#BlowTheManDown is a Breath of Fresh Neo-Noir Air

In a tiny fishing hamlet on the harsh, rocky shores of Maine, two sisters (Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) still reeling from their mother’s passing, get inadvertently caught up in the shady dealings of the town’s madam, Enid Devlin (Margo Martindale, in a role that seems like it could’ve been written for one of the fake movies staring her infamous self on Bojack Horseman). Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down has echoes of the Coen Brothers’ best work. But whereas similarly plotted films in similarly hardscrabble environs have typically had the shady dealings of the men at the forefront with women in the background as side characters (or in the case of some Coen classics, stepping forward in one key role), this crafy neo-noir puts all the women in the forefront with the men as side pawns.

Apart from Martindale, who is magnificent, the cast features the fantastic June Squib and Annette O’Toole. Will Brittain acquits himself nicely in the throw-away detective role. All of the acting is solid, and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of belllowing fishermen singing shanty songs on the docks and rocks to transition some key scenes.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film is moodily lit and shot on location by Todd Bhanzi. The score is note perfect from Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber. The look, the sound, and the editing were perfect. There’s not a wasted shot, line, or moment in this economic 90-minute film.

While it’s likely not going to blow you away, there is so much to savor here. I expect great things from Cole and Krudy in the future. In the meantime, we have this enjoyably nasty little ditty to satiate our appetite.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Note: Blow the Man Down is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

What If We All Had Just One Shot in 1917?

When Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (ten years after the events of the film in question here) he did not invent the close-up, he merely mastered the use of it as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Likewise, Sam Mendes did not invent the idea of filming a movie in one long continuous take, he merely mastered the use of it for 1917 (along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Like Dreyer’s film, 1917 is an absolute artistic masterpiece. It is the height of its craft.

While the technical artistry achieved with the continuous shot did not come as a surprise, what did for me was the emotional undercurrent of the film. At its core, it’s a classic riff on the timeless hero’s journey. Mendes and Deakins chose the one shot technique as a way to mirror the film’s central conflict. These poor soldiers only have one shot to deliver crucial orders. The attention to detail both in the script and what appears (or doesn’t appear) in the shot gives the film a gritty immersive pull. We’re constantly moving forward, our adrenaline racing along with the characters as they try to deliver time sensitive orders across enemy lines to stop a massacre at the shifting front of battle in France during WWI. The performances (especially from the young leads) cannot be dismissed and are currently underrated. The actors give the film and the classical story its heart, and the reverent sentimentality of the script and Mendes’ direction (that never romanticizes war, but instead reminds us of the humanity of those thrown into its chaos) pulls on our heartstrings as much as the suspense gives us a lump in our throat.

1917 borrows liberally the visual elements of horror, thrillers, 1st person video games and classic war films. The nighttime shelling of the ruins of a French village is some of the greatest cinematography ever captured. A hungry rat tripping a wire in an underground bunker. A shell-shocked soldier waking in the darkness. A soldier leaping from a stone wall into a river that sweeps him away into rapids. Cherry blossoms. A battalion waiting in the seemingly peaceful woods listening to one of their own sing a folk song before entering the trenches. Longing to be reunited with your family. Everyone will walk away with their own indelible image, feeling, and favorite scene. What’s even more astounding is that all of it was pulled together to seem like it was one shot. 1917 is mythic movie-making at its very best.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

My Favorite Films and Books of 2019

Stay tuned for my 2010’s retrospective (and top films of the decade) in the coming days. In the meantime here are My Top Films of 2019:

Notable Films I’ve Yet to See: Marriage Story, 1917, Little Women

Weirdest Film: The Lighthouse

Best Guilty Pleasure: Crawl

Biggest Disappointments: Ad Astra, A Hidden Life

And here are my Top Books of 2019:

Favorite Fiction: When It’s Over (Barbara Ridley)

Favorite Non-Fiction: Spying on Whales (Nick Pyenson)

Most Thrilling Read: Pray for the Girl (Joseph Souza)

Best Older Book I Read for the 1st Time: Anil’s Ghost (Michael Ondaatje)

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Feel free to share your own favorite books and films of 2019 in the comments!

What is it all for in #AHiddenLife

On the surface, A Hidden Life is a return to form for Terrence Malick after his oddly prolific period during which he appeared to have made twenty-seven experimental films starring Christian Bale in Texas.

The structure of the film is built like a visit to a cathedral and attending one very long mass: the tone reverent, the pacing like a pilgrimage, the cinematography of the Austrian mountains breathtaking, and the music heavenly.

It tells the simple tale of one farmer’s moral objection to fighting in WWII and refusal to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and it has all of the philosophical and religious pondering one would expect from Malick.

But I had two major objections of my own to Malick’s latest.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

First, in being everything you would expect from a Malick film, there is no sense of surprise or delight to be found. I could’ve predicted every single framing of beautiful imagery and light. And at nearly three-hours long, the artistic images and music are on what seems like an endless loop with no end in sight. There’s no sense of the that cosmic chaos and fluidity that made The Tree of Life a masterpiece, or any of that earthy yet otherworldly novelty that made The New World astound the senses. The narrative also falls victim to some of the most grueling clichés of both rustic cinema verité (oh look, a pig being slaughtered and an innocent little girl observing the carnage) and “false imprisonment” films where the main character is always transferred to progressively worse institutions.

Secondly, and perhaps more damning, I couldn’t relate to the Christian concept of martyrdom. I understood the farmer’s original and courageous objections to war and Hitler’s worldview. There comes a point in time after he has already suffered (and made his point) where he was given a practical and sensible way out that would’ve spared his life and brought him back to his wife and daughters who so desperately needed him. Yet he staunchly refuses on principle. So he dies, leaving his family to suffer in his absence, and is executed as a traitor…and for what? The idea of dying for your beliefs (or in defiance of the evil beliefs of others) is just as senseless in my mind as the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to kill to uphold the evil ideas of people like Hitler. Both extremes are willing to die in rebellion against the natural will to survive. Isn’t this perhaps the same brand of insanity?

Even Malick seems to concede that this is the central conundrum: one can nobly die for any cause…but when it doesn’t change the course of events and only causes your loved ones’ suffering, what was it all for? The farmer’s wife muses that one day (in the end), all that is unknown will be known. We’ll finally understand what it was all for. I’m all for mysteries, but that’s just a blind faith, and it’s that kind of blind faith that leads people down the extreme paths to play both the sinner and the saint, willing to die.

What kind of world would it be if we were all martyrs?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

What Kind of Fish was it in #TheIrishman

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) debate Hoffa’s next move. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.

As a Philly guy, I loved the scene early on in The Irishman where Robert DeNiro (whose calm “old man looking back on his life” narration wraps a warm blanket over the film) says there is a spot in The Schuylkill River where so many hitmen have tossed guns that if you dredged that spot you could supply a whole army.

Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic is filled with those kinds of details, like a blink-and-you-miss-it or gasp-when-you-do-see-it quietly operatic and beautiful shot of the Twin Towers during another dump-the-murder-weapon scene later in Frank Sheeran’s career.

The Irishman is a tale of a bygone era – of union bosses and mobster empires – the old men looking back on their lives after getting caught and reminiscing on the camaraderie and the minutia that becomes so detailed and particular as to seem ethereal…a dream world.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS

There’s a great scene during the tense build up to the inevitable (Sheeran’s alleged particulars when he’s forced to be the mob’s deliverer of reckoning to his dear friend, Jimmy Hoffa) where the mob’s errand boy rags on Hoffa’s son about a fish having just been in the backseat. What kind of fish was it? You just go in and pick up some fish from some guy without knowing what kind of fish it was?

Scorsese’s film is a very particular type of thing. You know going in exactly what type of fish this is.

“In the Still of the Night” is the film’s musical soul, playing over key scenes and transitions, while other hits of yesteryear play as only Scorsese could let them play. The film unfolds at a leisurely, moody pace – perfect for the streaming era we live in – like teenage lovers who grew into an old married couple would sway on a dancefloor during their favorite love song.

Man, we know Pacino so well, but he’s absolute gangbusters as Hoffa. I can’t get over how good he is, how enjoyable it is to watch him. And DeNiro’s iconic shoulder shrugs and aw-shucks looks and eyebrow lifts. It’s exactly how we want to remember him.

Then there is Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran – Frank’s daughter, the judger, the only one who calls him out on his “I did it all to take care of and protect my family” bullshit. The role doesn’t quite work as well as I think Scorsese intended it to – there’s no getting around the fact that she is underwritten, but she’s also symbolic. “Why?” is no doubt a memorable line, and Paquin delivers it well – body tense, sitting, lip quivering, eyes judging, but voice clear, calm

The film closes with Sheeran in a retirement home, alone on Christmas Eve, a priest there to hear a confession Sheeran never delivers. When the priest gets up to leave, Sheeran asks him to leave the door open…just a little bit. Why? For the truth to slip in? For forgiveness? To make sure no one is out there waiting to take him out? Or is the door left open for Scorsese, the consummate storyteller of tall tales of sinners and saints? We hope that door stays open, just a little bit, for him tell that same old story, one more time.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do in #Harriet

There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.

There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.

The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.

Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For follow up, check out the Variety article on what drove Kasi Lemmons to direct Harriet.

Spilling the Beans and the Plight of a Seagull in #TheLighthouse

*Potential Spoilers Ahead*

When Robert Pattinson’s character finally “spills the beans” to Willem Dafoe’s character in Robert Egger’s grim, grimy and sea-battered The Lighthouse, he claims to be a former timber worker who killed his boss, wrestling now with his guilt at the remote coastal outpost of the film’s title. I thought, however, that he was more likely the soul of one of those dead sailors Dafoe claimed are living inside seagulls. A particular seagull, with one eye, is one of the key antagonists (along with Dafoe), but all three characters (young man, old man, and gull) might very well be one in the same in this Persona-like decent into male madness.

There are elements of The Lighthouse I admired: Dafoe’s over-the-top salty seadog ranting, the claustrophobic aspect ratio, the Nova Scotia setting, the bleak black-and-white cinematography, the seagull, and the surreal visions (a harpy of a mermaid, a slithering Neptune).

There are elements of The Lighthouse I could’ve done without: the focus on bodily functions, the insular white male insanity, the fate of the seagull, the seagull’s ultimate revenge.

There’s nothing that was particularly scary, but certain scenes and images were fittingly disturbing. Some parts were played so absurdly straight (a seemingly endless fall down twisting stairs) as to elicit laughter.

I could’ve used more story…more characters…more of the sea.

Much like Eggers’ first film, the equally grim The Witch, I can’t say I liked the film, nor would I recommend it to anyone. But I know there are many out there who would watch this and relish every stinking bit of it. So if you’re one them, enjoy.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

The Banality of Space Exploration and Human Folly in #AdAstra

In Ad Astra, lonely astronaut Roy McBride is married to his physically and psychologically draining job, which predicatably ends his marriage, and has followed in the footsteps of dear old dad, who decades earlier headed up the infamous Lima Mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestial life. The mission was assumed lost, until some crazy anti-matter flares make their way to Earth with disasterous results from – you guessed it – out Neptune way. Oh yeah, and old daddy may be the one who created this mess. So, of course, sonny boy has to go out there to see what the heck is going on, save the solar system, and wrestle with his deep-seeded father issues.

Despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stunning and sometimes vertigo inducing celestial cinematography and a few good stand alone sequences, James Gray’s emotionally drab and tired father-and-son / man-is-a-lonely-beast space opera is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent memory.

Everyone in the film looks exhausted (Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler…even the normaly bright-eyed Ruth Negga) and it’s no surprise given the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted and the shocking banality of space travel and colonization on display. In James Gray’s near-future universe, human beings just keep getting caught up in the same old mistakes, trite archetypes, and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, look, an Applebees and Subway on the lunar colony. And pirates fighting over mines. Mars is just one giant underground bunker that looks like it was designed with cardboard packing material from Amazon.com. Out in the middle of nowhere near some random asteroid, humans are experimenting on primates, who go maliciously bonkers in an oddly thrilling sequence that plays like a revival of an abandonded sequence from Gray’s last curiosity about human exploration, The Lost City of Z. Why were we messing with primates in space? Well, it’s just because, you know, animal torture is what humans always do. And hell, it is boring as hell out there, so why not?

One of the most irritating elements of the film is Brad Pitt’s near constant, and woefully undercooked voice-over that is strung together from routine psychological check-ups and philosophy 101 inner monologue. The Tree of Life this is not. Underscoring the voice-over and anti-action are Max Richter’s minimalist tones, pale echoes of Hans Zimmer and Justin Hurwitz’s work from the superior in every way First Man. The aformentioned cinematography of Van Hoytema is technically stunning and beautiful to look at it, but it’s not married to anything of deep substance. Interstellar this is also not.

I don’t blame Gray for tapping into classic thematic tropes. Some of the best stories of all-time deal with father-and-son drama and the loneliness of human existence, but if you are going down that well tread path you need to have either something new to say or do it in an interesting way. Sadly, in his attempt to hang these tropes inside his musings on the empitness of space, Gray shows how tired and empty these ideas can sometimes be.

Written by D. H. Schleicher