The Dawn Wall (2018)

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Watching The Dawn Wall, a jaw-dropping, sweaty-palmed documentary about a pair of death-wish mountaineers attempting to free climb the unscaled face of Yosemite’s monstrous El Capitan, I kept thinking about Ginger Rogers. In the inimitable words of Bob Thaves, “Don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he [Fred Astaire] did backwards… and in high heels.”
     Every crazy, nutzoid, life-threatening, and unthinkable stunt American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson perform in The Dawn Wall, Director of Photography Brett Lowell and Principal Cinematographers Corey Rich and Kyle Berkompas had to capture on film. And they had to capture it suspended from a 10mm rope 1,000 feet above the ground, often in the battery-draining cold under a black sky with harnesses digging into their legs. And all while holding a camera, keeping their subjects in focus and in frame and, most importantly, not falling off the side of a 3,000-foot mountain. In that regard, this towering achievement is as much about the filmmakers as it is about Caldwell and Jorgeson… and everyone else who contributed to getting that final, white-knuckled footage in the can.
     With these wildly impressive technical challenges to overcome, The Dawn Wall would be a fascinating film if it was just about this one 19-day climb. But it’s much more than that.
     We learn about Tommy’s obsessions from an early age (his Dad was a climber and pushed his son to succeed; perhaps too far?), his harrowing capture by—and subsequent escape from—Kyrgyzstan rebels at the age of 22, the breakdown of his first marriage (to a fellow climber and hostage), and his subsequent need to find a replacement climbing partner when everyone thought he was mad to even attempt El Cap’s Dawn Wall. We’re told how Tommy and rookie recruit Kevin spent six years planning their ascent, climbing down the mountain to scout and document the best possible route up it. And how, just before their shot at the “impossible,” Tommy lost an index finger in a freak accident (free climbers being rather dependent on their digits, unfortunately).
     Sure, The Dawn Wall is all about the power of the human spirit, strength in the (rock) face of adversity, unfettered perseverance, belief in oneself, and—logistically—the potentially dream-shattering Pitch 13 (of 32), that section of the ascent with the highest degree of difficulty (not that any of them were easy). Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s film throws all those clichés at the ’Wall yet manages to make them all stick.
     This is compelling cinematic drama, breathtakingly filmed, often spilling over with real human emotion—heartbreak, euphoria, pain and suffering. The two men spent weeks on that mountain, as an entourage of family members, salivating media types, and general well-wishers gathered below. And you’ll be rooting for them too.
     I watched this film on a 9-inch screen on an airplane with questionable sound quality and I couldn’t look away. I can only imagine how The Dawn Wall would play—how it would feel—in a proper movie theater. It’s the best mountaineering film since Joe Simpson and Simon Yates first touched the void in 2004, and a pretty awesome film experience, period.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Joker (2019)

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Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a great movie. So is his ’King of Comedy.
     Todd Phillips’s Joker is not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it has considerably more in common with those films than with any movie sporting the word “Batman” in its title. That’s because Joker is less your traditional superhero flick and more an intense character study about a manic, brow-beaten obsessive/depressive, played with relentless abandon by Joaquin Phoenix (Her).
     Arthur Fleck (who will, in time, morph into the arch villain known as The Joker) shares many of the personality traits and trappings of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin: compulsive, delusional, mentally unstable. In homage, presumably, Robert De Niro—who played the aforementioned antiheroes—is cast as talk show host Murray Franklin in Joker, with Arthur the pathetic, sad sack “comedian” who dreams of landing a guest spot on his show.
     In their dreary Gotham apartment, Arthur watches The Murray Franklin Show with his not-quite-with-it mother (Frances Conroy) on whom he dotes. He’s a clown-for-hire by day and an aspiring stand-up comedian by night, but he’s not much cop at either. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) plays the single mom down the hall with her typical panache.
     Joker is dark, brooding stuff from director Phillips (the ’Hangover films) and it’s pretty much all backstory, which is wonderful if you’re looking for a creative and somewhat different take on the Clown Prince of Crime but less rewarding if you’re hoping to see any face-offs between our titular character and the caped crusader. Bruce Wayne does warrant an appearance in Joker, but he’s barely out of short pants.
     Phoenix impresses though. I didn’t much care for him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—and avoided him in Inherent Vice (and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) thereafter—but as Joker, Phoenix is 100% committed to the role (right on down to losing some 50-odd pounds) and pulls off a killer characterization that compares favorably to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight as well as Jack Nicholson’s effusive turn in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. His diabolical laugh is just delicious.
     The best scene in Phillips’s film, ironically, is the one that’s mired in the most controversy: a “reborn” Joker in full regalia sashays down a concrete staircase to the familiar strains of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” With Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd) currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for sexual crimes against minors, its inclusion seems questionable at best, even if the ‘70s glam rocker is no longer profiting from the song’s use (sporting arenas around the U.S. began phasing out the anthemic call to arms shortly after Gadd’s indictment). The sequence just works, brilliantly: an exuberant explosion of new-found power from a dangerously troubled harbinger of ill will.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

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While many critics agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a cinematic game-changer, highlighted by a sensational plot twist less than an hour in that no one saw coming, fewer, relatively speaking, can decide on what the 78/52 in the title of Alexandre O. Philippe’s inconsistent documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene actually refers to. The majority say it’s the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits required of the sequence, whereas others claim it refers to 52 shots in a 78-second sequence (more plausible, frankly). Some even say the complete opposite: “78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence,” or “the ratio of edits to seconds.” What’s odd is that those numbers are never explained in the film itself, let alone discussed. There’s an early throwaway reference to “78 pieces of film” by Hitchcock himself, but it’s never explored. And no mention of 52 whatsoever.
     Nobody, not nobody, seems to have counted correctly. I guess it depends on when the shower sequence actually starts; it’s pretty obvious when it ends.
     And that’s the surprising—and frustratingly insurmountable—thing about Philippe’s doc. Psycho’s shower scene has been referred to, imitated, parodied, and dissected a million times over the years, but rather than an in-depth, shot-by-shot breakdown of the scene itself, as promised, we get little stabs at analysis and a lot of fawning and filler. Interesting tidbits and factoids are plopped in here and there but never pursued. The film is largely a collection of fanboy/fangirl interviews with a wide-ranging assortment of adoring actors (among them Jamie Lee Curtis, Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Eli Roth), as well as editors, sound engineers, film historians, whathaveyou,  who clearly love the film but rarely venture much beyond singing its praises. When they do—editor Walter Murch, Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro, composers Danny Elfman and Kreng—the film takes a much-needed turn for the better.
     But it needs much more cut-by-cut examination, and much less rah-rah repetition.
     We never see the infamous shower sequence in its entirety, for example—how dumb is that? Gus Van Sant’s psycho Psycho remake (from 1998) is mentioned of course, but simply in the context of other slasher films that were inspired by Hitchcock’s original (!?). Philippe also stages some black and white reenactments of some of Psycho’s pivotal sequences to offset the talking heads. Again, a strange decision; why not use the original footage?
     For some reason, the director also thought it was a good idea to keep returning to the aforementioned Elijah Wood (who contributes next to nothing) and filmmakers Josh C. Waller and Daniel Noah (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Greasy Strangler, Camino), the three of them sharing a couch and blandly pontificating on the parlor scene as it plays out on the TV screen in front of them. All I can think is that this tiresome triumverate—founders of the SpectreVision production company—must have provided some kind of financing in return for their (questionable) on-screen input.
     I had heard, many moons ago, that it was Saul Bass, not Hitch, who had shot—maybe even directed—the shower sequence. Bass’s name is mentioned exactly once in 78/52 with little insight. Likewise editor George Tomasini. We learn how Tomasini employed a groundbreaking optical shot of Janet Leigh’s unflinching eyeball superimposed over the shower drain that slowly spirals into regular 24-frame rate footage but that’s about it. In his book on the history of American Cinema, The Sixties: 1960-1969, Paul Monaco describes Tomasini’s contributions this way: “Tomasini’s most important work with Hitchcock was the memorable shower scene in Psycho (1960). Its aesthetic and dramatic accomplishment was achieved largely through the editor’s skill. The completed forty-five second sequence that Hitchcock originally storyboarded was compiled by Tomasini from footage shot over several days that utilized a total of over seventy camera setups. From that mass of footage, Tomasini selected sixty different shots, some of them very short, through which he elected to rely heavily on the techniques of  ‘associative editing.’”
     60 shots. 45 seconds. Again, the numbers don’t add up.
     The stuff we do learn in 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene—the subtle and not so subtle foreshadowing, the multiple layers of voyeurism, how Hitchcock managed to cheat the censors, the role of casaba melons and Hershey’s chocolate syrup—makes it worth a look, but I felt like I had more questions about the iconic sequence coming out of the film than I had going in. And that, surely, is not what anyone would have intended.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Victoria (2015)

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Victoria is a German movie from 2015 about a young Spanish woman (Piercing’s Laia Costa) who hooks up with a quartet of “real Berliners” with funny names—Sonne, Boxer, Blinker, and Fuss. They meet at a rave and wind up walking the streets late into the night, hanging out on an apartment building’s rooftop for a while before things take a turn for the worse. For some reason we’re always expecting things to take a turn for the worse in Victoria, probably because we wouldn’t expect a young woman, even a party girl like Victoria, to hang out with four inebriated strangers she just met. Will the friendly men wind up assaulting her? Will she turn the tables on them? Either way, we’re on edge. The dialogue seems improvised—that’s because it is—and everything feels very casual and a little bit removed. There’s no real urgency to any of this, at least not immediately, and the conversations are mostly trite and unfulfilling, i.e., realistic. But the longer it goes on, the less pedestrian it becomes. The thing that really holds our attention, however, is the camerawork, a single unbroken take of some 138 minutes, which is quite an achievement. Sure, similar feats have been done before—Birdman, Russian Ark, the recent Long Day’s Journey Into Night—but here it grabs us early on and pulls us into the story, much as Victoria herself is pulled into the unfolding drama which slowly builds in intensity once we realize these men have an unpleasant job to do, a debt to repay, and they’re dragging Victoria along with them. Director Sebastian Schipper orchestrates this real-time night on the town with true dexterity; Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is his actual camera operator, and he deserves credit for both his creativity and stamina. The one-take affair never feels awkward or contrived; Grøvlen’s camera circles and weaves, follows at a distance, comes in close when emotions warrant it, goes up and down stairs, dances frenetically, cycles in and out… and it never once feels like a gimmick or an unwanted presence. Without a doubt it’s a technique that enhances the drama one hundredfold. “One City. One Night. One Take” boasts the film’s punchy tagline. Victoria is also One Wow.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

The Road Movie (2018)

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Russians, it seems, can’t drive for toffee. And not just when their roads are blanketed with snow and ice, which they often are, of course. No, it’ll be a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and some Eastern bloc-head will come barreling down on you on the wrong side of the divided highway.
     C-R-RRRUNCH! Ouch. That smarts.
     Fortunately for those rubberneckers among us, most Russian vehicles are outfitted with dashboard cameras (they’re a litigiously-minded people, I guess?) which record much of the mayhem on their roads. And we get to witness some 70 minutes worth of it in Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie, a spectacular “found footage” compilation of head-ons, side-swipes, t-bones, fishtails, jackknives, and roll-overs, as well as threatening forest fires, floods, psycho pedestrians, petty thefts and punch-ups, even comets—and the odd parachutist—falling to earth, all from the comfort of our living rooms… unless you paid actual money to view this YouTube-like experience in an honest-to-goodness movie theater, of course.
     Obviously some people, and occasional critters, are hurt during all of this vehicular insanity—we hear at least one passenger claiming to have broken her leg following a crash—but thankfully the fixed dash-cams don’t show us anything much beyond the fiery explosions and the mangled metal and the occasional oddities out there on route shest’desyat shest. More fun, for me that is, are our stoic, in-car narrators who provide a running commentary on the gonzo goings-on beyond their windshields with an unusually calm sense of detachment, peppered with unsavory subtitles. Like when one of them takes a sharp curve a little too fast and winds up in a river (“we’re sailing!”), or a low-flying mallard collides with the windshield (“can we see it, Daddy?”), or a couple of prostitutes proposition our driving companions along the way (“3000? Maybe we’ll stop on the way back”).
     I’ve been driving for nearly forty years and haven’t seen anything approaching the kinds of calamities that befall our haplessly droll comrades, so in that regard the film is a definite eye-opener. Some might question whether The Road Movie is an actual film—probably the same people who like to argue about Andy Warhol’s Empire, say—but it makes for a pretty effective public service announcement if nothing else.
     I, for one, was a lot more vigilant about double-checking my blind spot after taking in this incendiary excursion.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Running with the Devil (2019)

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“It’s Nic Cage. How bad could it be?”
     Running with the Devil is the answer to that rather hopeful question: bad, very bad. It’s a terrible film, dull and tedious and mostly incoherent, with scenes that just sit there, dunce-like. It’s blandly written and inconsequentially directed (by Jason Cabell, an ex-Navy SEAL, who should know something about action at least), and while Cage is known for doing pretty much anything for money, his co-star Laurence Fishburne is not. Fishburne performs nobly, creating a totally despicable character, but even his efforts aren’t enough to warrant a viewing.
     Cabell’s film is essentially about a bump in the road, a hiccough in the supply chain of a venal, Vancouver-based entrepreneur whose cocaine shipments keep winding up a little lighter than when they left Colombia. The Boss is played by Barry Pepper, who first came to my attention in Tommy Lee Jones’s intense The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. He’s a lot broader here. Said boss puts his best men on the job, a cook—another puffy, bespectacled Cage creation—and a degenerate who’s addicted to coke and prostitutes (Fishburne). Slim pickins in the drug underworld, apparently.
     For dramatic tension, the feds have their best man on the case trotting along too—Iron Man’s Leslie Bibb plays The Agent in Charge who’s not averse to using a few underhanded tactics (read: torture) to get what she wants. Adam Goldberg, a snitch, winds up on the business end of a cattle prod I think.
     Everyone in this film, pretty much without exception, is a lowlife and as the trail bops from Bogota to Tijuana to Seattle and just about every port of call in between, the shipment’s street value rises exponentially—that part was sort of interesting, actually. But with all the running around it’s hard not to get a little seasick, a little airsick, a little rather a lot sick of the whole nasty business.
     Shouldn’t a Nic Cage movie be, at the very least, ridiculous fun? Running with the Devil is just plain ridiculous.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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Despite making its bow with very little fanfare last May, Slaughterhouse Rulez, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is not the latest “Cornetto Trilogy” add-on from writer/director Edgar Wright, the man who collaborated with those two chummy chuckleheads on Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.
     Nor does it star Pegg and Frost. They’re in it, of course, only in subdued supporting roles. Their major contributions this time out are as executive producers, for Slaughterhouse Rulez is the fledgling film from the pair’s new production company, Stolen Picture. An accurate moniker indeed, given that most of the film appears to have been borrowed from other, better pictures—Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Ghostbusters, This is the End, Tremors, the Harry Potter series, etc. Is it a spoof? An homage? I couldn’t tell.
     With Wright now spinning his wheels elsewhere (Baby Driver, anyone?), directing duties have fallen here to one Crispian Mills, who steered Pegg to comedy bronze in the promising if underdeveloped A Fantastic Fear of Everything in 2014. Mills also shows a lot of promise with the setup of Slaughterhouse’, which is only his second film to date: Northern lad Don Wallace (Finn Cole, TNT’s Animal Kingdom) is enrolled in the uppity-crust Slaughterhouse School in the South of England for reasons involving a dead dad and a clean break. He’s sorted into Sparta house, a Hufflepuff-styled homeroom that hemorrhages freaks and geeks and misfits, among them his snuff-snorting roommate Willoughby (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield). Pegg is Meredith Houseman, Sparta’s cricket-loving housemaster. My low expectations perked up a bit at this point. Decent acting, decent looking, tight pacing? For the first half hour I was on board.
     But…
     Following a-might-too-many obvious run-ins with the Hot Girl (played by Hermione Corfield) and the Cruel Prefect (Tom Rhys Harries), Don stumbles upon a fractious fracking operation on the periphery of the Slaughterhouse property, one strangely endorsed by the school’s wacky headmaster known, cheekily, as The Bat (a very broad Michael Sheen). Frost plays a mushroom-loving eco-terrorist hellbent on scuppering the land ravaging going down in the woods.
     Since British boarding school humor has already been deftly done (to death?) by the belles of St. Trinian’s (a rollicking film franchise based on the comic strip by Ronald Searle) and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth books (also illustrated by Searle; it’s no coincidence that Mills’s film directly references Molesworth’s comic misspellings), Slaughterhouse Rulez opts to morph into an OTT monster movie in its latter stages, when a massive sinkhole belches up some nasty, walrus-sized slugs with a nastier penchant for noshing on human flesh.
     Oh, and if you’re disappointed that Pegg and Frost aren’t in this much, you might be similarly bummed to learn that Margot Robbie’s role amounts to a couple of Skyped-in scenes as Meredith’s soon-to-be ex (she’s moved to Sudan to save the children, all with the aid of a hunky French co-worker).
     Slaughterhouse Rulez is just not in the same league as those early Wright/Pegg/Frost collaborations. By the time its overblown conclusion bludgeons its way across the dimly-lit screen, we’re left with just the one thought: Down with Skool!


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com