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The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

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Nathan Cox

Writer, director, screenwriter, lyricist, historian.

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WHITE RABBIT (2013)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

White-Rabbit-2013-movie-Tim-McCann-2 

Shortly after the tragic shooting at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, I remember talking about it with some people, one of who asked, “what do you think this will change?” I very cynically replied “not a damn thing.” My point of view was that so much of the American populace was obsessed with guns, opposed to any and all gun control legislation and that the NRA had such a stranglehold on Washington that things will just continue as they always had.

Well, I was partly right. Some things did change. Schools began tightening security, school officials began looking for any “warning signs” that a student might be troubled (I use quotes because I don’t feel that they’ve been terribly good at deciphering what a real warning sign is), school bullying is finally being addressed as a serious problem and movie theaters have had to start asking kids…

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WHITE RABBIT (2013)

White-Rabbit-2013-movie-Tim-McCann-2 

Shortly after the tragic shooting at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, I remember talking about it with some people, one of who asked, “what do you think this will change?” I very cynically replied “not a damn thing.” My point of view was that so much of the American populace was obsessed with guns, opposed to any and all gun control legislation and that the NRA had such a stranglehold on Washington that things will just continue as they always had.

 

Well, I was partly right. Some things did change. Schools began tightening security, school officials began looking for any “warning signs” that a student might be troubled (I use quotes because I don’t feel that they’ve been terribly good at deciphering what a real warning sign is), school bullying is finally being addressed as a serious problem and movie theaters have had to start asking kids for ID’s if they want to see an R rated film. I don’t really think the latter has had any affect on protecting kids but it has discouraged Hollywood from making films for grown ups.

 

Yet I was absolutely right about the fact that the NRA would continue to block any and all gun control legislation, even a common sense measure like trying to stop people with a history of mental illness from obtaining a firearm. And don’t think it’s exclusively Republicans whom the NRA has by the short hairs. Harry Reid, the former, utterly useless Senate Minority Leader from Nevada voted against the measure that was proposed after the Sandy Hook Shooting. Lord knows there have been so many of these horrible shootings that I can’t keep track of them all. The recent mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida seems to have mobilized teenagers to do something where there parents have not. I’d like to believe we’ve turned a corner, but only time will tell for sure.

 

There are some, including Vice President Mike Pence at an NRA rally shortly after the shooting, who will tell you that it’s not a gun control issue but a mental health issue. But to quote Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez, “I cry B.S!” Don’t get me wrong, I do think that mental health figures into many of these mass shootings and treatment for such problems is terribly difficult to afford and find in this country. Still, I cry B.S. because I don’t believe that Wayne LaPierre or any of the polls he has on his payroll have any intention of doing anything about mental health, if so why would they be continuing trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut Social Security, Medicate and Medicare? I believe they want our countries mental health problems to stay exactly as they are so that they will have a scapegoat. If they really wanted to do something about mass shootings in relation to mental health they would be trying to make treatment more accessible and semi automatic weapons less so.

 

Obviously, I’m in favor of gun control. What I’m not in favor of is gun prohibition. Though I’ve never gone hunting in my life and I don’t think hunting should be considered a “sport,” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people hunting animals to feed their family. As for handguns, it’s been statistically proven many times that if you keep a gun in the house you’re far more likely to shoot a family member then to kill an intruder. Still, there are times when intruders are shot and though they’re usually breaking in to burgle they are at times looking to rape or kill. If I’m against the death penalty because of the statistically small number of innocent people who are executed, I should consider the statistically few domestic shooting deaths that are guilty. What I don’t approve of one bit is that ordinary citizens should be allowed to own assault weapons. That’s what they’re designed for, assault.  If you’re not in the armed services you have no need for one.

 

Clearly, it’s very hard for me to understand this countries gun culture largely because I didn’t grow up with it. The comedian Lewis Black once acutely pointed out “there are those that grew up with guns and those that grew up without guns.” I certainly fall into the latter category. The only guns I ever fired were a Super Soaker and an air rifle at a Coney Island shooting gallery. Though I spent my childhood in the city I went to high school in the country. At one point a teacher asked the class “how many of you have guns in your house.” I was maybe one of three or four who didn’t raise my hand.

 

At the 2014 Woodstock Film Festival I saw a remarkable film called White Rabbit. It had premiered a year earlier at the Zurich Film Festival but didn’t get a distributor until 2015. It was about a troubled teen that, at the beginning of the film is on the verge of shooting up his high school. It should be noted that he isn’t armed with a semi-automatic weapon but rather a hunting rifle. Yet this film is not a polemic about gun control. It’s about a young man who’s been ignored, abused and neglected and what lead him to this moment.

 

The young man’s name is Harlan Mackey (Nick Krause). He comes from a low income, rural family, which I guess is a polite way of saying “white trash.” His father (Sam Tramell of True Blood) is an alcoholic drug addict, albeit one who is capable of showing affection to his son. We flashback to Harlan’s third birthday. Dad is fighting with Harlan’s Mom (Dodie Brown). She accuses him of shaking Harlan too violently. “What do you want, he’s a fragile kid?” When Mom leaves Dad tenderly helps Harlan blow out his birthday candles. He loves his son as most substance abusers that are also parents do. Of course they’re also unaware of the damage that they’re doing to their children.

 

We move ahead six years. Dad takes Harlan to buy his first shotgun. While out hunting Harlan spots an albino rabbit, apparently quite rare for these parts (the location of the film is never given but it was filmed in Louisiana). Harlan shoots the animal and starts crying when he does. Sure enough Dad and his older brother taunt him. Later that night Harlan is caught pointing his gun at his brother who continued to tease him after they returned home. “What are you picking on him for,” Dad the angrily asks the brother. “You know he’s a crybaby!” He then turns to Harlan and slaps him for aiming the gun at his brother. “You don’t ever point a gun at someone unless you aim to use is.”

 

Harlan grows into a teenager. His only friend is a short kid with buck teeth named Stevie (Ryan Lee) who suddenly starts crying for no reason (“he takes pills but they don’t always work”). Both are easy targets for bullies. On their way to the bus stop they encounter a kid named Dayton (Thomas Wagner) who, surrounded by his entourage of enablers, begins to pick on Harlan and Stevie. “Just go ahead and beat me up,” yells Stevie. “Will that make you happy?” The big jerk replies “no it wouldn’t. Maybe I’ll just fuck you like your Dad used to” (whether this is just Dayton being cruel or whether Stevie is really a victim of sexual abuse we never learn, although there are hints that the latter may be true). He then forces Harlan to run and get him an orange soda, causing him to miss the bus. When he arrives late for class his teacher (Robert Yocum) chastises him in front of the whole class. Harlan storms out upset. To the teachers credit he does realize that he’s struck a nerve and lets Harlan spend the rest of the period in the library.

 

A while later Harlan, armed with his rifle, and Stevie enter an abandoned factory. The inside is covered with graffiti and filled with foul rainwater. They spend their time shooting discarded stuffed animals. When they’re finished they hear a noise from a dumpster. Turns out someone abandoned a dog in the receptacle. He’s beat up and mangy, but friendly. Stevie wants to keep the dog, though he’s pretty sure his parents won’t let him. Sure enough, they don’t. Harlan waits outside and peers through the window as Stevie’s parents berate him, once again triggering Stevie. Harlan takes the dog hoping that his Dad might be more charitable. He’s not. He tells Harlan to put the dog into the truck so that they can bring the dog to the pound. Later that night Harlan walks home and sees police cars in front of Stevies house. The cops tell him to turn away. He sees Stevie on the sidewalk. “My Mom flipped out and Dad had to call the cops.”

 

Later at school Harlan gets some distressing news. He’s going to have to repeat the eleventh grade. School is already hell for him, now he’s going to have to stay there for another year? When he gets home he tells his Dad who we see smoking crack before Harlan arrives. Dad doesn’t seem to care much when Harlan tells him he’s gonna have to repeat the eleventh grade. To get his mind off it Dad takes him to a strip club, despite the fact that Harlan is underage. Frankly, it all seems to overwhelm the boy. His Dad pays for him to get a lap dance, yet even with the dancers ample bosom right in his face he just seems to tune out.

 

It’s not that Harlan isn’t interested in girls mind you. He’s particularly fond of a comic book character called The Red Widow, a female superhero who seems to be an arachnid from the waste down. Her torso, however, is endowed with the kind of exaggerated bust that many female comic book characters have. While reading it she comes to life and even seems to speak to him. Sometimes Harlan answers back, which alarms his mother.

 

That summer Harlan meets a young girl his age named Julie (Britt Robertson). She moved the community three months prior and finds it boring as hell. Their introduction comes as Harlan unwittingly helps her shoplift. She’s pretty and stands out from the other girls thanks to her streak of purple hair, dark eyeliner and red, glossy lipstick. She also knows about Alistair Crowley and Edie Sedgwick. Needless to say she too feels like an outcast. “I think you and me are very much alike,” she tells Harlan before kissing him for the first time. “That’s not a good thing.”

 

Oh, he gets an idea about what she means. Once, while taking her around the abandoned factory, she tries to jump off of a railing three stories above the ground. Harlan pulls her back in time. At another time she and Harlan sit around a campfire drinking. She’s getting good and shitfaced and also takes a few pills with the booze. She passes out. Not knowing what to do, Harlan takes her home, leaves her on the porch, rings the doorbell and runs and hides. Not, however, before he swipes a pendent she wares around her neck. He doesn’t see her again for the rest of the summer. When she returns to school in the fall she’s retired her slightly bohemian look and now looks like just any other teenage girl. She also arrives with Harlan’s archenemy, the bully Dayton. She tells him that she’s joined a prayer group at church, which has helped her get herself together. She also insists that Dayton has changed. He apologizes to Harlan for tormenting him all those years. “Forget it,” Harlan says, but you know he doesn’t mean it.

 

Things soon go from bad to worse. Dad suffers a heart attack brought on by his years of booze, drugs and cigarettes. When they visit him in the hospital he doesn’t want his children to see him cry. Harlan looks at his Dad in the hospital bed. He doesn’t know what to think. Harlan continues to be a target for bullies. One kid picks a fight with him at a rec center. This time Harlan fights back, and he gives that punk a taste of his own medicine. He returns home with a black eye, which frightens his ever-concerned mother. Normally Dad would be proud of his son, but things are different now. Dad has rejoined the church (in an earlier scene he’s shown sitting outside smoking while the family is attending service), has been baptized and is “born again.” He doesn’t want Harlan to fight, even though it was in self-defense. Turns out Harlan is also falling behind in school again. “You can’t fail again,” Dad tells him. He wants to go to school and talk with the principal. Clearly, Dad’s trying to change and take responsibility. But he also wants Harlan to throw away his comic books and posters. “You’ve been into this stuff for too long,” he says. “They’re weird and I want them out of my house.” Harlan protests. “But then I’ll be all alone.” It’s another hint that Harlan might actually be schizophrenic.

 

And so this leads us to where we came in, with Harlan preparing to go on a killing spree with his hunting rifle (again, he doesn’t use a Glock or AK-47). It turns out that things aren’t quite what they seem. I won’t tell you what happened but I will say that the memory of the white rabbit he killed comes back to haunt him and leads him to that moment.

 

I’ve never seen any of the other films directed by Tim McCann. He’s an independent filmmaker based in Louisiana who’s films include Desolate Angels, about a man who vows revenge when he finds out that a friend of his was rapped as a child; Runaway, about two siblings trying to escape their pedophile father and All Mistakes Buried, another film starring Tim McCann as an addict who takes on an underground drug ring. Clearly psychological damage is a theme in his films, which I do plan to see more of. We’re clearly entering an age where, thanks to the affordability and quality of digital cameras, editing equipment, etc. anyone can make movies. Getting them seen, however, is another problem.

 

The entire cast of this film is superb. Tim Krause, who plays Harlan, was in the movies The Descendants and Boyhood plus TV shows like Parenthood. He’s still looking for that breakout roll but his ability to emote with so few words in White Rabbit is a skill that even some of the most experienced actors have never mastered. Britt Robinson, who plays Julie, has already amassed a very impressive resume, appearing in such TV shows as Life Unexpected, The Secret Circle and Under the Dome while also acting in films such as The Space Between Us and the delightful yet none-too-successful Disney film Tomorrowland, which I do hope to profile eventually.

 

At the Q&A following the screening at the Woodstock Film Festival director Tim McCann said that he wasn’t trying to make a film about gun control. He was making a film about a kid who “fell through the cracks.” I fear there are thousands of kids like Harlan falling through the cracks of our broken education system. Few will take their anger out on the entire student body by shooting up the school but some will and if they don’t have such easy access to guns, they won’t. School was hell for me too and I often wondered what would happen if I had guns in my house growing up. I would like to believe that I would come to my senses but I can’t say for sure. I do think that we need to treat mental illness, especially with children, more diligently. But I also think that we need to eliminate assault rifles from the equation. As far as I’m concerned if banning such weapons would mean that just one less kid would be killed then I will sleep easy no matter how many people have had their “second amendment rights” trampled.

 

My Oscar Predictions

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

As some of you may or may not know, I usually write up a list of my predictions for the Academy Awards.  I choose what I think will win the award and what I think should win (very often not the same) and what or whom I feel were overlooked.  I must confess though that while I’ve been trying to see every movie I have yet to see Call Me By My Name or Ladybird and I’m not sure if I will get the chance.  I’m also really ashamed to say that I’ve seen none of the foriegn language films or animated films that are nominated.  If I do get to see any of them and it affects my decisions I’ll be sure to post the correction but for the time being here are my predictions for the 90th Academy Awards:

  • BEST PICTURE
  •   Call Me by Your Name
  • …

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My Oscar Predictions

via My Oscar Predictions

My Oscar Predictions

As some of you may or may not know, I usually write up a list of my predictions for the Academy Awards.  I choose what I think will win the award and what I think should win (very often not the same) and what or whom I feel were overlooked.  I must confess though that while I’ve been trying to see every movie I have yet to see Call Me By My Name or Ladybird and I’m not sure if I will get the chance.  I’m also really ashamed to say that I’ve seen none of the foriegn language films or animated films that are nominated.  If I do get to see any of them and it affects my decisions I’ll be sure to post the correction but for the time being here are my predictions for the 90th Academy Awards:

  • BEST PICTURE
  •   Call Me by Your Name
  •   Darkest Hour
  •   Dunkirk
  •   Get Out
  •   Lady Bird
  •   Phantom Thread
  •   The Post
  •   The Shape of Water
  •   Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

WHAT WILL WIN:  It’s quite a race going on here.  Three Billboards and The Shape of Water seem to be leading the pack right now but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and predict that because of the fact that it got such an early start last year, created such a sensation, had a lot to say about race in America and was genuinely an original movie, I think Get Out might take home the top prize.

WHAT SHOULD WIN:  I loved Get Out and wouldn’t object at all if it won.  But for my money the best film of the group and of the year was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an absolutely sublimely written, acted, directed and constructed story about how human beings so badly need someone to blame for their trauma and how pointless blaming ultimately is.

OVERLOOKED:  The wonderfully entertaining but very insightful and masterfully crafted I, Tonya.

 

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  •   Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
  •   Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
  •   Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
  •   Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
  •   Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

WHAT WILL WIN:  I hate to say it but given the number of awards he’s already won I think Gary Oldman will take home the award for The Darkest Hour.  Now I don’t hate to say it because I hate Gary Oldman.  Far from it.  But like another brilliant thespian who won an Oscar for playing a Prime Minister, Mr. Oldman was given hardly anything to work with.  It’s a showy role and no where near his best work.

MY CHOICE:  The leading actor and actress category usually goes to someone who acts with a capital “A” but I often find more subtle performances much more moving.  Daniel Kaluuya’s utterly natural performance goes from pathos to sheer terror so effortlessly that he’s my choice.

OVERLOOKED:  Doug Jones who played the amphibious man in The Shape of Water.  Yes, he wore a rubber suit the whole time.  So what?  The fact that he was able to convey emotion underneath all of that rubber just shows what a remarkable perofrmance he gave.

  • ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
  •   Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
  •   Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
  •   Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
  •   Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
  •   Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Another tight race.  Sam Rockwell has been winning quite a few awards as the inept, hero worshiping and ultimately destructive deputy sherriff in Three Billboards.  I think he’ll take home the Oscar.

    WHAT SHOULD WIN:  Nothing but praise for Mr. Rockwell but I’m sort of leaning towards Woody Harrelson on this one.

    OVERLOOKED:  Mark Hamill as an odd cultist who takes Kyle Mooney hostage for his entire life in Brigsby Bear.

  •  

    ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  •   Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
  •   Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
  •   Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
  •   Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
  •   Meryl Streep, The Post

    WHO WILL WIN:  At first I thought Sally Hawkins would be the front runner but now that Frances McDormand has already won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG award I think it’s safe to say that she now has the edge.

    WHO SHOULD WIN:  I’m still rooting for Sally Hawkins for her beautiful, predominantly pantomime performance in Shape of Water.

    OVERLOOKED:  Horror movies so often fail because the acting is usually so over-the-top.  Get Out works because the acting is so natural and Jessica Williams perfectly stepped into her role.

  •  

    ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  •   Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
  •   Allison Janney, I, Tonya
  •   Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
  •   Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
  •   Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

    WHO WILL WIN:  Allison Janney, playing the mother from hell in I, Tonya.

WHO SHOULD WIN:  Allison Janney for I, Tonya.

OVERLOOKED:  Young Millicent Simmons in Wonderstruck.

 

  • DIRECTING
  •   Dunkirk
  •   Get Out
  •   Lady Bird
  •   Phantom Thread
  •   The Shape of Water

    WHO WILL WIN:  In the past this award coincided with the Best Picture winner nine times out of ten.  Things have changed since they’ve started to allow up to ten Best Picture nominees.  Now spits are quite common.  Four of the last five ceremonies had two different Best Picture and Best Director winners.  While I think Get Out might pull off a win I still think Guillermo del Toro is gonna win this one.

    MY CHOICE:  Jordan Peele made one of the most remarkable directorial debuts in recent years, a fact that was made all the more remarkable because of his outlandish sketch comedy show.  When I first saw the trailer for Get Out I thought it had to be a comedy.  Boy was I surprised and delighted.  He’s my choice.  And yes, it will be nice to have an African-American win the Best Director Award.

    OVERLOOKED:  Movies don’t direct themselves.  Three Billboards Over Billings, Missouri was the best film of the year and Martin McDonagh should have been nominated.

  •  

    ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  •   The Boss Baby
  •   The Breadwinner
  •   Coco
  •   Ferdinand
  •   Loving Vincent

    WHO WILL WIN:  Disney and Pixar pretty much own this category.

    MY CHOICE:  N/A

  •  

    CINEMATOGRAPHY

  •   Blade Runner 2049
  •   Darkest Hour
  •   Dunkirk
  •   Mudbound
  •   The Shape of Water

    WHAT WILL WIN:  The Shape of Water.

MY CHOICE:  The Shape of Water.

OVERLOOKED:  Get Out.

  • COSTUME DESIGN
  •   Beauty and the Beast
  •   Darkest Hour
  •   Phantom Thread
  •   The Shape of Water
  •   Victoria & Abdul

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Period films usually win in this category, especially if their particularly beautiful costumes.  I’d say The Phantom Thread has a lock on this one.

    MY CHOICE:  A long-held pet peeve of mine is that they always seem to give the Oscar to beautiful period films.  I’m interested in how the costume serves the character, not in watching a fashion show.  And yet there’s no getting around it, the costumes in Phantom Thread are not only beautiful but they serve as characters onto themselves.  I say let it win.

 

  • FILM EDITING

     Baby Driver
     Dunkirk
     I, Tonya
     The Shape of Water
     Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Dunkirk.

    MY CHOICE:  I, Tonya

  •  
  •  

    MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

  •   Darkest Hour
  •   Victoria & Abdul
  •   Wonder

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Well, they did make Gary Oldman look like Churchill.

    MY CHOICE:  Meh, Darkest Hour.

    OVERLOOKED:  The Shape of Water

  •  

    ORIGINAL SCORE

     Dunkirk
     Phantom Thread
     The Shape of Water
     Star Wars: The Last Jedi
     Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

    WHAT WILL WIN:  The Shape of Water.

    MY CHOICE:  The Shape of Water.

  •  

    ORIGINAL SONG

  •   “Mighty River,” Mudbound
  •   “Mystery Of Love,” Call Me by Your Name
  •   “Remember Me,” Coco
  •   “Stand Up For Something,” Marshall
  •   “This Is Me,” The Greatest Showman

    WHAT WILL WIN:  I imagine that because it’s song by Mary J. Blige that “Mighty River” will win.

    MY CHOICE:  N/A

  •  

PRODUCTION DESIGN

 Beauty and the Beast

 Blade Runner 2049

 Darkest Hour
 Dunkirk

 The Shape of Water

WHAT WILL WIN:  The Shape of Water

WHAT SHOULD WIN:  The Shape of Water

OVERLOOKED:  Brigsby Bear

 

  • SOUND EDITING
  •   Baby Driver
  •   Blade Runner 2049
  •   Dunkirk
  •   The Shape of Water
  •   Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    WHAT WILL WIN: Baby Driver

    MY CHOICE:  Dunkirk

    OVERLOOKED:  This always goes to whatever is usually the loudest.  But I wish a rather quite and very visual film, Phantom Thread, was nominated.  The magnified sound of the scrapping of the toast and Daniel Day-Lewis munching an omelette he knows is poison goes a long way.

  •  

    SOUND MIXING

  •   Baby Driver
  •   Blade Runner 2049
  •   Dunkirk
  •   The Shape of Water
  •   Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Baby Driver.

    MY CHOICE:  Baby Driver.

  •  

    VISUAL EFFECTS

  •   Blade Runner 2049
  •   Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  •   Kong: Skull Island
  •   Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  •   War for the Planet of the Apes

    WHAT WILL WIN:  War for the Planet of the Apes.

    MY CHOICE:  Have only seen Star Wars.

    OVERLOOKED:  While yes, Margot Robbie did a great deal of her own skating in I, Tonya many of the triple axles and such had to be rotoscoped.  The seamlessness in which they were incorporated should have earned it a nomination.

  •  

    ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

     Call Me by Your Name  The Disaster Artist
     Logan
     Molly’s Game

     Mudbound

    WHAT WILL WIN:  Call Me by Your Name

    MY CHOICE:  Only seen The Disaster Artist which I wasn’t all that nuts about.  Pass.

    OVERLOOKED:  Brian Selznick for the criminally underrated Wunderstruck.

  • ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
  •   The Big Sick
  •   Get Out
  •   Lady Bird
  •   The Shape of Water
  •   Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

WHAT WILL WIN:  This has got to be quite possibly the tightest race of them all.  I       can’t say for sure but I’ll guess Get Out.

MY CHOICE:  Three Billboards

OVERLOOKED:  Brigsby Bear

 

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

 Faces Places
 Icarus
 Last Men in Aleppo

 Strong Island

WHAT WILL WIN:  N/A

MY CHOICE:  N/A

 

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

  •   Edith+Eddie
  •   Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
  •   Heroin(e)
  •   Knife Skills
  •   Traffic Stop

    WHAT WILL WIN:  N/A

    MY CHOICE:  N/A

  • FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
  •   A Fantastic Woman
  •   The Insult
  •   Loveless
  •   On Body and Soul
  •   The Square

    WHAT WILL WIN:  N/A

    MY CHOICE:  N/A

ANIMATED SHORT FILM

  •   Dear Basketball
  •   Garden Party
  •   Lou
  •   Negative Space
  •   Revolting Rhymes

    WHO WILL WIN:  N/A

    MY CHOICE:  N/A

    LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

  •   DeKalb Elementary
  •   The Eleven O’Clock
  •   My Nephew Emmett
  •   The Silent Child
  •   Watu Wote/All of Us
  •  

    WHAT WILL WIN:  N/A

MY CHOICE:  N/A

 

FRENZY (1972)

via FRENZY (1972)

FRENZY (1972)

Frenzy

 

In 2012 there was a minor stir in the blogosphere of that ever opinionated creature, the cineast.  That year the British magazine Sight and Sound did their decennial poll where they invited film scholars to list what in their opinion are the ten greatest films ever made.  The poll was first taken in 1952.  That year The Bicycle Theif topped the list.  A decade later Citizen Kane took the top spot and continued to dominate the Sight and Sound poll (not to mention countless others) every decade.  But in 2012 it felt like the earth began spinning in the opposite direction when Kane was bumped to number two in favor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Now I personally don’t think Vertigo is nearly as great as Citizen Kane.  In fact it’s far from my favorite Hitchcock film.  That honor would probably go to either Rear Window, North by Northwest or Psycho.  That’s not to say that Vertigo doesn’t have a wealth of virtues – a top-notch cast, some incredibly passionate moments, arguably the best score Bernard Herman ever wrote and it’s hands down one of the most visually beautiful films of the fifties.  But for my money the sum of the parts were always greater than the whole.  Then again, every film buff has their own favorite Hitchcock picture.  What’s very rare is finding someone who doesn’t like the Master of Suspense at all.

It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Alfred Hitchcock was not taken very seriously at all by film critics and scholars. For most of his long and storied career he was seen largely as a sort of carnival barker, luring people into his midway tent so that they could get their masochistic jollies gaping at the grotesqueries within. Oh, he got some acclaim. Rebecca, his first Hollywood film (which he personally didn’t care much for) won the Oscar for Best Picture. He was nominated for Best Director but lost to The Grapes of Wrath director John Ford. Hitchcock would later earn a Best Director nom for Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho, yet he never won. In 1968 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded Hitchcock the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given out on certain years (it was last awarded in 2010) to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Lifetime achievement awards are often a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s an honor and unlike the competitive awards the recipient knows he’s not going home empty-handed. Then again awarding ones lifetime of work seems to indicate that the best years are behind you (not always though. Spielberg was awarded the Thalberg in 1986 before he even turned forty!) The fact that it is awarded to “creative producers” seems to indicate that it’s the business side of things that they are honoring and unlike every other Academy Award the Memorial Award statuette is a bust of Mr. Thalberg, not the familiar Oscar figure. This means that Alfred Hitchcock went to his grave without ever having been awarded an actual Oscar.

The public of course loved Hitchcock. Ever since he directed his silent classic The Lodger in 1927 Hitchcock knew how to frighten the hell out of audiences and how to make the most thrilling of thrillers. While some filmmakers spend their whole careers trying to avoid being pigeonholed, Hitchcock was perfectly happy working almost exclusively in the mystery genre and was proud be called “the Master of Suspense.” At a time when directors were often viewed as mere cogs in the large studio system apparatus, Hitchcock knew he was an artist and was not shy about it. Along with Frank Capra he was one of the only film makers who’s name appeared above the title of his films – Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

His style was unmistakable, his technique was sound. Hitch was notorious for storyboarding his films within an inch of their life, laying out his shots, camera movement and montages like Stravinsky notating his musical score. He frequently designed long, complex shots, showing as much action as he could without breaking the continuity or very deliberately only shooting the coverage that was absolutely necessary to fit his storyboards. Part of it was his meticulous nature but part of it was also the fact that the right to final cut was a pipe dream during the studio era. David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind who brought Hitchcock over from Great Britain in 1940 was particularly notorious for re-cutting and reshaping films in the editing room once the director had moved on to other projects. No way Hitchcock was going to allow that to happen with his films.

So why exactly were critics so hostile towards Hitch? Part of it was that he was so blatantly commercial. By putting his name above the title of his films and specializing in a certain type of movie Hitchcock was very consciously turning his name into a brand much like Walt Disney had.  He later spun off a mystery magazine (still published today), a series of mystery books for kids and of course produced, hosted and occasionally directed his hugely successful anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And let’s not forget those cameos he made in virtually every one of his films. For his die-hard fans going to a Hitchcock movie became a little like one of those Where’s Waldo books. There were times when it was particularly difficult for him to make his cameo. Lifeboat took place entirely on a lifeboat. Look closely and you’ll see someone reading a newspaper. There you will see a weight loss ad with Hitchcock, not surprisingly, as the before picture. Dial M for Murder was a chamber drama that took place almost entirely in a London flat with only a few people. Pay close attention and you will see him in a photograph along with a number of other people. Sometimes it became a bit of a nuisance. It got to the point where Hitchcock had to make his cameo as early in the film as possible so that those looking for him could then relax and concentrate on the film. In his 1956 movie The Wrong Man Hitchcock appears in shadow at the very beginning of the film announcing “every word (of the movie) is true.” This was partly due to the fact that it was inspired by a true story (and like any true story the accuracy can be debated forever) but also because it was deliberately filmed in a docudrama style Hitchcock felt that his trademark cameo would only serve as a distraction.

Critics often felt that his films were all style and no content. What exactly did they mean by that? Well, it’s safe to say that he was far less interested in the psychological make-up of his characters then say Orson Welles or Elia Kazan. A favorite protagonist of Hitchcock was the innocent man falsely accused of something. We don’t learn a whole lot about his what makes him tick.  That’s not the point. The point is that the rug has been pulled out from under him or her and they have to restore order to their lives. It doesn’t always work out mind you. In Saboteur, for example, the man wrongly accused of terrorism (Robert Cummings) is unable to prevent the only guy that can clear his name (Norman Lloyd) from falling off the torch of the Statue of Liberty. His villains were often interesting and charismatic. Hitch once said that his favorite movie of his was Shadow of a Doubt, which starred Joseph Cotton as a charming, handsome, beloved uncle who also happens to be a serial killer. What’s important isn’t why he kills but the fact that he’s going to kill. Even after that cross-dressing mama’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is apprehended the rather glib explanation for his behavior is hardly satisfactory. What’s so much more fascinating is the fact that he kills Janet Leigh and then mops up her blood and disposes of the body so that his “mother” won’t get in trouble. When faced with such criticism Hitchcock would protest that condemning his films for their lack of “content” was like asking a painter if the apples in his still life were sweet or sour. Who cares?

And then there was the charge that he was manipulative, that his movies did nothing more than strike certain nerves to give off certain responses. In Hitchcock’s mind that was precisely what an artist, any artist, does. A novelist elicits an emotional response through his use of prose, a playwright through his use of dialog. A composer arranges notes to create a melody, a painter mixes colors to create certain shades and a sculptor molds and shapes certain contours onto a three-dimensional object. The goal is always to stimulate an emotional response. For Hitchcock that response was usually fear. He knew that the world was a chaotic place. That behind the veneer of order in society there was always a storm of chaos waiting to be set free. That evil was omnipresent and that it took many forms. The fact that people needed to exorcise these fears was a strange bit of human nature that Hitchcock was always ready to provide. He always said he liked to play his audience like a piano. What so many of these critics didn’t seem to get is that he made us feel like a Steinway.

Hitchcock had his champions, of course. In France, the famed critic and theorist Andre Bazin assembled a salon of young film enthusiasts to write for his magazine Cashiers du cinema. These young men included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer, Claud Chabrol and others who would go on to make up the core of the French New Wave in the late fifties and early sixties. Before making their own films they wrote volumes about American filmmakers and how they were, despite the fact that they worked for the big studios, artists with their own unique voice and style. Hitchcock was among those that they championed and none was more enthusiastic about the master then Truffaut, the very man who coined the term auteur and later went on to become a great director in his own right. In 1962, after he had already directed The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Truffaut sat down with Hitch at Universal pictures and conducted a weeklong series of interviews. In 1966 they were published in the volume Hitchcock/Truffaut, unquestionably one of the most important pieces of film criticism ever published. By then popular opinion about Hitchcock was already beginning to change in the U.S. Andrew Sarris began his career at The Village Voice by writing a rave review of Psycho. Younger critics like Peter Bogdonavich (who would soon become a director) and Roger Ebert unabashedly loved the master and soon there was a whole generation of “movie brats” like Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Polanski, Altman and Friedkin (the latter two got their starts directing episodes of Hitchcock’s anthology series) who were quite vocal in their love of the master.

As Hitchcock approached his senior years his movies started to become darker and darker. His somewhat gleeful fascination with death and gallows humor started to be replaced with ever-growing droplets of despair. The Birds was arguably the only out-and-out horror movie Hitchcock ever made. It was as close as he ever came to making a “monster” movie and it was clearly meant to be a doomsday picture, a speculation on how the human race might end. But it isn’t a mushroom cloud or giant radioactive monster that will be the death of us but rather our feathered friends who we usually perceive as harmless and benign. For all man has done to tame the planet we’d be utterly defenseless if mother nature rose up against us (this past year has recorded a frightening number of unusual weather patterns and unnatural occurrences. As our planet gets hotter Mother Nature grows more and more hostile). Marnie (1964) comes to a particularly disturbing conclusion in which the title character played by Tippi Hedren recounts a most harrowing childhood trauma.  The way in which Hitch edits the scene is bound to make anyone uncomfortable.  His espionage film Torn Curtain includes one of the most violent scenes he ever filmed in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have to defend themselves against a killer. Whatever faults the film as a whole has this one masterfully directed scene does illustrate how incredibly difficult it can be for an ordinary person to kill but should the need arise we can all take another human life to save our own.

By the end of the sixties the industry had changed considerably. For much of his career Hitchcock often had to do battle with the notorious Hayes office over the violent and sexual content of his films. In 1968 the MPAA introduced a ratings system. Studios would voluntarily submit their films to a board that would then give the film a rating (G, PG, R) based on the film’s content. In theory at least this would give people an idea as to whether or not a film was appropriate for children without resorting to out-and-out censorship. In the ensuing years the methods in which films are classified and the economic pressured placed on studios would cause many critics to condemn the rating system as just another form of censorship. But when it was first introduced it looked as if film makers could finally say what they wanted and a whole flood of movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and countless others were released with a seemingly unrestrained amount of sex, violence, nudity, profanity and debauchery. Suddenly a movie like Psycho, so shocking when first released seemed kind of tame compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby (according to some reports, Hitchcock was offered that film but found the subject matter appalling. Maybe it was his Jesuit upbringing but the master finally found a subject that was too shocking even for him). Could the master hope to keep up?

Fortunately he still had one great movie in him. And for that he returned to London, the city of his youth where his career began. He had left London in 1939 as the war clouds were forming over Europe. He briefly returned in the late forties to direct the films Under Capricorn and Stage Fright. Otherwise he hadn’t made a film in his homeland in over two decades.

Frenzy opens with a sweeping helicopter shot down the Thames River, ending at Tower Bridge. On the promenade along the bank we see a politician holding a press conference where he extolls the clean up effort underway along the river. Just then somebody sees something. The stone cold body of a nude woman with a necktie tied around her neck. Apparently there have been a few of these “necktie murders” going on in London. “He’s a regular Jack the Ripper,” says one of the onlookers. “Not on your life,” another one answers. “He used to carve them up.”

We then meet Richard Blaney (John Finch), a former fighter pilot for the R.A.F. who’s now working as a bartender at a local pub. Things haven’t been going too well for him. He’s divorced, has been locked out of his flat and at the start of the film is fired from his job for pinching some of the liquor. Blaney does seem to be a likable fellow. He’s romantically involved with the pubs barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) who also seems to look out for him. He’s still friendly with his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) who runs a dating service. She offers to take him out to dinner. He spends the night at the Salvation Army.  He only learns after someone tries to pick his pocket that she’s slipped him some much-needed cash.

Another friend of his is Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Covent Garden.  This is where Hitchcock’s father ran a poultry business.  He knew that the fruit and vegetable market was about to be priced out as London real estate was on the rise. He wanted to capture it on film before it was gone.

Going back to Robert Rusk. He’s a dapper, handsome guy with blonde hair. He also advances Robert some cash. Russ later visits Brenda’s dating service. She apparently doesn’t know that he’s a friend of her ex-husband. She also addresses him as Mr. Robinson. She does know that “certain peculiarities appeal to (him) and he needs certain women to submit to them.” That’s a service she doesn’t provide. It’s soon pretty clear that Rusk plans to use Brenda to quell his “certain peculiarity” and that he is, in fact, the necktie murderer. He removes his tie and proceeds to rape and strangle her.

Hitchcock was always fascinated by deviant human nature but the violent nature of a sex offender was something that could only have been hinted at. Russ rips off Brenda’s dress and paws at her bare breasts. Mercifully Hitchcock doesn’t turn it into something as explicit as, say, the scene of Jodi Foster in The Accused. He relies on some abstract editing and sound (“lovely”). Afterwards Rusk seems tired, a bit nervous but utterly unremorseful. He takes some money from her purse, bites into an apple on her desk and picks his teeth with his tie-pin, adorned with a bejeweled letter “R” which he so strategically placed on his lapel before murdering Brenda. Shortly after he leaves Richard Blaney arrives, only to find the office locked. He leaves just as Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh, who had already created her iconic role of Rose Buck on the series Upstairs, Downstairs) returns from lunch and discovers Brenda’s dead body.

Unaware of his ex-wife’s death, Blaney calls up Babs. They then meet up and with the money that Brenda slipped him the night before get a hotel room and enjoy a nice day of lovemaking. But by that evening news of Brenda’s murder has made the paper. The hotel clerk (Jimmy Porter) recognizes him and calls the police. Alas, an evening edition had already been slipped under their door. Richard and Babs make it out of there and later meet up with a friend of Richard’s who’s planning to leave for France. His plan is to lay low while Babs goes to get his things from Richard’s old apartment. Unfortunately she runs into Rusk. There’s no guarantee that the good guys will survive in a Hitchcock film. Rusk leads Babs up to the flat. We follow them as the enter but once they shut the door the camera tracks backwards out onto the busy street. A prime example of how what you don’t show is as important as what you do, this is easily one of the most chilling moments the master ever directed.

In an earlier scene Rusk overhears someone complaining about being in the potato business and that he has to send a truck full of unsold potatoes back to his supplier. Seizing the opportunity, Rusk wraps poor Brenda’s corps in a sack and places it in the potato truck. Unfortunately he notices his tiepin is missing and he remembers Brenda grabbing it while he was rapping her. He climbs onto the truck to get the pin back just as the driver starts the truck up and heads out. Once again it’s one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful set pieces. Also, as reprehensible as we now know Rusk is we can’t help but fear for him and we can’t help but relieved when he isn’t found out. Ever the master manipulator he knows how to make us feel sympathy for the devil. Remember how you first tensed up when you thought that Janet Leigh’s car wouldn’t completely sink into the swamp?

Once again we’re in that familiar territory of a man falsely accused. Hitchcock often told a story about how when he was a boy his Dad sent him to the local constable with a note. After reading the letter the officer lead the chubby boy down to a jail cell and locked him in a cell for about fifteen minutes. When he returned he told little Alfred “this is what we do to naughty boys.” There’s no way of knowing if this story is true or not. Hitchcock always swore that it was but couldn’t for the life of him remember what he did to deserve such punishment. Either way it does illustrate Hitchcock’s unique understanding of fear. The thought of having the rug pulled out from under you, of suddenly being utterly defenseless and not really understanding why is far more terrifying than any individual jolts or shocks life may throw at you.

The cast of Frenzy is quite excellent though it is interesting to note who turned down roles in the film. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, both of who co-starred in Blow-Up were offered the roles of Richard and Brenda. Michael Caine was offered the role of Rusk but found the character to be utterly reprehensible. It’s quite interesting to picture him in the role though Barry Foster played the role to perfection. One of the most curious actors to turn down a role in Frenzy was Helen Mirren, who was offered the role of Babs. She would have been around twenty-seven at the time and was working as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Years later she would play Hitchcock’s wife Alma (who played a pivotal role in writing and editing all of his movies) in the film Hitchcock. Mirren has freely admitted that she regrets turning down the role but one has to wonder why such a young and relatively unknown actress would turn down the chance to work with the Master of Suspense? Well, there is his famous statement where he said, “actors should be treated like cattle.” This was a terribly insensitive thing to say but in a sense what he meant was that an actors performance is, in some way or another, manipulated. An actor on stage goes through an entire character arc during the course of the performance. An actor’s performance is pieced together in the editing room. Of course a director who miscasts an actor is doomed. Truth is most actors liked working with Hitch and lord knows he got many a great performance out of them. I went to a lecture once with Farley Granger who acted in Rope and Strangers on a Train. He said “if he liked you he left you alone.” He tended to give very little direction to his actors. He did claim to have trouble with method actors though. He apparently had some difficulty with Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. Apparently they needed more direction then being told where to hit their mark.

Either way, Frenzy is a marvelous film filled with many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks, including his droll sense of humor. Alec McGowen plays the police officer assigned to the case. His wife (Vivien Merchant) is studying French cuisine and is frequently preparing some exotic dishes that he doesn’t care for and which frankly look repulsive, even compared to the native cuisine of Britannia.  In one scene McGowan is served a soup with made with fish heads and squid tentacles. He explains to his wife the particulars of the case while trying not to betray his revulsion at the meal sitting in front of him. One has to wonder if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were thinking about this scene when they came up with the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

When Hitchcock showed a final cut of Frenzy to his beloved wife Alma (who suffered a stroke during the making of the film) she said to him “this is the work of a young director.” Indeed it is. Beyond the explicitness of the film there’s a certain sense of realism and immediacy that no other film of his except maybe The Wrong Man possesses. Hitch always said he preferred shooting in a studio. Perhaps, but he knew the value of location shooting as well. Frenzy is one of the great movies about London, so beautifully captured on celluloid by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who also lensed A Hard Days Night, Dr. Strangelove, The Omen and the original Star Wars.

Frenzy was a box office hit but it couldn’t help but to be overshadowed by the work of the new young directors flooding Hollywood.  Hitchcock made one last movie, the rather lighthearted and thoroughly enjoyable Family Plot. He was working on a script called The Short Night when he died in 1980. By then Hitchcock could rest assured that he had earned his place as one of the greatest cinema artists who ever lived.

 

 

HARAKIRI (1962)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

Harakiri II 

A long time ago I was having dinner with someone who told me a most unusual story. He said that he was visiting Japan and had met an old man. The guy told him that he was in the Japanese Air Force during World War II. “We’re you a pilot?” my friend asked. “Yes,” the old man answered. “I was a Kamikaze.”

A Kamikaze? He must not have been very good at it, I thought to myself. The old man talked about what a great honor it was to be chosen to sacrifice your life for the Emperor. His family would be provided for and any village he visited he was treated like a God. Despite obvious food shortages the villagers would cook and feed the pilots all they had. They would pamper them, clothe them and fathers would offer up their daughters for sexual favors. Eventually my friend…

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