Movie Reviews - 2018 postsSaturday January 26, 2019
Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
This movie so wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Several people, pretending to be who they aren’t, arrive in an out-of-the-way locale for different reasons, get into conversations involving long monologues, and all of this is punctuated by sudden violence and bloodshed. Oh, and writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) also messes with the chronology. We see Person A shot, and 10 minutes later we get it from Person D’s perspective.
Even the title: “El Royale.” With cheese?
Just doesn’t work.
I have my issues with QT but he doesn’t bore me. This bored me a little. When the movie’s main villain, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), hits the stage, holds the others hostage and plays games with their lives, all while keeping up a patter of pseudo-philosophy, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) tells him he’s boring. She’s right: He is. Imagine saying that, or thinking that, about the monologues of Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.” You can’t.
Billy Lee, by the way, is a version of Charles Manson, Darlene Sweet is a version of Darlene Love, and the El Royale is a version of the Cal Neva Resort and Casino, which was co-owned by Frank Sinatra, and which (per the name) straddled the border of California and Nevada. It’s also a version of purgatory. For most it becomes a hell. Two escape.
Want one more? The El Royale is also a version of Gerald Foos’ Manor House Hotel, which Gay Talese wrote about for The New Yorkera few years back, but which (I believe) has since been debunked. Foos claimed to have created observation areas behind ventilation slats, through which he watched and wrote about his guests for decades.
Here, it’s a hallway, accessible through the manager’s office, where you can see each room via one-way mirror. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), pretending to be a loquacious vacuum-cleaner salesman, but in reality FBI agent Dwight Broadbeck, stumbles upon it. It’s 1969, and he’s been sent by Hoover to retrieve FBI bugs from the honeymoon suite, but discovers eight times as many as the agency left. Investigating, he finds the seemingly clean-cut concierge, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), high on drugs and asleep in his office. Then he discovers the passageway.
What are each of the guests doing?
- Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has dug up the floorboard of his room in a futile search for money he and his brother stole 10 years ago, for which his brother was killed. He’s not really a priest. (“No shit,” as Darlene says.) He’s been in prison for the last 10 years.
- Darlene is practicing for a singing gig in Reno.
- Emily (Dakota Johnson) has bound and gagged a young girl to a chair.
Broadbeck is ordered by Hoover to ignore the kidnapping but sabotage everyone’s cars. Don’t quite get this last order. Is it part of the purgatory metaphor? No one leaves? Or is another FBI team on the way? Either way, they never arrive, and Broadbeck tries to do the right thing by knocking out Emily and rescuing the girl. Two problems: Emily isn’t knocked out and kills him with a shotgun; and the girl, Emily’s sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), is the real problem. She’s part of a cult. Basically, she’s Squeaky Fromme, her sister was trying to get her clean, but, freed, she phones Billy Lee, who, when he arrives with armed backups, begins his dull, dancy torture games in the lobby. Like Madsen in “Reservoir Dogs”? Either way, like Darlene, I was bored.
I shouldn’t have been. Toss in the tape of a prominent but dead leader having sex in the honeymoon suite (most likely RFK or MLK), not to mention the hotel’s unseen owners (most likely the mob), as well as the late reveal that Miles isn’t just an aw-shucks kid but a former Vietnam War sharpshooter with 123 kills to his credit, and it’s a good mix of fucked-up Americana. It should be way more interesting than it is.
I did like one line. After Father Flynn discovers the passageway, and the videotape, Miles is trying to confess to him. At this point, we think the kid is just a kid who’s carried water for the mob, or whomever, and that’s what he wants to confess. Either way, the Father isn’t a Father, but Miles doesn’t know that. He’s killed 123 but has kept his innocence or naiveté—sort of like a Vietnam-era Alvin York. And we get this exchange.
Miles: I’ve done horrible things.
Father Flynn (after long look): So has everybody. You’ll be fine.
Maybe with 30 minutes cut from its 141-minute runtime, and more lines like the above, we might’ve had something.
Movie Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)
I saw “Death of Stalin” in movie theaters last spring, didn’t laugh much but liked it well enough. I knew smart people were behind it, such as writer-director Armando Iannucci, who has given us “VEEP,” “In the Loop,” and “The Thick of It”—scorching political satires that produce shock and discomfort as much as laughter. Plus, look at the cast. My god.
So when I saw it on some Top 10/honorable mention lists at the end of the year, I thought I’d give it another go. Maybe I missed something.
There’s some truth to the equation: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Would “We lost 19 of our best guys” have been funny on 9/12? At the same time, the Bush era war comedy “In the Loop” was funny during the Bush era. We didn’t need time to turn that tragedy into comedy. Similarly, maybe in some cases time never helps. Some tragedies are just never funny.
A lot of the humor in “In the Loop,” for example, comes out of the word “unforeseeable.” As England is following the U.S. into a Mideast war, a bland government minister on a bland British radio show says the phrase “I think war is unforeseeable” and all hell breaks loose. In general, he’s right: War is unforeseeable, since so many factors go into its creation. On the other hand, this particular war is totally foreseeable, since an unnamed U.S. administration is hell-bent on having it. But you can’t say that. So you’re left with nothing. You’re left with lies and prevarication, which is where the humor is.
We get something similar athe beginning of “Death of Stalin.” A Moscow radio station is broadcasting a Mozart concerto when the national director receives a phone call. From Stalin. Who wants a recording. Except they’re not recording the concerto. So they have to play it again and record it before Stalin’s men arrive. Except the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses. She lost brother and father to Stalin, despises him, won’t do anything that might give him pleasure. The others scramble. What about a new pianist? The conductor shakes his head: “Even Stalin,” he says, “would be able to tell the difference.” The others jump on this line—even Stalin?—and he scrambles to correct himself to the recording devices that might be listening until he faints outright. Now they need a new conductor, too.
In both situations, language is used to disguise truth. The ineffectual Brit official tries to backtrack on “unforeseeable” so he won’t fall from power, while the Russian conductor tries to erase “even” so he won’t be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The former's funnier.
Being imprisoned, tortured or killed is on everyone’s mind in the U.S.S.R. in 1953. We first see Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) perusing the latest list with Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret service:
Beria: Oh, I put Shteyman on the list, the writer. I know you like his work, but...
Stalin: No, leave him on.
Beria: And, uh ... Shteyman 2, his wife?
Stalin: On. [Eyes twinkling] They're a couple, ain’t they?
When Beria gives the list to his men, he add this: “Shoot her before him. Make sure he sees it.”
Not exactly a laugh line.
Some of the situations are funny. Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, for example, because everyone is terrified of him. The guards are too afraid to investigate the thump in his room so he lies on the carpet all night; the new chairman, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is too wishy-washy to call a doctor because he has no backbone; and the doctors themselves are old, young or third-rate, because Stalin has eliminated the best: they’re dead or in gulags. And even then the doctors can hardly deliver the bad news. They do what Malenkov did: rely on the group to disperse potential blame: “Following a, uh, group assessment of Comrade Stalin, we’ve arrived at the unanimous conclusion, based on a collective finding...” Etc.
I will say, with a bit of pride, that the actors who elicited the most laughs from me were American: Tambor as Malenkov, and particularly Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. When Malenkov dithers on calling the doctor until the Politburo convenes, saying they should wait until they’re quorate, Khrushchev responds, in that exasperated tone Buscemi has used throughout his career, “Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious!”
Another LOL line: Beria, already making his move, comforts Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with a hug and these words: “Courage, little bird. We’re here for you.” Not to be outdone, Khrushchev steps forward. Awkwardly. “Most of all, we cry for you, little ... bird.” That pause. That slight disgust on Buscemi’s face that he has to say it. Killed me.
The scramble for power after Stalin’s death quickly becomes a scramble between Beria and Khrushchev. Everyone else is just too incompetent. But Beria is a horror show—a serial murderer, torturer and rapist—which means we root for Khrushchev. Yes. In “The Death of Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev is the hero.
There is no one else, by the way; the people are awful, too. Sons give up fathers, friends deny friends, everyone is looking to blame someone else. Plus the propaganda worked: People still mourn for Stalin. He terrorized them and they arrive by the tens of thousands to mourn him. They say whatever needs to be said to survive. Or not survive:
Prisoner: Long Live Stalin!
Guard: Stalin’s Dead. Malenkov’s in charge.
Prisoner: Long live Malenk...
[shot in the head]
It’s worth seeing but don’t expect to laugh too much. Imagine a comedy out of “Animal Farm.” Like that.
Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.
Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)
“Mid90s,” written and directed by Jonah Hill, is a coming-of-age movie that took me back to my own coming of age.
It shouldn’t have. I turned 12 in the mid-70s not the mid-90s, in Minneapolis not LA, and definitely not around skateboarding culture. At Stevie’s age, I would’ve been writing and drawing comic books, not mastering moves on a board. I never wanted to be a rebel, or hang with them, particularly not anyone like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), all wild hair and attitude and not much else—one of two leaders of a rag-tag group that hang out in a skate shop and periodically rouse the rabble.
But here’s what took me back: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls, and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t. What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can make you the butt of jokes for years.
Your shit for their shit
Here’s an example from my childhood—probably around 6th grade. My friend Dan and I were walking along 54th Street toward Little General and Rexall’s Drugs, most likely to buy comic books. I think it was winter. It always seemed like winter back then. Dan, who was the same grade as me but older by a month, and who used the cutting remark “You’re too young to understand” too often, said he had a joke. He ran thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth, which was puckered like a gaping fish, and said, “Blower’s cramp. Get it?” I, of course, didn’t. I knew there was something about “blowing” that had something to do with ... girls? But I didn’t know what it was. Most times I would’ve just lied; I would’ve pretended to be more sophisticated than I was. But something in the quick way Dan said “Get it?” made me think otherwise. So I said no. “You don’t?” he asked in disbelief. No, I said, what is it? Eventually he had to own up it meant nothing. “It was just a test,” he said. I had passed. For now.
That’s Stevie (Sunny Suljic) here. The movie begins with a nasty beatdown from his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two live in a cramped house with their single, mostly absent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, just four years from playing the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affection in “Inherent Vice”), and they all seem isolated. Ian exudes inarticulate anger. Stevie is sweet but trapped; he’s looking for an out.
Why skateboarders? Is it because they seem to do what they want when they want? Would he have drifted toward them without the beatings from Ian? Either way, he does. He lingers in the skate shop, hangs on the outskirts of their conversation. The first to acknowledge him is the youngest, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who probably wants a protégé of his own. He wants someone beneath him. When Ray (Na-kel Smith), for example, admonishes Ruben for drinking all the water from the jug and tells him to go fill it up, Ruben gives the task to Stevie—who is delighted. It’s his in. It’s the preteen boy’s crush on older boys.
Ruben is the one forever telling Stevie he failed the test. Like saying “thank you”? What the fuck, dude? That’s for fags. And the skateboard he bought from his older brother? With the ’80s cartoon figure on it? What is he—a kid? That’s for fags, too.
There are other unspoken rules Stevie is trying to navigate—specific to the gang. Who gets nicknames and who doesn’t? Fuckshit is Fuckshit because he begins so many sentences with “Fuck, shit...” Fourth Grade (Ryder McGlaughlin), who spends more time filming than skating, is a bit on the dumb side. Stevie acquires the nickname “Sunburn” because he asks Ray if black dudes get sunburned. Ruben is mortified the question is asked, then more mortified that Ray doesn’t really seem to mind it; that it leads to this nickname, which seems like a badge of honor. That’s Ruben’s role: entrée for Stevie, eyeing him with jealousy forever after.
I like how this gang of kids, which seems monolithic from the outside, breaks down into individuals the more Stevie hangs with them. Fuckshit, with his light-brown skin and blonde curly hair, is the mouthy one, the stoner, the guy ready to fight. He’s probably the most affluent, too. He rebels because he can afford to. Ray can’t. Ray is looking to see what money can be made in skateboarding. He’s looking for a way out. He’s also the wisest. In a late-movie heart-to-heart, he tells Stevie:
A lot of the time, we feel that our lives are the worst. But I think that if you looked in anybody else's closet, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit.
Cf., Ruben. They drop him off at a motel-like place but Stevie sees him bolt down the steps after he goes up them. Meaning he doesn’t really live there? Or he does but can’t return? Or won’t? We never find out.
I particularly like this aspect of “Mid90s”: The arc of the movie is Stevie slowly fitting in with a gang that’s slowly breaking apart.
Only if you’re really interested
Does it end too quickly? Did for me. I guess that’s a compliment (we want more) but it still isn’t (it wasn’t as fulfilling as it might’ve been). The car crash is done well. Fuckshit is driving, fucked up, and arguing with Ray; and Fourth Grade, who isn’t supposed to know any better, is the one to speak up: “Could you, like, pull over?” But it’s already too late. As soon as the words are out, the car is upended, on its side, and Stevie is in the hospital. His mom arrives to see the gang asleep in the waiting area. Does she soften toward them? Should she? Then the boys go into the room. They talk. Fourth Grade brings his movie, his video of them. They watch it.
It ends in a vacuum but in a way it began there, too. Did Stevie have any friends before? Usually when you make the leap to a new group, particularly a planned leap, as Stevie does here, there’s at least a friend you leave behind. We get no inkling of this. It’s just his abusive older brother, his absentee mom, and him. No friends, no school, no nothing. Kayla in “Eighth Grade” was like this, too. Don’t any junior high kids have friends as they make the leap toward older, cooler friends?
That said, I really love this movie. I think of the scene where the gang skateboards between traffic down the middle of an LA hill in the magic-hour light, with the Mamas and Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” on the soundtrack. The scene is reprised near the end with just Stevie and Ray, after their heart-to-heart, and to Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We‘ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if, you're really interested
The magic hour is gone, and what light is there is bruised. It’s aching.
Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The light bulb went off for me when I saw “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks in 2002. At one point, Hanks’ character, a Chicago mobster, drives through downtown Chicago circa 1931, and it’s not a backdrop, and they’re not filming in neighborhoods that evoke the era. Through computer technology, they resurrected the past. “Oh,” I thought, “CGI isn’t limited to sci-fi futuristic stuff. It can restore history.”
In a more immediate way, director Peter Jackson has done that here.
In 2014, Imperial War Museums, a British institution, asked Jackson if he could create a documentary for the centenary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918. The museum had 100 hours of footage from the 1910s and 600 hours of interviews with surviving war vets from the ’60s and ’70s. To hear him tell it—in a half-hour “making of” doc that follows this 99-minute doc—he mulled it over for a while. He didn’t want to do it unless he could do something new.
The footage was silent, of course. It was old, scratched, and some of it was just copies of copies. Like most films of the era, it also looked comically sped-up. Our current standard is 24 frames per second. The standard back then was 16 frames a second, but Jackson soon discovered it wasn’t even that simple. Many film cameras were hand-cranked, so the speed depended upon how fast the cameraman twirled the lever. In order to bring them up to the current standard and look natural, each film had to be adjusted individually.
Ultimately, he and his team at Wingnut Studios tried an experiment: How good could they make a segment of film if they cleaned it up and adjusted the speed? And how about if they colorized it? Jackson is against colorizing movies generally, but that’s an artistic integrity argument; here, he wanted to see the men as they saw themselves.
The result is astonishing. It's the past restored.
Not in Kansas anymore
The title of the documentary comes from the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” about the men who died during World War I:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
According to IMDb, Jackson switched up the “grow not old” line to avoid a Yoda-ish cadence, but it also makes it more of a declaration, doesn’t it? It makes it more of a crime. Political leaders and emperors ensured that millions would not grow old; Jackson and his team brought them back to life.
Immediate thought as I was watching: Can we do this with other footage of the era? Baseball movies? Chaplin films? I assume we can. It’s just a matter of time and money and will. Mostly money. It just depends how much we care about the past. (Answer: not much, sadly.)
Some of the shots are truly astonishing: horses killed; men dying in trenches, covered in insects. Also the ordinary: the look upon soldiers as they realize they’re being filmed. As Jackson says in the post-doc, film was such a new medium, and the act of filming so rarely seen, that they didn’t know what to do. The tendency was to do what one did with photography: stand still. Waving at the camera wasn’t a thing yet. “Hi, mom,” was half a century away.
One young man—you can see him in the trailer—turns to his comrades and says with a smile, “Hey boys, here it comes. We’re in the pictures,” then laughs, and the work that went into that little bit, and all the audio in the doc, is equally astonishing. First, Jackson hired lip readers to figure out what was being said; then he and his team researched which outfit was what, and where its men were from; then he hired voice actors from that region.
As in the trailer, the movie begins with a small black-and-white box that expands until it fills the entire screen. But the footage is still a bit choppy, and it’s still in black and white. it’s only when we arrive at the battlefield that the full effect takes place—that we enter into their world. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” in this way, but an Oz of blunt reality rather than fantasy.
With such a technological feat as this, so beautifully realized, and done pro bono, it would take a real asshole to quibble with it.
Here I go.
Again, from IMDb:
It was a deliberate choice not to identify the soldiers or battlegrounds as that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier.
I think this was a mistake. Individuals, and individual stories, are lost. Everything becomes part of the mass. It’s like reading an oral history that’s been stripped of who stays what, and when, and with no overarching narrative. I’m a detail man; I wanted the details rather than the generalities. The details that Jackson worked on technologically should‘ve been worked on narratively.
I get, too, that Jackson had 600 hours of commentary to choose from, and he wanted to fit in what he could; he wanted us to hear their voices. But the narration winds up feeling somewhat relentless. I wanted a little more silence. I wanted to absorb more of what I was seeing. Ironic, given these are silent films.
A long way to Tukwila
Even so, if you have the opportunity to see “They Shall Not Grow Old,” don’t hesitate. It’s being parceled out in movie theaters—a week’s showing here, a day’s showing there, so blink and you miss it. Next show in Seattle is apparently January 21. No, not starting January 21. Just January 21. In December, Patricia and I drove all the way to Tukwila to see it; Seattle theaters were already booked.
I’m glad there’s such interest. Most of us forget the past too quickly; Americans are particularly bad at this. Jackson and his team have put it right in front of us. They’ve made ghosts of long ago seem you like or me. We’re in the pictures.