, Star Wars has now given us a film that makes us read the lines of the original film’s crawl, “Rebel spaceships, attacking from a hidden base. have won their first victory against he evil Galactic Empire.”  Why were we assuming that this battle went as smoothly as the attack on the Death Star went?  The story adequately answers some of our, “how did they” questions and answers them in an extremely entertaining action picture.

With all of that said, Disney is winning on another level, entirely.  That level is the aforementioned “everything surrounding the film.”  When the trailer debuted last spring, it set records for how many online views it garnered within the first 48 hours of its posting.  That’s noteworthy.  When more materials were made available, presenting how Edwards and the crew were determined to make the characters and sets as authentic as possible, more views came – and more discussion.  When rumors circulated in the late summer that screenwriting master Tony Gilroy had been brought in to help with re-shoots, online chatter abounded with suspicions that “Rogue One might, well… suck.”  Let’s remember the ancient adage that any publicity is good publicity.

I’ve since listened to a podcast with Gareth Edwards on The Director’s Cut – a DGA Podcast.  For film fanatics like myself, this podcast is really invaluable and a treat to listen to.  It’s sponsored by the Director’s Guild of America, and features a prominent director interviewing the director of the film that has just screened.  One of the first podcasts featured Martin Scorsese (gasp!) interviewing Steven Spielberg (gasp!!) about Bridge of Spies.  Needless to say, I was rather engrossed.  But, my point as it relates to Rogue One is that in listening to director Gareth Edwards’ discussion, it’s clear that he got the job because he is a “Yoda” at visual effects and using unique techniques, particularly in cinematography and lighting, to tell his stories.

That said, I think it’s completely conceivable that some story elements were getting left behind by last summer.  So, Kathleen Kennedy and the rest of the production team brought in another “Yoda” in Gilroy to re-steer the giant vessel towards the original episodes and away from the prequels.  And, I don’t have any problem with this.  Two immensely talented storytellers pulling double duty on one of the best franchises ever?  Sure!  Believe me, though, this kind of “oh, no!” moment only helped the film’s campaign.  Just go on YouTube and search “Rogue One story changes” and you’ll find a massive amount of video clips explaining conspiracy theories that range from very far fetched to not too crazy.

RO AT AT comparisonBut again, credit to the Disney machine for this success.  Whether it’s the Star Wars universe or the Marvel films or Pixar or Walt Disney Animation, they are masters of engaging the audience in today’s digital world.  Just look at this example pictured here from StormtrooperLarry.com, which features a comparison of the AT-AT Imperial assault vehicle in how it was depicted in Rogue One against Empire Strikes Back.  And for background, Stormtrooper Larry isn’t as random as it sounds.  He was a character devised for the Adult Swim/Robot Chicken Star Wars parody episodes.

And why not spend time on such comparisons?  Returning to that image of my generation growing up with Darth Vader Halloween outfits and favorite sticks for blasters in the backyard, we are now able to take these fantasies and share them online with people all over the globe.  Who would’ve thought that back in the 80s?  In the end, Rogue One succeeded not only as a film, but also as an event.

IMDB – Rogue One

Here’s the Teaser that got me all excited when it debuted last April – and it’s nearly at 44M views as of this posting:

And finally, here’s one of the funniest parody clips I saw – and as the beginning says, it took a team THREE WEEKS to compose this:

 

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Our First Annual – Top Ten Films of 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2016 – An Introduction, and Commentary on #10
An Annual Ronhamprod.com Presentation

Welcome to ronhamprod.com’s first annual list of the best films from the previous year.  This is obviously our own, homemade effort for the purpose of discussion, debate and all the fun chit-chat that accompanies the annual Awards Season.

31st_Acad_Awards

Here’s the list for your pleasure, in no particular order and followed by the film’s genre:

  1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Action-Fantasy)
  2. The Witch (Horror)
  3. Midnight Special (Drama – Sci-Fi)
  4. Deadpool (Superhero)
  5. Lion (Drama – Foreign)
  6. Hell or High Water (Drama)
  7. The Lobster (Drama – Foreign)
  8. Arrival (Drama – Sci-Fi)
  9. Silence (Drama – Faith)
  10. ____________________ (TBA)

sully posterThe last spot is specifically and intentionally left blank for this reason: it is impossible to see all 728 titles that were released in the U.S. last year, even for film maniacs like us.  It would be impossible to view all 705 films released the year before.  We have missed some substantial titles, which include Doctor Strange, Loving, Fences, Sully, Snowden, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, Finding Dory and Passengers.  While we have every intention of seeing these films and more, we can’t, of course, comment on them just yet.

Now, we have seen The Secret Life of Pets, La La Land, The Birth of a Nation, and War Dogs, all of which should be included for some categories at the upcoming Oscars in our opinion.  We’re aware that La La Land is white-hot just now, and we really enjoyed seeing it in theaters.  But, this is our list, and I’m sure we’ve missed films that you think simply MUST be on the list.  Perhaps you’re frustrated at some films that made it to the list.  And, we’re obviously light on comedies, but there was no Bridesmaids comparable this year, right?

With all of that said, I think that’s the point of “Awards Season,” isn’t it?  I love the January & February time of year for the massive amount of discussions surrounding film.  And, I love the cliche that, “it’s enough to be nominated,” because to me, it’s no cliche!  Think about it for 2016, that if you or your team receive an Oscar nomination, you are in the 0.0068 percentile.  You are one of five films (in most categories) out of 728 that your colleagues, peers, mentors and oftentimes movie idols think were one of the best of last year.  I guess if you win you’re in the 0.0014 percentile, but.. shouldn’t it be enough to be nominated?

Deadpool International Theatrical One Sheet Teaser Movie PosterEither way, I like this year’s list because it’s a true mix of genres, budgets, release dates and casts.  We hope there is some more diversity from the Academy this year when it comes to release date because it oftentimes feels a bit loaded when the nominees all share a release during the months of  November & December.  Deadpool was a February release while The Lobster hit theaters here in May.  And, speaking of Deadpool, was I the only one that thought the whole reason to expanding the Best Picture category up to ten films was to include more offbeat, sometimes mainstream fare to the mix?

Also, we feel 2016 is one of those years which would be fun to add a category for “Ensemble Cast,” because I think films like The Witch really couldn’t have been so successful without its distinctive mix of talent, not to mention the fact that these actors were on the whole, not known.  As I’ve discussed in previous posts, it’s foreign films and horror films that have a leg up when it comes to cast because there are no studio stars typically in these movies.  As a result, you don’t know who’s going to check out of the picture or when, which dramatically increases the suspense.

thewitch-online-teaser-01-web-largeAnd, how could we possibly deny the horror genre an entry into the top 10 for 2016?  It was a landmark year horror, with films like The Conjuring 2, Don’t Breathe and even The Purge: Election Year all finding themselves in the top 40 box office earners of the year.  Even Lights Out, which was distributed by Warner Bros and featured a full length telling of a wildly successful short film exceeded expectations.  The genre seems to be evolving into a tones that are more adult than teenager, more thought provoking than cheap thrills.  Perhaps this is an oversimplified view horror films in their current state, but, that’s why we’re an independent blog!

In the end, we hope you enjoy these posts over the next few days covering the nine films above.  And, we’d love to hear from you about which film deserves that tenth spot.  We’re really embracing the idea that in today’s environment, it’s just impossible to see all titles every year.  So, our “Top Ten” list will always be an odd nine titles, with you the Reader helping us to find that elusive tenth.

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These Dogs Needed Obedience Training

War-Dogs-posterWAR DOGS (2016)
Dir: Todd Phillips
Stars: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas and Bradley Cooper

The film opens with a kid in his early 20s, sitting in a beat-up, turquoise Ford Escort.  Pardon me, Escort station wagon.  Insert accent here – is not sexy.  And he’s parked in an upscale, gated community in southern Florida.  Further, he is lighting up a very ambitious looking joint.  He’s got the stereo going and life is good, until the community’s security guard bangs on his window and forces the young man to leave the neighborhood.  The kid tries to explain that he’s there for a massage therapy session, and he’s just trying to relax so he can help his client relax.  But, he’s still forced out.  Now, if only the U.S. government had paid the kind of attention this security guard had!  I mean, who could have known this knucklehead stoner and his old schoolmate from the synagogue would hustle their way to an arms contract with the U.S. military worth $300M.

Even one of the hashtags promoting the film is #FindYourHustle, and these guys did just that – hustle.  From the opening shot, War Dogs propels you into a world that you lived through, but were surely far, far away from.  For example, did you know that each soldier you saw fighting in Iraq in the mid-2000s was equipped with over $17,000 worth of gear?  Did you know that in 2006, small businesses could bid on astronomically sized Pentagon bids – by consistently checking a website?  I didn’t happen to know that you can buy an SUV/tank hybrid at an annual trade show in Las Vegas.  But, through David Packouz’s, educational voice-over throughout the film, we all learn a thing or two.  Incidentally, Packouz is played by Miles Teller, who you’ll no doubt remember from Whiplash.

NegotiatingHis partner in this business endeavor, Efraim Diveroli, is played by Jonah Hill.  I liked Hill in Superbad, I thought he did a hell of a job in Moneyball – and he surely should be taken more seriously after War Dogs.  It’s hard to perform well as both a comedic and dramatic actor.  What Hill did with Diveroli’s laugh alone is memorable.  You’ve had friends and associates like Efraim, and so have I:  Hill’s performance reminds you why you don’t talk to them anymore.  He is funny in some scenes, scary in others and quotable throughout.

I will tell you, the trailer to the film is good, but it’s a little curious how it touts the comedy.  Is War Dogs funny?  Oh, yeah.  Would I classify it as a comedy?  Ahhhhh, no.  A dram-edy, maybe?  It’s tough!  You’ve seen in the trailers that these are some amoral characters.  I’ve read some reviews making comparisons to Goodfellas, Scarface (which is kind of touted in the film throughout), Lord of War, for obvious reasons and other crime films.

But, the way the story is told entertains us from beginning to end.  We’re laughing at these guys in one scene, and ready to indict them the next.  That’s a tough line to walk along.  Part of what helps this  walk is the Cooper and PHillipsassorted characters they come across.  There’s the Albanian warehouse owner who’s ready to deal
with the guys for quite a discount.  There’s Packouz’s fiance Isabelle, played by newcomer Ana de Armas, who actually isn’t as dumb as she seems.  And there’s Henry Girard, played with a discomforting iciness by Bradley Cooper.  I never want to meet whoever Girard is supposed to be based upon.  Even Dan Bilzerian makes an appearance!

The point is, I think that director Phillips and the production team made a conscious effort from the beginning.  They said to themselves, “We can choose to laugh or cry at this true story…”  And this team definitely decided to laugh at it.  I can tell you from reading some of the conversation on Facebook and YouTube that this laughter is rubbing some moviegoers the wrong way.  They are furious that the guy who made The Hangover is tackling this true, ugly, real-world story that had devastating effects on diplomacy, politics and morals.

firing the akAnd that’s what I want to end with.  For those of you who saw my take on The Big Short, I am really enjoying films that tackle head-on the question of morality in today’s culture.  I am lost in any effort to explain how Packouz and Diveroli didn’t at least once stop and say, “Should we do this?”  If you read the article linked below, I think you’ll agree that Hill’s performance of Diveroli is pretty spot on.  This guy grew up with an arms dealing uncle, and I can see how this might be all he ever knew.  But Packouz never, ever said, “Yeah, this doesn’t seem right.”  That concerns the hell out of me.  That’s unsettling.  And yet, the film did an amazing job of not only educating me on this whole mess, but also entertaining me along the way!  That’s rare.

NOTE: here’s the Rolling Stone article that covers this true life story.  I’ll tell you, I read it before seeing the film and it doesn’t ruin anything.. and it is truly amazing!  It’s long, but I think you’ll enjoy it –

Rolling Stone – The Stoner Arms Dealers

IMDB Cast & Crew – War Dogs

And finally, as a guy that’s spent a long time in movie marketing, this little ad as seen by one of my pals in Los Angeles made me grin:

War Dogs Street Ad

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The Original Vision of Dune, and Its Development

AJs Dune PosterJodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
Dir: Frank Pavich
Stars: Alejandro Jodorowky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger and Gary Kurtz

I was really impressed with this documentary because it does such a fine job of describing the challenges and heartache of film development.  I mean, films don’t just happen.  There are a lot of filmmaking terms thrown around, and because so many films fail to come to fruition and so many filmmakers are such knuckleheads, I’ve seen people roll their eyes at the term “development.”  But, this is as real a term as direction, acting or production.  It means the initial construction of a film, literally taking an idea and getting it started on the process of being made and ultimately shared with an audience.  Development can include the assembly of a story idea into script form, the long and draining process of raising money, the signing of known actors for roles, the lunches required to woo a hot director to consider the project, a combination of all of these – and much more…

In the case of Dune, you have to know a little about Alejandro Jodorowsky first for the documentary to make sense.  When you think of successful films, like the DVDs that live on your shelf at home, how did you first hear about them?  Many times it’s word of mouth, where your friends are so excited to have seen The Nice Guys, they just have to tell you about it.  Or, it’s a story you’re familiar with that is finally coming to screen like Gone Girl.  Maybe the “shout” to the film is so loud you are obligated to go see it, like Avatar or one of the Star Wars films.  Maybe you’ve found a recent gem because Netflix recommended it to you?  OK, less likely.. But, what if one of your favorite musicians or actors or politicians endorsed the film?  That’s what happened to Mr. Jodorowsky.

topo0In 1970, he released a bizarre, epic film called El Topo.  It’s basically about this messianic figure rolling around the Mexican desert looking for – you know what, I don’t know what it’s about.  On the poster here, that’s AJ’s naked son riding bareback with him, as El Topo, by the way.

Any-hoo… this is one polarizing picture.  Some people were ready to riot and demanded their money back when it was released.  Others, particularly those who were experimenting with new, psychedelic experiences, thought this was the title to give birth to a new era of cinema.  One of those folks was no less than John Lennon.  Yes, right, John – from the Beatles!  Calm down.  Well, with such an endorsement, midnight shows across the nation started showing El Topo.  And it did good business.  Keep that note in mind – El Topo did good business.  That’s how AJ got as far as he did, his work was making money and finding an audience.

Based on its good business, a French producer named Michel Seydoux took El Topo and screened it in Europe.  Did well there, too!  So, they made another film together called The Holy Mountain.  Quick sidebar – I vouch for none of Jodorowsky’s films because I haven’t seen them.  The little footage I have seen leaves me… interested, curious, skeptical, doubtful.  Regardless, Seydoux asks Jodorowsky after the success of Holy Mountain, “What’s next, buddy?” (the French are always using the term, “buddy,” not sure if you knew that).  And AJ says, “I wanna make Dune.”

This is that part in the documentary where I lean in.  This is the title of the film, there’s going to be some superior insight, right?  There’ll be some reason Jodorowsky picked this project to develop, pre-produce, produce, post-produce and screen across the world, right?  After all, that process takes about two to five years, all told, so it’s got to be worth it.  And when the interviewer asked Jodorowsky why he picked Dune, he replied something to the effect of, “Well, I never read the book.  But, I knew it was huge in its scope, it was an epic tale and I wanted to make it.”

Here’s where I start to get frustrated.  This film, this entire project, is an ego play.  Right from the get go.  Now, that’s fine if the director embraces that spirit.  If the director is making the film for himself and his audience, not as an hommage to a great novel, OK fine.  Think Apocalypse Now.  Coppola deserves a massive amount of credit for that vision, that “ego trip,” much of which he financed himself.  But, I was absolutely gobsmacked by how many individuals who went “all in” to making this movie with AJ had never, ever even read the book it was based upon.

With Keith CarradineFrom here, the documentary becomes a filmmakers wet dream.  Jodorowsky dazzles us with tales of meeting with Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, to entice him to play one of the leads.  Keith Carradine (pictured above – you can see the book, too) signed on for a role.  AJ astonishes us with the time he told the special effects designer of 2001 to go to hell because he wasn’t enough of a “spirit warrior” for AJ.  Same feeling to that time he demanded the band members of Pink Floyd stop their eating and listen to his vision for Dune!  And then there’s the numerous meetings with Salvador Dali – yes, the fucking painter – who AJ insisted was the ideal individual to play Paul’s father.  Dali wanted a $100K an hour.  Oh!  I almost forgot, he also wrangled Orson Welles to play the emperor, because he promised the sizable, early 1970s Welles that his favorite Parisian bistro would cater the film.  This, obviously, was the funniest edit in the whole film because after AJ says this on camera, they cut to a picture of a large, prominent Welles grinning ear to ear.

jodorowsky's dune 03You can tell by now – these commentaries always end up longer than I intended – that I was thoroughly entertained by Jodorowsky’s Dune.  Where I got frustrated was the portion of the film that focused on the Hollywood studios.  For a movie of this scope, in the heart of the 1970s, AJ, Seydoux and the team – which included the likes of H.R. Giger and many other true craftsman, ready and standing by to start constructing sets and the like – were going to need studio money.  Now, as soon as I think “studio money,” I think of one word – compromise.  If you’re going to make a film with [insert studio name here], I don’t care if you’re me, you, Scorsese, Spielberg (yes, even Mr. Spielberg) or the next hot thing – you will need to compromise.

To see this documentary’s portrayal of that process, of AJ & Team seeking money from the studios, I feel was really unfair.  The studios are all shot in black and white with villainous music played in the background.  Pavich really seems to be non-too-subtly saying that the studios missed their opportunity with AJ’s Dune.  To that, I strongly and slowly shrug my shoulders.  Now, he could be right!  There are two sides to every board room table, and if I sit on Dune side, I am super-excited.  The huge, 10-inch book AJ just laid on the table with designs, renderings, photographs and schematics of all the ships, costumes and sets he’s going to design, I mean… just look at it!  As a filmmaker, how can you NOT be excited?

Well, let’s sit on the other side of the table.  I’m a [insert studio name here] exec, and this madman is asking me for $15 Million for a sci-fi film, the kind of which has never been done before.  Certainly budgets of that size were reserved for blockbusters and Oscar contenders at the time.  The only comparable I have as the studio exec in those days is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that was by that wild card, Kubrick.  AJ’s previous films were existential experiences, which supposedly were improved by doing massive amounts of drugs.  These films involved scenes with naked children, amputees, dead animals and – not making this up – golden feces.  Also, if this hasn’t been mentioned yet, AJ needs the film to run anywhere from 12-20 hours.  That is not a typo.  Last thing – and this is minor, guys – his SON is going to star in it.  Yep, he’s had the kid training with a kung-fu master for, what, three years now?  The kid’s about to turn 15, and man, he is READY to play the lead.  I mean, AJ insists he IS Paul!  Did we note he wants $15 million?

AJ TodayHow, on God’s green earth, is the studio exec expected to give the green light to such a project?  I’ll tell you how – AJ COMPROMISES.  He promises he’ll make it three hours long.  Or, he agrees to negotiate on the production budget.  Or, he says, “Sure, Gene Hackman can be in the film.”  Or, he lets go a piece of the pie, but not the whole thing.  In other words, I understand filmmakers like AJ, I appreciate their efforts and respect their works – even if I don’t like their films.  But, I feel they lack the understanding that, at its core, cinema is about collaboration.  And, if AJ really wanted to make Dune, why not spend his own millions, like Coppola did?  Or recruit more European funds – they got it all figured out over there, right?

But, no.  Jodorowsky’s Dune lives only in that huge, phone book sized pre-production manual.  And let me say, this pre-production catalogue is only one of several things that this film inspired.  Director Nicholas Winding Refn discusses it as AJ showed it to him when he had dinner at the guy’s house.  The guys that AJ had hired for Dune were recruited for Ridley Scott’s Alien – and won Oscars for their work in visual effects!  And many of the costumes and characters were visible in other sci-fi features for the next 30 years.  Obviously, Pavich is crediting AJ with a lot, here.  Me, while my vote is out on Mr. Jodorowsky, I think this doc is well worth a watch.  The credit due AJ is a topic worth debating – and this post is already long enough!

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Is That a Giant Worm? Oh… Must Be Dune…

Dune_1984_PosterDUNE (1984)
Dir: David Lynch
Stars: Kyle MacLaughlin, Sting, Everett McGill and Virginia Madsen – and so many more…

This was one of those titles on my long running list, which is broken out by genre, star and other kinds of breaks.  It’s been on my list for years – and should have remained on it indefinitely.  Dune is, regrettably, one of those films that defies understanding.  When so many classic, proven stories make great films.. how did this one fall short?

Reflecting this age of supreme “behind the scenes” access, we’ll get to how Dune fell short in our very next post on the documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune.  For now, let’s just say that 1984’s Dune, directed by David Lynch, is one of many films that begins and ends with the story.  Some adaptations, like L.A. Confidential, The Big Short and classics like The Godfather and MacBeth, are superb when they finally reach the silver screen.  Others, like The Hobbit, The Grinch and this, Dune, definitely fall short of the source material and sometimes deviate remarkably from it.

BTS Dune

Dune was originally a 1965 sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, which won the Hugo Award and is considered one of the best sci-fi books of all time.  Great start, right?  Well, the final, two and a half hour film I caught on Starz Encore earlier this month, was a muddled, confused bit of kitsch.  I hate picking on films – I really do –  particularly movies of this magnitude and scope!  I mean, you simply must give credit to the makeup, costume and design folks.  They definitely created a world, no matter how cheesy and obvious it seemed in some scenes. You also have to pat McLaughlin on the back for a job well tried.  He, and the majority of the cast, are dedicated to their roles.  And come on, give Lynch some credit for trying an inner dialogue for major characters, a technique that Terrence Mallick has executed in so many of his films.

But, all of this effort and production simply does not matter if we can’t follow the story and we have no understanding of why the characters are important.  In fact, let’s start with the idea that as I watched Dune, I had trouble telling WHICH characters are important.  My thoughts unfolded this way: “McLaughlin is playing Paul, so he must be important.  After all, he’s in most scenes.  Let’s see, umm… I though the emperor was important, but, haven’t seen him in a while.  I hope we see as little as possible of the Baron, that floating fat man who has the worst skin disease I’ve probably ever seen on film.  Gross.  Oh, wow – there’s Sting!  He MUST be important, he was in The Police around this time!  Well, no… guess not.  Wait, WAIT!  Is that Patrick Stewart!?  Well, he’s going to team up with Paul and hop on that giant worm, but… Hmmm.  Sorry, why was that important?”

Sting and Kyle and Stewart

That’s right, Film Fan, I said “giant worm.”  See pic at the bottom of this post for a screenshot…  The effects in Dune are politely described as “basic.”  Floating spaceships against flat backgrounds offer very little in the way of scope.  Props, explosions and laser effects seem like a throwback to 1950s sci-fi cinema in some scenes and downright unbelievable in others.

Like I said, I try to avoid being so critical: but here’s the key.  I wouldn’t CARE about the bad effects if I CARED about the characters and their struggle.  Look for an upcoming post on The Terminator.  Some of the effects in that 1984 James Cameron film are very basic based on today’s standards – but that film will remain a classic to me because I deeply cared about those people and their challenges.  The Day the Earth Stood Still from the 1950s, The Neverending Story and so many other 80s films all share these “basic” effects – but we care because the script was super solid.

So.. how DID Dune end up so messy when it had such incredible source material and the immensely talented cast and crew that it had?  In short, my thesis is simple.  To have a classic film, you need a combination of stars to align, certainly.  Sometimes, it’s that breakout role for a young star destined for greatness.  MacLaughlin could have been that on paper – not saying that he isn’t very talented and successful!  Just saying, his role in Dune didn’t lead to immortalit.  Other times, a film benefits from that insane vision from a director that is blessed with final cut.  Still other films just have beautiful timing, like In the Heat of the Night.  And regrettably, far too often, the vision just doesn’t come to fruition.  On that note, please, read on…

Original Trailer for DUNE

IMDB – Cast & Crew for Dune

Wikipedia on Dune (Novel)

DuneSW

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When Was the Last Time You Tried Breathing Through Your Eyelids?

Bull Durham PosterBull Durham
Dir: Ron Shelton
Stars: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Robert Wuhl

This comedy from 1988 supports my point that baseball is like wine – it gets better with age.  I’m watching more of the American pastime the older I get.  Part of my increased attention is surely related to Vin Scully’s call of the Dodgers here in L.A.  It’s his last year in a career that has spanned over 60 years, so, I’m listening to the legend as often as I can.  Another piece of it is how baseball has so many analogies to life.  These analogies are what make Bull Durham such a great film.

The film is about a minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, and one of their seasons as narrated by the unofficial mascot, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon).  She’s a local who has been watching the Bulls for countless seasons – and always has a romance with one of the players to accompany the season.  This year, she’s got a problem.  The Bulls have hired a lanky pitcher named Ebby “Nuke” Laroosh (Tim Robbins), a young man in serious need of mentorship if he’s ever going to control his pitching and make it to “the show,” or – cue the choir’s pitch-perfect, “Ahhhhhh” – Major League Baseball.  But then, that mentor shows up in the form of a veteran catcher named Crash Davis (Costner, in his heyday, 80s glory).  The Bulls manager, Skip (see note 1), has acquired Costner not so much for his catching ability, but to specifically coach young “Nuke” into behaving himself and reaching the hallowed ground of MLB.  In fact, Crash is on his last few seasons, and he knows it.

But the presence of Laroosh the pitcher and Crash the catcher puts Annie in a pickle.  She’s attracted to both guys and regrettably – as she explains to Crash in an early scene at the batting cages – is monogamous during baseball season.  So, when Crash and What I believe“Nuke” show up to her house for the first time, the veteran catcher simply dismisses the idea of competing for her attention and starts to leave.  For those of you who have seen the movie, his ensuing speech about what he believes is one of the great monologues in recent cinema – at least in the opinion of this humble blogger.  For those who haven’t seen Bull Durham yet, this is one of the scenes I think about when I beg you to watch it!  [And note the irony of how Costern’s character felt about Lee Harvey Oswald in comparison to another of his famous portrayals a few years later…]

Aside from the love triangle between Crash, Annie and “Nuke,” there are plenty of b-storylines that accompany the Bulls minor league season.  There’s the time Crash bets he can get a rain-out the next day.  There’s a wedding on the field one night before the game starts.  There are plenty of fights between Bulls players and players on opposing teams.  Another bit concerns Annie convincing “Nuke” to calm down when he pitches by “breathing through his eyelids.”  It’s these b-storylines that support the love triangle which remind me, in an odd way, of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

The Ball Park

Regardless, the film has changed over the years the same way the game of baseball has changed.  I’ve grown older, I’ve gained perspective – and Bull Durham hit me differently in my latest viewing.  Think about it – the first time you go to the ball game, you’re SO impressed!  You’re probably thinking something like, “there are grown men out there.. in a field.. in UNIFORMS.. playing games – and earning lots and lots of money doing it!  And…… I get to eat JUNK FOOD while I watch them play?!?  This is the best thing since Halloween!  And it’s not once a year.. I can go as often as I can afford to!!”  But, that perspective changes over the years, right?

QuotableFor me, in this latest viewing of Durham, the scene that resonated with me most was when Crash is trying to get “Nuke” to follow his signals.  I only recently learned over the past few seasons how essential the catcher is to how the game is played.  If there’s a quarterback equivalent in baseball, meaning a guy managing the game on the field, it’s the catcher.  So, in this scene, Crash is giving his pitcher classic pitching finger signals from between his legs.  And the young pitcher’s been doing well with his “heat,” or fastball, so… he wants to throw that pitch.  He gives Crash a head shake.

Now, Crash is angry.  By this time in the tale, Crash and “Nuke” have had their differences and arguments and even physical confrontations.  The veteran catcher can’t believe this “meat,” as he calls the rookie, is “shaking him off.”  So, he tells the rival batter that Laroosh is going to pitch a fastball.  Sure enough, here comes “Nuke’s heat.”  And the guy smashes it so hard, it hits this big sign in right field in the shape of a bull that says, “Hit the Bull, Win a Steak!”

Crash ambles towards the mound and says to Laroosh, “He sure hit the shit out of that one, huh?”  Or words to that effect.  He even admits to the young pitcher that he told the guy what pitch was coming his way.  And the scene got to me because of this shared information.  I’ve had the blessing of several different mentors in my life, and my experiences with them all had this kind of interplay.  The long and short is, they let me play it my way because I was SURE I knew better than them at the time.  It went horribly, humiliatingly wrong.  And they patted me back and headed back behind the plate.  And then, I started pitching what they suggested I pitch.

meeting_on_the_mound_bull_durhamWell, I’m embarrassed to say this blog has kind of gotten away from me because I just love Bull Durham!  I went a little more personal than intended – my apologies.  Regardless, I think you can tell this film is well worth your time if you’re seeking a great comedy, a fun, raunchy romance or a baseball movie.  Have a drink and enjoy this classic – and you might be trying to breathe through your eyelids tomorrow.

Note One: Trey Wilson is one of those “character actors” that I always love to comment on, because frankly their body of work deserves attention.  These are the players whose name you may not know, but you definitely remember their roles.
Mr. Wilson not only played the iconic scene in Bull Durham in which he acts like a mental case (the “lollygaggers” scene – see below), he also was Nathan Arizona, the furniture store magnate whose youngest son is kidnapped by Hi and Edwina in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona!  Wilson was on Law & Order on TV, he was the villain in Twins with Schwarzenegger and DeVito – and even played Jimmy Hoffa in a TV movie!  Sadly, he passed in 1989 – but his superb work survives for us to enjoy.

Bunch of Lollygaggers!

Bull Durham – IMDB Cast & More

Note: I own none of the images posted here, which are for entertainment purposes only.

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Which Member of the Ensemble Were You?

Big Short movie posterThe Big Short (2016)
Dir: Adam McKay
Stars: Steve Carrell, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Finn Whitrock, Adepero Oduye, Byron Mann, Marisa Tomei, Oscar Gale as “Tattooed Renter,” David Wyman as “Pub Goer #1″… and Brad Pitt

Let me just slap this link below in here right off the bat, so you can play along with me here….

The Big Short – IMDB Full Cast Link

I saw The Big Short last night on the big screen, and it is an absolute achievement in storytelling, ensemble performances that contribute to the whole, and hammering home your theme.

In this case, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The storytelling works because it begins and ends with that old adage in the midst of overwhelming challenge: you can laugh or cry.  Director Adam McKay and his ensemble cast decide to laugh at the mortgage crisis that crippled the world economy in 2008.  Don’t get me wrong – The Big Short shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes.  It is infinitely more Drama than Comedy, but its comedic breaks are its strength, fortifying us for the next montage of economic disaster that awaits.

Essentially, the film opens an imaginary book entitled, “Wall Street’s Most Confusing Terms and History” and just like that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, it encourages the audience to come along and rip out the pages.  As an example, in the first fifteen minutes of Short, the story demands that we be educated on some financial terminology because it’s going to be essential to the story.  Now, instead of going documentary with it, the production puts the gorgeous actress, Margot Robbie – herself! – in a bath tub, sipping champagne.  There are several similar cutaways and creative illustrations using a mixture of industry experts and celebrities to drive home the point – in more way than one.  After all, if we didn’t get it in real life, maybe we need it explained to us real slow-like?

Big Short - EnsembleAs for my listing of the cast above, I did that because The Big Short is a textbook example of “ensemble.”  All day today, I thought, “If I HAD to say, I guess I’d say it’s Steve Carrell’s story.”  He plays Mark Baum, who runs a hedge fund under the Morgan Stanley umbrella – and who lost a brother to suicide before we meet him.  Regardless, the film deserves a great deal of study and accolades for the fact that it juggles so many different characters and an absolute web of plotlines – and yet, we’re always entertained and enjoying the peaks of comedy and the valleys of despairing in the true history of the story.  The film educates  as it entertains us.

Let me elaborate on some of the names of actors you may not know from my laborious list above.  Believe me, they all contribute to the colossal ball of yarn that is, The Big Short.  And don’t worry, for these four there are another forty characters that will be fresh for you if you haven’t caught the film yet!

  • Vinnie Daniel, played by Jeremy Strong: Vinnie is one of Mark Baum (Carrell)’s partners at his fund, and he represents the voice of reason as they ride this incredible wave and try to understand the “bubble” staring them in the face.  The story needs Vinnie because it makes sense that eventually, someone asks “How are you trying to fuck us?”  Michael Burry, M.D. – played by Christian Bale – does this same thing, but much earlier in the story.
  • Adepero Oduye as Mark Baum’s contact at Morgan Stanely, Kathy Tao: I love how director McKay used Ms. Oduye’s character.  He peppers the story with her evolving relationship with Baum.  At first, they break each other’s chops, then she’s at his throat because he’s making these ridiculous financial investments, endangering her job… and ultimately, she’s without answers for him – just like we felt at the time.
  • David Wyman as “Pub Goer #1”: I know, this was one scene and pretty isolated, but I still love that this character and his lines were inserted into the story!  How many of us sat with an adult beverage during the collapse, yelling at the TV, “I don’t know how the hell all of this happened, but you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars – and I am mad as hell!”
  • Oscar Gale as “Tattooed Renter”: this character has only two scenes in the film, but man oh man what scenes they are… In the first, some guys he doesn’t know come banging on the door of the house he’s renting.  They are asking him where the owners are.  He’s terrified that they’re going to evict him for something the owners did – after all, as he says, “I pay my rent on time, man!”  And then, the gut wrenching scene at the end when he and his family appear homeless in a gas station parking lot.  What a way to hammer home the idea that millions of innocent Americans hit the bottom and never understood why, really.

Big Short hand raisedFinally, we have the ultimate achievement of picking a theme and using two hours of film to effectively hammer that theme home – and entertain us, the audience, in the process.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is a very simple way to describe this movie’s theme.  After all, didn’t all the Wall Street firms think Christian Bale’s Dr. Burry was out of his mind when he pitched them on his investment idea? I mean, the guy looks like a surfer and listens to death metal all day – he can’t be right!  Didn’t we all believe MSNBC and Bloomberg and the Journal in the mid 2000s when they said the AAA credit ratings were in fact, AAA?  Did we believe Mark Baum when he raised his hand in that meeting – or were we still feeling like the Bear Sterns exec?

Big Short jenga

Perhaps the theme is a little deeper: maybe it’s a cautionary tale to not let history repeat itself.  To do something this time around.  Go out and vote, join Habitat for Humanity, give to a reputable charity – or ask for another opinion before making that investment.  Confirm the investment is a “go” with your spouse.  Put that “Jenga” piece in a more stury place than wobbling on top.  Director Adam McKay did a masterful job of subtly scolding us in his telling of the tale.  There are many points during the film with a super-quick montage of all the entertainment that was available at this point in the story.  I have to admit, as I watched this slide show of the Super Bowl and American Idol and golf outings and Disney vacations and latest car models.. I felt like I was a spoiled child.

Maybe you’ll feel that way and maybe you won’t!  For the record, I do not feel like it’s a bad thing that the director is challenging us.  And it serves me right!  When I saw the trailer last fall and saw that McKay was directing, I have to admit I rolled my eyes!  I was the one judging the book by its cover because I only knew him from Anchorman and his other comedies – how could THIS guy direct such a compelling, Michael Lewis authored story?  Well, he did – and so did his amazing ensemble.  Yep, serves me right.

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Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes

Winter-on-Fire-PosterWinter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Dir: Evgeny Afineevsky
* Oscar Nominee, 2015 – Best Documentary *

I hope that many of you will agree with me when I say that living in America, it’s kind of easy to take some of our freedoms for granted.  For example, there is a scene in Winter on Fire in which a husband and wife are driving down a Kiev street at night.  They are going to join some friends in a protest against then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to join the European Union.  The protest around the city center of Maidan had been going on for probably 60 days at this point in the film.  In its entirety, the revolution lasted over 90 days from November 2013 until the middle of February 2014.

From the perspective of my western-thinking, American citizen-born brain and heart, this couple is about to do something completely safe and understandable.  I have witnessed protests in the middle of Westwood here in Los Angeles – I mean people waving flags and walking down the middle of the street on Sunday.  In college, I saw a young lady violently confront a “Christian” preacher on campus.  I have seen protests captured in other news coverage and documentaries.  But, I have never seen what the Berkut (Ukrainian special forces/riot police) did to these people.  First they destroy their car with their iron batons.  Then, they drag the couple out of the vehicle and violently beat them.  Finally, they toss them in the back of another vehicle and kidnap them.

Everything I just described is shown without any filter for us, the audience.  So, I want to take a quick moment to advise that this film is one of the most violent, graphic pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.  If it had an NC-17 rating applied to it, I would understand why.  Please consider carefully before watching Winter on Fire: while I was thoroughly and respectfully impressed with what I witnessed, it is an overwhelming experience.

For an idea of what’s included in this extraordinary film, please watch the trailer here:

Much of the film is like this scene of the couple getting beaten and kidnapped.  And yet, there are scenes of undeniable, uplifting hope to counter the ultra-violence brought by the Berkut.  The emotional upheaval of watching moments like the couple in the car is juxtaposed by protestors of all faiths gathering near the city’s monastery the next day,

sharing food and drink and receiving new, warm clothes from supporters that have come from across the country.  Ex-military protestors show other protestors how to shield themselves and organize properly when the riot police attack the next night.  Scores of Maidandoctors and nurses work endlessly as new bodies are rushed into their makeshift hospitals.  The scene involving a bell tower near Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) is one of the most uplifting I’ve seen on the screen, despite its surrounding violence.

And the protestors are not armed.

This post is difficult to compose, but I’m also insisting of myself that I complete it tonight, the evening I watched the film.  To that end, there are a couple of items I want to be sure and touch on.  First, there is something extraordinary in how the film illustrates that people – regardless of their faith or nationality or gender or any other designation – fundamentally require freedom to be fully human.  Second, I am extremely pleased that the film is so easily accessible through Netflix.

Concerning one’s freedom, I mentioned how the film contains moments in which overwhelming violence dominates the screen.  The brilliance in director Evgeny Afineevsky’s presentation is how he interviews survivors from the Maidan – and then cuts to their very involvement in searing moments from the winter of 2013-2014.  In one moment, he is talking to a man like you see in any other documentary – and in the next cut, that same man is taking the stage in the Maidan and speaking to crowd of thousands.  The important thing to note is that some of these protestors are ex-military.  Others are architects, engineers, lawyers and doctors.  Still others are famous musicians and artists, heralded in Ukraine in the same way we put our celebrities on a pedestal.  But these artists are there, in the middle of the square, leading their fellow countrymen to freedom.  I describe this superb bit of production and editing to show you how appropriately Afineevsky presents the point that freedom is a human right.

12 year old protestorAs for the film’s accessibility, I sincerely hope that other Oscar contenders in coming years take a page from Netflix’s video-on-demand playbook.  At least for the last several days leading up to the awards on TV, wouldn’t it suit the public to have access to titles like Winter on Fire?  I won’t name names, but other Oscar contenders in previous years – which I thought were very well deserved nominations – had very few viewers compared to “popcorn” movies generally seen by the public en masse.  So… why not at least present these lesser known features in the week before Oscar Sunday on VOD?  The filmmakers are still earning dollars for their title, but they are also providing a larger audience an opportunity to see their work before the Oscars are handed out…

Regardless, from my view, Winter on Fire is deserving of all the accolades it is receiving.  Its director, Evgeny Afineevsky is a hero of Ukraine for capturing the truth on camera for all of us to see.  I hope that this film is extremely helpful not only in raising awareness of human rights injustices worldwide, but also in bringing to justice those behind the disaster in Kiev during those 90 plus days between 2013 and 2014.

More materials related to the film:

Toronto Sun – Afineevsky Interview

IMDB Page

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