Gerard Butler, Producer, Plane

While enjoying Mr. Butler’s most recent offering as star of Plane, I continued thinking about his credits as Producer. 

LnD first noticed this role in his thriller Angel Has Fallen and so I was intrigued. Butler’s first major Producing credit came in 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen. That film cost $50 million and grossed $128 million worldwide. That’s a healthy start to a producing career. However, Butler isn’t a nominal Producer. He’s a role up your sleeves, develop the script, choose the cast and director type of Producer.

And it shows. The films he makes seem on the surface to be straight to streaming affairs. But as you watch them, you notice the craftwork and talent involved. For example, I was really enjoying some of the cinematography in Plane. There were these artistic shots, contemplative ones, that broke up the action. It showed a concern for and understanding of pacing. Would it surprise you, as it has me, that the film was shot by Cinematographer Brendan Galvin, Irish Society of Cinematographers, who lensed the classic, The Crying Game?

I watched a 15 minute behind the scenes video of Plane on YouTube and it reaffirmed my feeling. Every character, no matter how small a part, has developed a backstory for themselves. None of the players here are just phoning in their performance. Mike Colter, who plays Gaspar, an accused murderer and French Foreign Legion vet, has got all of the conflicting aspects of his character and those of Captain Brodie Torrance played by Butler, down pat. Even though his character is involved in some of the most gratuitous and even absurd violence, since, well since Violent Night, there is a lot of depth to the performance in the scenes where Colter can show his dramatic range. 

As an involved Producer, Butler is tuned in to the story. He is thinking about what happened before and what is going to happen next. He works as a creative partner to the Director. It’s effective, because he chose the director in the first place. They have been partners on the film from its inception. It’s a chemistry that translates to the big screen. And on that note, I encourage you to watch Plane on as big a screen as possible. Not because the special effects are great, they are not. But because you want to watch the true pathos in these performances come through in as epic a way as possible. 

A Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto is an old school After School Special for adults. Handily Directed by Marc Foster of Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland fame, the film never feels like it’s breaking new ground, yet each vignette carries the story along. I found myself entertained from moment to moment and before I knew it, the ride of Otto was over. Interestingly, some of the imagery and situations that were depicted have stayed with me, even several days after watching the movie. There was a lot to process though at the time everything seemed innocent enough. 

The inclusivity aspects of the story at times feel forced and stretch to the point the story enters, “suspend your disbelief” territory. And so we are simultaneously and ironically once again looking at the white savior narrative trope. Yet overall, the film works. It’s because the audience wants it to work. A lot of this has to do with Tom Hanks. In this film, thankfully, he doesn’t start out good, continue to be good and end good. Don’t remind me about Sully. The Otto character has a great narrative arc. When the classic curmudgeon says, “I’m not unfriendly”, it’s a laugh out loud moment in the theater. This film delivers several of those. And the supporting stories: the immigrant family, the insidious real estate speculators, the stricken and neglected neighbors, even an abandoned cat! They all work in shoring up the main narrative; how Otto got to be this way and what can be done about it. 

The more I think about it, the more I really enjoyed this film. It sort of develops this fantastic world but there is a lot of truth in it and in what it’s ultimately trying to say. Your life isn’t over unless you think it is. And in life, empathy can take you much further than bitterness. I hope you all get to catch this one. 

The Reality of Wong Kar-wai — Essay

I had always heard of the films of WKW but his oeuvre lived in a blind spot in my viewing. Recently the Criterion Collection released a box set of his films on Blu-ray. The visual style of the films are lush. The dark colors are heavy, crushed. As a viewer you are completely sucked in. Not dissimilar to an experience I had sitting in front of a Rothko for 25 minutes in the Seagram Murals room or what I call the Red Room of the Tate Britain in London. It’s mesmerizing, transcendent and a little scary. You need to re-calibrate to reality afterwards — but it’s never quite the same. In the case of WKW, now you know how beautiful a film can actually be. 

The collaboration of WKW and Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is now legendary. Doyle, an Aussie who lived in Hong Kong and spoke fluent Cantonese worked hand in glove with WKW. He is featured prominently in behind the scenes documentaries in the Criterion set. However, years ago I had seen a BBC doc in which he walked the audience through Hong Kong. Describing how, for example, certain streets or lights from buildings inspired his style. It’s not surprising that in both directing and cinematography the craft of these films is derived from the surrounding world. Consider that the inspiration for one film, Happy Together, came from a lamp that long time WKW Art Director and Editor William Chang found at a local shop in Buenos Aires. 

Which leads us to WKW’s directing style. As Western filmmakers, at my grad school, UCLA and in my own role as a teacher, I have always followed the rule, been told and taught that the script is the Bible. And on large productions this holds true. All the department heads look to the script to help find clues to or straight up answer questions. No stranger to this method, WKW had 50 TV & Film screenwriter credits before he directed his first film. But his own directing method is antithetical to this. He works 100 percent from improvisation. It takes many months to complete his films. The actors have time to sink into their roles, costumes, movements — their world. Curious about this method, also shared to an extent by Wenders and Fellini, I tried it myself on my last film. The way to pull it off is to be working with smart actors who have great ability to pivot depending on what’s happening. Actors with great intuition and ability to go with the flow. Sure, there are adjustments from the Director, notes. But setting the scene, creating the environment, is the main job of the Director when working this way. WKW was certainly one of the most successful —and intense— Directors to achieve results with this method. Combined with the visual style, he tapped into raw human emotion and created a parallel reality in front of the camera.

— If you’d like to experience this reality firsthand, then head over to The 602 Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’ll be screening In the Mood for Love on Blu-ray on Friday, January 13th.

Amsterdam vs Wildlife

I was so uncomfortable during Amsterdam. It was so self-indulgent. I was wondering when it would end. It never seemed to end, though it had long past had anything to say. It was just in love with saying things. 

I wondered what this film would have been like with a halfway decent Director. Then was surprised to learn that it was directed by David O. Russell. It was beautifully shot but some of the shots seemed unsteady, not the greatest. Except the Director of Photography turns out to be one of the greatest, Emmanuel Lubezki. The cast was just a powerhouse of talent. Though they seemed unsure, stepping on each others lines, seemingly uncertain of what to say next. One actor gave the world’s flatest performance. Didn’t the Director notice? Was his note to act like a piece of wet cardboard? 

It was a beautiful film, though. It’s too bad that you can’t just hang each frame in a museum and admire them without the rest. Maybe watch it with the sound off? Even still, there were a few great lines: Are you with someone because you choose them or because you need them? And…If you’ve had your heart broken, well it just means that you were living. Kudos to Russell for some depth there.

This film, which takes place in the 1930s had a certain haunting nostalgia. Meanwhile, the protagonist was doing a major Columbo rip-off. Yet there was no homage to Columbo which could save this film. Like the infamous Jerry Krause, the General Manager who broke up the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls, this film didn’t know how to get out of its own way. And maybe we should be grateful because I don’t think there would have been a dry eye in the house if they could have figured it out and pulled it off. 

Meanwhile, I was also able to watch Paul Dano’s 2018 Wildlife starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. Also a period piece, this time from 1960 but with a distinct 1930s flavor. The film’s compositions owed much to Hopper and his isosceles trapezoids, which you can read about in Mark Strand’s Hopper. And Hopper’s light as well. It certainly felt like a depression-era story. And yet, a timeless story. Not nostalgic and unrelatable like Amsterdam’s fever dream. More like the slow burning forest fires that always menace these characters from a far off yet not impossibly distant place. Wildlife is a domestic nightmare, seen from the eyes of its 14 year old protagonist. There is no sledgehammer voiceover here, like in Amsterdam, telling you what to think. The story is told visually. In close-ups of cigar smoking. In tracking shots revealing the sunrise. In fantastic vistas of ever expanding, majestic mountains. It’s an allegory about pride and desperation and it never feels distant. If you get a chance to see Wildfire, it’s well worth the emotional deep dive. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I enjoyed The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry but you probably won’t. …This is a film that has a lot of continuity problems. But if you are willing to suspend disbelief (a film phrase right up there with diagetic space, persistence of vision and the martini shot) then you might enjoy it, too. 

Here’s an example. For starters the story is specific to New England, yet the accent is only discernible briefly in one character, in one scene. What gives? On an isolated island like this people wouldn’t talk like they were emerging from an LA nightclub. And I could go on and on. On the other hand, who cares. Not really me, it turns out. This movie has a lot of heart, a lot of spirit, it’s intriguing at times and laugh out loud funny a lot. …So why was the theatre empty? What do people want? More The Ring knock offs? (Smile, I’m frowning at you.) …To ask the question is to answer it, as D would say. 

Well, you know what? They can have all the cheap jump scares they can handle. I’ll stick to the unlikely but still thought-provoking and interesting movies on this side of the megaplex, thank you. 

See How They Run

There were quite a few horror films to chose from this week: Smile, Invitation, BarbarianBullet Train. At some point I’ll stop picking on Bullet Train but I can’t get those two hours back so I’m still processing how bad it was. Why are there so many horror films out there? It’s always been a popular genre. Back in my Hollywood days, I even shot one as a Cinematographer, The Unbidden. It got crushed. I read one review and I think I stopped reading reviews of my own work after that. Too painful. On another horror feature I shot, I did film the death of someone who was killed by asphyxiation, with a plastic bag, at night, at a bus stop in Little Tokyo, Downtown LA. I was shooting while standing on a ladder at the time…above the stream of critiques.

But you’re here to read about See How They Run. It’s an original script based on the longest running play in the world, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, in London’s West End. The Mousetrap is circa 28,000 performances at this point. Twenty. Eight. Thousand.

So it took a little something to bring a version of this play, that isn’t this play, to the cinema in a fresh way. I think the film succeeds in that venture, at least cinematically, with a mix of aspect ratios and vertical and horizontal split screens —almost an homage to Wes Anderson. It’s literate, with a voice over by a narrator. It’s loosely a film within a film and a play within a play. The acting is strong, though constrained, by design. Obviously, there is a murder. But the killer fails to take the tongue out of the victim’s mouth…though they tried to do that. It’s not totally clear why but that attempted action is about as gory as this film gets. It seems that we have, as a society, become at least somewhat immune to this type of sadism. I was told that the new Dahmer series on Netflix, “doesn’t really show anything.” Well, besides the severed head in the fridge in episode 1? No severed heads here, rest easy. No one is living in the basement torturing people. Brad Pitt doesn’t pretend to be acting. Nothing like that. It’s just a smart, entertaining movie that perhaps isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread but certainly checks the box for a fun evening of solid entertainment.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

This film is structured like a The Princess Bride for adults. Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is having apparitions in the most awkward of situations—though I imagine this circumstance would always be a bit unsettling. However, she’s a hard-nosed scientist, a PhD in Narratology (the study of the structure and function of stories) and on a lecture tour in Turkey. She doesn’t have time for ghosts…or ghost stories. She has read them all…in their original Greek. Except that a djinn named Djinn (Idris Elba) who she unwittingly releases from a bottle she picked up at the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, has other genie-like ideas. And since he manifests as a giant who takes up her entire hotel suite, he is a little hard to ignore. Djinn’s stories include battle scenes, castle intrigue, a dash of Orientalism and some humor based on corpulent people — I mean laugh out loud, squirm in your seat humor. The film is entertaining. It’s frankly a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be. It’s also expertly directed by George Miller, who you know from the Mad Max films and Babe: Pig in the City.

There are some plot elements that are obvious and telegraphed but the point of the film is the journey and the theme. The theme being, not dissimilar from Life of Pi. That a world culture that has given up on myths, stories and legends, will be quite a sterile, ignorant and terrified one. There is another great scene with Dr. Binnie’s xenophobic neighbors. An elderly female couple. It’s not clear what their relationship is to one another but in the vein of The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf they are disturbingly hilarious balcony dwelling trolls. One of the zingers from this geriatric set include calling the good Dr. a fuckface, which puts a comedic point on their true character. 

On the whole, I was surprised and impressed with Three Thousand Years of Longing. I can’t tell whether it is that it’s such a great movie, but considering the absolute dogs, like Bullet Train to name one, that we have been subjecting ourselves to, I found it an intelligent, funny and welcome reprieve. 

Breaking

Executive Producer and Actor John Boyega, of Star Wars sequel trilogy fame, gives a strong performance as Brian Brown-Easly, an Iraq war veteran who is suffering from PTSD. Lance Cpl. Easly is apparently not taking his medication and like many, does not have the financial, legal or emotional tools to deal with the injustice he is facing at the Veterans Administration. The film is based on a true story. And according to the credits, to this day the VA still owes him $892 dollars and an apology for siphoning this sum from his Wells Fargo account. 

There are times when I wonder why a film got a green light to be produced. Usually though, this thought is triggered by a bloated Hollywood production where the actors are just phoning it in and having what feels like an elaborate inside joke. Here, it’s the opposite, a long list of no doubt earnest Executive Producers couldn’t catch the obvious or speak truth to power — the film is too literal, there is no strong foil, there is no real conflict, therefore this is no enduring drama that can sustain itself for 100 minutes.  No there, there.

The classic heist film like Dog Day Afternoon was also based on a true story but you’d be hard-pressed to forget Pacino outside the bank with a crowd of onlookers yelling, ”At-ti-ca!, At-ti-ca!”. A reference to the New York State prison and the riot that occurred there, which killed 43 people. This scene was improvised on the spot by Pacino. …It’s a movie. 

The filmmakers seem to want to stay as true to the real story as possible. In that case, this film should have been given to the immediate family as a gift and to the VA as a cautionary tale. But a movie audience expects and deserves more.  The filmmakers were trapped by the truth. That’s not something that is easily forgiven in a narrative film. 

The real difficulty here is that once Michael Kenneth Williams shows up, there is at least a modicum of possibility that this film will take off like a rocket. That all of the introspection and endless phone call scenes will simply be a setup for some spectacular, powerful, even funny action. But it never materializes. Even Kafka has a powerful ending in The Trial. In Breaking, it’s like watching a game winning pass drop out of a receivers hands in the end zone…in super slow motion. 

As for the late great Michael Kenneth Williams, even with both hands tied behind his back, he still lights up the screen and owns every scene he is in. It was like the filmmakers chose to overlook a diamond in a mine to stare instead into the abyss of an empty cinema. 

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Another awesome guest review from artist & friend of the L&D Report, the ever-esteemed, Joanna K. Dane.

What a delight to see at the theater, a movie as odd and daring as Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

First, there’s Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, a woman caught in a mid-life rut of hard work, high expectations, and daily proof that her husband is silly and useless; her daughter, endlessly difficult.  How did she turn out to be such an ordinary woman, washing other people’s clothes, after so many big dreams?  A failure, just like her father says.

Here she is at the dining room table, worrying over stacks of receipts. Not only is their struggling laundromat being audited by the IRS, but Evelyn’s father is visiting from China, and her daughter has just arrived home from college with her new girlfriend. 

Evelyn needs to focus, but she has a spitting headache and keeps getting distracted by very odd visions.

Haha!  It’s Jamie Lee Curtis playing the evil tax auditor who wears orange polyester suits that highlight her belly fat.    

Evelyn’s husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan is mousy and silly and sweet.  In this universe.  But in another, the universe where they didn’t get married, but went their separate ways, he is suave and rich and charming.  

But Evelyn’s journey is so much more than a marriage story.  There’s the universe where she is a chef with a chef who wears a raccoon under his hat.  There’s a universe where she is a kung fu master.  A universe where she is traffic cop.  A universe where she is a maid for a sleaze bag who’s into S&M, a universe where people have giant hotdogs for fingers and Evelyn and the tax auditor are lovers.  And her favorite universe, where she is a world famous singer.

It’s a mother/daughter story and a father/daughter story, and a story that blurs the line between dream and reality, between failure and success.  It is a kung fu story and a story about the nature of our minds.  It’s a movie that breathes and dances and pulses with life.  A dazzling feat of editing and sound.

And there’s the realization that Nothing Matters.  And the black hole that’s shaped like an everything bagel.  And the fanny pack kung fu scene in the IRS office.  And the dazzling costumes worn by Stephanie Hsu playing Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy, who, it turns out, is also the villain of the multiverse. 

And the line, “I would have loved to have spent a life with you doing laundry and taxes.”

And there’s the long silent scene where mother and daughter are rocks in a lifeless universe.  

A scene so long, you start to wonder, is it going to end like this?

The Northman

As a survey of both sub-genres in Nordic Death Metal, “OOHHHHHH!!!!!!” and “AAHHHHHH!!!!!!” this film is a cultural tour de force. Otherwise, it’s just a load of macho bullshit. 

Maybe you don’t like hearing that? Maybe you lose sleep thinking about free will and fate, nature versus nurture, Big Mac versus Whopper. If so, and you don’t mind or maybe even love the idea of sitting through 5 beheadings — albeit two are horses — then this movie is right up your alley. 

Maybe it’s your idea of a good time to check out Willem Dafoe wielding a strap-on? Okay. No judgement here. Or you love Björk’s acting (for 10 minutes). Or maybe you haven’t had enough dudity in your life recently. Though there is a thing called the internet that would save you the two hours and seventeen minutes of sitting through this, for that. 

Apparently a few so-called critics are saying the movie is great because it makes Shakespearean connections. …Shakespearean connections. That’s about as profound as saying you noticed that cars have wheels. Every piece of Western literature, including the menu at Norm’s Diner, owes its life to Shakespeare.

Alas, the boneless pork chop / the weak, weak coffee.

It’s all there. 

Now this film, The Northman, is essentially a cross between Midsommar and Conan the Barbarian. However, it’s not as psychologically mind-fucking as the former or as compelling as the latter. It’s certainly not original. Even hallucinogenic mushrooms were more creatively deployed during the Phantom Thread.  The weird thing is that I actually enjoyed ACT I and thought Ethan Hawke played a believable King. Then everything unravelled, like a roller coaster that descends as slowly as it peaked.  

I picked up a book called Italian Folktales recently. It is edited by a writer I love, Italo Calvino. I couldn’t get past the first story. It was simply too absurd. It could be me or as I said, it could just be a bunch of macho bullshit. AAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! OOHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!